Cold War Turning Point: Fifty Years On

BY Michael D. Mosettig  June 10, 2013 at 11:33 AM EDT

John F. Kennedy delivers a commencement address that became known as a “strategy of peace” speech at American University on June 10, 1963. Photo courtesy of American University.

Only a small plaque at an athletic field on the outer edges of northwest Washington marks one of the turning points of the Cold War: On that spot on June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered what came to be called his “strategy of peace” speech that paved the way for a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

The speech and subsequent treaty, in the words of arms control analyst Darryl Kimball, created a momentum for nuclear arms treaties that has continued to be a major diplomatic objective through the nine presidents who followed JFK, both Republicans and Democrats. Subsequent pacts eventually brought down the number of nuclear warheads around the world and helped limit the number of nuclear-armed nations to nine instead of the 15 or 20 that Kennedy feared would evolve. And presidents as politically apart as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have talked fervently of trying to create a world free of all nuclear weapons.

The commencement oration at American University, which historian and PBS NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss described as “easily the best speech of Kennedy’s life,” came in the midst of one of the most tumultuous weeks of JFK’s or any other modern presidency. The next night, as the police of Birmingham, Ala., were unleashing dogs and water cannon on civil rights demonstrators, the president would give a nationally televised address from the Oval Office, the strongest affirmation by any president up to that time of the moral imperative for basic civil rights and dignity for African-Americans. That paved the way for the Civil Rights Act, pushed through Congress a year later by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

As Beschloss and other historians have described, the Kennedy speech was hastily put together by his White House staff to avoid bureaucratic foot-dragging by the State Department and Pentagon. But it had been brewing since the Cuban Missile Crisis eight months earlier brought the world close to nuclear war. President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev both wanted to tamp down the risks of war, but a treaty to ban all nuclear tests remained out of their grasp.

Then, and now, the speech stands apart, even by Kennedy standards, for its eloquence and for some sympathetic words about the Soviet Union and its massive losses during World War II. It so impressed the Russian leadership that they allowed the Voice of America to broadcast it in the USSR without jamming and ran the full text in Pravda.

Among its concluding lines: “We shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we must labor on — not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.”

Substantively, the speech offered a potential breakthrough for a test ban treaty. President Kennedy said the United States immediately would stop atmospheric testing — this in a time when the media was full of stories about the dangers of strontium 90 in the air and even in milk.

And in just 12 days of negotiations, that opening became the basis for a treaty agreed to by the United States, USSR and Great Britain stopping above-ground nuclear tests. By October, the U.S. Senate ratified the accord by a 80-19 vote.

What has happened since has offered a large cadre of arms control think tanks and analysts opportunities to assess the glass half full or half empty. Since the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have joined the original nuclear club of the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. (Among them, there are now 17,325 nuclear warheads in the world, according to estimates prepared by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Center for Arms Control and Nuclear Proliferation). But Iran may be on the edge. Terrorists groups may be closer to obtaining nuclear technology and materials, and either a nuclear Iran or North Korea could set off new arms races in both their neighborhoods.

Several agreements between the United States and Russia have brought the number of deployed warheads in those countries to fewer than 1,500 each, from a peak of tens of thousands in the early- and mid-1980s.

But votes in Congress show a diminishing constituency for arms control; the last strategic arms treaty with Russia scraped through the Senate with only five votes to spare above the two-thirds required for treaty ratification.

A comprehensive test ban treaty has yet to be ratified, and that has become a key objective of arms control advocates. Some, such as Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, have faulted President Barack Obama for losing focus on the issue over the past year, especially for not pushing more forcefully for Senate ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty.

The Obama administration official previously in charge of arms control, former Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, put that treaty at the top of the agenda. But the list is long including a big reduction in stockpiled war heads, a deal on tactical nuclear missiles and further shrinking to 1,000 or fewer the deployed warheads on U.S. and Russian missiles and bombers.

One reason to push ahead on reductions with the Russians, she added, is to apply pressure on China and other nuclear nations to reach nuclear pacts. Of the nine current nuclear nations, China is the only one considerably expanding its arsenal, now estimated at 300 warheads by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Above all, Tauscher said at a Carnegie Endowment conference earlier this year, “the U.S. and Russia can move from Mutual Assured Destruction to Mutual Assured Stability.”

In other words, a Strategy of Peace remains 50 years on as much a goal as reality in a world still full of nuclear weapons.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.