JFK's Strategy of Peace
Jude Wanniski
May 13, 2003


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Ted Sorensen at American U.

Five months before his assassination in November 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a “Strategy of Peace” commencement address at American University in Washington, DC. On Sunday last, Ted Sorensen, the fellow who helped write the speech and who called it “the finest speech of his presidency,” returned to American U. to recall its message. Adam Clymer of The New York Times was there to hear Sorensen and wrote about it in Monday’s Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/12/politics/12SPEE.html My thanks to Adam, who sent me the full text that follows. It reminded me why I cast my first vote for President for Kennedy, and how good it is that Sorensen would bring the message back to life. He did so in the context of the quite different global strategy being employed by President Bush, which he terms a “Strategy of War.” Sorensen, now a 75-year-old New York lawyer, outlines a foreign policy that he recommends generally. It could, though, be directed at the several Democratic presidential contenders who thus far seem to be groping for an alternative. My own predilections are with Sorensen’s counsel, in almost every particular:


It is an overwhelming honor for me to stand where John Kennedy stood 40 years ago. The ceremony that year was held on the Reeves Athletic Field. I sat in the back of a platform, somewhat unwashed, having come here directly from Air Force One which had returned that morning from Honolulu where President Kennedy had, in a major address, asked the National Conference of Mayors to help calm the civil rights crisis of that summer. As I sat there waiting for the President, I thought about the pompous, fatuous speech that had been delivered to my high school commencement eighteen years earlier, which I remembered particularly well -I was the speaker. (If only I could have arrived by fighter jet.)

The President, being President, stopped at the White House to shave, but had no time to rest in that hectic, historic summer. He had arrived in Honolulu on June 8, addressed the Mayors on June 9, and departed that day for Washington to deliver here on June 10 the finest speech of his presidency, for which he had selected a university with students from all over the nation and world, a university dedicated to public service and international affairs which even now has its own programs for conflict resolution; in short, a very American University.

The President saluted by name one degree recipient, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, whom I salute today as a courageous champion of peace.

President Kennedy delivered an extraordinary speech entitled “The Strategy of Peace,” which England’s Manchester Guardian called “one of the great state papers of American History,” which his political opponents called “a soft line that will accomplish nothing… a dreadful mistake;” but, astonishingly, the Soviet leadership permitted it to be published and broadcast in Moscow, almost in full, in Russian.

In that speech, President Kennedy called, as no American leader had ever called, for a reexamination of this nation’s attitude toward the Soviet Union, toward the Cold War, toward peace itself. “What kind of peace do we seek” he asked? “Not a Pax Americana, forced on the world by American weapons of war…”

That speech, planned for months, could be traced to the previous October when Kennedy led the western world through the most dangerous thirteen days in human history, when the swift, secret emplacement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba brought this planet to the very brink of incineration. Kennedy’s response, which ultimately achieved the removal of those missiles without our firing a shot, took care not to precipitate a war or violate international law.

Later that commencement day, he signed the Equal Pay Act, prohibiting wage discrimination against women. The next day, June 11, he directed from the Oval Office the successful admission of the University of Alabama’s first two black students, despite Governor George C. Wallace’s theatrical “stand in the doorway,” and then delivered on nationwide television the strongest declaration by any President since Lincoln that all legalized race discrimination and segregation in this country was to end, completely, “not only (as) a constitutional issue, but a moral issue.”

The next day, June 12, he established the first National Advisory Council on the Arts. One week later he sent to Congress the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in the 20th century. He then announced the joint U.S.-Soviet establishment of a direct communications link between our respective capitols, the so-called “Hotline.” By June 23 he was in Germany on a trip to solidify the Western Alliance, culminating on June 26 in West Berlin where he saluted the enduring freedom and courage of its long-imperiled citizens, ending with the declaration: “as a free man, I take pride in the words: ‘Ich Bin Ein Berliner!’”

Less than one month later he announced the signing of the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow, the first arms control step in the nuclear age, a step for which he had called here at American University, in fact calling for a comprehensive ban and then announcing a U.S. moratorium on atmospheric tests.

It was an extraordinary few weeks of new ideas and actions by an extraordinary leader. To paraphrase Wordsworth: “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; but to be young (and in the service of that President), was very heaven!”


That limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the “Hotline” were only two of hundreds of treaties signed by JFK during his brief years in office, which included the Inter-American Development Bank, the Neutrality of Laos, and international ground rules for wheat, civil aviation, nuclear energy, diplomacy and cultural exchange. His speech here called for “world law” based on “effective agreements,” requiring not “that each man love his neighbor, only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.” As he said, “even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to keep those treaty obligations that are in their own interest.” He also called for strengthening the United Nations, which he had saluted in his Inaugural Address; for solving its financial problems, for making it a “more effective instrument for peace… a genuine world security system… capable of solving disputes on the basis of law.”

In short, Kennedy wanted the United States to lead by force of example, not force of arms, by the multilateral use of our diplomacy, not the unilateral use of our weaponry, by sending abroad American food, not American guns, by relying on smart diplomats more than smart bombs.

John Kennedy was a veteran of World War II, and saluted the “greatest generation” for establishing at the end of that war enduring institutions for a more peaceful world, including the United Nations, NATO - which for fifty years kept the peace and the Western Alliance together - as well as the World Bank, the IMF and IFC.

He was a President who shared Jefferson’s “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” who learned by listening. He was focused that summer on civil rights, but added here to his speech on peace: “is not peace in the last analysis basically a matter of human rights?”

In that very different world, Kennedy knew that the United States was respected for its values, its fairness, its generosity, for the opportunities it offered all its citizens, its great institutions of learning like this University. That’s what he wanted to convey in that commencement address: American values of peace and justice, the best instincts of the American people as a peaceful, not war-like, people, thereby increasing the respect and admiration with which we were regarded around the world, thereby making us more secure, a less likely target for resentment, hatred and attack.

Kennedy often said that any outbreak of war, especially nuclear war, would represent the failure of all his policies and hopes, both at home and abroad. “This generation of Americans,” he said here, “has already had more than enough of war… we do not want a war. The world knows that the United States will never start a war… but we shall do our part to build world peace… Confident and unafraid, we labor on, not toward a strategy of annihilation, but toward a strategy of peace.” Acknowledging conflicts of interest between ourselves and the Soviets, he added, in his most quoted lines: “if we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity; for in the final analysis… we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future; and we are all mortal.”

Less than four months after his announcement of the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, JFK was dead by an assassin’s bullet. “Brightness fell from the air.” The tangled tensions of the Cold War resumed for almost 30 years more. But the groundwork for its termination had been laid and a corner had been turned, here at American University.


Unfortunately, you are graduating into a more endangered nation, a nation not only at war with terrorism but a nation that in recent years has turned away from Kennedy’s strategy of peace and back toward, in his words, a strategy of annihilation, away from treaties and international law, away from the United Nations and our traditional allies, away from arms control and peace.

You have inherited a world planted wall to wall not only with laws we often ignore but with weapons we helped to sow; new and more terrible weapons, like using religious fanatics as suicide bombers, in person or in airplanes, and the new nuclear “bunker buster” of which our Pentagon boasts; and new methods of warfare, such as intentionally “decapitating” an enemy through the early assassination of its political leaders; with new threats from nations and organizations never seriously feared before. No wonder countless Americans today feel insecure, not only about their jobs and health but also about their physical safety.

The terrifying nuclear arms race of the Cold War is over; but the prospects of nuclear destruction have not ended. The former Soviet Union’s loosely guarded nuclear stockpiles, and scientific genius, are being bought, borrowed or stolen by rogue states and terrorists who can create new nuclear nightmares.

There are no longer any nuclear secrets, and chemical and biological weapons, the poor nation’s weapons of mass destruction, which can destroy populations with nuclear-like power and speed, are rapidly proliferating beyond our ability to know, much less control. There is talk of terrorists’ engineering diseases for which there is no cure, a container of which in an urban water or air conditioning system could kill countless Americans in minutes.

Our glorious victory ousting Iraq’s dictator is interpreted by some countries to mean that the only credible way for a potential target to deter an American attack is to have its own nuclear arsenal. Whether the next nuclear exchange is between India and Pakistan, between Israel and Egypt, between China and Taiwan, or between North Korea and the United States, its deadly poisonous fallout will be carried by wind and water to all parts and populations of this planet. Even our own Pentagon is said to be thinking about the previously unthinkable, our use of nuclear weapons in battle.

Having launched one war without United Nations approval, without hard evidence of imminent danger to our interests, without the sanction of international law, now we must worry that other states, large or small, will utilize that precedent to attack their neighbors or adversaries.

