Fifty years ago today President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement address at AmericanUniversity that announced steps towards peace with the Soviet Union. Although the speech lacks a singular punch line such as ‘Ask not what your country can do, ask what you can do for your country’, it is hailed as a great speech and was remarkably effective, since it led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty less than six months later.
What is remarkable to me in reading the speech today (full text at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkamericanuniversityaddress.html) is the tone of conciliation, the humility, the realization that what we share with our enemies is much greater than what divides us. The speech acknowledges our differences, but reaches past them to search for a peace based on our commonalities. Below are selected quotes from the speech that I cannot imagine any current politician uttering. How have we become simultaneously so weak we cannot acknowledge any virtue in our enemies yet so self-absorbed that we cannot look in a mirror and ask hard questions?
“No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.”
“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and 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 futures. And we are all mortal.”
“Finally, my fellow Americans, let us 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. We must show it in the dedication of our own lives.”
For the sake of our country, and the world, I hope that we can rediscover the sense of hope, shared responsibility, and respect that is the foundation of John F. Kennedy’s transformational speech.