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American University Speech

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement speech at American University, in what has come to be known as the "peace speech". This remarkable speech has not received the full attention it deserves. More than just a flowery speech with noble goals, it described a purposeful shift in policy away from the Cold War and toward peace and co-existence.

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 men 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.


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.

For those who blamed the Cold War on the Soviet Union, Kennedy challenged them to examine their own attitudes:

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 reexamine 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.

Kennedy repeated emphasized that he was not describing some lofty far-off vision, but rather a practical and necessary process:

I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.

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. There is no single, simple key to this peace--no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. 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.

Coming as it did only months after the world stood on the brink of annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the speech made note of the fragility and preciousness of life on this planet:

So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the 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 small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.

The speech was the kickoff to Kennedy's successful press for a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treat outlawing nuclear testing except below ground, which was ratified by the Senate in September. The speech was in part a signal of serious intent meant for Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev; the response was the unprecedented reprinting of the entire speech, translated into Russian, in the Soviet newspaper Tass.

Other concrete steps toward peace undertaken in 1963 included the shutting down of Cuban exile raids against Castro from U.S. soil, the development of plans for complete withdrawal from Vietnam by 1965 and a concrete 1,000 man withdrawal authorized in October, and secret feelers to Castro looking for accomodation.

Then, in November, Kennedy was dead. The feelers to Castro ended, and 1965 saw not withdrawal from Vietnam but combat troops in large numbers.

In 1998, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Dallas and wrote this in the Sixth Floor Museum guest book: "President Kennedy's remarks on June 10 1963 at American University are of even greater importance today than then. For us who live in a complicated time of transition, of great importance is the vision of John F. Kennedy, his thoughts about peace and about how to live in the world.....He looked far ahead and he wanted to change a great deal. Perhaps it is this that is the key to the mystery of the death of President John F. Kennedy."

Complete text and audio of American University commencement address

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