What Kennedy's inaugural means to a young American

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U.S. Catholic's high school intern, senior Steven Rojas of Chicago's Cristo Rey High School, wrote the following for an essay contest on why JFK's words still matter--a challenging and insightful message from a student two generations away from the first Catholic chief executive of the United States.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy and many other presidents have come and gone; each has given a speech on their inauguration, and all have given different messages to the world. Kennedy’s inaugural address stands out because he was a man with great potential whose life was cut short due to his assassination. Although most people only focus on the quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” there are two other more significant ideas expressed in that speech.

Kennedy’s line, “Now the trumpet summons us again . . . not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need” is illustrative of his saber-rattling. That may have been warranted in 1961 (as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 illustrates) but is indicative of his and his successors’ overreliance on military means. We do not need arms; we need arguments and agreements. Kennedy forecasts that he will resort to violence when the going gets tough through this statement. Worse, he did just that in Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs.

We need not resort to violence when the going gets tough because there are many other ways we can resolve an issue. Jesus, Mahatma Ghandi, Saul Alinsky, and Martin Luther King used the system against itself in order to beat the system; each said to do this with nonviolence, to point out the flaws of the system and use that to bring it down. Instead of resort to the rhetoric of violence, Kennedy could have done so much more. Ultimately, the Soviet Union (to whom he quietly pointed much of this rhetoric) fell without a bullet fired. Also, saying that we need arms is a sign of insecurity, a sign of being scared.

We do not need weapons to protect ourselves because there are other ways that we can protect ourselves. As I said before, weapons show weakness, and we can fight back using nonviolence; although it may be difficult at first we can still accomplish it. Kennedy undersold himself and his country by embracing the rhetoric of violence.

Now many people cherish this speech because of Kennedy’s most famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Nice line but we should focus on another statement from his speech that is more important and more relevant to today’s world. Kennedy stated: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” There, President Kennedy points out a very crucial concept of today’s world and ideas. We always want actions to have an immediate effect but, unfortunately, that effect is not always immediately. Kennedy’s statement here is crucial because it points out the reality of things.

Today’s world is faced with many problems that it wants to solve. One that is highly debated on is immigration; the reason is because I can really relate to this topic and apply Kennedy’s words, although I can apply it to any other topic. Immigration has become a huge topic because the U.S. sees it as a problem. I am a strong proponent of immigrants and really wish that an amnesty or some proposal pass that gives immigrants residency since I also come from a family of immigrants. Now I have gone to debate competitions to debate about this specific problem and have continued to get involved in my community to solve or at least change this problem. Although my actions won’t make a change immediately, it is a start for something that can develop into something greater.

Although JFK is famous for the “ask” statement, the rest of his speech is more significant for its insights into both his wisdom and his limitations. His rhetoric of violence foreshadows his tragic flaw: Vietnam. Yet, when Kennedy says that action make take a long time to take effect, he points out a crucial fact that most people ignore, both then and now. We all want instant gratification and want our presidents to deliver precisely that. Here, however, a President had the courage (and the foresight) to tell the truth: we might not even see the effect “in our lifetime on this planet.” This is truly the best line and the best wisdom of that famous inaugural address.