Gun nuts twisting the words of President Kennedy

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 [links added here]:

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,” [].
“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.
[emphasis added]

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?

Please tell us what you think, in comments. Your opinion counts.

Poster from; the quoate from Kennedy is accurate, but did Kennedy mean what this group wants us to think it means?

Poster from; the quote from Kennedy is accurate, but did Kennedy mean what this group wants us to think it means?

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.

President Kennedy addressing a Wisconsin group during the 1960 presidential campaign.  (Do you have more details?)

President Kennedy addressing a Wisconsin group during the 1960 presidential campaign. (Do you have more details?) Photo by Robert W. Kelley//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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:


Page one of a speech text then-Sen. John Kennedy delivered regarding why America arms, on March 9, 1960, in Mauston, Wisconsin. JFK Library image

Page one of a speech text then-Sen. John Kennedy delivered regarding why America arms, on March 9, 1960, in Mauston, Wisconsin. JFK Library image

19 Responses to Gun nuts twisting the words of President Kennedy

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Read the piece. We’re done. Thanks for dropping by.


  2. Brad Roff says:

    Such anger…. relax a little man. There’s just no need for the personal attacks and trying to show people up bro. I’m sure that you’re an intelligent guy… so am I. I doubt that either of us will change the others mind. But we can actually have a more meaningful discourse if we’re discussin and not fussin, can we at least agree on that? Or no names or inferences that if we don’t think exactly alike that one or the other is somehow mentally deficient? Now we’re getting somewhere!


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    If you’re not a crazy waving a gun, why do you take offense? Don’t out yourself then claim you’ve been outed unfairly.

    What I’m talking about in this piece is YOUR misuse of Kennedy’s words. He said, if you want to defend the U.S., join the government and do good work. Be a MinuteMan for the U.S., not a Benedict Arnold (recognizing that Arnold had earlier been a hero of Americans).

    Not a difficult concept. Can’t see how you missed. Maybe stop waving the gun, you can read the text more carefully.


  4. Brad Roff says:

    “Crazies”… “waving guns”…. really? When we resort to name-calling and making broad, stereotypical statements the message is lost and meaningful discussion ends. Well put Keith Edwards. What part of “shall not be infringed” are we struggling with anyway? It seems fairly clear exactly what that part means. DOC vs Heller guarantees the individuals right to possess and lawfully use a firearm. I thought this was supposed to be about what JFK meant and not a 2nd amendment discussion. But I’m s’posin I’m guilty as y’all are.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    To the contrary, every colony had a militia well before the Minute Men. It was in command of a force of the Virginia Militia that George Washington started the French and Indian War, in 1754.

    There was no standing army when the colonies went to war with the British. The “Continental Army” was composed mostly of militias from the colonies, supplemented by volunteers.

    Kennedy knew all that. What he meant was that America needs people willing to serve the nation, not shoot at its government.

    It’s that latter point that galls modern 2nd Amendment fetishists. They would prefer you fall at their feet and complement their acumen, and to make sure you get the point, they wave guns.

    Not at all what Kennedy was talking about.

    Mind you, Kennedy was an ill, wealthy kid who volunteered to serve in the front lines on a floating coffin, lost his boat, but lost only one man in a story of heroics good enough they made a movie about it.

    Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Someone ought to say that.


  6. “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.”
    “Citizens…” Not soldiers. Not ‘National Guardsmen’. Citizens!
    That’s pretty simple to understand. There was no militia UNTIL the Minutemen. There was no standing United States Army until war was declared on the British.
    And I can imagine what kind of railing there would be if there were state militias developing and training in a military/tactical basis.


  7. Justin says:

    I know you do not want to hear this, however, when he speaks of liberty and freedom, it is for the individual. With that, if it is the government that is squashing said freedom and liberties, then it is so. It is, also, given to us in the Constitution.


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Facebook posts pointing to this post:

    Heck, sometimes they point to the post, but get the wrong conclusion. You can tell a gun nut, but you can’t tell him much.


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Formally, no, it didn’t include the British. That would have been open sedition, a death-penalty crime.

