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Rhetorical and Literary Devices of John F. Kennedy's Speech

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Rhetorical and Literary Devices of John F. Kennedy's Speech essay

On September 12th, 1962, John F Kennedy – the United State’s 35th President – stood before a crowd of 35,000 people at the stadium of Rice University, Houston, Texas, and presented an inspirational speech that pushed America forward in the space race. The context of this speech was delivered during the Cold War, and at the time that Kennedy delivered this speech, the Soviet Union’s satellite – Sputnik – had already been orbiting the Earth for 4 years, and also sent the world’s first man ever – Yuri Gagarin – into space a year prior. The anxiety-filled American public was quickly losing their patience, and the President – with his determination that America will be the first to go to the moon, reassured the American public that the United States will be the pioneering country in the space race. The significance of his speech was showed when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon in 1969 and reflected just how persuasive he was for America to be able to achieve such a feat within 7 years of his speech. So today, I will be analyzing the rhetorical and literary devices Kennedy applied to his speech, and how it still resonates strongly 60 years after its delivery.

At the beginning of the speech, Kennedy first addresses the audience and expressed how he was “particularly delighted” to be invited as an honorary visiting professor. He specifically did not mention himself as the President, but rather a professor. And although the entire audience fully knows that he is the President, by introducing himself as a professor, he establishes a friendlier connection and makes the audience more likely to agree with his decision to go to the moon and the content that will follow. However, he still maintains his role as the President and the rhetorical device – ethos – is prominent here as he’s using his role to persuade the audience of his goal to reach the moon. He then goes on to address Rice University and describes how the audience and him “meet in an hour of change and challenge”. [show entire para on screen] Within the entire paragraph, Kennedy uses inclusive language with the word “we” to make the audience feel they are also a part of this situation.

The American public at that time was starting to feel powerless due to the lack of progress in the space race as compared to the Soviet Union, but by including them, not just the audience who were there but also the people who were going to find out about his goal to the moon on the newspapers, would feel as if they can be part of the group who will make change and contribute to the betterment of their own country. Kennedy then condenses 50,000 years worth of man’s recorded history in a time span of half a century, “10 years ago, under this standard, a man emerged from his caves.” Only five years ago, he states, man learned to write. And only a month ago, electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. So if American spacecraft successfully reach Venus and American astronauts land on the Moon, “we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.” This powerful analogy certainly helps excite the audience and demonstrates that a goal seems impossible to achieve is actually close within their grasps. It also motivates the audience to think what may be possible if they were actually able to reach for the stars before midnight tonight, it raises people’s hearts to make efforts to achieve this end and gives the security that their present and future efforts will not go in vain. He then goes onto explain why America will join the space race, no matter what.

Kennedy explains that the vows of America – as in the ideology of democracy – can only be fulfilled if the Nation is first to reach the moon, and therefore he wants America to be the first to do so, and to lead space exploration. He then talks about how America has vowed that they “shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest” and “not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction” but instead “by a banner of freedom and peace” and “instruments of knowledge and understanding”. Here, Kennedy creates a contrasting effect between the rivaling countries by symbolising the United State’s ideology – democracy – by using the words freedom, peace – and the Soviet Union’s ideology – communism – by using the words hostile, weapons, destruction to reinforce this unpleasant image America had on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He further emphasizes his point that only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can they decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace of a new terrifying theater of war. Kennedy uses pathos and tugs onto a nerve that many Americans feared – a nuclear war – and the audience will now feel the urgency of being first to the moon and be motivated to protect it from the Soviet Union.

Kennedy then goes onto regarding the concerns and criticism of space exploration. He mentions that reaching the moon will be a costly and hard process. The surroundings of space are hostile to us all, and America’s technology and expertise will be greatly challenged in order to achieve this goal. But then, he asks the audience a couple of rhetorical questions. “Why do we climb the highest mountain? Why fly the Atlantic?” And adding some humor into his speech, which resonated with his Rice University audience, “why does Rice play Texas?” The audience knows that going to the moon was meant to beat the Soviet Union in the space race, but other than that, why? Well, because it is challenging. “We go 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.”

Kennedy is challenging his audience and the American public to rise, to demonstrate the best of their skills, and to reinforce American leadership as an innovative, leading power. He himself replies to his rhetorical questions, and in the Cold War context, a challenge like this was very appealing to his audience. 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, the American spirit, and ideology. He then went on to list out the steps that America has already taken to reach the goal. By doing so, he further validates that the country is not that far off in achieving the moon land.

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Rhetorical and Literary Devices of John F. Kennedy’s Speech. (2018, May 20). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
“Rhetorical and Literary Devices of John F. Kennedy’s Speech.” GradesFixer, 20 May 2018,
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