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John F. Kennedy's Vision of Peace

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The right-wing propaganda machine found plenty of arable ground in the American national consciousness to fertilize with fear. Initially, congressional mail ran 15-1 against the treaty. JFK believed the chances for passage in the Senate was "about in the nature of a miracle." He ordered his staff to pull out every stop to mobilize the population, saying that he was determined to get the treaty passed, even if it cost him the 1964 election.

By September, a monumental grassroots White House campaign had flipped public opinion to support the treaty by 80 percent. On September 24th, 1963, the Senate ratified the treaty 80-19. As Ted Sorensen noted, no other single accomplishment in the White House "gave the president greater satisfaction."

On October 10th, after signing the atmospheric-test-ban treaty, Khrushchev sent JFK the last of his personal letters. In that missive, Khrushchev proposed the next steps for ending the Cold War. He recommended the conclusion of a nonaggression pact between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations, and a number of steps to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and prevent their use in surprise attacks. JFK would never see the letter. State Department officials hostile toward Khrushchev intercepted it.

Khrushchev had already secretly proposed to his own government radical reductions in the Soviet military, including the conversion of missile plants to peaceful purposes. After JFK's death, Kremlin war hawks viewed Khrushchev's plan as a treasonous proposal for unilateral disarmament. Less than a year after Dallas, Khrushchev was removed from power.

JFK, at the time of his death, was planning his own trip to the Soviet Union, knowing nothing would do more to end the Cold War. Forty years later, Khrushchev's son Sergei wrote that he was "convinced that if history had allowed them another six years, they would have brought the Cold War to a close before the end of the 1960s. . . . But fate decreed otherwise, and the window of opportunity, barely cracked open, closed at once. In 1963, President Kennedy was killed, and a year later, in October 1964, my father was removed from power. The Cold War continued for another quarter of a century."

JFK's capacity to stand up against the national-security apparatus and imagine a different future for America has made him, despite his short presidency, one of the most popular presidents in history. Despite his abbreviated tenure, John F. Kennedy is the only one-term president consistently included in the list of top 10 presidents made by American historians. A 2009 poll of 65 historians ranked him sixth in overall presidential performance, just ahead of Jefferson. And today, JFK's great concerns seem more relevant than ever: the dangers of nuclear proliferation, the notion that empire is inconsistent with a republic and that corporate domination of our democracy at home is the partner of imperial policies abroad. He understood the perils to our Constitution from a national-security state and mistrusted zealots and ideologues. He thought other nations ought to fight their own civil wars and choose their own governments and not ask the U.S. to do it for them. Yet the world he imagined and fought for has receded so far below the horizon that it's no longer even part of the permissible narrative inside the Beltway or in the mainstream press. Critics who endeavor to debate the survival of American democracy within the national-security state risk marginalization as crackpots and kooks. His greatest, most heroic aspirations for a peaceful, demilitarized foreign policy are the forbidden­ debates of the modern political era.

This story is from the December 5th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

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