John F. Kennedy knew that in his time we stood at a crossroads. He knew where he wanted us to go, and he knew some of the steps to take, and he knew how to lead so that the people would follow.
And then – and therefore – he was murdered, in cold blood, in broad daylight, in front of the crowds that were cheering him, and everything changed.
What didn’t happen can’t be mapped. But if we look at what he said, and did, in his short 34 months in office, we can get a sense of where he wanted us to go, and we can get a sense of how far ahead of nearly everyone else he was, and we can see what his murder cost us, and our children, and their children. And we can see what was saved from the wreckage. For one thing, he saved us all from being poisoned.
The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
For 17 years, the hideously dangerous weapons had been tested. From July 1945 until 1949, by the United States. After 1949, by the Soviet Union as well, and then by Great Britain. In those less sophisticated years, even statesmen thought the danger from the bombs was that they might be used in warfare. At first, and for quite a while, the concept of radioactive fallout seemed only a peripheral concern.
One rainy afternoon, the new president was briefed about Strontium 90, and its health effects, and the fact that once it was put into the air, nothing could prevent it from coming down again. I can’t remember who the official was, but I remember him saying that Kennedy said, “you mean it’s in the rain out there?” He was told that, yes, it was, “and he looked very sad.”
Only a few months earlier, The Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world to the very brink of destruction, and only separate, private, courageous actions by Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had brought us back from the brink. That near-miss had made them both more conscious of the dangers of confrontation. Unless the two nations changed course, sooner or later we were all going to die.
On June 10, 1963, Kennedy made his famous peace speech at the American University commencement, one of the world’s great speeches, which probably helped get him killed. How hard to re-read that speech today, comparing that vision with today’s vile reality. For instance:
“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.”
And this: “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.”
And: “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.”
(There was a time when that was true, when all the world knew that America would never start a war.)
Another excerpt, harking back to a theme that he had shaped in his Senate years. “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.” A strategy of peace, at a time when the run of the mill statesmen thought their job was to prevent another Munich.
(Listen to that speech here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrspHo8uvmg)
Most importantly, Kennedy used that speech to announce two important decisions. “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 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 be the first to resume.”
The technology of the day did not allow for certain foolproof detection of underground nuclear tests; therefore it was politically impossible to obtain agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty. Kennedy, very characteristically, settled for what he could get – and managed to get a little more than nearly anybody thought possible. On July 26, 1963, he was able to go on television and announce the test ban treaty. (I remember it as if it were yesterday, and could still quote some of it. I was 17 years old, and I heard the speech at my grandmother’s house after a morning and afternoon loading and unloading trucks at the nearby produce auction.)
“Yesterday, a shaft of light cut into the darkness,” he said. And, once it was ratified, so it did.
See the speech here: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/ZNOo49DpRUa-kMetjWmSyg.aspx
For 17 years, the US, and the USSR, and England had poured radioactive waste into the atmosphere with every atomic test. Now, this treaty prohibited testing in the atmosphere, the oceans, and in outer space. Other nations would achieve atomic-bomb capability: France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and of course all of them did so outside the test-ban framework. But most of the nations of the world did sign the treaty. Most important of all, the big three, and especially the two superpowers, ceased.
Without that treaty, it is possible that by now we would have endured 67 years of progressive nuclear poisoning. It’s ghastly to think of, an uncounted number of Fukushimas of the air.
We were spared that. In 1963, John F. Kennedy called the treaty “a step toward peace, a step toward reason, a step away from war,” and so it was, and thank God for it. But it could have been the beginning of so much more.