Kennedy and Crisis: A Blueprint for the Nation

This is not about war or peace or Great Society or political spectrum. It is about leadership and vision and calling the American people to sacrifice and accountability. I am a doctor and a family physician who has had the privilege of being able to learn from patients, friends, family, teachers, and leaders in a number of different locations. I am frustrated because I feel that those who are most dedicated to serving the nation, especially schoolteachers, physicians serving the underserved, civil servants, and others who prioritize service over self are not receiving the respect that they deserve. Some would say that better pay was the issue, but I tell you that it is not the salaries that matter, it is the fact that these people chose to make a difference in the lives of those around them. The worst thing that you can do to a person who makes such sacrifices is to inhibit their work by lack of support, cutting off the resources that they need, or ignoring them. More importantly the nation is ignoring their words and concerns, and the nation is at risk because of this.

These are my reflections about a blueprint that was given to us back in 1961. I make comments about how we have succeeded and failed, and how that has impacted us, especially today. I found it prophetic that many of the areas that Kennedy mentions have fallen by the wayside, including schoolteachers, taxation, education, and the inefficiencies of government. Kennedy warned us that the way we treated those not like us in this nation would have future impact on us and the world. I am not particularly a Kennedy person, but I do have the greatest of respect for this address. I agree that the strength of the nation is determined primarily by how we relate to those facing the most challenges.  The nation is only as strong as its weakest members. The gravest mistakes we have made as a nation involve failure to focus on the status of women and children. Where they are strongest, nations are strongest. Where they are weakest, nations are dying. Robert C. Bowman, M.D.

In 1961 the President gave a speech that changed the United States of America forever. He delivered his “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs” to a joint session of Congress May 25, 1961  


“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” 


Challenges Facing the World and the Role of Leader Nations 

But there was much more in this speech. Kennedy began the speech by noting the main challenge that the world faced in this time.


"The great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today is the whole southern half of the globe--Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East--the lands of the rising peoples. Their revolution is the greatest in human history. They seek an end to injustice, tyranny, and exploitation. More than an end, they seek a beginning".....  more in this section, prophetic words.  

Developing nations 

He then laid out a blueprint for any nation that would attempt to become the leader nation in the community of the world. This was a plan that emphasized the need for economic and social progress abroad so that such nations could sustain their progress:


“I stress the strength of our economy because it is essential to the strength of our nation. And what is true in our case is true in the case of other countries. Their strength in the struggle for freedom depends on the strength of their economic and their social progress. We would be badly mistaken to consider their problems in military terms alone. For no amount of arms and armies can help stabilize those governments which are unable or unwilling to achieve social and economic reform and development. Military pacts cannot help nations whose social injustice and economic chaos invite insurgency and penetration and subversion. The most skillful counter-guerrilla efforts cannot succeed where the local population is too caught up in its own misery to be concerned about the advance of communism. But for those who share this view, we stand ready now, as we have in the past, to provide generously of our skills, and our capital, and our food to assist the peoples of the less-developed nations to reach their goals in freedom--to help them before they are engulfed in crisis. This is also our great opportunity in 1961. If we grasp it, then subversion to prevent its success is exposed as an unjustifiable attempt to keep these nations from either being free or equal. But if we do not pursue it, and if they do not pursue it, the bankruptcy of unstable governments, one by one, and of unfilled hopes will surely lead to a series of totalitarian receiverships.”   


Kennedy knew that the times of constant military action and colonization were coming to an end. Stable nations depended upon economic and social reforms and local government that was responsible for and responsive to the population. He knew that the time was ripe to make a concerted effort involving a number of developing nations. He also knew that such a program would be costly to the nation.  

Unity of Purpose 

President Kennedy urged all Americans to move together in a common purpose. He asked us to make a difficult decision to stay the course to make the world a better place or not to choose this pathway at all. He urged us to make sacrifices, sacrifices that would influence not only current leaders, but the next generations of leaders of the countries of the world: 

Finally, our greatest asset in this struggle is the American people--their willingness to pay the price for these programs--to understand and accept a long struggle--to share their resources with other less fortunate people--to meet the tax levels and close the tax loopholes I have requested--to exercise self-restraint instead of pushing up wages or prices, or over-producing certain crops, or spreading military secrets, or urging unessential expenditures or improper monopolies or harmful work stoppages--to serve in the Peace Corps or the Armed Services or the Federal Civil Service or the Congress--to strive for excellence in their schools, in their cities and in their physical fitness and that of their children--to take part in Civil Defense--to pay higher postal rates, and higher payroll taxes and higher teachers' salaries, in order to strengthen our society--to show friendship to students and visitors from other lands who visit us and go back in many cases to be the future leaders, with an image of America--and I want that image, and I know you do, to be affirmative and positive--and, finally, to practice democracy at home, in all States, with all races, to respect each other and to protect the Constitutional rights of all citizens.”


Similar Crises, Will There Be a Similar Response of Sacrifice? 

Then as now, the nation was in crisis, facing an international threat. People in the United States had begun to grip the cold reality of sudden nuclear death as well as the sinking feeling that much of the world was slipping into a dark age. There were vast differences in the relationship between the American people and their government. Kennedy was able to speak with some confidence that the people would respond to these words: 

“I have not asked for a single program which did not cause one or all Americans some inconvenience, or some hardship, or some sacrifice. But they have responded and you in the Congress have responded to your duty--and I feel confident in asking today for a similar response to these new and larger demands. It is heartening to know, as I journey abroad, that our country is united in its commitment to freedom and is ready to do its duty.”    

