Practice Academic Vocabulary 
with this Historic Speech

You can practice academic vocabulary, and gain valuable insights into 20th century history, by reading a selection from John F. Kennedy’s January 1961 address to Congress.  

photo of President Kennedy giving a speech with text: 'This selection from Kennedy's first State of the Union address gives real insight into Cold War thinking [+] vocabulary practice.

In his first “State of the Union” speech, soon after becoming president, John F. Kennedy gave Congress his priorities.

He described the world situation as he saw it and the growing dangers he believed the U.S. must face firmly and decisively.

This speech helps explain why the U.S. felt it must further develop its military strength and why Kennedy sent military advisers to Vietnam. 

In the gap-fill exercise below, you can fill in a few missing words (all from the Academic Word List) for vocabulary practice as you read parts of Kennedy’s speech.

The reading isn't too easy, but the practice is if you use the hints just above it.

There’s a link to the entire speech at the bottom of the page if you want to read more. 

More about the Reading Selection 

The exercise below starts with Kennedy's second paragraph. (The first paragraph mentioned how happy he was to be back in Congress, and reminded them of his years and friends there.)

Then there was a discussion of economic problems. Only his introduction to that is included in this excerpt, in order to keep the reading shorter.

Most of this excerpt (selection) from his speech (sections from Part IV on—omitting the detailed paragraphs on Asia and Europe) concerns foreign relations—especially his perception of grave danger due to Soviet aggressiveness.

I found it very interesting to read Kennedy’s outlook in the light of later events in his administration, especially the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the beginnings of American military involvement in Vietnam.

He talked about the idea of avoiding conflict by being so well armed that one’s enemies fear to attack. (This is 'deterrence through assured mutual destruction.') “For as I said upon taking the oath of office: ‘Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.’”

He also discussed positive measures his administration planned: his proposal for the Peace Corps and cooperative projects with the Soviets on scientific research such as space exploration and weather prediction.

Practice Academic Vocabulary & Reading

John F. Kennedy smiling-- a public domain photo

The academic vocabulary to fill the gaps: achieving, assess, assigns, consistent, contribute, convince, decline, domination, economic, established, inadequate, military, prediction, strategy, sufficient, unprecedented.

(These are about 1/4 of the AWL words used in this selection, so you will actually practice many useful words besides those in the drop-down list.) The drop-down menu gives you this list for each gap.  

A word family hint: When filling the gaps, remember that the word’s position in the sentence (its part of speech) is an important clue.  

A present tense verb after a singular noun (one person or thing) will end with an ‘s’ (assigns), while a verb after ‘to’ (an infinitive), or after a plural noun, will never end in 's.' 

You will probably need an adjective before a noun. Try consistent, economic, inadequate, military (which can also be a noun), sufficient, and unprecedented in this list.

Notice the way Kennedy repeated key words to "drive home" (emphasize) his points.

Gap-fill Exercise from JFK’s first State of the Union Address 

...I am confident that that friendship will continue. Our Constitution wisely both joint and separate roles to each branch of the government; and a President and a Congress who hold each other in mutual respect will neither permit nor attempt any trespass.

… In short, the American economy is in trouble. The most resourceful industrialized country on earth ranks among the last in the rate of economic growth. Since last spring our growth rate has actually receded. Business investment is in a . Profits have fallen below predicted levels.

But all these problems pale when placed beside those which confront us around the world... 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. I feel I must inform the Congress that our analyses over the last ten days make it clear that--in each of the principal areas of crisis--the tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend.

...In Latin America, Communist agents seeking to exploit that region's peaceful revolution of hope have a base on Cuba, only 90 miles from our shores. Our objection with Cuba is not over the people's drive for a better life. Our objection is to their domination by foreign and domestic tyrannies. Cuban social and economic reform should be encouraged. Questions of economic and trade policy can always be negotiated. But Communist in this Hemisphere can never be negotiated.

We are pledged to work with our sister republics to free the Americas of all such foreign domination and all tyranny, working toward the goal of a free hemisphere of free governments, extending from Cape Horn to the Arctic Circle.

…Our greatest challenge is still the world that lies beyond the Cold War--but the first great obstacle is still our relations with the Soviet Union and Communist China. We must never be lulled into believing that either power has yielded its ambitions for world domination--ambitions which they forcefully restated only a short time ago. On the contrary, our task is to them that aggression and subversion will not be profitable routes to pursue these ends. Open and peaceful competition--for prestige, for markets, for scientific achievement, even for men's minds--is something else again. For if Freedom and Communism were to compete for man's allegiance in a world at peace, I would look to the future with ever increasing confidence.

To meet this array of challenges--to fulfill the role we cannot avoid on the world scene--we must reexamine and revise our whole arsenal of tools: , economic and political.

First, we must strengthen our military tools. We are moving into a period of uncertain risk and great commitment in which both the military and diplomatic possibilities require a Free World force so powerful as to make any aggression clearly futile. Yet in the past, lack of a , coherent military , the absence of basic assumptions about our national requirements and the faulty estimates and duplication arising from inter-service rivalries have all made it difficult to accurately how adequate--or --our defenses really are.

… If we are to keep the peace, we need an invulnerable missile force powerful enough to deter any aggressor from even threatening an attack that he would know could not destroy enough of our force to prevent his own destruction. For as I said upon taking the oath of office: "Only when our arms are beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed."

Secondly, we must improve our economic tools. Our role is essential and unavoidable in the construction of a sound and expanding economy for the entire non-communist world, helping other nations build the strength to meet their own problems, to satisfy their own aspirations--to surmount their own dangers. The problems in this goal are towering and unprecedented- the response must be towering and as well, much as Lend-Lease and the Marshall Plan were in earlier years, which brought such fruitful results.

An even more valuable national asset is our reservoir of dedicated men and women-not only on our college campuses but in every age group--who have indicated their desire to their skills, their efforts, and a part of their lives to the fight for world order. We can mobilize this talent through 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.

Finally, this Administration intends to explore promptly all possible areas of cooperation with the Soviet Union and other nations "to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors."

Specifically, I now invite all nations--including the Soviet Union--to join with us in developing a weather program, in a new communications satellite program and in preparation for probing the distant planets of Mars and Venus, probes which may someday unlock the deepest secrets of the universe.

… 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.

…Life in 1961 will not be easy. Wishing it, predicting it, even asking for it, will not make it so. There will be further setbacks before the tide is turned. But turn it we must.

See the complete text of Kennedy’s State of the Union address to Congress, 1961 or a video recording of two minutes from the latter part of it on YouTube.

You might also be interested in an article from 2002: “The Missiles of 1962 Haunt the Iraq Debate.” Its author says historians have called the Cuban missile crisis “the most dangerous moment in recorded time.”

He concludes the article "There are never two choices in foreign policy," [historian] Ms. Mathews said the other day, "’and the right answer is not to choose an unacceptable one, but to look for a third.

I think it's fair to say, in the missile crisis doing nothing was unacceptable, and so was going to war with the risk of nuclear holocaust.’ She added: ‘The other key lesson was, give your opponent some room to maneuver. Don't back him against the wall.’”

(There are also some great lesson plans and ideas for history or advanced ESL teachers at the N.Y.T.'s Learning blog: "Modern Lessons in the Cuban Missile Crisis." 

For two more pages of speeches by Kennedy and other presidents (also with gap-fill exercises to practice academic (and foreign policy vocabulary) see U.S. Presidents on Berlin, and President Obama on Polish Freedom Day.

Home> TOEFL & IELTS Vocabulary  > Practice Academic Vocabulary with this 1961 Kennedy Speech. 

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