Analysis & Opinions

Talking About Peace

| Oct. 25, 2012

Morning Prayers at Appleton Chapel, October 25th, 2012

When I first came to Harvard, I found this chapel a welcome reservoir of rest and hope at the start of busy days. So, I thought this might be the right place to ask the following question: has the word "peace" disappeared from our political lexicon and national conversation?

I ask because it is surely ironic that in an age dedicated to armies of talking heads, bloggers and hundreds of cable TV channels, we hear opinions espoused on nearly every topic but rarely this one–the goal of peace.

In earlier times, certainly when I was growing up in the 1960s, it was commonplace, indeed expected, that Presidential candidates of both parties – from John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon to Lyndon Johnson and even Barry Goldwater would claim the mantle of peace as their most cherished objective. Their campaign cry was, "vote for me, I will bring you peace."

In our time, especially after 9/11, our politicians proclaim, “vote for me, I will bring you security.”

Now, protecting our country is a vital aim with which no one would seriously argue.

But, earlier Americans understood that peace was the highest aspiration a democratic people could pursue. Lincoln offered his famous "Prayer for Peace” in his second inaugural address. Franklin Delano Roosevelt identified a "just and lasting peace" as the central point of his fourth inaugural. Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 to bring "peace with honor" to Vietnam. And George H.W. Bush called for a "democratic peace" in Europe at the end of the Cold War.

So, why is peace so absent as a central, driving aim of our contemporary national policy? One explanation is that we live in a martial era having experienced in the last decade the longest period of continuous war in American history.

And, we seem to have internalized the horrors of 9/11 in a way that convinces ourselves that the dream of peace that has motivated humans for millennia is just not achievable in our modern age.

If true, that is a rather sad commentary especially when we remember that earlier generations of Americans lived through far more violent times – the Civil War and the 20th Century's two Worlds Wars are prominent examples. Americans in those times saw peace as a way to make sense of the carnage and a way to find some measure of redemption.

Consider another striking contrast: FDR and Truman built the United Nations and the Marshall Plan after the bloodiest war in history. Our principal monument after 9/11 was the construction of the Department of Homeland Security and armies of security personnel at our airports.

Of all our modern Presidents, John F. Kennedy, a Harvard graduate, seems to have contemplated most intently the importance of peace as a national necessity. He admitted that a utopian peace of complete harmony would never be achieved. But, he offered these words as a rejoinder to those who believed even a temporary and general peace among nations was beyond our reach.

"Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable—that mankind is doomed—that we are gripped by forces we cannot control."

These words come to mind as we commemorate the climatic end of the Cuban Missile Crisis fifty years ago this week. The historical records reveal that if Kennedy had listened to the majority of his most senior advisors, he would have ended up attacking Cuba and very likely precipitating a nuclear war with the Soviet Union in which hundreds of millions of human beings might have perished.

He and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev saved us all by negotiating a secret diplomatic compromise at the very last moment. They backed away from war to preserve peace instead.

The following spring, in his finest speech, Kennedy reflected on the near miss of a nuclear holocaust. He entitled his commencement speech at American University “A Strategy for Peace". And there, at the height of the Cold War, he told the American people that we had to believe in peace and in the "human interest" that surely transcended the national interest.

And here is what he said:

"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 the slave. I am talking about 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 in our time but peace for all time."

Fifty years later, we might draw some inspiration from those words. And we can start by convincing ourselves that, despite the violence and injustice around us, that elusive, magical and eternal quest for peace is still the most important guiding star for us as individuals as well as for our country.

The bible teaches us to "Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem". May we pray today, as well, for the return of peace to our national consciousness.

Thank you.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: R. Nicholas Burns.“Talking About Peace.” , October 25, 2012.