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Lessons Learned: John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address

Speaker: James M. Lindsay, Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
January 19, 2012

On a cold, snowy morning fifty-one years ago, President John F. Kennedy stepped up to a podium at the East Front of the Capitol building and delivered what was perhaps the most memorable inaugural address since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first, remembers James M. Lindsay, senior vice president and director of studies. Seeking to calm fears about the rise of Soviet power during the 1950s, Kennedy spoke eloquently of the United States as a near limitless force for change in the world. He called on U.S. citizens to act in support of their government, uttering the immortal line: "Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country."

However, Vietnam disproved the notion that the American public was willing to "bear any burden," says Lindsay. A successful foreign policy, whether it be a war with Vietnam in the 1960s or negotiations with Iran or North Korea, requires balancing costs and benefits and ensuring public support. So while Kennedy's words inspire us today, Lindsay argues, they also provide a powerful reminder of the perils of overreaching.

This video is part of Lessons Learned, a series dedicated to exploring historical events and examining their meaning in the context of foreign relations today.


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