New Frontier: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

Coming from the most recent election of 2016, it’s hard to believe that presidential elections can be hopeful, that people can feel inspired to do something great. But these types of elections can and have existed in our nation’s history, especially when a charismatic individual taps into a particular, optimistic zeitgeist of a moment. John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election was one such moment; his New Frontier program of optimism and community action led him to the White House. Keep reading to get more information about what this New Frontier program was about for the APUSH exam.

What was JFK’s New Frontier program?

Video of JFK accepted the 1960 Democratic nomination for President. This speech is commonly known as his “New Frontier” speech. Source here.

In 1960, when JFK would accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, he gave a speech that would come to define the rest of his campaign and the beginning of his presidency. I’ll let JFK take over here. On July 15, 1960 in Los Angeles, California, he said:

“…I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high–to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future. Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.

…I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. Their motto was not “every man for himself”–but “all for the common cause.” …Today some would say that those struggles are all over–that all the horizons have been explored–that all the battles have been won– that there is no longer an American frontier.

But…the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won–and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier–the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.

…the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises–it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook–it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.

But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric–and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me, regardless of party.” (Source: JFK Presidential Library)

JFK was speaking to a strategy that would not only defeat the Republicans but would come to define how he saw the challenges and opportunities of the 1960s; whether it be space exploration, or dealing with the USSR, the United States JFK envisioned was one of new frontiers.

Was the New Frontier policy successful?

Well, JFK became the President of the United States, so in that way, it was extremely successful. Furthermore, he established programs like the Peace Corps in 1961 that led to giving young people with the enthusiasm necessary to realize the goals he outlined in the New Frontier speech a reality an opportunity to help people on a global scale.

new frontier
President greets Peace Corps Volunteers. White House, South Lawn. August 9, 1962. Source: here.

Why was the New Frontier program so successful?

This is a question that has to be answered through historical interpretation; no amount of facts or speculation can tell us exactly why people gravitated towards JFK’s message. Sure, there were the good looks and the near movie star quality he and his wife, Jackie, exuded. And there was the fact that Nixon’s message was not resonating with people at the time. But there is something about the combination of his youth, charm, and family credentials (the Kennedys have held at least one political office from between 1947 and 2011 – that is a political dynasty) when compared with Nixon’s message (and Nixon’s poor debate performances) that made Kennedy’s New Frontier successful.

The New Frontier even continued, albeit in a different form, after JFK’s death with the Johnson administration. It is easy to see parallels between the programs of the New Frontier policies and those of the Great Society.

What kinds of questions will I be asked on the APUSH exam about the New Frontier?

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. . . It is harder and harder to live the good life in American cities today. There is not enough housing for our people or transportation for our traffic. . . . Our society will never be great until our cities are great. . .
For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead America toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation. So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?

Lyndon B. Johnson, Great Society Speech, 1964. Source: Stanford History Education Group

In what ways do the Great Society policies and the New Frontier policies form a cohesive program for the Kennedy/Johnson administrations?

I. A focus on calling individual people to action
II. Framing the issues of the time period as opportunities and challenges that need to be solve
III. Emphasizing newness and novelty in proposed solutions to problems

A. I only
B. I and II
C. III only

Correct Answer:

D. Both programs aimed to get individuals involved in making their country a better place by framing problems as opportunities to propose novel solutions.

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  • Allena Berry

    Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.

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