JFK’s Epic Speech to Parliament— An Enduring Moment in Time

“Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends.Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies.” — John F. Kennedy, Address to Parliament, May 17, 1961. House Speaker Roland Michener looks on/via JFK Library

L. Ian MacDonald

May 17, 2021

John F. Kennedy famously defined the nature of the relationship between Canada and the United States in words now graven in stone at the entrance to the US Embassy on Sussex Drive in Ottawa.

Geography has made us neighbours,” he began. “History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies.”

He spoke those enduring words in the House of Commons in the Centre Block of Parliament on May 17, 1961, exactly 60 years ago.

He was speaking as the 35th President of United States, not yet four months in office, and still only 43 years old, about to turn 44 on May 29, the youngest elected president in American history. He represented, as he had said in his inaugural address, “a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

He had charisma and class, as did Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. For Canadians, no less than Americans, they were a captivating couple.  She had events of her own during their two-day visit, a tour of the National Gallery of Canada, then on Elgin Street, as well as a performance in her honour by the RCMP Musical Ride, a reminder that she was an outstanding horsewoman. The crowds loved her.

This did not pass unnoticed in the introduction of JFK by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who declared “the extraordinary welcome from the people which you have received is a demonstration of their admiration and affection not only for your country but for you and Mrs. Kennedy. As you passed through the streets yesterday and today, Mr. President, you must have been conscious of a divided attention, and all who had eyes to see could see why that was so.”

 He had charisma and class, as did Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. For Canadians, no less than Americans, they were a captivating couple.

An elegant touch and by no means the only one in Dief’s presentation, in which he mentioned Robert Frost as “the poet of your inauguration,” referring to a speech by then-Senator Kennedy “in New Brunswick to the university there four years ago, you quoted from the same poet: ‘Good neighbours make good fences.’”

Diefenbaker then spoke of a recent trip to Ireland where “I was told something of your ancestry, shown the arms of the Kennedys of Ormonde, and of the Fitzgeralds, renowned in Irish history as the ‘Geraldines.’”  Diefenbaker had a talented speechwriter, prominent former CBC radio host John Fisher, but the Chief clearly had a sense of occasion that was entirely his own. “Throughout the years there has been a movement of peoples between our two countries.” he said, “hundreds of thousands if not millions of Canadians, have gone from Canada to the New England states and great numbers from the United States have settled in Canada.”

Kennedy responded in kind. “I was glad to hear some applause coming from the very back benches when you mentioned Ireland,” he improvised.

As for all those Canadians in New England, Kennedy said: “Among the voters of Massachusetts who were born outside the United States, the largest group by far came from Canada. Their vote is enough to determine an election, even a presidential election. You can understand that having been elected President of the United States by less than 140,000 votes out of 60 million, that I am very conscious of these statistics.”

Kennedy’s address to Parliament came at a time when his leadership, and America’s, needed a lift. Not on bilateral Canada-US relations, but in multilateral terms among allies…

Which brought the House down, in laughter and applause. It’s evident in the video, courtesy of the JFK Library.

President Kennedy’s acknowledgement of the importance of Canadian immigration to New England struck a deeply responsive chord in Quebec, where most of the immigrants came from. “Everyone had a mon oncle ou ma tante des États, is how they looked at it,” explains former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, then a two-year old toddler in Sherbrooke. He remembers growing up, and “hearing all about uncles and aunts who would work in New England for years, before returning home to have a houseful of kids.”

Kennedy’s address to Parliament came at a time when his leadership, and America’s, needed a lift. Not on bilateral Canada-US relations, but in multilateral terms among allies understandably worried about American leadership of the West in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet communist bloc.

Kennedy’s speech was delivered exactly one month after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs, and the failed April 17-20 invasion of their homeland by Cuban exiles determined to overthrow Fidel Castro. The invasion was financed by the CIA, which also supplied air cover that Kennedy cancelled in the stunning fiasco that would be a prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, as the pretext for the Russians shipping nuclear weapons to Cuba to defend Castro’s communist regime.

Only the week before on April 12, Americans and the world saw Russia clearly winning the space race, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to complete an orbit of Earth in outer space. It would be another three weeks after the Russian triumph before NASA astronaut Alan Shepard completed a 15-minute sub-orbital flight for Project Mercury on May 5.  It was a long way from the moon on Apollo 11 in July 1969, a goal set by Kennedy in his famous Rice University convocation address of September 1962: “We choose to go to the moon,” he declared. “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

When Kennedy met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna three weeks after Ottawa on June 5, American leadership needed to be affirmed.

And the Ottawa speech proved to be the perfect opportunity for Kennedy to think globally but act locally, using a bilateral venue to define a multilateral agenda.  As he added, in words that ring true today: “It is clear that in an age where new forces are asserting their strength around the globe—when the political shape of the hemispheres are changing rapidly—nothing is more important than the unity of the United States and of Canada.”

And so he touched all the chords, including urging Canada to take hemispheric leadership by joining the Organization of American States, as it finally did nearly three decades later under Brian Mulroney in 1990.

The NATO alliance, as he said, was “originally to meet the threat of a massive conventional attack” by the Soviets and their puppet states, “in a period of western nuclear monopoly.”  He added: “We will maintain our forces now on the European continent and will increase their conventional capabilities. We look to our NATO allies to assign an equally high priority to this task.” There was no inspired rhetoric in that, just State Department boilerplate, clearly written at Foggy Bottom rather than the White House.

Still, there were moments when the touch of a Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s head speechwriter, appeared evident, from the imperative of helping emerging third world nations to a vision of détente between East and West.

“For, in the end, we live on one planet and we are part of one human family,” he concluded, “and whatever the struggles that confront us, we must lose no chance to move forward towards a world of law and a world of disarmament.”

Listening to Kennedy in those days was a 22-year-old law student and political activist named Brian Mulroney, then finishing his first year at Laval Law School. Like millions of his generation, Kennedy was his political hero, particularly as an Irish-Catholic. Later in life, Mulroney would become a close friend of the Kennedy family, particularly Senator Ted Kennedy, and the president’s daughter Caroline, now head of the JFK Library in Boston. When Mulroney gave the principal eulogy for Nancy Reagan at her funeral in 2018, Caroline was in the first row at the Reagan Library, on behalf of her First Family, among the others represented by former First Ladies.

Mulroney recalls that after leaving office as prime minister in 1993, Ted Kennedy invited him and his wife Mila to spend American Thanksgiving at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port in November 1994.

“Ted had inherited his mother Rose’s house,” Mulroney recalls. “And he put us up in Jack and Jackie’s place for the weekend. I remember all the photos on the walls were in black and white from those days. The house was just as it was then. And I said to Mila, ‘we’re sleeping in Jack Kennedy’s bedroom. Imagine how everything would have turned out differently if it hadn’t been for Dallas.’”

It wasn’t just a president who died that awful November day in 1963. A lot of hope for a better world died with him. But in Canada on this important day 60 years ago, the promise of that better world seemed at hand.

L. Ian MacDonald, Editor of Policy Magazine, was principal speechwriter to Prime Minister Mulroney from 1985-88, and later head of the Public Affairs division of the Canadian Embassy in Washington from 1992-94.