by Robert C. Koehler
Was he kidding? Are these words for real?
“I have, therefore, chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived — yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.”
This was 60 years ago: June 10,1963. John F. Kennedy — less than six months before his assassination — delivered a commencement address at American University. He spoke like a renegade, defying the certainties of state, the old Cross of Iron, that war is inevitable and always (when we wage it) necessary. At the time, the United States was ankle-deep in the Vietnam war and, at least according to some accounts, Kennedy wanted out. He was also in direct communication with Nikita Khrushchev; the two, working in sync, had averted a nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban Missile Crisis less than a year earlier, and were in the process of establishing a nuclear disarmament treaty.
My takeaway, after reading Kennedy’s speech — “A Strategy of Peace” — all these decades later, is stunned wonderment. You mean peace actually had political traction then, at least for a brief moment in time? It wasn’t just a cry of protest from the social margins, a.k.a., a fantasy? The creation of a global political structure based on cooperation rather than domination (or mutually assured destruction), was truly in the works?
“Today 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.”
Kennedy’s words dig deeper into basic sanity than the generic political blather I’ve gotten used to in my lifetime, which would never, ever, ever challenge U.S. militarism or fail to glorify it, much less suggest that the creation of peace requires the participation of everyone on the planet, including our declared enemies.
“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.”
This is an American president, acknowledging that the commies breathe the same air that we do, and cherish their children as much as we do? He didn’t simply want “them” to disarm. His own country also needed to disarm. Yeah, he was a renegade. He had come to realize that the generals who surrounded him, some of whom were pushing for the use of nukes in Vietnam, were a far greater threat to global peace and sanity than Khrushchev.
And, oh yeah, as Al-Jazeera noted: “After Kennedy’s assassination, instead of an end to American involvement in Vietnam, the U.S. deployed 100,000 troops in 1965 — with more than 530,000 in country by 1968 — and a decade of carnage was under way.”
That’s the country I live in. How many stupid and horrific wars have we waged in my lifetime? How many politicians have defended, and voted for, these wars? When it comes to peace, when it comes to disarmament, are we not a democracy in name only? “Democracy” — oh, what a useful public-relations cliché! But when it comes to countering militarism, it means absolutely nothing, because that’s not allowed. The U.S. has one role only: to destroy evil, and that requires a trillion-dollar annual military budget.
So digging 60 years into the past, reading the words of a president who — my God — declared that this nation must look inward, at its own wrongs and shortcomings, rather than merely condemn its enemies, opens up the peace movement, links it, oh so tentatively, to the highest levels of government.
“What kind of peace do I mean?” he asked.
“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.”
A president transcending nationalism, envisioning a world beyond “USA! USA!”? Was Kennedy daring to look beyond his own interests — his own re-election — and the interests of his party? Apparently so. He understood that “the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war” but decided to pursue it anyway, because “we have no more urgent task.”
But Kennedy was killed and the pursuit of peace ground to a halt. Soon enough, the war in Vietnam “escalated.” I have always thought that the global peace movement began in the wake of this escalation, but reading Kennedy’s speech has made me realize otherwise. The peace movement — the peace process, to be more precise — was already under way. Then it was interrupted by one magic bullet.
It’s been in the political margins ever since.