JFK: The Speech That May Have Thawed Khrushchev During The Cold War

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John F. Kennedy (JFK), 50 years ago, delivered a speech so powerful that it may have thawed the former Soviet dictator, Nikita Khrushchev, during the cold war.
In a new book, “To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace,” author Jeffrey Sachs told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an interview recently that Kennedy’s speech delivered 50 years ago at a commencement address at the American University is the “most important speech of the modern presidency.”
In this June 10, 1963, speech, Kennedy emphasized that peace with the Soviets was possible. The theme of the speech was that nuclear arms race was most perilous and could easily result in the nuclear extinction of the planet. Here are two excerpts from the speech.

“Some say that it is useless to speak of 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 re-examine our own attitudes –– as individuals and as a nation–– for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward–– by examining his own attitude towards the possibilities of peace, towards the Soviet Union, towards the course of the cold war and towards freedom and peace here at home.”

Referring to the doctrine of the time of mutual assured destruction or MAD which experts at the time believed kept peace between the two superpowers, Sachs said that both leaders recognized the lunacy of MAD.

“And, you know, the experts of the day talked about mutual assured destruction or MAD as it was called by its acronym, and it was a bit mad that the idea that there was a balance of terror that kept the peace. But Kennedy realized and Khrushchev also realized, this wasn’t a balance, it was an imbalance, it was a set of accidents waiting to destroy the world. Kennedy came into office as president in 1961 very much conscious of World War I as a war that had no reason to have taken place, resulted from a set of alliances and trip wires and accidents and miscalculations that led to this massive destruction, unprecedented destruction, and he was determined to not have that happen and to prevent that from happening in his own time.”

The speech so moved Khrushchev, Sachs said, that Khrushchev excluded it from being jammed to allow the Soviets to listen to it. In addition the full content of the speech was printed in Pravda, a Russian political newspaper associated with the communist party at the time. Izvestiya, another Russian newspaper in Moscow also printed it.

Speaking to Fareed Zakaria of CNN recently, Sachs said Khrushchev was so impressed that he called Averell Harriman, the US envoy at the time, and told him that that was the finest speech by an American president since FDR. “I want to make peace with that man,” Khrushchev reportedly said.

Sachs said that it was this speech that brought the U.S, and the Soviet Union close. Seven weeks later, Sachs said, the partial nuclear test ban treaty was signed.

According to Sachs, this speech was not an accident but part of a well-planned strategy on Kennedy’s part that included Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech delivered in West Berlin on June 26, 1963. The purpose of this address, according to reports was to show support of the US for West Germany after East Germany, with the Soviet Union’s help erected the Berlin wall to prevent East Berliners from fleeing to the West.

Speaking to Zakaria, Sachs said, “And what’s striking is that the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, which was just a few days after this was part of the strategy. It was not just an isolated event. It was an incredibly well thought, brilliantly led strategy by President Kennedy to pull the U.S. and the Soviet Union back from the brink of nuclear annihilation…”

Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech was delivered a few months after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 in which Cuba and the Soviet Union faced the US in a 13-day confrontation.

According to Sachs, because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, both leaders felt they had to save the planet from nuclear extinction. Speaking about the pullback from the brink, Sachs said both leaders perhaps wanted to avoid this kind of confrontation.

“And Kennedy and Khrushchev felt after having that near death experience, and not only that we all had in the world, but that they had as the two leaders, felt something different has to be done. Kennedy took incredible risks and pulled it off.”

An excerpt from June 10, 1963 speech by JFK reads:

“But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace, where the weak are safe and the strong are just.”

This was a speech that may have thawed the former Soviet dictator, Nikita Khrushchev, during the cold war.

By Perviz Walji

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