The Best Speech Yet From Any U.S. President

In planning an upcoming conference aimed at challenging the institution of war, to be held at American University September 22-24, I can’t help but be drawn to the speech a U.S. president gave at American University a little more than 50 years ago. Whether or not you agree with me that this is the best speech ever given by a U.S. president, there should be little dispute that it is the speech most out of step with what anyone will say on Capitol Hill or in the White House today. Here’s a video of the best portion of the speech:

President John F. Kennedy was speaking at a time when, like now, Russia and the United States had enough nuclear weapons ready to fire at each other on a moment’s notice to destroy the earth for human life many times over. At that time, however, in 1963, there were only three nations, not the current nine, with nuclear weapons, and many fewer than now with nuclear energy. NATO was far removed from Russia’s borders. The United States had not just facilitated a coup in Ukraine. The United States wasn’t organizing military exercises in Poland or placing missiles in Poland and Romania. Nor was it manufacturing smaller nukes that it described as “more usable.” Nor was it threating to use them on North Korea. The work of managing U.S. nuclear weapons was then deemed prestigious in the U.S. military, not the dumping ground for drunks and misfits that it has become. Hostility between Russia and the United States was high in 1963, but the problem was widely known about in the United States, in contrast to the current vast ignorance. Some voices of sanity and restraint were permitted in the U.S. media and even in the White House. Kennedy was using peace activist Norman Cousins as a messenger to Nikita Khrushchev, whom he never described, as Hillary Clinton has described Vladimir Putin, as “Hitler.” Even the U.S. and Soviet militaries were communicating with each other. Not anymore.

Kennedy framed his speech as a remedy for ignorance, specifically the ignorant view that war is inevitable. This is the opposite of what President Barack Obama said in Hiroshima last year and earlier in Prague and Oslo, and what Lindsey Graham says about war on North Korea.

Kennedy called peace “the most important topic on earth.” He renounced the idea of a “Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war,” precisely what both big political parties now and most speeches on war by most past U.S. presidents ever have favored. Kennedy went so far as to profess to care about 100% rather than 4% of humanity:

“… not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

Kennedy explained war and militarism and deterrence as nonsensical:

“Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.”

Kennedy went after the money. Military spending is now over half of federal discretionary spending, and Trump wants to push it up toward 60%.

“Today,” said Kennedy in 1963,

“the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles–which can only destroy and never create–is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace.”

In 2017 even beauty queens have shifted to advocating war rather than “world peace.” But in 1963 Kennedy spoke of peace as the serious business of government:

“I speak of peace, therefore, 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. Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament–and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude–as individuals and as a Nation–for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward–by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home.”

Can you imagine any approved speaker on corporate media or Capitol Hill suggesting that in U.S. relations toward Russia a major part of the problem might be U.S. attitudes?

Peace, Kennedy explained in a manner unheard of today, is perfectly possible:

“First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a 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. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again. I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal. Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace– based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions–on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace–no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. 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.”

Kennedy debunked some of the usual straw men:

“With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor–it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors. So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.”

Kennedy then laments what he considers, or claims to consider, baseless Soviet paranoia regarding U.S. imperialism, Soviet criticism not unlike his own more private criticism of the CIA. But he follows this by flipping it around on the U.S. public:

“Yet it is sad to read these Soviet statements–to realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also a warning–a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats. No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements–in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage. Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland–a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.”

Imagine today trying to get Americans to see a designated enemy’s point of view and ever being invited back on CNN or MSNBC afterward. Imagine hinting at who actually did the vast majority of winning World War II or why Russia might have good reason to fear aggression from its west!

Kennedy returned to the nonsensical nature of the cold war, then and now:

“Today, should total war ever break out again–no matter how–our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours. And even in the cold war, which brings burdens and dangers to so many nations, including this Nation’s closest allies–our two countries bear the heaviest burdens. For we are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counterweapons. In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours–and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.”

Kennedy then urges, outrageously by the standards of some, that the United States tolerate other nations pursuing their own visions:

“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.”

Kennedy reframes the cold war, rather than the Russians, as the enemy:

“Let us reexamine our attitude toward the cold war, remembering that we are not engaged in a debate, seeking to pile up debating points. We are not here distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment. We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last 18 years been different. We must, therefore, persevere in the search for peace in the hope that constructive changes within the Communist bloc might bring within reach solutions which now seem beyond us. We must conduct our affairs in such a way that it becomes in the Communists’ interest to agree on a genuine peace. Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy–or of a collective death-wish for the world.”

