The Torch of Kennedy
Argumentative 2010 2nd Place
Professor: Rosalyn Eves
As the Presidential Election of 1960 came closer, John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, and Richard Nixon, a Republican and Vice President at the time, emerged as the two leading candidates for the Presidency: Kennedy went on to win one of the closest elections in history. With the Cold and Vietnam Wars in full swing and with the Civil Rights movement picking up momentum, John F. Kennedy became the thirty-fifth President of the United States on a cold, chilly Friday, January 20th, 1961. With his breath visible in the air, President Kennedy gave his inaugural address and challenged American and world citizens alike to "struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself" (par. 22). It is crucial in this speech for Kennedy to convince the American people that his win in the election is "not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom" and that the American people must become invested in their community, nation, world, and ultimately something higher than the individual (par. 1). In John F. Kennedy's speech, one that many Americans remember, he succeeds in persuading his audience by identifying with his audience, utilizing parallel structure and chiasmus, describing the world through metaphors and analogies, and using specific words to evoke an emotional response.
First, President Kennedy identifies with his audience through the use of plural pronouns and by speaking of shared values. "We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom" demonstrates the plural pronouns that Kennedy uses throughout his speech (par.1). In a speech that lasted only fourteen minutes, Kennedy uses "we," "our," and "us" over sixty times. By using the plural pronouns, Kennedy identifies himself as an equal member of his audience; but not only that, the audience, as a whole, is united. Kennedy only mentions taking the oath of office at the beginning—this builds his credibility and, therefore, his ethos—and merely mentions "this Administration" once (par.20), thus keeping him equal with his audience. Throughout the speech, Kennedy makes references to "freedom," "peace," "America," and "God." At this time, America was making a push toward peace, love, and freedom for all people, patriotism was high, and America did not cringe and complain at the reference to God. God was still involved in America at that time and Kennedy highlights those key words to identify with his audience.
Second, Kennedy utilizes parallel structure and chiasmus to make his statements more powerful and emphasize the need for Americans to become invested in something bigger than the individual. Parallel structure and chiasmus are used to make included words stand apart from the rest of the sentence. In "let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate" (par. 14), an example of chiasmus, each individual message—never to negotiate out of fear and to never fear to negotiate—is enhanced by the inverted structure of the two together. When parallel structure is used, emphasis is placed on the repeated parts of speech. In the following quote, the repeated structural pattern accentuates the verbs and the succeeding noun, "together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce" (par. 17). The phrases that are most often quoted from Kennedy's speech—and most remembered by those who heard the speech—are written in parallel structure: "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country…ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man" (par. 25, 26). Parallel structure implants the essence of the message into the mind and lingers with the audience—what can I do for my country?
Next, Kennedy describes some of his key points through metaphors and analogies, which work to accentuate these points. Kennedy refers to colonies who sided with tyrannical countries as foolish, but he doesn't leave it that simple: "remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside" (par. 7). This analogy develops a slightly amusing, and slightly horrific, image in our minds that would not have been there if Kennedy had merely stated that colonies that sided with tyrannical countries often found themselves stuck in cruelty and oppression. The analogy brings clarity to the relationship of the foolish country with the tyrannical one and illuminates the malicious intentions of the tyrannical country. Also, Kennedy states that a "torch has been passed to a new generation of America" (par. 3), which furthers this idea of "[struggling] against the common enemies" (par. 22). The torch evokes an image of a battle standard: this battle standard is the cause that previous Americans have fought for. This torch suggests a duty which Americans must carry on. Kennedy does more than state that Americans need to keep going with the American dream, but he gives them something to hold onto. Metaphors and analogies allow the listener to attach to not just the words, but the essence and actual idea, concept, and feeling.
Finally, President Kennedy uses specific words throughout the speech to get his audience emotionally invested in the message. To further his idea of unity and equality in America, Kennedy uses words that suggest unity, such as "together," "both," "join," "united," "Americans," and even "world citizens." By using these words, Kennedy makes the audience feel as if they are one and allows them to believe more strongly in the feelings and ideas that Kennedy is stressing, namely becoming a part of something greater than themselves. Once united, ideas such as "freedom," "nation," "peace," "rights," "pledge," and "endeavor" mean more to the people; once united the people more readily feel patriotism burn inside, and this patriotism nudges them toward action. The word choice creates a tone of determination, passion, and unconquerable spirit. Kennedy's parallel structure and voice—in the actual speech—aid in getting the audience to feel this tone and to feel the same way. Kennedy also uses a tone shift to his advantage. In the last few minutes, Kennedy turns the people's minds to the many Americans who gave their lives all around the globe in the "struggle against the common enemies of man" (par. 22); however, Kennedy then moves the audience to a call to action as "the trumpet summons [them] again" (par. 22) and "[calls them] to bear the burden" (par. 22). This tonal shift allows the famous call to action of "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country" (par. 25) to be heard by not only the ears, but also the heart. Kennedy plays the emotions, through tone, perfectly.
Kennedy creates a unity with and throughout the audience with this idea of struggling against the common enemies of man. His message and call to Americans, and the world, is heightened by his analogies and sentence structure, while his words evoke the souls of the Americans, and the world, to action. Kennedy succeeds in convincing his audience to become a part of something greater than themselves, as evidenced by the fact that the Civil Rights movement came to fruition, a missile crisis was defeated, and Americans looked to space as the Space Race gained fierce momentum in America. A "War on Poverty" soon came as well, and man did not merely "[hold] in his mortal hands the power to abolish poverty" (par. 2), but strove to use that power. America chose to carry on the torch, this torch that represented something so much larger than simply a flame, but a pursuit to better the world. It is through studying Kennedy's rhetoric that his desire for America to avoid passivism becomes clear, for once America avoids passivism and becomes active in their world community, that is when the world has possibility for change. Kennedy's message and this "torch [have] been passed to a new generation of Americans" (par. 3). "Will you join that historic effort?" (par. 23). Whether you join or not, your actions will become history: and what will history speak of you?
"John F. Kennedy." The White House. Whitehouse.gov, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2010.
"John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address." Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States. Bartleby.com, 2001. 19 Sept. 2010. Web.