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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
JFK's American University Speech and Today's Nuclear Weapons Challenges
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For Immediate Release: June 7, 2013           
Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, 202-463-8270, ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)--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, 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.

As the essay "JFK's American University Speech Echoes Through Time" by Daryl G. Kimball in the June issue of Arms Control Today explains, "... 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.""

On June 10, Kennedy 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. Within weeks, U.S. and Soviet negotiators concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty and Kennedy went on to lead a high-profile public campaign to win the Senate's support for ratification in September. In the years that followed, U.S.-Soviet-led talks led to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the superpowers began negotiations on the limitation of strategic nuclear arms.

Kimball notes that "since 1963, every U.S. president-Democrat and 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. President Barack Obama's April 5, 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."

In that address, Obama warned that "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. The technology to build a bomb has spread." In his address, he outlined a step-by-step plan to move closer to "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

The Prague speech energized U.S. and global action. In relatively short order, Obama and his team negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia and won Senate approval of the pact, helped secure an action plan to strengthen the NPT, accelerated global efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, completed a top-to-bottom review of the U.S. nuclear weapons posture, and took steps to engage Iran in negotiations and build international pressure on Tehran to meet its nonproliferation commitments.

But since 2011, the administration's nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation effort has lost energy and focus. Planned talks with Russia on deeper nuclear cuts have not begun, implementation of the new U.S. nuclear posture review has been delayed, plans to seek Senate approval for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have not yet been pursued, and the off-and-on talks on Iran's nuclear program have not yet produced results. A multi-nation conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East, which was to have been held in 2012, has been delayed. The hold-up threaten to create further strains on the NPT system.

In recent weeks, national security experts, former administration officials such as Ellen Tauscher, and key Senators such as Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) have urged President Obama to deliver a major address on his second term nuclear weapons policy priorities, including further cuts to Cold War-sized U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, securing approval for the CTBT, and updating programs to secure vulnerable nuclear material.

As Kimball writes in Arms Control Today, "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."

For the full essay, "JFK's American University Speech Echoes Through Time" along with excerpts from other U.S. presidential addresses on nuclear weapons and arms control, click here.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.