Historian Thurston Clark: JFK's Speech Inspired America

January 20, 2017

WGBH Morning Edition host Bob Seay interviewed Historian Thurston Clark, author of the book Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America, as part of WGBH's special inauguration coverage.

Bob Seay: When we think of Inauguration Day...here in Boston there is one that stands out more than any other...

JFK’s Address: "And so my fellow Americans. Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

Bob: The inauguration of Massachusetts' own John Fitzgerald Kennedy back in 1961. Joining me now to discuss JFK's is famous inaugural speech is Thurston Clark, an American historian and author of several books including "Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America. Welcome, good morning, and thank you for joining us.

Thurston Clark: It's my pleasure.

BS: Why do you refer to JFK's speech as the speech that changed America?

TC: Well perhaps I should have said inspired America as much changed America. America, at that time, was looking for a challenge. Americans had come out of eight years of the Eisenhower presidency. There was a restless feeling that we had somehow lost our national purpose. In fact, even Eisenhower started a committee about the national purpose and there was a feeling on the part of Kennedy's generation that they had gone through the horrors of World War II. They had sacrificed, they had seen their friends killed, and then in the 15 years since then, they hadn't been asked to sacrifice anything they hadn't been set a similar challenge and I think that people were hungry for Kennedy's words. They were hungry and ready to be inspired.

BS: Well there are many who doubted that Kennedy himself wrote that speech rather than his fame speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, so who did write the speech and what about some of the more famous lines like 'ask not'?

TS: Well, I can tell you, I did some very close research on this and I also found Eve Lincoln—who was Kennedy's secretary—her notes, as well as finding Ted Sorensen's scrapped. And what I concluded was, if you counted the words in the speech, that more of them came from Ted Sorensen's draft than Kennedy. However, about two weeks before he delivered this, Kennedy went over the speech while he was flying to Palm Beach and he dictated most of the famous lines that we remember. For example, the 'ask not' line, that was Kennedy's. ‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes this well or ill, we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,’ etc. Again, Kennedy. Some of the bare bones was Sorenson, but the poetry and the memorable lines came from Kennedy's dictation.

BS: Let's listen to another one here.

JFK: "Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans."

BS: Certainly that line has a lot of residence considering that Dwight Eisenhower was there on that stage with him. Very important line of that speech.

TC: It was one of those lines that moved people and was so genuine because it was anchored in Kennedy's life and Kennedy's experience. Kennedy was part of this new generation. Kennedy had been born in the 20th century; Eisenhower had been born in the 19th century. Kennedy had been one of the many junior officers during World War II,  he was now in his 40s; Eisenhower came from the group who had been the colonels and the generals during the war. And this whole passing a torch and a new generation was reinforced by the visuals. People saw Kennedy standing there in a suit on a terribly cold and sunny day, without a topcoat. Meanwhile, next to him there was Eisenhower bundled up in this big overcoat. Of course, nobody knew at the time that Kennedy was wearing long underwear and had planned this visual very carefully. But people saw when Kennedy said the torch has been passed to a new generation, well, they looked at their TV sets and saw confirmation that this was happening.

BS: And, of course, there are many who doubted that Kennedy could do the job.

TC: Yes, there were, but we sometimes forget—we talk about Kennedy being so young and everything else—we have to remember something, that Kennedy had been a senator for eight years. He had unseated Henry Cabot Lodge in Massachusetts in the 1952 election at a time when Eisenhower swept Massachusetts. Kennedy had also been considered for the vice presidency. In 1956 he had written two best-selling books, one of them, ‘Profiles in Courage,” had won the Pulitzer Prize. So, people were familiar with Kennedy. People knew him and they expected eloquence from him.

BS: But I understand that John F. Kennedy didn't like making speeches.

TC: He got nervous. That's correct. And in fact, he had a terrible problem with public speaking when he was first running in 1946 for the House of Representatives and in 1952 as well, and in the election of 1960. They hired speech coaches and experts, people got him to slow down, to enunciate more. He was not a particularly comfortable public speaker, but like a lot of things in his life he worked on it and became much better.

BS: Well let's hear one more excerpt now which some may find relevant to our new president.

JFK: "So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness and sincerity is always subject to prove. Let us never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate."

BS: Another one of those lines very kinds of turns the words around like they ask not phrase.

TC: Right. Well, another great Massachusetts intellectual provided, actually, that line; John Kenneth Galbraith had suggested something along that line to Kennedy. He of course, used it, and I'm glad you brought up that line because after that we get a whole bunch of lines that begin ‘let both sides explore what problems unite us, let both sides for the first time formulate serious and precise proposals be inspection and control of arms,’ on and on, speaking directly to Khrushchev and to the Soviet Union and encouraging them to enter into a dialogue. Now, later on, it was the Vietnam War. The people looked at the ‘let every nation know will pay any price’ line, showing that Kennedy was a hawk and that this was a kind of very tough speech. Actually, at the time, most of the headlines the next day talked about Kennedy's great peace speech and about Kennedy holding up the hand of the Soviet Union and Kennedy seeking negotiation. So, at the time, it was not seen as a tough speech for the Soviet Union, it seems quite the opposite. And people are quite optimistic about it.

BS: As of this dating Well certainly one of the more memorable inaugural speeches especially for those of us here in New England and Massachusetts, and I want to thank you so much for joining us this morning, Thurston Clarke American historian and author of the book “Ask not: The inauguration of John F. Kennedy.” Thanks for joining us here on Morning Edition.

TC: You're welcome. Enjoyed it.


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