–Jason K. Duncan, Aquinas College
Most presidents, if they are fortunate, are remembered for a single speech, usually their inaugural address or one in which they address the momentous questions of war and peace. John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address of January of 1961 has long been remembered for its stirring oratory as he tried to wake the nation out of what he believed was its torpor in the midst of the Cold War. Kennedy offered the olive branch of peace to the Soviet Union, but also famously warned that the United States was prepared to “pay any price, support any friend, oppose any foe, to insure the survival and success of liberty.” Kennedy all but ignored domestic matters in his speech, other than a brief “at home,” saying no more out of concern that invoking the civil rights movement would be divisive.
Kennedy soon found trouble with the failed U.S. sponsored invasion of Cuba in April 1961, had a rocky meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev later that summer, and stood by as the Soviets built a wall dividing the traditional German capital of Berlin in half. Khrushchev then attempted to place Soviet missiles into Cuba, which the United States forced them to remove in October of 1962 after a harrowing two week crisis that had the world’s two leading nuclear powers tottering on the edge of an unimaginable war.
Shaken by the prospect of what had been avoided at Cuba by the slimmest of margins, Kennedy decided to seek a new way forward in U.S.-Soviet relations, putting aside fears that he would be accused of appeasement- or worse- if he sought to break out of the Cold War consensus that held that the Soviet Union was a nation beyond redemption. On Monday, June 10, 1963, he spoke at American University in Washington, D.C. In what became known within his inner circle as the “peace speech,”’ Kennedy asked his fellow Americans to “‘re-examine our attitude toward the Soviet Union.” “No government or social system,” he insisted, “is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” Seeking to educate the citizenry, a requirement for genuine leadership in a democratic republic, Kennedy reminded his audience of the enormous losses that the Soviet Union had suffered in World War II, something not fully appreciated in the United States in the early 1960s. The U.S.S.R. lost more than twenty million of its people during the war and suffered enormous losses to its industry and agriculture. Putting those losses in an American context, Kennedy asked his listeners to envision “a wasteland– a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.” He also announced that the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom would begin negotiations toward a comprehensive test ban treaty. Later that summer, the three nations agreed on a partial test ban treaty, barring nuclear testing above ground and in the atmosphere, and Kennedy, with popular opinion behind him, helped guide it to ratification in the United States Senate.
Amidst the drama of the Cold War, Kennedy maintained his cautious stance on civil rights. Mindful of the longstanding support of white southerners for the Democratic party, (Kennedy’s second-best state in terms of percentage in 1960 was Georgia), he disappointed leaders of the civil rights movement by treading carefully during the first two and a half years of his presidency. But when police in May of 1963 attacked activists in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, the photographs of which made Kennedy “sick to his stomach,” he was finally galvanized into action. It was also a matter of no minor concern to him that such images undermined the claim of the United States to be the global champion of human rights and democracy.
The night after his Cold War speech, Kennedy gave a televised address from the White House on the question of civil rights and racial equality in the United States. This speech was more impromptu and less formal than his Cold War speech, his remarks were not complete when he went on live television, one indication that the Cold War remained his highest priority. Prompted by events in Alabama, Kennedy directly connected the civil rights struggle to the Cold War, declaring that “when Americans are sent to Vietnam or Berlin, we do not ask for whites only.” “Are we to say to the world,” he continued, “and much more importantly to each other, that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes?” using the phrase term then commonly in use. He also situated the struggle in the long arc of American history, noting that “one hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, and yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free.” Pointing out the steep differences in both the opportunities and outcomes between black and white Americans, Kennedy called on Congress to enact comprehensive legislation guaranteeing equal access for all to places of public accommodation, and for greater federal protections for voting rights. Although his speech came later in his presidency than civil rights leaders and activists wanted, and his approval rating in the public opinion polls of the day dropped, especially among southern whites, Kennedy accelerated momentum toward what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
John F. Kennedy reached a peak in his moral leadership of the nation with these two dramatic addresses, improbably given on consecutive days. He had made mistakes in his early handling of the Cold War, and had been unduly cautious and hesitant with regard to civil rights. During his third year in the White House, he found his voice on both crucial questions, seeing more clearly the connections between the Cold War and the question of racial equality that he only vaguely hinted at in his inaugural address. John F. Kennedy’s life and presidency came to a shocking and traumatic end five months after his two speeches in June of 1963. If he had died before giving them, his legacy would be less than it is. As it was, he set a clear direction on the two most important matters before the nation that most of his fellow citizens came to follow.
Jason K. Duncan, Ph.D. is Professor of History at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, and author of John F. Kennedy: The Spirit of Cold War Liberalism (Routledge, 2014).
Questions for discussion:
- Since the Constitution outlines more foreign policy powers for the president than it does domestic powers, was Kennedy wrong to make the Cold War a higher priority?
- Does the apparent softening of Kennedy’s position indicate strength or weakness on his part? Does it indicate that perhaps we frequently overestimate the nature of a foreign threat?
- What role, if any, should presidents take in trying to accomplish social (not just political) reform?