Michael KreponGreat Speeches

What are the most significant speeches related to arms control given at the middle and end of a U.S. presidency? There’s plenty of room for argument, but here are my choices. Let’s work backward.

End of term: President Eisenhower’s famous farewell address on January 17, 1961, admonishing his fellow citizens to beware the military-industrial complex. Ike began with a very different warning, cautioning that the threat posed by the Soviet Union would entail onerous and prolonged U.S. countermeasures. Eisenhower called for a balanced approach:

… balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage-balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between action of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.

Ike then went on to note that military readiness was essential to succeed in the Cold War struggle. The prosecution of World War II, followed by the Cold War, created a completely new phenomenon in America:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.

Then came Eisenhower’s warning:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

As for the most memorable arms control-related speech by a U.S. President in mid-term, I vote for President John F. Kennedy’s commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963. No president ever assembled a better speechwriting team than JFK, with one exception – when Abraham Lincoln looked at himself in the mirror.

It seems inconceivable in hindsight that a Cold War President would deliver a speech on world peace – and one year after the Cuban missile crisis, at that. But Kennedy began his AU speech on this topic:

What kind of 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 — the kind that enables man and nations to grow and to hope and to 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 for all time.

I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all of the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by the wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations unborn….

I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the values of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.

Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace – – based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions – -on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace – – no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process – – a way of solving problems.

Kennedy’s handling of the Soviet threat was masterful, amounting to a polite challenge to the Kremlin to disprove the enemy image it had done so much to construct:

Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union. It is discouraging to think that their leaders may actually believe what their propagandists write. It is discouraging to read a recent authoritative Soviet text on Military Strategy and find, on page after page, wholly baseless and incredible claims—such as the allegation that “American imperialist circles are preparing to unleash different types of wars . . . that there is a very real threat of a preventive war being unleashed by American imperialists against the Soviet Union . . . [and that] the political aims of the American imperialists are to enslave economically and politically the European and other capitalist countries . . . [and] to achieve world domination . . . by means of aggressive wars.

Yet, It is sad to read these Soviet statements – – to realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also a warning – – a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodations as impossible and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.

Then Kennedy turned to the issue of nuclear testing. In 1962 alone, the Soviet Union and the United States conducted 178 nuclear tests. This is not a misprint: one test, on average, every other day of that blighted year. Kennedy wanted a comprehensive test ban treaty, or at least one that would end testing in the atmosphere. He faced two major challenges: reaching a deal with the Kremlin, and gaining the support of the American public (and their Senators). Here’s how he framed the effort:

In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours — and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.

So, let us not be blind to our differences – – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

Sometimes, the momentum needed to do something very hard can be generated by a compelling gesture that combines symbolism with substance. Kennedy rose to this occasion by announcing that he, Nikita Khrushchev, and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had agreed to high-level discussions in Moscow to seek an end to testing. He added, “Our hopes must be tempered with the caution of history – – but with our hopes go the hopes of all mankind.

Then came the gesture:

To make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on the matter, I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so. We will not be the first to resume. Such a declaration is no substitute for a formal binding treaty – – but I hope it will help us achieve one. Nor would such a treaty be a substitute for disarmament – – but I hope it will help us achieve it.

On July 10, 1963, Kennedy’s special envoy, Averell Harriman, left for Moscow. Three weeks later, the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed.


  1. Alan (History)

    Michael – your article presents me with an opportunity to raise something I have often wondered about – the significance or otherwise of this piece in the American Prospect in the early 1990s, entitled “Did the US Military Plan a Nuclear First Strike for 1963?”

    Was the situation it describes informing much of what Eisenhower and Kennedy were talking about, or is the article little more than wild conjecture?

  2. Bill (History)

    “Wild conjecture” is a useful way to describe the American Prospect piece on “Did the U.S. Military Plan a First Strike.” The authors discussed a 1961 memo from the Johnson Library about a July 1961 briefing to the NSC by the NSC’s Net Evaluation Subcommittee (NESC), which prepared studies of net effects (casualties, destruction, etc.) of possible nuclear war scenarios. The NESC was an organization that analyzed, but did not make, military plans, a point that escaped the authors of the American Prospect article. Because of some fuziness in the document from the LBJ Library, and because the authors had not seen other relevant declassified documents, e.g the scenario memo for the 1961 NESC study, they mistakenly interpreted the report as one positing a U.S. preemptive attack on the Soviet Union in 1963. In fact, however, the NESC briefing in 1961 was on the net impact of a Soviet preemptive attack on the United States in 1963, not a U.S. attack on the Soviets. This article is a good example of the danger of taking an ambiguous document out of context and making a fuss over it.

  3. Alan (History)

    Bill – thanks for reply. Was there any truth to the comparative missile counts of the US and USSR?

  4. bradley laing (History)

    I’m sure that if you are hostile to someone, you can take a qoute from a speach out of context to discredit the person.

    But when the leaders of the Soviet Union read a Presidential speach, and liked it, which ones did they act like were important?

  5. user_hostile

    Originally, Eisenhower used the term “military-industrial-congressional complex” in a penultimate draft. He later dropped the last term, not wishing to alienate the Congress.

  6. MK (History)

    Many thanks.

  7. MarkoB

    Let me see how this works. One has a quote from Eisenhower on the military-industrial complex and then one has a quote from Kennedy, who boosted the military-industrial complex upon the basis of a fraudulent “missile gap.” The Kennedy quotes begin with misty eyed allusions to “universal peace” but this is the man whose policies of expansion in Vietnam led on to the death of mere millions (LBJ’s policy of expansion follows on from Kennedy). Only someone in thrall to Reagan could not notice such things.

  8. FSB

Pin It on Pinterest