Fifty-five years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered his final speech, at Amherst College, just weeks before his assassination in November of 1963. A new documentary airing on WGBH television explores that speech and Kennedy's relationship with the man who it honored: poet Robert Frost. University of New Hampshire historian Ellen Fitzpatrick was a key contributor to the film called “JFK: the Last Speech.” Fitzpatrick spoke with WGBH News’ Aaron Schachter about the film. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Aaron Schachter: So Kennedy delivers this speech in October of 1963. It was to commemorate a new library at Amherst College named after Robert Frost. Frost was a dyed in the wool New Englander, a member of the Amherst faculty, and he had a relationship with Kennedy that preceded JFK’s time in the White House.
Here's what he said about the president:
My friend, he’s a great friend of mine. Irish boy from Boston.
Schachter: So tell us about this relationship between Frost and Kennedy.
Ellen Fitzpatrick: Frost took a great interest in John F. Kennedy's candidacy, and once referred to him ironically as a "New England puritan," which I think was probably the last time anyone referred to JFK as a puritan. But he saw him as born and bred in Massachusetts, and was very enthusiastic about his candidacy. And of course as an aspiring presidential candidate, Kennedy was happy to have his enthusiasm. And that's how the relationship began, but it really was cemented when Kennedy was elected and Frost was invited to read a poem at his inauguration.
Schachter: Okay, so the two become friends — Kennedy and Frost — and Frost becomes a frequent guest at the White House. Now the film goes into how Frost, well into his 80s, was tapped to go to the Soviet Union. This was in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, with Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev facing off. Tell us about how Frost came to travel to the USSR.
Fitzpatrick: Well this was actually an idea that Stewart Udall, who was a cabinet member in the Kennedy administration, had. And Udall thought that maybe he would bring Frost with him on a trip that he had planned to go to the Soviet Union. And then from there Frost developed the notion that he might somehow try to lessen tensions between the two countries, and he saw himself as being on a diplomatic mission. It wasn't clear, Udall later said, that they would even get an audience with Khrushchev. He did get to see him. They talked at some great length, and what neither Udall nor Frost knew, nor did President Kennedy for a fact, was that Nikita Khrushchev was in the process of deploying missiles on the island of Cuba aimed at the United States.
Schachter: So the two of them speak. Frost comes back believing that he got through, somehow, to the leader of the Soviet Union. But then things kind of went awry.
Fitzpatrick: Well, what happened is that he was interviewed by the news media. He mentioned that Khrushchev had said that he thought that Kennedy and the United States was too liberal to fight. In other words, he was casting aspersions, or so Kennedy thought, on this young president and on the nation itself. And that created a cold war between Kennedy and Robert Frost, and the two men really stood apart in the final months of Frost's life.
Schachter: Not only did they not talk, as you said, he did not send condolences after Frost's death. Nothing. Frost was dead to Kennedy before he died.
Fitzpatrick: Well, this is where we get to the interesting moment of him accepting an invitation to go to Amherst College in October of 1963, a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, more than a year after the Frost visit, and giving a speech in which he celebrates the artist as a dissenter. And it's ironic, obviously, and in some sense, it seems to me, an acknowledgment of the role that the poet and the artist can and should play.
Schachter: Here's a tidbit of that speech.
JOHN F. KENNEDY:
In honoring Robert Frost, we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation's greatness. But the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable.
Schachter: So beyond that tribute to Robert Frost, what was important about Kennedy's last speech, at Amherst College? What resonated for you?
Fitzpatrick: There were really two elements of the speech that I think are quite powerful. One we've discussed, about the artist as dissenter and the value of that in a democratic society. And the other was his message to Amherst College students, and to college students across the nation, which is what's the purpose of having a great education if you don't do something with it to make your country better, to serve society. I think part of the power of that was not only because he was a young, charismatic, attractive president, but he lived it himself. It seemed genuine, I think, to those who heard it.
Schachter: OK. Thanks for joining us, Ellen Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick: Thank you.
Schachter: That's historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, a key voice in a new documentary called “JFK: the Last Speech” about President John F. Kennedy's final speech before his assassination, delivered at Amherst College. The documentary airs on television this evening at 9 on WGBH 2. This is All Things Considered.