In a season of commencement speeches, those trying to impart a measure of wisdom to college grads would do well to consult President John F. Kennedy’s American University speech, given 50 years ago next month.
In its ambition, vision, and poetic beauty, it may be the most important speech by an American president in the half century since it was delivered. Of all Kennedy’s speeches, I admire this the most for its moral courage and strong sense of idealism and hope.
Kennedy aimed high by starting with what he called “the most important topic on earth: peace.”
“What kind of peace do we seek?” he asked. “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,” but a “genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living . . . not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.”
At the height of the Cold War, these were bold and unorthodox sentiments. As Kennedy rose to address the graduates on a sunny day in June, he was just eight months past the Cuban Missile Crisis when he and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had nearly engulfed the world in a thermonuclear war that would have killed hundreds of millions of people.
Kennedy’s purpose was to discuss what he had learned during America’s existential battle with Soviet communism. By 1963, he was, in some ways, a reformed Cold Warrior who had looked into the abyss of nuclear terror and emerged with a certain wisdom that fueled the last year of his presidency. He announced the United States would negotiate a Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets, beginning years of disarmament talks that successive presidents embraced. But in a larger sense, his speech focused on three big ideas that remain highly relevant for our own challenges today.
Kennedy’s first message was to drive home the urgent necessity of peace with Moscow after nearly two decades of Cold War. In words that speak to our own need to move beyond 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghan wars, he proclaimed “the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war . . . but we have no more urgent task.” He urged the graduates to “examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief.” He added, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
Second, Kennedy also warned Americans not to demonize our enemies because, he insisted, war is not inevitable. “History teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever . . . the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations.’’ And, in a call for diplomacy with the Soviets, he recommended that we not “see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.” Important words as we debate whether to talk to a recalcitrant Iran today.
Finally, Kennedy was remarkably prescient in calling for Americans to “safeguard human interests,” not just the national interest. Decades before anyone had coined the term “globalization” to describe the extraordinary interconnectedness of the modern world, Kennedy’s evocation of a universal, human interest is particularly relevant today. If a central challenge for the leaders of 2013 is to unite seven billion people in over 195 countries to coalesce in fighting global challenges such as climate change, then establishing the human interest as the highest universal priority is practical, necessary, and wise.
Fifty years later, Kennedy’s voice is still alive through this powerful and visionary speech. I assign it to my students at the Kennedy School. You can read it — or better yet, watch it to get the full sense of its power and passion — at www.jfklibrary.org.
Five months before his tragic death, Kennedy succeeded in delivering, in one memorable commencement speech, wisdom about the human condition earned in both war and peace. It is necessary, even vital, for us to remember it today.
“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.”Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.