Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Inaugural Address 20 January 1961

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Nicole Kennerly, Independent Educator.

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Teachers

1) JFK’S Inaugural Address profoundly altered the scope of U.S foreign policy, including its role in relation to other countries and the idea of promoting democracy itself. This expansion of the scope and mission of U.S. foreign policy had a lasting legacy. Similar themes were heard when George W. Bush justified the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

2) This speech provides a means of exploring the causes and effects of the cold war. What responses of the U.S. government, in words or in actions, might have escalated and/or de-escalated the conflict? How do those issues and actions relate to concerns over “terrorism” in today’s political landscape?

3) The country was sharply divided after the 1960 election, and one purpose of an inaugural address is to breach divisions and unite the country. By examining JFK’s speech, students can gain understanding into the many purposes and strategies of a successful inaugural address and how such speeches can be used to set the tone for a new presidency.

4) JFK used stylistic devices to great effect. His inaugural address is remembered as one of the most eloquent speeches in U.S. history, and his rhetoric is credited with inspiring generations of Americans.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
    • The 1960 presidential election was one of the closest in history, leaving the country evenly divided. Kennedy took his inaugural address as an opportunity to unite the U.S. people around their common enemy: communist totalitarianism. He did this in many ways, including contrasting the values of the U.S. with those of America’s foreign adversaries, thereby creating a unified “us” against “them.”
    • Kennedy’s speech ushered in a foreign policy shift, calling on U.S. citizens to bear responsibility not only in the U.S. but around the world for upholding the promoting democracy and its associated values such as freedom and equality.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
    • Kennedy left much unspoken in his inaugural, but he makes clear that the adversaries he referred to were communism and the USSR. By contrasting the U.S. and USSR, he created unity in identity and purpose in the U.S. people while providing a rationale for combatting communism and promoting democracy around the globe.
    • This “us” versus “them” division created by Kennedy is also the rationale for a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy, one that enforced the will of the U.S. on nations around the world. However, he couched this promotion of U.S. interventions abroad in words of duty and necessity, echoing the rhetoric of the “white man’s burden” during the age of imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • Students can gain a concise background on causes of the Cold War at the online JFK Presidential Library here: http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/The-Cold-War.aspx. The title of the article is, “After World War II, the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its satellite states began a decades-long struggle for supremacy known as the Cold War.”
  • Familiarize students with 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 (https://www.uvm.edu/~asnider/campreadings/02-January 29/campbell_inaugurationspeeches.pdf). As outlined in the abstract of that article, those characteristics are: “1. unify the audience…; (2) rehearse shared values drawn from the past; (3) enunciate the political principles that will guide the new administration; (4) demonstrate that the President appreciates the requirements and limitations of executive power; and (5) achieve these ends through means appropriate to epideictic discourse.”
  • Explore Kennedy and the new era of youth and optimism by having students read the very short “Telegram relaying Krushchev’s comments about meeting President Kennedy” (http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/cgU8XGfLtkGCbQhicsjlYA.aspx). How might the reputation and appearance of youth have helped JFK achieve his goals for the Inaugural? Some have observed that Barack Obama had a similarly youthful image when he delivered his 2009 inaugural address. Was he perceived the same way?
  • Pre-teach stylistic elements employed by JFK, such as anaphora and antithesis. (Anaphora is “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses,” while antithesis is a “figure of speech in which an opposition or contrast of ideas is expressed by parallelism of words that are the opposites of, or strongly contrasted with, each other”). Provide examples to the students from the speech, then have students think about songs they know that employ the same techniques. What do these stylistic elements achieve in the music? How might these stylistic devices contributed to the rhythm and eloquence of JFK’s speech?

