John F. Kennedy’s Vision of Peace – 2: nuclear disarmament

JFK washington june 63

On June 10th, 1963, at American University, Kennedy gave his greatest speech, calling for an end to the Cold War, painting the heretical vision of America living and competing peacefully with Soviet Communists. World peace, he proposed, would not be “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” He proposed a peaceful coexistence with the Soviets as the most expedient path to ending totalitarianism.

He insisted that nuclear powers must avert confrontations which could lead to nuclear war: “All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours.” JFK went on to paint the picture of a world where different ideologies were allowed to flourish, supplanting the immoral and destructive Cold War economy with productive competition that would divert expenditure on manufacturing weapons to combatting ignorance, poverty and disease.

He added, “if we cannot now end our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity.”

A blueprint for bringing the Cold War to an end was proposed: “Our primary long-range interest is general and complete disarmament, designed to take place by stages permitting parallel political developments to build the new institutions of peace which would take the place of arms.”

JFK atmospheric testsHe announced unilateral suspension of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and proposed immediate disarmament talks with Moscow.

Kennedy’s words electrified a world terrified by the prospect of nuclear exchange. Khrushchev later told treaty negotiator Averell Harriman that the American University address was “the greatest speech by an American president since Roosevelt.”

JFK had kept the text of his speech secret from the ‘military-industrial complex’, the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department. His call for a unilateral test-ban treaty even shocked his own military, security and diplomatic advisers.

The first arms-control agreement of the nuclear age

In the month leading up to the speech, he had secretly worked with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to arrange test-ban negotiations in Moscow. Khrushchev agreed in principle to end nuclear testing in the atmosphere and water, on land and in outer space, and proposed a non­aggression pact between NATO and the Soviet satellite countries of the Warsaw Pact. On July 25th, 1963, JFK approved the treaty and less than a month later, they both signed the treaty. Robert Kennedy Jr continues:

“Caught off guard, the military-intelligence apparatus quickly mobilized to derail the treaty, which still needed to be ratified by the Senate. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had announced months earlier that they were “opposed to a comprehensive ban under almost any terms,” joined CIA director John McCone in lobbying against the agreement in the Senate. The Pentagon tried to sabotage its passage by hiding information about the ease of detecting underground tests.

The atmospheric-test-ban treaty

“By September, a monumental grassroots White House campaign had flipped public opinion to support the treaty by 80 percent. On September 24th, 1963, the Senate ratified the treaty 80-19. As Ted Sorensen noted, no other single accomplishment in the White House “gave the president greater satisfaction.”

JFK kruschev treaty

“On October 10th, after signing the atmospheric-test-ban treaty, Khrushchev sent JFK the last of his personal letters. In that missive, Khrushchev proposed the next steps for ending the Cold War. He recommended the conclusion of a nonaggression pact between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations, and a number of steps to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and prevent their use in surprise attacks. JFK would never see the letter. State Department officials hostile toward Khrushchev intercepted it”.

Khrushchev had already proposed to his government radical reductions in the Soviet military, including the conversion of missile plants to peaceful purposes, but less than a year after Dallas, Khrushchev was removed from power. Robert Kennedy Jr ends:

“Today, JFK’s great concerns seem more relevant than ever: the dangers of nuclear proliferation, the notion that empire is inconsistent with a republic and that corporate domination of our democracy at home is the partner of imperial policies abroad.

“He understood the perils to our Constitution from a national-security state and mistrusted zealots and ideologues. He thought other nations ought to fight their own civil wars and choose their own governments and not ask the U.S. to do it for them.

“Yet the world he imagined and fought for has receded so far below the horizon that it’s no longer even part of the permissible narrative inside the Beltway or in the mainstream press.

“Critics who endeavor to debate the survival of American democracy within the national-security state risk marginalization as crackpots and kooks. His greatest, most heroic aspirations for a peaceful, demilitarized foreign policy are the forbidden­ debates of the modern political era”.

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