Lessons from JFK in a Time of Trump
In the last week of July, 54 years ago, President John F. Kennedy initialed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with his counterpart, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy spoke to the nation in a remarkable address, which reminds us of his gifts of vision and eloquence; of the obligation and wisdom to pursue peace even in the most unlikely circumstances; and of the world’s clear and present danger with President Trump, who manifests the opposite of Kennedy’s moral vision and steady hand.
A little over a half century ago, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war. The United States and Soviet Union came to the edge of conflict on three occasions in less than two years, during 1961 and 1962, in Berlin, Laos, and Cuba. In his speech, Kennedy describes in harrowing terms how thermonuclear war could end the human race or (as Khrushchev had put it) leave the survivors envying the dead.
Yet out of the gloom, Kennedy and Khrushchev earned humanity’s eternal gratitude by enabling “a shaft of light” to cut into the darkness. Kennedy was guided by the moral vision that peoples on both sides of a dire conflict are human beings seeking peace. As he famously put it in a speech in June 1963, “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.”
After the tryst with nuclear annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Kennedy and his brother Robert kept a steady hand and avoided war despite the dangerous calls for military action by too many American generals and foreign policy experts, Kennedy spent the last year of his life pursuing peace. He admonished his fellow Americans to “reexamine our own attitude” toward peace, to realize that peace was feasible even with the Soviet Union.
Kennedy pursued peace in the most human, intelligent, and rare manner, not by denigrating the other side or making dire threats, but by praising the other side for its humanity, its valor, and its contributions to global culture and science. He made clear that America’s desire for freedom was the opposite of the Soviet system’s political repression, but also that the American people and the Soviet people were human beings of dignity, virtue, and moral worth. He spoke passionately of the reality that former foes can be future friends, that “enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever.”
In all of this he found a kindred spirit in Khrushchev, who also sought peace. And together they faced down the hard-liners in their own countries, even among their own advisers. They initialed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on July 25, 1963, and it was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom on Aug. 5, 1963. The treaty was quickly embraced by more than 100 countries.
Kennedy and his gifted adviser and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen used soaring eloquence and moral vision to overcome the clouds of distrust and hatred that separated the two superpowers. Their leadership in 1963 enabled the world to reach the critical Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty five years later.
I recall this leadership not for nostalgia (though I am nostalgic), and not only to celebrate a most gifted American leader on the centenary of his birth, in 1917, but also to underscore our peril today and the need for heightened vigilance and responsibility by all of us. Peace is not the mere absence of war. It is the active pursuit of morality. Immoral leaders are prone to lead us to war, because they stoke conflict, uncertainty, doubt, and extremism. Trump is not only an affront to his office. He is also a threat to the peace.
The situation is even worse, I am afraid. The so-called adults in the room — the generals and foreign policy experts that Americans today count on to keep us out of trouble — are no salvation. Far too much of the American foreign policy establishment is bellicose. The CIA is far worse: an unaccountable covert army fighting innumerable secret wars in our name that we don’t even realize. The true adults in the room, the peace seekers and peacekeepers, are very few and far between.
We are already at war or at the brink of expanded war, most notably with Iran and North Korea. Our leaders do not even talk with these counterparts. Trump bullies and denigrates Iran, a great civilization that has existed for 2,500 years — 10 times longer than the United States has been a country. It is all saber rattling, no peace seeking. Trump’s world of “killers versus losers” could leave us all as losers indeed.
Our greatest challenge, greatest need, and greatest opportunity is to build peace.
© Jeffrey D. Sachs