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How JFK would have pursued peace in Ukraine and why Biden needs to change tack


Jeffrey D Sachs, professor at Columbia University, is director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

US President Joe Biden has avoided all communications with Vladimir Putin. They have apparently not spoken once since February 2022, and Biden rebuffed a bilateral meeting with Putin at last year’s G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.

President John F Kennedy was one of the world’s great peacemakers. He led a peaceful solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis and then successfully negotiated the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union at the very height of the Cold War. At the time of his assassination, he was taking steps to end US involvement in Vietnam.   

In his dazzling and unsurpassed Peace Speech, delivered 60 years ago on 10 June, 1963, Kennedy laid out his formula for peace with the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s Peace Speech highlights how Joe Biden’s approach to Russia and the Ukraine war needs a dramatic reorientation. Until now, Biden has not followed the precepts that Kennedy recommended to find peace. By heeding Kennedy’s advice, Biden too could become a peacemaker.

A mathematician would call JFK’s speech a “constructive proof” of how to make peace, since the speech itself contributed directly to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by the US and Soviet Union in July 1963. Upon receipt of the speech, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told Kennedy’s envoy to Russia, Averell Harriman, that the speech was the greatest by an American president since Franklin D Roosevelt, and that he wanted to pursue peace with Kennedy.

In the speech, Kennedy describes peace “as the necessary rational end [goal] of rational men”. Yet he acknowledges that peacemaking is not easy: “I realise that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war — and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.”

The deepest key to peace, in Kennedy’s view, is the fact that both sides want peace. It is easy to fall into the trap, warns Kennedy, of blaming a conflict only on the other side. It is easy to fall into the trap of insisting that only the adversary should change their attitudes and behaviour. Kennedy is very clear: “we must re-examine our own attitude — as individuals and as a Nation — for our attitude is as essential as theirs.”

Kennedy attacked the prevailing pessimism at the height of the Cold War that peace with the Soviet Union was impossible, “that war is inevitable — that mankind is doomed — that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be solved by man.”

Crucially, said Kennedy, we must not “see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side”. We must not “see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats”. Indeed, said Kennedy, we should “hail the Russian people for their many achievements — in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage”.

Kennedy warned against putting a nuclear adversary into a corner that could lead the adversary to desperate actions. “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death wish for the world.”

Kennedy knew that since peace was in the mutual interest of the US and the Soviet Union, a peace treaty could be reached. To those who said that the Soviet Union would not abide by a peace treaty, Kennedy responded that “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.”

Kennedy emphasised the importance of direct communications between the two adversaries. Peace, he said, “will require increased understanding between the Soviets and ourselves. And increased understanding will require increased contact and communication. One step in this direction is the proposed arrangement for a direct line between Moscow and Washington, to avoid on each side the dangerous delays, misunderstandings, and misreadings of the other’s actions which might occur at a time of crisis.”

In the context of the Ukraine war, Biden has behaved almost the opposite of JFK. He has personally and repeatedly denigrated Russian president Vladimir Putin. His administration has defined the US war aim as the weakening of Russia. Biden has avoided all communications with Putin. They have apparently not spoken once since February 2022, and Biden rebuffed a bilateral meeting with Putin at last year’s G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Biden has refused to even acknowledge, much less to address, Russia’s deep security concerns. Putin repeatedly expressed Russia’s ardent opposition to Nato enlargement to Ukraine, a country with a 2,000-kilometre border with Russia. The US would never tolerate a Mexican-Russian or Mexican-Chinese military alliance in view of the 2000-mile Mexico-US border. It is time for Biden to negotiate with Russia on Nato enlargement, as part of broader negotiations to end the Ukraine war.

When Kennedy came into office in January 1961, he stated clearly his position on negotiations: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belabouring those problems which divide us.”

In his Peace Speech, JFK reminded us that what unites the US and Russia 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.” DM

Professor Jeffrey Sachs is the author of To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace (Random House, 2013)


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • MD L says:

    JFK successfully combined an ethical position with pragmatic solutions, and he kept the communication channels open. Biden does not appear to be doing any of these.

    • Daphne Myburgh says:

      Agree – communication channels are vital. We all need to listen, and hear, and definitely not shut-off from the “conversation”

  • Andre Parker says:

    Amen brother. This makes it 2 well-
    reasoned articles in a row in support of the alternative view. Keep it up!

