American University speech

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President Kennedy delivers the commencement address at American University, Monday, June 10, 1963.

The American University speech, titled A Strategy of Peace, was a commencement address delivered by President John F. Kennedy at the American University in Washington, D.C., on Monday,[1][2][3] June 10, 1963. Delivered at the high point of his rhetorical powers[4] and widely considered one of the most powerful speeches by the president. Kennedy not only outlined a plan to curb nuclear arms, but also "laid out a hopeful, yet realistic route for world peace at a time when the U.S. and Soviet Union faced the potential for an escalating nuclear arms race."[5] In the speech, Kennedy announced his agreement to negotiations "toward early agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty" (which resulted in the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty) and also announced, for the purpose of showing "good faith and solemn convictions", his decision to unilaterally suspend all US atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons as long as all other nations would do the same. Noteworthy are his comments that the US was seeking a goal of "complete disarmament" of nuclear weapons and his vow that America "will never start a war". The speech was unusual in its peaceful outreach to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and is remembered as one of Kennedy’s finest and most important speeches.


After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Kennedy was determined to construct a better relationship with the Soviet Union to discourage another threat of nuclear war. He believed that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was also interested in renewing U.S.-Soviet relations. On November 19, 1962, Khrushchev had submitted a report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party that implicitly called for a halt in foreign intervention to concentrate on the economy. One month later, Khrushchev wrote Kennedy a letter stating "the time has come now to put an end once and for all to nuclear tests."[6] Kennedy greeted this response with enthusiasm and suggested that technical discussions for nuclear inspections begin between representatives of the two governments.[7] However, Kennedy faced opposition for any test ban from Republican leaders and his own State Department. After several months the opposition in the Senate lessened and gave the Kennedy Administration the opportunity to pursue the ban with the Soviet Union. In May 1963, the president informed his National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy that he wished to deliver a major address on peace. According to Special Assistant Ted Sorensen the speech was kept confidential in fear that the unprecedented tone would "set off alarm bells in more bellicose quarters in Washington" and allow political attacks against Kennedy in advance of the speech.[8] In the days before the speech, Kennedy was committed to addressing the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Honolulu and asked Sorensen to construct the initial draft with input from several members of Kennedy's staff. The speech was reviewed and edited by Kennedy and Sorensen on the return flight from Honolulu days before the address. Historian and Special Assistant Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. observed in his diary, "from the viewpoint of orderly administration, this was a bad way to prepare a major statement on foreign policy. But the State Department could never in a thousand years have produced this speech."[9]


Sorensen had been Kennedy's aide since the 1953 Massachusetts Senatorial election, and eventually served as his primary campaign speechwriter and as Special Counsel during and after the 1960 Presidential election.[10] By 1963 he had written drafts for nearly every speech Kennedy delivered in office, including the inaugural address, the Cuban Missile Crisis speech, and the Ich bin ein Berliner speech. Common elements of the Kennedy-Sorensen speeches were alliteration, repetition and chiasmus as well as historical references and quotations.[8] Although Kennedy often interposed off-the-cuff ad-libs to his speeches, he did not deviate from the final draft of the address. Anca Gata described Ted Sorensen as “the chief architect of the speech in language, style, composition, and rhetoric. One of the most original issues in the speech was the reintroduction of the Russian people to the Americans as a great culture with important achievements in science and space, and as promoting economic and industrial growth on their own.”[11]

The content of the speech was unapologetically "dovish" in its pursuit of peace. Kennedy noted that almost uniquely among the "major world powers" the United States and Russia had never been at war with each other. He also acknowledged the massive human casualties that Russia suffered during World War II and declared that no nation had "ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War," a fact that had gone largely unheralded in the West due to the onset of the Cold War. Kennedy sought to draw similarities between the United States and the Soviet Union several times and called for a "reexamination" of American attitudes towards Russia. He warned that adopting a course towards nuclear confrontation would be "evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy—or of a collective death-wish for the world."

