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50 Years Later, JFK “Peace Speech” Still Inspires–and Has Been Scientifically Validated!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’m not a big fan of the literary sub-genre of political rhetoric, even the best examples of which usually reduce to schmaltzy, self-aggrandizing propaganda. I nonetheless love the so-called “Peace Speech” given exactly 50 years ago by President John F. Kennedy. Speaking at the commencement of American University, Washington, D.C., on June 10, 1963, Kennedy talked about “the most important topic on earth: world peace.”

John F. Kennedy giving "Peace Speech," June 10, 1963.

Kennedy continued: “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.” Yeah, that’s peace all right.

The high point of Kennedy’s speech, for me, was when he repudiated the notion that permanent peace is a utopian fantasy. “Too many of us think [peace] 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.”

Contrast Kennedy’s inspiring optimism with the dismal perspective offered by Barack Obama in 2009 when he accepted (irony of ironies) the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man,” Obama stated. “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Obama is implying that war is ancient, innate and—for the foreseeable future—inevitable.

According to surveys I’ve carried out for more than a decade now, most people favor Obama’s pessimistic view of war over Kennedy’s upbeat outlook. When it comes to world peace, most people think pessimism is realistic, and optimism naïve. But most people are wrong. Science supports Kennedy’s view and undercuts Obama’s.

Many prominent scientists–notably Harvard’s Richard Wrangham, Steven Pinker and Edward Wilson–assert that the roots of war reach back not only to the beginning of our species, as Obama claimed, but even further, to the common ancestors that we share with chimpanzees. The evidence for this hypothesis is flimsy, to put it mildly. Overwhelmingly, evidence from archaeology and anthropology reveals that war is a relatively recent (less than 13,000 years old) cultural “invention,” as anthropologist Margaret Mead put it, that culture can help us transcend. Kennedy’s statement that “Our problems are manmade–therefore, they can be solved by man” has been empirically validated.

Talk, as Barack Obama has unfortunately demonstrated, is cheap. Kennedy backed up his rhetoric with actions. He announced that “the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not be the first to resume.” That was the end of atmospheric nuclear detonations by the U.S. and Soviet Union. Kennedy also urged young people in his audience to consider joining the Peace Corps, which he helped found in 1961.

Finally, alluding to the struggle of blacks for civil rights, Kennedy acknowledged that peace without justice is hollow. “In too many of our cities today,” he said, “the peace is not secure because the freedom is incomplete. It is the responsibility of the executive branch at all levels of government–local, State, and National–to provide and protect that freedom for all of our citizens by all means within their authority.” The following day, Kennedy announced his administration’s support for a strong new federal civil-rights bill.

We need leaders with this kind of inspiring vision today!

Postscript: Several readers have pointed out that Kennedy wasn’t exactly a pacifist. True enough. But compared to most recent Presidents, he looks pretty damn good, especially in the way that he appealed to the hopes rather than fears of Americans. Also, I just received the following email from Camille LePre of American University: “We were delighted to see your insightful piece in Scientific American about JFK’s peace speech at American University! If you haven’t already seen it, we have put together a web site about the Strategy of Peace speech, which includes articles, photos, videos, other artifacts from the time (1963 student newspaper coverage, White House typewritten text of the speech, speechwriter Ted Sorenson’s AU Commencement speech about the JFK AU Commencement speech, etc), and current reflections from a series events held at American University over the past few months. If you are so inclined, we invite you to link to this web site from your piece:”

Photo: American University.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ben_ci 2:29 pm 06/10/2013

    Excellent post.

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  2. 2. CurrentOutlook 3:51 pm 06/10/2013

    On occasion, President Obama is a realist. On occasion, President Kennedy was not.

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  3. 3. M Tucker 4:00 pm 06/10/2013

    So then JFK took his own advice and opened talks with Ho Chi Minh right? No? He didn’t? Wow, I’m shocked!

