Communication Currents

Words, Not Weapons: JFK Shows Ceremonial Messages Can Initiate Peace

February 1, 2015
Political Communication

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement address at American University that has been called one of the greatest American speeches of the 20thcentury. Kennedy’s address also has contemporary relevance because it demonstrates how ceremonial messages can prepare the way for conflict resolution—both foreign and domestic—by challenging old prejudices and imagining new worlds. More specifically, Kennedy drew on familiar cultural values and beliefs and then refined them to make a treaty with the Soviets regarding nuclear testing seem acceptable and to lay the groundwork for policy initiatives on civil rights.

Ceremonial speeches are a type of message in which the speaker praises that which the audience holds dear and/or blames that which the audience rejects. In times of war, presidents have turned to this conservative form of rhetoric to rally support for war efforts and stifle dissent. Kennedy’s address demonstrates that ceremonial rhetoric also can be used to alter perceptions that perpetuate conflict through several specific means. 

Ceremonial messages may disarm listeners and make them more open to gradual redefinitions. By initially engaging in praise and/or blame consistent with audience perceptions, the speaker establishes credibility and reassures listeners that both speaker and audience have the same values and beliefs. Kennedy, for example, first described “genuine peace” as “the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children.” His words praised a broad and idealistic definition of genuine peace that his listeners—Americans, Western allies, and the Soviet political infrastructure—all could relate to without radically altering how they understood peace in the first place. Gradually, however, Kennedy’s speech would refine “genuine peace” from this abstract concept to a concrete, rational goal that could be achieved through the practical, democratic process of negotiation.

In addition, the high style that often accompanies ceremonial messages can encourage audiences to accept new perceptions. Ceremonial oratory’s high style has its roots in poetry and includes such characteristics as analogy, metaphor, repetition, and alliteration. Through this style, Kennedy invited his audience to yield both to the formal appeal of his rhetoric and to the redefinitions that he offered. The president, for instance, declared:

Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age where a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all [of] the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.

Kennedy’s use of repetitive form and emotional climax encouraged his audience to accept his redefinition of war in the nuclear age as “total war” no one could win.

The high style of ceremonial oratory also may include stylistic figures that actually perform redefinitions. For example, Kennedy used antithesis, in which opposing ideas are joined, to create the possibility of new policies that could realistically achieve peace: “So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct our attention to common interests and the means by which our differences can be resolved.” Likewise, he employed the figure of polyptoton, which involves the repetition of the same root word, but with different endings, to assure listeners that negotiations with enemies on nuclear weapons did not mean abandoning security concerns. As Kennedy explained, “We can seek a relaxation of tensions without relaxing our guard.” Use of figures like antithesis and polyptoton offers new perceptions of reality while their placement in ceremonial messages seems fitting, stylistically.

In addition, ceremonial messages may refine value arguments and visions of reality on which later policy-focused messages build. When Kennedy prepared his address, he also was grappling with civil rights, as Alabama Gov. George Wallace had pledged to prevent the enrollment of two African-American students at the University of Alabama. Kennedy’s June 10 commencement speech on peace laid the groundwork for his June 11 nationwide address on civil rights policy in two ways. First, he frequently spoke of genuine peace in a multivocal way such that his words also were meaningful in the context of civil rights. For instance, the president insisted that genuine peace “does not require that each man love his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.” At the same time, Kennedy explicitly linked civil rights with peace by insisting genuine peace could be achieved neither at home nor abroad unless freedom “for all of our citizens” was secured and by declaring peace was “in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights,” a phrasing that further refined the meaning of genuine peace and made it relevant to the domestic context.

The lessons of Kennedy’s rhetorical strategy are especially relevant today when armed conflict engulfs much of the world and, here at home, the United States contends with domestic clashes over civil rights in places like Ferguson, MO, and over immigration along its southern border. First, even when peace and compromise are practical, leaders who disregard their audiences’ sense of identity will find little success, but ceremonial rhetoric allows orators to convince listeners to adopt new perspectives by starting where the audience currently is and building new perspectives out of cultural values and beliefs listeners already hold. Second, the high style of ceremonial rhetoric has the potential not only to engage the audience, but also to perform perceptual reconfigurations and to stir emotions that help push listeners to act on new ideas. Finally, the use of poetic language coupled with the teaching role assigned to a ceremonial orator may bolster both the speaker and the speaker’s message of peace. 

About the author (s)

Shawna H. Ferris

College of Wooster

Denise M. Bostdorff

The College of Wooster