Theodore Sorensen, advisory board chair, delivers commencement address at American University

American University, School of Public Affairs/School of International Service
Theodore C. Sorensen, speechwriter to John F. Kennedy
May 11, 2003 / © 2003 American University

Spring 2003 Commencement Address

Thank you President Ladner. Distinguished faculty, successful graduates:

It is an overwhelming honor for me to stand here where John Kennedy stood 40 years ago. The ceremony that year was held at the Reeves Athletic Field. I sat in the back, somewhat unwashed, having come straight here from Air Force One which had returned that morning from Honolulu where President Kennedy had asked America's Mayors to help calm the civil rights crisis of that summer. As I sat there waiting for the President, I recalled the pompous, fatuous speech delivered at my high school address eighteen years earlier, which I remembered particularly well -I was the speaker. If only I could have arrived by fighter jet!

The President stopped at the White House to shave, but not to rest in the midst of that hectic, historic summer. He had arrived in Honolulu on June 8, addressed the Mayors on June 9, and departed that day for Washington to give the finest speech of his presidency on June 10. Having selected a university with students from all over the nation and world, a university dedicated to public service and international affairs, which even now has its own programs for conflict resolution; in other words, a very American University.

It was an extraordinary speech entitled "The Strategy of Peace." England's Manchester Guardian called it "one of the great state papers of American History." His domestic political opponents called it "a soft line that will accomplish nothing? a tragic mistake." Astonishingly, the Soviet leadership permitted the speech to be broadcast almost in its entirety in Russian in Moscow - broadcast and published.

In that speech, JFK called, as no one had ever called, for a reexamination of the Cold War, a reexamination of our attitude toward the Soviet Union, toward peace itself. "What kind of peace do we seek" he asked? "Not a Pax Americana, imposed on the world by American weapons of war?"

That speech, recalled the previous October when Kennedy led the western world through the most dangerous thirteen days in human history, when the swift, secret emplacement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba brought this planet close to incineration. Kennedy had achieved the removal of those missiles without firing a shot, without starting a war, without violating any international law.

Later that day, he signed the Equal Pay Act, prohibiting wage discrimination against women. The next day, June 11, he directed, from the Oval Office, the admission of the University of Alabama's first two black students, despite Governor [George C.] Wallace's theatrical "stand in the doorway," and on nationwide television gave the strongest declaration since Lincoln that race discrimination in this country was to end permanently. "Not only as a constitutional issue," he said, "but a moral issue."

The next day, June 12, he established the first National Advisory Council on the Arts. One week later he sent Congress the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever. He then announced the joint U.S.-Soviet establishment of a direct communications link between our respective capitols, the so-called "Hotline." By June 23 he was in Germany on a trip to solidify the Western Alliance, culminating in West Berlin with a salute to its brave citizens ending with the declaration: "as a free man, I take pride in the words: 'Ich Bin Ein Berliner!'"

Less than one month later he announced the signing of the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the first step towards arms control in the nuclear age, a step for which he had called here at American University, while announcing a U.S. moratorium on atmospheric tests.

It was an extraordinary few weeks of new ideas and actions by an extraordinary leader. To paraphrase Wordsworth: "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; but to be young, and in the service of that President, was very heaven!"

That limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the "Hotline" were two of hundreds of treaties signed by JFK, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the Neutrality of Laos, and aviation, nuclear energy, diplomacy and cultural exchange ground rules for the world. His speech here called for "world law" based on "effective agreements," requiring not "that each man love his neighbor, only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to just and peaceful settlement." As he said, "even the most hostile nations can be relied on to keep those treaty obligations that are in their own interest." He also called for strengthening the United Nations, solving its financial problems, and making it a genuine world security system capable of solving disputes on the basis of law."

In short, Kennedy wanted the United States to lead by the force of example, not force of our weaponry, by the multilateral use of our diplomacy, not the unilateral use of our weaponry, by sending abroad American food, not American guns, by relying on smart diplomats more than smart bombs.