    But Kennedy was a pacifist right? He saw that Castro actually could not interfere with US interests so he was open to negotiations right? No? Bay of what? What is that? Castro so feared the US he invited the Soviets to build missile bases? No, that can’t be right. JFK was for peace. That is what he said in his 1963 speech. He said, “What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” So he couldn’t have been in favor of cover air attacks in Vietnam. He couldn’t have been a believer in General Maxwell Taylor’s idea of “limited war” in Vietnam. That sounds like enforcing peace with the “weapons of war.” Given his history I wonder what Kennedy would have done in 1964. If he had been reelected would he have done the same think Johnson did? After all, McNamara was Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. Kennedy was know for making very high sounding speeches but it is hard to be in favor of peace, a Democrat, and get elected in the US, at that time, with Republicans shouting that you are soft on communism.

    You should read “A Bright Shining Lie.”

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  4. 4. gesimsek 6:38 pm 06/10/2013

    The question is not if we should go to war or not but if we should help people sufferring under ruthless regimes and how.

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  5. 5. M Tucker 7:39 pm 06/10/2013

    What about the Palestinian question? How long are we going to drag that out for?

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  6. 6. be234so 5:09 pm 06/11/2013

    The scientists (Wrangham, Wilson, Pinker) were referring to the innate aggressive behaviors shown in vertebrates of all types. At times of stress, most vertebrates revert to “mid-brain” behavior, to those areas involved with territoriality and aggressive behavior…humans, apparently, are no different, as is being shown in the world daily. The only difference is that these reptilian behaviors are being augmented by phenomena of the cerebral cortex, like misguided religion, or competition for resources, etc. Obviously our primate ancestors didn’t “go to war,” but the beginnings of war, a relative more complex behavior, can be laid at their doorstep. If culture can help us transcend war, just when does it start doing so?

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  7. 7. TTLG 5:40 pm 06/11/2013

    If I define war as violence by a group against another group of the same species, then it looks to me to be something done only by modern humans and ants. But it is only a small step from cooperative violence by a group against an individual or against a group of another species, which many social animals do. But even if it is a relative modern invention, so what? The genie is out of the bottle and nothing we can do will put it back. Are we also going to uninvent gunpowder?
    The worst invention of this sort that I see is the idea that those profiting from war being safely outside the danger zone. It is tempting to think that weapons that can attack anywhere, such as ICBM’s or terrorism might solve this, but that is not what seems to be happening. Instead, the response is to reduce the freedoms of the general populace even more.
    It is easy to have a wishful dream, such as putting a man on the moon or eradicating war without also eradicating freedom. But the people I truly admire are the ones who actually make the dream happen. I hope to live to meet some of the group who made the latter happen.

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  8. 8. Quantumburrito 9:35 pm 06/11/2013

    Ants? Ants do nothing of the sort. The ethologist Konrad Lorenz once said that in his opinion humans and a certain species of pigeon are the only two species which seem to enjoy killing purely for sport.

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  9. 9. bucketofsquid 1:51 pm 06/28/2013

    @Quantumburrito – Ants do indeed frequently engage in colony vs. colony warfare. In addition there are a wide variety of predator species that appear to kill for sport. The panther and the wild dog are just a couple off the top of my head. If I thought about it I’m sure I could come up with more.

    @everyone else – It really depends on how you define peace. If you mean lack of conflict or struggle then death is about the only solution. If you mean the disbanding of armies and the use of fair and just mediation or diplomacy, that is very possible but not under our current system of rewarding sociopathic monsters for seizing power by force or sly deception.

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  10. 10. AtLiberty 8:33 pm 08/25/2013

    Barak Obama is an international bankster, corporate weapons dealing, war profiteering lap dog mouthpiece of the ZioNazis. I Obama was not he would end up like John Kennedy and if you think a magic bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun killed JFK, your are sorely mistaken. Even as war prevails because of the ZioNazi rule of the USA, the vast majority of humans do not profit from war and have gotten along even with our adversaries, we are more social than recluse alpha pig worshiper. The pigs rise to power because of this. We need to organize, unite and start a new US government, reinstate or rewrite the articles of the Constitution and include a National People’s Referendum Process and no confidence clauses to shut the ZioNazi monetary system monopolizing, weapons dealing, war profiteers down, NOW!

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