Blog Post - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

With Kennedy’s Warning Falling on Deaf Ears Today, We May Be Heading for a Nuclear Disaster

| June 07, 2023

John F. Kennedy’s legacy speech on nuclear disarmament is unlikely to reverse the current dangerous trend. The war in Ukraine demonstrates the powerful deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, as Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling has proven to be very effective in keeping NATO forces out of Ukraine. With Russia’s suspension of the New START treaty, China’s efforts to massively expand its nuclear arsenal, North Korea’s repeated missile launches, and Iran’s further advances toward nuclear weaponization, it appears that their modus operandi is unfettered nuclear arms race. Yet, neither international institutions nor individual states are able to hold them accountable. Economic dependence prevents many states, large and small, from implementing biting sanctions against Russia. Sanctions against China would be even less effective due to the greater pain that it can bring to bear on Western companies by leveraging its Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law. 

Western nations are not without problems, either. In the age of populism and intense great power competition, political leaders are under tremendous domestic political pressures to appear tough on foreign adversaries, while drivers of restraint are in short supply. In such circumstances, they often fail to recognize that what they see as adversaries’ provocations might be a mere reaction to their own aggressive foreign policy. Only after they find themselves on the edge of a nuclear abyss would they, perhaps, realize they had been playing a game of chicken.

Similar dynamics set Washington and Moscow on a dangerous path to what could have been a full-blown nuclear war in 1962. On the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a public speech to defend his desire for “peaceful coexistence” with the United States as he believed nuclear weapons had made war unwinnable. This was Khrushchev’s main message to the U.S. president-elect, although he had to express his continued support for “wars of national liberation” to prove himself to his fellow communists. Yet, Kennedy ignored the defensive nature of Khrushchev’s speech and focused on the promised support for “wars of liberation,” even after he read a cable from Llewellyn Thompson warning that “the entire speech should be read in its entirety” (Cable No. 1682, January 19, 1961). 

In his first days as president, Kennedy moved to increase U.S. military spending by 15 percent and accelerated the production of nuclear missiles. Khrushchev responded by reneging on his earlier promise of a voluntary, three-year moratorium on radiation-spewing nuclear tests. Having won the presidency by the narrowest of margins, and especially after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, President Kennedy was particularly sensitive to accusations of being soft on communism. ‘‘There are just so many concessions that one can make to communists in one year and survive politically,’’ he confided to an aide. As the two superpowers struggled to impress each other and their domestic audiences with their missile prowess, they inadvertently came the closest to a nuclear Armageddon in October 1962, which was perhaps what it took for American political audiences to fully appreciate the value of President Kennedy’s strategic restraint. 

How well can today’s leaders resist their political temptation to behave more aggressively vis-à-vis adversaries than their strategists deemed necessary? The world is likely to continue to live with a nuclear disorder with a  nuclear arms race and proliferation. Unfortunately, it may take another major nuclear crisis for the world to heed President Kennedy’s warning.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Fukushima, Mayumi.With Kennedy’s Warning Falling on Deaf Ears Today, We May Be Heading for a Nuclear Disaster.” Reflections on John F. Kennedy's 1963 American University Commencement Speech, June 7, 2023,