The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy

January 20, 1961

In the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy pledged "to get this country moving again," and offered voters a new generation of leadership.  He challenged his fellow citizens to join him in the struggle for freedom in the perilous years of the Cold War. On Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961, nearly one million people in the nation's capitol braved the subfreezing temperatures to catch a glimpse of the new President they had elected. The hard issues of the day---the Communist threat, a nuclear arms race, racial unrest, and economic distress---awaited the President and the nation. Assuming office in the midst of the Cold War, JFK understood that his inaugural address would have to instill confidence at home and respect abroad. He believed that democracy thrives only when citizens contribute their talents to the common good, and that it is up to leaders to inspire citizens to acts of sacrifice. And when he exhorted people to "ask not what your country can do for you," he appealed to the noblest instincts, voicing a message that Americans were eager to hear.

Kennedy’s inaugural address reflected his core beliefs and life experience. He was a war veteran—a combat hero. He had read the great speeches of the ages, and believed in the power of words. He thought that a democracy thrives only when citizens contribute their talents to the common good, and that it is up to leaders to inspire citizens to acts of sacrifice. And when he exhorted Americans to “Ask not, what your country can do for you,” he appealed to their noblest instincts, voicing a message that Americans were eager to hear. He lifted the spirits of his listeners, even as he confronted the grim reality of the nuclear age. The speech was a sensation.