JFK’s Historic Plea for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament

June 10 marks the 50th anniversary of one of JFK's most important speeches and one of the most powerful pleas ever given by a US president for nuclear disarmament. He touches on many issues that we still wrestle with today, including nuclear war, disarmament, banning all nuclear tests, and the defeatist belief that change is impossible. 

Kennedy began his commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C. with a sweeping assertion. 

I speak of peace because of the new face of war...when a single nuclear weapons contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in World War II...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.

Kennedy took on directly the cynics who claimed nothing could be done until other nations changed, and those who dismissed partial steps as insufficient.  President Obama would echo these sentiments in his own speech in Prague in April 2009: “There are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it’s worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve.” Kennedy said:

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…

First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a 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. 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.

I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal 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….

Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.

Kennedy talked directly about the greatest threat to peace – nuclear weapons. 

It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours. And even in the cold war, which brings burdens and dangers to so many countries, including this Nation's closest allies--our two countries bear the heaviest burdens. For we are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease.

And, like President Obama would do decades later, Kennedy married the overall goal of eliminating nuclear weapons with a step-by-step approach, beginning with a ban on nuclear weapon tests.

The one major area of [the Geneva] negotiations where the end is in sight, yet where a fresh start is badly needed, is in a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests. The conclusion of such a treaty, so near and yet so far, would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas. It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms. It would increase our security--it would decrease the prospects of war. Surely this goal is sufficiently important to require our steady pursuit, yielding neither to the temptation to give up the whole effort nor the temptation to give up our insistence on vital and responsible safeguards.

Kennedy announced that he, the Soviets and British had agreed to begin high level discussions in Moscow “looking toward early agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty.”  He then announced a unilateral step that Kennedy hoped others would follow:

I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not be the first to resume. Such a declaration is no substitute for a formal binding treaty, but I hope it will help us achieve one. Nor would such a treaty be a substitute for disarmament, but I hope it will help us achieve it.

A few weeks after the speech, the President could announce that he negotiated the Limited Test Ban treaty that banned all nuclear explosive tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in outer space.  He led a national campaign to win Senate approval of the treaty in September of that year, just a few months before his assassination.  In 1996, President Clinton finally realized Kennedy’s vision of a treaty banning all nuclear tests everywhere, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which, 17 years later, still awaits Senate approval.

Kennedy closed in this talk still serves as an inspiration to all who labor for peace, and for the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.

We shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on--not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.

Photo by US Embassy New Delhi


The American University speech was excellent, although it got more coverage in the Soviet Union than the United States. I am even more impressed with the September 20, 1963 speech at the UN where JFK discussed the Test Ban Treaty, called off the arms race and Cold War, and offered to convert the Moon Race into a cooperative effort with the USSR. ---- Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations - President John F. Kennedy New York - September 20th 1963 ''Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity--in the field of space--there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon. Space offers no problems of sovereignty; by resolution of this Assembly, the members of the United Nations have foresworn any claim to territorial rights in outer space or on celestial bodies, and declared that international law and the United Nations Charter will apply. Why, therefore, should man's first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries--indeed of all the world--cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries. ....'' "Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world--or to make it the last." -- President John F. Kennedy, September 20, 1963 speech to the UN calling for an end to the Cold War and converting the Moon Race into an international cooperative effort, two months and two days before he was removed from office. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHA-218.aspx ---- "After the American University address, John Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev began to act like competitors in peace.  They were both turning.  However, Kennedy's rejection of Cold War politics was considered treasonous by forces in his own government.  In that context, which Kennedy knew well, the American University address was a profile in courage with lethal consequences.  President Kennedy's June 10, 1963 call for an end to the Cold War, five and one-half months before his assassination, anticipates Dr. King's courage in his April 4, 1967, Riverside Church address calling for an end to the Vietnam War, exactly one year before his assassination.  Each of those transforming speeches was a prophetic statement provoking the reward a prophet traditionally receives.  John Kennedy's American University address was to his death in Dallas as Martin Luther King's Riverside Church address was to his death in Memphis." -- James Douglass, "JFK and the Unspeakable: Why he died and why it matters" (2008: Orbis Books) p. 46

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