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JFK’s Presidential Courage—June 10, 1963 | The Nation

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JFK’s Presidential Courage—June 10, 1963

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The Cold War did not end with the opening of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. By the time of these events, it had already lost much of its earlier intensity. A skein of international agreements, some formal and explicit, others tacit and even denied, averted the dangers of unintended confrontations. More importantly, the populations on both sides of the Iron Curtain were disinclined to think that the risk of nuclear obliteration was worth incurring.

About the Author

Norman Birnbaum
Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board...

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There was conflict between the blocs, conducted by proxy or through covert operations. Still, in 1973 the US and the Soviet Union did not allow their client states, Israel and Egypt, to drag them into war. Where the superpowers openly intervened, each suffered not only military defeat but immense loss of moral standing—the US in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union before that undermined its ritualized criticisms of American imperialism by invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 to terminate an experiment in democratic socialism. The US in 1973 paid a similar price by using the Chilean armed forces to destroy Chilean democracy.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the superpowers recklessly stationed new nuclear missiles in Europe. Unrest in both parts of Europe led to the stabilization of the situation. Amidst this turmoil, the Iron Curtain in fact became more porous. Cultural and political elites on each side developed the familiarity that made crisis management possible. The Helsinki agreements of 1971 provided its signatories with a lesson in unintended consequences. Its provisions on human rights were casually accepted by the Soviet bloc governments as harmless rhetorical conceits. Few in the west thought these significant either (recall the photo of Kissinger dozing off at the ratification ceremony), yet they provided the moral legitimation for the movements that eventually ended one party rule in Soviet Europe.

None of these developments were inevitable. Academics and journalists, bureaucrats and politicians, are far better at retroactive explanation than inspired prediction. If we move (or stumble) backward, we do find a moment of historical breakthrough, in which much previously thought impossible was depicted as feasible.

Its major protagonist was John Kennedy, who in the spring of 1963 was aware of a considerable discrepancy between his very favorable position in domestic and world opinion—and his actual accomplishments. Perhaps he underestimated himself. He had, with the help of brother Robert in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, avoided a nuclear conflict with the USSR. Kennedy was very aware of how close he had come to helplessness. He and Khruschev reached an agreement at the very last hour, each desperate to wrest control of the situation from their armed forces. The terms of the agreement were kept secret (an undertaking by Kennedy not to attack Cuba in return for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles). In the US, the event was interpreted as an American triumph in a battle of wills. “They blinked” as the inimitably unimaginative Secretary of State Rusk put it. Kennedy sought for ways to avoid such situations in the future.

Kennedy had a good sense of what bothered ordinary citizens—and of the distance between their concerns and those of their political leaders. The President was aware of the cultural and psychological devastation of the threat of nuclear war. School exercises (as if crawling under desks would help), theological disputes over use rights to backyard bomb shelters were absurd, symptoms of the pervasive nuclearization of our culture. The American (and other) peoples lived in pervasive anxiety. Death meant not only the end of one’s own or a family’s life, it meant the extinction of human continuity. A politician declared that if only one man was left alive on earth, he wished him to be an American. The choice of gender was not accidental. Spiritual primitivism and national narcissism drew upon the least sublime aspects of human nature.

Many in other nations were angrily aware that their fates depended upon the decisions of American and Soviet rulers. In Great Britain at the end of the ‘50s, as Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency, a large movement against nuclear weapons emerged. Colleagues and friends at Oxford (John Bayley and Iris Murdoch) had an idyllic rural cottage in a BBC like village named Steeple Aston. Unfortunately, it was directly under the flight path to a US Strategic Air Force base, so that nuclear laden bombers at about five hundred feet frequently broke their enjoyment of a good English breakfast or the immutable ritual of afternoon tea. The US was not, however, entirely acquiescent or dormant. Stand up comics and songsters, filmmakers, novelists as well as secular moralists and theologians, derided, regretted, reflected upon preparation for nuclear war. Scientists, some of them builders of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, were vocal in criticism and opposition. A larger current of academic and intellectual opinion was audible—to those able and willing to listen.

When the inexperienced and unqualified Ted Kennedy ran for Senate in 1962, he was opposed by an independent candidate arguing for nuclear disarmament, the Harvard historian H. Stuart Hughes. (I recall the savage mockery of Hughes at Oxford by our nation’s great and good friend, Sir Isaiah Berlin.) The President had taken account of the opposition by asking David Riesman, through Bundy, to suggest a critical voice for a post at the National Security Council. That is how our Editorial Board member, Marcus Raskin, came to the White House in 1961. He went to Geneva with the President’s scientific advisor, Jerome Wiesner of MIT, to negotiate with the USSR on a ban on atmospheric nuclear tests. By the time of the Cuban Missile crisis, he had left the government (with Richard Barnet) to found the Institute for Policy Studies.