John Kennedy was a veteran of World War II, and saluted that generation that established at its end enduring institutions for a more peaceful world; the United Nations, NATO - which for fifty years kept the peace and the Western Alliance together - the World Bank, the IMF and IFC.

He was a President who shared Jefferson's "respect for the decent opinions of mankind," who led by listening. He was focused that summer on civil rights, but added here to his speech on peace: "is not peace in the last analysis basically a matter of human rights?"

In that very different world, Kennedy knew that our country was most respected for its values, for the opportunities it offered all its citizens, its great institutions of learning like this one. That's what he wanted to convey in that commencement address: American values of peace and justice, the best instincts of the American people, a peaceful, not war-like, people, thereby increasing the respect and admiration with which we were held around the world, thereby making us more secure, a less likely target for resentment and attack.

Kennedy often said that any outbreak of war, especially nuclear war, would represent the failure of all his policies and hopes, at home and abroad. "This generation of Americans," he said here, "has already had more than enough of war. The world knows, well, then it did, that the United States will never start a war. But we shall do our part to build world peace? Confident and unafraid," he said, "we labor on, not toward a strategy of annihilation, but toward a strategy of peace." Acknowledging conflicts of interest of the Soviets, he added, "if we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity; for in the final analysis? we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future; and we are all mortal."

Less than four months after his hailed the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, JFK was dead by an assassin's bullet. "Brightness fell from the air." The tangled tensions of the Cold War resumed for almost 30 years more. But the groundwork for its end had been laid and a corner turned, here at American University.

Unfortunately, you are graduating into a more endangered nation, that in recent years has turned away from Kennedy's strategy of peace and back toward, in his words, a strategy for annihilation, away from treaties and international law, away from the United Nations and our traditional allies, away from arms control and peace.

You have inherited a world planted wall to wall with new and more terrible weapons laws, like using young fanatics as suicide bombers, and the new "bunker buster" of which our Pentagon boasts; and new methods of warfare, such as intentionally 'decapitating' one's enemy by early assassinations of its political leaders. No wonder countless Americans today feel insecure, not only about their jobs and health but also about their physical safety.

Oh, the deadly nuclear arms race of the Cold War is over; but the prospects of global destruction have not ended. The former Soviet Union's loosely guarded nuclear stockpiles, and scientific genius, are being bought, borrowed or stolen by rogue states and terrorists who can create new nuclear nightmares.

There are no longer any nuclear secrets, and chemical and biological weapons, the poor nation's weapons of mass destruction, which can destroy entire populations with nuclear-like power and speed are rapidly proliferating beyond our ability to know, much less control. There is talk of terrorists' engineering new diseases without a cure, a container of which in an urban water or ventilation system could kill countless Americans in minutes.

To some countries, our glorious victory ousting Iraq's dictator means that the only way to deter an American attack is to have their own nuclear arsenal. Whether the next nuclear exchange is between Pakistan and India, between Israel and Egypt, between China and Taiwan, or between North Korea and the United States, its own poisonous fallout will be carried by wind and water to all parts of this planet. Even our own Pentagon is said to be thinking about the previously unthinkable, our use of nuclear weapons in battle.

Having launched a war without approval of the United Nations, or hard evidence of imminent danger or the sanctions of international law, now we must worry that other states, large or small, will utilize that precedent to suddenly attack us or their neighbors or adversaries.

During the 20th century, threats to world peace and security arose mostly in major European states that we knew and thought we understood, from the Germans, the Russians, the Yugoslavs or other westernized parts of the globe; but, now threats seem more likely to come from the southern half of the globe, from Asia, Africa or South America, not from governments but from shadowy, informal groups using terrorist tactics, to inflict death and destruction even on the American mainland.

