Peace is a state of being that mankind constantly seeks to achieve even as tensions flare between nations making the threat of armed and nuclear conflict a very real possibility. The detonation of the bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, changed modern warfare permanently. Man had entered the nuclear weapon era and the fear of complete annihilation reached even the most hardened leaders of the free world. In the wake of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union took center stage in the battle for global supremacy. The Cold War ushered in a new level of caution as Washington and Moscow became increasing distrustful of each other.
In January, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected over Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) in one the slimmest election margins in United States history. The young Irish-Catholic president had pulled off a stunning victory in a race that seemed destined to be decided in Nixon’s favor. Upon assuming office, Kennedy inherited the successes and failures of his predecessor, retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). Moscow watched the election with keen interest and tested the new president in ways he could have never imagined. Under the command of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the Soviet Union became determined to continue the spread of its communist ideology and confront American whenever and wherever necessary. In October, 1962, tensions reached an all-time high when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. For thirteen days, the world watched with fear as the two superpowers threatened the planet with extinction. Crisis was averted by back-channel communication between the two nations and the commitment of both Khrushchev and Kennedy to avoid total destruction. The Cuban-Missile Crisis changed Kennedy’s view on U.S. foreign policy and he became determined to avoid a similar situation in the future. And he had begun to visualize his quest for peace. Author Jeffrey Sachs takes a close look at Kennedy’s in this short yet remarkable account of a time in world history that will be studied for years to come.
Kennedy constantly walked a tight rope in dealing with foreign powers and satisfying domestic opponents as home. His determination not to be seen as a dovish president, had taken him down a path in which Cold War warriors exerted their influence with the final objective of refuting Soviet expansion by force if necessary. It should be noted that the book is not an examination of the Cold War but rather it places its focus on Kennedy himself and the decisions he made when faced with the threat of catastrophe. Of course, the author addresses the most important events during his short time in office which came to a tragic conclusion on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. The assassination itself is not discussed in detail for obvious reasons. The focus here remains throughout on Kennedy’s plan for peace which he put into action through a series of events that were quite bold for his time. And although he did not live to see many of his ideas come to pass, he did lay the groundwork for many things, most importantly the Civil Rights Act which would signed into law by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) on July 2, 1964. Kennedy was not only concerned about world peace but was highly aware of domestic issues at home that centered on the issue of race in America. In recalling Kennedy’s words, Sachs writes:
“The heart of the question, said Kennedy, was this: If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”
Peace became Kennedy’s dominant focus and his actions n the later half of his administration showed his commitment to seeing the world truly change. Whether through his appeals to the United Nations or the creation of the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy was putting his plan into action to see change materialize. But he also understood that peace does not happen overnight. In fact, Sachs explains Kennedy’s vision perfectly in this statement:
“Kennedy’s third precept was that peace is a process, a series of step-by-step confidence-building measures. He recognized that moves by one side lead to moves by the other. A situation of high distrust necessitated a series of confidence-building steps.”
Had he lived, I believe that President Kennedy would have continued his plan of peace and that America would not have remained in Vietnam. He fully understood that the world was heading down a dangerous path and sought to reverse course before mankind destroyed itself. His assasination changed America and to this day, his murder haunts this nation as a reminder of what could have been. However, in just a few short years, he set into a motion a number of events. His commitment to true peace is sometimes overlooked or not fully understood. Here, Jeffrey Sachs explains it all perfectly so that readers can see what Kennedy wanted to accomplish and how he planned to do it. And as a bonus, the author includes text from Kennedy’s speech at American University on July 10, 1963 which is considered by many, including myself, to be his finest. And the fact that he was murdered only five months later, speaks volumes about how much of a threat the young president was to what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex.
I do admit that Kenney’s administration as not perfect and at the beginning of his tenure, he made a series of missteps that increased tensions between America and opponents abroad. But his removal of holdovers from previous administrations, finally allowed him to chart his true course. And by the time he was ready to speak at American University, he had become a seasoned leader who understood that not everyone can be pleased. There are times when being president means doing what is best even if it may be unpopular. And to fully drive home where Kennedy’s thoughts lay in the months before his death, we can turn to this snippet of his speech before that graduation class:
“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.”
John F. Kennedy has been dead for more than fifty years but his legacy remains with us. There are many what if questions surrounding his death and what it meant to the United States. However, he left behind quite a bit of ideas and material for us to study, understand and learn from. One of the most important was his desire to move the world in his quest for peace.