What Kind of Peace Do You Want?
"What kind of peace do I mean?" said the President of the United States, speaking at the commencement of American University. "Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war..."
"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," he continued. "Not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women; not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time."
There was plenty of attention paid to the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis last year. It will be interesting to see if any attention at all is paid to the 40th anniversary of the first arms control agreement between the superpowers, the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963.
In particular, we need to revisit the most dramatic moment of the test ban debate: the address delivered by President John F. Kennedy at American University on June 10, 1963, that began with the words quoted above. It remains one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, though one of the lesser known. Though the Cold War is over and more arms agreements have been made, the dangers of war, of nuclear war and even total nuclear holocaust remain. Especially considering the aggressive policies and rhetoric of the Bush administration, Kennedy's words are worth listening to again.
It was the sobering prospect of imminent nuclear war in October 1962 that created the conditions leading to that treaty. Apart from the immediate survival of humanity, this historic acknowledgement of the world’s mutual interest in peace was the major positive result of that crisis. Considering recent events—--such as the India-Pakistan confrontation that nearly led to the first atomic bomb exchange in human history, North Korea proclaiming its readiness to produce and even sell nuclear weapons, the use of near-nuclear weapons in Iraq and the Bush administration's plan to expand the American nuclear arsenal—--the test ban treaty and especially what it clearly meant to the leaders who negotiated and signed it are extraordinarily relevant.
The Cuban Missile crisis had forced all nations to consider what nuclear war would really mean. America was clearly the foremost nuclear power in the world, yet a nuclear exchange would have meant complete destruction anyway. Kennedy spoke about this to aides during the crisis. At one point Khrushchev sent a letter to Kennedy which sadly and graphically portrayed the consequences of nuclear war on both countries and the world.
Once the crisis was resolved, Kennedy saw a rare opportunity to change the paradigm of the arms race. He had been calling for talks on nuclear arms control since his first state of the union address in 1961. Now he revived his proposal for a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, and staked his presidency on it.
At first the Soviets were receptive, but reflexive mistrust between the two nations and opposition within both their governments imperiled the negotiations through the winter and spring of 1963. It was then that Kennedy dramatically refocused the terms of the debate. He announced two initiatives at American University designed to advance the test ban negotiations, including a unilateral American commitment to end tests in the atmosphere until the Soviets resumed theirs. But it was the speech itself that provided the greatest impetus.
With blunt and sweeping assertions couched in characteristic Kennedy rhetoric (speechwriter Ted Sorenson mined previous statements for their best lines, and included phrases cut from the 1961 Inaugural Address), he went far beyond arguing for the specific test ban treaty to the heart of the matter: peace in the nuclear age.
"Total war makes no sense," Kennedy said, repeating the phrase several times, emphasizing devastation so extensive it would be visited on "generations yet unborn." "I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men."
"I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war," he admitted. "But we have no more urgent task."
Some opponents regarded negotiating arms agreements as a sign of weakness-to them, the test ban efforts were "defeatist." Kennedy deftly reversed the charge. He said believing peace is impossible is defeatist, because it means "that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. " Then he used the phrase that more than any other sums up the Kennedy faith: "Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man."
Though he acknowledged the value of dreams and hopes, he advocated an attainable peace "based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions...Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts...For peace is a process, a way of solving problems."
Kennedy called for cooperation based on a certain historical objectivity that has since been borne out more dramatically than he could have dreamed. "However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem," he said, "the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors."
For many Americans at the time, Soviet Communists were incomprehensible and threatening. But Kennedy suggested that, just as the Soviets misunderstood America, Americans had a distorted view of them. He then made an assertion that might well have shaken and angered some of his listeners, as it would today: "No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue."
Kennedy acknowledged the evils of Communism, but also complimented the Soviets on their achievements in science and culture. In speaking of the abhorrence of war that the two nations had in common he eulogized Soviet suffering in World War II. No act of honoring could have meant more to the Russian people.
The speech subtly links this theme of suffering with an assertion of mutual interest in ending the arms race itself. Kennedy pointed out that both nations are "devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty and disease."
All of these were truths that many found uncomfortable, and were rarely acknowledged by people in power. Kennedy added another one--the "ironical but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first twenty-four hours."
Peace, he concludes, is a primary interest for both nations---indeed for all nations. In the most quoted phrases of the speech (most recently, put into the mouth of a fictional Russian president, without attribution, in Tom Clancy's film, "The Sum of All Fears") Kennedy said: "For in the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
But in June 1963, the immediate impact of the speech in America was blunted by an ongoing domestic crisis---police violence against non-violent demonstrators and whites rioting and firebombing in black neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama had pushed the civil rights struggle to a new level. Then Alabama Governor George Wallace announced he would personally bar the admission of the first two black students to be enrolled at the University of Alabama under federal court order.
