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JFK, nuclear weapons and the 1963 Peace Speech: How far have we come?


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President John F. Kennedy giving his "Peace Speech" at American University on June 10, 1963 (Image: American University)

Exactly 60 years ago on June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made an impassioned plea for peace to the world on the campus of American University in Washington D.C. The speech was carefully crafted, copies were shown to only a few trusted advisors for comment, and Kennedy’s ace speechwriter Ted Sorensen worked on it day and night to meet the president’s schedule. In his book “To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace” which just came out, the economist Jeffrey Sachs considers this to be Kennedy’s most important speech, and I tend to agree.

JFK’s dedication to peacemaking shines through in his words. The piece contains one of the most memorable paragraphs that I have seen in any presidential speech. In words that are now famous, Kennedy appealed to our basic connection on this planet as the most powerful argument for worldwide peace:

“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and 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 futures. And we are all mortal.”

Kennedy was saying these words through hard experience, against the background of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 that had brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. Recently declassified documents now indicate that the Soviets had more than 150 nuclear weapons in Cuba, and there were many close calls which could have sent the world over the precipice. For instance a little known submarine officer Vasili Arkhipov refused to launch his submarine’s nuclear torpedo even as American planes were dropping dummy depth charges around the submarine. When the crisis was averted everyone thought that it was because of rational men’s rational actions, but Kennedy knew better; he and his advisors understood how ultimately, helped as they were by their stubborn refusal to give in to military hardliners’ insistence that Cuba should be bombed, it was dumb luck that saved humanity.

Kennedy was thus well aware in 1963 of how quickly and unpredictably war in general and nuclear war in particular can spiral out of everyone’s hands; two years before, in another well-known speech in front of the United Nations, Kennedy had talked about the ominous and omnipresent sword of Damocles that everyone lives under, “hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness”. His Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev understood this too, cautioning JFK to not tighten the “knot of war” which would eventually have to be catastrophically severed. As one consequence of the crisis, a telephone hotline was established between the two countries that would allow their leaders to efficiently communicate with each other.

Kennedy followed the Peace Speech with one of the signal achievements of his presidency, the signing and ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) which banned nuclear tests in the air, underwater and in space. Sachs describes how Kennedy used all the powers of persuasion at his disposal to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Republican hardliners and Southern Democrats to endorse the treaty, while at the same time striking compromises with them that would encourage underground nuclear testing.

How have Kennedy’s understanding of the dangers of nuclear war, his commitment to securing peace and his efforts toward nuclear disarmament played out in the fifty years after his tragic and untimely death? On one hand there is much cause for optimism. Kennedy’s pessimistic prediction that in 1975 ten or twenty countries would have nuclear weapons has not come true. In fact the PTBT was followed in 1968 by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which for all its flaws has served as a deterrent to the formation of new nuclear states. Other treaties like SALT, START and most recently NEW START have drastically reduced the number of nuclear weapons to a fraction of what they were during the heyday of the Cold War; ironically it was Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush who must be credited with the greatest arms reductions. In addition there are several success stories of countries like South Africa, Sweden, Libya, Brazil and the former Soviet Republics giving up nuclear weapons after wisely realizing that they would be better off without them.

Yet there are troubling signs that Kennedy’s dream is still very much a dream. Countries like Israel and India which did not sign the NPT have acquired nuclear arsenals. North Korea is baring its nuclear teeth and Iran seems to be meandering even if not resolutely marching toward acquiring a bomb. In addition loose nuclear material, non-state actors and unstable regimes like Pakistan pose an ever-present challenge that threatens to spiral out of control; the possibility of “accident, or miscalculation, or madness” is very much still with us.