Despite his public triumph of November 1962, the President as months passed realized that he had to take the political offensive. Many in the military and the foreign policy apparatus and their intellectual fellow travelers regretted that he had not terminated Castro’s regime. Some said that he should have finished with the USSR for once and for all—or at least, driven it out of central and eastern Europe. Khruschev was no less beleaguered for having removed the Soviet missiles from Cuba. The military and the Soviet chauvinists—with influential allies in Mao’s China—were determined not to repeat what they thought of as ignoble capitulation. In a pathological folie a deux each side attributed the worst motives and the most deceptive conduct to the other. More dangerously, they believed that the adversary would surely give way if threatened with terminal consequences.

The President did not trust the State Department to conduct negotiations with the USSR and used informal channels for communicating with Khruschev. The concrete point at issue was a nuclear test ban treaty. Kennedy sensed that the public would welcome an initiative to reduce the dangers of nuclear war. He had the author and editor Norman Cousins negotiate with Khruschev on opening negotiations for a treaty, and decided that he had to break out of the ambiguously charmed circle of the White House.

For one thing, he had to convince Khruschev of his good faith—and of his capacity to turn good intentions into political realities. Soviet propaganda fulminated about the dictatorship of capital in the US but its diplomats, intelligence officers and scholars knew how disordered the making of American policy was. Beyond Khruschev, of course, was Soviet public opinion—hardly negligible if diffuse and excluded from the decision making of the Soviet elite. Secondly, he had to ask the American public for the kind of support that would enable him to conduct negotiations without fearing instant repudiation by his own government and the Congress, or a crescendo of critical rejection in the media. Finally, he had to convince opponents in and out of government that he could mobilize public opinion against them by challenging their power to set the terms of discourse.

He used a Commencement address at American University in Washington on June 10, 1963, to take the political offensive. The speech, which he wrote with Theodore Sorenson, left nothing unsaid—particularly things that no American president (and no western head of government) had said before. He decried the contradictory fictions of total security and total insecurity, rejected the demonization of the Soviet Union and expressed respect for its people, portrayed conflict as not inevitable. The achievement of nuclear control and disarmament step by step was possible. A common interest existed and could be recognized and used. It was in considerable contrast with the Inaugural address of 1961 and its call for a crusade for freedom. Two one half years later, Kennedy appeal to humanity to set aside ideological differences for the sake of survival. An excerpt conveys the temper of the entire text:

“And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights—the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation—the right to breathe air as nature provided it—the right of future generations to a healthy existence? While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interests of both.”

The response in the US was initially muted. In the Soviet Union, the speech was published in full—a quite extraordinary event. Khruschev and his advisors clearly took it as a very positive signal, and the way was opened for an American delegation (lead by Averill Harriman) to travel to Moscow and negotiate a draft treaty to stop nuclear testing. The Senate ratified it in September 80 to 19.

In his book on the Kennedy Presidency, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. attributed the very quiet public response to the conversion of the American public to co-existence. Perhaps, but large segments of the public initially approved the war on Vietnam. The turn against it came rather late, too late to prevent the devastation of the country, millions of Vietnamese deaths, and fifty thousand American ones. Johnson, as did Nixon and later Ford, treated negotiation and treaty making with the USSR as normal. Nixon accepted the inevitable and reopened relations with China. Two very different groupings in Europe took up the Kennedy challenge. The German Social Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats, determined to prevent their country from becoming a nuclear cemetery, brought about change in Soviet Europe by a policy of “change through closer relationship.” The Vatican engaged in its own opening to the Communist regimes, which changed some of them (especially in Hungary and Poland) no little.

The Cold War did not end, but it was routinized and weakened. Much brutality and exploitation still took place in its interstices. The Kennedy speech fifty years ago anticipated the normalization of international politics and the gradual elimination of the possibility of an apocalyptic end to civilization. Fifty years ago any world political mistake could be fatal. Now they remain mistakes. I am reminded of Freud who declared that when psychoanalysis replaced ordinary human unhappiness for neurotic suffering, much was gained. Kennedy’s vision of a pacified globe thus far has brought us mainly normal unhappiness—but he evoked the possibility of something more profound. He paid for this with his life some months later, but that is matter for subsequent reflection. 

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