JFK: A Life in Quotes

Sarah Roller

20th Century America Civil Rights Cold War Twentieth Century
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John ‘Jack’ Fitzgerald Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States – and arguably, one of the most memorable. His election ushered in a new ideal for American politics, one defined by a charismatic leader, full of youthful promise and optimism.

His eloquent speeches were a part of his appeal: full of memorable quotes and aspirational rhetoric, they hooked audiences across the world. But which of them sum up JFK’s politics and image best?

Kennedy and Khrushchev
John F. Kennedy & Nikita Khruchchev, 1961

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”

Aged just 43, JFK was elected in one of the closest presidential races in US history. In his inaugural address, he focused on themes such as service and sacrifice, urging Americans to selflessly fulfil their civic responsibilities and duties in the name of democracy and freedom.

Moreover, given the nature of Cold War politics, the reference to ‘your country’ reminded those listening that America was a country of which its citizens should be proud. A nation one which gave them the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, unlike the perceived tyranny of communism which threatened the West.

This speech earned him a 75% approval rating amongst Americans: something he was in need of given the close-run nature of the election itself.

Jfk
White House Photo Portrait of JFK. Image credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum / CC

“Mankind must put an end to war – or war will put an end to mankind”

Foreign policy played a defining part in JFK’s political legacy, and he addressed the United Nations in September 1961, at what some would argue was the height of the Cold War.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had seized power in Cuba in 1959, and America was becomingly increasingly concerned about a communist nation being so close to their shores.

In April 1961, Cuban exiles – backed by US funds – attempted to invade the Bay of Pigs. They were captured and interrogated, further destroying relations between the US and Cuba as the truth about their financial backing became apparent.

Despite these words of peace and optimism, tensions continued to increase, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which is deemed to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

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“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened”

Civil rights had become an increasingly important political issue throughout the 1950s, and the Kennedys’ choice to embrace a pro civil rights policy hugely helped their campaign. They won an endorsement from Martin Luther King after Robert Kennedy helped release him from jail in 1960.

However, JFK was concerned about alienating the Southern states. So whilst he pursued a pro civil rights agenda in many aspects of policy, advocating for the desegregation of schools and appointing African Americans to high-level administration positions, he continued to maintain a degree of caution in wider policy.

There were several major escalations of racial tensions in the South: two of the most notable examples in Mississippi and Alabama were centred around integration on university campuses. In both cases, the National Guard and other troops were mobilised to keep law and order.

Whilst the Kennedy administration did work for a civil rights bill, it lacked the momentum or will power to push it through. It was only in 1964, under Lyndon Johnson, that the Civil Rights Act passed. This proved to be a landmark piece of legislation which forbade discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, national origin, and prohibited the unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, and employment discrimination.

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“I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it”

JFK married Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953. ‘Jackie’, as she is popularly known, played an influential role in constructing JFK’s image of a youthful, family-orientated, modern president. The couple had 3 children, Caroline, John Jr, and Patrick (who did not survive infancy).

Under Jackie’s watchful eye the White House was renovated and redecorated. When she opened up the interior for a televised tour in 1962, it was met with critical acclaim and large audiences. The couple were closely linked with popular culture, and some have dubbed their time in the White House as the ‘Camelot era’, an unmatched golden time.

Jackie Kennedy was fluent in French and Spanish, and accompanied her husband on multiple trips abroad. She won a warm welcome in Latin America and France, where her linguistic skills and cultural knowledge impressed those around her.

Kennedy Family
John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy (1960). Image credit: Jacques Lowe / CC

“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on”

America’s youthful, hopeful new president had his time in office – and his life – brutally cut short. On 22 November 1963, JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone gunman. Given the apparent lack of motive by Oswald and the heightened political tensions of the time, a wide array of conspiracy theories have gained traction.

However, JFK’s legacy lives on and continues to shape American politics to this day. His ability to successfully cultivate an image in the popular media and imagination set the standard extremely high for his successors. Never more so than in today’s world of 24 hour media coverage and immense scrutiny.

Similarly, the Kennedy family embodied aspects of the American Dream which remain pertinent today. A family of Irish Catholic emigres, they rose to become one of the most famous, powerful and charismatic political dynasties of the 20th century through their own hard work and ability. The idea that hard work pays, and that no matter your background, America is a land of opportunity is one which remains potent in the American psyche.

Finally, JFK channelled optimism, rather than cynicism in his rhetoric. Elected at the start of a new decade, and with speeches which inspired hope and a sense of civic duty and responsibility, many felt that his administration could be a turning point. His assassination may have cut his life short, but it allowed his ideas and image to live on untainted by the gritty reality of politics.

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Sarah Roller