Speeches

Senator John McCain at the opening of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibit, “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times” on May 2, 2017

“JFK delivered many memorable speeches during his life… But the address that meant the most to me was one I listened to as a young naval officer in 1962, just a few days after my ship, the USS Enterprise, returned to Oceana Naval Air Station from deployment. In a calm, firm voice, the President described the threat and outlined his response: ‘First: . . . a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, will be turned back.’… Who knows if I was as ready to pay that price as I believed I was. But more than a half century later, I can still feel the thrill of believing I might have to, and the pride of thinking that I was among a select number whom the glamorous, inspiring American leader was counting on to execute his decision. He was gone a year later. But I have felt a connection to him and to that address ever since. He was the man who issued my personal summons to history, and who seemed in that moment to be the very best man for the job.” Senator John McCain Speaking at the Opening of New Smithsonian American Art Museum Exhibit Celebrating President John F. Kennedy’s Centennial 

Washington, D.C. ­– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) delivered the following remarks last night commemorating President John F. Kennedy’s centennial at the opening of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum titled, “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times.” The exhibit is based on the forthcoming book JFK: A Vision for America, in which Senator McCain reflects on Kennedy’s famous 1962 address during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

“Thank you. It’s an honor to join you all tonight to mark the opening of this exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum commemorating the centennial of President John F. Kennedy.

“I want to thank Caroline, Stephen, and the entire Kennedy family for the tremendous amount of work they put into creating this display that brings together more than seventy-seven images from JFK’s remarkable life.

“I also want to recognize the Smithsonian Institution for making possible this exhibit that honors the life and memory of one of history’s most inspirational and iconic leaders.

“As you all know, this exhibit is based on the forthcoming book, JFK: A Vision for America, by President Kennedy’s nephew, Stephen, and historian Douglas Brinkley. The book presents Kennedy’s greatest speeches, alongside essays by many of the distinguished guests here with us tonight. I was honored to have the opportunity to contribute.

“JFK delivered many memorable speeches during his life – from his 1961 inaugural address when he challenged, ‘ask not what your country can do for you,’ to his defiant defense of democracy in West Berlin in 1963 when he declared, ‘I am a Berliner.’ But the address that meant the most to me was one I listened to as a young naval officer in 1962, just a few days after my ship, the USS Enterprise, returned to Oceana Naval Air Station from deployment.

“Shortly after our return, we received orders to fly back to the ship immediately. I was puzzled by the urgency of our mission. I was pretty sure it wasn’t related to the weather, as we were told, but I had no idea where we were going. The mystery was solved a short while later when all pilots were ordered to the ready room to listen to a broadcast of President Kennedy’s address to the nation revealing that the Soviets were building nuclear missile sites in Cuba.

“In a calm, firm voice, the President described the threat and outlined his response: ‘First: . . . a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, will be turned back.’

“The Enterprise was part of the blockade. Sailing at full speed under nuclear power, we were the first ship to reach waters off Cuba. For a few days, we believed we were going into action. It would have been my first combat experience.

“Pilots and crew adopted a business-as-usual attitude about our mission. Inwardly, of course, we were excited as hell. History, in the voice of our president, was calling. We hoped we were ready.

“After five days, tensions eased as it became apparent the crisis would be resolved peacefully. But I still recall vividly listening to the President close his address with a stirring call to arms: ‘The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are – but it is the one consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high – and Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.’

“Who knows if I was as ready to pay that price as I believed I was. But more than a half century later, I can still feel the thrill of believing I might have to, and the pride of thinking that I was among a select number whom the glamorous, inspiring American leader was counting on to execute his decision.

“He was gone a year later. But I have felt a connection to him and to that address ever since. He was the man who issued my personal summons to history, and who seemed in that moment to be the very best man for the job.

“Thank you.”

These remarks are adapted from Senator McCain’s essay in the forthcoming book, JFK: A Vision for America.

  Senator John McCain speaking at the opening of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibit, “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times” on May 2, 2017

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