John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1961, intentionally sent mixed messages to many audiences. The Democratic Party’s nominee for President during the previous two elections, liberal Adlai Stevenson, had badly lost two consecutive elections (in 1952 and 1956) to a national hero, the iconic General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the Supreme Allied Commander on the Western Front in Europe during the last two years of World War II (in 1944 and 1945). Eisenhower was twice entrusted by the electorate to safeguard the nation, because of his military experience on the winning side in World War II. Kennedy therefore ran as a centrist, not a liberal, and advocated a strong national defense, second to none, during the campaign in 1960.
(His strong advocacy in closing what was perceived as a missile gap between the U.S. and the USSR — a supposed gap in which the prevailing fears in 1960 were that the USA was behind in this area of strategic weaponry, and therefore vulnerable — was not the cynical manipulation of a fearful public by a politician who knew otherwise, as JFK’s detractors have claimed. The 1957 Gaither Report, leading journalists, and Air Force intelligence had all declared that the missile gap was real — and that we lagged far behind the Soviets in this crucial mode of delivering nuclear warheads to the target and JFK did not find out that the reverse was true until after he had been elected.)
As Jack Kennedy began to formulate his inaugural speech, he was presented with a problem. Not only had Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a bellicose speech on January 6, 1961, supporting foreign wars of liberation from colonialism (which some had interpreted as a call for worldwide Communist revolution), but Jack Kennedy’s father (President Franklin Roosevelt’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom) had been discredited in 1940 and 1941 as a defeatist and an appeaser — Joe Kennedy had cozied up to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and supported his attempt to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938, and then, after appeasement had failed and Great Britain and France had gone to war with Germany, had wrongly predicted England’s quick defeat. FDR had lost patience and had finally, in 1941, replaced Joe Kennedy with another ambassador more interested in supporting Prime Minister Churchill than in opposing him.
Old Joe Kennedy knew a lot about business and making money, but almost nothing about politics or international relations; his political instincts were non-existent. Although Joe Kennedy’s political career had ended in 1941 with him discredited, his second son had now been elected President of the United States — the job old Joe had always coveted — and many of the insiders in Washington D.C. were nervously wondering if Jack Kennedy, the son, was going to be an appeaser like his father had been. John F. Kennedy not only had to reassure a nation that no longer had the revered General Eisenhower as President that its defense was still in good hands, but he also had to assure those who distrusted his father’s judgment that he was not going to simply be a mouthpiece for old Joe Kennedy that he would not be an appeaser like his father had been in supporting the 1938 Munich Pact...
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