Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy gave one of his most memorable speeches on the Cold War. Today the NYT has an article honoring the memory of Kennedy’s speech that he gave on June 10, 1963 as the commencement speaker for the graduating class of American University. It was in that speech that Kennedy pleaded for a new understanding on the part of the American public and the Russian people to begin addressing the differences between the two countries on issues that were badly out of alignment, including the problem of nuclear proliferation and testing. Kennedy emphasized that the two superpowers had such huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons that they were now in a position to do more damage to each other than to any other country, should someone touch the nuclear trigger. Where was the advantage of having a nuclear arsenal, when, as Kennedy had learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the two countries came close to a nuclear showdown (much later we learned that had it not been for a Russian nuclear submarine captain who disobeyed his orders to fire, many of us could have been annihilated)? Prior to that speech, Kennedy had interacted with Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian leader, who reminded him that American aggression towards the Soviet Union had taken place during the Bolshevik revolution, when we had American troops in Russia waging war on the side of the White Russians. Also, after WW II, when Russia and America were allies, Truman never gave Russia the kind of credit it should have had for their part in the war, particularly since the Russian effort saved thousands of American lives by engaging so many of Hitler’s soldiers after they invaded Russia. It was in that June speech that Kennedy touched on the issues that Truman never addressed: he reviewed the immense suffering that the Russian people had gone through, how they lost territory the equivalent of Chicago to the East Coast and how they heroically rebuilt their industrial capacity by reassembling their industries deep inside the Russian interior and eventually triumphed over the invading German army, though the cost was high—Russia lost 27 million people in that war. In many ways, had Truman given that speech in 1945, we might never have had the Cold War. Prior to Kennedy’s speech, he already had approval from Khrushchev that a better understanding could be achieved between the two countries, but Kennedy kept the Pentagon out of the loop, as he feared the American generals would disapprove of efforts to reduce tensions between Russia and the United States. Kennedy’s speech led directly to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which was ratified by the U.S. Senate in September of that year. If Kennedy had not been assassinated in November 1963, he might have ended the Cold War. Instead, Ronald Reagan intensified the Cold War with his Star Wars Missile Defense initiative and Gorbachev ended the Cold War without a shot being fired. You can read or listen to Kennedy’s speech from the Kennedy Library site.
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