A tale of two speeches
President Kennedy took on powerful myths in June 1963
A tale of two speeches
A decade ago, around the time of the 40th anniversary of the Dallas assassination, I was watching a discussion on KNPB’s Book Talk. At one point in the program, one of the panelists made a reference that began, “JFK, who didn’t really do great things …”
To those who were not alive in 1963 and whose idea of presidents is Bill Clinton or George Bush(es), the public reaction to John Kennedy’s murder in 1963 would probably be a surprise. The nation suffered a terrible emotional shock that wore on for years. But Kennedy’s public image also underwent an evolution. Eventually there was a backlash against the initial sainthood conferred on him, the pendulum then swinging to the other extreme, in which he could do nothing right. There seems to be no middle ground on Kennedy. He was either St. Jack or he “didn’t really do great things.”
Both viewpoints are absurd, and two speeches Kennedy made on consecutive days in June 1963 are evidence. Their content and contexts show both his faults and his growth.
It is important, always, to make distinctions in commentary, and the John Kennedy who died 50 years ago was very different from the John Kennedy who took office 53 years ago. He had become president as a cold warrior who did a lot of damage to the national security by turning on the tap of military spending full blast, tying the economy to weapons production and helping fuel the military industrial complex of which his predecessor had warned. And although his margin of victory was provided by African-Americans who believed his promise to end housing discrimination “with a stroke of the pen,” he waited two years after taking office to issue that executive order.
But Kennedy was also educable. He learned from grotesquerie like blacks being driven into walls by the force of water from fire hoses, from appalling U.S. behavior like the Bay of Pigs, and from the scary week in October 1962 when the world nearly ended. After he had ordered missiles installed in Turkey on the border of the Soviet Union, the Soviet installed missiles in Cuba, prompting a terrifying confrontation that ended when both sides agreed to remove their missiles (and the U.S. agreed to stop invading Cuba). He was dismayed by how close he took the nation to nuclear war.
On June 10, 1963, Kennedy went to American University and delivered one of the great state papers of the 20th century. At a time when nearly every Democrat was immobilized by a fear of a McCarthyism revival, Kennedy found the daring to praise the Soviet Union and call for friendly relations. The president who two years earlier had said of the Soviet that “The choice of war or peace is largely theirs and not ours” now asserted that “our attitude is as essential as theirs.” He praised the courage in battle and the impressive technology in peace of the people of the Soviet Union.
“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot now end 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 future. And we are all mortal…We are not here distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment. We must deal with the world as it is and not as it might have been had the history of the last 18 years been different. … I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not be the first to resume.”
The breathtaking change in policy initiated at American University was to pay dividends for years to come. Nobel chemist and Atomic Energy Commission chair Glenn Seaborg wrote that “The address drew remarkably little attention at home … and not all the attention it drew was favorable. Some Republicans in Congress criticized the speech for its softness, one terming it ’a dreadful mistake’.”
But Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, who had put a nuclear moratorium in place before the U.S. did, was so taken by Kennedy’s generous and groundbreaking approach that he called the speech either (there are differing accounts) “the best speech ever made by an American president” or “the best speech by an American president since Roosevelt.” The text was published in its entirety by Pravda. Within 20 weeks the Soviet and the U.S. signed the first nuclear test ban treaty, which laid the groundwork for more comprehensive test bans in the years to come.
Under Khrushchev and Kennedy, trade barriers between their two nations began falling, the Soviet stopped jamming Western broadcasts, and coexistence became a policy of both nations. The term détente was heard in the west. It was not easy—both Kennedy and Khrushchev were succeeded by more rigid and doctrinaire leaders who failed to build on what the two men had accomplished—but the seeds had been planted and in 1985 an enlightened new figure, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power and began to rebuild coexistence. Détente became glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic reform), policies of the Soviet that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and independence for Eastern European nations.
Tragically, later U.S. presidents of both parties dismantled one of the assurances Kennedy gave to the world at American University—that the U.S. sought a genuine peace, “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” So while relations between the U.S. and Russia are now in good health, and while Russia is now healthier, the U.S. approach to the world is now toxic and imperial—and exactly what Kennedy warned against.
John Kennedy: I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age … when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.•
John Lewis: “I will never forget that speech.”