    Was that their unstated intent? Not when the militias were formed. Perhaps, after 1773 or 1774, some of the militia members took that cause on. But the British march to disarm was controversial even in Britain. Gen. Gage’s excuse, of course, was that the militias had turned into seditious groups — but had they done that openly, they would have been illegal from the start.

    The Federal Militia Act is entertaining, but dormant. Fully 50% of gun owners in the U.S. are not trained at all in the use of their arms, and therefore would not be considered eligible to be militia members.

    But were any of that true, it wouldn’t justify twisting the actual words of President Kennedy and his stated intentions.


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    Urban gang problem was worse, then. Reagan acted when the Black Panthers — before they turned to the dark side — began to practice open carry in Oakland, California.

    In that era, the Panthers were more peaceful than conservative open carry people now. No one was injured or killed. May not even have been shots fired, in that pre-drug-running era.


  11. ronwf says:

    Ed Darrell:

    “Minutemen of Lexington and Concord created a militia to protect the colony against all enemies, not necessarily the British.”

    But it did include the British, didn’t it? Their legally constituted government at the time.

    Funny you should mention slavery. In fact, among the first laws passed after Reconstruction ended and the ex-Confederate states were returned to self-government was to restrict blacks from owning firearms.

    “There’s a huge difference between treason and signing up for the National Guard.”

    I do not support treason, certainly. However, what’s the National Guard got to do with this? Or are you one of these folks that thinks that the 2nd Amendment meant to restrict the right to keep and bear arms to the members of the militia? If so, I suggest you read the Federal Militia Act and your State Constitution. If you are male and between the ages of 18 and 45 you are a member of the militia in the eyes of the Federal government (plus both male and female members of the National Guard and retired members of the National Guard or the Armed Forces regardless of age). And in many States, such as my home State of Illinois, the State Constitution defines the members of the militia as any able-bodied person. The National Guard is the “organized militia”, and non-members are the “unorganized militia” – but the 2nd Amendment makes no distinction between the two.


  12. ronwf says:

    Ronald Reagan was human, not infallible – and he was wrong. About a lot of things, including the idea that people do not need to bear arms on the streets to stay safe. Of course, the urban gang problem wasn’t as bad then as it is now.


  13. Ed Darrell says:

    Minutemen of Lexington and Concord created a militia to protect the colony against all enemies, not necessarily the British. Other dangers included the French and Native Americans, and insurrection by other colonists.

    It was the right to have a local militia they fought for. Those same colonists wrote Article III section 3 of the Constitution, which makes it treason to arm against the government.

    The issue was local protection — and we’re being quite charitable, since the 2nd Amendment was promoted chiefly by slaveholding interests concerned that were Nat Turner III to return, the federal government could not act soon enough, nor would act at all, to protect slaveholders from insurrection exactly as you describe.

    Colonists did not support revolution against the U.S. government, nor state governments. Disputes with the government were to be settled by the courts, or at the ballot box.

    All of which is beside the point. Kennedy did not support insurrection against the U.S. government by communists nor any other splinter group of crazies, and he was quite clear about that. Patriots join in protecting the nation that nurtured them, and Kennedy urged exactly such actions — which again, is the opposite of arming to shoot at government officials.

    I suspect Kennedy would have had the same reaction to Cliven Bundy’s ragtag traitors that Washington had to the Whiskey Rebels — a small army of 10,000 and a dozen nooses.

    There’s a huge difference between treason and signing up for the National Guard. We should not allow crazies to fuzz over the differences.


  14. Eric Gaul says:

    The minutemen of Lexington and Concord were arming and training themselves for action against their governing body (England). They themselves being English citizens. Now, If the statement made by President Kennedy meant to prepare for our government or another, i do not know. But as for Lexington and Concord, it was for action against their own governing body.


  15. Ed Darrell says:


  16. Ed Darrell says:

    Where and when did Reagan say this?

    Reagan, on gun control


  17. Ed Darrell says:

    Technical, Jonathan, technical!

    Sadly, the Great Battlefield for Defense and Expansion of Freedom today also includes Australia and North America.


  18. Ellie says:

    You’re going to have to stop publishing posts like this, Ed. I’m running out of popcorn.


  19. jd2718 says:

    One of my favorite JFK quotes (with illustration):

    XKCD, on John Kennedy quote


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