John F. Kennedy -- Still Shaping American Foreign Policy 50 Years After His Inaugural Address

As he took the podium to deliver his Inaugural Address fifty years ago today, President Kennedy inspired the nation with stirring words that still resonate in the hearts and minds of Americans fifty years later.

“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.

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, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
-- John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address Friday, January 20, 1961.

President Kennedy’s commitment to the promotion of freedom, liberty, and democracy around the world has shaped the foreign policy approaches of Democratic and Republican administrations alike for five decades.

Indeed, he articulated a worldview and a traditional bipartisan approach to foreign policy that has been pursued by the Bush administration and now increasingly by the Obama administration.

The legacy of President Kennedy can be found in both President Bush’s “diplomacy of freedom” and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s remarks in Qatar last week in which she underscored the importance of freedom and democracy, warning that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand."

More particularly, it is certainly the case that the model that John F. Kennedy pursued during the Cuban Missile Crisis is directly relevant to the serious nuclear crises we are currently facing with rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran.

What President Kennedy was able to do during the Cuban Missile Crisis was stand up for America forthrightly as well as its core principles, while at the same time demonstrating a level of flexibility that his generals thought was perhaps imprudent in negotiating directly and through black channels with the Russians.And he was able to persuade the Russians to back down and to remove Cuban missiles after the quarantine.

While it has yet to be seen whether the same approach will help rein in the North Korean nuclear ambition, there is the current example of the Obama administration working both publicly and privately with the Chinese to get the North Koreans to halt their provocative and aggressive actions vis-à-vis South Korea.

And of course, there were failures in President Kennedy’s approach to foreign policy that are reminiscent of some of the early failures of the Obama administration.

Make no mistake, John F. Kennedy’s Summit meeting with Soviet Premier Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, just five weeks after the humiliating Bay of Pigs defeat, was not a success.

Indeed, many in Kennedy’s own Administration believed that his failure to stand up to Khrushchev emboldened the Russians and lead directly to the dividing of Berlin and the construction of the Berlin Wall.
And just as President Kennedy reversed course shortly after, so too has President Obama become increasingly more hawkish– both in the Middle East and around the World – after his initial rhetoric suggested a degree of tolerance or even acquiescence to authoritarian policies and leaders.

There is an ongoing debate among historians about whether President Kennedy would have escalated the Vietnam War to the degree that LBJ did but one thing is clear – John F. Kennedy stood for a clear assertion of American values and exceptionalism – as well as the values of prudence and caution in our foreign policy.
President Kennedy inspired –both in the United States and around the world – a sense of vision and purpose that makes America the great nation that it is.

Barack Obama did the same thing in his 2008 presidential campaign.

It remains to be seen if in the final two years of the Obama presidency he can live up to the example that President Kennedy set in his two and a half years in office and the stirring words of an Inauguration that still resonates in the hearts and minds of Americans fifty years later.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and author of the new book "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.