November 13, 2013
By Ben Voth
Despite the many in-depth histories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, much less has been written about the speech Kennedy planned to give in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. As we look back on JFK’s presidency, it’s worth noting five interesting rhetorical features that dominated the text of that speech:
The speech makes a strong statement against communism.
Most historians and experts recognize that Kennedy served at a time of high political drama between the Soviet Union and the United States. Moreover, the close election of 1960 featured a battle between noted anti-Communist Republican Richard Nixon and the more youthful and less known Democrat. Kennedy was regularly trying to overcome the perception of being soft on communism.
The speech mentions communism 11 times and explains details of U.S. nuclear weapon development and new technologies such as tactical nuclear weapons. The aggressive detailing of American military power highlights the administration’s commitment toward fighting communism. Especially noteworthy is the continued projection of support for Vietnam — something where the risks would indeed become costly.
The speech builds a case for American economic exceptionalism.
Kennedy’s speech describes America as exceptional in its economic strength. This capacity allows America to project a kind of soft power against foreign threats. The national GDP had recently grown from $500 billion to $600 billion. The numbers seem small in today’s trillion-dollar throwaways, but the growth rate was impressive. The speech notes that the United States is moving quickly to surpass Western Europe in economic productivity as part of its expanding global soft power.
The speech extends the Kennedy vision for American dominance in space.
Kennedy continues a vision originally outlined at Rice University in Houston about renewed American science leadership demonstrated in a space program rivaling the initial successes of the Soviets. By 1963, Kennedy is prepared to assert that America was leading in space deployments. These space launches extend U.S. geopolitical strength into unconventional arenas, the speech says. The shadows of Sputnik seem to disappear as the speech articulates the American pattern of success. Kennedy localizes the issue by emphasizing the strong role that Texas plays in the development of this new technology.
Kennedy employs assertive moral and religious appeals.
The speech concludes with strong moralizing tones about America’s purpose. The speech quotes Psalm 127:1, saying “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” The speech is drawn from a well-worn maxim that “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it,” which is the introduction to the verse quoted.
Kennedy invokes the promise of the Christmas angels to describe the American purpose in power: “That we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength.” Such language is reminiscent of a more confident American civil religion that so regularly projected into presidential rhetoric.
The speech makes a vigorous defense of foreign aid.
Kennedy defends the necessity of foreign aid. He explains the costs of expending economic aid is far less than facing consequences militarily later. Here again, the perceived risks of communism are stark and jarring. Kennedy embraces premises of the Cold War by explaining that we must rival our ideological opponents in Moscow. The aid often decried at home is welded to a comprehensive strategy of opposing global growth in communism.
In sum, the Dallas speech reads as one adapted to the conservative concerns of the city, reflective of the president’s painful experiences of the Cuban missile crisis and all the while asserting renewed American hegemony in all the forms it can take.
Kennedy planned to build his presidential posture at the Dallas Trade Mart by showcasing American economic strength alongside military and technological goals, proving America ready and willing to contain communism. This speech provides a glimpse into the world Kennedy intended to lead us toward but never got to complete.
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Read more about SMU experts discussing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.