  • André Pelser says:

    The drafters of Kennedy’s speech need to be identified, also the state of the nation due to the body bands returning from Vietnam. Time magazine resorted to posting photos of those killed, which has a huge impact on American society and their political establishment. Biden is controlled by the military -industrial establishment and hawks. JFL sought to cast off these shackles, and paid the price.

  • André Pelser says:

    bands should read bags

  • David O'Brien says:

    Perhaps the saddest part of the current generation of American politicians is that from a nation of over 250m people they cannot find another JFK. The Democrats apparently can only come up with a geriatric as their best candidate.

  • Jeff Bolus says:

    In the speech Kennedy describes peace “as the necessary rational end [goal] of rational men.” I would question whether a Russian President who poisons his exiled citizens with plutonium is a rational being.

  • Vas K says:

    What a pleasure to read some words of reason. The most frightening aspect of the war in Ukraine is that nobody seriously suggests negotiations and, if someone does, he gets immediately shouted down by emotional arguments or war mongers. It is vital to remain rational: somehow everybody seems to paper over the fact that Russia is a nuclear superpower capable of destroying the world as we know it. Russia, like any other country controling nuclear weapons, would almost certainly use them if pushed into a corner. With armaments worth untold billions of dollars being supplied to one side continuously and not even considering negotiating, NATO countries might find that Russia actually gets pushed into a corner. I don’t think majority of Americans realize that USA is being dragged down a very dangerous path. JFK was an inteligent and responsible president. Biden is anything but.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “The deepest key to peace, in Kennedy’s view, is the fact that both sides want peace.”

    Putin doesn’t. He wants to return to the USSR boundaries. And he invaded Ukraine. Khrushchev just moved missiles to Cuba. Totally different situation, despite what you think.

    Oh and BTW, it was Ukraine that asked to join NATO back in 2008! But the then president Yanukovych cancelled the idea and tried to move closer to Russia. He fled after the disgraceful annexation of Crimea by Putin.

    Sorry, mate, but your pro-Russian sentiments are way too obvious, and I suggest anyone reading your article above might be advised to do a websearch using “Open letter to Jeffrey Sachs on the Russia-Ukraine war” as your first try.

  • John Weinkove says:

    Putin represents a fascist state, so called national socialism. If anyone can show any value in negotiating with fascists please inform us. It was not possible to appease German national socialism and it won’t be possible to appease Russia. They annexed Crimea and were not satisfied.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Putin isn’t Khrushche.
    Isn’t it a false premise to say that Putin wants peace when he has made it clear what he wants,
    Sacks also pontificates that both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli on-going war want peace, when the one side has for 75 years only insisted in the total destruction of the other “ftom the River to the Sea”.

  • Rosalie Kingwill Kingwill says:

    An unfortunate weakness in your argument is that the ‘adversary’ Nikita Khrushchev is not comparable to Putin, but point taken

  • Biff Trotters says:

    “Putin repeatedly expressed Russia’s ardent opposition to Nato enlargement to Ukraine, a country with a 2,000-kilometre border with Russia”.
    Negotiating with Putin on this topic is like homeowners negotiating with armed criminals who don’t want the homeowners to erect electric fences. But the more the criminals break into homes, the more electric fences there will be.
    If Putin wants peace, he would have maintained it when he had it, instead of periodically claiming chunks of other countries by murdering their citizens.

  • Benevolence ZA says:

    JFK also said “you can’t negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is ours”. Jeffrey is obviously a paid Russian consultant. He once wrote that Ukraine must be careful not to be used as proxy for US ambitions while conveniently ignoring Wagner group’s destructive interference in Africa. I respect his view however it is not aligned with reality and the context is different from the ‘60s. What about Ukraine security concerns? And their right to choose security partners?Why should a nuclear power decide what its sovereign neighbors should do. Let all countries have nuclear then so there will be no bullying.. Biden is right not to engage Putin, he (Putin) must engage the legitimately elected head of state he cruelly invaded for peace. A head of state who is acting like a spoiled brat – breaking up everything to get attention from elders.

  • Werner Stoop says:

    This is a bunch of drivel.

    “It is time for Biden to negotiate with Russia on Nato enlargement, as part of broader negotiations to end the Ukraine war.”

    Wrong. NATO is a voluntary organisation: the countries that joined it asked to join because they have a neighbour to their east with imperial aspirations that would invade them with tanks, bomb their civilians, kidnap their children and flood their cities.

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