JFK: ‘…and we are all mortal.’

“…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. 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 all mortal.”

— JFK’s commencement speech at American University, June 10, 1963.

President Kennedy chose the commencement address at American University to give a “peace speech” devoted to the need for peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union, and used the speech to announce talks that would rapidly culminate in a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, ratified by the Senate in September.

Read and listen to the entire speech at the JFK Library and Museum website.

22 comments

  1. John Kirsch says:

    Does anyone know whether Kennedy actually wrote the speech himself? I’m guessing one of his speechwriters did, which would be common practice, then and now.

  2. JSA says:

    I think Ted Sorensen had a hand in this one, if I’m not mistaken.

    I’d love to see Obama make a speech about the serious threat of global warming like this Kennedy speech!

  3. Alan Dale says:

    We would all benefit from having our own Ted Sorensen. Thank God President Kennedy had his.

  4. John Kirsch says:

    Before we wax too nostalgic over JFK’s speeches, we would do well to consider the contrast that Leslie Gelb, a former NYT columnist and government official, drew between JFK’s bellicose inaugural speech, which committed the U.S. to sparing no cost in defending its interests worldwide, and Ike’s farewell address, where he warned the nation against the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex (who knew its dangers better than Eisenhower?) and the need to maintain a sound economy at home. Wrote Gelb in the Huff Post, “With 50 years’ perspective, including countless wars and no shortage of mindless governmental spending to look back upon, Ike’s words serve us better than JFK’s.” Or go even further back, to John Quincy Adams when he was secretary of state, “Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America’s heart, her benedictions and her prayers. But she does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

    • JSA says:

      Yeah, okay, but let’s not forget that it was IKE who put the Dulles brothers into powerful positions, and who warned President-elect Kennedy in December of 1960, pointing to a map of Laos, that this was going to be an area that would need military support. I have a slightly different take on Ike’s farewell address of 1961. My take is that he felt he got burned by the CIA when Francis Gary Powers’ U2 plane, operating directly against Ike’s wishes, flew a mission over Soviet territory, was vulnerable to being shot down, WAS shot down, and the upcoming summit in Moscow that Ike wanted as a crowning achievement was sacrificed, some say sabotaged, by reckless CIA adventurism. And finally, Ike was also addressing what he thought was reckless growth of big government, a Republican taboo that ran against his conservative principles. Kennedy also warned against the intel/military getting too powerful, but since he didn’t do so in a well-known public speech that clearly outlined that belief, he gets forgotten and Ike, who signed on to Nixon and Dulles’ Bay of Pigs plan in 1960, gets remembered.

      • John Kirsch says:

        JSA, I still think that there’s a huge difference between what Ike said in his farewell address and what JFK said in his inaugural speech. Eisenhower was arguing for a modest approach for the nation and government in the years ahead and Kennedy argued for a much bolder role. I think Gelb was right. Looking back on the last 40 or 50 years, I think the country would be in much better shape now if we had followed Eisenhower’s cautious approach. I think Kennedy felt like he had too much to prove. And I suspect his challenging tone created problems. How could the Soviets not have interpreted Kennedy’s inaugural speech as a throwing down of the gauntlet?

        • JSA says:

          I agree that Kennedy set himself up with his Inaugural Address in 1961, but keep in mind that he was following FDR’s bold approach of a liberal, activist government, which he felt had been asleep for the past eight years under Republicans. Also, regarding ending colonialism and recognizing new emerging governments in places like Africa was something the JFK crowd (Ted Sorensen included) wanted to be actively supporting. After Vietnam, which Kennedy NEVER intended to put regular troops into, people looked back with cynicism at JFK’s address. In 1961 however, Americans felt they could solve problems and that government, activist and Keynesian progressive, was a GOOD force for positive change, not a negative one. We could use a little of that optimism today, in my opinion. I agree that throwing our military and CIA into places they don’t belong isn’t right however. But the Peace Corps and foreign aid were good things.

          • John Kirsch says:

            JSA, re: JFK following in FDR’s footsteps (after Truman and Eisenhower): if memory serves, Eleanor Roosevelt had doubts about Kennedy’s commitment to the brand of liberalism that FDR championed. In retrospect, I see JFK as more of a technocrat than a faithful follower of any particular belief system, liberal or otherwise. I think the Kennedy brothers were primarily interested in foreign policy and only acted on civil rights because they felt they had to. I agree that many, if not most, Americans saw government as a positive force at that time. It had brought the country through the Depression and WWII. But I think JFK squandered some of that goodwill by embarking on an overly muscular foreign policy.

