Sunday, June 05, 2005

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK made it his mission to slow down the arms race with a nuclear test ban treaty. When negotiations stalled, he made an impassioned speech at American University in June 1963. He spoke of the need for peace:

"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 to build a better life for their children," he continued. "Not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women; not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time."

"Total war makes no sense," Kennedy said, repeating the phrase several times, emphasizing devastation so extensive it would be visited on "generations yet unborn." "I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men."

Though he acknowledged the value of dreams and hopes, he advocated an attainable peace "based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions...Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts...For peace is a process, a way of solving problems."

But he refused to believe peace is a hopeless dream. "Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man."

The most quoted---and plagiarized--- phrases of the speech are these: "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 other things were happening in June 1963. The day after this speech, Alabama Governor George Wallace announced he would personally bar the admission of the first two black students to be enrolled at the University of Alabama under federal court order. This followed weeks of violence in Birmingham.

The Civil Rights struggle had gone public in the mid 1950s, with numerous demonstrations, marches, clashes and acts of violence. The largest demonstration in U.S. history was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, now known as the Civil Rights March of 1962, the occasion of Martin Luther King's most famous "I have a dream" speech.

Though Wallace's threat in 1963 was little more than an act for the TV cameras---when the federal marshal ordered him to stand aside, he did---Kennedy decided to address the nation that very night. With little in the way of prepared text, he delivered a speech on civil rights. Equality is a moral issue, he said, "as old as the scriptures clear as the American Constitution....In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated..." The day before he had urged empathy for the Soviet people; now he asked white Americans to imagine themselves in the place of black Americans. "Who among us then would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

Kennedy's civil rights legislation would not become law for a few years, but his American University speech had immediate impact around the world. Soviet Premier Khrushchev told an American representative in Moscow that it was the best speech by an American president since Roosevelt. Negotiations moved swiftly forward. Some six weeks after the American University address, the nuclear test ban treaty was signed.

As Kennedy traveled across America in late fall, he spoke often about the issue of peace, to increasingly enthusiastic response. This was the last image, and the lasting image, held by many Americans and certainly many people around the world.

Then came the unbelievable, horrifying, devastating moment on Friday, November 22. President Kennedy's assassination, the tumultuous events in Dallas that weekend while the nation stopped cold to watch the first televised funeral of a President. In between events, Kennedy's major speeches were re-aired, and the worldwide reaction shown.

Even in death, John F. Kennedy was an important presence in American public dialogue for several more years. For people of GR's generation, the loss of JFK and "the politics of hope" was immediate and devastating: it affected their present. The oldest of my generation, the early baby boomers, were 17 in 1963. Losing JFK was losing a vision of the future, and of our future.

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