(Originally published on June 10, 2019)
On June 10th, 1963, in a speech at American University, President Kennedy asked his fellow citizens to learn to live with their worst enemy.
Taught for decades to hate and fear Soviet Russia as a matter of national faith, locked in a cold war that almost destroyed the world eight months earlier during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President nevertheless asked us to reexamine our attitudes towards the Russians, the arms race, and “the most important topic on earth: world peace.”
Not a peace "enforced on the world by American weapons of war,” he said. "I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living…not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women…”
He reminded us that Russia had lost at least 20 million people in the fight against Nazism, a staggering sacrifice that the United States and the European Union recently ignored as they commemorated the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day without inviting the Russians.
Kennedy pointed out that both Russia and the U.S. were allocating “massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease.”
He argued that war no longer made any sense in an age where “the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to generations yet unborn.”
He proposed and later signed a treaty to ban atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons as a step toward “total and complete disarmament.”
In short he proposed an end to the Cold War. In so doing, he signed his death warrant.
In a country that had become a military empire in all but name, John Kennedy’s words and actions constituted nothing short of treason. Or so we know it seemed to the generals, admirals, covert operators and military contractors whose power derives from creating tensions, not easing them; in developing enemies, not disarming them. Ever since the Missile Crisis, in back-channel communications with the Soviets, Kennedy had been doing exactly what the defense establishment feared most: waging peace.
Their disdain for Kennedy’s peace overtures was so well known that it inspired a best-selling novel, Seven Days in May, the story of a military coup against a president who was too willing to negotiate. Kennedy thought the book so relevant and the threat to democracy so acute he encouraged director John Frankenheimer to make it into a movie.
In his American University address, the President chided the Russians for suggesting that “American imperialist circles are preparing to unleash different types of wars . . . the political aims of the American imperialists are to enslave economically and politically the European and other capitalist countries . . .[and] to achieve world domination . . . by means of aggressive wars."
But as history has shown, the Russians were right. “Imperialist circles” in the U.S. were planning for war, first in Vietnam, then Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. The major obstacle standing in their way was the President himself.
Five months later in Dallas, Texas, those same forces murdered him in a coup, about which there is little actual mystery.
On this 56th anniversary of President Kennedy’s American University peace speech, as Pentagon war planners seek to reignite the deadly tensions of the Cold War, sign the petition to demand a true reckoning with the four assassinations that led directly to our current national predicament. Listen to the entire American University address and remember that “wherever we are, we must all, in our daily lives, live up to the age-old faith that peace and freedom walk together.”