Best Speech a U.S. President Ever Gave
By David Swanson
World Beyond War
In planning an upcoming conference and nonviolent action aimed at challenging the institution of war, with the conference to be held at American University, I can’t help but be drawn to the speech a U.S. president gave at American University a little more than 50 years ago. Whether or not you agree with me that this is the best speech ever given by a U.S. president, there should be little dispute that it is the speech most out of step with what anyone will say at either the Republican or the Democratic national convention this year. Here’s a video of the best portion of the speech:
President John F. Kennedy was speaking at a time when, like now, Russia and the United States had enough nuclear weapons ready to fire at each other on a moment’s notice to destroy the earth for human life many times over. At that time, however, in 1963, there were only three nations, not the current nine, with nuclear weapons, and many fewer than now with nuclear energy. NATO was far removed from Russia’s borders. The United States had not just facilitated a coup in Ukraine. The United States wasn’t organizing military exercises in Poland or placing missiles in Poland and Romania. Nor was it manufacturing smaller nukes that it described as “more usable.” The work of managing U.S. nuclear weapons was then deemed prestigious in the U.S. military, not the dumping ground for drunks and misfits that it has become. Hostility between Russia and the United States was high in 1963, but the problem was widely known about in the United States, in contrast to the current vast ignorance. Some voices of sanity and restraint were permitted in the U.S. media and even in the White House. Kennedy was using peace activist Norman Cousins as a messenger to Nikita Khrushchev, whom he never described, as Hillary Clinton has described Vladimir Putin, as “Hitler.”
Kennedy framed his speech as a remedy for ignorance, specifically the ignorant view that war is inevitable. This is the opposite of what President Barack Obama said recently in Hiroshima and earlier in Prague and Oslo. Kennedy called peace “the most important topic on earth.” It is a topic not touched on in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. I fully expect this year’s Republican national convention to celebrate ignorance.
Kennedy renounced the idea of a “Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war,” precisely what both big political parties now and most speeches on war by most past U.S. presidents ever have favored. Kennedy went so far as to profess to care about 100% rather than 4% of humanity:
“… not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
Kennedy explained war and militarism and deterrence as nonsensical:
“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.”
Kennedy went after the money. Military spending is now over half of federal discretionary spending, and yet neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton has said or been asked in even the vaguest terms what they’d like to see spent on militarism. “Today,” said Kennedy in 1963,
“the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles–which can only destroy and never create–is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace.”
In 2016 even beauty queens have shifted to advocating war rather than “world peace.” But in 1963 Kennedy spoke of peace as the serious business of government:
“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–and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament–and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude–as individuals and as a Nation–for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward–by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home.”
Can you imagine any approved speaker at this year’s RNC or DNC suggesting that in U.S. relations toward Russia a major part of the problem might be U.S. attitudes? Would you be willing to wager your next donation to either of those parties? I’d be glad to accept it.
Peace, Kennedy explained in a manner unheard of today, is perfectly possible:
“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. I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal. Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace– based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions–on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace–no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace 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.”
Kennedy debunked some of the usual straw men:
“With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. 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. So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.”
Kennedy then laments what he considers, or claims to consider, baseless Soviet paranoia regarding U.S. imperialism, Soviet criticism not unlike his own more private criticism of the CIA. But he follows this by flipping it around on the U.S. public:
“Yet it is sad to read these Soviet statements–to realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also a warning–a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats. 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. 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.”
Imagine today trying to get Americans to see a designated enemy’s point of view and ever being invited back on CNN or MSNBC afterward. Imagine hinting at who actually did the vast majority of winning World War II or why Russia might have good reason to fear aggression from its west!
Kennedy returned to the nonsensical nature of the cold war, then and now:
“Today, should total war ever break out again–no matter how–our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic 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 24 hours. And even in the cold war, which brings burdens and dangers to so many nations, including this Nation’s closest allies–our two countries bear the heaviest burdens. For we are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counterweapons. In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours–and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.”
Kennedy then urges, outrageously by the standards of some, that the United States tolerate other nations pursuing their own visions:
“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 reframes the cold war, rather than the Russians, as the enemy:
“Let us reexamine our attitude toward the cold war, remembering that we are not engaged in a debate, seeking to pile up debating points. We are not here distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment. We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last 18 years been different. We must, therefore, persevere in the search for peace in the hope that constructive changes within the Communist bloc might bring within reach solutions which now seem beyond us. We must conduct our affairs in such a way that it becomes in the Communists’ interest to agree on a genuine peace. Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy–or of a collective death-wish for the world.”
By Kennedy’s definition, the U.S. government is pursuing a death-wish for the world, just as by Martin Luther King’s definition four years later, the U.S. government is now “spiritually dead.” Which is not to say that nothing came of Kennedy’s speech and the work that followed it in the five months before he was murdered by U.S. militarists. Kennedy proposed in the speech the creation of a hotline between the two governments, which was created. He proposed a ban on nuclear weapons testing and announced the unilateral U.S. cessation of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. This led to a treaty banning nuclear testing except underground. And that led, as Kennedy intended, to greater cooperation and larger disarmament treaties.
This speech also led by degrees difficult to measure to greater U.S. resistance to launching new wars. May it serve to inspire a movement to bring the abolition of war to reality.