          • JSA says:

            Well, Eleanor Roosevelt DID have major misgivings about JFK in 1960, but she reluctantly climbed onboard the campaign anyway, after her beloved Adlai wouldn’t/couldn’t secure the nomination. If you stop at the end of 1961 or even at Eleanor Roosevelt’s death, in 1962, it might appear that JFK was just acting on civil rights because he felt he had to. But then came 1963, when he pushed for passage of a civil rights bill, and when he spoke before the nation about the need for the rights of black people. Add to that Robert Kennedy’s commitment to poverty and hunger in America and your case doesn’t hold up to the facts. As to JFK’s “muscular foreign policy” what do you mean? Was it when he called off committing ground troops and air forces in an all out attack on Cuba, in 1961? And again in 1962? Or maybe it was when he refused to allow his NATO forces in Berlin to confront the Soviets over the building of the wall? Or was it when he started pulling troops out of Viet Nam in 1963, telling his aides that “unless I get reelected, we won’t end our involvement in Viet Nam—so we’d better make DAMN sure I get reelected next year.”–? EVERY single time the military wanted to use force during his presidency: in Cuba, in Berlin, in Laos and Viet Nam—Kennedy backed out, looking instead for peaceful methods, or in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for a blockade and negotiation rather than a first strike. So please explain your position. It doesn’t seem to match the facts.

  5. Jonathan says:

    According to James Douglass (“Unspeakable”), this speech sealed JFK’s doom. It was, says Douglass, a signal to the warhawks that JFK was turning away from war with the Soviet Union and toward peace.

    Peace was bad business. Bell Helicopter made a billion or two off of Huey helicopters. Colt Arms must have made a similar amount off of the M-16. Even Anheuser-Busch made a bundle from Bud near-beer shipped on pallets to the Nam. And the auto companies. They had reps in Viet Nam selling muscle cars to would-be survivors.

    Stereo gear was a big item as well. I bought a Pioneer receiver, turntable, and speakers on the Bien Hoa Army Base. All items shipped to the US of A.

    Viet Nam was very big business. For the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong (tailors), Taiwan (R&R women), and Thailand (beaucoup R&R women).

    JFK was an idealist, not a pragmatist. He saw war as evil. Run the right way, war is a huge profit machine.

  6. Jason L. says:

    Douglass may be correct, but it’s just speculation. I also find it hard to believe that hawks would go to war just to enrich industry. I think it’s more likely that hawks both in government and out of government (working in the military industries) all agreed on the aggressive anti-communist policy.

    Also, you have to take history done on speeches with a grain of salt, though this goes more for conventional historians than for conspiracy buffs. It’s a curious way to do history. On the surface, you can justify it by saying, look it’s a primary source, etc. But it doesn’t account at all for the reality that politicians don’t say what they really think publicly (JFK rarely seemed to).

    The interesting thing about JFK’s later speeches is how they are different from his early speeches. Historians and people like Chomsky don’t seem to put much stock in this, though they rely on early speeches in trying to paint JFK as a Cold War liberal (though in reality he was just saying what he had to say to beat Nixon, etc.)

    In this time period, there is also clear concern from a number of Presidents (JFK, Eisenhower and Truman) over the growth of the military/spy complex. It was certainly a dark time in our history, and the Douglass book in a nice contribution to understanding the period.

    • Jonathan says:

      Some hawks were principled idealists.

      But there were corporate greed seekers aligned with the hawks.

      Imagine every soldier in Viet Nam carrying an M-16.

      Many like me rode Hueys.

      Pacific Architects & Engineers (PS&A) built the American infrastructure in Viet Nam. One of PSA’s principal shareholders was Ladybird Johnson.

      The profit-motive there was obvious even to the 19-year-old draftee from some ghetto in L.A. or Detroit.

  7. EconWatcher says:

    Isn’t the evidence for Kennedy as budding peacenik pretty weak? My impression is that he was incredibly cautious and political about just about everything. For example, whatever else you may say about Johnson, he took a much firmer and more courageous stand on civil rights than Kennedy ever seemed prepared to do. On issues of war and peace, my guess is Kennedy would have acquiesced to the pressure to preserve South Vietnam (which was overwhelmingly popular with the public at first), although maybe he wouldn’t have gone “all in” with half a million troops, the way Johnson did.

    • John Kirsch says:

      EconWatcher, I think that Kennedy, like any first-term president, was primarily concerned with being elected to a second term. I don’t mean this in a critical way. JFK was a politician and politicians want to remain in power. His trip to Texas was primarily political in nature. Maybe he would have gone “all in” in Vietnam and maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would have done more on civil rights and maybe he wouldn’t. For all his bold rhetoric, he comes across to me as the kind of person you described, “incredibly cautious and political about just about everything.” He seemed to spend as much time reacting to events as causing them. I agree with you that the actual evidence for JFK as budding peacenik is thin.

