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In the modern age, U.S. presidents have delivered dozens of addresses on international peace and security, but few have been as profound or consequential as John F. Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” address delivered 50 years ago on June 10 on the campus of American University in Washington.
Coming just months after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis drove home the risks of an unbridled nuclear arms race and the dangers of a direct superpower conflict, the speech was intended to send an unambiguous signal to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that the United States sought to “avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating defeat or nuclear war,” as Kennedy phrased it in the speech.
During and after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged letters expressing the need to “step back from the danger,” as Kennedy put it, by making progress on arms control. In a letter to Kennedy on October 28, 1962, as the crisis came to a close, Khrushchev wrote, “We should like to continue the exchange of views on the prohibition of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, on general disarmament and other problems relating to the relaxation of international tension.”
Kennedy, writing back the same day, said that “perhaps now…we can make some real progress in this vital field. I think we should give priority to questions relating to the proliferation of nuclear weapons…and to the great effort for a nuclear test ban.”
Kennedy’s June 10 address was courageous because it was conciliatory at a time of high tension and grave risks. It was prepared with his assistant Ted Sorenson, without the usual interagency review process. Using simple, eloquent phrases, Kennedy praised the Soviet people for their achievements and explained the urgent necessity of pursuing a strategy for peace to avoid the horrific dangers of nuclear war, including renewed steps on nuclear arms control and a hotline for urgent communications between Moscow and Washington. The speech offered a vision of hope and cautioned against defeatism.
At its core, the speech offered a revised formula for achieving progress on restricting nuclear weapons testing, a goal that had eluded President Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Khrushchev for more than six years. Kennedy viewed the nuclear test ban treaty—ideally a comprehensive ban—as an essential first step toward U.S.-Soviet disarmament and a barrier against the spread of nuclear weapons. In a March 21, 1963, interview, Kennedy said, “[P]ersonally I am haunted by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of 4, and by 1975, 15 or 20.”
Despite renewed efforts to negotiate a test ban in early 1963 and conciliatory offers from each side, U.S. and Soviet negotiators remained divided over the issue of on-site inspections and verification. On June 10, Kennedy sought to break the impasse with a strategy for unilateral but reciprocated initiatives. He announced that the United States “does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so,” and he suggested that this declaration could be codified through a binding treaty.
The historical and documentary record suggests that Kennedy’s June 10 address had a profound effect on Khrushchev’s thinking on the test ban issue and about Kennedy. Kennedy’s address was published in full by the Soviet newspapers Izvestia and Pravda and welcomed by Khrushchev himself. In a statement in July 1963, the Soviet leader, who had previously insisted on a comprehensive ban, accepted for the first time a ban on atmospheric testing, which did not require on-site inspections or monitoring stations.
Two weeks later, the U.S. negotiating team, led by veteran diplomat Averell Harriman, went to Moscow for talks on the limited test ban and, if possible, the long-sought comprehensive test ban. With growing resistance to the test ban concept from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and from key senators, as well as the insistence of the Soviets on a less frequent inspection system for a comprehensive ban, the negotiators focused on achieving the limited test ban treaty.
Late on July 25, after just 12 days of talks, the negotiators concluded work on the Limited Test Ban Treaty. With a strong, public push from Kennedy, the U.S. Senate gave its advice and consent for ratification on September 24 by a vote of 80-19.
Kennedy’s June 10 speech not only catalyzed action on this treaty, but also led to the formalization of an agreement on establishing a hotline. It ushered in a limited easing of tensions between the superpowers involving reciprocal troop reductions in Europe, U.S. grain sales to the Soviets, mutual British-Soviet-U.S. pledges to reduce production of fissile material for weapons, energetic U.S.- and Soviet-led diplomacy in Geneva from 1964 to 1968 toward conclusion of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and an agreement in 1968 to hold discussions “on the limitation and the reduction of both offensive strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems and systems of defense against ballistic missiles.”
Since June 1963, every U.S. president—Democrat or Republican—has echoed some of the key themes of Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” address in his own policies and statements. Kennedy’s successors have continued to pursue many of the disarmament goals outlined during his administration. As the excerpts below indicate, these presidents have recognized to varying degrees the futility of nuclear war, the need to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional states and subnational groups, and the importance of pursuing arms control measures to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons and increase global security. President Barack Obama’s 2009 address in Prague outlining the steps toward the “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” addresses all of these key themes.
The real test for Obama and U.S. leaders yet to come is whether they can match the conviction and the urgency with which Kennedy sought to resolve the nuclear standoff in his 1963 address and in his bold leadership in the final months of his presidency as he sought global nuclear restraint.
Excerpts from Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” Address and Subsequent Presidential Remarks on Dealing With the Threat of Nuclear Weapons
The dangers of nuclear war and the arms race
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.”
Averting conflict and engaging in talks with adversaries
But make no mistake: we know where that road leads. When nations and peoples allow themselves to be defined by their differences, the gulf between them widens. When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp. To denounce or shrug off a call for cooperation is an easy and cowardly thing. That is how wars begin. That is where human progress ends.”
The one major area of these negotiations where the end is in sight, yet where a fresh start is badly needed, is in a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests. The conclusion of such a treaty, so near and yet so far, would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas. It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms. It would increase our security—it would decrease the prospects of war.”
As the moment is reassuring, so it is, even more, hopeful and heartening. For this treaty is evidence that amid the tensions, the strife, the struggle, and the sorrow of these years, men of many nations have not lost the way—or have not lost the will—toward peace. The conclusion of this treaty encourages the hope that other steps may be taken toward a peaceful world.
It is for these reasons—and in this perspective—that I have described this treaty as the most important international agreement since the beginning of the nuclear age.
Now, for decades, we and the Soviets have lived under the threat of mutual assured destruction—if either resorted to the use of nuclear weapons, the other could retaliate and destroy the one who had started it. Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs?”
So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change.
…[T]he United States will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.…
[T]ogether, we will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation.…
1. Glenn Seaborg, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981), p. 176.
3. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “107 - The President’s News Conference,” The American Presidency Project, n.d., http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9124 (transcript of President John Kennedy’s press conference on March 21, 1963).
4. Miller Center, “Remarks on Signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” n.d., http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/4037 (remarks by President Lyndon Johnson on July 1, 1968).