AU’s Peter Kuznick on the role of Norman Cousins in brokering peace between Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, Jr.
By Patty Housman
Right to left: John F. Kennedy, Jr., Norman Cousins, and Nikita Khrushchev
On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered the “Peace Speech,” his historic American University commencement address. It came just eight months after the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it is widely regarded as one of the most visionary American presidential speeches of the 20th century. It marked a new vision for world peace and led to the Partial Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, prohibiting nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water, and in outer space.
The speech was written by trusted Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorenson with input from a small group of close advisors, says Peter Kuznick, AU Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. It included language proposed in a 16-page June 1 draft submitted by Norman Cousins, a Saturday Review editor and staunch antinuclear and peace activist.
What most people don’t know, Kuznick says, is that the thaw in relations between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was made possible by Cousins, who served as an unofficial intermediary between the two world leaders. Cousins traveled twice to Moscow to speak with Khrushchev, the first time to deliver a peace and disarmament message, and the second time to help break a deadlock that threatened to break down all negotiations.
On the 60th anniversary of the speech, we asked Professor Kuznick to share the story of JFK’s speech, and Norman Cousins’ role as a peace broker between the two world powers:
“Peace For All Time”: Norman Cousins, Nikita Khrushchev, and John Kennedy’s Visionary Address —Peter Kuznick
Kennedy had campaigned as a fierce anti-communist, but the humiliating Bay of Pigs invasion in the early months of his presidency began to open his eyes. Furious, he excoriated “those CIA bastards” and Joint Chiefs “sons of bitches” and threatened to “shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” His contempt for the military and intelligence community was reinforced by their pressure on him during the 1962 crisis to bomb missile sites in Cuba, invade the island, and topple the Castro government, advice we now know would have triggered
World War III.
Realizing, as did Kennedy, that they had averted war as much by luck as by statesmanship, Nikita Khrushchev reached out to Kennedy with an appeal to halt the madness. “Evil has brought some good,” he wrote. “The good is that now people have felt more tangibly the… burning flames of thermonuclear war and have a more clear realization of the threat looming over them if the arms race is not stopped.” He daringly proposed eliminating “everything in our relations capable of generating a new crisis.” He offered a nonaggression treaty between the Warsaw Pact and NATO but even better, he said, why not “disband all military blocs?” He called for an end to all nuclear tests, as a step toward complete disarmament, encouraged resolution of differences over Germany and China, and urged Kennedy to offer his own counterproposals. But Kennedy’s lukewarm response dashed Khrushchev’s hopes for real progress.
A visit to Moscow in early December by Saturday Review editor and antinuclear activist Norman Cousins broke the impasse. Kennedy had asked him to help convince Khrushchev that Kennedy also wanted to improve relations and negotiate an arms control treaty. Cousins and Khrushchev met for over three hours, during which Khrushchev said something that remains haunting in its simplicity and incontrovertible truth: “Peace is the most important goal in the world. If we don’t have peace and the nuclear bombs start to fall, what difference will it make whether we are Communists or Catholic or capitalists or Chinese or Russians or Americans? Who could tell us apart? Who will be left to tell us apart?”
Cousins revisited Moscow to speak with Khrushchev in April 1963 and, upon return, conveyed Khrushchev’s frustration with Kennedy’s thus far tepid response. Kennedy asked what he could do to reassure the Soviet leader of his sincerity. Cousins urged Kennedy to deliver a stirring speech calling for ending the Cold War and starting a new era of US-Soviet comity. He even submitted a draft, which Ted Sorenson and other close Kennedy advisors built upon without any input from the CIA, State Department, or Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On June 10, Kennedy proffered his vision for world peace to American University students, faculty, and guests. He said he had “chosen this time and place to discuss…the most important topic on earth: world peace.” “What kind of peace do we seek?” he asked. “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war but the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living… that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.” War, he insisted, makes no sense “in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost 10 times the explosive force delivered by all of the allied air forces in the Second World War” when “All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours.”
He then went even further: “Let us re-examine our attitude toward the Cold War,” he said. As if speaking to American and Russian leaders 60 years into the future, he wisely advised, “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.” And embedded in the speech is one passage whose poignance has haunted listeners for generations, much like Martin Luther King’s prescient and unforgettable speech the night before his assassination. Kennedy said, “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 planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
But it was the prospect of improving relations with the Soviet Union that excited him the most. “It is sad,” he admitted, to “realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also…a warning to the American people not to…see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodations as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”
Khrushchev called it “the greatest speech by any American president since Roosevelt.” Although Kennedy would barely survive another four months before being cut down in Dallas, and the old Cold Warrior in him would occasionally again raise its head, it was clear that Kennedy was intent upon changing the course of history, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and others confirmed. He proudly achieved the first nuclear arms control agreement and intended to withdraw US troops from Vietnam. He took steps to replace the space race with joint exploration and even contemplated a much-needed course correction on Cuba. He told friends that he would conclude another arms control agreement and then become the first sitting president to ever visit the communist heartland, where he would receive a hero’s welcome. That this never occurred was a tragedy of unspeakable proportions—one from which the world has still not recovered as today’s proxy war between Russia and NATO in Ukraine makes sadly and dangerously apparent.