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“No Problem of Human Destiny is Beyond Human Beings”

Historians weigh in on 60th anniversary of JFK’s Historic Peace Speech at American University

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PPresident John F. Kennedyresident John F. Kennedy’s "Peace Speech" 60 years ago at American University was one of the most monumental presidential speeches of the twentieth century. It took place just eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States and the former Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war.  

In the 27-minute speech, Kennedy laid out a vision for a world peace, which included an end to the Cold War, a limited nuclear test ban treaty, and new mutual understanding and cooperation between the Russian and American people.

“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. 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.”  

What was the historic importance and long-lasting impact of this speech? And how has it held up, given the state of the world today and the Russian invasion of Ukraine? We turned to four scholars and historians to ask them to weigh in on the 60th anniversary of the visionary “Peace Speech.”

President John F. Kennedy had witnessed the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. The crisis stiffened Kennedy’s resolve to think independently, not trust advice from the military, and reconsider his stance as a dedicated cold warrior. He understood that the next superpower confrontation might not be another near miss. A year before the missile crisis, the Soviet Union had shocked the world by testing in the atmosphere the Tsar Bomba, a 50-megaton nuclear bomb, 3,300 times more powerful than the weapon that had devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Survival in the nuclear age, Kennedy came to understand, depended on easing Cold War tensions and diminishing the quest for ever-more destructive weaponry and atmospheric testing that threatened to poison the environment.  

Just as Kennedy resisted the military’s call to bomb the missile sites and invade Cuba, he again rejected their call to escalate the arms race with the development of ever more destructive weapons and atmospheric testing. Kennedy chose to follow a different path of peaceful coexistence and treaty negotiations to minimize the nuclear terror hanging over humankind. Kennedy expressed this vision for a world at peace in his commencement speech at American University in June 1963. The address endures as one of the most eloquent, hopeful, and realistic visions for a peaceful world ever delivered by a leader of stature. It was a prelude to the most important treaty in world history, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, that prohibited testing in the atmosphere and the oceans. The treaty restricted the development of super-weapons like the Tsar Bomba and stopped poisoning the earth and the oceans.  

The lessons for today are that, similar to the missile crisis, the United States is right to stand up to the aggressor in Ukraine, but that defeat for Russia is not an end in itself. Just as Kennedy creatively developed a new approach to achieving world peace, that is an essential follow-up to the war in Ukraine. The quest for a safer, more peaceful world may depend upon regime change in Russia, but that has happened before with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet premier in the 1980s.

Ultimately the speech led to the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty later that year in October 1963. The US and Soviet Union had been working on an anti-nuclear agreement for over six years at that point. The experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 deeply affected both US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev by illustrating in no uncertain terms how rapidly a nuclear crisis could escalate beyond their ability to control it. Even still, they couldn’t manage to come to an agreement until this speech “unlocked” the door.

One of the reasons this speech stands above the rest and was later called “the most remarkable speech by a US president in the Cold War era,” is because it wasn’t written by political speech writers, it was secretly written by the prominent anti-nuclear activist and journalist, Norman Cousins. Cousins used his unique position and direct access to both Kennedy and Khrushchev to influence their thinking, specifically convincing Kennedy to deliver the now-famous American University commencement address. Imploring Kennedy to make a “determined fresh start,” Cousins wrote, “The moment is now at hand for the most important single speech of your Presidency.” He envisioned a speech that took a friendly tone toward the Soviet Union, recognized the Soviet’s tragic losses in the Second World War, and advocated for human interest. He expected that such a speech would create a groundswell of support for American leadership, make it difficult for Khrushchev to disparage the US, and head off some of the internal and external opposition to the test ban.  

Kennedy had been pondering giving a speech on the general topic of peace, it was Cousins's letter that inspired Kennedy to fully embrace the idea. The administration decided that the upcoming American University commencement address would be the perfect moment for the bold fresh start that Cousins proposed. The White House asked Cousins to submit a draft, which was then taken and polished by a small group of advisors who purposely bypassed the relevant departments despite this being a major foreign policy speech. Typically, major speeches would be circulated to all relevant departments for edits and input. This speech, though, Kennedy did not want diluted by the usual threats of destruction and boasts about nuclear stockpiles.

