Monday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s “strategy for peace” commencement address at American University, a speech delivered at the height of the Cold War in which he called for a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
Speaking to about 10,000 people out-of-doors on a 90-degree day in Washington, D.C., Kennedy announced that talks would soon begin in Moscow on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. He also said the United States would suspend atmospheric testing as long as other nuclear powers did the same.
Fifty years on, the speech is still recalled for such passages as: “[W]e must labor on— not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.”
“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it 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.”
Those sentiments represented something of a modest departure from the rhetoric common at the time. Kennedy spoke at American University less than eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear exchange.
The speech was not without significance: The talks Kennedy announced on June 10, 1963, led fairly quickly to a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviets and British.
Interestingly, Kennedy’s address was in short order crowded off the front pages. His “strategy for peace” remarks hardly dominated the news that week.
Indeed, few weeks arguably have been as packed with such a variety of major and memorable news events as June 9-15, 1963.
Kennedy’s commencement speech received prominent treatment for a day or two in U.S. newspapers. Then it was overtaken by some of the most dramatic moments of the Civil Rights era — among them, Governor George Wallace’s stand at the schoolhouse door, symbolically blocking the desegregation of the University of Alabama.
It has been said that the “drama of the nation’s division over desegregation came sharply into focus” that day, June 11, 1963.
In the face of the governor’s defiance, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. After reading a bitter statement denouncing the “unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama,” Wallace stepped aside. Two black students were allowed to register for classes.
Kennedy referred to the confrontation in Alabama in a radio and television speech that night in which he proposed that Congress pass civil rights legislation to end discrimination in voting, enhance educational opportunities, and ensure access to restaurants, hotels, and other public places.
The resulting legislation became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Also on June 11, 1963, an Associated Press correspondent in South Vietnam, Malcolm Browne, took one of the iconic images of the long war in Southeast Asia — that of a Buddhist monk who had set himself afire in downtown Saigon, to protest the government’s religious oppression.
“It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end,” Browne later said. “At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed ….”
The following day, Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his home in Mississippi. Byron De La Beckwith was tried three times for Evers’ killing, most recently in 1994 when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The other two trials ended in hung juries.
Evers, an Army veteran who had fought in World War II, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The space race, as it was known, seldom was far from the news in 1963. At the close of the crowded week, the Soviets were preparing to launch Vostok 6. On board was Valentina Tereshkova, destined to become the first woman in space.
The flight lifted off on June 16, 1963, and lasted nearly 71 hours. Tereshkova’s 49 Earth orbits more than doubled the most compiled to that point by any American astronaut.
And 20 years would pass before the first American woman flew in space. She was Sally Ride, a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.
The crowded week 50 years ago was a microcosm of the Cold War era, what with nuclear arms, civil rights, Southeast Asia, and the U.S.-Soviet space race all prominently in the news.
Even so, why does it much matter to look back on that week in June?
Doing so offer some useful and interesting perspective, given that we tend to think we live in such busy and momentous times.
Taking a look back also reveals how unsettled the country seemed to be in 1963, given the violence and the confrontations in the South, the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets, the strife in Vietnam.
So looking back to the crowded week in June tells us the 1960s were churning well before the climatic and tumultuous year of 1968.
One wouldn’t immediately have recognized this in mid-June 1963, but dominance was shifting in the news media, flowing from newspapers to television.
Confirmation of this transition came in late November 1963 with wall-to-wall television coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. “Even television’s critics had to admit that the medium had been transformed into an even more powerful force,” media historian David Davies wrote in a book of the postwar decline of American newspapers.
Nineteen sixty-three was pivotal for the news media.
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