Lessons From JFK

  • From: Think.
  • Published: September 18, 2013
jfk.jpgIn the year before his death in 1963, US President John F Kennedy helped save the world from nuclear catastrophe and delivered a remarkable series of speeches on peace, science and pushing the boundaries of human potential. Fifty years on, we should not only re-examine the inspirational blueprint Kennedy left for future generations, but also put into practice his soaring ideals – which still resonate today. Written by Jeffrey D Sachs


Convincing an adversary or a competitor that we share aims and interests isn’t easy. Trust is typically low, and there are ample reasons to bluff. Trust is even lower when countries have been adversaries for years or decades. It would have been much easier if US President Kennedy had needed to make peace with Canada in 1963, but he needed to do it with the Soviet Union, the state that had threatened America’s very survival just months earlier during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We have learned many lessons from Kennedy’s experience and its aftermath. We learned that only those leaders with a holistic and empathetic view are able to achieve success in complex negotiations with an adversary. Otherwise, the pessimists, hard-liners, and fearmongers on each side can create self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. Kennedy therefore had to assert his leadership among his own colleagues just as much as with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.

Another basic lesson is this: The path to success lies in the nature of the process of negotiation and mutual accommodation itself. Kennedy and Khrushchev signed agreements including the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 because by then they knew and trusted each other, in part because of the bluster, bluffs, and near disasters that had come before, when America and the Soviet Union had come to the brink of nuclear war. They had exchanged dozens of letters and suffered the consequences of many misunderstandings.

By 1963 each had arrived at a realization he could not have had earlier: their situations were symmetrical. They each sought peace with the other despite a mood of militarism, the skepticism of the generals and hard-liners, the vested interests of the military-industrial complex on each side, and the interests and opportunism of their political competitors. In the academic sphere, where many battles are also surprisingly bitter (“because,” as the saying goes, “the stakes are so low”), the great economist (and Kennedy adviser) Paul Samuelson offered his own wisdom on the art of persuasion. He said that to convince another academic of a point, “give him a half-finished theorem.” That is, let the other person reach his or her own conclusions, not through bluster, but through independent inquiry, guided by a half-finished product.

I want to urge a similar approach in the practical work of sustainable development which, like Kennedy’s peace initiative, may actually save lives in vast numbers and promote global prosperity, something that wars do not do. One of the reasons for the bitterness between Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, Americans and Iranians, and other conflicting parties, is the almost complete lack of practical experience in solving problems together, working on “half-finished theorems”.

How easy it is to dehumanize one’s adversaries when you peer at them through the lens of a drone, rather than work beside them in some common endeavor. And consider how many of our problems today are ones that cross national boundaries, and how easy it would be to share the burden and excitement of problem-solving as well. Israelis and Palestinians share a small sliver of land facing increasing drought and depletion of freshwater resources.

So far, Israel has dealt with this challenge by commandeering a disproportionate share of the region’s scarce water supply, but climate and demographic forecasts convince us that this is a losing battle for both sides. The dwindling freshwater resources will not sustain the combined populations of the two peoples. Many (including me) have discussed this issue at length with Israelis and with Palestinians. Yet they have rarely discussed it with each other.

The Vision Thing
President Obama was on to something important in Cairo in 2009 when he proposed the establishment of a set of scientific centers of excellence “in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and the appointment of new Science Envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, and grow new crops.”

This is the right approach. It echoes Kennedy’s remarkable call for scientific collaboration in his speech to the UN General Assembly in 1963. Disappointingly, till now Obama’s vision remains only that, a vision. It is high time to fulfill it, since surely it would mark a step toward peace. And as always with the trip wires of war, we may not have much time.

The United States and Iran, for example, have long seemed to be on a relentless collision course, though the two countries could find much common ground if they tried. Iran is home to great culture, history, and know-how that could help to improve conditions not only in its own region, but in other parts of the world as well. Engagement, joint problem solving, and an honest negotiation over political differences would be vastly more fruitful and prudent than a military face-off and the possibility of outright conflict.

We owe our very lives to John Kennedy’s grace under pressure in October 1962, when the Soviet installation of nuclear weapons in Cuba, just 90 miles from the US West coast, so nearly led to nuclear annihilation. We owe the eventual end of the Cold War in part to his ability to forge a measure of trust and respect between Americans and Russians in 1963, the final year of his life. Between then and now, though, we’ve squandered enormous opportunities.

Millions have died needlessly in proxy wars with no real purpose; trillions of dollars, enough to end human poverty in all its forms, have instead been wasted on the Cold War arms races and outright conflicts. Historians have long debated the great theme of whether people and societies can truly help to steer their fate. Are we but the flotsam on the turbulent seas of technological and social change, rising and sinking in waters beyond our control? Or, as Kennedy insisted, can man be as big as he wants?

Is Kennedy right that no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings? Not every moment of history is equally pregnant with the possibility of constructive choice. Some times are times of stasis that resist change. Others are periods of great flux, in which individual acts of leadership can make a profound difference for good or ill. Deep economic and geopolitical crises are such periods.

At the height of the Cold War and its potential for total destruction, Kennedy had the opportunity to exercise choice and he showed us how it could be done. The stakes were so high in 1963 in large part because of the new technological realities, the new face of war in the nuclear age. As Kennedy noted in his inaugural address, man now held “in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” We have been struggling to save ourselves ever since, and that struggle continues until today.

The Nuclear Genie
At such a hinge of history, individuals can make a vast difference, and Kennedy was fully aware of the high stakes. His struggle was with the genie of nuclear power, and the unknowns of coexistence with a communist superpower. “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Now it is our turn. We still confront the nuclear genie and the thousands of warheads that continue to threaten human survival. We are still challenged by the lack of trust within and between societies. We have developed and mastered remarkable new technologies but still flounder in the art of self-preservation. We still threaten ourselves with our own destruction, whether with our armaments or through the world’s remarkable economic productivity coupled with a still-reckless disregard for the natural environment.

We know that our tasks are large, but so too are the acts of past leadership that inspire us and encourage us on our way. We have been granted the lessons of John Kennedy’s peace initiative, and the gift of his and his speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s words for our age and beyond. We are not gripped by forces beyond our control. We too can be as big as we want. We too can take our stand and move the world.

Jeffrey D Sachs serves as the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, and is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, and is Director of the Millennium Villages Project. This essay is exclusively adapted for Think. from his new book, To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace.


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