Examining Camelot: The Statesmanship of JFK

John F. Kennedy was sworn in as President of the United States on January 20th, 1961,  ushering a new generation of Americans into prominence. As the youngest president and America’s first Catholic Commander-in-chief, the Irishman faced an uphill battle even after the election. Although he spent less than one thousand days guiding this nation, Kennedy would prove to be one of its greatest statesman, for he governed with reason. First let us define what constitutes a statesman, for it can be understood and analyzed in a multitude of ways. The operational definition used in this essay shall be someone who uses superior rhetoric, persuasion, and prudence to accomplish a legislative, social, or military agenda that strives towards a greater sense of justice and liberty in society.

 While Lincoln inherited a house divided and was tasked with welding together a broken union; a century later Kennedy inherited a world divided by geopolitical ideals, the battle between democracy and communism. In an era of nuclear tension, governing through reason allowed for the preservation of society. While Kennedy’s personal vision of the American Camelot, his ideal society, may not have been reached in his short tenure in office, or even to this day, his words moved the American heart. They were used to soothe a tense nation, and launch the world into a time of hope and potential peace, all the while practicing the very virtues upon which this nation was founded.

President Kennedy would come across to the citizens of the United States as a charismatic, caring, and protective figure. Using an eloquent speech appealing to the ethos of man, he was able to make his ideology clear in his brief inaugural address.

"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."

Calling back to the foundational principles of the union, Kennedy made it abundantly clear that liberty will continue to be the guiding light for the country and those around the world. He called Americans to duty in name of their country, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” The days of reliance on the government for personal needs were over, and it was time for the new generation to accept responsibility. His sense of nationhood was not based upon ethnicity or common heritage, but shared responsibility. The young President was able to appeal to the universal while making it local.  It would take a united democratic front to ensure the continuance of liberty in the face of the communist threat.

There is a beauty to Kennedy’s language that goes deeper than his Bostonian accent. Kennedy sought to reach the hearts and minds of his American audience by illustrating what was great about their nation and how he intended to protect and improve upon it.

"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."

The first few paragraphs of Kennedy’s speech harken back to terms Lincoln used, such as “abolish” and “forebears”, quickly reminding American citizens of the trials the country endured. Focusing on the past just briefly enough to implant the seed of thought into the listeners’ minds he moved to discuss the future, recognizing that Lincoln fought the civil war and now the country was on the verge of fighting a nuclear war.

Just over a year into his presidency, nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed imminent. The warnings Kennedy gave to the public on that snowy day in January, 1961 were coming true; the “we” of a unified country was needed as much now as it was a century prior when the Union was in danger of being forever divided. In the early days of his presidency Kennedy accepted responsibility for a failed coup attempt in Cuba. At a summit in Vienna, Kennedy, ignoring his advisors’ guidance, believed that if he could “just sit down with” Premier Khrushchev, they would then be able to begin resolving the issues between the two nations. Kennedy was humiliated and shocked by Soviet brashness at this conference. Khrushchev rightly believed he walked away with the upper hand on the inexperienced president. The summit gave Khrushchev the confidence needed to covertly place nuclear weapons in Cuba. The president understood the changes of course he needed to make; when the Cuban Missile Crisis arose he surrounded himself with a council of experienced figures. It was now time not to negotiate out of fear, but to negotiate in an attempt to save the lives of all the world’s citizens.

"Our policy has been one of patience and restraint, as befits a peaceful and powerful nation which leads a worldwide alliance. We have been determined not to be diverted from our central concerns by mere irritants and fanatics. But now further action is required, and it is under way; and these actions may only be the beginning. We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth; but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced… Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world."

As the crisis came to a head, Khrushchev broadcasted a message stating that missiles would be removed from Cuba if the U.S. removed missiles from Turkey. Surmising this would strike fear in American allies, Kennedy knew he could not turn his back on Turkey’s nuclear defenses. Kennedy aimed to mollify the Soviet Premier without seeming to make a concession. He sent his brother to tell the Soviet ambassador that the weapons in Turkey were obsolete and would be pulled out within six months; all of this was true. Prudently, Kennedy insisted that if the Soviets used this knowledge to claim that the U.S. unconditionally accepted Khrushchev’s terms, the United States would deny the accusation and continue the upkeep of offensive weapons in Turkey. The firmness displayed in Kennedy’s final terms exhibited the United States’ insistence for peace in the region and continuance of liberty. Through reason the young president was able to prevent nuclear devastation, protect against a crisis in Berlin, and keep both the nation and the world at ease.  

As Aristotle claimed, it is reason that separates man from beast and allows for him to flourish. During that fateful November trip to Dallas, Kennedy had a speech prepared for the annual meeting of the Dallas Citizens Council. In this speech he reaffirmed his position that the world, and especially American leadership, should be guided by reason. Although his journey to the trade market was cut short, his good words, as always, continue to ring true: “America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason — or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.”

With these principles in mind, Kennedy set out to push society towards a world where the mutual tolerance of all people would be possible. He understood that while world peace was not within his reach, he could use his administration to lay the foundation where the totality of the world’s citizenry may enjoy the liberties and self-governance given to them by their creator. A world where ideas, texts, and reason allow for prosperity and no one suffers under the iron fist of tyranny.