Read To Move the World Online

Authors: Jeffrey D. Sachs

To Move the World

Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey D. Sachs

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House,
an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sachs, Jeffrey.
To move the world : JFK’s quest for peace / Jeffrey D. Sachs.
p.   cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
eISBN: 978-0-8129-9493-3
1. Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917–1963.  2. Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917–1963—Oratory.  3. United States—Politics and government—1961–1963.  4. United States—Foreign relations—Soviet Union.  5. Soviet Union—Foreign relations—United States.  6. World politics—1955–1965.    I. Title.
16 2013

Jacket design: David G. Stevenson
Jacket photograph: © Jacques Lowe



The Speeches:



son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word,” John F. Kennedy exclaimed in frustration. The president and his advisers were huddled at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, with the United States and the Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy had grounded U-2 spy-plane missions to avoid a provocation that might lead accidentally to a shooting war. Yet one Alaska-based U.S. Air Force pilot had not gotten the message. After taking off to collect air samples to check on Soviet nuclear testing, the pilot had become disoriented and inadvertently flown his plane into Soviet airspace. Soviet fighter jets scrambled to intercept the U-2, while due to the high alert status prompted by the crisis, the U.S. planes sent to escort it back to base were armed with nuclear warheads and had the authority to fire.
By dumb luck the world survived.

Such was the slender thread of humanity’s survival on those bleakest of days, the closest that the world has ever come to self-destruction. Looking back fifty years, it’s hard to imagine, or even to believe, that humanity nearly squandered everything over issues and causes that don’t even exist today. One of the two superpowers no longer survives. The cause of global communism is defunct, a failed idea that was abandoned by its own protagonists more than two decades ago. The politics of Cuba and Berlin, two of the most intractable conflict points of the Cold War, hardly seem matters on which human survival should turn.

We are tempted to say “Never mind” about a struggle that makes little sense in today’s context. Yet we mustn’t turn our back on that history. We must understand how two superpowers not only came to the brink of global annihilation, but built thousands of nuclear warheads, including single warheads that had vastly more destructive power than all the bombs dropped in World War II combined. We must also remember that the superpower conflict was not really “cold” at all, as it resulted in countless “proxy wars” that claimed millions of lives across several continents. We are still living in the world created by the Cold War, and we are still living under the shadow of thousands of nuclear warheads, even if their numbers are down and the hair-trigger rules for their deployment are gone. We also need to understand the Cold War because the human instincts and political institutions that created it still shape our country’s approach to the world and the strategies of other countries. Many of today’s unnecessary conflicts are directly descended from the dynamics and outcomes of the Cold War.

There is a more positive and dynamic reason to understand those times as well. The great turning point of the Cold War, the stepping back from the nuclear abyss, was an act of political grace and courage, led by President John F. Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart, Communist Party chairman Nikita Khrushchev. These two men, in their distinct ways, both said “Enough.” They came to the realization that the world could not afford to lurch from crisis to crisis, with one son of a bitch or another failing to get the message and thereby plunging the world into horror and darkness. Kennedy and Khrushchev knew too well that their own colleagues—thoughtlessly, ruthlessly, stupidly, or naïvely—might be contributors to such a world-shattering blunder. We must understand how humanity was saved from the accidents, miscalculations, bravado, and supposedly sophisticated strategic thinking that almost ended it all.

This book recalls John F. Kennedy’s
annus mirabilis
, from October 1962 to September 1963, when he and Khrushchev saved the world, and left a legacy, a blueprint, and an inspiration for those who would follow. Kennedy had come to office in January 1961 inexperienced, the youngest elected president in American history. Like all national leaders of the day, he was a Cold Warrior himself, determined to preserve American liberty in the face of a perceived threat of global communism. Yet he was also determined from the first day of his administration to find a path to peace. That path was unclear, and both Kennedy and Khrushchev would stumble badly along the way, from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Despite these errors, missteps, and near disasters, and because of the lessons learned from them, Kennedy and Khrushchev found a path back from the brink and toward the peaceful resolution of the Cold War. Kennedy campaigned for peace on three fronts: with Khrushchev, both an adversary and partner; with the U.S. allies, who were never simple and often divided on key issues; and with the U.S. political system, which was deeply entrenched in the Cold War and not easily moved toward peace. Kennedy’s peace campaign found its greatest eloquence during the summer of 1963, leaving us a legacy of words and deeds of historic proportion.

