Robert Dallek: Power and the Presidency, From Kennedy to Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Robert Dallek’s most recent book is The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953.]

Fifty Januaries ago, under a pallid sun and amid bitter winds, John F. Kennedy swore the oath that every president had taken since 1789 and then delivered one of the most memorable inaugural addresses in the American canon. “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom,” the 35th president began. After noting that “the world is very different now” from the world of the Framers because “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life,” he announced that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” and made the pledge that has echoed ever since: “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 success of liberty.”

After discoursing on the challenges of eradicating hunger and disease and the necessity of global cooperation in the cause of peace, he declared that “[i]n the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Then he issued the call for which he is best remembered: “And so, my fellows Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The address was immediately recognized as ex-ceptionally eloquent—“a rallying cry” (the Chicago Tribune), “a speech of rededication” (the Philadelphia Bulletin), “a call to action which Americans have needed to hear for many a year” (the Denver Post)—and acutely attuned to a moment that promised both advances in American prowess and grave peril from Soviet expansion. As James Reston wrote in his column for the New York Times, “The problems before the Kennedy Administration on Inauguration Day are much more difficult than the nation has yet come to believe.”

In meeting the challenges of his time, Kennedy sharply expanded the power of the presidency, particularly in foreign affairs. The 50th anniversary of his inauguration highlights the consequences—for him, for his successors and for the American people....

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Thomas Holloway - 12/24/2010

Read the full piece in Smithsonian. A lively and cogent overview, that hardly mentions of the brutal exercise of US power, by presidential fiat, in its Latin American "backyard." Cuban Revolution, check. Missile crisis, check. Iran-contra, barest comment. Nothing on the Contra War itself, and much else in Central and South America. If this is the first draft of history, apparently all that stuff didn't happen.