There is no relief in sight. Some call the war on terrorism World War III; if so, then a new round of engagements against hostile nations, now reportedly under consideration, may be World War IV, stretching on and on. Many of our enemies are led by religious, ideological or ethnic extremists with whom negotiation is unlikely and for whom deterrence is meaningless.

Thus, there is no obvious answer to terrorism. We cannot attack every nation in which terrorists might secretly train or hide, because that list includes almost every nation, including our own. Nor can we, as some urge, simply declare war on Islam, as some suggest, because of a small handful of fanatics, when its disciples number more than one billion, most of them proud of Islam's glorious past, culture, humanitarian and peaceful tradition and peaceful respect and tolerance of other faiths. And they are only antagonized by loose talk in this country about a new "crusade" to convert the heathen to Christianity.

Unfortunately, loose talk is not uncommon in these heady days of military victory. Our declared doctrine of preemptive strikes, without legal justification or evidence, is music to the ears of terrorist organizations that specialize in such strikes; but, if followed worldwide, it will create a lawless planet in which the law abiding will suffer the most, the law of the jungle, in which every warlord has his own weapons of mass destruction, and the first or biggest bomb wins.

Some of those who favor this doctrine of preemption and its use to impose democracy on other countries call it "new realism." But, what could be more unrealistic than to think this we alone can decide the fate of others, without the support of world opinion, world institutions, or our traditional democratic allies? Only the arrogance of power and the ignorance of history could lead us to believe that our vast military superiority confers upon us moral superiority as well.

If our objective is to win wars that we start ourselves, then we are doing very well so far; but if our policy is still Kennedy's policy of avoiding war and all its horrors, then we are not doing so well.

Most Americans, no doubt disagree. America is on the march, it is said. We won, and the winners have a right to flex their muscles. Both political parties now compete to sound more hawkish, to criticize as naïve or even unpatriotic those who favor peaceful world cooperation. The long uneasiness with bloodletting and battle that followed Vietnam has been replaced by a new infatuation for war, a preference for invasion over persuasion. Under administrations of both parties and in both branches of government, we have turned our backs on Kennedy's emphasis on treaties, including the comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban he so eloquently sought here 40 years ago.

The talk now is that America alone is exempt from international law, that America alone can decide who in the world is evil, that America alone has the political and economic model to impose on the world, and then America alone can take on AIDS, terrorism and other global evils, because this is "the American century," dominated by American arms. There is even talk of an American empire, forgetting that empires based on military might alone never survive.

140 years ago, General Robert E. Lee remarked to General Longstreet: "it is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." Wise words. Too many Americans today are becoming too fond of war, after two quick victories. But Lee's warning is still valid. War is still terrible. Even modern wars prove to last longer, become more expensive, and inflict more death and destruction on civilians, than predicted or promised at the start. Even smart weapons launched only at military targets, still cause civilian suffering, pain and loss of life. Triumphalism forgets that after victory comes the cost of reconstruction and the burden of occupation. Victims of every modern war, even those begun with self-righteous declarations and an overwhelming military advantage, those victims still include, on both sides, the truth, civil liberties and tens of billions of dollars better spent on hospitals and schools.

All this must change. Americans have neither the heart nor the history for empire or a permanent war footing. Now, in the darkest and most discouraging hour, is the time to reverse course, in JFK's phrase, away from a strategy of annihilation and back toward a strategy of peace. Historically, our proudest boast has been that we are a nation of laws. So we can lead the world to John Kennedy's goal 40 years ago: a world of law.

First, we must end our opposition to the International Criminal Court, the world's first permanent court to punish war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and aggression. Opposition that we have fomented, based on the unfounded assumption that this would prevent the Court's jurisdiction from ever reaching criminal actions by American citizens and soldiers. In fact, any crimes against humanity committed by an American soldier on the territory of a government that is party to the treaty could be reached. More importantly, the treaties safeguards to prevent political or frivolous charges, based merely on anti-American sentiment, are equal to the safeguards in this country against unfounded criminal allegations.

