WBUR

Commander In Chief Kennedy Calls For Peace

In our series, “November 1963,” we listen back to America’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. On June 10, 1963, Kennedy gave a commencement address at American University — often referred to as his “Peace Speech” — that redirected the trajectory of the Cold War.

President John Kennedy wears academic robe and hood after receiving the honorary degree of doctor of laws from American University at graduation exercises in Washington June 10, 1963. (AP)

President John Kennedy wears academic robe and hood after receiving the honorary degree of doctor of laws from American University at graduation exercises in Washington June 10, 1963. (AP)

BOSTON — “What kind of a peace do I mean? What kind of a 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.”

It was hailed as one of the most important speeches of the 20th century: A call for world peace by a president who knew well how terrifyingly close America — and the world — came to nuclear war.

“I am talking about genuine peace. The kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living and the kind that enables man and nations to grow and to hope and 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 in all time.”

“Our problems are man-made,” Kennedy said. “Therefore, they can be solved by man.” The speech was a striking departure from Kennedy’s previous Cold War addresses. And for an audience reared on Truman and Eisenhower’s Cold War rhetoric, the message was entirely new.

“Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude as individuals and as a nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs.”

In the months after the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev maintained a secret correspondence about nuclear disarmament. “Both you and I have grave responsibilities to our families and to all of mankind,” Kennedy wrote in a letter to the Soviet leader on April 11, 1963. “The pressure from those who have a less patient and peaceful outlook are great, but I assure you of my own determination to work to strengthen world peace.”

“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.”

In this speech, Kennedy announced upcoming test ban treaty talks in Moscow, and he heralded America’s unilateral end of atmospheric nuclear testing. “With our hopes, go the hopes of all mankind,” he said.

“This generation of Americans has already had enough — more than enough — of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we must labor on. Not toward a strategy of annihilation, but toward a strategy of peace.”

Soviet papers reprinted the address in its entirety, and Nikita Khrushchev hailed it as the best speech by an American president since Roosevelt.

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