Preemptive Peace: On the Anniversary of JFK’s Assassination
Last week was the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. I didn’t believe a U.S. president could work for deep, prophetic change until I read JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. It’s the most important book I read this year. If author Jim Douglas is right, JFK’s work for peace is exactly why he was killed in 1963.
In 1963 the Soviet Union and U.S. were piling up nuclear weapons, hostility and fear was in the air, Soviet totalitarianism was intense, and propaganda was rising from both sides of the Iron Curtain. In Douglas’ account, powerful voices in the U.S. military and CIA were angling for a way of violence.
Aware of this intense internal opposition, JFK ran a covert diplomatic operation seeking to open a new way toward peace with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
As the Cold War intensified in 1963, at a June commencement speech at American University, in an era of what he called the “new face of war with nuclear weapons,” JFK called Americans to a kind of self-examination which bordered on confession.
It is astounding to watch the speech knowing that just five months later JFK was killed. For Douglas the link is clear. Solving the problem of the enemy, said JFK, begins not by looking outward but inward, through what he called “reexaminations” of America’s “attitude toward peace itself.” A few excerpts:
“The most important topic on earth [is] peace. Not a pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war … I am talking about genuine peace. Not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time”
“Some say it is useless to speak of world peace…that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. .. But I also believe we must re-examine our own attitudes—as individuals and as a nation—for our attitude is as essential as theirs … And every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace should begin by looking inward—by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war, and toward freedom and peace here at home”
“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is 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”
“Truly as it was written long ago: ‘The wicked flee when no man pursueth’ … [this] is also a warning—a warning to the American people to not fall into the same trap as the Soviets … No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue”
I recently heard an excerpt of George W. Bush’s 2002 West Point speech which first expressed the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive war. “If we wait for threats to fully materialize,” said Bush, “we will have waited too long. Our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”
JFK’s vision of preemptive peace offers a profound contrast to preemptive violence. The way to peace, he claimed, begins not in pointing out the flaws of the enemy but owning up to our own flaws. To say that the first posture of true peacemakers toward the enemy is not hostility but empathy certainly means that JFK was calling for a kind of conversion.
According to Douglas for the powerful to pursue such peace can be enough to get you killed. The assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi of India (1948), Anwar Sadat of Egypt (1981), and Yitzak Rabin of Israel (1995) offer a solemn “Amen.” Perhaps JFK’s most prophetic words were these: “The pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war—and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears.” Peace may not be as dramatic, but it is just as dangerous.
About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.
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