On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy began what would be an
unprecedented 17-day span of unforgettable oratory.
On June 11, Kennedy spoke to the nation on civil rights, giving the most
significant speech on the subject by any commander in chief since Abraham
Lincoln. On June 26, using a mangled German phrase (ich bin ein Berliner)
he spoke to the hearts of the people and West Berlin and the world.
But on June 10 Kennedy gave the commencement address at American
University; and his subject was peace, specifically peace with the Soviet
In the midst of the Cold War, where the United States and the Soviet Union
were locked in an ideological struggle along with a dangerous nuclear
weapons buildup where the endgame potentially meant mutually assured
destruction. This was never more evident than 8-months earlier when the
two nations were on the brink of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile
What Kennedy delivered at American University was more than a speech on
peace, it also an opportunity to reset the propaganda button to see the
Soviet people in a three-dimensional way that lifted them from the fly
paper of all things Americans held as evil.
In my conversation with Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson, the "peace
speech" was the speech that Kennedy was proudest. It would prove to be a
speech that would ultimately require a retrospective in order to be fully
Kennedy declared that his definition of peace was not limited to an
American perspective (Pax Americana) but rather "a 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."
In calling for a collective reexamination of American attitudes toward the
Soviet Union, Kennedy declared, "No government or social system is so evil
that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue."
But nothing Kennedy said was more succinct in calling for the elimination
of preconceived notions in order to realize a lasting peace than when he
told those assembled at American University, "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 future. And we are
Prior to Kennedy's American University address, no American president had
spoken about the Soviet Union in this manner. Kennedy could do it without
fear of internal reprisal, having stood up to Khrushchev during the
Kennedy's "peace speech," put the United States and Soviet Union on a
different path that began the thawing of the Cold War.
In reading about the agreement between Iran and the six major world powers
(the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany), which began in 2006, I
thought of Kennedy's "peace speech."
By becoming the first US president to have direct contact with Iran since
1979, President Barack Obama's leadership created a thaw that began
forming in 1953 with the CIA helping to overthrow the democratically
elected government during Operation Ajax, which led to Shah Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi gaining power. There is a direct link between CIA efforts in
1953 and the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that lasted 444 days.
Lest we forget the US supplied Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein with chemical
weapons in his war against Iran. The aforementioned hardly renders Iran
virtuous and the concerns resulting from this agreement are valid.
Pundits have prematurely determined the efficacy of the president's
agreement. Does he warrant comparison to Reagan at Reykjavík, Nixon at
China, or Chamberlain at Munich? Isn't this a matter that can only be
adjudicated by time?
But the agreement with Iran does create the potential for a new beginning.
It echoes the spirit of JFK from that June day in 1963:
"So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct
attention to our common interests and to 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."