There are also little signs that the United States is going to unilaterally disassemble its nuclear arsenal in spite of having the most sophisticated and powerful conventional weapons in the world, ones which can hit almost any target anywhere with massive destruction. The US did unilaterally disarm its biological weapons arsenal in the 70s, but nuclear weapons still seem to inspire myths and illusions that cannot be easily dispelled. A factor that’s not much discussed but which is definitely the massive elephant in the room is spending on nuclear weapons; depending on which source you are looking at, the US spends anywhere between 20 to 50 billion dollars every year on the maintenance of its nuclear arsenal, more than what it did during the Cold War! Thousands of weapons are still deployment-ready, years after the Cold War has ended. It goes without saying that this kind of spending is unconscionable, especially when it takes valuable resources away from pressing problems like healthcare and education. Eisenhower who warned us about the military-industrial complex lamented exactly this glut of misguided priorities in his own “Chance for Peace” speech in 1953:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

It is of course inconceivable to imagine a conservative politician saying this today, but more tragically it is disconcerting to find exactly the same problems that Eisenhower and Kennedy pointed out in the 50s and 60s looming over our future.

As Sachs discusses in his new book, in a greater sense too Kennedy’s vision is facing serious challenges. Sachs believes that sustainable development has replaced nuclear weapons as the cardinal problem facing us today and until now the signs for sustainable development have not been very promising. When it comes to states struggling with poverty, Sachs accurately reminds us that countries like the US often “regard these nations as foreign policy irrelevancies; except when poverty leads to chaos and extremism, in which case they suddenly turn into military or terrorist threats”. The usual policy toward such countries is akin to the policy of a doctor who instead of preventing a disease waits until it turns into a full-blown infection, and then delivers medication that almost kills the patient without getting rid of the cause. Sadly for both parties in this country, drones are a much bigger priority than dams. This has to change.

We are still struggling with the goal laid out by John Kennedy in his Peace Speech, but Kennedy also realistically realized that reaching the goal would be a gradual and piecemeal process. He made it even clearer in his inaugural speech:

“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…(from the inaugural speech) All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Indeed. We do not know where it will end, but it is up to us to begin.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

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





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  1. 1. M Tucker 6:12 pm 06/10/2013

    Yes, of course, Kennedy was speaking about, and to, the Soviet Union in this speech. He was not talking about world peace. He was perfectly willing to sponsor warfare in Vietnam. He was even willing to sponsor an attack on Cuba as long as it didn’t involve nuclear weapons. And, of course, the Soviet Union was only willing to remove the missiles in Cuba as long as the US removed its nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy. That was a secret agreement that for unknown reasons the Soviets did not make public at the time. Why is the Army Special Warfare Center and School called the John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School? Because he, of course, saw the need for military involvement in foreign nations.

    We all continue to struggle with reconciling Kennedy’s expressed desire for world peace and the dangerous and threatening world we live in. I find it intriguing that Kennedy spoke of peace in his inauguration and authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion just four months later.

    “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

    We are still struggling to figure out how to begin all these years later. We seem frozen in our effort to make a start on the peace front will we continue to pursue war. We still have thousands of nuclear ICBM’s ready to launch at a nation we no longer see in the same light as we did in 1960 or 1963. Each new generation comes of age without a clear plan of how to begin. We seem resolved to accept the conflicts we inherit without question. It seems to me we will continue for many generations more before we ever make a start.

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  2. 2. curiouswavefunction 9:47 pm 06/10/2013

    MTucker: Kennedy overrode the military’s desire to bomb Cuba (with conventional weapons) and instead chose to blockade it. He also found diplomatic ways to negotiate with Khrushchev that involved trading the missiles in Cuba for those in Turkey; as for why Khrushchev did not make it public, it was because Kennedy explicitly said that the deal was off if he made it public. Plus, not making it public did not affect Khrushchev’s face-saving strategy. As for Vietnam, I personally believe that JFK would not have created the quagmire that Johnson did. Of course who can predict what would have been.

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  3. 3. Crocodile Chuck 11:03 pm 06/10/2013

    Ash,

    They weren’t ‘dummy’ depth charges. They were real-in the minds of the Soviet sub command team (I know what The Guardian article said).