The new International Criminal Court is the very court at which the United Nations should try Saddam Hussein for his crimes against humanity - preferable to trial by an American military tribunal, which would be regarded by Iraqis, and the world as merely victor's justice conducted for show. Because no other nation has our size stake in a stable world, free of crime and terror, no other nation could possibly gain as much as ours from a successful international criminal court. Subscribing now will enable the United States to contribute our view to the court's evolution and our judges to the court's deliberations.

Second, to build a world of law, we must reverse a similar mistake made in 1986 when we withdrew from the International Court of Justice, the judicial arm of the United Nations, because we lost a case. The World Court, established after World War I, to move disputes between nations from the battlefield to the courtroom, merits our full support. We must avoid a world in which any nation can decide on its own whether it has grounds to attack its neighbor, or seize its neighbor's resources. This country has both a history and an obligation of leadership in international jurisprudence. In today's unpromising, unpredictable, unruly world, stronger institutions of international justice would make the United States a safer place.

Third, a world of law will require new efforts by international lawyers and diplomats to complete the network of treaties that outlaw the use, possession and distribution of weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological or nuclear. This country's Nunn-Lugar program to fund the safeguarding and rapid destruction of former Soviet nuclear stockpiles should be replicated for all weapons of mass destruction in all countries. In addition, renegotiations should begin to enable the United States to amend and accept those treaties, which we have mistakenly rejected, including those on global warming, landmines, biodiversity and human rights. Also, international jurists, under U.N. auspices, should devise legitimate and uniform standards for permitting the use of force.

Which will not disappear; but in U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's phrase, "it must be power harnessed to legitimacy." International law is not a menu from which a country can choose which features it will respect and which - such as treatment of our prisoners of war - it insists that its enemies respect. A world that is universally and vigorously committed to international law is the surest answer to terrorism.

The fourth step toward a world of law, as President Kennedy said here 40 years ago, is to strengthen the United Nations - its financing, its procedures for the settlement of disputes, and giving it more peacekeepers, more weapons inspectors, more human rights monitors, and more international prosecutors, stationing them in those countries most likely to misbehave. The international community is at its best when united, and that means the United Nations. Our country cannot on its own maintain global peace, human rights and disarmament. We need the United Nations as an impartial arbiter, convener, inspector and advocate, and as the only multi-national, multi-cultural organization around that can deal with terrorism.

Fifth, and finally, we cannot build a peaceful world of law unless we win this century's most important war-the war against global poverty. Complete healthcare for all the world's children could be provided for less than half the war in Iraq. The world's countries must open our doors to agricultural and other commodities from the world's poorest nations, which have been squeezed out of the world market by western dumping and subsidy programs that must be ended. Remember, international relations are primarily relations of values, not power.

All this can be achieved in this century if we put aside cynicism and despair. Man may be born with instincts for aggression and greed, but he has also shown compassion, particularly for the very young. Previous generations of Americans have abolished slavery, child labor, the poorhouse and support for apartheid and colonialism. You have the noblest opportunity of all - the abolition of major war.

Why not? I'm not asking for an unrealistic utopia of pure pacifism. The United States would still be a world leader, necessarily, with its preponderance of wealth and might, and still defend our principles, security and basic interests, but we would be a leader in humanitarian operations, not military operations. A leader looking for reconciliation not battle. Reconciliation does not require overlooking evil or forgiving crime but it does require closing the door on conflict.

To pursue that path will require courage. John F. Kennedy was decorated in World War II for his military courage in the Pacific, but he showed even greater courage in his willingness to communicate and compromise with his adversary in the Cuban Missile Crisis in the pursuit of peace.

So must we all, all peoples, all nations; black, white, brown, or other; Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other; rich, poor or other; all nations must pursue this path to a world law. Because, "For, in the final analysis, we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future; and we are all mortal."

Thank you very much.