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By John Horgan
I’m not a big fan of the literary sub-genre of political rhetoric, even the best examples of which usually reduce to schmaltzy, self-aggrandizing propaganda. I nonetheless love the so-called “Peace Speech” given exactly 50 years ago by President John F. Kennedy. Speaking at the commencement of American University, Washington, D.C., on June 10, 1963, Kennedy talked about “the most important topic on earth: world peace.”
Kennedy continued: “What kind of 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, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to 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 for all time.” Yeah, that’s peace all right.
The high point of Kennedy’s speech, for me, was when he repudiated the notion that permanent peace is a utopian fantasy. “Too many of us think [peace] is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable–that mankind is doomed–that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. 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. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again.”
Contrast Kennedy’s inspiring optimism with the dismal perspective offered by Barack Obama in 2009 when he accepted (irony of ironies) the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man,” Obama stated. “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Obama is implying that war is ancient, innate and—for the foreseeable future—inevitable.
According to surveys I’ve carried out for more than a decade now, most people favor Obama’s pessimistic view of war over Kennedy’s upbeat outlook. When it comes to world peace, most people think pessimism is realistic, and optimism naïve. But most people are wrong. Science supports Kennedy’s view and undercuts Obama’s.
Many prominent scientists–notably Harvard’s Richard Wrangham, Steven Pinker and Edward Wilson–assert that the roots of war reach back not only to the beginning of our species, as Obama claimed, but even further, to the common ancestors that we share with chimpanzees. The evidence for this hypothesis is flimsy, to put it mildly. Overwhelmingly, evidence from archaeology and anthropology reveals that war is a relatively recent (less than 13,000 years old) cultural “invention,” as anthropologist Margaret Mead put it, that culture can help us transcend. Kennedy’s statement that “Our problems are manmade–therefore, they can be solved by man” has been empirically validated.
Talk, as Barack Obama has unfortunately demonstrated, is cheap. Kennedy backed up his rhetoric with actions. He announced 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.” That was the end of atmospheric nuclear detonations by the U.S. and Soviet Union. Kennedy also urged young people in his audience to consider joining the Peace Corps, which he helped found in 1961.
Finally, alluding to the struggle of blacks for civil rights, Kennedy acknowledged that peace without justice is hollow. “In too many of our cities today,” he said, “the peace is not secure because the freedom is incomplete. It is the responsibility of the executive branch at all levels of government–local, State, and National–to provide and protect that freedom for all of our citizens by all means within their authority.” The following day, Kennedy announced his administration’s support for a strong new federal civil-rights bill.
Postscript: Several readers have pointed out that Kennedy wasn’t exactly a pacifist. True enough. But compared to most recent Presidents, he looks pretty damn good, especially in the way that he appealed to the hopes rather than fears of Americans. Also, I just received the following email from Camille LePre of American University: “We were delighted to see your insightful piece in Scientific American about JFK’s peace speech at American University! If you haven’t already seen it, we have put together a web site about the Strategy of Peace speech, which includes articles, photos, videos, other artifacts from the time (1963 student newspaper coverage, White House typewritten text of the speech, speechwriter Ted Sorenson’s AU Commencement speech about the JFK AU Commencement speech, etc), and current reflections from a series events held at American University over the past few months. If you are so inclined, we invite you to link to this web site from your piece: http://www.american.edu/jfk.”