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President Kennedy’s Momentous Two Days of Peace and Freedom in June, 1963

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When John Fitzgerald Kennedy awoke in the stateroom of Air Force One early on June 10, 1963 – flying overnight from Hawaii to Washington – he did not know this was the beginning of two momentous days that would define his presidency and resonate a lifetime later.

He knew he would deliver the commencement address that Monday morning at American University, where he would recast the nature of peace at the height of the Cold War. More pointedly, he would promise to halt all testing of nuclear weapons and invite Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, to do the same.

Kennedy knew that Governor George C. Wallace, the flinty segregationist, would defy federal authority the next day on the steps of the University of Alabama. Wallace had vowed to stand in “the schoolhouse door” to deny admission to two Black students. It would be the latest confrontation in the civil rights movement convulsing America that spring.

What the president did not know was that his address would impress Khrushchev and produce the first arms-control treaty of the post-war era. Nor did he know that facing down Wallace, sending in the National Guard and forcing the integration of this storied public institution would turn a crisis into a victory for the administration, and usher in the sweeping civil rights bill.

On June 10 and June 11, 1963, Kennedy pivoted decisively and boldly on nuclear arms and civil rights, the two biggest issues of his time, in two of the most memorable speeches of his poetic presidency. Today they show us the artful braiding of rhetoric and action, the timelessness of moral leadership, and how the struggles of one generation may return in the next.

Kennedy and his advisors had deliberated for weeks over the speech (“A Strategy of Peace”) at American University. It was written carefully, in relative secrecy. At 10:35 a.m., standing under a withering sun, draped in a heavy black gown, he spoke for 26 minutes. He never broke a sweat.

His speech is a meditation on peace. Rather than another polemic on the evils of Communism and the Iron Curtain, he talks with urgency about “genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to 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 for all time.”

The second speech was shorter and largely spontaneous. It was drafted so hastily that JFK went on national television at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday without a full text and had to improvise at its end. No matter. His message delighted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others in the movement.

 At root, it is about morality in a segregated society where Blacks, especially in the South, could not vote or hold office. In 1963, they still moved to the back of the bus, drank from different water fountains, and sat at separate lunch counters. In that light, Kennedy asks Americans if they were Black, rather than White, would they be satisfied with the status quo, gradualism and the promise of change?

Awakening that morning, did Kennedy foresee that these feverish forty-eight hours before him would frame his new imperative to rethink arms and race, what he called “peace and freedom”? And that his appeals on both days, in different ways, would produce the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

In 2023, his words are haunting. When Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine in 2022, he evoked the existential anxiety of the early 1960s, climaxing in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Suddenly, nuclear war is real again; the Doomsday Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight, closer than ever.

As Americans worry anew about nuclear war, they wrestle still with racial equality. The signs are everywhere: the judicial and legislative attacks on minority voting rights. The murder of George Floyd and other Blacks by police. The demand for reparations. The continuing historical reappraisal of the life of Dr. King, Kennedy’s critic and ally.

In both speeches, written independently of each other, Kennedy, who had been cautious in his first two years in office on race and hawkish on arms, uses the bully pulpit to ask Americans to re-examine old prejudices.

At American University, he praises Soviet achievements in culture, science, and space, recalls their 20 million dead in the Second World War, and asks if they are so different, after all. “For, in the final analysis, our most common link is that we all inhabit this small planet,” Kennedy says. “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Kennedy avoids the usual vocabulary of “gulags” and “bears”. “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity,” he says. In 1960s America, his tone is conciliatory, even subversive. He wants to move past dogma and demonization.

When Khrushchev hears the speech hours later, he exclaims that no president had spoken this openly since FDR. Then he does something unprecedented: he orders Kennedy’s speech broadcast and published.

In seeing the Soviets sympathetically, Kennedy is evolving. The former naval lieutenant who had embraced a broad civil defense program and ordered the biggest military buildup in peacetime history is losing his certainties. He’s less interested in winning the Cold War than ending it.

Decades later, in search engines and college seminars, his address will be known as “the Peace Speech”. Kennedy isn’t naïve about the Soviets – indeed, his tone will be harsher later that month in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” address in Berlin – but he’s doubting “the long twilight struggle” against Communism in his Inaugural Address of 1961. He wants a new modus vivendi between East and West; he even muses about visiting Moscow in 1964 and cooperating with the Soviets in space exploration.

The next evening, having urged Americans to acknowledge the humanity of the Soviets, he asks them to accept equality for the “negroes”. He paints a stark statistical picture of a Black American born in 1963 – half as likely to finish high school, one third as much chance of completing college, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed.    

Kennedy makes a plea for compassion. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he says. “It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American constitution.” Given the disparity between Blacks and Whites, he asks: if a Black American “cannot enjoy the full and free life that all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”

The parallels on both issues between then and now are eerie, if inexact. Putin is waging a war in Ukraine that would anger Kennedy today. Still, JFK would exhaust diplomacy and offer Putin a way to save face, if possible. On race, Kennedy would affirm the moral argument for justice while recognizing that presidents no longer have the same authority, influence, and audience in this age of disinformation and media fragmentation.

In his crowded hour, Kennedy understands that progress is uneven, that time turns victories into losses, that some issues are never really settled. Change is the work of Sisyphus, pushing that rock up the hill only to see it roll down again.

But he also understands, in the evening of his busy life, that power brings a responsibility to act. It implores a president to use all the instruments of persuasion of the office, trying to make a difference through the magic of language and the marble of law. In John F. Kennedy’s lyrical moment 60 years ago, he did.

About the Author

Andrew Cohen Headshot 2023

Andrew Cohen

Global Fellow;
Associate Professor of Journalism, Carleton University

Andrew Cohen is author of "Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History." He is a Global Fellow with the Canada Institute of the Wilson Center.

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