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JFK: Highlight of His Life on Anniversary of His Death

by Captain Future Tue Nov 22nd, 2005 at 05:51:36 PM EST

This is not about conspiracy theories, assassinations or JFK's death.  This is about his life---in particular, two days in his last year of life that I remember as the high points of his presidency, especially in terms of the future---our future, and beyond.

He is remembered by a single soundbite from his elegant Inaugural (that gets ever briefer each time---an entire generation may now believe that all he said was two words, "Ask not.")Historians may rightly point to the Berlin crisis in 1961 and especially the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

But on this anniversary of his death, I want to highlight two consecutive days in June 1963.  They stand out on this day in particular because it seems to me, if somehow JFK had learned he had one year to live, he would have done pretty much what he did throughout 1963, and these two summer days would be the summer of his life and legacy.

crossposted at dkos and Booman Tribune.  But JFK's American University address first resonated in Europe, when the U.S. was embroiled in Civil Rights issues he addressed the next day.

The first was June 10.  After the world came to the brink of thermonuclear Apocalypse in October 1962, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev began discussing ways to prevent a repetition.  They agreed on the hot line linking their offices.  They discussed nuclear test bans, but the talks were stalled.  At that point, JFK decided to go public.

He did so not with a narrow policy speech focused only on the test ban, but a clarion call for peace that echoes through the ages.

He chose a commencement address at American University for this speech, where he would also receive an honorary doctor of law degree.  He began by acknowledging other dignitaries, including  "my old colleague, Senator Bob Byrd."  That's Senator Robert Byrd, who today is the elder statesman of the Senate.  He noted that Byrd "has earned his degree through many years of attending night law school, while I am earning mine in the next 30 minutes."  He praised the university as a bulwark against ignorance, and continued, " I have, therefore, chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is to rarely perceived - - yet it is the most important topic on earth : world peace. "

What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? 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. I am talking about genuine peace - - the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living -- the kind that enables man and nations to grow and to hope and to 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."

He described the horrors and futility of nuclear war as few heads of state ever had.  This in itself was revolutionary.
But he continued:

I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war - - and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.

Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament - - and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude - as individuals and as a Nation - - for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward - - by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the Cold War and toward freedom and peace here at home.

First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many of us think it is unreal. But that is dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable - - that mankind is doomed - - that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.

We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade - - therefore, they can be solved by man."

"Our problems are manmade - - therefore, they can be solved by man" sums up the Kennedy faith.

I have posted more excerpts from the speech, along with photographs from his presidency, on my blog, Dreaming Up Daily at http://dreamingup.blogspot.com.  But I want to note just a few more isolated sentences, that should have immediate resonance for our particular moment.

Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace - - based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions - -on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.

Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process - - a way of solving problems.

And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.

No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.

So, let us not be blind to our differences - - but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. 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.

We are not here distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment. We must deal with the world as it is...

And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter 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?

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.

The speech won immediate praise internationally.  Most importantly, it was published in full in the Russian press, and the Russian language broadcast of the speech by the Voice of America was the first western program in 15 years the Soviets did not attempt to jam.  Khrushchev said privately that it was the best speech by an American president since FDR.  Negotiations on the limited nuclear test ban treaty resumed, and the treaty was signed six weeks later.

There was strong opposition in the U.S. military and in the Senate that fall, but Kennedy spoke in favor of the treaty and repeated his calls for peace in speeches around the U.S., to great acclaim.  The treaty was confirmed.    

Ironically, however, Kennedy's American University speech was overshadowed for awhile in the U.S.  by the events of the very next day that culminated in another groundbreaking  address, this time a televised statement to the nation.  

There had been violence and turmoil in the South all spring over Civil Rights, which climaxed on June 11 when George Wallace symbolically "stood in the schoolhouse door" to protest the first two black students to enter the University of Alabama.

Everyone knew that when Wallace did not really resist, a true crisis had been averted.  Yet Kennedy alone decided to address the nation that very night, while public attention was on the subject of Civil Rights.

In this impromptu address,  he proposed what would become after his death the Voting Rights Act.  It was in many ways the  culmination of the Civil Rights movement's activities in the sphere of political rights.  Voting was sacred to the descendants of African slaves, denied their full rights and humanity even originally in the U.S. Constitution, and this would be a crucial key to their political power.

At the same time, JFK knew full well that supporting their voting rights would mean that the Democrats would likely lose the white South for generations.  This began to happen immediately, and Richard Nixon in 1968 would consciously begin the process of playing to white Southerners, especially by appealing to their prejudices, to bring them into Republican ranks.  

Yet JFK went ahead, and couched his proposal in terms of simple justice.  "In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated."

But while this was the most striking proposal he made that night, he spoke as he had the day before, about changes necessary in the hearts and souls of Americans.  

"But law alone cannot make men see right.  We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.  It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution...

Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise...We face a moral crisis as a country and as a people.

Legislation cannot solve this problem alone.  It must be solved in the homes of every American."

He asked white Americans to imagine themselves in the place of black Americans.  "Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"   Having suggested empathy for Soviet citizens as part of a process of understanding the day before, he was asking it now for African Americans.

Some Civil Rights leaders praised this address as the second Emancipation Proclamation.  Opposition was just as swift, particularly from southern Democrats, and there was more violence: Medgar Evers was assassinated.  But Kennedy had set the wheels in motion on this major aspect of Civil Rights, as he had on what would become the limited test ban treaty which has held to this day.  Yet for the ages, the importance of these two days was that this President acknowledged that peace and equality  were moral issues, that they required new thinking and a change of heart.  

Much that Kennedy said, especially in his Civil Rights speech, had been said and thought before, but the fact that the President was saying it, and was backing it up with actions, made these words of special significance.  And of course, they were especially eloquent.

What is also striking about them today is the premium they place on using imagination as a crucial tool in political life.  The imagination to step back and see things whole.  The imagination to empathize on a personal level. The imagination to seize new ideas, and the imagination to know the right time for them to be heard.

Kennedy knew these speeches would alone not bring either peace or equality, and that he was inviting organized political opposition as well as conflict among voters.

At the same time, with his keen political instincts, Kennedy picked moments when his words would have the most effect.  They happened to be two days in June, 1963: two days that still speak to our time.  This sad anniversary provides a moment for  people in our time to hear these words again.


I was 11 years old and in my class watching our Spanish on TV, when the show cut away to announce that JFK had been shot. We all couldn't truly realize the significance, but my techer was really upset. Fast forward to Saturday, when I was watching morning cartoons, and then the news shows the live transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald from jail to prison...only for him to be murdered on live TV. How many other kids were watching? It was a strange experience.

Anyway, JFK was my hero, and I only wish he would have had another term as President...for whatever his faults, he was a good man. I think a whole generation of people had/have a similar feeling about JFK. I thought about him a lot yesterday, and those events 42 years ago...

Thanks for this...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Wed Nov 23rd, 2005 at 03:43:13 AM EST

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