Here’s the full text of President Kennedy’s statement on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday in 1961, urging Americans to join Kennedy in making things better, including enlisting in the military, from the Kennedy Library:
January 29, 1961
This year, the celebrations of Roosevelt Day has special significance for Democrats everywhere; for we celebrate not only the triumphs of the past but the opportunities of the future.
Twenty-eight years ago Franklin Roosevelt assumed the leadership of a stricken and demoralized nation. Poverty, distress and economic stagnation blanketed the land. But it was not long before the great creative energies of the New Deal had lifted American from its despair and set us on the path to new heights of prosperity, power and greatness.
Today America is the richest nation in the history of the world. Our power and influence extend around the globe. Yet the challenges and dangers which confront us are even more awesome and difficult than those that face Roosevelt. And we too will need to summon all the energies of our people and the capacities of our leaders if America is to remain a great and free nations — if we are to master the opportunities of the New Frontier.
The dimensions of out problems overwhelm the imagination. At home millions are unemployed and the growth of our economy has come to a virtual halt. Abroad, we are faced with powerful and unrelenting pressure which threaten freedom in every corner of the globe, and with military power so formidable that it menaces the physical survival of our own nation.
To meet these problems will require the efforts not only of our leaders or of the Democratic Party–but the combined efforts of all of our people.; No one has a right to feel that, having entrusted the tasks of government to new leaders in Washington, he can continue to pursue his private comforts unconcerned with American’s challenges and dangers. For, if freedom is to survive and prosper, it will require the sacrifice, the effort and the thoughtful attention of every citizen.
In my own native state of Massachusetts, the battle for American freedom was begun by the thousands of farmers and tradesmen who made up the Minute Men — citizens who were ready to defend their liberty at a moment’s notice. Today we need a nation of minute men; citizens who are not only prepared to take up arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life and who are willing to consciously work and sacrifice for that freedom. The cause of liberty, the cause of American, cannot succeed with any lesser effort.
It is this effort and concern which makes up the New Frontier. And it is this effort and concern which will determine the success or failure not only with Administration, but of our nation itself. [emphasis added]
Source: White House Central Subject Files, Box 111, “FDR”.
Other Information Sources:
“Know your Lawmakers,” Guns Magazine, April 1960.
“Letter to President John F. Kennedy from the NRA,” [NRAcentral.com].
“New Minute Men Urged by Kennedy,” The New York Times, 30 January, 1961, pg. 13.
“Kennedy Says U.S. Needs Minute Men,” Los Angeles Times, 30 January, 1961, pg. 4.
“Minutemen’s Soft-Sell Leader: Robert B. DePugh,” The New York Times, 12 November 1961, pg. 76.
It seems to me that Kennedy was not asking yahoos to take up arms against the government, but was instead asking Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Specifically in the last paragraph, he noted his call was to join in the New Frontier efforts his administration was pushing.
If you’re not much a student of history, you may have forgotten about Kennedy’s New Frontier. As presidents before him, with the Square Deal, the New Deal, and the Fair Deal, Kennedy sought a shorthand term to apply to much of his program of changes. In his speech accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party to run for president, he called this a New Frontier.
For I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. Their motto was not “every man for himself” –but “all for the common cause.” They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within.
Today some would say that those struggles are all over–that all the horizons have been explored–that all the battles have been won– that there is no longer an American frontier.
But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won–and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier–the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.
Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises–it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook–it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.
But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric–and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me, regardless of party.
But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age–to all who respond to the Scriptural call: “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.”
For courage–not complacency–is our need today–leadership–not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously. A tired nation, said David Lloyd George, is a Tory nation–and the United States today cannot afford to be either tired or Tory.
Kennedy famously challenged Americans to stand up for service to the nation in his inaugural speech, and when he founded the Peace Corps, asking Americans to give up two or three years to work, peacefully, in other lands to promote progress there. Kennedy called Americans to share his vision, and to work for change, for a better America.
What were specifics of the New Frontier agenda? Kennedy pushed a broad range of programs, many turned into laws in his brief term; Kennedy aimed to change America in economics, taxation, labor, education, welfare, civil rights, housing, unemployment, health, equal rights for women, environment, agriculture, crime and defense. In each of these areas Kennedy sought to build on the legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman — in ways that conservatives today become apoplectic just thinking about.
Kennedy pushed for a higher minimum wage with built-in step increases over time not keyed to inflation. He called for more taxcuts for the poor, coupled with targeted tax incentives to get businesses to spend their cash to create jobs. Kennedy favored changes in law to give unions greater say in corporate expansion, tougher protection for workers from firing, and he extended collective bargaining to federal workers. Kennedy called for expansion of federally-funded loans and scholarships for college students, and he started a program to use federal money to put technology into classrooms at the elementary and secondary levels. Kennedy expanded unemployment and welfare benefits, and got a 20% increase in Social Security benefits.
