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50 Years Later, JFK’s Inaugural Address Continues to Resonate

January 20, 2011 at 5:06 PM EST
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On the 50th anniversary of his inauguration, watch an excerpt of John F. Kennedy's famous speech on the steps of the Capitol that began his presidency on Jan. 20, 1961.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: It was 50 years ago today that John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most famous and most quoted inaugural addresses in history. His call for engagement and public service resonates even today.

Here’s an excerpt of that speech given January 20, 1961, at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington.

U.S. PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: 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. Remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof, let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let both sides explore what problems unite us, instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

And, so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what, together, we can do for the freedom of man.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that, here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JIM LEHRER: You can watch all of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on our website.