Hearing JFK's message of peace in John Kerry's diplomacy


President John F. Kennedy speaking at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963.


American University

BOSTON — On a beautiful day in June 1963, when John F. Kennedy’s voice resonated with the confidence of Camelot, when his hair was streaked with gold from Cape Cod sunshine, and when the darkness of Dallas was as distant as the chill of November, he chose to speak to young people.

It was a commencement address at American University and it is widely considered one of Kennedy’s most memorable and enduring speeches.

He told the university students, he had “chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived —and that is the most important topic on earth: peace.”

“What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war, not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace — the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living — and the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time but peace in all time,” Kennedy said with the Cuban Missile Crisis behind him, the nuclear threat of the Cold War still casting a shadow on the geo-political landscape and the fateful intervention in Vietnam looming on the horizon.

That speech captured the heart and soul of Kennedy as well as any other, a speech about what he called “a more practical, more attainable peace.” It was a new approach to the world and solving its problems, and one that would greatly inform this moment in American history.

And so today, as the nation seems consumed with the remembrance of Kennedy’s assassination, it seems right to stop and think of what he believed in not just how he was killed. And there have been few weeks in Obama’s presidency more fraught with the possibilities for that thing Kennedy called the “most important topic on earth: peace.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, with the bold diplomatic success of avoiding military conflict with Syria while forcing the regime to allow UN inspectors access to guarantee the dismantling of its chemical weapons, has plunged into a full-court diplomatic press in some of the most intractable issues of our time. It’s as if Kennedy’s speech on peace is permanently loaded on his iTunes account and he’s got it playing on ear buds while he boards yet another plane for yet another diplomatic mission. Consider Secretary Kerry's calendar just this week:

* Kerry is driving talks with Iran in Geneva to curb its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions. If he succeeds, he will have dramatically reduced the possibility of military action against Iran and pulled off a diplomatic victory that few would have seen coming just a few months ago. If the US and its five negotiating partners can find the parameters of an interim deal, Kerry could be in Geneva as soon as this weekend to seal a deal.

* Kerry announced Wednesday that the US and Afghanistan had finalized the wording of a bilateral security agreement that would extend US troop presence in Afghanistan. The deal is the result of marathon negotiations between Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a guy who has given every secretary of state nothing but headaches. If the wording is indeed in place and the deal is approved by Afghanistan’s ‘Loya Jirga,’ or ‘Grand Council,’ convening this week, this indefatigable effort by Kerry would go a long way, most analysts believe, in ensuring the beginning of a slow but orderly withdrawal of forces from the longest war in US history.

* Kerry has also sought to revitalize the peace process in Israel and Palestine, spending extraordinary amounts of time and effort on breathing life into a process that most analysts in the region believe is barely on life support. Kerry met for seven straight hours with Israeli President Bibi Netanyahu, wearing even Netanyahu down on the finest points of detail in the long-stalled peace process.

Despite these efforts, Obama’s critics say his diplomacy is at times distracted and that it lacks focus, that he has allowed Kerry to switch directions too often and that together they have failed to set clear priorities and achievable goals.

But few would challenge the notion that Kerry’s style is relentless and aggressive. He is even conducting much of the negotiation in Geneva in French, which has reportedly stunned his colleagues, particularly the French, around the table. In the last few months, he has set himself apart as a far more activist Secretary of State than his predecessor Hillary Clinton, who made one brilliant stroke in trying to ‘pivot’ American diplomacy toward Asia and to China only to run headlong into the Arab Spring and the return of enormous challenges to US policy in Egypt, Libya, Syria and throughout the region.

For the State Department, dealing in the Middle East is like being Michael Corleone in The Godfather III. Just when we thought we were out, they keep pulling us back in.

Still, Obama and Kerry face a challenge that Kennedy and his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, did not. That is a hostile congress that seems willing to shut down the  government to prove a point on health care and that might even obstruct something as important as an agreement for Iran to ends it nuclear weapons program.  But that is where the country is today, as divided and dysfunctional as it has ever been.

President Obama, who was two years old on November 22, 1963 when the shots rang out as the motorcade made its way through Dallas, was too young to remember the event which remains seared in the nation's collective consciousness.

But not Kerry. Fifty years ago, a young John F. Kerry was a student at Yale University bracing for the big Harvard-Yale game which was at Yale that year. At that time, Kerry was modeling his hero, wearing shirts with the initials “JFK,” monogramed on the cuffs and bracing to volunteer for the Navy to skipper a SWIFT boat in Vietnam just as Kennedy was at the helm of the PT-109 in the Pacific.

And now it seems those words of inspiration that so drove Kerry in his early years as he began what he hoped would be a path to presidency, are echoing again these days and perhaps pushing him on to succeed and to offer his public service in the role that he has groomed himself for his whole life.

And today the words of America’s youngest president resonate through history, when he said, “I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war — and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.”