The speech received surprisingly little attention in the US at the time. Overseas the reaction was immediately positive. The United States Information Agency (USIA) reported that “the press of India hailed the speech as ‘significant,’ ‘dramatic,’ and a triumph of statesmanship.” The West Germans welcomed the speech “with satisfaction and vigorous approval.” The US Embassy in Belgrade reported that to the Yugoslav leaders and public it was apparent that the “speech represents [a] major departure in US policy, perhaps [the] most significant in years, and one that can hardly fail to have enormous and beneficial effects.” Although the White House did not know it at the time, even Khrushchev told his staff that the speech was the best given by an American president since Roosevelt. The CIA reported that “the atmosphere created by this speech is now such that the possibilities of agreeing on a test ban treaty are very good.”

The speech was inspirational and consequential. It bore fruit almost immediately in accelerating progress toward a treaty prohibiting atmospheric nuclear tests. Had Kennedy survived and won a second term, he might have parlayed that spirit into further progress in reducing tensions with the USSR. “The American University speech laid out exactly what Kennedy’s intentions were,” former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalled years later. “If he had lived, the world would have been different.”

In a more pedestrian sense, Kennedy was merely acknowledging what should have been clear to any sensible observer of international affairs: ever since the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and hydrogen bombs far more powerful than the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war with the Soviet Union was simply no longer an option. He had been shocked by how close to annihilation the two superpowers came over the Cuban Missile Crisis. So the speech was at once an eloquent call for peace and a realistic assessment of practical constraints on US foreign policy.

However, it would be a mistake to turn this into a story of Kennedy the cold warrior having his Road to Damascus moment. He had campaigned promising to expand the options for carrying out the Cold War, not ending it. He boosted spending on nuclear weapons—“there is no discount price on defense,” he told Congress that same year. In November he traveled to Dallas, where he died with an undelivered speech in his pocket in which he condemned "international communism," "internal subversion," and "guerrilla war," and promised more military aid to Vietnam, where he had sent 16,000 US troops. "Our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky, and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today," he said. "But we dare not weary of the task." In the first three months of 1963, he worked to prevent the election of what he knew to be "the most popular man in Guatemala," the socialist reformer Juan José Arévalo, ultimately signaling support for a military coup there that destroyed democratic rule and launched a civil war that lasted for decades. Far from becoming a pacifist, Kennedy was reorienting the Cold War from a potentially catastrophic direct confrontation with the Soviet Union into a global effort to combat leftist nationalism in developing countries--a strategy whose tragic consequences would be felt not just in Vietnam but far beyond. 

JFK's commencement address at AU came in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis whose silver lining was to remind the world of just how dangerous the illusion of powerlessness could be. In their 1962 novel Seven Days in May, Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, II, had President Lyman, a stand-in for JFK, say: “Ever since that first atomic explosion at Hiroshima, something has been happening to man’s spirit. It’s not surprising, really. Up until then a man could have some feeling that even in a terrible war, he had some control over his existence. Not much, maybe, but still some. The bomb finished that. Everybody’s first thought was that it would end the war. Everybody’s second thought was that if it didn’t, he was at the mercy of the people who had the bomb. Then came the hydrogen bombs and now these awful neutron weapons. […].”  

By 1963, the illusion of powerlessness became a self-fulfilling prophecy that forced politicians to seek miraculous solutions to complicated problems. Within eight months of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy delivered his AU commencement address, which attempted to overcome the feeling—and perhaps the illusion—of powerlessness and Cold War fatigue that was undermining attempts to solve the burgeoning problems between the superpowers. JFK and his advisors drafted the speech without input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, or Department of State. “Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” This phrase seems so obvious, and yet it was a profound reaffirmation of human agency amidst an institutionalized geopolitical standoff. JFK was reacting to the downside of the Cold War's institutionalization—the feeling that the game was playing the players and that the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was a trap that took individual initiative off the table.

It was precisely because 1962 reinforced the illusion of powerlessness that it also lent urgency to overcoming it. Kennedy urged both sides “not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.” While JFK argued that “increased understanding will require increased contact and communication,” he was really suggesting that cultural exchange and dialogue were not forms of compromise or signs of weakness, but manifestations of national self-confidence guided by political intelligence. This attitude has a lot to offer to all parties involved in the contemporary crisis around Ukraine.

“I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces.” Kennedy was articulating the grim logic of MAD, which Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had concluded would emerge as the safest deterrent when disarmament was still unrealistic, but war was suicide.

That July, a special “hot line” was established via telegraph between Moscow and Washington via Helsinki-Stockholm-Copenhagen-London. Simultaneously, another wireless channel via Tangiers served as a backup for emergencies. In August, the Limited Test Ban Treaty came along. Both sides won through dialogue and diplomacy.