Fifty-three years ago today, on June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave the Commencement address to the American University in Washington DC. He began by explaining his choice of subject: “a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is to rarely perceived – yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.”
It is a speech no less significant than President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address a hundred years earlier.
Kennedy spoke less than a year after the Cuban missile crisis, with the full authority and passion of a leader who knew just how close the world had come to a nuclear war. He knew also that the strength of his leadership, and that of the United States, was demonstrated by the restraint he had enforced on bellicose members of the administration and armed forces.
Kennedy spoke of the implications of a war, and by implication of the futility of ‘winning’ a war in the modern age. He referred of course to nuclear weapons, which had the capacity to destroy everything. Today’s wars—even the appalling conflict in Syria—kill fewer people and level fewer cities. But today’s targeted weapons unravel the moral fabric of societies—on both sides—and generate hate and oppression, with the same relentlessness. The limited nature of today’s conflicts and the limited segment of the American population who fights them should not obscure the core challenge for the world’s most powerful military power: commitment to a strategy for peace as a principle.
The President, whose own political decisions faltered on this front, notably in Viet Nam and Laos, nonetheless understood peace as “a process – a way of solving problems” that offers timeless relevance. He concluded his address by invoking a vision of the United States committed to using its leadership to end war:
The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. 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 labor on – not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.
American leaders no longer speak about peace. They talk instead about security, wrongly implying that we could achieve security without peace, and peddling the illusion that peace is for the weak.
June 10 should be America’s day for world peace, this year and every year. President Kennedy’s speech should be required reading in every school in the country. His words should be the measure of wisdom and strength in foreign policy and national security, for every presidential candidate, especially today.
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