Newswise — Monday, June 10 marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's speech “A Strategy of Peace” in which he issued a rallying cry for an end to the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and for a beginning of a new era of peace with all nations.
Delivered at American University’s 1963 commencement ceremony and written by Kennedy’s legendary speechwriter Ted Sorensen, "A Strategy of Peace" is remembered as one of the president's finest and one of the most inspiring commencement addresses ever delivered.
Kennedy spoke loftily of peace, both securing and building it—"not merely peace in our time but peace for all time," he said. It was a clarion call to all nations to abandon nuclear strategies in favor of peace.
As exhibited most recently by President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address, the legacy of the speech is evident today in the country’s current nuclear policies and efforts to reduce the world’s nuclear stockpile.
"We will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands—because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead," Obama said.
A direct thread runs from Kennedy’s “A Strategy of Peace” through the 2013 State of the Union address and Obama’s agenda for nuclear arms. While the U.S. still has enough nuclear weapons to cause major damage, the reductions in recent years have been steep. That takes real leadership, said James Thurber, Distinguished Professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs. And it started with Kennedy.
"Despite what had transpired prior to the speech [Cuban Missile Crisis], Kennedy was still willing to reach out and work with the Soviets to reduce nuclear testing and weapon development and that’s important historically and it’s impressive," Thurber said. "This is all a part of the Kennedy legacy to reduce the number of weapons and increase peace in the world."
Standoff Spawned Seminal Speech
Seven months prior to June 1963, during 13 tense days in October 1962, the United States found itself at the brink of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought into sharp focus just how serious the threat was.
"The two leaders — Kennedy and Khrushchev — looked into the abyss and managed to avoid nuclear war," said James Goldgeier, dean of American University's School of International Service. "It was a pretty scary time."
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy resolved to prevent something like that from happening again. A nuclear test ban treaty seemed a good place to start.
Kennedy revealed his agenda for the speech to few members of his administration for fear of a backlash. Striking a conciliatory tone with the Soviets would have been viewed as weak in many Washington quarters.
Once Kennedy had the idea for the speech, he needed a venue. "President Kennedy deliberately chose American University for its public service reputation in the U.S. and around the globe,” said Neil Kerwin, president of American University. “Fifty years later, our students and faculty are still guided by his words spoken here in the effort to achieve 'peace in all time.'"
'Bold' and 'Unusual'
It was an "unusual" speech, said Robert Lehrman, American University School of Communication professor and former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore.
Kennedy’s American University speech was more than just a series of memorable lines. The writing was crisp, it expressed a view that was insightful, and it was hugely influential, all qualities of an exceptional speech, Lehrman said.
The speech, which Kennedy and Sorensen finished reviewing and editing on a plane ride back from Hawaii that day, made use of a number of literary devices. It employed alliteration, antithesis, and repetition, none of which were common at the time in political speeches, Lehrman said.
While the literary devices used in the speech were unique, the message was what made it shine. Rather than demonizing the Soviets, he reminded Americans of what they endured during World War II. He encouraged the American public to feel some sense of empathy toward their enemy. And he implored the nation to move forward.
The legacy of “A Strategy of Peace” cannot be underestimated. The détente policy, developed during the Cold War to help ease tensions in U.S.-Soviet relations, was a direct outgrowth of the speech, Goldgeier said. That policy lasted until the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan in 1979.
"There was generally a notion that even though the Soviets were our adversaries, we would reach out to them," Goldgeier said.
Over the years, the United States has continued to push for a worldwide reduction in nuclear arms. President Bill Clinton tried, albeit unsuccessfully to put a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty in place. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996, but has yet to be fully ratified. The United States remains one of the few holdouts.
"I don’t think you’d find the president making the same statement today on Iran or North Korea. There would be immediate pushback and criticism," Thurber said. "Back when Kennedy delivered that speech, there were moderates and there was a more bipartisan foreign policy effort."
American University is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the United States and nearly 140 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service, and internships in the nation’s capital and around the world.
Note to Editors:
American University expert faculty are available to provide additional analysis and commentary on the legacy of and current relevance of JFK’s “A Strategy of Peace” to nuclear disarmament talks expected later this summer and fall, Iran and North Korea’s acquisition/development of nuclear weapons, U.S. foreign relations, presidential history, U.S. history, and Russian history