Peace and Diplomacy
Speech by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Saint Anselm College, June 20, 2023
Sixty years ago this month, my uncle John F. Kennedy, made an historic speech at American University in Washington, DC. That speech was called the Peace Speech. I'll give you some of the context for what was happening at that time. The previous autumn, he had been in the Oval Office with his science adviser, who I knew very well as a boy and growing up as well, Jerome Wiesner. I'm 69 years old, and I remember the regular photographs on the cover of The New York Times and the other papers of atmospheric testing in the Pacific atolls. So we were seeing the mushroom clouds of the atom bombs, the hydrogen bombs, hydrogen bombs that were going off regularly in that part of the world.
That day, my uncle was meeting with Jerome Wiesner and asked him: What happens to the radioactive fallout? Wiesner said it circulates all around the globe very, very quickly, and then it drops back into the earth in the rain. And it gets into our fish, our animals, our ponds, our rivers, our streams, our drinking water. It was raining at that time. My uncle spent a long time staring out the window, and he said to Wiesner, "Do you think it's in the rain that's falling right now?" And Wiesner told him it was. Ted Sorensen, who was in the room at that time, and who had been with my uncle through some of the most difficult times in his life mourning the death of his brother, and was with him when he almost died during his back surgeries, said that all the years that he knew John Kennedy, there was no time that he saw him more troubled than that day. And that launched a resolution where he decided he wanted to ban atmospheric nuclear testing. He knew his State Department would oppose it, and he knew the Pentagon was going to oppose it. So he did the whole thing secretly with Kruschev.
By that time, they had set up the hotline so they could talk directly with each other, but he negotiated the entire treaty through a few trusted aides within the White House and diplomats who were shuttling back and forth under the nose of the State Department. They negotiated very, very quickly, and when he announced it to the United States, his State Department and the Pentagon were in revolt, open revolt. In fact, the Pentagon, his Pentagon brass were lobbying Congress to kill this treaty by their boss, the Commander-in-Chief. And I think something like 80% of Americans initially oppose the treaty. But he was determined to get it passed.
This speech turned the country around. It was the beginning of a process that turned the whole country around, this speech and the whistle-stop tour that followed it, where he went to places where he did not have political support. He went to the South; he went to the Western states. He went and lectured and gave speeches at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, speaking to people who had not supported his Presidency. But he found tremendous support on the ground from all Americans for making this happen, because as it turns out, the intelligence apparatus and the military brass wanted war, but the American people did not; they wanted the end to it.
With the speech, he did something extraordinary, something that had never been done before. To me, it's his most important speech. It's one of the most important speeches in American history. And the thing that he did that was so unusual in that speech is he talked to the American people and asked them to put themselves in the shoes of the Russians. Everybody else was doing the opposite at that time. They were demonizing and vilifying the Russians. And he said, no, we have to put ourselves in their shoes, in the shoes of our adversaries. If we want to have peace, we need to do that. It has to be a regular discipline.
At that time, most Americans, the zeitgeist of that era – I was born nine years after the end of World War Two – and the zeitgeist of our era, the governing assumption was that America had won the war, and now we were going to rightfully dominate the peace. And he said something very, very different to Americans that challenged that patriotic assumption. He said, no, it was actually the Russians who won the war. They weakened Hitler and made it possible for us to march into Berlin. And he talked about the suffering of the Russians during the war and legitimized their security concerns, which nobody was doing. Any show of military strength by the Russians at that time was portrayed as aggression.
What he was saying to the Americans is, no, they have legitimate security concerns the same as we do, and we need to understand that. He reminded Americans of the suffering that the Russians had endured during the war – unimaginable suffering. One in seven Russians had been killed during World War Two. He asked Americans to imagine that all of the land, all of the cities, all of the towns from the East Coast to Chicago had been leveled to rubble, that the forests and fields had been burned. And he said that's what happened to Russia during the war. That's what they sacrificed for us. And they have legitimate security concerns to make sure that never happens again. And that speech turned around the American people and they ended up supporting the treaty. It was one of the fastest ratified treaties in American history.
I'm speaking to you today, because the world is at a very similar crossroads to my uncle's time. Nuclear tensions are at an extreme and dangerous level. As in his time, we have a unique opportunity not only to defuse those tensions, but to take a radically different path, a path towards peace. My uncle's commitment to peace bore fruit in the Limited Test Ban Treaty of August 1963. But his assassination that November turned the nation down another path. His successors have launched one war after another, along with the ceaseless expansion of our military.
