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Henningsen: Two Speeches

01/17/11 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST)  Today we honor Martin Luther King and remember - among his many talents - his exceptional abilities as a public speaker.  So it seems appropriate to note that this week also marks the fiftieth anniversary of two of the most important *presidential* addresses in the nation's history. Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen explains.

(HENNINGSEN) On January 20th, 1961 John F. Kennedy gave one of the most memorable inaugural addresses in our history - eloquently summoning the American people to renew their commitment to the nation's Cold War aims.  Few remember an equally important speech given three days earlier by the outgoing president, Dwight Eisenhower.  Together, Kennedy's Inaugural and Eisenhower's Farewell captured a crucial moment in our history. Each envisioned the future - but a different future.

Not surprisingly for a man assuming the presidency, Kennedy spoke to the moment, reiterating America's commitment to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."  He galvanized Americans with his sense of optimistic possibility.  People do great things in threatening times and Kennedy painted a courageous vision of American leadership in the cause of freedom.

The combination of a handsome, energetic young president and a lyrical, dynamic inaugural address completely overshadowed the farewell address given three days earlier by outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower.  To the extent that speech is remembered today, it's because of Eisenhower's warning against the growing influence of what he called "the military-industrial complex", the combination of a huge defense establishment and enormous arms industry that had developed in America because of the Cold War.

Far-sighted though it proved to be, that warning was only a part of Eisenhower's message. Drawing on lessons learned from over a half-century of military and political leadership, Eisenhower warned Americans against arrogance, against not trying to understand those who opposed the U.S. overseas, and against selfishness.  He warned Americans about their tendency to seek quick, short term, one-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems.  He cautioned his fellow citizens about the importance of balance - balance, as he put it, "between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable."  Finally, he warned Americans explicitly against "the impulse to live for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow.. We cannot," he went on, "mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage."

Both the incoming and outgoing presidents spoke of the Cold War as a long struggle, requiring Americans to sacrifice, but there the similarities end. The speeches should be read together, for they offer complementary messages. Kennedy spoke with the optimism of youth; Eisenhower with the experience of age. Kennedy spoke of America's role in the world; Eisenhower of America itself.  Kennedy issued a summons, Eisenhower a warning.  Kennedy's speech was more memorable; Eisenhower's more important.
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