In 1960, John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon to become the 35th president of the United States. A World War II hero and former representative and senator from Massachusetts, Kennedy and his young family brought an optimistic, youthful spirit to the White House. At the time, America’s Cold War struggle with the Communist-led Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was becoming increasingly volatile around the world. From Germany to Cuba to Southeast Asia, tension between U.S.-supported forces and Soviet-supported forces threatened to unleash a devastating nuclear exchange.
On January 20, 1961, Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. His remarks focused on the critical foreign policy issues of the time. In stating that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden,” he was signaling American resolve to support the forces of freedom in the face of the Communist challenge. Kennedy, however, also presented an alternate vision, calling on the Soviets and Americans to pursue arms control, negotiations, and the “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
As a young president, Kennedy saw himself as part of a “new generation of Americans,” and he was not afraid to ask his generation to work toward a better world. In the most famous part of the speech, Kennedy challenged Americans to move beyond self-interest and work for their country, saying “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. 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—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty….
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.