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John F. Kennedy's Greatest Speech23:28
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President John F. Kennedy speaks at American University on June 10, 1963. (Wikipedia)
President John F. Kennedy speaks at American University on June 10, 1963. (Wikipedia)

Across the country, as they prepare to step out into the world on their own, college graduates have been listening to commencement speeches. Some of these speeches — full of lofty rhetoric and sentiment; some of them funny, and many others forgettable.

Well, here's one that hasn't been forgotten. Fifty years ago, early June, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University in Washington.

He called it "A Strategy of Peace," and it was a direct appeal to Americans and to the leaders of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Many historians consider it the best speech of his presidency.

"A Strategy of Peace" was remarkable, both in its departure from hostile Cold War rhetoric and in its empathy towards the Soviet Union. It came just months after the two super powers walked to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kennedy announced a unilateral above-ground nuclear test ban, called for better communication with the USSR, and a relaxation of tensions, that would eventually lead to "detente."

Kennedy's appeal for peace was so direct and controversial that he kept the contents of the speech a closely-guarded secret even from his own cabinet.

Guests

Robert Schlesinger,  managing editor for opinion at U.S. News and World Report, overseeing all opinion editorial content. He is the author of "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters."

Nicholas Burns, professor of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is Director of the Future of Diplomacy Project and Faculty Chair for the Programs on the Middle East and on India and South Asia.

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This segment aired on May 28, 2013.

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