Fifty-Two years ago this weekend, President Kennedy gave what would be his last address before the General Assembly at the United Nations. Two months later, almost to the day, Kennedy would be felled by an assassin’s bullet, and the world would change.
But on this September 20th in 1963 it was cautiously optimistic. A lot had been accomplished and many crises had been averted over the year. There was still a very long way to go – not only throughout the world, but at home. Southeast Asia was a hot spot in danger of bubbling over, but the Civil Rights struggle and the increasing violence in the South created different concerns for the Administration. Still, there was work to be done, but progress was being made.
President Kennedy: “The world has not escaped from the darkness. The long shadows of conflict and crisis envelop us still. But we meet today in an atmosphere of rising hope, and at a moment of comparative calm. My presence here today is not a sign of crisis, but of confidence. I am not here to report on a new threat to the peace or new signs of war. I have come to salute the United Nations and to show the support of the American people for your daily deliberations.
For the value of this body’s work is not dependent on the existence of emergencies-nor can the winning of peace consist only of dramatic victories. Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.
Today we may have reached a pause in the cold war–but that is not a lasting peace. A test ban treaty is a milestone–but it is not the millennium. We have not been released from our obligations–we have been given an opportunity. And if we fail to make the most of this moment and this momentum-if we convert our new-found hopes and understandings into new walls and weapons of hostility–if this .pause in the cold war merely leads to its renewal and not to its end–then the indictment of posterity will rightly point its finger at us all. But if we can stretch this pause into a period of cooperation–if both sides can now gain new confidence and experience in concrete collaborations for peace–if we can now be as bold and farsighted in the control of deadly weapons as we have been in their creation-then surely this first small step can be the start of a long and fruitful journey.
The task of building the peace lies with the leaders of every nation, large and small. For the great powers have no monopoly on conflict or ambition. The cold war is not the only expression of tension in this world-and the nuclear race is not the only arms race. Even little wars are dangerous in a nuclear world. The long labor of peace is an undertaking for every nation–and in this effort none of us can remain unaligned. To this goal none can be uncommitted.
The reduction of global tension must not be an excuse for the narrow pursuit of self-interest. If the Soviet Union and the United States, with all of their global interests and clashing commitments of ideology, and with nuclear weapons still aimed at each other today, can find areas of common interest and agreement, then surely other nations can do the same–nations caught in regional conflicts, in racial issues, or in the death throes of old colonialism. Chronic disputes which divert precious resources from the needs of the people or drain the energies of both sides serve the interests of no one–and the badge of responsibility in the modern world is a willingness to seek peaceful solutions.
It is never too early to try; and it’s never too late to talk; and it’s high time that many disputes on the agenda of this Assembly were taken off the debating schedule and placed on the negotiating table.”
Here is that complete address, as it was given 52 years ago this weekend, on September 20, 1963.