Kennedy’s New Frontier called for sweeping changes in the way government protects the rights and welfare of all citizens.
Did Kennedy actually call for armed militias to fight government “over-reach” or expansion?
What do you think? When a proponent of getting guns to protect himself against the U.S. government, by killing agents of the U.S. government (we must imagine), cites a part of Kennedy’s statement from 1961 as supporting arming individual citizens, is he being honest?
Kennedy appears to have been fond of the image of the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord, trained militia from citizen volunteers, who started the path to American independence from Britain. He invoked that image earlier, as senator from Massachusetts, in a speech honoring the Polish hero Casimir Pulaski, at a Pulaski Day Dinner in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 17, 1959:
We pay tribute to Casimir Pulaski tonight by honoring a great American of Polish descent, Clem Zablocki. For he has demonstrated, in Washington and Wisconsin, the same courage and conscience, the same zeal for liberty, the same tireless patience and determination to help all who call for help. He is a great Congressman – not only from Wisconsin – but of the United States . . .
But we also think of Casimir Pulaski tonight because his beloved Poland has once again fallen victim to a foreign power. The independence for which he fought against the Russians at Czestochowa has been once again suppressed – and once again by the Russians. Were he alive tonight, the hero of Savannah and Charleston would weep for his homeland – and we, inwardly or outwardly according to our custom, weep with him.
But weeping is not enough. We know it is not enough. And yet, while we give vent to our feelings of resentment and outrage, we are also caught up in a feeling of frustration. What can we do about the situation in the satellites? How can we help those liberty-loving peoples regain their liberty, without subjecting them to even more cruel repression – or subjecting the world to an even more disastrous war? How can we let them know their fate is not forgotten – that we have not abandoned them to be – like the Irish of 1647 considered themselves when Owen Roe O’Neill was poisoned – “sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky?”
This is the dilemma we face, as both last month and next year the President and Premier Khrushchev are pictured together in the press on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And this is the dilemma with which this Administration has been confronted, in trying to make good on its tarnished promises of a new “liberation” policy. For this is no longer an age when minutemen with muskets can make a revolution. Hungary, we know, is not Cuba – and neither is Poland. Mr. Khrushchev is not to be overthrown like Mr. Batista. Brave bands of young men and women may be able to stop a few tanks – but street barricades and home-made hand grenades cannot long stand against a modern army and an atomic air force. [emphasis added]
The facts of the matter are that – no matter how bitter some feelings may be, or how confident some are of a victorious war for liberation – freedom behind the Iron Curtain and world peace are actually inextricably linked. For if war should ever break out, the control and occupation of Eastern Europe would certainly be even more rigid and repressive than it is today. That is why, in the days of upheaval in 1956, when Poland could have turned to violent rebellion as Hungary did, Cardinal Wyszynski kept advising his people that the condition of Polish freedom was peace. Many scoffed – many thought him faint-hearted. But by following his advice, Poland has now attained at least a measure of national independence and at least a relaxation of Communist rule. Forced collectivization of the farmers has ceased and most of the collectives were dissolved – religious freedom has been restored in considerable degree – and freedom of speech is returning.
No one says that land of ancient freedom is once more free again. But if Poland had not accepted this half-way house to freedom, it could have been, as Prime Minister Gomulka warned, wiped off the map of Europe. If the present emphasis on a thaw in the Cold War should end and tensions rise again, the present good relations between Poland and the United States would undoubtedly cease, the growing contacts between the Polish people and the West would be cut off, and the present degree of freedom of speech and religion in Poland would prove to be short-lived. On the other hand, if a real thaw develops and Soviet-American relations improve, the prospects for the continuation and perhaps the expansion of this limited degree of Polish freedom are good. So, in a real sense, the condition for Polish freedom is peace.
One does not get the sense that President Kennedy was urging citizens to establish their own arsenals, contrary to the actions of the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord, nor to take up arms against the U.S. government.
Who would suggest that’s what Kennedy meant? Oh, yeah: AmericanFirearms.org.
- Kennedy’s speech of March 9, 1960, at a campaign stop in Mauston, Wisconsin: “Winston Churchill said: ‘We arm – to parley.’ We prepare for war – in order to deter war. We depend on the strength of armaments – to enable us to bargain for disarmament. We compare our military strength with the Soviets – not to determine whether we should use it – but to determine whether we can persuade them that to use theirs would be futile and disastrous – and to determine whether we can back up our own pledges in Berlin, Formosa and around the world.”
- Kennedy’s visit to Hyde Park, New York, to speak with Eleanor Roosevelt and honor the 25th anniversary of Social Security