In the wake of the extraordinary media focus on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, and on the search to define his legacy, a significant element was overlooked: the story of a young congressman joining in a legislative initiative to advance no less than the solution to the problem of war. It is an initiative Kennedy pursued again in a major address in his creative last season as president.
On June 10, 1963, President Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University. That speech is often remembered for a pair of nuclear announcements - the suspension of American atmospheric tests and the opening of negotiations on a comprehensive test ban treaty. It is usually forgotten that JFK also presented there a pathway toward "not merely peace in our time but peace in all time."
President Kennedy asked Americans to reexamine their pessimism about the human prospect. "Too many of us think ... that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control." But he insisted that "human destiny" remained in human hands. A durable peace, said JFK, could be constructed "not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions ... World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor. It requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement."
Then President Kennedy became more specific: "We seek to strengthen the United Nations ... to develop it into a genuine world security system ... This will require a new effort to achieve world law. ... Our primary long range interest ... is general and complete disarmament ... to build the new institutions of peace which would take the place of arms."
Fourteen years earlier, JFK had endorsed a legislative action that described the kind of "institutions of peace" that would constitute a "genuine world security system" to bring about "complete disarmament." Because in June 1949, Representative John F. Kennedy - along with more than 100 other sitting members of the House and the Senate - proposed the transformation of the United Nations into a world republic.
House Concurrent Resolution 64 read as follows: ". . . [I]t is the sense of the Congress that it should be a fundamental objective of the foreign policy of the United States to support and strengthen the United Nations and to seek its development into a world federation, open to all nations, with defined and limited powers adequate to preserve peace and prevent aggression through the enactment, interpretation, and enforcement of world law."
The measure was co-sponsored in the House by 91 members. The list included Representatives Jacob Javits, Mike Mansfield, Abe Ribicoff, Peter Rodino, Henry Jackson, Walter Judd, Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Charles Eaton, future Eisenhower Secretary of State Christian Herter, first-term Congressman Gerald Ford, and second-term Congressman John F. Kennedy.
On the Senate side, the 21 cosponsors included Senators Paul Douglas, Russell Long, Wayne Morse, future vice-presidential candidate John Sparkman, and future Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
This resolution did not spontaneously appear in the halls of Congress. Few generations had witnessed as much upheaval as those who looked out at the wreckage of a world in the autumn of 1945. The new United Nations that emerged in the San Francisco conference fell far short of an institution able to keep the peace, with a Security Council that could only act to prevent aggression if unanimity prevailed among its five permanent members.
During the war the movement for a world federation had been growing, with the belief that humanity could no longer permit anarchy on the world level, and that the civil society, constitutions, and rule of law that prevailed within nations now had to be instituted among nations as well. Then came the atom bomb, an apocalyptic addition to the human predicament. So Albert Einstein declared: "The world's present system of sovereign nations can lead only to barbarism, war and inhumanity. There is no salvation for civilization, or even the human race, other than the creation of a world government."
A group known as the Student Federalists, founded in 1942 by author Wofford, eventually formed 367 chapters on high school and college campuses around the country. The chancellor of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, convened a group of prominent academics from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and St. John's College as well as Chicago, and grandly designated them the "Committee to Frame a World Constitution." By 1949, the United World Federalists, which aimed ""to strengthen the UN into a world government," had established hundreds of chapters and enlisted nearly 50,000 members. It was led by future US Senator Alan Cranston. And more than half the state legislatures in the United States passed some sort of resolution advocating, at a minimum, "a limited world federal government able to prevent war."
And the dream of abolishing war through the establishment of a world republic was endorsed by many of the most prominent luminaries of the day, including E.B. White, Oscar Hammerstein II, Clare Booth Luce, Carl Sandburg, Bertrand Russell, John Steinbeck, H.G. Wells, Dorothy Thompson, Albert Camus, Arnold Toynbee, and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Owen J. Roberts and William O. Douglas. Even Winston Churchill proclaimed in 1947 that if "it is found possible to build a world organization of irresistible force and authority for the purpose of securing peace, there are no limits to the blessings which all men may enjoy and share." And in 1950 he revealed his appraisal of the stark alternative: "Unless some effective world super-Government can be set up and brought quickly into action, the prospects for peace and human progress are dark and doubtful."
With the coming of the Cold War and the arms race, the steam went out of the movement. One powerful spokesman for the United World Federalists, Cord Meyer, who often ended his talks saying, "If this hope is naïve, then it is naïve to hope," left to become an important strategist for the CIA. Senator Cranston ran for president in 1984 on a platform for nuclear arms control and the strengthening and transformation of the United Nations - in a losing campaign. No longer was the idea of a world federation debated in taverns, dormitories and public forums.
As we reflect upon the abrupt and tragic end of John F. Kennedy's presidency, we should recognize the central proposition he offered at the beginning of his inaugural address: "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life." He went on to say that our goal for the United Nations should be: "To enlarge the area in which its writ may run . . . and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations."
"So let us begin anew," Kennedy said. He called for "a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved."
We cannot know what Kennedy would have done if he had lived, and been elected to a second term. Would he have stopped the mounting war in Vietnam? Would the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty have become the first stage of the new endeavor for peace he promised? One of Kennedy's big commitments was fulfilled, on his timetable of one decade: "to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth." So would Kennedy have gone on to build enduring world peace through the world rule of law, and to cultivate an allegiance to humanity, with the same can-do spirit that took us to the moon?
We cannot say. But we do know that in July 1979, on the tenth anniversary of that landing, Neil Armstrong was asked what had been going through his mind as he stood on the moon and saluted the American flag. "I suppose you're thinking about pride and patriotism," he replied. "But we didn't have a strong nationalistic feeling at that time. We felt more that it was a venture of all mankind."
Former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford served as President Kennedy's Special Assistant for Civil Rights and Special Representative of the Peace Corps to Africa. While in the Army Air Corps in World War Two, he wrote It's Up to Us: Federal World Government in Our Time (Harcourt Brace 1946). Tad Daley, who directs the Project on Abolishing War at the Center for War/Peace Studies, is the author of APOCALYPSE NEVER: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World (Rutgers Press 2012). He served as a policy analyst and speechwriter for both former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and the late U.S. Senator Alan Cranston.