JFK and Cultural Criticism

On June 10th, 1963, at American University in Washington DC, President John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement speech to the graduates. This artifact serves as a representation of the beliefs that embody Anti-War rhetoric, insofar as Kennedy employs fantasy-themes and cultural values in his message to the students. In his speech, he draws attention to the issues facing the world, and how America fits into it. He discusses the roles and responsibilities of American citizens and how direly necessary it is to achieve a lasting peace. He concludes by outlining a pragmatic, idealized, and coherent method toward obtaining world peace, focusing on the importance of diplomatic discourse, open communication amongst world leaders, and the necessity for eventual nuclear disarmament.

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The first cultural value Kennedy focuses on is American Exceptionalism. This fantasy-theme notion is certainly not a new concept, as exceptionalism stems back to the founding of the United States. Rather than viewing ourselves as members of a global community, we see ourselves as the helmsmen working towards a future that globally embodies our values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Aware of this cultural construct, Kennedy employs this to define his ambitions for global peace. He states that “In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race.” While subtle, this reflects the value of American exceptionalism; we developed the nuclear weapons, and we have the strength to disarm them. The view that we have the strength to lead the world in disarmament reflects anti-war ideology while maintaining the values of American Exceptionalism.

Ironically, much of anti-war rhetoric revolves around identifying an enemy or an opponent. For much of the Summer of Love hippie protests, for example, this enemy was “the man”; the patriarchal figure of oppression and control over the masses. In this speech, Kennedy identifies an opponent; the Soviet Union. This act of identifying and targeting a tangible enemy is common in American political rhetoric; it’s easier to garner support for a movement if you have something to fight against. However, what Kennedy has done in this speech is utilize the fantasy-theme of the arch-nemesis and adapted it to appeal to a rhetorically anti-war audience. He constructs his rhetoric around defeating the red-menace, but through means of diplomacy and peaceful talks.

Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament, and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs.

In a way, he is “winning” because he has risen above the threats made between the two super-powers in recent years and forged a new method of lateral, open discourse.

Finally, Kennedy utilizes the ultimate pacifist fantasy-theme; utopia. Often, in literature, the notion of utopia is utilized to conjure images of a society that has risen above petty conflict and materialism to a point where discourse is open and free and society flourishes under principles of altruism and communication. In the 1960s, this utopic model seemed nearly impossible to obtain, however, in Kennedy’s speech, he emphasizes the necessity for peaceful action to be taken immediately to ensure the potential for utopia in future generations while maintaining an air of practicality, almost discrediting fanatics who ascribe to this fantasy-theme model. He states:

No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again. I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.

He makes a point in emphasizing that, while universal peace and goodwill IS attainable, we must approach it from a pragmatic stand point.

Ultimately, John F. Kennedy has employed the American fantasy-theme models of exceptionalism, competition, and utopia to emphasize the importance of pursuing a pragmatic, attainable universal peace agreement on the grounds of international diplomacy and open political discourse. He uses these themes to his advantage by ascribing to the fantastical images they convey then discrediting the impracticalities of those images and applying them to a realistic blueprint for achievable peace.

John F. Kennedy – American University Commencement


One thought on “JFK and Cultural Criticism

  1. I really liked this post in that it drew a lot of references and conclusions into one blog post. One particularly was the ideology that American Exceptionalism and the Summer of Love hippie protests that both had an enemy or opponent that they wanted to fight against. For Exceptionalism it was the Soviet Union and for the hippies protest it was against “the man”. I liked that both fantasy themes were found and compared to one another because it helped me recognize and see what was going on in the movement as a whole. The mentioning of the theme the archnemesis in relation to the anti-war audience really connected me with what the author was trying to convey to a particular group of people. I also found that his idea of a utopia as a fantasy theme was a good connection as well considering the quote that was provided dealt with realities of situations and that the ideal situation is obtainable but we must take a realistic approach to it. Overall, I felt that this post really captured what a fantasy theme truly is. I liked that it was hyperlinked and easily accessible. I got lost a little bit in the ideology of the cultural concepts behind it but overall I enjoyed reading this post.


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