Jeff Sachs on JFK’s last year: Between Doom and Miracle

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

President Kennedy’s “peace” speech., Ted Sorensen’s favorite, at American University, June 10, 1963

Jeff Sachs
will remind you, first, of the loopy vertigo of the JFK years, through the “annus mirabilis” that ended in assassination. From the prophet’s vision of the Inaugural speech (“For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life…”) it was 100 days to the blundered mugging of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Then it was 600 days to the brink of annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But at 1000 days, as if by a miracle, the president had made a resolve to “move the world” onto a plausible path to peace.

Jeffrey Sachs, the global economist of hunger, health and the human emergency, makes a striking personal turn in his fervid rediscovery of John F. Kennedy 50 years later: To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. Ours is a public conversation at the JFK Library in Boston, opening the semi-centennial reflections on the 35th President. It’s not exactly history or biography that Sachs is giving us, but really one hyper-kinetic and troubled public man’s ardent close-reading of another. JFK’s “peace” speech at American University 50 years ago this month is the critical Sorensen-Kennedy text. Senate ratification of Kennedy’s Test Ban Treaty with Nikita Khrushchev is the under-appreciated monument to the era. And still I’m pressing a what-if question prompted by James Douglass’s under-noticed inquiry, JFK and the Unspeakable: what if it was precisely President Kennedy’s turn to peace — to ending the Cold War, to leaving Vietnam and learning to live with Castro and Cuba — that got our 35th president killed?

jfk amuJames Douglass’s view is a version of Oliver Stone‘s in the movie JFK: that President Kennedy was targeted for death by the security establishment of his own government. What Douglass adds to Stone is the Christian mysticism of Thomas Merton, who wrote at the time that John Kennedy, like peace-makers before and since, had been marked for assassination; but also that he was summoning a miracle to stave off Armageddon.

Jeff Sachs finesses the question of a conspiracy to kill JFK, but he agrees that Thomas Merton gave us the “moral narrative” that runs under the story of Kennedy’s last year, no matter who it was that ordered his death.

We came — it’s trite to say, and impossible to fathom — we came within one shot of ending the world on several occasions. It’s unbelievable. It is a miracle that we got through this; there was no right to expect it… It’s not that JFK woke up exactly, because he was awake. But he stopped stumbling. And he absolutely said, in October: ‘I’ve got to lead.’ He took the decision of leadership. And that is part of what I’m arguing for because I don’t find that our politicians lead very much these days. You know, I voted twice for President Obama but I don’t believe he leads. So I believe this is relevant now. You have to take risks. I was very unhappy with a line in President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem two months ago — another fine address, because our president can give a wonderful address. But it’s the difference between making a wonderful address and making peace that bothers me. In that address President Obama actually said to the young people in Jerusalem: don’t expect politicians to lead; you have to demand for us to lead! John Kennedy did not say to the people on June 10, 1963: ‘I’m just going to sit there till you start demanding peace.’ He said: ‘We have to find the courage to move to peace.’ He didn’t say, ‘you have to make me do it,’ or ‘I’m going to follow what you say,’ which is what President Obama literally said in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to pick on him, but we’re not going to get peace in the Middle East until he leads. That’s the difference here. It was the decision to lead, but it was also of course this incredible deep realization that there were two people who had stared into the darkness like no one else in human history. JFK and Nikita Khrushchev felt that bond as deeply as you can with another human being. They knew that each was threatened by dark forces around them. They were beseiged by their hard-liners. In this sense that [Douglass] book is right — that Kennedy had to overcome a profound sense of pessimism and recklessness in order to get this done. If you had just gone with the military, they’d have destroyed the planet ten times over, no question about it.

Jeffrey Sachs in conversation with Chris Lydon at the JFK Library, June 2013.

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  • margaret graham

    Please, Chris: can we have fewer self-promoting academics and more people who want to talk about their subjects BEFORE they work in the ads for their “importance?” I miss your interviews with music biographers, always find Mark Blyth fun, and always look forward to your show.

  • John Louton

    Margret Graham is absolutely correct. Peace is not something one does. It is something one does not. One does not kill others, most often others one does not even know and others who are defenseless. Examine the casualty statistics on any war and one sees the vast majority of victims are non-combatants.

