John F. Kennedy: A Peace Legacy Lost

By Craig Etchison, Phd

John F. Kennedy was murdered over fifty years ago. Not long after his death, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that sent the United States full force into the Vietnam War, the beginning of fifty years of militarism culminating in the (supposedly) endless—or long—war on terrorism. But had JFK lived, the past fifty years of failed military adventurism might never have come to pass, though we’ll never know for sure. Our country might have lived up to its highest ideals and led the world down a completely different path—a path of peace.

That path was outlined a few months before JFK’s assassination in a commencement address he gave at American University in Washington, DC, a speech that was, sadly, little noted nor long remembered. Yet the proposals in that speech still offer a map for positive change in the U.S., change that would benefit every citizen of this country and every person around the world. Shortly before JFK’s address and by the slimmest of margins, the world had avoided a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis—primarily because JFK refused to bow to pressure from generals who strongly advocated a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union. Generals were also pushing to insert large forces into Vietnam, a military venture JFK had decided to squash after the 1964 election.

In his AU address, instead of touting U.S. militarism, JFK decided “…to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived—yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.” JFK’s visionary ideas have startling relevance given our government’s propensity to seek military solutions to all sorts of problems. Solving problems without military force seems a no-brainer considering the abject failure of military force to create a peaceful world during the past fifty years.

Kennedy’s idea of peace wasn’t “…a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” JFK understood that the Pax Romana and the Pax Brittania were times of interminable war, where violence generally led to more violence, not peace. Today the U.S. spends billions of dollars to garrison the planet, engages in futile drone wars, and uses special ops forces outside the purview of Congress in a vain attempt to control the world. This militaristic approach to foreign policy has produced a world fraught with unmitigated violence and unexpectedly deadly blowback. Vast numbers of innocent people around the world face daily violence—not to mention shortages of food, water, and justice—often fueling the terrorism we are supposedly fighting.

And in the U.S.? We spend billions of dollars on weapons—even on weapons such as tanks and aircraft the military doesn’t need or want—while millions are out of work, while one in six of our citizens regularly face hunger. Can such inequity be morally justified or, in purely practical economic terms, sustained?

President Kennedy envisioned 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.” He understood that such a peace would require a major change in American policy dominated by a military-industrial- intelligence complex that feasted on war and preparations for war. The Pentagon pig had been unleashed to chow down on as much of the national budget as it wanted—few questions asked—no accounting necessary—literally—regardless of collateral damage around the world or the decaying infrastructure and growing deficit, both fiscal and moral, at home.

JFK pointed out that war in the nuclear age—nuclear war was on the minds of many in those days—makes no sense when a single exchange would annihilate tens of millions and leave the earth covered in deadly poisons. Advanced computer simulations show that exploding as few as fifty nuclear bombs on the right targets could set off a nuclear winter, potentially eliminating humanity from the planet. Yet the Russians and we maintain tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them, costing both countries billions of dollars every year. Pakistan, India, Israel, and Britain also have substantial nuclear arsenals. Let’s not forget, too, that a nuclear exchange due to a mistake or misreading—or something as simple as failed equipment—could lead to annihilation. Such a failure occurred in 1983 when a Soviet satellite warning system malfunctioned, and but for the courage of one soviet officer who did not launch a retaliatory strike—as his orders demanded—we might not be here today.

President Eisenhower pointed out that spending billions of dollars on weapons “…that only destroy and never create…” was a terrible waste. Consider the needless Iraq war where we will spend more than three trillion dollars to kill hundreds of thousands, send millions into exile, and leave the country in a shambles, beset by almost daily terrorist bombings—bombings that killed over 850 mostly innocent civilians during the month just past as I write this.

Where is peace or security or opportunity for a normal life that Kennedy spoke of? What has our military adventurism gained for us? For the Iraqis? For the greater Middle East? For the world? We spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year financing approximately one thousand military bases around the world. We are the greatest purveyor of arms to the world, accounting for 78% of all arms sales on the planet, mostly to dictators. Where’s the peace from this investment? Where’s the security? How does it help millions of U.S. citizens mired in poverty? How does it help millions around the world mired in poverty and despair—and from which come the suicide bombers so bereft of hope they are willing to blow themselves up to kill a few innocent people?

We have launched a war of terror with our drones that, like all weapons, kill indiscriminately. Government figures are consciously vague. No need for the voters to know exactly what’s going on. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been tracking drone attacks for twelve years, says these attacks have murdered 4,000 mostly civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Civilians who were doing nothing but going about the business of life. What does that say about our values? How do we justify such slaughter? We even know that such military excess increases hatred for the U.S. A recent Pew poll in Pakistan—supposedly an ally—showed that 75% of the population considers the U.S. an enemy. Such are the rewards of violence perpetrated by one country on another.

