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We Need Leaders Who Share John F. Kennedy’s Vision of World Peace

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


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To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy, I’m reposting a column about his “Peace Speech,” which he gave less than six months before his assassination:

President John F. Kennedy giving his "Peace Speech" at American University on June 10, 1963, less than six months before he was assassinated.

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 on June 10, 1963, by President John F. Kennedy. Speaking at the commencement of American University in Washington, D.C., Kennedy talked about “the most important topic on earth: world peace.”

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, and Kennedy was hardly a pacifist, as the Bay of Pigs debacle demonstrated. But he backed up the rhetoric of his Peace Speech 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: American University has constructed a web site packed with information about Kennedy’s Peace Speech. See http://www.american.edu/jfk.

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. rshoff2 11:15 am 11/22/2013

    What kind of peace? Actve or passive? What kind of violence? Offensive or defensive. You are correct. Peace is possible. The question is how to get from here to there?

    Lay down are guns?! We are hated, feared, and envied. We would not survive as a free people and many would die.

    So, you are also correct that it takes leadership. Coordinated leadersip across the globe. So before we can lay down the guns, we must build trust amongst peoples. People must all be free political oppression and opression from religions and oppression from commercialization. People must all be brought up to a standard of life that is ‘livable’.

    So after we drive the bullies out, restructure our distribution system, and build trust between people, then peace can happen.

    It’s not a peaceful process to get there and the defensive measures required in the meantime are contradictory to the goal. We breed violence in our own culture.

    My question to you. Can peace be acheived as long as we are free to behave badly and give into our fears, envy, hatred? Yet, can peace be acheived if we are not free?

    Although war may not be in our genes, surely survival is. Aren’t they two sides of the same coin?

    Link to this
  2. 2. rshoff2 11:26 am 11/22/2013

    Perhaps the gift we have been given is the gift to rise above our genes and find peace to thrive together as a people. Do you think there’s anybody out there rooting for us? I hope so. I do hope so. But it’s doubtful. Sadness. Coldness. Quiet. Death. That is the hope we can rise too. It is the hope that we don’t take the earth down with us.

    We are the microbes in the petri dish destined to fail. Maybe the petri dish a couple shelves up will offer a better yeild. A less virulent and sustainable microbial strain.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tuned 11:43 am 11/22/2013

    Here we go with his libby lobbying again.
    Caveat: murder is evil, no excuse for the tragedy.
    However, JFK is the overhyped Camelot king.
    JFK got the U.S. deep into Vietnam, them L.B.J. (both dems) escalated it ridiculously. Almost ironic that (repub) Nixon got U.S. out of Vietnam.
    JFK was of Joseph Kennedys’ gangster family, the political connections are historically infamous.
    JFK (etc.)was a notorious womanizer.
    JFK treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis was dubious, it should never have got to that point.
    What JFK DID have was a good civil rights record, which is God to libbys.
    I think both the cons and the libbys are a problem, a waste of resources in America. All conflict all the time.
    I go for a more balanced view, which is why I am a true independent (not a libertarian).

    Link to this
  4. 4. rshoff2 11:50 am 11/22/2013

    I dunno, tuned. But I don’t think lobbying for peace is ‘libby’. Hopefully there are large numbers in all walks of life that believe peace is possible, or at least believe in the hope that it is.

    There are many arenas in life where I would find great comfort in being proved wrong. This is one of them.

    Link to this
  5. 5. M Tucker 2:08 pm 11/22/2013

    “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.”

    John, I think that you are truly interested in honest investigation of tough issues like world peace and justice (do we have fair justice in America?) and “the U.S. decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki” or having the military adopt a “protect and serve” policy. However, I think you are influenced more by the grand rhetoric instead of investigating the actual actions, decisions, and methods that are used.