Jeffrey Sachs, American economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was deeply moved by the speech, "not only for its eloquence and content, but also for its relevance to today's global challenges. For in it Kennedy tells us about transforming our deepest aspirations--in this case for peace--into practical realities. He almost presents a method, a dream-and-do combination that soars with high vision and yet walk on earth with practical results."[12] In reviewing the history and context of Kennedy's speech at American University, Sachs' esteem for Kennedy grew further, concluding, "I have come to believe that Kennedy's quest for peace is not only the greatest achievement of his presidency, but also one of the greatest acts of world leadership in the modern era."[13]

Key excerpts

  • "What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a 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, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and 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 in all time."
  • "Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of 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. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task."
  • "First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is 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."
  • "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 futures. And we are all mortal."
  • "It is our hope— and the purpose of allied policies—to convince the Soviet Union that she, too, should let each nation choose its own future, so long as that choice does not interfere with the choices of others. The Communist drive to impose their political and economic system on others is the primary cause of world tension today. For there can be no doubt that, if all nations could refrain from interfering in the self-determination of others, the peace would be much more assured."
    • Kennedy was asked during The President's News Conference at the Foreign Ministry in Bonn on June 24, 1963 what he meant with "so long as that choice does not interfere with the choices of others". He answered: "Well, what we mean is that we cannot accept with equanimity, nor do we propose to, the Communist takeover of countries which are now free. What we have said is that we accept the principle of self-determination. Governments choose a type of government, if the people choose it. If they have the opportunity to choose another kind, if the one they originally chose is unsatisfactory, then we regard that as a free matter and we would accept it, regardless of what their choice might be. But what we will not accept is the subversion or an attack upon a free country which threatens, in my opinion, the security of other free countries. I think that is the distinction we have made for a great many years."
  • "I'm taking this opportunity, therefore, to announce two important decisions in this regard. First, Chairman Khrushchev, Prime Minister Macmillan, and I have agreed that high-level discussions will shortly begin in Moscow looking towards early agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty. Our hope must be tempered—Our hopes must be tempered with the caution of history; but with our hopes go the hopes of all mankind. Second, to make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on this matter, 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—We will not be the first to resume."
  • "The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough—more than enough—of war and hate and oppression."
  • "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 must labor on—not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace."

Soviet response and speech effects

Kennedy’s speech was made in its wholeness available in Soviet press[5] so that the people in the Soviet Union could read it without hindrance. Additionally, the speech could be heard in the Soviet Union without censorship because jamming measures against the western broadcast agencies such as Voice of America didn’t take place upon rebroadcast of Kennedy’s speech. Khrushchev was deeply moved and impressed by Kennedy's speech, telling Undersecretary of the State Averell Harriman that it was "the greatest speech by any American President since Roosevelt."[14]

After 12 days of negotiations and less than two months after the president's speech the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was completed.[5] The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States (represented by Dean Rusk), named the "Original Parties", at Moscow on August 5, 1963. US ratification occurred by the U.S. Senate on September 24, 1963 by a vote of 80-19[5] and the treaty was signed into law by Kennedy on October 7, 1963. The treaty went into effect on October 10, 1963.


  4. Mufson, Steve (August 4, 2015). "Obama will echo Kennedy's American University nuclear speech from 1963". The Washington Post. Retrieved 6 August 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Wang, Joy Y. (August 4, 2015). "Obama to follow in John F. Kennedy's historic footsteps". Retrieved 6 August 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston 1965. First printing C.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Sorensen, Ted. Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. Harper-Collins Publishers, New York 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-079871-0
  9. Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. Journals 1952–2000. New York, Penguin Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-14-311435-2
  10. Schlesinger, Robert. White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters. Simon & Schuster, New York 2008. ISBN 978-0-7432-9169-9
  11. Gata, Anca. Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture. Greenwood, 2011, p. 29-30. ISBN 978-0-313-32944-9
  12. Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2013). To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace. New York: Random House. p. xiv. ISBN 9781448189762.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2013). To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace. New York: Random House. p. xv. ISBN 9781448189762.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Douglass,James W. JFK and the Unspeakbale. Why he died and why it matters. Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2008, p. 45-46. ISBN 978-1-57075-755-6

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