By 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom, and China had conducted over 500 nuclear tests in the atmosphere. The fallout from these tests poisoned our air, land, and bodies. Yet, the American public, convinced that an arms race was necessary for their safety, was largely opposed to an atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty.
In June 1963, just months before he was assassinated, President Kennedy gave the commencement address at American University, an address that came to be known as the Peace Speech. Kennedy was getting close to achieving his long-time goal of a test ban treaty. His speech was a call to shift the mindset of the nation.
At the outset, Kennedy argued that the peace Americans should seek is “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave.” Instead, he said,
I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and 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.
Kennedy expressed understandings ahead of his time and, sadly, still ahead of our time. In our personal lives, we claim to be wronged and demand others change first. We do the same in international affairs. Instead, Kennedy argued those who seek peace must go first. Being right, in Kennedy’s words, by “distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment” is the booby prize. Kennedy asked us to stop vilifying others and put our attitudes towards “freedom and peace” in order: “Some say that it is useless to speak of peace… until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do… 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.”
Holding onto a victim’s mindset that others must change first is a source of turmoil in our lives. Like a country at war, our mind at war hinders our flourishing.
Kennedy asked Americans to “examine our attitude toward peace itself.” He refused to accept that peace “is impossible” or “unreal.” Apply this personally; notice when you judge others and mentally gripe, they’ll never change. If we understand that ideas we hold about others never leave our mind, as we condemn others, we doom ourselves saying I’ll never change.
President Kennedy’s Peace Speech was no new age, visualize it, and we will manifest it message. He was pointing to a process of “gradual evolution” and not “the absolute, infinite concept of peace and goodwill of which some fantasies and fanatics dream.” Wishful thinking only invites “discouragement and incredulity.” He added there is “no grand or magic formula” for peace. Instead, “Genuine peace must be… the sum of many acts… For peace is a process, a way of solving problems.” We begin that process by looking beyond our conditioned stereotypes.
Just as we don’t have to love our neighbor to get along, we don’t have to pretend to love the ways of other nations. Our commitment, Kennedy urged, is to “live together in mutual tolerance, submitting… disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.” Our likes and dislikes are not fixed in stone, and we should never make a potential friend into an enemy. It may be unrealistic for fear to turn to love, but with a shift in mindset, fear can become peace.
Kennedy pointed to absurd Soviet propaganda about America. Our response, he pleaded, is “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.” Sixty years later, the views of Americans are shaped by monochromatic unnuanced views of Russia. The world seems less safe than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In perhaps the most compelling message of the speech, Kennedy urged Americans to have empathy for the Soviets and understand that they, too, have legitimate security concerns:
[N]o nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and families 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 destruction of this country east of Chicago.
I was well familiar with the destruction the Nazis inflicted on the Soviet Union during World War II. To imagine a wasteland from Chicago to the east coast gives Soviet suffering new visceral meaning.
Kennedy didn’t mention any philosophers that helped guide his moral compass. Still, as I read his appeal to Americans to walk in another person’s shoes, I thought of the philosopher Martin Buber.
In his best-known work written in 1923, I and Thou, Buber observed we are always choosing between two mutually exclusive ways of seeing the world: “I-Thou” or “I-It.” We mostly see through the “I-It” lens; others are seen as less than us, either as objects that help us or obstacles that get in our way. Think for a moment how quickly you get irritated in a long supermarket line if the cashier seems to move slowly. We are not the center of the universe; we can ignore the As My World Turns soap opera being narrated in our heads.
In contrast, through the lens of “I-Thou” we see others as individuals, as people as important as we are. We take an out-breath and humanly connect with the cashier who has problems and difficulties as real as our own. Seeing through the “I-Thou” lens, like seeking peace, begins with a commitment to a process of becoming more aware of our attitudes and behaviors instead of a desire to change someone else. Just as with people, with nations too, “suspicion on one side breed[s] suspicion on the other.”
In a warning for our time, Kennedy said, “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.”
Today, American policymakers seem determined to ignore Kennedy’s warning and not give Putin an off-ramp from his disastrous invasion. Instead, they are determined to bring Putin to a humiliating defeat. One prominent foreign policy pundit even argues for arming Ukraine with nuclear weapons.
Kennedy focused on humanity’s common interests — “we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” Most importantly, we all have minds that can value peace over threats and domination.
Echoing Eisenhower’s 1961 warnings, Kennedy reminded us “peace and freedom walk together.” Since Kennedy, America has been at war in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. There have been wars on poverty, drugs, cancer, and COVID. As Kennedy predicted, we have lost — not gained — freedom. An us vs. them tribal psychosis seems to be rotting America from the inside out. Kennedy would say the cure lies not in defeating Putin or COVID but in changing our hearts and minds.