The drama, which turned out to be little more than a ceremony of defiance for cameras, played the day after JFK's American University speech. Kennedy spontaneously decided to speak to the nation that night. With little in the way of prepared text, he delivered a speech on civil rights as perfectly timed and morally clear as he had the day before on world peace. Equality is a moral issue "as old as the scriptures and...as clear as the American Constitution....In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated..." The day before he had urged empathy for the Soviet people; now he asked white Americans to imagine themselves in the place of black Americans. "Who among us then would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"
But while civil rights absorbed media attention in America, the American University speech became instantly famous elsewhere in the world. In England, the Manchester Guardian called it "one of the great state papers of American history." Most importantly, the full text was printed in the Russian press, and its Russian language broadcast by the Voice of America was the first western program in fifteen years the Soviets did not attempt to jam. Khrushchev told Averell Harriman, in Moscow to negotiate the test ban, that it was the best speech by an American president since Roosevelt. Negotiations moved swiftly forward. Some six weeks after the American University address, the nuclear test ban treaty was signed.
It was, Kennedy told the nation on July 26, "an important first step---a step toward peace, a step toward reason, a step away from war." But the treaty required Senate confirmation, and conservatives as well as prominent military figures were decrying it as a threat to national security. Kennedy invited public debate, "for the treaty is for all of us. It is particularly for our children and our grandchildren, who have no lobby here in Washington."
In his June 11 address to the nation, Kennedy had announced the civil rights legislation that would become landmark law under Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy knew (as LBJ did later) that such forthright and principled support for civil rights would doom the Democratic party in the previously solid South, perhaps for a long time. Though he was equally prepared for defeat because of his stand on the test ban treaty, Kennedy believed that opposition was not as strong among voters as rising conservatives claimed. By September, it was clear that he was right. Overwhelming public sentiment in favor of the treaty led to Senate confirmation.
As Kennedy traveled across America in late fall, he spoke often about the issue of peace, to increasingly enthusiastic response. This was the last image, and the lasting image, held by many Americans and certainly many people around the world, when Kennedy was assassinated that November.
Forty years later, the world is dangerous in different ways. Soon after the American University speech, Kennedy spoke at a press conference in Germany about nuclear proliferation. "When Pandora opened her box and all the troubles flew out, all that was left in was Hope," he commented. "In this case, if we have nuclear diffusion throughout the world, we may even lose hope."
Today we have that nuclear diffusion, with every indication that it will become worse. Yet while pressuring others to forgo nuclear weapons or to prevent proliferation, the United States is itself attempting to test and field a new generation of nuclear weapons. Even the the latest treaty, signed this month to absolutely no fanfare by President Bush and President Putin in Moscow in early June, is actually a step backward from previous agreements, such as Start II and the ABM treaty which the Bush administration unilaterally abrogated. Kennedy knew that to win the confidence of other nations, the United States had to lead, to tangibly demonstrate its willingness to sacrifice the nuclear arms it insisted that others forgo.
Nuclear weapons are still a major danger to humanity. Even with the reductions the new treaty calls for, enough nuclear firepower is aimed and ready in the U.S. and Russia that both nations can still destroy each other in a single hour. A new RAND study asserts that due to disorganization in Russia as well as other factors, the danger of a devastating nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia caused by accident or miscalculation has not lessened but increased.
As Jonathan Schell illustrates in his instantly indispensable new book, "The Unconquerable World," the Bush administration strategy of preemptive warfare to maintain American supremacy and enforce its will is the most radical international policy in western history since imperial Rome. It seeks to create precisely the Pax Americana that Kennedy renounced. He renounced it partly because other nations would feel severely threatened by such a prospect. With nuclear, chemical and biological weapons-and perhaps soon, genetic weapons-- of inconceivable destructiveness becoming more readily available, such a policy invites catastrophe and guarantees a violent future.
Kennedy also understood the limitations of power. As the current chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan already demonstrates, even the current supremacy of American military power cannot effectively rule the world.
Yet in the midst of the Cold War, with the United States at greater risk of greater destruction, Kennedy took this step towards peace, and many in America followed. The popularity of the test ban treaty is most forgotten, but it may have proven to be the issue that contributed most to Kennedy's reelection.
As America emerges from this peculiar post-Gulf War II mood of vengeful triumph, we might remember that upwards of 10 million people marched for peace around the world in the weeks before the war, and in no European nation that the Gallup Poll surveyed did prior support for the American invasion rise above 11%.
Kennedy called for empathetic understanding of current enemies, not for sentiment's sake but to aid in objective judgment. He invoked history for the same reason. The contrast of Kennedy's realism with the fundamentalist absolutism of President Bush's rhetoric is obvious. The basic difference is that Kennedy saw the long-term national interest in finding common interests and common ground. The Bush doctrine is to force other nations to bend to interests his administration dubiously defines as American.
Kennedy was criticized for the hubris of believing that humans could solve the problems they create. But even in a different world, that faith, like the intelligent pursuit of peace, is without meaningful alternative.