Washington Four decades ago this spring, in the last six months of his life, John F. Kennedy delivered a speech that was little remarked upon at the time and is hardly remembered now. It did not possess the soaring sentiments of his Inaugural Address, when he accepted the torch of leadership from an earlier generation, nor the drama of his speech in Berlin, when in the shadow of the Wall he identified himself with the forces of freedom.
And yet there was something about Kennedy's American University speech, delivered 40 Junes ago, that lingered in the minds of historians. Indeed, in his remarkable new biography of the 35th president, "An Unfinished Life," Robert Dallek describes the speech as "one of the great state papers of any 20th-century American presidency." And in the definitive American biography of Nikita S. Khrushchev, published only months ago, William Taubman quotes the Soviet leader calling his rival's address "the best speech by any president since Roosevelt."
This June, so different from that springtime long ago, is a good time to re-examine the Kennedy speech that would not be forgotten, the one that the president rushed into delivering so as to have it on the record before a critical Sino-Soviet summit in July 1963 -- the speech that, in an extraordinary break from custom, the Communist government actually allowed to be published in translation for distribution in the Soviet Union. Here are some excerpts, annotated for our time:¢
"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."
The Kennedy speech was an examination of the nature of peace, but it also stands as a remarkable period piece. At that time, not even a year after the Cuban missile crisis, the notion of a Pax Americana was inconceivable. But then, as now, when talk of a Pax Americana is not unknown, worries about weapons of mass destruction -- a threat known to Kennedy but a phrase unfamiliar to him -- dominated the worries of Washington. And then, as now, freedom was the dominant ideology, and the dominating rhetoric, of American politics.¢
"I speak of peace ... as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war -- and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task."
Just this spring the historian James MacGregor Burns, the author of a Kennedy biography prepared before the 1960 election, wrote a book arguing in part that few leaders achieve greatness without taking their people into war. In this excerpt, Kennedy elevates the challenge posed by peace to that posed by war. A note on an ironic antiquarianism: The use of the word "men" as a shorthand for "humankind" was common throughout the decade that launched the contemporary women's movement.¢
"Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable -- that mankind is doomed -- that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. 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."
These remarks speak to our time, when leaders and commentators remark easily that massive new terrorist attacks on the United States are "inevitable." In an age where the front lines and the home front are one and the same, homeland security has justly become the nation's top domestic and national security priority. But the nation cannot undermine its values in its zeal to protect its values -- the heart of the conflict between civil liberties and what Americans in the age of Kennedy called civil defense.
This excerpt adumbrates the only memorable line in Bill Clinton's first inauguration, the notion that, as he put it in January 1993, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."¢
"Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems."
This is a far more profound passage in 2003 than it was in 1963, for it is no longer certain that the way of assuring peace that prevailed throughout the 20th century -- the stockpiling of arms of overwhelming power -- will prevail at the beginning of the 21st century. The United States possessed overwhelming power in September 2001 and yet was stunningly vulnerable to attacks of unconventional weapons by unconventional means by unconventional opponents.¢
"Let us examine our attitude toward peace and freedom here at home. The quality and spirit of our own society must justify and support our efforts abroad."
This is the moral heart of the speech. In Kennedy's time, it referred to the civil rights movement and to the awkwardness the president felt in speaking of freedom abroad while there was oppression at home. In our own time, it is evocative of the freedoms being denied to some in the hope that freedom might be preserved for all.¢
"The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war."
Thus begins the last paragraph of Kennedy's speech -- and the one that provides the most arresting marker of the distance the United States has traveled in these four decades. Kennedy lived in a world where no president risked pre-emptive strikes. This is not an idle thought about an idyllic world; Kennedy was handed, but rejected, proposals for a pre-emptive strike on the Soviet missiles in Cuba in October 1962. This one sentence reminds us how dramatic a departure from American tradition is President Bush's national security doctrine of pre-emptive action against mortal threats to Americans -- and suggests that the short Persian Gulf war of 2003 is as important an event in the history of the United States as it is in the history of Iraq.