The next day, June 11, Kennedy went on television to speak to the nation about a domestic matter. In that address, he spoke a sentence that changed the United States forever. The sentence could not have been more simple, but no U.S. leader had ever been willing to speak it before. This was it: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.”
The speech nearly did not happen. The White House had requested television time for the president to address the nation on events at the University of Alabama. That state’s governor had stood in the doorway of the registration building on the campus to try to prevent the enrollment of two African-American students. Kennedy sent the National Guard to enforce federal court orders that the students be admitted. The crisis was settled peacefully and the president’s staff discussed canceling the speech.
Kennedy was a target of suspicion among African-American leaders, partly because of his delay in executing the housing “stroke of the pen.” He and his brother Robert had discouraged many of the tactics and strategies, including the March on Washington, that were central to the nonviolent resistance that gave the civil rights movement its force.
But brutal street scenes and grisly official violence did their work. Kennedy went ahead with the speech, believing that the time had come for a ringing declaration of federal support for civil rights.
There have been reports that he gave the speech without a text, ad libbing it on the air. That’s not exactly what happened. His speechwriter Theodore Sorenson later wrote, “Having assumed that the tranquil resolution at Tuscaloosa that afternoon would make a speech unnecessary, I did not start a first draft until late in the afternoon or complete it until minutes before he went on the air. There was no time for a redraft.” As it was, he gave the speech as written, then continued talking off the cuff.
He began by talking about the terrible fate awaiting “a Negro baby born in the United States today”—“about one half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one third as much chance of completing college, one third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter …We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it …but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly to each other, that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes, that we have no second class citizens except Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race except with respect to Negroes …?”
For decades, top U.S. leaders, liberal and conservative, had given black leaders legalistic and technical answers to why the nation could not move more quickly in civil rights. They carefully avoided describing the nation’s race problems in ethical or moral terms, saying that only law—through legislative or court action that never seemed to come—could serve as a basis for change. That ended this night, as Kennedy described law as secondary:
“This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”
It is hard to convey, four decades later, what a radical change this was. African-American leaders nearly gasped when they heard its language, and whites responded to the obvious feeling Kennedy imparted, particularly in the impromptu closing section.
Martin Luther King was ecstatic and quoted the “moral issue” line in his next book. His ally John Lewis says, “And that night in June when he spoke, he spoke to the heart and to the soul of America.” Roger Wilkins later said, “All of a sudden he brought passion to it, he brought that eloquence to it and it electrified me and all kinds of other black people.”
The speech, with its obvious feeling and emotion, went against the grain of JFK’s public persona. Before Kennedy became president, his semi-official biographer James MacGregor Burns had written that to the presidency “Kennedy could bring bravery and wisdom; whether he would bring passion and power would depend on his making a commitment not only of mind, but of heart, that until now he has never been required to make.”
Burns had written specifically of JFK’s formal, intellectual view of civil rights that “this fear of making too much of a commitment, of going off the intellectual deep end, is locked in Kennedy’s character.” Lyndon Johnson biographer Leonard Baker wrote of Kennedy, “Watching him that night convinced one that if John Kennedy’s emotional commitment to the cause of civil rights had been lacking before, it no longer was now. He had indeed gone off the ’intellectual deep end’ … The black man’s cause had become the White House’s passion.” The New York Times called the address “one of the most emotional speeches yet delivered by a President who has often been criticized as too ’cool’ and intellectual.”
On that same evening of Kennedy’s powerful address, the old order made another tragic effort to retain its hold. Kennedy’s speech began at 7 p.m. Jackson, Mississippi, time. Shortly after midnight in that community, a sniper fired from hiding and killed African-American leader Medgar Evers. In news reports, the event was not referred to as a murder. It was called an assassination. Historian Taylor Branch has written that the confluence of Kennedy’s speech and Evers’ murder “changed the language of race in American mass culture overnight.” (Veterans Evers and Kennedy were both buried in Arlington National Cemetery.)
As with the American University speech, Kennedy followed up with action, sending to Congress the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Unlike the test ban treaty, he did not live to see its enactment.
In two speeches, by breaking with powerful myths that kept other politicians immobilized and following up with action, Kennedy helped make the world safer and the United States more just. In two days he accomplished more than many presidents have done in eight years.