      • JSA says:

        JFK, his brother Bobby, and only one or two others in his cabinet stood firmly against invading or making a first strike against Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. ALL of the JCS advocated for a strike. All of them. RFK told them: “My brother doesn’t want to go down in history as Tojo in regards to Cuba.”

        In Berlin, when his generals in the field advocated a strike against Soviet and East German forces over the construction of the Berlin Wall, Kennedy refused.

        Kennedy issued JSAM 263 which authorized the draw down of US forces operating as military advisors in South Vietnam, to begin in late 1963.

        Kennedy worked diligently (and successfully) in the Summer of 1963 for passage of a limited nuclear test ban, something regarded as very peace-leaning by the cold war hawks of the day.

        Kennedy gave the American University speech in June of 1963 which advocated peaceful solutions abroad, and this speech aggravated the hawks in the Pentagon and at CIA.

        I’ll grant you guys one thing: JFK WAS political. He didn’t just operate out of his left pocket or his heart, say like McGovern or Adlai Stevenson. The last day of his life he gave a speech at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast, stating that we had to develop new weapons systems for Vietnam, and lauded the companies in Texas that were developing these systems. So he was being political, no doubt about it. But the record (not always the political rhetoric–meant to get votes) didn’t match the perception of a hawk. He was just about anything but. Can you fellows show us some examples of his hawkish policies, for the record?

        • John Kirsch says:

          JSA, I guess the best response I could give would be to refer you to an essay by Noam Chomsky “Are We on the Verge of Total Self-Destruction?” on the Alternet site. In the essay, Chomsky discusses the Cuban missile crisis and how Kennedy rejected Khrushchev’s proposal for a joint U.S.-Soviet public announcement that would have called for the Soviets to declare their intention to withdraw their missiles from Cuba while the U.S. would declare its intention to withdraw missiles from Turkey. Kennedy rejected that possible solution to what one JFK adviser described as the most dangerous moment in world history, insisting instead that the Russians publicly humiliate themselves by announcing the withdrawl of their missiles from Cuba while the U.S. would agree to SECRETLY remove its missiles from Turkey, which the U.S. had been planning to do anyway. None of this is meant to in any way diminish what happened in Dallas. It’s just I find the notion of JFK as peacenik to be implausible.

          • JSA says:

            John,

            Considering how difficult it was just for Kennedy to go against his military and not make a first strike against Cuba, have you considered the impossibility of his following Kruschev’s proposal to make a public announcement, when both sides knew that the US was ahead in strategic nuclear delivery systems? I see your point, but my ‘reality check’ of 1962/63 raises lots of red flags at JFK taking that proposal seriously, given the time period and the strategic imbalance.

  8. John Kirsch says:

    JSA, I’m aware of the tension between Kennedy and the military, esp. people like LeMay. Still, Kennedy WAS president, wasn’t he? Military leaders are sworn to carry out the orders of their commander in chief, regardless of how they feel about those orders. If Kennedy had agreed to Khrushchev’s proposal, the U.S. military would have been required to go along.

    • JSA says:

      Well, they were required to go along with Kennedy’s Cuban blockade and then with his deal (in secret) to dismantle theatre-based ballistic missiles in Turkey (Jupiters). But I think they seethed with anger over being forced to ‘go along’ and schemed to assassinate their commander-in-chief. Kennedy read “Seven Days in May” and commented to Paul Fay and a few others that a military coup wasn’t completely impossible, if a president was seen by his military as “going too far” from their principles. I am guessing that Kennedy knew that although on paper he was commander-in-chief, in the seamy real world of real politic, he had to tread carefully. In fact, I’m quite SURE JFK was aware of the limitations of his power. Incidentally, he worried about Khruschev’s vulnerability with his Soviet military as well. This was evident to anyone who has studied the Cuban Missile Crisis in any detail, as I have done.

  9. John Kirsch says:

    I will say that JFK somehow managed to give many Americans, especially young Americans, a sense of hope and possibility, that the problems they faced in their lives could be overcome and that the nation could make a fresh start. I believe that’s what FDR did during the Depression. All that was long before I was born but the movies and books of the time paint a picture of a nation gone sour on cynicism and despair. Everything must have seemed like a racket, just as it does today. Somehow FDR, and later, JFK, managed to dispel that sense of foreclosed possibilities and to open up new possibilities. I find that conspicuously lacking today.

  10. John Kirsch says:

    It’s the great tragedy of Obama that he also raised hopes of new possibilities as a candidate, then shrank from the task of making those possibilities real after attaining power. Or maybe that’s just another way of saying that Obama isn’t really in charge.

  11. Bill Kelly says:

    Members of COPA meet at the jfk memorial at AU at noon every JUNE 10 – like we do in Dallas – then go to lunch – join us.
    bk

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