President John F. Kennedy continues to inspire, 100 years after his birth

My photo above shows President John F. Kennedy’s beloved sailing boat, Victura, with his eponymous museum to the left and Boston’s harbour and city skyline in the background.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is holding a special exhibition called “JFK 100 – Milestones and Mementos” to mark the centennial of the great man’s birth.

The museum itself is worth making a beeline for, if you’re ever near Boston USA (and if you’re unlikely to go there anytime soon I have inserted some links to the museum’s digital archive below). In a stunning building, located (purposely to reflect JFK’s love of the sea) on a breathtakingly beautiful shoreline site overlooking Boston harbour and the sea beyond, the museum presents the visitor with a feast of insight, photographs, exhibits and information about JFK, his presidency and his family. I’d allow the best part of a day to absorb it all, if I were you. There is a superb introductory film, a film on the Cuban crisis and countless videos playing on a loop with contemporaneous TV footage. There are a mountain of original artefacts. The whole thing is quite mind boggling but very inspirational, if a little panglossian (for example, although his health issues are mentioned severally, I could find no mention of Addison’s disease).

The one exhibit which sticks in my mind is the coconut which JFK engraved with a “help” message for a native Pacific islander to transport back to the US Navy when he and his surviving shipmates were stranded on a remote Pacific island after the Japanese rammed their patrol boat in the Second World War.

The “JFK 100” exhibition itself is worth devoting an hour or two to. What they have done is produce 100 quite remarkable bits and pieces from their archive. These range from JFK’s ties and sunglasses to some previously forgotten interview footage when he was a Senator and some interestingly original documents, including original speech texts (which Kennedy spoke from). They show last minute edits from Kennedy and his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. Indeed, one little gem I picked up is that when Kennedy got up to give his famous inaugural address, the text he read from said:

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

But, as he spoke the script at the inauguration, he made a last-second “on the hoof” edit and changed it to what he said, which was:

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

As Michael Caine didn’t say: “Not a lot of people know that”.

All together one leaves the museum feeling deeply inspired. The key takeaway is how Kennedy articulated the struggle for “liberty”. He said:

A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.

He was referring to “liberty” or “freedom”. Looking back, this seems a little clichéd from today’s perspective. But seen from the point of view of the early 1960s, with the threat of global communism and/or anhiliation very much alive, it was profoundly inspiring.

For me, John F. Kennedy’s greatest achievement was working through the Cuban Missile crisis without a nuclear war kicking off. He over-ruled his rather hawkish military advisers. That strength derived, in part no doubt, from his amazing war service. He swam three and a half miles amidst dangerous, current washed waters, towing an injured colleague via the cord of his fellow’s lifebelt in his teeth. Now that takes some doing! It was that heroism, presumably, which allowed Kennedy to be a superb Cammnder-in-chief during arguably the greatest man-made crisis which the world has ever faced.

Kennedy was a keen historian. I think we could learn a great deal from the Cuban crisis in respect of the current North Korean situation.


As promised, here is a link to the magnificent JFK Museum and Library digital archive. There is a sumptuous series of collections which you can browse including most of JFK’s presidential papers, his private papers, the Kennedy family’s private photographs and archive material from broadcasters and films.

Here are documents related to Kennedy’s inaugural speech. If you scroll down virtually to the bottom you can see the originally released text of the speech and the part where the text said “Ask not what your country will do for you” whereas Kennedy changed that as he was speaking to “Ask not what your country can do for you”:

Here below is the manually edited “reading copy” of that part of the speech:

Here’s a little slide show of various items in the “JFK 100” exhibition. Click on the arrows to move the images, hover your mouse or finger over the photo for a caption and click on “More images” at the bottom of the box to see even more such images on the Getty Images website:

And finally, here are a few more of my photos of the museum itself. Scroll down to view:


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