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Opinion Neighbours, friends, partners, allies: The enduring spirit of JFK’s 1961 speech in Ottawa

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech in the House of Commons was a masterpiece of balance and grace that captured the essence of the relationship between Canada and the United States. From Los Angeles to Boston, the most revered and most poignant quote from Mr. Kennedy is: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." But from Vancouver to St. John's, JFK is remembered primarily for a completely different remark delivered in Ottawa almost exactly four months later.

It is a comment chiselled into the walls of the U.S. embassy on Sussex Drive. Pierre Trudeau alluded to it in welcoming Ronald Reagan to Ottawa in 1981. Brian Mulroney cited it in his 1984 speech before the Economic Club of New York. Bill Clinton employed it at a luncheon in Ottawa in 1995, and paraphrased it when Jean Chrétien visited Washington two years later.

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For on a brilliant May day 56 years ago – "The sun is shining very brightly, the temperature is crisp," the iconic Byng Whitteker said in his trademark gravelly voice on a CBC telecast that was broadcast across both countries – Mr. Kennedy and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker strode into the main doors of the Centre Block of Parliament and the two proceeded to the House of Commons, where the 35th president said:

"Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder."

Mr. Kennedy was born 100 years ago on Monday, and is remembered for many moments of eloquence, from his 1962 exhortation to put a man on the moon and to explore the heavens (tasks worth doing "not because they are easy but because they are hard") to his 1963 speech on civil rights ("We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution").

But his geography-has-made-us-neighbours speech has a curious and stubborn resilience, perhaps because it captures decades of amiability between Canada and the United States, perhaps because it captures the inescapable tension in the friendship between the two countries, perhaps simply because the parallelism in the rhetoric is so finely proportioned, an elegant equipoise that shows the power of balance and grace in language.

The speech and its trademark five sentences – sometimes shortened to simply "Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends" – were the centrepiece of Mr. Kennedy's first trip outside the U.S. after taking office.

Some 50,000 people gathered to greet the new U.S. chief executive and to have a glimpse of his glamorous wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, who according to a document in the Kennedy Library, travelled in a blue wool coat, double-breasted with a low belt, deep patch pockets and three-quarter-length sleeves. (Later that evening, at a dinner featuring filet mignon and a strawberry tart dessert, Mrs. Kennedy wore an Oleg Cassini evening gown that The Globe and Mail described as being of "pink-ribbed silk, flounced with three tiers of ruffles and matching stole, reminiscent of the 1920s.") No florid description of the president's attire survives.

The signature line of the Kennedy speech does not appear in the abbreviated first draft of the remarks, prepared by presidential speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, but appears, typed, in every successive draft. Much of the rest of the remarks, which touched upon the Organization of American States (Mr. Diefenbaker did not share the president's ardour on the subject), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and defence issues, and Cold War tensions, is forgotten. Though film of the president's visit to Parliament Hill shows Mr. Diefenbaker sharing the Kennedy style of walking with his hand stuffed into his suit-coat pocket, the two men had almost nothing in common and no affinity for each other. Secretary of State Dean Rusk had earlier told Mr. Kennedy that the Prime Minister "is slightly deaf in his left ear, something about which he is somewhat sensitive," adding that Mr. Diefenbaker "except for very rare occasions such as toasting … is a teetotaller."

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Later Mr. Diefenbaker would call the president "a boastful son of a bitch." But after the 1961 summit the two men issued a joint communiqué on, among other issues, the United Nations, disarmament and Laos – an affirmation of the Kennedy remarks in the House of Commons that, as the president said, the two countries "do not seek the unanimity that comes to those who water down all issues to the lowest common denominator – or to those who conceal their differences behind fixed smiles – or to those who measure unity by standards of popularity and affection, instead of trust and respect."

In two years, Mr. Diefenbaker would be out of office and Mr. Kennedy would be assassinated. In the hours after Mr. Kennedy's death, in the very chamber in which he gave his famous remarks, Prime Minister Lester Pearson would speak of "the feelings of shock and grief felt by all of us" – a "sense of desolation and despair" felt across North America, where geography made us neighbours but history made us friends.

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