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Reprinted from Consortium News
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Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's "you're no Jack Kennedy" put-down of Republican Sen. Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate springs to mind on a day on which I cannot help but compare the character of President Barack Obama to that of John Kennedy, the first President under whom I served in the Army and CIA.
On this day 52 years ago, President John Kennedy gave a landmark speech at American University, appealing for cooperation instead of confrontation with the Soviet Union. Kennedy knew all too well that he was breaking the omerta-like code that dictated demonization of the Soviet leaders. But the stakes could not have been higher -- a choice of an endless arms race (with the attendant risk of nuclear conflagration) or bilateral cooperation to curb the most dangerous weapons that jeopardized the future of humankind.
At American University, John Kennedy broke new ground in telling the world in no uncertain terms that he would strive to work out a genuine, lasting peace with the Soviet Union. And to underscore his seriousness, Kennedy announced a unilateral cessation of nuclear testing, but also the beginning of high-level discussions in Moscow aimed at concluding a comprehensive test ban treaty.
In tightly held conversations with speechwriter Ted Sorensen and a handful of other clued-in advisers, Kennedy labeled his address "the peace speech." He managed to hide it from the military advisers who just eight months before had pressed hard for an attack on the Soviet nuclear missiles sent to Cuba in 1962.
It was then that Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, his Soviet counterpart, stood on the brink of ordering the incineration of possibly hundreds of millions of people, before the two worked out a face-saving compromise and thus thwarted the generals of both sides who were pressing for Armageddon.
Kennedy's resistance to relentless pressure -- from military and civilian advisers alike -- for a military strike, combined with Khrushchev's understanding of the stakes involved, saved perhaps the very life of the planet. And here's the kicker: What neither Kennedy nor his advisers knew at the time was that on Oct. 26, 1962, just one day before the U.S.-Soviet compromise was reached, the nuclear warheads on the missiles in Cuba had been readied for launch.
This alarming fact was learned only 30 years later, prompting Robert McNamara, Kennedy's defense secretary to write:
"Clearly there was a high risk that, in the face of a U.S. attack -- which, as I have said, many were prepared to recommend to President Kennedy -- the Soviet forces in Cuba would have decided to use their nuclear weapons rather than lose them. ...
"We need not speculate about what would have happened in that event. We can predict the results with certainty. " And where would it have ended? In utter disaster."
It was that searing experience and the confidential exchange of letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev that convinced them both that they needed to commit to working out ways to lessen the chance of another such near-catastrophe in the future.
American University Speech
Kennedy's "peace speech" was a definitive break with the past. Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins wrote simply: "At American University on June 10, 1963, President Kennedy proposed an end to the Cold War."
Kennedy told those assembled that he had chosen...
"...this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived ... world peace.
"What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. ... 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. ...
"Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles -- which can only destroy and never create -- is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. ...
"So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable -- and war need not be inevitable. " No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. ... We can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements -- in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.