Fifty years on is a fitting and appropriate time to recall these events and to seek to learn from them. Yet this project jelled in my mind several years ago, when I fell in love with Kennedy’s great proclamation on peace, his “Strategy of Peace” address given as the American University commencement address in June 1963. This “peace speech,” although admired by some as one of Kennedy’s finest, has never achieved the fame of his inaugural address or the great speech on civil rights that he delivered just one day after the Peace Speech. I had not really known the Peace Speech until I came across it a few years ago while working on issues of global poverty. The speech moved me deeply, not only for its eloquence and content, but also for its relevance to today’s global challenges. For in it Kennedy tells us about transforming our deepest aspirations—in this case for peace—into practical realities. He almost presents a method, a dream-and-do combination that soars with high vision and yet walks on earth with practical results.

I included a discussion of these remarkable features of the Peace Speech in the Reith Lectures that I gave for the BBC in 2007.
The third of these lectures took place at Columbia University, my home institution, and the event was most special because of the man sitting front and center in the first row: Ted Sorensen, John Kennedy’s intellectual alter ego, counselor, and gifted speechwriter, the man who had not only drafted the Peace Speech but had worked intimately with Kennedy for a decade on the concepts and dreams articulated in it. Sorensen was much more than a draftsman. He was a moral force and intellectual partner of John Kennedy, and the Peace Speech is a product of and tribute to the Kennedy-Sorensen duo in the deepest sense.

When I finished the address, I was humbled by Sorensen’s telling me that I had “gotten it.” I was moved and excited to hear from him that the speech was his favorite of all Kennedy’s speeches, which comported with my own understanding of its unique importance in Kennedy’s foreign policy and in modern world history. Here indeed was a case where words, magnificently crafted and carefully thought through, had made a difference.

At the time I worked closely with Sorensen’s remarkable wife, Gillian, who was a senior adviser of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. My wife, Sonia, and I had wonderful opportunities to discuss current events with Ted and Gillian Sorensen, our neighbors. On those occasions, I would discuss the Peace Speech with Sorensen, which deepened both my understanding of its context and my profound admiration for it. I decided at that point that I would write about it in a book, and asked for Sorensen’s advice and help. He greatly appreciated the project, and was eager to work together to document the speech, its history, and its impact. Sadly, Ted Sorensen was struck down by a devastating stroke not long after. A man of remarkable talents, ethics, experience, and wit was gone. My grand hope to work with him on a book about the Peace Speech was lost. How many times during the writing of this book did I wish that I could have given Ted a call to get guidance and reflections!

In reviewing the history and context of the Peace Speech, my esteem for it and for Kennedy has only grown. I have come to believe that Kennedy’s quest for peace is not only the greatest achievement of his presidency, but also one of the greatest acts of world leadership in the modern era. I certainly do not pretend that the speech alone changed history, or that it marked the end of the Cold War. Nor do I want to leave the impression that peace was the work of one man, much less one speech. It was Kennedy himself who declared that there is no simple, single key to peace, that “genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process—a way of solving problems.”

The speech remains important for us today not only for what it did, but for what it tells us about the process of making peace and social reform more generally. We have new challenges in our generation, the most important of which is the challenge of sustainable development: learning to live together on a crowded planet, in harmony not only with more than seven billion others but with a physical earth under dire assault from a burgeoning world economy. I find the Peace Speech a wonderful help in thinking about that challenge too. Kennedy noted that the core of our common humanity is that “we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air.” That air is increasingly threatened. In Kennedy’s day the dire threat to the air was nuclear fallout. In our time it is greenhouse gases. But in both cases the underlying truth is exactly the same: we need to make earth a fitting home for all of humanity.

Words can move us to great deeds. In Kennedy’s case, the words inspired both Americans and Soviets to take the risk for peace by adopting a treaty on nuclear testing, which had proved elusive till then and which was opposed strenuously by hardliners on both sides. Kennedy’s words shaped a common understanding of what was possible for mutual benefit, helping to break the hammerlock of fear and loathing. We will look at those words closely: their beauty, their provenance, and their revelation of Kennedy’s own growth as a leader. I’ve included it and three other key speeches at the end of the book for readers to savor in full.

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