Address Accepting the Democratic Nomination for President at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California
Governor Stevenson, Senator Johnson, Mr. Butler, Senator Symington, Senator Humphrey, Speaker Rayburn, fellow Democrats: I want to express my thanks to Governor Stevenson for his generous and heart-warming introduction.
It was my great honor to place his name in nomination at the 1956 Democratic Convention and I am delighted to have his support and his counsel and his advice in the coming months ahead.
Let me say first that I accept the nomination of the Democratic party. I accept it without reservation and with only one obligation—the obligation to devote every effort of my mind and spirit to lead our party back to victory and our nation to greatness.
I am grateful, too, that you have provided us with such a strong platform to stand on and to run on. Pledges which are made so eloquently are made to be kept. "The rights of man"—the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men—are indeed our goal and are indeed our first principle. This is a platform on which I can run with enthusiasm and with conviction.
And I am grateful, finally, that I can rely in the coming months on many others—on a distinguished running-mate who brings unity and strength to our platform and our ticket, Lyndon Johnson—on one of the most articulate spokesmen of modern time, Adlai Stevenson—on a great fighter for our needs as a nation and a people, Stuart Symington—on my traveling companion in Wisconsin and West Virginia, Senator Hubert Humphrey—on Paul Butler, our devoted and courageous chairman—and on that fighting campaigner whose support I now welcome, President Harry Truman.
I feel a lot safer with all of them on my side. And I am proud of the contrast with our Republican competitors. For their ranks are so thin that not one challenger has dared to put his head up in the last twelve months.
I am fully aware of the fact that the Democratic party, by nominating someone of my faith, has taken on what many regard as a new and hazardous risk—new, at least, since 1928.
The Democratic party has once again placed its confidence In the American people, and in their ability to render a free and fair judgment and in my ability.
And you have, at the same time, placed your confidence in me, and in my ability to render a free, fair judgment—to uphold the Constitution and my oath of office—to reject any kind of religious pressure or obligation that might directly or indirectly interfere with my conduct of the Presidency in the national interest.
My record of fourteen years in supporting public education—supporting complete separation of church and state—and resisting pressure from sources of any kind should be clear by now to everyone.
I hope that no American—I hope that no American, considering the really critical issues facing this country, will waste his franchise and throw away his vote by voting either for me or against me solely because of my religious affiliation. It is not relevant.
I am telling you now what you are entitled to know: As I come before you seeking your support for the most powerful office in the free world, I am saying to you that my decisions on every public policy will be my own—as an American, a Democrat and as a free man.
I mention all of this only because this country faces so many serious challenges, so many great opportunities, so many burdensome responsibilities, that I hope it is to those great matters that we can address ourselves in the coming months.
And if this statement of mine makes it easier to concentrate on our nation's problems, then I'm glad that I have made it.
Under any circumstances, the victory we seek in November will not be easy. We know that in our hearts. We know that our opponents will invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln on behalf of their candidate—despite the fact that his political career has often seemed to show charity towards none and malice for all.
We know that it will not be easy to campaign against a man who has spoken and voted on every side of every issue. Mr. Nixon may feel that it's his turn now, after the New Deal and the Fair Deal—but before he deals, someone's going to cut the cards.
That "someone" may be the millions of Americans who voted for President Eisenhower but would balk at electing his successor. For just as historians tell us that Richard the First was not fit to fill the shoes of the bold Henry II—and that Richard Cromwell was not fit to wear the mantle of his uncle—they might add in future years that Richard Nixon did not measure up to the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Perhaps be could carry on the party policies—the policies of Nixon, and Benson, and Dirksen and Goldwater. But this nation cannot afford such a luxury. Perhaps we could afford a Coolidge following Harding. And perhaps we could afford a Pierce following Fillmore.
But after Buchanan this nation needed Lincoln—after Taft, we needed Wilson—and after Hoover we needed Franklin Roosevelt.
