On January 20, 1961, the world turned on their television to see how the newly elected American President, J. F. Kennedy, would address the issues of proliferating weapons and the propagating “iron tyranny” (7). Kennedy delivers a speech that aims to ameliorate their many fears and also establish himself as a capable president –one that would take a strong stance for democracy in a war against communism. By employing well-crafted syntax, specific diction, and explicit tone, Kennedy is able to eloquently present his purpose and unify his audience under a shared sense of purpose.
The first obstacle that Kennedy tackles is the apparent distrust from the American people. Kennedy was an atypical president at the time because he was Catholic and exceptionally young, both qualities that created distrust suspicion in the people. How would he lead a nation with only 44 years of wisdom? Would he dare to meddle with the separation of church and state? However, Kennedy quickly topples all their doubts with his clear conviction.
Although his speech used some images of God and Biblical allusions that demonstrated Kennedy’s piety, such as “Almighty God” and “command of Isaiah”, they also illustrate that his priority is actually to fight for democracy as an American citizen (1, 18). When “swears before you [America] and Almighty God”, he cleverly manipulates the syntax to shows the order of his alliance: America first and then God. Furthermore, he establishes himself, not as a president, but as an American citizen who was “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage” (3).
The “ancient heritage” refers to the founding fathers and their fight for democracy, a time that every American is proud of. In the same description, he also alludes to the World Wars that most Americans at the time had been a part of. By invoking those events that most influenced American society, Kennedy is able to confirm that his differences are overshadowed by more the more substantial connection that he shares with them. Once Kennedy has secured the trust of his American audience, he proceeds to explain what position America will take under his presidency.
Another great fear of his audience is the growing influence of communism, especially of its proximity when it reached to South America. As one of the superpowers during the Cold War, America needed a leader that would adopt a strong foreign policy that would focus in defending democracy. Kennedy embodies this need when he proclaims that he would “pay any price…in order to assure the survival and success of liberty” (4). His specific focus combating “those nations who would make themselves our adversary” further aids in establishing his presidential ethos (11).
Kennedy is clearly very confident on America’s ability to help “those old allies…those new states…those peoples in the huts and villages…and those sister republics south of [America’s] border” (6, 7, 8, 9). This confidence is shown especially when he continuously denounces communism in an explicit manner. With the metaphor, “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger and ended up inside”, Kennedy clearly states that all dictatorships are forever doomed to fail (7).
He also refers to communist nations and “hostile powers” that practice “aggression” and “subversion” (9). This outright disdain is one that pleases the American public because they are reassured that the president will protect them. The anger that is continuously used when referring to communist countries creates a hostile and imposing tone. Kennedy is apt in using less commanding tones such as “let ever other power know” instead of “other powers should know”, because the former is imposing while the latter is outright threatening.
Kennedy‘s repetition in using certain diction further strengthens his purpose. For example, the recurring word “pledge” is used in places in every promising context. This word has a positive connotation because it is stronger than a promise and it gives a sense that it is coming from the heart. The word plays an even bigger role when Kennedy does not use it to those communist nations. While to America and its allies he “pledges” them that he would work hard to guarantee their well-being, to Russia and its allies he simple asks for a “request”.
It is also important to note that Kennedy refers to his audience as “we”, “us”, and “my fellow citizens”. By referring to them in a more personal tone, Kennedy makes them feel more cared about. This tone also sets a human limitation to his presidency, and it makes it seem as if everyone is sharing the job. For example, when he refers to the responsibility to protect human rights, he states that it is in America’s hand, more than it is in his (21).
This celebrating and inspirational tone seen throughout his speech ensures the audience that Kennedy is on America’s side. Kennedy’s inaugural speech did not fail to satisfy those viewers who tuned in to watch it that day. President Kennedy addressed the bipolar world with a bipolar speech. The sharply contrasting tones and diction that he used when addressing different people clearly showed his audience what his future goals as a president. His eloquent speech establishes him as a leader who is well equipped to defend America and the democratic world.