Some call it the "Forever War." Americans used to identify herself as a peaceful nation. In fact, at our founding, the Framers of our Constitution said that democracy was inconsistent with an imperium abroad; that if we tried to make ourselves an imperial nation abroad, that we would turn into a surveillance state, a garrison state, a security state at home, and that we would also destroy our economy, as happens with every empire. Every empire ends itself through the expansion of the military – overexpansion of its military abroad. And the Founders knew that. John Quincy Adams spoke for all of them when he said, "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Today, I want to recall that memory, because this "forever war," which has so drained our nation's vitality, now threatens to plunge the world into the unspeakable horror of nuclear Armageddon.
I speak, of course, of the situation in Ukraine. I abhor Russia's brutal and bloody invasion of that nation. But we must understand that our government has also contributed to its circumstances through repeated deliberate provocations of Russia going back to the 1990s. Democratic and Republican administrations have pushed NATO to Russia's borders, violating our own solemn promise from the early '90s when we pledged that if Russia made this terrible concession of moving 400,000 troops out of East Germany and allowing the unification of Germany under a NATO army, a hostile army, that we would commit that after that we would not move NATO "one inch to the east."
James Baker gave that assurance, as did the British government officials and many, many others. And yet today, we have surrounded Russia. We have moved NATO not just one inch to the east, but a thousand miles and 14 nations. We have surrounded Russia with missiles and military bases, something that we would never tolerate if the Russians did that to us. And statements from our government officials and think tanks lay out the goals for the Ukraine war: regime change in Russia; the overthrow of Vladimir Putin. This is what President Biden has said is our purpose in the Ukraine: the disabling and exhaustion of the Russian military, and the dismembering of the Russian Federation.
None of these objectives have anything to do with helping Ukraine, which of course, was the pretext for our involvement in the war. That's when our leaders told us that we were there for a humanitarian mission. But they've since acknowledged that there is a broader geopolitical agenda, and that Ukraine is simply a pawn in a proxy war between the United States and Russia. Like teenagers playing World of Warcraft, these warmongers inside US leadership draw up war games and scenarios and pretend that a nuclear war is winnable.
That is a dangerous lie. It's an illusion that my uncle's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, called “mass psychosis.” These individuals do not appreciate what John F. Kennedy understood when he said of nuclear war, quote, "All that we have built, all that we have worked for would be destroyed in the first 24 hours. Even one nuclear explosion spreads radioactivity around the world. Can you imagine the consequence of a full nuclear exchange?" President Kennedy did. That's why he said, "Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind, of course, in the nuclear age would be evidence of the bankruptcy of our policy or a collective death wish for humanity."
Let me say that again, "Nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either humiliating retreat or a nuclear war."
The shameful fact is that for the last 20 years, the advocates of a militaristic foreign policy within the US leadership have done exactly the opposite. Their belligerent strategy of maximum confrontation extends beyond Russia to China, where this same group within our government hopes to use Taiwan as a geopolitical pawn the same way they used Iraq, and Syria, and now Ukraine, to further a vain fantasy of world domination through violent confrontation.
Let's leave off geopolitics for a moment and take the matter of war and peace a little deeper. President Kennedy understood that peace begins with our basic attitudes and beliefs. He spoke of the futility of passively waiting for the other side to become enlightened. "We must examine our own attitudes," he said, "as individuals and as a nation, for our attitude is as essential to theirs. We should," he said, "begin by looking inward."
Yes. Back in 1963, a politician really said that. A political leader voiced what would be considered today a spiritual maxim or a spiritual principle.
Let's take up that call from 60 years ago and ask Americans, all of us, to re-examine our attitude. We have been immersed in a foreign policy discourse that is all about adversaries and threats and allies and enemies and domination. We have become addicted to comic book, good-versus-evil narratives that erase complexity and blind us to the legitimate motives, cultural and economic concerns, and security concerns of other peoples and other nations.
We have internalized and institutionalized a reflex of violence as the response for any and all crises. Everything becomes a war. The war on drugs. The war on terror. The war on cancer. The war on climate change. This way of thinking predisposes us to wage endless wars abroad. Wars and coups and bombs and drones and regime change operations, and support for paramilitaries and juntas and dictators.
None of this has made us safer, and none of it has burnished our leadership or our moral authority. More importantly, we must ask ourselves, "Is this really who we are? Is this what we want to be? Is that what America's Founders envisioned?" Here's another spiritual principle, one that my uncle also referred to when he said, "We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons."
When we hold others in the belief that they are implacable enemies, they tend to mold themselves to our view of them. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that launches all players into the cycle of suspicion that my uncle warned against. Inhabiting the role of an enemy, we empower hardliners in places like Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran. We invite them into the drama of conflict, the drama of provocation and counter-provocation, of “weapon and counter-weapon.”