    Ironic that in this instance, and in Operation Able Archer, mid level Soviet officers saved the USA-and humanity-from itself.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Able_Archer_83

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  4. 4. Chryses 6:21 am 06/11/2013

    Ash,

    I think the essence of your article, human aggression, is intractable and is best approached as something to be managed, and is not to be cured or fixed.

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  5. 5. M Tucker 2:09 pm 06/11/2013

    When it came to a nuclear exchange both Kennedy and Khrushchev wanted to avoid that. THAT is why we did not bomb Cuba and THAT is why blockade was the preferred choice. The blockade alone did not bring an end to the crisis it was US capitulation on the US nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy. One could make a very compelling argument that Arkhipov actually saved the world from mutually assured destruction, not Kennedy. After all it was Kennedy’s decision to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs operation that alarmed Castro so much that he sought Soviet aid. That operation was planned under the Eisenhower administration and when Kennedy took office he was advised of the plan and Kennedy gave it his blessing. He was listening to his advisers. He was not thinking about world peace or what might happen if the plan failed. He had alerted US troops to follow on if the Cuban invasion had succeeded.

    The same zeal to confront communism in Cuba with military force is what led to ground troops in Vietnam. Kennedy’s State Department and Defense Department were in strong support of military evolvement. The Bay of Pigs, in Kennedy’s first 100 days, after saying “…peace is a process — a way of solving problems…” demonstrates that he was really a man of his times, a staunch anti-communist. He believed in General Maxwell Taylor’s ideas of a limited war in SE Asia to stop the spread of communism. Not a peaceful solution by negotiation. He supported Senator Joe McCarthy in his anti-communist crusade. The 1960’s were a continuation of anti-communist saber rattling and military involvement that began right at the end of WWII and Kennedy was all-in with that.

    Kennedy was also known to give very moving and, some might say, idealistic speeches but they were always designed to motivate action: the Peace Speech to motivate Khrushchev to negotiate on nuclear weapons, the Peace Corp speech to motivate volunteers, the “pay any price speech” to encourage the citizens of Berlin.

    Maybe Kennedy would not have sent combat troops to Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin but it is hard to say. McNamara was a Kennedy appointment and he lied to Congress in order to make it sound like it was an unprovoked N Vietnamese attack. Too bad Kennedy did not listen to John Paul Vann about Vietnam. Too bad Kennedy did not see past the nonsense of the Diem government and how hopeless the situation really was.

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  6. 6. jgrosay 4:56 pm 06/11/2013

    Sorry, the world is in the safest and more ‘peaceful’ condition since more than 40 years ago, just places close the hotspots in regions connected to extremist terrorism, the type of fanaticized radical ‘muslims’, Middle East, Turkey, North of Africa and Central Africa are in some danger, we, the rest of the world, have already had a preventive castration, to not even considering any angry feeling, the single eyed monster is in command, or so it looks.

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  7. 7. haroldburbank 7:34 am 06/12/2013

    the usa probably does not currently have the most on-line and most sophisticated nukes. that honor many insiders believe belongs to israel, which the article rightly asserts has not and will not sign any kind of inspections or non-proliferation treaty. the usa has produced the most nukes in history, about 60,000 if memory serves, but almost all of these have been outdated, so decommissioned or destroyed. the usa keeps about 5000 nukes war-ready at all times. israel is suspected of keeping about 6000, many of which are micro, neutron and others of very high tech. SA should ask nuclear dissident mordechai vanunu about some of these kinds of facts. he of course was kidnapped abroad and imprisoned in israel for 18 years for telling some of what he learned as an israeli nuke tech/builder before converting to christianity and telling truth to power. God alone seems to be protecting us from ourselves from nuke madness so far. i am sure he had the ear of the russian u-boat captain referenced in this article. i have heard similar stories from my friend USAF Lt. Col. (retired) Dr. Bob Bowman, our 1st star wars chief. Bob said when he commanded usa nuke forces at s. korea after vietnam, he would have refused to order a counter-strike v russia if they launched 1st, since it would make no difference, and would be immoral. the fact is that world sanity and survival is the business of us all, regardless of what we read in the papers. history bears this out every time, and always will.

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