John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy

This essay, from the December 14, 1963, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on US politics, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


A young President, John F. Kennedy must have known or sensed that he did not have all time and eternity to accomplish his major objectives. He was in a hurry to reach the top and he was not long in reaching it. Once there he wanted to get things done, to spin the wheels faster, to move along. It was as though he kept hearing at his back “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” But long before his tragic death he had learned that great as is the power of the American Presidency–and of the American nation–our ability to shape the course of events is not unlimited. He had the misfortune, too, to inherit a set of bankrupt policies and dead-end situations not of his making: he never could break free of the mesh of accumulated errors and miscalculations. The momentum of previously determined courses of action and commitments carried him along despite his efforts to change and modify them.

And his sense of social urgency was not shared by the public. Of late months he had been contending with a lethargic Congress that reflects a stalemate in public opinion; there has been no clear American mandate for anything of late other, perhaps, than to be let alone as much as possible and to accumulate a few more surpluses–of nearly everything from food-stuffs to uranium concentrate, from unemployed youth to stockpiles of obso1ete weapons. But as the President came to understand the limitations of power as well as its uses, he had begun to chart new directions and to redirect the nation’s thinking toward them. The test-ban treaty was the turning point. He was not given time to carry these policies very far, but fortunately he lived long enough to set them in motion. We had begun, under his maturing leadership, to cut back arms spending, to reduce some military commitments, to explore the possibilities for a gradual reduction of tensions–in a word, to make the great turn toward peace. John F. Kennedy will be remembered with affection and admiration for many fine qualities and achievements but above all for the fact that, after some false turns and starts, he set in motion the great task of directing American power toward broader objectives than deterrence and containment. The new course he had charted is implicit in these words from his address at the University of Maine (October 19, 1963):

While the road to…peace is long and hard, and full of traps and pitfalls, there is no reason not to take each step that we can safely take. It is in our national self-interest to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere so that all of our citizens can breathe more easily. It is in our national self-interest to sell surplus wheat and storage to feed Russians and Eastern Europeans who are willing to divert large portions of their limited foreign-exchange reserves away from the implements of war.

It is in our national self-interest to keep weapons of mass destruction out of outer space, to maintain an emergency communication link with Moscow, and to substitute joint and peaceful exploration in the Antarctic and outer space for cold-war exploitation.

No one of these small advances, nor all of them taken together, can be interpreted as meaning that the Soviets are abandoning their basic aims and ambitions. Nor should any, future, less friendly Soviet action–whether it is a stoppage on the autobahn, or a veto in the UN, or a spy in our midst, or new trouble elsewhere–cause us to regret the steps we have taken. Even if those steps themselves should be undone by the violation or renunciation of the test-ban treaty, for example, or by a decision to decline American wheat, there would still be no reason to regret the fact that this nation has made every responsible effort to improve relations.

For without our making such an effort, we could not maintain the leadership and respect of the free world. Without our making such an effort, we could not convince our adversaries that war was not in their interest. And without our making such an effort, we could never, in case of war, satisfy our hearts and minds that we had done all that could be done to avoid the holocaust of endless death and destruction….

That he had brought us this far–and the polls would seem to show that he had struck a responsive chord–was the President’s finest achievement.

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