Every president since George Washington has delivered an inaugural address. Beginning with William McKinley, the address has taken place after the swearing in of the new president instead of before.
There have been some notable inaugural addresses.
William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address in 1841 was almost two hours long. He delivered the address in freezing weather without a hat or a coat, contracted pneumonia, and died thirty days later.
It was at his first inaugural address in 1933 that Franklin Roosevelt uttered one of his most memorable phrases: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In his first inaugural address in 1981, Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
It was at his inauguration in 2017 that Donald Trump stated, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
But perhaps the most famous line from a president’s inaugural address is that which was uttered sixty years ago on January 20, 1961, by John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” That sentence was near the end of his speech. What has been overlooked is this sentence near the beginning: “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.” Kennedy also mentioned things such as being “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” and assisting “free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.”
The question is a simple one: Should we?
Should the United States pay any price to free the people in other countries from oppressive regimes?
Should the United States bear any burden to liberate the people in other countries from a brutal dictator?
Should the United States meet any hardship to prevent another country from going communist?
Should the United States support any friend involved in a civil war?
Should the United States oppose any foe involved in a civil war?
Should the United States seek to prevent human rights violations around the world?
Should the United States give other countries foreign aid to help them cast off the chains of poverty?
Should the United States make entangling alliances with other nations?
Should the United States spend more on defense than the next ten countries combined?
Should the United States fight “over there” so we don’t have to fight “over here”?
Should the United States defend our freedoms by bombing other countries?
Should the United States pledge to come to the aid of any country?
Should the United States care who controls the shoals, reefs, and rocks in the South China Sea?
Should the United States continue to occupy Germany and Japan seventy-five years after the end of World War II?
Should the United States care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?
Should the United States pressure or coerce foreign governments to do our bidding?
Should the United States fight undeclared wars?
Should a single American die for the emir of Kuwait?
Should the United States be the world’s policeman?
Should the United States go abroad looking for monsters to destroy?
Of course not.
Whatever was good about Kennedy’s foreign policy will forever be tarnished by his sending of military advisors, helicopters, and support personnel to Vietnam, financing an increase in the size of the South Vietnamese army, supporting the Diem government, and committing the United States to further intervention in Vietnam.
Contrast the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy with that of Thomas Jefferson on March 4, 1801. In the midst of Jefferson’s annunciation of what he deemed to be “the essential principles of our government,” he uttered one of the most important principles of U.S. foreign policy. The quote in its context reads as follows:
Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political: — peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none: — the support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns, and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies: — the preservation of the General government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home, and safety abroad: a jealous care of the right of election by the people, a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided: — absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of the despotism: — a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace, and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them: — the supremacy of the civil over the military authority: — economy in the public expence, that labor may be lightly burthened: — the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith: — encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid: — the diffusion of information and the arraignment of all abuses at the bar of public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; freedom of person, under the protection of the Habeas Corpus: — and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation, which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.
“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” This statement sums up a Jeffersonian foreign policy. But that is not the only wisdom from Jefferson:
At such a distance from Europe and with such an ocean between us, we hope to meddle little in its quarrels or combinations. Its peace and its commerce are what we shall court.
We wish not to meddle with the internal affairs of any country, nor with the general affairs of Europe.
I think all the world would gain by setting commerce at perfect liberty.
We ask for peace and justice from all nations, and we will remain uprightly neutral in fact.
No one nation has a right to sit in judgment over another.
Determined as we are to avoid, if possible, wasting the energies of our people in war and destruction, we shall avoid implicating ourselves with the powers of Europe, even in support of principles which we mean to pursue.
On this, the sixtieth anniversary of Kennedy’s inaugural address — with the United States still engaged in military operations in as many as fourteen countries — including Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Niger — with hundreds of U.S. military bases in foreign countries; and with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed overseas — it is time to ask the simple question: Should we?
A Jeffersonian foreign policy of nonintervention and neutrality is our only hope.