What if, instead of sending drones to Afghanistan and Pakistan—and a host of countries in Africa—we sent our expertise in farming, in building infrastructure for clean water and sanitation, in establishing solar facilities in countries where sunlight is abundant? What if we exported tractors instead of tanks, life-saving drugs instead of drones, rice instead of rifles? How would we be viewed by the world? Would not the world be a safer place if we were viewed as helpers rather than terrorists? Would offering hope not lead to a more peaceful world where people could live and grow without fear—just as Kennedy envisioned?

JFK said we needed to “…reexamine our attitudes—as individuals and as a nation…” toward peace and the possibilities of peace. He pointed out that our attitudes toward peace can’t be defeatist because that leads to doom. We created the problems and we can solve them. Could such a call to a new way of thinking be any more pertinent today when our leaders speak of endless war? Of course, JFK knew that “…the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war—and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.”

Kennedy noted that no matter our race, creed, or color, we are all human—with the same needs, the same hopes, the same fears. He asked us to examine our attitudes toward our supposed enemies because we lose the correct perspective when we start seeing others only in stereotypes. JFK asked the country “…not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”

In our time, we do a great disservice to peace if we don’t understand that the vast majority of Muslims want peace just as much as the vast majority of Christians. Of course, a few radical jihadists have perverted the whole concept of jihad to justify terrorism, but we must not let the stereotype based on a few blind us, for then we are unjust to the majority. That leads not to peace but to continued conflict, to a society that kowtows to the incessant drumbeat of trumped up fear orchestrated by politicians and the press for the sole purpose of advancing careers and making money. And people everywhere—here and abroad—are the losers.

JFK wrote, “…We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” Should not this basic reality be the starting point? Think of the potential for creating a political power where, rather than advocating a religion of violence, as we now do, we advocated a religion of kindness. JFK goes on to say that “…distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment” is an exercise in futility. “We must deal with the world as it is.” We must conduct ourselves in such a way that our enemies—in this case, any terrorist or terrorist organization—finds it in their best interest to agree on peace. We do not do that when we engage in drone warfare that kill the innocent, that makes the common engagements of life—the gathering to talk about farms, families, or weddings—impossible. That creates PTSD in thousands of innocent children. Drones will never fly us to a peaceful world—only to a world beset by more terrorism.

One comment JFK made in his address seems particularly pertinent in light of what the U.S. has been attempting over the past few decades. “For there can be no doubt that, if all nations could refrain from interfering in the self-determination of others, the peace would be much more assured.” Our form of democracy can’t be imposed on others through the use of military force, black ops by the CIA, or economic blackmail. We should have learned that from our many failures. Countries must decide on their own what form of government best suits their situation. Of course, the U.S. could help the people of other countries by refusing to sell arms to blatant dictators, something we are all too willing to do JFK also asked us to “…examine our attitude towards peace and freedom here at home.

The quality and spirit of our own society must justify and support our efforts abroad.” Could there be a better moment to engage in this? At a time when many states are passing laws to prevent citizens of color from voting. When a cannibalistic capitalism continues to shift the wealth of our country to the 1% while ever-greater numbers of citizens drop into poverty. Is there any greater indictment of our current policies than the fact that many U.S. citizens face food shortages, that we have tens of thousands of homeless, that our infrastructure is crumbling?

The massive cancer of the military-industrial- intelligence complex is eating out the core of our Constitution. This cancer feeds off obscene profits and perks for the few while ignoring the basic needs of the many—both here and abroad. This cancer is consuming our basic institutions of government as the greed of the callous and immoral few pervert the most basic ideals of the founding fathers. As this cancer spreads, it eats away at our basic freedoms—from our privacy to our ability to pass on a better life to our children, reminding us of Dr. King’s powerful words: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Excising the cancer of the military-industrial- intelligence complex will not be easy—and definitely not for the faint of heart. Raw power is on the side of the military-industrial- intelligence complex, though the moral power is on the side of those who would see its demise. Costs will be incurred. James W. Douglass in his excellently researched JFK and the Unspeakable makes a powerful argument that JFK’s move away from militarism towards peace posed a grave threat to the military-industrial- intelligence complex and its insatiable desire for war. Make no mistake, the military-industrial-complex will protect its turf with all the considerable force and violence at its disposal.

To bring about this fundamental societal change will require the energies of people of good will from all corners of our country. Students, certainly, with their fearlessness and willingness to fight for the right. Academics who have researched the cancer and can articulate the treatments needed. We’ll need people in the pulpit like William Sloan Coffin and Dr. Martin Luther King to thunder against the gross inequities that militarism has imposed on the backs of our citizens, not to mention their loss of freedom. And a host of others who will give their time—and their votes—to turn us back toward a meaningful democracy where peace is the prime goal.

In his address, Kennedy posed a fundamental question that we must address if we wish to protect our beacon of liberty from the insidious forces of plutocracy and militarism that is now ascendant. He said, “…is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights—the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation—the right to breathe air as nature provided it—the right of future generations to a healthy existence?” If we believe the answer is yes, then we have a herculean task before us because history tells us quite clearly that the agents of power never give up that power willingly. I hope most of us find the alternative to the herculean task unacceptable.

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