How John F Kennedy lost his fight to end the Cold War
The story of history is the story of the roads not taken, and never more so than when it comes to the life and legacy of US President John F Kennedy.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The 55th anniversary of Kennedy’s ‘Peace Speech’, delivered in the form a commencement address to students and faculty at the American University in Washington on June 10, 1963, is a time to lament the loss of a leader who, by the time of his assassination, was on a journey towards ending the Cold War in conjunction with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Both men had emerged from the Thirteen Days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 chastened by the knowledge of how close the world had come to nuclear war. Moreover, they emerged determined to ensure that the world would never come close to anything like it again, having faced down hardliners within their respective governments and militaries who were itching for conflict.
In his book on the period, ‘To Move The World’, Jeffrey D Sachs describes how “The world had never before peered into the abyss as it did in those days. And the two leaders who steered the world away from it, Kennedy and Khrushchev, were now joined by this near-death experience, each feeling a responsibility that only the other could understand.”
Entering the stage of history
Upon assuming office in January 1961, JFK not only entered the stage of history at just 43 years of age as the 35th President of the United States, he did so at the height of the Cold War between East and West, a cold war in which Vietnam had morphed into a hot war in the context of an enduring Vietnamese anti-colonial and national liberation struggle in which, yet again, Washington was on the wrong side of justice.
Similarly, just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, a young, fiercely committed revolutionary by the name of Fidel Castro had dared defy Washington and moved Cuba into the Soviet camp, resulting in a CIA campaign to overturn the Cuban revolution with the objective of returning a US client to power in Havana. This CIA campaign – comprising acts sabotage, subversion, various terrorist atrocities, and myriad attempts to assassinate Castro - produced the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, a failed attempt at invasion planned and funded by the CIA, in conjunction with Cuban exiles and right-wing paramilitaries.
Kennedy had inherited this madcap operation from his predecessor, Dwight D Eisenhower, and against his better judgement, not long after entering the White House, he gave it the green light the behest of a Washington security and intelligence establishment he would soon come to mistrust and disdain. He did so while refusing to commit US air support, a decision later held up by the plotters as key to the operation’s failure.
The failed attempt at the military overthrow of the Castro-led revolutionary government led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis a few months later in October 1962, when Washington learned of Soviet efforts to establish a nuclear deterrent on the island.
The experience, as mentioned, was transformative; sparking within Kennedy a changed worldview from the one he’d carried with him into the White House.
Fortunately in Moscow, in the person of Nikita Khrushchev, he had himself a partner who’d come out of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the same worldview, embracing more than he had been previously the goal of peaceful co-existence. In the wake of the crisis the Soviet leader wrote to Kennedy: “Evil has brought some good. The good is that now people have felt more tangibly the breathing of the burning flames of thermonuclear war and have a more clear realization of the threat looming over them if the arms race is not stopped.”
The vision of peaceful co-existence outlined by JFK in his commencement address to students and faculty at the American University in Washington on 10th of June 1963 stands as the most far reaching and radical departure from the status quo outlined by a US president since Franklin D Roosevelt’s speech outlining the New Deal in 1932. Indeed, given the context and circumstances, perhaps it is the most enlightened of any speech by a US president since Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863.
“What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of peace do we seek?” Kennedy asks rhetorically in the speech. “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave.” Further on he pledges to, “strengthen the United Nations… to make it a more efficient instrument for peace, to develop it into a genuine world security system – a system capable of resolving disputes on the basis of law, of insuring the security of the large and the small.”
As for the most recognisable section of the speech, words which in their lapidary brilliance will never be forgotten, we are forced to measure how much was lost with his premature death: “For in the final analysis,” Kennedy intoned, “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.”
The fruits of Kennedy and Khrushchev’s journey towards peace in that tumultuous year of 1963 was the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, agreed between the US, UK, and the Soviet Union on August 5, subsequently ratified by the US Senate on September 24 with bipartisan support.
On September 20, just a few days before Senate ratification of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Kennedy had addressed the 18th UN General Assembly in New York: “let us strive to build peace, a desire for peace, a willingness to work for peace, in the hearts and minds of all our people. I believe that we can. I believe the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings.”
Kennedy’s powerful enemies
US historian Peter Kuznick is in no doubt as to the transformative journey that John F Kennedy was on, nor when it comes the powerful enemies in Washington who were determined to oppose him.
Writing in his landmark work, ‘The Untold History of the United States’, co-authored with Oliver Stone, Kuznick reveals that “In the minds of some leaders in the [US] military and intelligence community Kennedy was…guilty of not following through in the Bay of Pigs, disempowering the CIA and firing its leaders…concluding the atmospheric test ban treaty, planning to disengage from Vietnam, flirting with ending the Cold War, encouraging Third World nationalism, and, perhaps most damningly, accepting a negotiated settlement in the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, on 22 November 1963, ended the chance of serious and meaningful engagement with the Soviet Union, ensured the continuation of suffering for the Vietnamese people, and killed off hopes of achieving a world rooted in peaceful co-existence rather than militarism.
The anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, 6 June 1968, falls just a few days short of the anniversary of his brother’s ‘Peace Speech’. Placing the lives, legacy and fate of both brothers in historical context, the parallel with the famed Gracchus brothers of Roman history– Gaius and Tiberius – is striking.
The Gracchus brothers, while serving as Roman tribunes in the late 2nd century BCE, dared challenge and defy the status quo of their time, and in so doing became a threat to the entrenched interests and power of the Roman elite.
The Kennedys did likewise and, as with their Roman counterparts, it cost them their lives. Looking back 55 years later on JFK’s attempt to end the Cold War, we are compelled to consider how the world may have looked if he’d been spared and gone on to serve a second term. Sadly, for the generations that came after, Kennedy lost and the ‘deep state’ won.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.