On September 12th, 1962, President John F. Kennedy ascended a podium in front of a large crowd gathered at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and prepared to give a speech that would dramatically shape the direction of the United States’ efforts over the following decade. Indeed, his speech would mark the beginning of a bold new era for humanity; an era of exploration and innovation in outer space. The context and circumstances of President Kennedy’s “we go to the moon speech,” delivered near the height of the Cold War and at the beginning of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, were enormously significant. The Soviet satellite “Sputnik” had been beeping overhead for 4 years, and only one year prior Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human being in history to enter space. The United States was rapidly losing the race into space, and in turn a competition in technological supremacy and prestige, to its Cold War adversary. The American public was on the verge of panic over the implications of a “Red Moon.” President Kennedy needed to forge a new direction for the United States, one that would excite and energize the American public and reestablish American eminence in global affairs. And so, on that day in September, 1962, he did just that, powerfully declaring that the United States would “go to the Moon before the decade was out.” The lasting significance of his speech, and its resounding success as an example of skillful rhetoric and persuasion, was demonstrated when American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk the Moon’s surface in 1969. This paper briefly analyzes Kennedy’s speech, highlighting its main points and the rhetorical tools he so successfully employed. In it, I endeavor to point out the elements which allow this speech to still resonate strongly over 60 years past its delivery.
Kennedy’s speech can be broken into 4 main parts and points, each of which play a significant role in the overall construction of his message. He begins by addressing the various distinguished guests and members of the audience to whom he is making his speech. He continues by expressing his gratitude for the opportunity he has been given to speak, and touches upon the prominence of Rice University as a center of learning and knowledge. Such an introduction is merely a formality, yet it establishes a significant rapport between the audience and himself. By immediately establishing such a connection, Kennedy has made the audience more susceptible to agreeing with the content with will follow. His declaration of Rice University as “a college noted for knowledge” further establishes the underlying premise of his speech, that of a new era for exploration, learning, and discovery. Though Kennedy does not expressly delineate the main points or thesis of his speech in this introduction, he neverless braces the audience for what is to come. Indeed, for the purpose of this speech, such a choice was perhaps for the best; it allows the build up to and ultimate culmination of his thesis to be much more exciting and unexpected, and therefore more profound.
The first point Kennedy addresses in the body of his speech is the breakneck pace at which technology, knowledge, and discovery has evolved. He condenses 50,000 years of human history into an allegorical half-century, declaring that “10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves.” Only five years ago, he states, man learned to write, and less than two months ago, the steam engine was developed. Therefore, should American spacecraft successfully soon reach Venus and American astronauts land on the Moon, we will have “literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.” Such is an incredibly powerful analogy, one that undoubtedly excited the audience sitting before Kennedy. He demonstrated to them that they were living at a time of rapid development, rapid change, and rapid advancement. To think that humanity had only emerged from its cave “10 years ago,” and by “midnight tonight” would be reaching for the stars! Kennedy undoubtedly recognized that he was speaking to an audience of scientists, engineers, and students, who understood the profundity of such breakneck advancement. By opening the body of his speech with this point, Kennedy is preparing the audience for the bold ambitions he will soon declare. Change is happening and change is happening fast; it is inevitable that man will reach for the stars. If it is to “happen by midnight tonight,” as Kennedy believed it will, then it would be the United States leading that effort.
He seamlessly transitions this allegory into his second main point, which is that “the exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not.” Space exploration is, he again reinforces, an inevitability. Yet he continues his point by stating that the United States has vowed never to see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with “instruments of knowledge and understanding.” Connecting this point with an earlier statement, that “no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space,” politicizes and ideologically frames the American effort of space exploration. If the United States does not lead the adventure into space, it will, according to Kennedy, fail to see realized the ideals which we uphold as a nation. If “our hopes for peace and security” and “our obligations to ourselves as well as others” are to remain steadfast, we must “become the world’s leading space-faring nation.” We must again keep in consideration the context and circumstances of Kennedy’s speech, delivered at the height of the Cold War. The United States was locked in an intense struggle, not only of geopolitics but of ideology. American freedom and liberty was being threatened by the Soviet Union. Kennedy rightly recognized that no American living at the time could disagree with the premise that American liberty would be secured through supremacy over the Soviet Union. As such, his connection of the American efforts in space, and the need for American leadership in space, with the ideological struggle the United States was engaged in, strongly supports his coming points. If we must land on the Moon in order to preserve a peaceful and free world, then landing on the Moon is an absolutely necessity. Such an ideological framing, especially in the Cold War context, circumvented and delegitimized any criticisms against American space exploration.
