Kennedy on Peace

Published: November 24, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was assassinated. Nearly every American who is old enough can remember where he was when he heard the news of Kennedy’s death. In my case, I was on a train platform in Japan when I was told of the assassination. A Japanese man came up to me and said, “I’m very sorry to tell you, but your president has been shot and killed.” I remember being stunned by the news and by a sense of loss.

On June 10, 1963, just six months before his life was cut short, Kennedy gave the Commencement Address at American University. His topic was peace. He called it “the most important topic on earth.” As a decorated officer who served in combat during World War II, he knew about war.

Kennedy spoke of a generous and broad peace: “What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek?” he asked.  “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons or war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women – not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

He recognized that nuclear weapons had created “a new face of war.” He argued, “Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.”

Just eight months before giving this speech, Kennedy had been face to face with the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He knew that it was possible for powerful, nuclear-armed nations to come to the brink of nuclear war, and he knew what nuclear war would mean for the future of humanity. “I speak of peace,” he said, “as the necessary rational end of rational men.”

Kennedy asked us to examine our attitudes toward peace. “Too many of us think it is impossible,” he said. “Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable – that mankind is doomed – that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”

He understood that there was no “magic formula” to achieve peace. “Genuine peace,” he argued, “must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation.  For peace is a process – a way of solving problems.” He also recognized that peace requires perseverance.

Kennedy gave wise counsel in his speech. In the midst of the Cold War, he called for reexamining our attitude toward the Soviet Union. “Among the traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war.” He pointed out the achievements of the Soviet people and the suffering they endured during World War II.

In the speech, Kennedy announced two important decisions.  First, he pledged to begin negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear test ban. Second, he initiated a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing. The Partial Test Ban Treaty would be signed that August, ratified by the Senate in September and would go into effect on October 10, 1963. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was not reached until 1996, and the United States Senate rejected ratification of this treaty in 1999.  The treaty still has not entered into force.

In his insightful and inspiring speech, Kennedy did get one thing wrong. He said that “[t]he United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.” One can only imagine Kennedy’s severe disappointment had he lived to see the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War and many other costly and illegal wars the U.S. has started and engaged in since his death.

Every American should read Kennedy’s Commencement Address at American University and be reminded that peace is a possibility that is worth the struggle. As Kennedy understood, war does not bring peace. Peace itself is the only path to peace.  Kennedy believed, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.”

Peace is attainable. It is within our reach, if only we will learn from the past, stretch ourselves and believe that this is our destiny.

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