During the 20th century, threats to world peace and security arose mostly in major European states whom we knew and thought we understood, from the Germans, the Russians, the Yugoslavs or other westernized governments; but, in the 21st century, these threats appear more likely to come from the southern half of the globe, from Asia, Africa or South America, not from their governments but from shadowy, informal groups using terrorist tactics, inflicting death and destruction even on the American mainland.

There is no relief in sight. Some call the war on terrorism World War III; if so, then a new round of engagements against hostile nations, now reportedly under consideration, may be World War IV, stretching on and on.

Technology has not only increased the capacity of weapons to spread death and destruction but also the capacity of fanatics to spread hate and vilification. Too many of our enemies today are led by religious, ideological or ethnic extremists with whom negotiation is unlikely and for whom deterrence is meaningless.

There is no obvious answer to terrorism. We cannot attack every country in which terrorists might secretly train or hide, because that list includes almost every nation, including our own. Nor can we, as some urge, simply declare war on Islam because of a small handful of fanatics, when its disciples number more than one billion, most of them proud of Islam’s glorious past, culture, devotion to peace and traditions of humanitarianism and tolerance, and all of whom are only antagonized by loose talk in this country about a new “crusade” to convert the heathen to Christianity.

Unfortunately, loose talk is not uncommon in these heady days of military victory. The declared doctrine of preemptive strikes, without legal justification or evidence, is music to the ears of terrorist organizations that specialize in just such strikes; but, if followed worldwide, it will create a lawless planet in which law abiding countries will suffer the most. It will be the law of the jungle, in which every warlord has his own weapons of mass destruction, and the first or biggest bomb wins.

Reportedly, those who favor this doctrine of unilateral preemption and its use to impose democracy on other countries, call it “new realism.” But what is more unrealistic than to think this country can unilaterally decide the fate of others, without the support of world opinion, world institutions, or our traditional democratic allies? Only the arrogance of power and the ignorance of history could lead any American to believe that our vast military superiority confers upon us moral superiority as well.

If our objective in foreign policy is to win wars that we start ourselves, then we are doing very well so far; but if our policy is still John Kennedy’s policy of avoiding war and all its horrors, then we are not doing so well.

Most Americans do not like to hear this. America is on the march. We won, and the winners have a right to flex their muscles. Both political parties now compete to be more hawkish, to criticize as naïve or even unpatriotic those who favor peaceful world cooperation. The long uneasiness with bloodletting and battle that followed Vietnam has been replaced by a new infatuation for war, a preference for invasion over persuasion. Under administrations of both parties and in both branches of government, we have turned our backs on the path of treaties emphasized by President Kennedy, including the comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty he so eloquently sought here 40 years ago.

The talk now is that America alone is exempt from international law, that America alone can decide who in the world is evil, America alone has the political and economic model to impose on the world, and then America alone can take on terrorism, AIDS and other global evils, because this is “the American century,” dominated by American arms. There is even talk about an American empire, forgetting that empires based on military might alone never survive.

140 years ago, General Robert E. Lee remarked to General Longstreet: “it is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Wise words. Too many Americans today are becoming too fond of war, after two quick victories. But Lee’s warning is still valid. War is still terrible. Even modern wars prove to last longer, become more expensive, and inflict more death and destruction on civilians, than predicted or promised at the start. Even smart weapons launched only at military targets, from thousands of miles away, still cause civilian suffering, pain and loss of life. Triumphalism forgets that after victory comes the cost of reconstruction and the burden of occupation. Victims of modern war, even those wars begun with self-righteous declarations and an overwhelming military advantage, still include, on both sides, the truth, civil liberties and tens of billions of dollars.


All this must change. The American people have neither the heart nor the history for empire or a permanent war footing. Now, in our most discouraging and darkest hour, is the time to reverse course and head back, in JFK’s phrase, away from a strategy of annihilation and toward a strategy of peace. Traditionally our proudest boast has been that we are a nation of laws. So this is the nation that can lead the world to the ideal John Kennedy proclaimed here 40 years ago: a world of law.

First, we must reverse this country’s negative position on the most exciting new development in international law, the new International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent court to punish war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and aggression, under the treaty of Rome. The United States has refused to subscribe, based on the unfounded assumption that this would prevent the Court’s jurisdiction from ever reaching criminal actions by American citizens and soldiers. In fact, any crimes against humanity committed by an American soldier on the territory of another government that is party to the treaty could be reached by the Court. More importantly, the safeguards built into the Treaty to prevent political or frivolous charges, based merely on anti-American resentment, are comparable to the safeguards in this country against unfounded criminal allegations.

