Notes from the Archive


After President Kennedy’s American University speech , I began collecting materials under a heading, “Kdy Edtl,†Kennedy editorial. It did not matter much what a provincial editor said about the President from Boston, so I let it wait, down at the bottom of the basket. Now I should like to say what I should have said about him before. Although it is even less relevant than it would have been then, it seems the fitting thing to do:

That speech was, I believe, Kennedy’s most momentous deed. He announced then that Russia and this country would work toward a nuclear test ban treaty, and that we would not explode more nuclear weapons in the atmosphere as long as other states did not do so:

I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost 10 times the explosive force delivered by all of the Allied air forces in the second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations unborn.

Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of idle stockpiles—which can only destroy and can never create—is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men …

Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament—and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them to do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude—as individuals and as a nation—for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to help bring peace, should begin by looking inward—by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the Cold War and toward freedom and peace here at home …

And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights—the right to breathe air as nature provided it—the right of future generations to a healthy existence? While we proceed to safeguard our national interest, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both …

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough—more than enough—of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared for war, if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But 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 labor on—not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.

The terrible dilemmas of his office were not more clearly embodied than later that very month when, in Frankfurt, he said the United States would “risk its cities†rather than let West Berlin fall to communism. Yet the nuclear treaty was pressed, and tensions began to lessen around the world. I resume from my notes:

The television machinery brought into a Texas living room a few nights back the likeness of the President as he answered questions about the testimony against the pending nuclear test ban treaty from Dr. Edward Teller and from Gen. Powers, the S.A.C. commander. His face was impatient, his words came quick, an angry man’s words. There was something about his manner that was crying out, “My God!â€

He said that with our present weapons, we could kill 300 million people in an hour.

…I concluded that he has listened to the warnings and laments of the peace movement and has decided that they are right in what they are saying and has decided that he will risk every shred of his power, his very re-election, rather than fail to lead off toward disarmament—rather than forsake his very personal duty to those 300 million people he could order killed by a nod of his head. I criticized too soon, and praise too late. To set the story right after it’s told is not to tell it right, yet now it is too late for me to do any better than this.

Ronnie Dugger is the Observer’s founding editor. This article is an abridged version of “Kdy Edtl,†which was published in the December 27, 1963 issue of the Observer.

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