Is it any wonder that as America has waged violence throughout the world, violence has overtaken us in our own nation? It has not come as an invasion. It has come from within. Our bombs, our drones, our armies are incapable of stopping gun violence on our streets and in our schools, or domestic violence in our homes. I see the same link here as my father and Martin Luther King saw about the Vietnam War. They believed that we could not have warfare abroad without bringing that violence home to our streets, to our attitudes, to our communities. Foreign violence is inseparable from domestic violence. Both are aspects of a basic orientation and a basic set of priorities.
Waging endless wars abroad, we have neglected the foundation of our own well-being. We have a decaying economic infrastructure. We have a demoralized and despairing people. We have toxins in our air and our soil and our water. We have deteriorating mental and physical health. These are the wages of war.
What will be the wages of peace? It will be the healing of all the symptoms of America's decline. None of these are beyond our capacity to heal. We can restore America to the awesome vitality of the original Kennedy era. My uncle said it well. He said that no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. He warned us that, quote, "Too many of us think that peace is impossible. Too many of us think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous and defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces that we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade – and therefore, they can be solved by man."
How do we actually do that? We start by replacing the vicious cycle of suspicion with a virtuous cycle of trust building. We reverse escalation. It takes courage to make the first move toward peace. Let's see what happens when we stop the provocation and the escalation and offer instead an olive branch. Each step we take invites those who we call our adversaries to take a step further.
Maybe Russia won't respond. Maybe they won't respond in kind or in any way. But at least we will know that we tried, and the whole world will know it too. That first step comes from a changed attitude and from courage. Speaking in the midst of the Cold War, John Kennedy asked us, "Not only to see the distorted and desperate view of the other side. Not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than exchange of threats."
Let's take a moment and allow that to sink in. Today, America has broken off practically all diplomatic contact with Russia, so that communication has indeed become little more than an exchange of threats and insults. FDR met with Stalin. JFK met with Khrushchev. Nixon met with Brezhnev. Reagan met with Gorbachev. Can't Biden meet with Putin?
Can't we at least begin a conversation? Do we now have such a “distorted and desperate” view of the other side that we won't even speak to them? To see conflict as inevitable has become the cornerstone of US foreign policy. Two or three decades ago, it was the clash of civilization between Islam and the West. Today, those legions of think tanks that are funded by the defense industry exhort us to prepare for the inevitable war with China. But war is inevitable only if we make it inevitable.
The war in Ukraine could have been avoided even as late – as we now know – as spring of 2022, when US officials sent Boris Johnson to Kyiv to scuttle peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, a tentative agreement they had already signed. And not only that, Russia had already begun removing its troops from the Kyiv area. This war was not inevitable. It was the creation of a relentless mentality of war and domination.
At the height of the Cold War, JFK was willing to see beyond the prevailing stereotypes of Russia and its leader, Khrushchev, as the epitome of evil. The two men at that time exchanged 26 highly personal and private letters to each other.
We had a Russian, a KGB and GRU spy who used to come to my home when I was a little boy, and we knew he was a spy. And this was the time that the James Bond films were all coming out. And we considered it, you know, very sort of romantic and dangerous to have a real Russian spy in our home. He was a very charming guy who was kind of short and extremely strong. And he would do rope climbing contests with my father and push up contests. And he could do the Cossack dancing, which was really impressive to all of us. And he taught us to do it. And he had a great sense of humor, and he was filled with laughter.
My father and mother enjoyed his company a lot. They had met him originally at the Russian embassy at a party, but the State Department was horrified that we were letting a KGB spy into our home. But during this period, my uncle wanted to talk directly to Khrushchev, because the CIA didn't know anything about what was happening in the Kremlin, and they always thought the worst. They always told him the worst was happening. Well, he knew enough about politics to know that it couldn't be that bad. And ultimately, Khrushchev sent him the first of these letters hidden in a New York Times through Bolshakov and these letters end-ran the State Department.
Both my uncle and Khrushchev realized during this correspondence that they were both surrounded by an intelligence apparatus and by military brass who considered war both inevitable and desirable, and that if they were going to maintain peace, they needed to talk to each other, because they could not they could not trust the people around them to give them strong, disciplined advice. And at the same time, my uncle and Khrushchev installed a hotline which had never existed before. So when I was a boy, there was a red phone at Hyannis Port and another one in the White House, where we knew that if we picked up that phone – we were supposed to stay away from it, and we did, because that was the one thing they said, "Don't ever touch that phone." But we knew if we touched that, if we picked up that phone, Khrushchev was going to answer.
