Press/Journalists

Press Release
February 23, 2009

The State Of The Union In Troubled Times

Washington, DC…The following is a document alert -- part of a program sponsored by the National Archives to notify the media of documents in the National Archives holdings that are relevant to national holidays, anniversaries or current events. This program which is based on original records from the National Archives, its 12 Presidential libraries and 13 regional archives, is designed to offer the media an historical perspective on events that occur periodically and to highlight historical antecedents to current political or diplomatic initiatives.

“For only with complete dedication by us all to the national interest can we bring our country through the troubled years that lie ahead. Our problems are critical. The tide is unfavorable. The news will be worse before it is better. And while hoping and working for the best, we should prepare ourselves now for the worst.”
            –President John F. Kennedy, State of the Union Address, January 30, 1961.

Forty-eight years ago a young, newly-elected and charismatic President stood before a joint session of Congress to give his first address to a nation ready for change. The young John F. Kennedy personified the transition of power to a new generation. He had returned triumphantly to his former colleagues on Capitol Hill. “It is a pleasure to return from whence I came,” he began.

As President Barack Obama prepares for his first address before a joint session of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration features President Kennedy’s 1961 State of the Union Address. Given in troubled times, passages of that speech parallel many of our present challenges.

President Kennedy’s address was delivered, a journalist wrote, “in the most solemn terms.” The President described a country in economic crisis within a dangerous world. He said “the American economy is in trouble.” Bankruptcies were up, farm income was down, unemployment had sky-rocketed, inventories piled up, and the economy was “anemic.”

But the dangers abroad, Kennedy warned, were dire. The President stressed that “each day the crises multiply. Each day their solution grows more difficult. Each day we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger, as weapons spread and hostile forces grow stronger.” He observed, “the tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend.”

Yet, Kennedy stepped back from a completely bellicose stand. “On the Presidential Coat of Arms, the American eagle holds in his right talon the olive branch, while in his left he holds a bundle of arrows. We intend to give equal attention to both.”

The solution to these troubles, in Kennedy’s view, required tapping into “our reservoir of dedicated men and women -- not only on our college campuses but in every age group -- who have indicated their desire to contribute their skills, their efforts, and a part of their lives to the fight for world order.”

Toward this end, the President announced “the formation of a National Peace Corps, enlisting the services of all those with the desire and capacity to help foreign lands meet their urgent needs for trained personnel.”

He wanted to make clear to the country that action was being taken to fulfill his campaign promise “to get the country moving again. . .I have pledged myself and my colleagues in the cabinet to a continuous encouragement of initiative, responsibility and energy in serving the public interest.”

The Constitution charges that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (Article II, section 3).

Beginning with President George Washington, this report took the form of an annual address to a joint session of Congress. President Thomas Jefferson dismissed the practice of personally addressing Congress as too much like the British monarch’s practice. Instead, he submitted identical written messages to both houses of Congress in 1801.

All subsequent Presidents followed Jefferson’s lead until President Woodrow Wilson revived the personal address to Congress in 1913. With occasional exceptions, Presidents have personally addressed Congress in joint session on an annual basis since Wilson.

Today it represents one of the important resources available to Presidents as well as one of the few national pageants in our civic life. Members of Congress, justices of the Supreme Court, military heads of the armed services, and members of the diplomatic corps are all invited to attend the ceremony.

As communications technology has changed, these addresses have gained greater immediacy with the American people. Radio carried President Warren Harding’s address live in 1922. President Harry Truman’s 1947 address was broadcast live over television and was the first to be officially described as the State of the Union Address. In 1997 the Internet transmitted President Bill Clinton’s address live.

This historic speech by President Kennedy can be found in the records of the U.S. House of Representatives, which are preserved by the Center for Legislative Archives. The Center holds the official records of the House, Senate, and legislative branch agencies, totaling over one-half billion pages of records documenting the history of representative government in America.

Copies of this document are available online or from the National Archives Public Affairs Staff.

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For Press information, contact the National Archives Public Affairs Staff at 202-357-5300.

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