Most Important John F. Kennedy Speech You Never Heard

John F. Kennedy died 50 years ago, on November 22nd. For Americans of a certain age it was an event which smothered the most positive presidency of our era.

Kennedy was the youngest president in American history, the first Catholic to win the White House, a Pacific war hero, and a man of remarkable brilliance, humor, grace and education. He had a public presence that captured perfectly the newly-emerging television era, and he was also a man with a private side which hid substantial health issues and marital infidelities.

Many will point to Kennedy’s inaugural address (“ask not what your country can do for you…”), his call for a manned mission to the moon within ten years, or the creation of the Peace Corps as the highlights of his presidency. These were tremendously significant events but there was something else which happened that impacts every human on earth to this day, Kennedy’s 1963 speech at the American University in Washington, DC which called for an end to atmospheric nuclear tests and the start of mutual disarmament.

For a number of years both the United States and what was then the Soviet Union conducted above-ground nuclear tests to assure that they had workable technologies in case it was necessary to drop an atom bomb. These tests were more than exercises in international intimidation, they kept getting larger and by 1961 the Russians tested a device which yielded at least 50 megatons.

Bigger Nuclear Bombs

As Wikipedia explains, “this is equivalent to about 1,350–1,570 times the combined power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 10 times the combined power of all the conventional explosives used in World War II, or one quarter of the estimated yield of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and 10% of the combined yield of all nuclear tests to date.”

As a kid I remember talk of the next bomb, the one that would inevitably be larger, maybe a 100 megaton device, a bomb so large that some believed it could actually crack the earth’s crust as well as irradiate vast areas near the test site — and with prevailing winds perhaps areas far down-range from the explosion. Think of something like Chernobyl, a nuclear plant explosion which sent nuclear debris across Europe.

Now think of something millions of times larger.

The United States and the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons and no need to test anything. Everyone knew the technology worked — and everyone knew that a nuclear war would — to paraphrase Air Force General Curtis Lemay — send the world back to the stone age, assuming anyone was alive to rub two sticks together.

Stopping open-air nuclear tests was the first step in the process not just to halt such ever-larger above-ground explosions but also to get to the greater issue, the reduction of nuclear stockpiles which were not only dangerous but were bankrupting the Soviet Union and doing no good for the US.

John F. Kennedy — We Hardly Knew You

In 1968 the United States and the Soviet Union, in a moment of sanity, agreed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a pact now signed by 190 nations. A series of treaties have since resulted in the reduction of about two-thirds of the national nuclear arsenals of both the US and what was then the USSR and is today Russia.

And it all began on a track field on the campus of the American University when Kennedy gave his commencement address. It was a case where, for once, common sense won out.

I was a high school student when JFK was shot in Dallas a few months after speaking at American. Later there would be the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King and much later the attacks of 9/11. All of these were terrible events, traumas that changed American history in a way that later generations will never fully understand.

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