    Barack Obama not only failed to keep his most important 2008 campaign promise–End US involvement in Iraq-Afghanistan et al–he missed his chance to go down in world history as the greatest president in US history. The president of the United States IS the Commander-in-Chief.

    Had Mr. Obama had the courage to sacrifice his political career and simply ordered all US troops home, there is little doubt but that he would have been a one-term president. However, he would have been the first leader in world history to unequivocally hold to the view that war is murder and I cannot condone it, let alone lead it. It’s over. That decision would change history as, for the first time another option would be on the table. A nation could stop fighting, not because they simply cannot fight any longer, but because it is morally, ethically and logically wrong.

    I very much doubt Kennedy did that either.

  • Robert Zucchi

    The women’s dorm “coeds” joined us in the common room of the men’s dorm for President Kennedy’s TV address on the missile crisis. There were tears when Kennedy concluded, and I think we sang the National Anthem. Fears for our country, yes, but also self-interested anxieties about our future as young people bent on study and securing a career.

    A half century has drained the emotional immediacy from the event, but left a diffuse unease with an incident that to most young people today is a factoid from another, unlived time. But militarized “containment” of Communism had brought my generation duck-under-the-desk (and kiss your ass goodbye), Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs…and now in 1962, to the brink of extinction as a nation.

    Dr. Sachs sees in this moment a genesis of JFK’s transformation from obligatory Cold Warrior to forceful leader for peace, with the Test Ban Treaty as the signal achievement of his volte-face. I can’t disagree, but an American ought never to ignore the unpredictable fixations of our chief executives once they gain office and transubstantiate into POTUS. I had thought Lyndon Johnson a dependably Rooseveltian Democrat until he espied coonskins in need of nailing in Asia. I took GWB to be too unserious to be menacing, until he turned his Skull and Bones initiation into a grisly fraternity hazing of this and a few other countries after 9/11.

    JFK in a putative second term is unknowable (even to Web Bot). Prof. Sachs advances a convincing argument that JFK was a changed man after the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis, and disinclined to let hawks dictate policy. I believe it. I also believe what de Tocqueville said he observed in America: a people uncommonly given to violence and discord. JFK might well have been deflected from his good intentions by a miscellany of powerful people who in their solipsism swore to make mischief its own reward.

    We have no need of conspiracy theories to account for the escalation in Vietnam, the murders of JFK, MLK Jr, and RFK, or the interminable wars of choice and school shootings and other barbarisms of the present age. Our assassins have our history, our culture, as their guide and inspiration for their abominable actes gratuits.

  • Potter

    My first reaction always to Jeff Sachs is: what a nice person!

    The focus on JFK is so welcome.

    It’s such a contrast to what we have now in Obama. I know we wanted Obama and were delighted to have him ( and so thankful not to have his opponents) but in many ways he has been a disappointment. Maybe it’s because we need much more. As Sachs says, we don’t have leadership. We have speeches. We have become inured to them too. ( I feel set up for an approval of the pipeline after all this business about saving the planet for our children.)

    I am upset by the way the surveillance issue has been hidden from us and is proceeding with regard to the treatment Snowden (bravo to Roger Cohen for “The Service of Snowden” today in the NYTimes).

    I think Jeff Sachs perhaps is propelled too by the hunger many of us have for leadership. There’s something substantial to focus from the relatively short time we had with JFK. The feeling never left. I remember it well when I hear clips of JFK speaking. I remember listening attentively and absorbing, feeling lifted. But as Sachs says JFK did not just give speeches.

    JFK embodied something profoundly transcendent. He was big, not afraid, not tentative and indecisive.

  • Chris, thank for this! Great hearing you and Professor Sachs present this rare moment in public policy and human evolution in action. Stunning. My main takeaway is that we need to bring peace back down from the clouds. Writing as an under thirty, it is amazing that a President was so willing to think out loud and boldly take the notion of working towards peace not as a utopian idea but as source of urgent and creative political leadership. We need more of this and should attempt to claim some a portion of this mantle each in our own way.

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