Leaders of this nation only a few decades ago had the advantage that the nation had not been shattered by assassination or the lack of trust brought forth by Vietnam, Watergate, and massive budget deficits. Nuclear destruction was a very real and newly present danger. A barrage of real and imagined conflicts (television) had not anesthetized the nation. The nation had pulled together during WWII and had a solid record of working together with other nations and pursuing the cause of peace. The nation has not responded in the same manner to significant events.


Even the incredible uniting opportunity of the Pearl Harbor event of 9/11 has not galvanized the nation to the consistent, sustained determination that characterized the national effort for the duration of the war and the construction of a workable peace.


We know all too well that the end of the communist threat did not keep the nation unstained from violence from without. Many nations have indeed fallen into the “totalitarian” grasp that Kennedy most feared. In some ways our solutions to the communist threat only fueled the chaotic regimes to follow. It is a new era with perhaps greater challenges.


Now more than ever we will need the same principles to be in place to bring about necessary changes. These include staying on the side of liberty, and working together with allies from around the globe. We will need to continue a strong desire for peace that we seek only the day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."


Perhaps even more will be asked of us. Will we be willing to die as victims of violent acts perpetrated by terrorists from within or without the country in order to preserve, protect, defend, and promote the liberty that we have long championed?  

Have We Avoided the Obstacles Outlined By Kennedy? 

The nation had not yet become dependent upon massive government.  Kennedy was very aware of the potential for problems as more funds were injected into space and other programs.  

“This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel. New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further--unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”         

I believe that those who built the space program were faithful to Kennedy’s request to be efficient, effective, and cooperative. I wish I could say we were doing as well in education and health care and social programs as the decades have passed. We have appropriated more than enough resources to address these areas. We are floundering in the same research and development areas that Kennedy himself alluded to. Perhaps we have created a culture that wastes public resources and actually impedes the nation’s progress. The effort to sustain programs seems to overcome the ability to make the programs work. With these failures has come a disbelief in our own ability to solve complex problems. Perhaps we the most important of the factors that Kennedy described is the sacrifice of the American People for a common good. This will be difficult in the current time.   

The Culture of Unresponsiveness 

Recent decades have seen deterioration in the willingness and ability of Americans to respond to the needs of those in great need, in this nation and in others. As fewer experience sacrifice and service, destruction steals ever closer to the needy and those who should be sacrificing for them. Those fewer remaining to serve are pushed beyond their means.


Perhaps it is time again to ask the American people to answer the call to greatness through sacrifice and service. It is all to clear that our country is pushing ordinary people by expectations beyond their abilities. These include the schoolteachers and civil servants highlighted by Kennedy, as well as doctors, social workers, governors, legislators, and especially our President. 

A New Vision 

Only a few months later, Kennedy would speak no more, but his ideas live on nearly 50 years later. It is interesting that Lincoln's ideas incubated for a time as well. Lincoln was also not around to shape the Reconstruction events that so desperately needed his leadership and values after the Civil War. The initial Lincoln Memorial was to be a tribute to the military victory, but it was delayed 50 years. The nation then "long remembered" his ideals and carved them into the fabric of the nation in his monument. His penetrating vision still stands guard at the nation's capitol.


Now as I look back on the Kennedy address, I wish it to be repeated today, with one exception. Instead of envisioning a man to the moon or stars, I would want such a speech today to end with a declaration of a goal of ending communities of poverty, at least in the United States. Ending poverty is too much to ask, for even Jesus said that we would always have poor people (Matthew 26:11). But I believe that we must not tolerate communities, regions, or entire countries of the impoverished. We can make the sacrifices before others suffer greatly, we can attempt to wall ourselves off in ways expensive in dollars and in the pursuit of liberty. We can and must reach out to others in great need. There is no other real choice.


We will still need to secure order in our nation and in other nations that are making an attempt to make the social, educational, health, and economic efforts necessary. In this nation we need more teachers, nurses, servant physicians, and public servants. Just as in 1961 it will mean sacrifices on our part to do these things. We must maintain our sacrifice to be able to win a sustained peace, in this land and others. Do your part to end injustice, inefficiency, greed, and waste. Pray for crisis areas in this nation and overseas, people in inner cities and Maryland and Norfolk Nebraska and wherever people live in fear. And pray for those who lead us.

Robert C. Bowman, M.D.   10/3/2002

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Dedicated to Joseph Morton who died today at age 81. He has been my patient longer than any other, almost 9 years. Joseph bent over to help load a howitzer in 1944 and at that moment artillery shells killed all the men in his battery and most in his unit. He was taken prisoner. A kind German nurse helped him escape. He waited for veterans benefits for 56 years (our country's bureaucracy at its finest, as the Defense Dept continued to assert that they were waiting for German acknowledgment of his POW status). During this time he never received any recognition for his service or even so much as a Purple Heart. Only in his last year of life did he get any help via his representatives.

To me he was a friend and a grandfather whom he resembled in appearance and personality. He was a man with better medical judgment than I regarding his health. He had a long and full life and had mobility, wit, and communication up until his last few days. I will miss him greatly and pray that he indeed curls up in Jesus' arms just as we prayed.

Mark Twain understood the importance of a Christian's responsibility as a citizen. He wrote, "A Christian's first duty is to God. It then follows, as a matter of course, that it is his duty to carry his Christian code to the polls and vote them... If Christians should vote their duty to God at the polls, they would carry every election, and do it with ease... it would bring about a moral revolution that would be incalculably beneficent. It would save the country."

Humanity has but three great enemies: fever, famine, and war; of these by far the greatest, by far the most terrible, is fever. Cushing, Harvey. Life of Sir William Osler, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1926.

Who will accept a love so weak that it does not actuate you to a single deed of self-denial, of generosity, of heroism, or zeal! Think how He has loved you, and given Himself for you!    Charles Spurgeon

Physician Workforce Studies



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