Kennedy’s next point, however, addresses some of those potential criticisms and concerns, and culminates in his ultimate thesis. Space exploration is hard and costly. The hazards of space “are hostile to us all.” It will be an ultimate test of American skill, expertise, and talent. In face of all this, perhaps the challenge is too insurmountable, too dangerous to pursue. Yet, Kennedy rhetorically asks the audience, “why do we climb the highest mountain? Why fly the Atlantic?” Injecting some humor into the speech, which resonated with his particular audience, “why does Rice play Texas?” It is not because it is easy, it is not because it quickly achievable, but rather because it is challenging. “We go the the moon in this decade,” says Kennedy “not because it is easy, but because it is hard… because the goal organizes and measures the best of American energy and skill.” With this, Kennedy has established that the United States will pursue a landing on the Moon. Yet this is not just a claim, this is a challenge. Kennedy is challenging his audience and the American public to rise to the occasion, to demonstrate the best of their skills, and to reinforce American leadership as an innovative power. The American spirit, the premise of what makes us American, is our ability to boldly accept challenges and rise to conquer them. Kennedy is thus framing this challenge around the American character; if we as a nation cannot achieve what we are known for achieving, then has become of us? Again, in the Cold War context, such a challenge was strongly appealing. Failure to reach the Moon would not just be a failure in technological or scientific terms, it would be a failure on the part of the American people, American spirit, and the premise of the United States of America. Such a challenge, indeed, still resonates to this very day.
Having gone through a buildup which demonstrated to his audience the political, scientific, and ideological importance of space exploration and reaching his thesis on the necessity of a moon landing, Kennedy finally addresses his last point. He spends the latter part of his speech discussing the steps the United States and his administration have already taken to achieve that ultimate goal. He points out the facilities that have opened to support an effort in space exploration, the Saturn rockets which are currently being developed (and, coincidently, which would eventually take American astronauts to the moon), the satellites which America has already put into orbit, and the plethora of high-paying and high-skill jobs which the space industry has already created. Kennedy, it seems, goes through the effort to describe all this for two main reasons. The first is to win further support for his ambitious goal; what validity would a landing on the moon before the decade is out have if nothing had already been taken to support such a goal? By demonstrating to the public that steps are already being taken, they are more likely to support the continuation of such an effort. The second main purpose of this effort is revealed in the statements he continues with, that the exploration of space is going to be a costly and dangerous effort. He states that the American budget for space is going to increase dramatically, and, as such, the average American is going to need to pay more and more for space exploration efforts. As we are quite familiar with in our contemporary political environment, telling people that they will be giving more to the state through taxes, especially for something that does not directly and tangibly impact their daily lives, is an unpopular action. Thus, Kennedy needed to demonstrate to the public where that money was going to, and show that, it was supporting the creation of high-skill jobs and space technology capable of supporting security and weather monitoring activity on Earth. As such, we see Kennedy being the archetypical politician in the part of his speech; he tells the American public that they will need to pay more in taxes, but that paying those taxes will ultimately be in their interest.
Having completed the body of his speech, Kennedy thus begins his concluding remarks. He again says that he thinks that the moon landings must be done, and that they will be “done while some of you are still here at school… during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform.” Again, Kennedy is tangibly connecting his goal to the lives and experiences of the people listening to the speech, thereby making that goal resonate more strongly with them. Indeed, he continues by saying that he delighted that the university is “playing a part” in that goal, further connecting his audience to the topic of his speech. He finally concludes by recalling the statement of British explorer George Mallory, who climbed Mount Everest. When asked why he wanted to climb it, he said, “because it is there.” Kennedy does not directly address the point, but by saying this, he is alluding back to a beginning premise of speech, that exploration and conquering the challenging is part of the human spirit. And, as such, conquering the challenge of landing on the moon is part of the American spirit. “Space is there, he says, and we’re going to climb it… new hopes for knowledge and peace are there… the greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Such is how Kennedy ends his speech, and a compelling conclusion it is. It is a concise summation of his various points and premises, fit into a sentence which draws on the audience’s natural compulsion for adventure. Space is there and is to be conquered, the United States will do so to preserve peace and seek knowledge, and it will be the greatest adventure in which man, let alone the United States, has ever engaged.
