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JFK: When Presidential Words Led to Swift Action

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When Presidential Words Led to Swift Action


The New YorkTimes

June 8, 2013


WASHINGTON — These days it is hard to imagine a single presidential speech changing history.

But two speeches, given back to back by President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week, are now viewed as critical turning points on the transcendent issues of the last century.

The speeches, which came on consecutive days, took political risks. They sought to shift the nation’s thinking on the “inevitability” of war with the Soviet Union and to make urgent the “moral crisis” of civil rights. Beyond their considerable impact on American minds, these two speeches had something in common that oratory now often misses. They both led quickly and directly to important changes.

On Monday, June 10, 1963, Kennedy announced new talks to try to curb nuclear tests, signaling a decrease in tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Speaking at American University’s morning commencement, he urged new approaches to the cold war, saying,

“In the final analysis,” he continued, “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 future. And we are all mortal.”

The next evening, Kennedy gave an address on national television, sketching out a strong civil rights bill he promised to send to Congress. For the first time, a president made a moral case against segregation. He had previously argued publicly for obedience to court orders and had condemned violence, but not the underlying system.

Kennedy said. “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”

Action followed. An agreement to establish a hot line between Washington and Moscow came in a few days, and a limited nuclear test ban treaty in four months. In just over a year, the 1964 Civil Rights Act became the most important American law of the 20th century. Kennedy, of course, did not live to see the comprehensive civil rights legislation, a crowning achievement of his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican leaders like Representative William M. McCulloch of Ohio and Senator Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois.

Robert Dallek, Kennedy’s leading biographer, said the two speeches were “not just two of his best speeches, but two of the better presidential speeches of the 20th century.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a scholar of political discourse, said the two “compelling” speeches invited the country “to see the world differently, expanding our concept of basic rights and propelling action vindicated by history.”

They are underappreciated as oratory, she said, because neither had a “simple central phrase” like “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which Kennedy said later that month, or “Ask not what your country can do for you,” from his inaugural address.

Though Theodore C. Sorensen, the president’s main speechwriter, was the principal writer of both speeches, they were prepared in very different ways.

The American University speech was a month in the making, growing out of Kennedy’s sense that if some progress on controlling arms was to be made, it had to happen in 1963, not in the election year of 1964, and from signals from the Kremlin that new talks might be productive. But it was kept secret from the Pentagon, because of fears that generals might object to any steps toward conciliation.

In contrast, the civil rights speech was written in a few hours and was almost not given.

Mr. Dallek said the American University speech reflected Kennedy’s “real passion” about his presidency, the goal of building “not merely peace in our time but peace for all time,” as Kennedy put it that morning.

To achieve it, Kennedy said, it was necessary to “examine our attitude toward peace itself.”

“Too many of us think it is impossible,” Kennedy said. “Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable — that mankind is doomed — that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.

“We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be solved by man.”

Another step was to “re-examine our attitude toward the Soviet Union.”

He said that while it was “sad” to read Soviet propaganda insisting that the United States was planning many wars so it could dominate the world, “it is also a warning — a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”

He said Americans should understand that “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 and in acts of courage.”

Reminding his audience that at least 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II, Kennedy said, “Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war.”

“Today, should total war ever break out again — no matter how — our two countries would become the primary targets. 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.”

On June 11, Kennedy had planned to speak about civil rights if there was trouble in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Gov. George C. Wallace had vowed to stand in the way to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama. But Wallace simply made a statement and then stepped aside, and the process went smoothly. The speech seemed unnecessary.

Sorensen, who had labored over the Monday speech, went home, only to be summoned back at midafternoon when the president’s brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy persuaded Kennedy to go ahead. Sorensen finished his draft with only minutes to spare, and Kennedy ad-libbed concluding paragraphs.

The president had come to the civil rights issue only “grudgingly,” as Mr. Dallek put it. He thought segregation wrong and the Southerners who defended it “hopeless.” But for more than two years in the White House, he had treated the issue as a distraction from not only foreign policy but also tough domestic issues like a tax cut to spur the economy. Moreover, Mr. Dallek said, Kennedy and his brother thought the issue would cost him the Southern states he won in 1960 and could bring his defeat in 1964.

Still, by late spring in 1963 the spread of civil rights demonstrations, and the brutality used in Birmingham and elsewhere to suppress them, forced his hand. And while he had fitfully used the word “moral” in civil rights statements, he had not made it a cause.

He told the nation: “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

Kennedy said: “If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

He was not addressing just the South, or even just Congress. “It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another,” he said.

“A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”

This “moral crisis,” he said, “cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your state and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.”

In between the two speeches, another critical issue arose. At a busy intersection in South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire. That set off the political developments that led to the ouster and murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem just three weeks before Kennedy’s own assassination.

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