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Annotation: “Ask not what your country can do for you …”

How do the words President John F. Kennedy spoke on January 20, 1961 resonate across the decades?

 

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address. The conclusion of that speech inspired a generation — and profoundly shaped the launch of the Peace Corps in 1961. Here are the last three paragraphs. For the 60th anniversary of this speech, we asked returned Volunteers and members of the Peace Corps community from around the world to share how these words resonate across the years. Read the entire address below. And tell us what these words mean to you. Use the comments form or email us.

 

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

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.

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.

 


I think about this section a bit differently than it is often portrayed. Of course there are themes of service and sacrifice, but for me these words are about a more fundamental belief: America is the sum of its parts — which means its people. Her crowning achievements are ours to wear, her flaws and failings ours to bear. The greatness of this country depends on the willingness of all of us not just to do our part, but to hold ourselves, our government, and our leaders accountable to the promises we made the world. That’s the ongoing work of an imperfect union. 

—Joe Kennedy III

Kennedy served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic 2004–06 and served the state of Massachusetts in the House of Representatives 2012–2021. His grandfather was Robert F. Kennedy, brother to the president.

 

JFK’s assassination was my sign to join the Peace Corps. Those last ringing words personify to me that we all spring from the same earth, that we share an impulse to goodness, and whether or not we believe in God, the ultimate purpose for many of us who chose to serve — and then fell in love and learned from the people where we served — to continue that service became our calling and real purpose in life.

—Maureen Orth

Journalist, author, and special correspondent for Vanity Fair, Orth served as a Volunteer in Colombia 1964–66. She founded the Marina Orth Foundation, which has established a model education program emphasizing technology, English, and leadership in Colombia.


These words were one of the four eye-opening influences on my thinking in my formative years. And how important to realize this under a totalitarian regime, which was trying to atomize society and to sow mistrust among the particles in order to better control them! President Kennedy had of course been the archenemy and imperialist hawk in the mouth of communist propaganda, but during the Prague Spring of 1968 there appeared more objective articles about him in the media, including those beautiful concluding words of his inaugural speech. Yes, away with the humiliating submissiveness that was our life and which led us to a blind and passive acceptance.

—Miroslav Pospíšil, Czechia

Under communism in Czechoslovakia, Pospíšil was an organizer of the underground university, a network of resistance to the authoritarian regime. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he led the country’s leading educational foundation, hosted one of the first Peace Corps Volunteers, and worked to transform civil society.


It is not easy to orient everyone toward the same ideal, even if the ultimate goal of humanity is to live in peace and prosperity. But it is imperative! How many times has humanity found inspiration in the example of the American people? President Kennedy called on his fellow citizens to use their wealth, their greatness, and their beauty — which is not without risk both inside and outside the States — for the world. Yet today, more than ever, Americans must become aware of the danger hidden in our modern societies, where competition is ruthless. The slightest relaxation is synonymous with collective suicide. God protect America. God bless the Americans.

—Ibrahima Sankare, Mali

Sankare is director and founder of Delta Survie, a nongovernmental organization whose work reaches across seven countries in West Africa. He is committed to fighting for the integration of marginalized populations and promoting health and education. In 2016 Sankara was recognized with the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.


President Kennedy really understood the importance of service to building peace and freedom around the world. Service allows you to be generous to others. Generosity fosters trust and goodness for others as well as yourself. My Peace Corps Volunteer experience allowed me to be of service to the Georgian people, and not only did it benefit them, but it benefited me tremendously. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn about Georgia and its people and culture. 

—Chau Ly

Ly served as a Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia from 2018 until she was evacuated in 2020. She works with a school district within the Zuni Pueblo Indian Reservation.
 

I believe that Americans who ask what they can do for the United States of America are the embodiment of good citizenry. As a teacher, I tell people I meet that America is a kind and a generous society. All I have to do is tell my story about becoming one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I was in a refugee camp in Kenya for nine years. Life in the camp was miserable; it was hopeless. I had read about President Kennedy; he was a visionary. America has restored my dignity and given me a solid education. I decided to give back by serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Again and again. It takes resilience and humility to succeed.

—Peter Kok Ter

Ter served as a Volunteer in the Republic of Azerbaijan 2009–12, in the People’s Republic of China in 2015, and as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia 2015–16.


As we begin 2021, the U.S. continues to grapple with a racial reckoning, global pandemic, and government transition, reaffirming the importance of togetherness. JFK’s sentiments still ring true today. Earlier in the speech he says, “Let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness.” We cannot move forward together without first acknowledging each person’s grievances. We must converse with those who possess a different perspective. Remembering that we are all products of our environments and experiences, let us lean into listening and learning, so that we can work together to create and sustain equal and just freedom of all women and men.

—Anna Cron

Cron began serving as a Volunteer in the Dominican Republic in 2019 and was evacuated in 2020. She is working toward master’s degrees in business administration and international development at American University.

 

Not just that the world is different. We now see America for what it is, something less than the exceptional nation. We see who we are and who we should be. Can we still be an example to the world? Can we do any less than renew and change?

—David Arnold

David Arnold served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia 1964–66 and is editor emeritus of WorldView magazine. A veteran journalist, he has been a Fulbright fellow in Pakistan and trained  independent journalists in Kenya, Eritrea, Uganda, and Malawi.

 

Gordon Radley would single out these words as speaking to the Peace Corps community:

 

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Within an inaugural address that people would parse as if it were the Gettysburg address, it would be difficult to not read Kennedy’s pledge as a statement to the world of why he would be creating a “Peace Corps” … which he did by executive order about 45 days later … Within the confines of two sentences, Kennedy spoke directly to what was then called the Third World and set out the principles of the pledge he was making and what would govern a Peace Corps: We would come not as “helpers” but as equals, “to help them help themselves,” not limited by an arbitrary time requirement, but “for whatever period is required”… and most important we come not out of some self interest but out of the moral responsibility that comes from being a citizen of the world … because it is right.

—Gordon Radley

Radley served as a Volunteer in Malawi 1968–70 and as training program director in Western Samoa before becoming president of Lucasfilm.

 


 

Ask not: Kennedy’s inaugural address. Photo courtesy of JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

 

John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address | The Full Speech

Watch: The inaugural address, courtesy the JFK Presidential Library and Museum

 

WE OBSERVE TODAY not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end as well as a beginning — signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. 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 to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge — and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do — for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom — and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge — to convert our good words into good deeds — in a new alliance for progress — to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support — to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective — to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak — and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.

Finally, 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, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course — both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.

So let us begin anew — 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.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms — and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah — to “undo the heavy burdens … (and) let the oppressed go free.”

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.

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. 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.

 

Inaugural moment. Photo courtesy of JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

 

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.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

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

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.

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.