Such is an outline of the content and structure of Kennedy’s speech. He intricately wove a narrative, touching first upon the human tendency for exploration and the rapid speed at which it was developing, then addressing the importance of outer space to humanity’s future, and finally laying out what the United States must do and is doing to achieve that goal. His points are soundly supported with not only ideological and political framing throughout, but with the basic human tendencies for discovery and knowledge. Recognizing his immediate audience to be scientists, professors, and students, yet acknowledging that he is addressing the American public at large, he combines both technical language and specific scientific detail with broad, rhetorically-flourished, yet easily comprehensible statements. The overall tone is set to excite the scientists for the scientific implications of space exploration, excite the American public for the great adventure that lay ahead, and excite the politicians who must legislate for space exploration by the geopolitical and ideological implications of such an endeavor. As an analyst of this speech, I perhaps run the risk of giving Kennedy too much credit or praise him in too lofty of terms, for I am an avid enthusiast of space exploration. Yet, ultimately, the persuasive nature of his content is clear; the United States, before the decade was out, indeed did land a man on the moon. To this day, Kennedy’s speech is pointed to as the beginning of that great effort. Clearly then, in terms of content, the speech was a resounding success.
Yet a speech is not only about content; if this was, it need only have been published as an op-ed or as an article. Rather, a speech is also significant in its delivery, the manner in which it is presented. What could otherwise be an incredibly moving or persuasive speech might fall completely short if it is presented in a sub-par or non-persuasive manner. Yet, again, Kennedy succeeds soundly in his presentation. Known already as a persuasive and eloquent speaker, Kennedy utilizes fully the public speaking skills he has throughout the extent of his speech. He speaks with a real passion, as if he himself recognized and truly believed in the significance of the endeavor he was laying out to the American public. Indeed, perhaps this is the most significant part of his delivery, and in turn of the entire speech. To many alive in 1962, the notion of landing a man on the Moon was absurd. Indeed, the United States, at the point of his speech, had only been sending men into orbit for less than 5 years. To dispel the absurdity of the goal, to make it believable, to make it seem remotely possible to the average American, Kennedy needed to speak with exuberance and passion. He needed to energize the American public. Watching the speech and listening to his delivery, that passion and energy is clearly expressed.
There are other points where his delivery succeeds. Between points, he naturally pauses and breaks, so as to allow the significance of his words to be digested and considered by the audience. His voice rises during during the most significant and compelling parts of the speech, most notably during his delivery of “we choose to go to the moon.” He is making bold claims and bold goals, and he is supporting them by a bold, clear, and authoritative delivery. He allows the audience time to laugh at his few humorous quips, and indeed pauses to laugh himself. Doing so conveys a sense of humility and humanity, personifying the character of president which otherwise might seem distant to the average American listening to him. By humanizing himself in this way, he is, again, making a real connection to his listener. He is making himself easier to be believed, and his message therefore more resonant and goals more achievable.
Kennedy makes acceptable use of the space that has been provided for him, remaining at his podium yet shifting in position and stance. Though much of the speech is spent looking at the paper, he does look up and address the audience eye-to-eye during the most significant parts, and during the points which he wants to hit home. He employs his hands and arms to a minimal degree, yet nonetheless uses them in a similar manner, to hit home significant points. Indeed, he employment of his body’s stance and his hands’ movements seem to be in cadence with the rise, fall, and flow of his voice. By doing this, he almost makes the connection between body and voice, between content and presence, seem seamless. All this adds to the authoritative presence he has at the podium, a presence that is needed to make claims and goals as bold as those about which he spoke.
For me, Kennedy’s “we go to the moon” speech is perhaps one of the most moving, most profound, and most successful of the speeches I have ever witnessed. Thus is why I chose it for my analysis. On that September day in 1962, Kennedy stood before an audience afraid of Soviet domination in space and declared goals which, for many, may have seemed outlandish or impossible. The fact that those goals were then fully achieved, in the span of time that Kennedy wanted them to be achieved, goes to show how powerful, how resonant, and how persuasive he must’ve truly been for the audience sitting before that podium. I am hard pressed to think of any other examples of rhetoric, be them spoken or written, by them persuasive or informative, which managed to achieve the goals intended for them in a manner similar to this speech. It is a classic example of powerful persuasion, of successful public speaking, and is clearly demonstrative of the remarkable things that a good, strong, well-constructed, and well-delivered speech is capable of.