By Kennedy’s definition, the U.S. government is pursuing a death-wish for the world, just as by Martin Luther King’s definition four years later, the U.S. government is now “spiritually dead.” Which is not to say that nothing came of Kennedy’s speech and the work that followed it in the five months before he was murdered by U.S. militarists. Kennedy proposed in the speech the creation of a hotline between the two governments, which was created. He proposed a ban on nuclear weapons testing and announced the unilateral U.S. cessation of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. This led to a treaty banning nuclear testing except underground. And that led, as Kennedy intended, to greater cooperation and larger disarmament treaties.

This speech also led by degrees difficult to measure to greater U.S. resistance to launching new wars. May it serve to inspire a movement to bring the abolition of war to reality.

Speakers this coming weekend at American University will include: Medea Benjamin, Nadine Bloch, Max Blumenthal, Natalia Cardona, Terry Crawford-Browne, Alice Day, Lincoln Day, Tim DeChristopher, Dale Dewar, Thomas Drake, Pat Elder, Dan Ellsberg, Bruce Gagnon, Kathy Gannett, Will Griffin, Seymour Hersh, Tony Jenkins, Larry Johnson, Kathy Kelly, Jonathan King, Lindsay Koshgarian, James Marc Leas, Annie Machon, Ray McGovern, Rev Lukata Mjumbe, Bill Moyer, Elizabeth Murray, Emanuel Pastreich, Anthony Rogers-Wright, Alice Slater, Gar Smith, Edward Snowden (by video), Susi Snyder, Mike Stagg, Jill Stein, David Swanson, Robin Taubenfeld, Brian Terrell, Brian Trautman, Richard Tucker, Donnal Walter, Larry Wilkerson, Ann Wright, Emily Wurth, Kevin Zeese. Read speakers’ bios.


18 Responses

  1. President Kennedy was assassinated because of this speech and his anti-war stance. The military-industrial complex, to which Eisenhower referred, needed Kennedy out of the way in order to make sure that never-ending war, which leads to great profits, continue in perpetuity. The proof is in the years that this country has spent creating wars all over the world. If you think 9-11-01 was perpetrated from outside forces, think again.

    1. I agree, Rozanne, Americans seem to ignore our part in the insane situation nations find themselves trying to navigate. We deny guilt and portray a self righteous moral imperative, but in truth an elite class of billionaires dominate our culture of war and exploitation. Now, with the help of Russia, they dominate every aspect of our civilian government.

  2. What nonsense! While reading this homage to Kennedy, did you bump into the word “Vietnam” anywhere? Some World Beyond War folks forget their own history. Kennedy’s mad abhorrence of communism kept him backing South Vietnam’s murderous and corrupt forces. Kennedy flouted the Geneva Agreement to grow South Vietnam’s army and send in thousands of U.S. military advisers. His Strategic Hamlet idea displaced 8 million villagers. Kennedy’s war ultimately killed 60,000 U.S. troops and millions of Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers and civilians. Some anti-war hero!

    1. Kennedy signed NSAM 263 on October 11, 1963 to start the withdrawal from Vietnam. Kennedy’s order was reversed immediately after he was removed from office.

      The order is public but not well known, you can read a copy at

      Kennedy had visited “South” Vietnam in 1951 and had been told by State Dept. official Edward Gullion that the French would not win what was a war against colonialism. JFK made many mistakes but he learned from them and the fact that he decided to withdraw in 1963 is indisputable. Even the North Vietnamese side knew this.

    2. The only nonsense and madness here is Bill Johnstone’s historical stupidity, following in lockstep the anti-Kennedy hatred expressed by Leftoids such as Chomsky and Alex Cockburn.

      John F. Kennedy was the greatest American force for peace since the death of FDR:

      Kennedy refuses troop involvement in a collapsing Laos, instead helping to form a neutralist-coalition government which stands until the middle-1970s.

      Kennedy refuses United States air cover and troop involvement during the rout at the Bay of Pigs.

      The Berlin Wall goes up. Kennedy takes no action.

      As South Vietnam is on the brink of collapse in ’61 and ’62, nearly all of JFK’s government pushes strongly for the sending of 100,000s of American troops to save the Diem regime. Kennedy sends 10,000 advisers instead.

      Refusing calls to bomb and invade Cuba, refusing the calls of some to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Moscow, Kennedy resolves the Missile Crisis by agreeing to not attack Cuba and to remove U.S. nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey, on the Soviet border.

      Kennedy and Indonesian President Sukarno take steps to form a neutralist government in troubled Indonesia, JFK again refusing to approve any covert actions aimed at the country, a refusal reversed two years later by LBJ, leading to the murder of over 1,000,000 suspected “leftists” and the overthrow of Sukarno.

      Kennedy supports nationalist/neutralist movements across South and Central America, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia.

