By Nancy Spannaus
“Nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”
By Nancy Spannaus 
June 4, 2023—When President John F. Kennedy took the podium at the commencement address of American University on June 10, 1963, he was about to deliver one of the most consequential speeches of his presidency. He had a vital message to deliver, both to the Soviet Union and to the American people.
Kennedy’s central topic was peace, world peace. Having experienced the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Soviet Union called the Cuban Missile crisis (November 1962), the President was more committed than ever to finding an alternative to war. He had, of course, not abandoned his lifelong, and often strident, opposition to communism and its expansion. But, as an avid student of history, a combat veteran, and an experienced strategist, he had concluded that a new approach to the super-power conflict was needed.
I believe that Kennedy’s message is coherent with the best of the American System tradition, especially that of Abraham Lincoln and his lead general Ulysses Grant. While totally dedicated to defense of their nation, both understood the need for understanding and respecting the perspective of the “enemy,” and creating a peace that would benefit all sides in the conflict. (cf., the Gettysburg address) His approach also sharply contrasts with that of our government today.
I urge you to read the full American University speech and ponder it. Then send it to your congressmen; send it to the President; repost its message wherever you can. Demand our elected representatives read it: it is their duty to do so.
In the post below, I highlight some of the key elements of Kennedy’s June 10 speech, all of which challenge what has become accepted policy today. It should be noted, as well, that as a result of this speech, the Soviet leadership changed its policy toward talks on nuclear arms control, agreeing to discussions which ultimately resulted in the signing of a treaty a few months later.
Examine Your Attitudes
The core of Kennedy’s speech called on Americans to re-examine their attitudes on three key issues: the possibility of peace, the Soviet Union, and the “cold war” itself.
On the first, the President took aim at the view that world peace is impossible, and war is inevitable. The following paragraph is exemplary:
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.
He proceeded to outline an approach characterized by practical steps, what he called the “process” of peace.
Next, Kennedy called for people to examine their attitudes toward the Soviet Union. I quote a key section:
As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements–in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.
Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique, among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland–a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.
The President went on to say that it is both the United States and the Soviet Union which would suffer the greatest devastation if war broke out between them. And both sides would benefit from the establishment of peace. He concludes this section thus:
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.
Finally, Kennedy urged Americans to re-evaluate their attitude toward the cold war. The two relevant paragraphs go as follows:
Let us reexamine our attitude toward the cold war, remembering that we are not engaged in a debate, seeking to pile up debating points. We are not here distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment. We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last 18 years been different.
We must, therefore, persevere in the search for peace in the hope that constructive changes within the Communist bloc might bring within reach solutions which now seem beyond us. We must conduct our affairs in such a way that it becomes in the Communists’ interest to agree on a genuine peace. Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy-or of a collective death-wish for the world. (emphasis added)
Will anybody listen?
There is no evidence that large numbers of the American people, or policymakers for that matter, carried out the re-evaluation that President Kennedy demanded. There was no popular upsurge demanding arms control or other such negotiations. But with Kennedy in the Presidency, it was nonetheless possible for some progress to be made.
Today, however, with the exception of a recent ad by the Eisenhower Media Network in the New York Times, there is very little prominent dissent from the prevailing line in both political parties that demands precisely the “humiliating retreat” which Kennedy warned against. Any legitimacy to Russia’s concern about NATO expansion, for example, to its borders is denied.
One wonders what our Washington policy analysts would have to say to Kennedy’s argument. Times have changed, they would obviously say. Yes, indeed, they have. Among other things, it is the United States and its military allies deploying offensive nuclear weaponry at the border of Russia, not the Soviets doing the same in our backyard.
But contrary to a prevalent line today. Russia is still a pre-eminent nuclear power with the ability to wipe us, and many other nations, off the face of the earth. Should any sane person be crowing that the fact that Russia has not “gone nuclear” means it’s wielding “empty threats?”
Sixty years after President Kennedy’s American University speech, it’s time we re-evaluate our attitudes once again.
 Public historian Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.
Make a one-time donation
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly