As director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General, Jeffrey Sachs has devoted his considerable intellect and energy to global development. It was in this capacity, he writes, that he came across John F. Kennedy's commencement address at American University and its enduring message. In "To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace," Sachs compellingly describes that message, both as it defined the last year of Kennedy's presidency and its resonance today.
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Chastened by America's brush with annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, confronted by the prospect of an endless nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and determined to use the power of the presidency to move the world away from a future of atomic destruction, Kennedy chose to speak to his audience at American University on June 10, 1963, about peace.
What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.
Beginning with his deft management of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Sachs posits, Kennedy dedicated the last year of his presidency and his life to peace. This pursuit took the form of a number of concrete steps, including the negotiation, signature and ratification of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but was furthered and profoundly articulated by Kennedy's speeches during this time. As selected by Sachs and reprinted in the book, these include the "peace speech," the address to the Irish Dáil, the address to the nation on the nuclear test ban treaty and the address to the United Nations General Assembly. The title of the book itself is derived from Kennedy's speech to the General Assembly on Sept. 20, 1963, in which he called upon those gathered to "let us see if we, in our own time, can move the world to a just and lasting peace."Sachs asserts that Kennedy's words were a vital component of his agenda. In doing so, he acknowledges the role of Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's special counsel (and my father). Sorensen, Sachs writes, was a "draftsman … moral force, and intellectual partner" of Kennedy. The partnership of these two men substantially furthered Kennedy's quest.
But this book is more than merely an exegesis of the major speeches of the last year of the Kennedy presidency. Rather, it presents Kennedy's approach to achieving peace as a model for leaders of today. Kennedy was a skilled campaigner — Sachs notes he had won each of his campaigns between 1946 and 1960 — and applied his powers of persuasion and oratory to the campaign for ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty. This campaign included strategic alliances with leaders of the scientific and business community and winning the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as congressional leaders. To show bipartisan support for the treaty, Kennedy asked Sen. Everett Dirksen, the Republican majority leader from Illinois, to present a letter from Kennedy about the treaty to the Senate. Dirksen declared his support of the endorsement at the same time.
To underscore the universal significance of the treaty — a treaty without which, as Khrushchev warned, "in the next war, the survivors will envy the dead" — Kennedy made a nationally televised address on July 26, 1963. He called for Americans to support the treaty, even as he acknowledged that it was a mere first step toward peace:
My fellow Americans, let us take that first step. Let us, if we can, step back from the shadows of war and seek out the way of peace. And if that journey is a thousand miles, or even more, let history record that we, in this land, at this time, took the first step.
The book is rife with lessons for the current administration, given its virtual deadlock with Congress on issues including, but not limited to, gun legislation, the United Nations Treaty on Disabilities, and — as of this writing — immigration reform.
Sachs expressly brings the book into the realm of the present by describing the need for peace with the Soviet Union as equal in importance to the need to achieve sustainable economic development. Humanity's well-being, Sachs persuasively argues, is not merely measured by Wall Street, but also by the developing world. Why does it matter? Again, JFK said it best, this time in the inaugural:
… not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
By entering into the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, America took one step in that metaphorical journey of a thousand miles — one step in the thousand days that was the Kennedy presidency. We cannot know how many more steps might have been taken under Kennedy's leadership, but "To Move the World" urges us to continue on the journey.
Juliet S. Sorensen is a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University Law School, where she teaches international criminal law and health and human rights.
To Move the World
By Jeffrey D. Sachs, Random House, 249 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, CT Now