Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

JFK’s Lessons on Rolling Back Nuclear Dangers

| June 09, 2023

Sixty years ago, in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy gave probably the greatest speech on nuclear arms ever given by an American President.  Speaking only months after the crisis, Kennedy could have lashed out at the Soviet Union’s reckless behavior in putting missiles in Cuba.  Or he could have taken a triumphal tone, highlighting his success in forcing the Soviets to pull the missiles out (with the public then in the dark on his secret promise to pull similar U.S. missiles out of Turkey).
Instead, in a June 10 commencement address at American University, Kennedy made the case that the horrors of potential nuclear holocaust made it urgent to find a path to peace and that doing so required both sides of the Cold War to change.  He announced that the United States would unilaterally stop testing its nuclear weapons until a treaty banning such tests could be reached.  “Some say that it is useless to speak of peace,” Kennedy noted, “until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it.”  
World response was immediate. The NATO allies hailed the speech. The Manchester Guardian ranked it “among the great state papers of American history.” The Soviets turned off their giant radio jammers, so that Soviet citizens could hear the speech on Voice of America, and they printed the full text in both Pravda and Izvestia.  (The Soviets had some warning: Kennedy’s team had consulted with them informally before he gave his speech.)
Although the Soviets made no formal announcement of a testing halt, they, too, paused nuclear testing.  Less than 10 days after Kennedy's speech, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to the creation of a "hotline" between the two governments.  In a month and a half, the Limited Test Ban Treaty had been completed, putting an end to the constant explosions that were spewing radiation across the world, contaminating even mothers’ milk.  Kennedy called the treaty “a victory for mankind,” and said that even if the journey to peace was a thousand miles, “let history record that we, in this land, at this time, took the first step.”  Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev hailed the treaty in similar terms.
In the months that followed, the two sides each announced unilateral cutbacks in the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons; reductions in their military spending; and modest pullbacks of troops from the front lines in Central Europe.  None of these initiatives were negotiated in detail ahead of time, or verified, though there were informal consultations on each one before they were announced.  Khrushchev called it “a policy of reciprocal example in the matter of reducing the armaments race.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew.“JFK’s Lessons on Rolling Back Nuclear Dangers.” The National Interest, June 9, 2023.

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