The new International Criminal Court is the very court at which the United Nations should try Saddam Hussein for his many crimes against humanity - far preferable to trial by an American military tribunal that would be regarded by Iraqis and the world as nothing more than victor’s justice, conducted largely for show. Because no other nation has the same stake as our own in a stable world, free of crime and terror, no other nation can possibly gain as much as ours from a successful international criminal court. Subscribing now will enable the United States to contribute our views to the evolution of the Court and contribute our judges to its deliberations.

Second, to build a world of law, we must reverse a similar mistake committed in 1986 when we withdrew from full participation in the International Court of Justice, the judicial arm of the United Nations, because we lost a case. The World Court, established after World War I, to move disputes between nations from the battlefield to the courtroom, merits our full support. We are not served by a world in which any nation can decide on its own whether it has grounds to attack its neighbor, or seize its neighbor’s natural resources. This country has both a history and an obligation of leadership in international jurisprudence. In the unpromising, unpredictable, unruly world in which we now live, stronger institutions of international justice would make the United States a safer place.

Third, a world of law will require new efforts by international lawyers and diplomats to complete the network of treaties that outlaw the use, possession and distribution of weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical, biological or nuclear. This country’s Nunn-Lugar program to fund the safeguarding and rapid destruction of former Soviet nuclear stockpiles should be replicated for all weapons of mass destruction in all countries. In addition, renegotiations should begin to enable the United States to amend and accept those treaties on which we have mistakenly turned our backs, including those on landmines, global warming, biodiversity and human rights. Also, international jurists, under U.N. auspices, should devise legitimate and uniform standards and a mechanism for determining legitimate resort to force.

The use of force will not disappear; but in U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s phrase, it must be “power harnessed to legitimacy.” International law is not a menu from which a country can choose which features it is willing to respect and which - such as treatment of our prisoners of war - it will insist that its enemies respect. A world that is universally and vigorously committed to international law is the surest answer to terrorism.

The fourth step toward a world of law, as President Kennedy said here 40 years ago, is to strengthen the United Nations, to place it on a strong financial foundation, to improve its procedures for the settlement of disputes, to give it more peacekeepers, more weapons inspectors, more human rights monitors, and more international prosecutors and to station them in those countries most likely to misbehave. The international community is at its most effective when it is united, and that requires the United Nations. The United States cannot on its own maintain global peace, human rights and disarmament. It needs the United Nations as an impartial arbiter, convener, inspector and advocate, as the only multi-national, multi-cultural organization around that can deal effectively with terrorism.

Fifth, the world cannot successfully establish a peaceful world of law unless we pay equal attention to this century’s most important war, the war against global poverty. It is estimated that complete healthcare could be provided to all children on earth for less than half of what was spent on the war in Iraq. The industrialized countries must increase development and humanitarian assistance, now at its lowest level ever in the United States, and open our doors to agricultural and other commodities from the world’s poorest nations, which have been squeezed out of the world market by western dumping and subsidy programs that must be ended. Remember, international relations are primarily relations of values, not power.

All this, a true world of law, can be achieved in this century if we put aside the cynicism and despair that so often suffocate hope. Man may have been born with instincts for aggression and greed, but he has also demonstrated compassion and generosity, particularly for the very young. Previous generations of Americans have abolished slavery, child labor, the poorhouse and support for apartheid and colonialism. You have the noblest opportunity of all - the abolition of major war.

Why not? Human initiative has transformed the world in the last 100 years. An ordinary citizen today has opportunities and protections available only to kings and queens in earlier centuries. We are not seeking an unrealistic utopia of pure pacifism. The United States would still be a world leader, necessarily, with its preponderance of wealth and might; we would still defend our principles, security and basic interests, but we would be a leader in diplomacy, not warfare; in humanitarian operations, not military.

Reconciliation will require not forgetting the past or forgiving evil but a reliance on justice, on closing the door on conflict and hatred. By the time your grandchildren graduate from this institution, technology will have so eroded the significance of borders and sovereignty that great national armies will no longer be needed.

Pursuing this strategy will take courage. John F. Kennedy was decorated for his military courage in the Pacific, but he showed even greater courage in his willingness to communicate and compromise during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the pursuit of peace.

So must we all, all nations, rich or poor, black, brown, white or other, Christian, Moslem, Jewish or other, North, South, East or West, all must travel this path to world law. “For, in the final analysis, we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future; and we are all mortal.”