June 2, 2008 – ‘I may not be able to see you,” the partially blind, stroke-impaired Ted Sorensen told a crowd at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston last week, “but I have more vision than the president of the United States.” Over 1,000 people gathered to hear JFK’s speechwriter discuss his new book, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.” Those who expected a satisfying draught of the old Kennedy mystique were not disappointed. In the conclusion to his book, Sorensen writes, “Today’s sorry political leadership, so different from JFK’s, spurred me on as I wrote, rekindling my memory and reinvigorating my conscience.”
Sorensen draws credit as Kennedy’s soaring wordsmith. But perhaps that vigorous conscience was more to the point than rhetorical flair. Coming of age during the unquestioned World War II, the young Nebraskan took for granted that he would serve in the army, but the war ended when he was 17. The next year, registering for the draft, Sorensen applied for noncombatant service as a conscientious objector. He would serve his country in the military, as a medic perhaps, but, he explained to the draft board, “I could kill no man . . . I am what is called a pacifist.”
Sorensen’s application for conscientious objector status would be used against Kennedy, would feature in Sorensen’s secret FBI file, and, eventually, would destroy his chances of becoming Jimmy Carter’s CIA director in 1976. An underappreciated fact of history is that Kennedy, remembered as the paradigmatic cold warrior, so intimately depended on a man who boldly renounced any glorification of belligerence. No surprise, then, that the most important Kennedy-Sorensen collaboration is equally unappreciated – the resounding declaration of peace that Kennedy delivered as a commencement address at American University 45 years ago next week.
After staring into the abyss of nuclear war over Berlin and Cuba, Kennedy chose that June as the “time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and truth is too rarely perceived – yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.” That speech went beyond the reviled Neville Chamberlain (“peace for our time”) by calling for “not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time.” Instead of aiming, with Woodrow Wilson, to “make the world safe for democracy,” the speech proposed to “make the world safe for diversity,” a step back from triumphalist claims made for American democracy during the Cold War.
Most momentously, the speech broke with the Cold War judgmentalism that always blamed the attitudes of the other side, proposing instead “that we must examine our own attitudes – as individuals and as a nation – for our attitude is as essential as theirs” in causing conflict. The speech rejected Cold War demonizing, for “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” Here was an American president proclaiming the need for self-criticism, and affirming the possible goodness of the enemy.
In calling for new structures of international law and negotiations toward disarmament, and in declaring a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing, the American University speech marked the end of JFK’s rhetoric of toughness. “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 future. And we are all mortal.”
The speech was heard loud and clear in the Soviet Union. Little more than a month later, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was agreed to, the beginning of the arms control regime that saved the world – what Kennedy called a shaft of light cutting into the darkness.
Ted Sorenson was never more himself than in the work he did for the American University speech. Neither, he believes, was Kennedy. The journey of the war-hero president and the pacifist he trusted was a progression this nation desperately needs to resume. No accident that it was at American University in January that Senator Edward Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama. “A new leader and a new era are on the way,” Sorensen concludes in his book, and I will continue to fight, to write, and to hope.”