(HOST) Remembering an unusual speech has led commentator Vic Henningsen to think about the changing nature of national commitment and presidential leadership.
(HENNINGSEN) Forty-five years ago today President John Kennedy made an extraordinary request of the American people. To the already heavy burdens of waging the Cold War, he asked the country to add a commitment to send a man to the moon.
Listening to that speech today reminds me that Americans of that era understood what it meant to sacrifice personal comfort for a common goal.
(JFK 5/25/61) “Finally, our greatest asset in this struggle is the American people – their willingness to pay the price for these programs – to understand and accept a long struggle – to share their resources with other less fortunate people…”
I remember that speech; I remember how it moved me. It bothers me that such a call to sacrifice would seem strange today. To many of us it’s almost inconceivable that an American president would summon the nation to accept higher taxes and delayed gratification to achieve national aims.
What’s happened to us? Have the events of the last forty-five years disillusioned and fragmented us so much that we’ve lost our willingness to take the hard road, together?
I hope not. Americans, Kennedy said later, sought challenges because they inspired us to live up to our ideals; to be the people we like to think we are.
(JFK 10/12/62) “We choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”
In this he echoed his predecessors: Lincoln calling for a new birth of freedom during the Civil War; Roosevelt proclaiming the Four Freedoms as World War II loomed. Americans met those challenges and we met the one Kennedy posed as well.
The challenges we face are daunting to us, but perhaps no more so than the Civil War, or World War II, or the Cold War were to Americans of those times.
I’d like to think we’re still willing to sacrifice in order to meet such challenges. My reading of our history tells me that we can come together in pursuit of solutions and we need our leaders to inspire us to do so.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.