      Kennedy forms back-channel to Castro government.

      At American University, JFK calls for an end to the Cold War, reminding us that “we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.”

      Kennedy forms back-channel to North Vietnamese government, through the Ngo brothers. (Per Kennedy hater and CIA-stooge Sy Hersh.)

      Kennedy signs the Nuclear Test Ban treaty with the Soviets, banning all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underground, or underwater.

      Kennedy orders first 1,000 Americans withdrawn from South Vietnam by the end of ’63, in phase-one of a planned total Vietnam withdrawal.

      At the United Nations on September 20, 1963, JFK calls for world disarmament, for a world government in the interests of peace, a world center for conservation and food distribution, and a world system of health bringing all people of the earth under medical protection. He also calls for an end to the Space Race, for a unified effort to explore the stars, the planets, the moon — and a ban on all outer space weapons and military-oriented satellites. This, combined with Kennedy’s refusal to Americanize the war in Southeast Asia, would have cost the corporate/military/intelligence vampires trillions of dollars.

      To avoid the use of force and violence when all the force in the world is on your side — that is a hero.

      Some war-monger, eh Johnstone? Now be a good boy and go watch Amy Goodman.

  3. JKF is right on, it is dangerous to continue the lies that war is inevitable. Reagan also said where collective bargaining and free unions are forbidden a total loss of freedom is but one generation away. He also signed the UN treaty stating that under no circumstances what-so-ever is torture ever justified. He seems to have done the exact opposite of this, but I’d like to see right wingers explain that. Here he admits peace is possible, something “liberals” today can’t even accept.

    ‘Clearly agitated, Mr. Reagan continued: ”Now, I think that some of the people who are objecting the most and just refusing even to accede to the idea of ever getting any understanding, whether they realize it or not, those people – basically down in their deepest thoughts – have accepted that war is inevitable and that there must come to be a war between the two superpowers.”
    ”Well, I think as long as you’ve got a chance to strive for peace,” the President added, ”you strive for peace.”
    In rebutting critics of the treaty, Mr. Reagan said they had ”a lack of knowledge” about what the treaty contains. In particular, he added, the opponents are ‘’ignorant of the advances that have been made in verification.”’

    ‘So ended “the highest stakes poker game ever played,” as Shultz described it. In Reagan’s words, “We proposed the most sweeping and generous arms control proposal in history. We offered the complete elimination of all ballistic missiles—Soviet and American—from the face of the earth by 1996. While we parted company with this American offer still on the table, we are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons.”’

  4. I was there at the speech. As a varsity team member we got to usher the crowd. I was a history major at the time. What struck me was the speech’s change of policy after Kennedy was duped by the CIA and State Department to invade Cuba. He learned something and this speech tells some of the lessons from those experiences.

  5. This should serve to illustrate the very limited power the “most powerful man in the free world” actually has. Whatever you may think about communists you have to realize that our democracy is really a sham. The people of this once great nation have virtually no effective part to play in what has evolved to become a corporate controlled dual class society structured for the benefit of the grotesquely wealthy control freaks who fancy themselves as superior. When you consider what our business community hand in hand with government has done to the American people by exporting our economy to communist China it should become clear that we are being conditioned for future totalitarian control by our so called “leaders”. The ignorance of the masses and total control of communications is key to their success.

  6. I remember reading about this speech as a teen, already interested in peace issues. This sort of thinking, which JFK described and exemplified so well, is even more needed in this scary time. So many issues we must deal with now–climate change as the foremost–which confront the earth as a whole rather than just a country or a region. But how can we even dream of global solutions to whole-earth problems without peace in which to do that dreaming? How can we even agree globally on doing that planning or begin all the negotiation necessary to approach such problems? How can we achieve the necessary floors of peaceful collaboration rather than the fractious animosities now prevailing amongst the worlds peoples?

  7. It would have to start with us cleaning up our own act. If you remember the Gary Powers incident during the Eisenhower era you must realize that it was Dulles and the people he was working for who perpetrated that see eye hay operation specifically to kill the world peace conference that Eisenhower had painstakingly set up to start a global peace movement. The military industrial weapons and communications network were not about to allow the possibility of a conversation advocating global peace to become a reality. Eisenhower had told Dulles personally not to fly over Russia. Dulles did it anyway. Within our own government/society there lives a faction who does not want peace, will not allow peace to become a reality. Their livelihood depends on fear and war and they will kill you if you stand in their way. It is a rather large crowd with a rather large budget.

  8. This seems to be the speech Kennedy gave as a commencement at American University 10 June 1963 – the speech credited with starting the negotiations that resulted in the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, signed in August of that year. The picture certainly looks more like June than September to me.

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