Like, I suspect, many of us here, I just finished watching the American Experience documentary on JFK. I have neither the time nor the inclination to address all the reasons why that film struck me so deeply at a gut level. It caused me, however, to reread his 1963 American University speech, which is always worthy of serious reflection and consideration.
The Berlin Wall fell 24 years ago. The Soviet state crumbled for good 22 years ago. Millions of Americans have no clue as to what the Cold War was all about. Many of those of us who did live through it have no memory of just how deep the freeze was in 1963. A thermonuclear war had been narrowly avoided the previous fall. There were no arms limitations treaties. Nuclear testing was still conducted in the atmosphere. Mutual suspicion and recrimination still ran deep.
In that context, Kennedy's speech remains remarkable to this day. Its power is shown in these 4 paragraphs:
No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.Openly acknowledging the sacrifices endured by the Soviet people in a war against a common enemy two decades earlier and frankly recognizing the common humanity of the two sides was virtually unheard of from any major political figure at that time. Proposing more of a "live and let live" approach was equally unthinkable. A month later, agreement was reached on a partial nuclear test ban treaty--the first such treaty of its kind.
Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and families were burned or sacked. A third of the nation's territory, including two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland -- a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago.
Today, should total war ever break out again -- no matter how -- our two countries will be the primary target. 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 be better 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.
I was only 5 when JFK was killed. I have only the vaguest memories of his presidency. Given how his life was tragically cut short, his legacy is one of potential as much as it is one of actual performance. His ability, however, to appeal to the better angels of our nature resonates to this day. That ability was most profoundly demonstrated in this speech, most notably in the simple facts he set forth in the bolded portion. It's far easier to negotiate meaningfully w/ an opponent when you frankly acknowledge your common mortality. It's a lot harder to keep a Cold War frozen when you admit that you and the other side have at least some common interests.
There are many reasons why I became a Dem, but the legacy of JFK (not to mention that of his devoted brother) is clearly one of them.