Return to Audio Page

 
In June 1963 at American University, President Kennedy gave an historic address calling for an end to the mindless arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. (p. 703)


Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 16, p. 703

Kennedy believed that peace in the nuclear age would be won by hard men speaking tough truths, not by what he considered gushy overwrought men of public virtue. In June 1963, the president finally made the issue of peace his own, and he did so at American University in one of the seminal speeches of his time. The graduating seniors heard an eloquent speech that pandered neither to the American people nor to the Russians. Kennedy took a bold step forward, announcing that the United States would unilaterally not "conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so."

Kennedy described peace as "a process-a way of solving problems." It was a process in which he wanted to involve his nation, the Soviet Union, and the world. The president talked about the nature of Soviet communism, but beneath that he expressed an underlying belief in the commonality of humankind and the hope that the threat of nuclear weapons might in the end draw the world's people closer, not further apart.

The young people in that audience were living at a time when Americans feared that the world's problems were overwhelming and intractable, with the shadow of nuclear war hovering over everything they did and sought. Giving in to despair, however, was not what Kennedy had been brought up to do, and as much as his speech was about a strategy of peace leading toward nuclear disarmament it was equally about the spiritual armament and strength that would be required in this world.

"Our problems are man-made," Kennedy told the students. "Therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable-and we believe they can do it again."

No one listened to the president's words more attentively, and analyzed them more closely, than the Russians, who had their own goal of "peaceful coexistence." In late July, Khrushchev announced that he would agree to a limited ban on nuclear testing, ending all but underground tests that could not be verified by off-site testing. This was just a way station to a broader peace, but was a way station that was reached in part because Kennedy had made such a deep, brave speech.