In an increasingly polarized world, it takes wise leadership to articulate an alternative path. Many of today’s leaders fall short, so we need to go back to Presidents like John F Kennedy (JFK) to see how it can be done. And his ‘Peace Speeech’ from 1963 is the best expression of this.
The backdrop to the speech was the Cold War. At any time, the US and the Soviet Union could trigger nuclear armageddon. Indeed, only eight months earlier, they almost got there with the Cuban missile crisis. It took JFK’s backdoor negotiations to avert something much worse. Back to the speech, the full transcript and video can be found here, but here are some of the highlights:
‘What kind of peace do I mean? 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’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union. It is discouraging to think that their leaders may actually believe what their propagandists write. It is discouraging to read a recent authoritative Soviet text on Military Strategy and find, on page after page, wholly baseless and incredible claims–such as the allegation that “American imperialist circles are preparing to unleash different types of wars . . . that there is a very real threat of a preventive war being unleashed by American imperialists against the Soviet Union.’
‘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..’
‘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.’
‘When a man’s ways please the Lord,’ the Scriptures tell us, ‘he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.’ And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights–the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation–the right to breathe air as nature provided it–the right of future generations to a healthy existence?’
Two months after this speech, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Five months after the speech, JFK was assassinated.