09/11/2013 08:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace (Part Two)

2013-09-09-TMTWUSCover.jpgThe following is the second of three excerpts from "To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace" by Jeffrey Sachs (You can read the first excerpt here and the third one here). Released in June, the book remembers the last year of President Kennedy's life and the remarkable speeches he made which helped convince the world there could be peace between the U.S. and Soviet Union. On Thursday, Sept. 12 the United Nations will hold a special event commemorating his last address there 50 years ago. For more on the book check here.


The hopes of the world were set alight by the signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban treaty. At this moment of high hopes, on September 20, Kennedy stepped up to the rostrum of the UN General Assembly to address fellow world leaders and senior statesmen, two long years after he had last spoken there.

"We meet again in the quest for peace," he began. "Twenty-four months ago, when I last had the honor of addressing this body, the shadow of fear lay darkly across the world . . . Those were anxious days for mankind." But this time, Kennedy brought good news.

Today the clouds have lifted a little so that new rays of hope can break through . . . And, for the first time in 17 years of effort, a specific step has been taken to limit the nuclear arms race.

I refer, of course, to the treaty to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water--concluded by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States--and already signed by nearly 100 countries. It has been hailed by people the world over who are thankful to be free from the fears of nuclear fallout.

He underscored the positive by beginning with the negative. "The world has not escaped from the darkness. The long shadows of conflict and crisis envelop us still." "But," he continued, "we meet today in an atmosphere of rising hope, and at a moment of comparative calm. My presence here today is not a sign of crisis, but of confidence."

This was Kennedy's chance to speak heart to heart with his global counterparts. "I am not here to report on a new threat to the peace or new signs of war. I have come to salute the United Nations and to show the support of the American people for your daily deliberations." He repeated the theme from the American University address that peace is a process, not some grand declaration or magic formula. "Peace," he emphasized, "is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on."

As he had told the American people eight weeks earlier, he told the General Assembly that the treaty was merely the first step of a journey, not the end.

Today we may have reached a pause in the cold war--but that is not a lasting peace. A test ban treaty is a milestone--but it is not the millennium. We have not been released from our obligations--we have been given an opportunity. And if we fail to make the most of this moment and this momentum--if we convert our new-found hopes and understandings into new walls and weapons of hostility--if this pause in the cold war merely leads to its renewal and not to its end--then the indictment of posterity will rightly point its finger at us all. But if we can stretch this pause into a period of cooperation--if both sides can now gain new confidence and experience in concrete collaborations for peace--if we can now be as bold and farsighted in the control of deadly weapons as we have been in their creation--then surely this first small step can be the start of a long and fruitful journey.

Kennedy emphasized the universal responsibility for peace. As he had told the Irish parliamentarians, it is for small nations as well as large ones:

The task of building the peace lies with the leaders of every nation, large and small. For the great powers have no monopoly on conflict or ambition. The cold war is not the only expression of tension in this world--and the nuclear race is not the only arms race. Even little wars are dangerous in a nuclear world. The long labor of peace is an undertaking for every nation--and in this effort none of us can remain unaligned. To this goal none can be uncommitted.

And as he had two years earlier from the same rostrum, Kennedy described what he hoped would be the next steps of the journey.

I believe, therefore, that the Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, can achieve further agreements--agreements which spring from our mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction.

There can be no doubt about the agenda of further steps. We must continue to seek agreements on measures which prevent war by accident or miscalculation. We must continue to seek agreements on safeguards against surprise attack, including observation posts at key points. We must continue to seek agreement on further measures to curb the nuclear arms race, by controlling the transfer of nuclear weapons, converting fissionable materials to peaceful purposes, and banning underground testing, with adequate inspection and enforcement. We must continue to seek agreement on a freer flow of information and people from East to West and West to East.

Yet Kennedy raised the world's sights still higher. Peace could make possible a new surge of global problem solving, a new attention to the world's common interests.

The effort to improve the conditions of man, however, is not a task for the few. It is the task of all nations--acting alone, acting in groups, acting in the United Nations, for plague and pestilence, and plunder and pollution, the hazards of nature, and the hunger of children are the foes of every nation. The earth, the sea, and the air are the concern of every nation. And science, technology, and education can be the ally of every nation.

Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world--or to make it the last...

"Two years ago," Kennedy recalled, "I told this body that the United States had proposed, and was willing to sign, a limited test ban treaty. Today that treaty has been signed. It will not put an end to war. It will not remove basic conflicts. It will not secure freedom for all." But, he said, "it can be a lever."

[A]nd Archimedes, in explaining the principles of the lever, was said to have declared to his friends: "Give me a place where I can stand--and I shall move the world."
My fellow inhabitants of this planet: Let us take our stand here in this Assembly of nations. And let us see if we, in our own time, can move the world to a just and lasting peace.

Kennedy had moved the world. In the twelve months since October 1962 he had kept his gaze on peace. He had held fast to his faith in humanity. He had trusted the virtue of America's adversaries. And he had been vindicated: mankind was not doomed, gripped by forces beyond its control.