But we're not merely running against Mr. Nixon. Our task is not merely one of itemizing Republican failures. Nor is that wholly necessary. For the families forced from the farm do not need us to tell them of their plight. The unemployed miners and textile workers know that the decision is before them in November. The old people without medical care—the families without a decent home—the parents of children without a decent school—they all know that it's time for a change.
We are not here to curse the darkness. We are here to light a candle. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: "If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future. "
Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.
Abroad, the balance of power is shifting. New and more terrible weapons are coming into use. One-third of the world may be free—but one-third is the victim of a cruel repression—and the other one-third is rocked by poverty and hunger and disease.
Communist influence has penetrated into Asia. It stands in the Middle East, and now festers some ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Friends have slipped into neutrality—and neutrals have slipped into hostility. As our keynoter reminded us, the President who began his career by going to Korea ends it by Staying away from Japan.
The world has been close to War before—but now man, who survived all previous threats to his existence, has taken into his mortal hands the power to exterminate his species seven times over.
Here at home, the future is equally revolutionary. The New Deal and the Fair Deal were bold measures for their generations—but now this is a new generation.
A technological output and explosion on the farm have led to an output explosion.
An urban population revolution has overcrowded our schools, and cluttered our cities, and crowded our slums.
A peaceful revolution for human rights—demanding an end to racial discrimination in all parts of our community life—has strained at the leashes imposed by a timid executive leadership.
It is time, in short, for a new generation of leadership.
All over the world, particularly in the newer nations, young men are coming to power—men who are not bound by the traditions of the past—men who are not blinded by the old fears and hates and rivalries—young men who can cast off the old slogans and the old delusions.
The Republican nominee, of course, is a young man. But his approach is as old as McKinley. His party is the party of the past—the party of memory. His speeches are generalities from Poor Richard's Almanac. Their platform, made up of old left-over Democratic planks, has the courage of our old convictions. Their pledge is to the status quo—and today there is no status quo.
For I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch 3,000 miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort, and sometimes their lives to build our new West.
They were not the captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners or their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free—an example to the world to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from within and without.
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 assemblage would agree with that sentiment. 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 Nineteen Sixties; the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils; the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and unfilled 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 to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride. It appeals to our pride, not our security—it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.
The New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace end war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.
It would be easier to shrink from that New 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 vote for me or the Democratic party.
But I believe that the times require imagination and courage and perseverance. I'm asking each of you to be pioneers toward that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age—to the stout in spirit, regardless of party—to all who respond to the scriptural call: "Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed. "
For courage, mot 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.
There may be those who wish to hear more—more promises to this group or that—more harsh rhetoric about the men in the Kremlin as a substitute for policy—more assurances of a golden future, where taxes are always low and the subsidies are always high. But my promises are in the platform that you have adopted. Our ends will not be won by rhetoric, and we can have faith in the future only if we have faith in ourselves.
For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand at this frontier at a turning-point of history. We must prove all over again to a watching world as we sit on a most conspicuous stage whether this nation, conceived as it is with its freedom of choice, its breadth of opportunity, its range of alternatives, can compete with the single-minded advance of the Communist system.
Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction, but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space, and the inside of men's minds?
That is the question of the New Frontier. That is the choice that our nation must make—a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort—between national greatness and national decline—between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of "normalcy"—between dedication or mediocrity.
All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we shall do. And we cannot fail that trust; and we cannot fail to try.
It has been a long road from the first snowy day in New Hampshire many months ago to this crowded convention city. Now begins another long journey, taking me into your cities and homes across the United States. Give me your help, and your hand, and your voice. Recall with me the words of Isaiah:
"They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary."
As we face the coming great challenge, we too, shall wait upon the Lord and ask that He renew our strength. Then shall we be equal to the test. Then we shall not be weary. Then we shall prevail.
NOTE: This text draws on the transcript published in the New York Times; APP corrections and edits are based on reviewing a recording of the Senator's address (see the video linked here).
John F. Kennedy, Address Accepting the Democratic Nomination for President at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/274679