Classroom Activities

  1. What are the characteristics of good presidential inaugurals, as laid out by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in their article, “Inaugurating the Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 25 (1985): 394-411? What distinguishes a merely good inaugural from a truly great inaugural?
  2. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address is filled with visual imagery. Identify some of the passages in the speech in which Kennedy used language to create “word pictures.” An example of this might be the following: “Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.” Which visuals images in the speech do you find most compelling—and why.
  3. One of the stylistic tools used by Kennedy was anaphora, or the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of a sentence. Identify passages where anaphora is employed in Kennedy’s speech. Why do you think he used this stylistic device? Do you think he used anaphora effectively? How did the use of the device affect the tone or rhythm of the speech?
  4. The election of 1960 was one of the most bitterly divided elections in American history, rivaling the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Campbell and Jamieson argue that one of the tasks for a president in an inaugural address is to unify the country. Identify specific passages in Kennedy’s Inaugural Address where you think he appealed to Republicans or tried to unify the American people in general.
  5. Identify passages in Kennedy’s Inaugural Address where he polarized the world into two camps, those who identify with the United States and those who identify with the Soviet Union or communism. Why do you think Kennedy polarized the world in this fashion? Do you think this reflected the realities of world politics in the 1960s, or did Kennedy oversimplify the situation? What are some of the characteristics that he assigned to these two “worlds” in the Inaugural Address? Did he portray one side as “good” and one side as “bad,” or was he simply acknowledging that there were two different systems of government in the world at that time?
  6. Read Kennedy’s Inaugural Address before class. Then, together as a class, listen to an audio or video recording of the speech. What elements of the speech were emphasized or came across differently in Kennedy’s oral delivery of the address? Was the experience of listening to or watching the speech different than the experience of reading it? How?
  7. Kennedy proposed five ways for “both sides” to unite. Was he able to accomplish any of these goals during his presidency? Do you think that he or later presidents made good on his promise to explore “what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us”?

Student Research

  1. Using the criteria laid out by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in their article, “Inaugurating the Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 25 (1985): 394-411, compare Kennedy’s Inaugural Address to a more recent presidential inaugural in a research paper. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Kennedy speech in comparison to the other inaugural address you examined? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each speech, in terms of the criteria Campbell and Jamieson lay out. Overall, which do you think is the better speech? After making the comparison, do you think Kennedy’s Inaugural Address deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest inaugural addresses in American history? Does the other inaugural address you examined also deserve to be counted among the “great” inaugurals?
  2. Read Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Farewell Address” (available at and compare Eisenhower’s vision of American foreign policy with that of John F. Kennedy, as articulated in his Inaugural Address. Write a summary of the attitude toward American foreign policy expressed by each speaker. Which vision do you think has had a greater impact on twentieth-century American foreign policy? Are the two visions complementary, or did John F. Kennedy propose a fundamentally different course for America than Eisenhower?
  3. Visit the Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum website: and specifically the section entitled “JFK in History”: Write a paper where you discuss how the Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum portrays the cold war and the role of President Kennedy’s role in world affairs? How do they portray the legacy of Kennedy in U.S. foreign policy?
  4. Examine the list of the “100 Top Speeches” of the twentieth century compiled by Stephen E. Lucas and Martin J. Medhurst in Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900-1999 (the list is also available at Many of these “top speeches” were ceremonial or so-called “epideictic” speeches delivered by presidents, including Kennedy and FDR’s inaugural addresses, Ronald Reagan’s tribute to the astronauts who died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and others. In a position paper, address the following questions: Why do you think there are so many ceremonial speeches on the list of the “top 100” speeches? Is there something about an inaugural address or a tribute that makes it more memorable or timeless than, say, a speech about a new policy?
  5. Campbell and Jamieson argue that a presidential inaugural must be both stylistically pleasing and politically substantive. Write a paper where you assess whether or not you think this is true? Why or why not? Examine several other presidential addresses for the paper—in addition to Kennedy’s—and discuss both their stylistic characteristics and their substantive statements about that president’s proposed policies or broader “vision” of America and its future.

Citizenship Resources

  1. The Bush administration’s war in Iraq has sometimes been compared to the 1960s conflict in Vietnam. Some argue that Kennedy’s foreign policy encouraged the entanglement of the United States in wars such as Vietnam. Others contend that Kennedy wanted the United States to serve as advisors in Vietnam but would not have approved of the escalation of the war that came after his death. Read the following opinion articles: Robert L. Bartley’s “Kennedy’s Vietnam,”, and James Galbraith’s “Kennedy, Vietnam, and Iraq,” Write a response paper agreeing or disagreeing with one or both of these articles.
  2. The United States is but one nation in a rapidly globalizing world. With the nation’s economic and military power, some argue that the United States has a moral obligation to defend freedom and protect human rights around the world; others claim that the United States has no business telling other countries how to act or intervene in their affairs. Given the current international exigencies, do you think that the United States is too quick (or not quick enough) to intervene outside its own borders? Do you agree that the U.S. government has a moral obligation to promote and defend liberty and freedom around the world? Why or why not?
  3. Find the websites of your senators and representatives in Congress and identify their positions on the major controversies over U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s and 2000s. Where did your elected representatives stand on the U.S. involvement in Somalia in the early 1990s? On U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the mid-1990s? On the U.S. bombing of Iraq in 1998? On the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002? And on the invasion of Iraq in 2003? Using the Congressional Record or their current websites, describe how your elected representatives have justified their positions on these matters. Do you agree or disagree with your elected officials on these various American interventions abroad?
  4. As mentioned in the essay, “American exceptionalism” refers is the belief that the United States is unique in history and that the whole world would be better off if all nations imitated the American “experiment” in democracy, liberty, and freedom. Trace the historical roots of American exceptionalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, looking at the following speeches on U.S. foreign policy: Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Strenuous Life” and Woodrow Wilson’s “Pueblo Speech” (both speeches are featured on the Voices of Democracy website, Then, consider George W. Bush’s rationale for U.S. foreign policy in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (see examples of Bush’s speeches on the Voices of Democracy website, Can you identify specific elements or themes of American exceptionalism in the various speeches you examined? If so, are there differences between the “exceptionalism” at the turn of the twentieth century and that at the turn of the twenty-first century? If, on the other hand, you do not find evidence of American “exceptionalism” in the various speeches, how do these various political leaders justify America’s active involvement and leadership in world affairs?
  5. The United States has been called the “lone superpower” since the downfall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Do you think the end of the cold war has brought about fundamental changes in American foreign policy? Has Kennedy’s call to “pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and success of liberty” become obsolete? As starting points in your research, examine these two foreign policy documents: Bill Clinton’s “A National Security Strategy for a New Century,” 1998, available at, and George W. Bush’s “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” 2002, available at Pay particular attention to how these documents define threats to the United States and propose solutions for lessening or eliminating these threats.

Last updated May 4, 2016