Peace For All Time: JFK Today
Words by Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor InMilitary, Veteran U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force. Reach out to Wes on LinkedIn.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a war hero, a historian, a diplomat and a keen cold warrior. He was also a philanderer and a drug user that almost fumbled his way into World War III, not once but twice. As we celebrate the centennial of his birth, it is important to note that despite all his complications and eccentricities, he was a man of vision.
In fact, that’s how most Americans remember him today: JFK the idealist. Very few presidents’ inauguration speeches are still quoted to this day. Lincoln and Washington notwithstanding, can you quote any other president more easily than John Kennedy?
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country“. Sound familiar?
From the day he took office, he was focused on a path to peace.
JFK’s peace campaign reached its crescendo in June of 1963, just five short months before he would be struck down in Dallas. And it was one speech in particular, given at the commencement celebration of American University, that is just as relevant today as it was 54 years ago.
Today, our challenges with the Russian Federation mirror our parents’ and grandparents’ challenges with the Soviet Union. There are still severe ideological differences. Both countries still maintain an obscene number of nuclear weapons, enough to extinguish the human race many times over. Kennedy called it “Assured Destruction” but critics pointed out that nuclear missiles would be traveling in both directions, so the more apt name was “mutually assured destruction,” intended as an insult to Kennedy’s policy, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, the founding publisher of Arms Control Wonk.
As a result, it is worth reexamining Kennedy’s less famous “Peace Speech”, performed that sunny summer day at American University. JFK’s masterful oratory, together with his close advisor and chief speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s words, came together to form and deliver one of the most optimistic speeches of the 20th century.
Here are some highlights:
What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of 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.
Very early in his speech, Kennedy sets the stage: America wants peace, not just for Americans, but for everyone. And not just for now, but forever. Remember, World War II just ended a mere 18 years earlier, the memories still fresh. Here Kennedy calls back to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler, when Chamberlain triumphantly states “Peace for our time”. ‘Not so fast, Neville’, Kennedy seems to say. We want peace for all time, now and hereafter. Also, Kennedy knows that true peace can never be achieved at the barrel of a gun. And finally, Kennedy invokes something precious that both we and Russians have in common: our children. Regardless of political ideology, everyone wants a better world for our kids than the world we currently live in, Russians and Americans alike. Despite our differences, he’s already started building a bridge.
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 of 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.
Here Kennedy speaks to the utter absurdity of nuclear war; something so terrible, the world only had to witness it once, in 1945, to realize that it should never be used again. Kennedy reminds us that a nuclear exchange between just our two nations would ensure the extinction of all nations through radioactive fallout and what would later be coined “nuclear winter”. And once again he invokes children with the phrase “generations yet unborn”. Translation: Total war is bad for everyone! Think of the kids!
First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. 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. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade–therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. 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.
And here is where Kennedy truly shines. Some people say ”war is in our nature”. Not true, says Kennedy. His optimism for our future is what makes the man so endearing to millions. Don’t believe the naysayers of peace. Don’t believe for one second that we are not capable of fixing problems that we ourselves created. He says “Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again.” Here he is almost prophetic about the upcoming moonshot. The Apollo program was full of problems that seemed unsolvable, yet we still put a human on the moon. Let that wash over you for a second… We put a human on the moon! Before the Post-It note was invented (1974) no less.
World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor–it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.
Kennedy goes on to say that bitter enemies today can very easily be strong allies tomorrow. There is no doubt that America’s Pacific War against the Japanese was savage; a war without mercy. Rarely in history had two adversaries hated each other so much, due partially to ideas of inherent racial superiority on both sides, but also to Japan’s sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. Today, Japan is the United States’ chief ally in interests of pacific security. The same company that manufactured the Zero fighter plane, Mitsubishi, now makes SUVs for American soccer moms. And finally, Kennedy states that Russians and Americans need not love each other, simply that we tolerate each other’s differences. And submit our disputes to a neutral third-party.
No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements–in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.
Here Kennedy is bridge-building again. He says ‘look, communism sucks because it eliminates your citizens’ personal freedoms, but that doesn’t mean that your people suck’. In fact, he says that Russians are scientifically and culturally amazing people with a rich heritage. Not to mention brave… At no time now or ever will Russians’ bravery be called into question. The men and women of the Soviet military, specifically the Red Army, lost countless souls in their struggle against Hitler, and still emerged triumphant. More on that below…
Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique, among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland–a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.
Kennedy makes an interesting point: never have two adversaries as large as our two nations and with as much influence as our two nations NOT gone to war with each other. This is an important point because it proves that war is not inevitable. And 54 years after Kennedy spoke these words, we still haven’t fought each other. This could be because the nature of war itself has changed from total war to proxy wars, insurgencies and cyber warfare. But it could also be because our two nations know that we are more alike than our leaders would have us believe. Finally, Kennedy reminds his audience that Russia suffered the greatest loss of all the Allied powers in World War II and in the process, Kennedy is eliciting sympathy for an enemy. In doing so, he is humanizing them; the first step to peace.
So, let us not be blind to our differences-but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.
Kennedy is now speaking directly to the Russians at this point, much as I am now: Look, sure we have differences, but what would happen if we focused on common interests? And maybe in our common interests, some of our differences can be solved. Ultimately, Kennedy states, we all inhabit this small planet; small in 1963 and even smaller today with globalization. We breathe the same air, so it’s in neither of our interests to fill it with ash. We all cherish our children’s future, so let’s leave them a more stable, more peaceful planet. And we are all mortal. We share a common humanity and in that, a great number of very basic similarities.
Unlike today’s politicians that come to us with promises, mostly unfulfilled. Kennedy came to us with challenges for us to rise to meet: in civil rights, nuclear disarmament, the Apollo moonshot and ultimately peace. Don’t promise me a stronger economy, challenge me to build it myself. Americans and Russians don’t need empty promises from our political overlords, we need the challenge of peace; something to work for. Because something worked tirelessly for is ultimately more rewarding, and by seeking Kennedy’s words, we may just find peace for all time.