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Preemptive Peace: On the Anniversary of JFK’s Assassination

December 2, 2009

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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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Randy G permalink
    December 2, 2009 11:20 pm

    After an early fascination with JFK as the great American hope, my learning that history and JFK are more complex led me to a more jaded view. But this certainly makes me reconsider. It sounds somewhat like a cross between my wife’s peace church orientation and Sting’s 198? song “I hope the Russians Love Their Children Too.”

    Randy G

  2. Allegra Jordan permalink
    December 3, 2009 7:19 am

    This speech is wonderful but this work stands in deep contrast to the JFK described by Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters, about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. I am glad the picture becomes more nuanced but it’s hard for me to get out of my head the picture of JFK and his brother setting back the Civil Rights movement 10 years by caving into pressure from FBI director Hoover to force MLK to fire his top administrator (due to Hoover knowing about JFKs promiscuity – this seems so selfish: saving themselves embarrassment and selling out civil rights). Perhaps I’ve imbibed too much anti-JFK learning from having lived in Selma and Austin (in the shadow of the LBJ library!) and so I am willing to have my view interrupted by your glowing review.

    What about Lincoln’s second inaugural address? I am proud that the U.S. has that speech written in marble. It’s reconciliation writ large!

  3. December 3, 2009 1:15 pm

    Thanks for this, Chris. Jim’s is a hard book to summarize. But it’s also hard work to sit down and read his nuanced account. For those who haven’t read the book, it’s important to say that Jim does not overlook JFK’s marital unfaithfulness, his public Cold Warrior posture, the escalation of the Vietnam War on his watch, or other failings. This is no hagiography. Even still, the case Jim makes that JFK was turning toward peace is convincing. What is more, Jim is able to name the profound theological implications of the story for our time:

    “The Cold War has been followed by its twin, the War on Terror. We are engaged in another apocalyptic struggle against an enemy seen as absolute evil. Terrorism has replaced Communism as the enemy. We are told we can be safe only through the threat of escalating violence. Yet the redemptive means John Kennedy turned to, in a similar struggle, was dialogue with the enemy. When the enemy is seen as human, everything changes.”–from the preface, JFK and the Unspeakable

  4. Ric Hudgens permalink
    December 3, 2009 2:21 pm

    I agree with the comments already posted. It is a remarkable speech and Kennedy was a good speech maker (who wrote this though? Sorenson?). I can also find plausibility in many of the conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s assassination (and M L Kings and Bobby’s; but maybe that says more about me than it does about what really happened). My only caution (and I have not yet read Douglass’s book) is that we should not try to rewrite Kennedy’s biography, nor should we overestimate what even a “converted” peace President might have been able to do given the restrictions of empire. The abiding fascination with and concern for the legacy of the Kennedy’s simply mystifies me.

  5. Ed King permalink
    December 7, 2009 3:29 pm

    It is also astounding to watch the (JFK) speech knowing that just two days later in Jackson, Mississippi they assassinated Medgar Evers, and that set the pattern… a lone eccentric killer, on a grassy knoll,waiting for the car to slow down or stop, armed with a high powered rifle with a scope… which is, seemingly, left behind to be conveniently discovered and point to a believable suspect. And then, a few years later, there is another grassy knoll across from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the standard weapon conveniently discovered. Thanks to Jim Douglas for believing and saying that it does matter.

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