Commencement addresses have figured prominently in American foreign policy. Whether it was FDR ending the pretense that the United States would remain rigidly neutral in World War II in a speech at the University of Virginia, or George W. Bush warning Americans of the growing need for preemptive (actually, preventive) action abroad in an address at West Point, major foreign policy turning points are sometimes announced on college campuses. So which of the many foreign-policy themed commencement addresses was the most significant? My money is on Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s address to Harvard’s graduating class of 1947—it unveiled the Marshall Plan that would rebuild Europe. But plenty of others would vote for a commencement address given sixteen years later: John F. Kennedy’s arms control speech to the graduating class of American University, which he gave on June 10, 1963.
Kennedy’s speech that morning doesn’t contain any especially memorable lines, certainly nothing that could compete with “ask not what your country can do for you” or "Ich bin ein Berliner." Officially titled “The Strategy for Peace,” the speech was significant because it asked Americans to rethink the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union and support finding ways for the two countries to co-exist peacefully:
If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity.
That was a bold statement to make in 1963. The crushing of liberty in Eastern Europe, the communist victory in China, the Korean war, and Khrushchev boasting that “We will bury you!” were just a few of the events that had convinced most Americans that the Soviet Union was an implacable foe. Just two years earlier Kennedy had told Americans that:
Each day we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger, as weapons spread and hostile forces grow stronger….the tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend.
By 1963, however, JFK’s concern had changed. He was no longer worried about missile gaps and Soviet military superiority. Having survived the Cuban missile crisis, he worried about the risk of nuclear war, a risk that would grow as nuclear weapons spread. He wanted to find a way to lift the nuclear sword of Damocles from above the world’s head before it was too late. In March, he told reporters:
I am haunted by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be ten nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, fifteen or twenty…I see the possibility in the 1970s of the President of the United States having to face a world in which fifteen or twenty nations have these weapons. I regard that as the greatest possible danger.
In late May, Kennedy tasked Ted Sorensen with writing a speech that would do two things: lay out his vision of how the United States could live in peace with its major adversary, and reinvigorate the foundering eight-year effort to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty. The Pentagon and State Department were kept in the dark about the speech’s content until the last moment, lest they attempt to scuttle it.
As Sorensen worked on the speech, White House officials scrambled to find an appropriate venue. They approached AU to gauge its interest in hosting Kennedy. The university already had a scheduled commencement speaker, Pauline Frederick, a journalist who had graduated from AU. But a presidential address is hard to pass up, and Ms. Frederick graciously stepped aside.
Kennedy traveled the five miles to AU’s campus by helicopter. When he addressed the graduates, he did not gloss over the differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. But he asked his audience to focus on the common danger facing both countries:
Today, should total war ever break out again—no matter how—our two countries will be the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours. And even in the cold war—which brings burdens and dangers to so many countries, including this nation’s closest allies—our two countries bear the heaviest burdens. For we are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could better be devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease.
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.
In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours -- and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations and only those treaty obligations which are in their own interest.
So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now 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 futures. And we are all mortal.
The speech also contained one new substantive proposal—a unilateral offer to Soviets:
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. Such a declaration is no substitute for a formal binding treaty—but I hope it will help us achieve one. Nor would such a treaty be a substitute for disarmament—but I hope it will help us achieve it.
Kennedy’s speech pleased many Americans and alarmed others. (The Columbus Dispatch called it an “appeasement cue.”) But it made a decidedly positive impression on the one person JFK most hoped to reach: Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet leader subsequently told Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman that it was “the greatest speech by any American president since Roosevelt.” Ten days later, U.S. and Soviet negotiators reached a deal to set up a hotline between Washington and Moscow. The once moribund test-ban talks also picked up momentum. A little more than a month later, on July 25, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom agreed to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which barred nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underwater, or in outer space. The foreign ministers of all three countries formally signed the treaty in Moscow on August 5, 1963.
So it is easy to see why Ted Sorensen later called Kennedy’s AU speech “the most important and the best speech he ever gave” and why Time magazine named it to its list of the top ten commencement speeches.