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Iron tyranny [para 8]: JFK’s use of this phrase was a reference to what Winston Churchill had previously called the Iron Curtain of communism. In this way, JFK could discuss communism and the threat he believed it imposed on the world without explicitly naming particular countries or their leaders.
  • “To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves [para 9]: The reference to “huts and villages” invoked images of underdeveloped nations, like Vietnam, where the U.S. was supporting anti-communist forces. Kennedy considered Vietnam a strategically important country in the global struggle between communism and the free world, and under his leadership America would greatly increase its involvement in the Vietnam war.
  • Instruments of war [para 11]: The development and deployment of the atom bomb in World War II left a lasting legacy of fear that the world would destroy itself in nuclear war. This fear was behind many U.S. foreign policy decisions, as the U.S. sought to enlist the support of other nations around the globe in its Cold War against the Soviet Union.
  • Both sides [paras 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20]: JFK used this phrase as an anaphora towards the end of his speech to create rhythm and crescendo as well as lend a sense of commitment and strength to his worldview. By repeating the phrase “both sides,” JFK polarized global politics, setting up two sides that were at odds with each other, with no middle ground. Other nations were forced to side with freedom or communism, with good or evil. Kennedy’s language clearly drew that division by highlighting differences between free and communist countries, and thereby may have escalated Cold War tensions.

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-reading and Introduction of Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Students will complete pre-reading of teacher’s or student’s choice.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.

Day 2: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”

  • [Read the speech, all paragraphs 1-28] (Optional: Provide a transcript and watch the 15-minute speech with your class): (http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/john-f-kennedy-inaugural-address-20-january-1961-video/)
  • Students will assess the tone of JFK’s speech and contrast it to the occasion of the inauguration.
  • Students will analyze how JFK used language to unite U.S. citizens behind a common purpose while justifying an expansion of the U.S. global presence.

Day 3: Post-Reading & Assessment

  • Students will complete post-reading of their or teacher’s choice.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Paragraphs 1-4: Discuss with students the opening of the speech. What themes do they notice from the first four paragraphs? Have students consider why JFK started his speech the way he did. Who was his target audience? Note that JFK first used the word “freedom” in paragraph 2. Why might he have mentioned freedom so early in his speech? How does he provide a rationale for his expanded foreign policy, as well as try to unite the U.S. people after a bitter election?
  • Paragraphs 5-11: In these passages, JFK’s language became more committed to his vision of freedom at “home and around the world.” Here it will be helpful to reference the Key Terms section above to support student understanding that JFK was implicitly referring to communism (“iron tyranny” and the “huts” of Vietnam).
  • Paragraphs 12-19: JFK took a more aggressive tone when expanding his ideas of U.S. involvement against “those nations who would make themselves our adversary.” The anaphora of “Let both sides” (paragraphs 16-19) added power to his speech by emphasizing commitment to his vision of action. Have students consider the result of his repetition of “both sides.” How did it potentially polarize global politics? (By enforcing an idea that there are two sides that are at odds with each other: freedom and communism, good and evil, the U.S. and the USSR.) Do students think this language made better or worse the divisions between countries during the Cold War?
  • Paragraphs 20-28: JFK concluded his speech by calling on the people of the U.S. to uphold this vision through the action of public service. What phrases did he use to pass the torch to the younger generation of Americans? What did he say is required of them?

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Have students consider the following question: Can democracy be imposed on another country? Provide guiding questions about the current U.S. involvement in the Middle East as well as in Vietnam in the past. For example, why do foreign countries or world organizations get involved in the affairs of other countries? Who decides whether military actions (one common way of imposing democracy) are warranted or successful?
  • JFK changed the scope of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs by providing a rationale: that communism threatened freedom around the globe. How are political reputations of countries and images created? How easy or difficult is it to change these images? Have students consider that they are politicians or even the populace of the USSR listening to this speech. How would they have felt? Helped? Threatened? How would they have responded? How might their view of the U.S. been changed by JKF’s address?
  • Have students find the websites of local 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 their 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? Students will describe how their elected representatives have justified their positions on these matters and whether they agree or disagree with elected officials on the U.S. interventions abroad.
  • JFK cited the threat of communism and the need to spread democracy as his reasons for expanding U.S. presence abroad. How might this rationale relate to concerns and actions surrounding “terrorism” in today’s political landscape?
  • The U.S. 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 their research, students can examine these two foreign policy documents: Bill Clinton’s “A National Security Strategy for a New Century” (http://clinton2.nara.gov/WH/EOP/NSC/html/documents/nssr.pdf) and George W. Bush’s “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss/2002/nss.pdf). Pay particular attention to how these documents defined threats to the United States and how they proposed solutions for lessening or eliminating these threats.