Kennedy Tribute: The Steel Crisis Speech, a Profile of True Courage

On this sad anniversary, half a century since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, the media online, in print, on radio, and television are focusing on that era. It is a moment, once again, to look back and review the Kennedy Presidency, and what it represented.

One of the common messages which usually emerge is that, while the very short term of President Kennedy did not achieve that much (in comparison to his successor Lyndon Johnson for example), it is symbolized by the inspirational spirit and tone which was set by this leader. This may be true. But there are certain moments, real moments of leadership, which did indeed take place during those few short years.

Probably the most famous moments relate to foreign affairs, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and West Berlin. Because of these international crises, there is an historic moment during the Kennedy Administration which always tends to receive comparatively less attention. Yet it is no less important as an example of true leadership, namely the Steel Crisis of 1962.

In that year, at a time when most other steel companies had reached new employment contracts with their workers, the largest of them, U.S. Steel, announced a 3.5% increase in its prices. For the American economy in that era, the impact on inflation would be very serious, and was likely to prompt other industries to increase their prices as well.

President Kennedy addressed this situation during a televised press conference. It was indeed a moment of courage. There is no necessity for this writer to repeat those great words, when the public can easily view a film clip of that event online. But it should be noted that this was one of those real achievements from that era.

This writer is quite certain that for many Americans who will view that film clip on the internet, they will realize that Kennedy’s words (and the way he says them) could very easily be applied today, to the present economic situation.

A popular perception of great leadership over the course of human history has been the courage which a King, President, or Prime Minister has shown in the face of an external threat to their nation. There are many great examples of this from the 20th century. The speech by King Albert of Belgium as his nation was overrun by Germany at the beginning of World War I. The famous speech by King George VI during World War II as Britain declared war on Germany. The speeches by Kennedy himself during the Cuban Missile Crisis, at one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War.

But leadership also involves the courage to look inward to identify the flaws and human failings of one’s own nation. Regardless of the common practice by most countries, and peoples, to always speak about another group’s failures and wrongful deeds while keeping their own skeletons in the closet, this habit can pose a long term threat towards the reputation, welfare, stability, and even unity of a nation. Maybe even more than any potential external threat such as terrorism or tyranny.

As the United States of America has observed from its own history, it is no less courageous for an American President such as Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, to look inward and speak publicly about the inner threats to their nation. Real threats of severe, systemic corruption, greed, and a total lack of consideration or compassion for fellow citizens, on both economic and social levels.

In Jewish Theology, these threats make up what is called the Yeitzer Hara, or the Evil Urge. Americans would probably call this the Dark Side. When a nation, any one of them on the planet, allows itself to slip into a habit of apathy, cynicism, and narcissism which allows certain individuals, corporations, or powers to influence that country towards a darker path, then the leader who has the real courage, political, social, and economic, to speak out for his people against such forces is making a real contribution to his country.

Such was the case when Presdent Kennedy spoke out on the Steel Crisis in 1962. As we look back on the 50th anniversary of his tragic death, that moment of courage from 1962 deserves equal respect and attention. Perhaps it will also be a reminder to future leaders of what true courage really means.

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