    If you go beyond the fancy words Kennedy used in that one speech and look at what Kennedy actually did you will get a much more interesting view of the reality. Why did Kennedy install a pro-colonial government in S Vietnam? Did he think that would lead to a more just and enlightened governance of the diverse population? What were the factors that lead so many S Vietnamese to go over to the Vietcong? Why did he seem to ignore so much of what was going wrong with American policy?

    Kennedy took the missiles out of Turkey. Why was that kept secret? Kennedy stopped atmospheric testing. Did that reduce the threat of nuclear war?

    I think that Obama is much more honest in his rhetoric than Kennedy was. Kennedy did not actually do anything to advance world peace. The Peace Corp was not about advancing world peace. It was to help disadvantaged countries that had been ravaged by the excesses and oppression and exploitation of colonialism. You might consider how that colonial legacy has influenced the Asian and African nations that still suffer from war and terror. You might have your class consider this, “how would the Middle East be different today had the UN not forced the installation of a new, largely European, nation into its midst?”

    “Science supports Kennedy’s view and undercuts Obama’s.” Really? Is there a consensus among the scientists concerned? It seems like the debate still rages among the scientists. But the important question is can we achieve world peace in spite of our history (last 2000 years) of conquest and exploitation and colonialism?

    What side would Kennedy have taken in the “the U.S. decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

    Link to this
  6. 6. Fanandala 3:18 pm 11/22/2013

    Thank you, I could not have put it any better.
    As for “war is a construct of man” is in my opinion wrong. Animals fight over sexual dominance, territory and food all the time. So we are not all that different.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Fanandala 3:20 pm 11/22/2013

    @tuned
    Thank you, I could not have put it any better.

    Link to this
  8. 8. rshoff2 3:31 pm 11/22/2013

    The basic instinct of survival might dictate war. However, we have a balancing part of our instinct. That is a social instinct. An instinct for civilization. The whole versus the one. I’m not sure that animals have that instinct. At least not to the extent we do. In addition, we have the conscious awareness that provides us the opportunity to hone the attitudes and behaviors of our choice. Mankind is an animal, but are we really imprisoned by our genes? Maybe, but maybe it just as limey that with effort and fortitude, we as a civilization, can choose our path. That in turn may change at least our epigenetic make-up. Perhaps there are genes that contribute to war, directly. But can’t those genes be shut down and become junk?

    Link to this
  9. 9. rshoff2 3:32 pm 11/22/2013

    …just as likely…

    Link to this
  10. 10. rkipling 3:26 pm 11/23/2013

    M Tucker,

    “…Obama is much more honest in his rhetoric..”

    Honest? Really? Where have you been lately?

    Even stupid people are started to figure it out.

    Link to this
  11. 11. marclevesque 6:08 pm 11/23/2013

    I’m having trouble with your link : “The evidence for this hypothesis is flimsy” http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=quitting-the-hominid-fight-club-the-2010-06-29/

    This link is working for me : http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2010/06/29/quitting-the-hominid-fight-club-the-evidence-is-flimsy-for-innate-chimpanzee-let-alone-human-warfare/

    Link to this
  12. 12. tuned 1:14 pm 11/24/2013

    @ rshoff2
    You ignored my point.
    JFK turned away from “peace” many times in many ways. Everyone talks peace, few are Ghandi.

    Link to this
  13. 13. rshoff2 11:26 am 11/25/2013

    @tuned, I see your point, and agree to a point. However, peace is transactional as much as it is a philosophy. All transactions are not peaceful, even while maintaing a goal to peace.

    Life is transactional. What we value is the sum total.

    My point is that accusing John of being “libby” is counter productive. He may or may not be, but peace is not a partisan issue. We all wantit.

    I often do make the same mistake.

    btw, how do we use the products of science for peace and well being instead of power and money? Anybody know? Anybody care?

    Link to this
  14. 14. FrenchToaster 6:56 am 11/27/2013

    @tuned

    “Here we go with his libby lobbying again.”

    I don’t see it as much that the author is “liberal” as it is that he is mistaken, and that the policies he advocates based upon that mistake endanger my children.

    Link to this

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