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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