And the wires from that phone are still sticking out of the wall of my brother's house, which was, at that time, the summer White House. But they knew they had to talk to each other if they were going to save the world. They said, you know, that first letter from Khrushchev, he said we're all on an ark and we can't build another one. The Earth is an ark, and we need to preserve it.
The question now is, are we willing to do anything like that today? Or are we going to remain stuck in a self-righteous story in which America is categorically good, and our opponents are irredeemably evil? If we remain stuck there, so will every other nation. It's not only America that's fallen into this simplistic, good guy-bad guy thinking. That's the example we've set for everybody in the world. No wonder it's been replicated everywhere: between Israel and Iran, between India and Pakistan, between Shia and Sunni, between Jew and Arab, between Hindu and Muslim, left and right, pro-life and pro-choice, vax and anti-vax. This tribalistic us-versus-them thinking is tearing us apart. It's tearing apart our country, and it's tearing apart the world. These are the wages of war.
But when we take the first step toward peace, we will become once again a true world leader, a moral leader, a moral authority.
It doesn't take much. When we take that first step, people will start looking at America differently – the way they once did. When my uncle was President, one of his best friends, Ben Bradlee, asked him, "What do you want as your epitaph on your gravestone?" And he said, "He kept the peace." Bradlee asked him to explain that, and he said, "The primary job of an American President is to keep the country out of war."
During his time in the White House, he was surrounded by military hawks and his intelligence apparatus, his military brass, who were constantly exhorting him to go to war in Laos, in Berlin, in Cuba, in Vietnam. But he never sent a single combat troop abroad during his term in office. They wanted him to send 250,000 combat troops to Vietnam. He ended up sending 16,000 advisors who were not, under the rules of engagement, allowed to participate in combat. That's fewer people, fewer men than he sent to get James Meredith, one black man, into the University of Mississippi.
A month before he died, in October of 1963, he heard that a Green Beret had died in Vietnam. He asked one of his aides to give him a total casualty list. And the aide came back, and the casualty list had 75 Americans on it who had died in Vietnam. And he said, "That's too much. We're not going to have a single more American die." That day, he signed National Security Order 263 that ordered every troop, every US service person home from Vietnam, with the first thousand leaving the next month, beginning in November.
He died a month later. A week after his death, that order was remanded by President Johnson, who ended up sending the 250,000 troops. Ultimately, 56,000 never came home, including my cousin George Skakel, who died in the Tet Offensive. And we killed a million Vietnamese.
We’ve gone on the path of a military industrial complex, which President Eisenhower had warned about three days before my uncle took office, in the best speech that he ever gave – one of the most important in history. In it he warned America that if we did not take great pains to avoid it, the emerging military-industrial complex would devour our democracy. It would destroy American values from within. And my uncle knew that. He knew that speech, and he spent the three years, his 1000 days in office, fighting against the rise of the military industrial complex. After his death, we went down that path that Eisenhower predicted, and that's where we are today. And it's time now to reverse course.
As I said before, peace comes from a changed attitude. At the bottom of the war mentality that casts the world into a drama of enemies and threats, lies a debased view of human nature. When you see humans as fundamentally selfish and whole nations as fundamentally evil, then all you have available to change their behavior is threats and bribes. Peace comes from a different place. It starts by seeing within others, and within ourselves, that which is not selfish, but is brave and generous and idealistic and has good intentions.
I'm not saying that we should ignore the base elements of human nature or the dangers of the world. But if that's all that we see, then we're going to be stuck forever in the mentality of war, which is where the military industrial complex wants to keep us, and we will reap forever its poisonous fruits. To chart a course for the future of our nation's military and foreign policy, I'll return once again to the words of John F. Kennedy. He said, "America's weapons are not provocative. They are carefully controlled. They are designed to deter and capable of selective use. Our military forces are committed to peace and disciplined in self-restraint. Our diplomats are instructed to avoid unnecessary irritants and purely rhetorical hostility."
The current administration is going to be in power for another year and a half. But the danger of reckless escalation and nuclear brinksmanship is real and present. I therefore call on our present leadership to adopt President Kennedy's maxims and to start de-escalating right now.
I call on them to fulfill John F. Kennedy's declaration. I call on the military establishment to exercise disciplined self-restraint. I call upon the State Department to avoid unnecessary irritants and hostile rhetoric. And here's the most important thing of all. I call on every American to join in a new peace movement, to make your voices heard, to reject the insanity of escalation, and to celebrate no longer the "wartime President," but a President who keeps the peace...
To what kind of peace do I refer? I'll end with one more piece of wisdom from my uncle. "What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of a slave. I'm talking about a genuine peace. The kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables people 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 a peace in our time, but a peace for all time."
Thank you all very much.