Saved Anthologies

Foreign Affairs Anthology Series

Essays for the Presidency

JFK Library and Museum U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: Essays for the Presidency
Explore the Anthology

The Presidency and the Peace

It is with some sense of temerity that a member of the White House staff undertakes to comment on the large topic of the Presidency and the Peace. Loyalty and affection are so normal in such service that detachment is difficult. Nevertheless the importance of the topic and the enforced familiarity of close experience with the Presidential task may justify a set of comments whose underlying motive is to express a conviction that is as obvious as the daylight, in general, and as fresh as every sunrise, in particular: a conviction that the American Presidency, for better, not for worse, has now become the world's best hope of preventing the unexampled catastrophe of general nuclear war.

Moreover, both charity and sorrow can be good lenses for perception, and it may therefore be possible to consider the subject without impropriety by focussing upon the years of John F. Kennedy. The tragedy which has moved his Administration from politics to history may allow to his critics and excuse in his friends some generosity in the assessment of his three years. His death revealed his greatness, and the grief of the world was less for his tragedy than for its own—in that he had shown his spreading grasp of his duty to mankind as Chief Executive for Peace.

To focus on the Kennedy years is not to forget those before, and still less the firm continuation after November 22. The Presidents of the nuclear age before Mr. Kennedy also made the service of peace the first of their purposes, and the determined commitment of President Johnson to this same end, matured in decades of direct knowledge of our nuclear world, has been made plain in his own words and actions already. Indeed one purpose of a retrospective assessment is to clarify purposes which are as important to the President today as to the President last year.

A President in search of Peace has many powers, but none is more relevant or more effective than his power as Commander-in-Chief. The President is keeping the peace as long as he keeps his own nuclear power in check, and with it the nuclear power of others. This most obvious of his powers, apparently so simple and so negative, can be used for peace in a number of ways.

The prerequisite, of course, is that this power should exist, and that there should be confidence in its future as well as its present effectiveness. Nothing is more dangerous to the peace than weakness in the ultimate deterrent strength of the United States. In the quarter-century that man has known the atom could be split, each American decision to enlarge its power has been the President's alone. More subtly but with just as great importance, the choices of methods of delivery and their rate of development have also been Presidential.

As important as having strength is being known to have it; and here if anything the Presidential authority and responsibility are still more clear. This is the lesson of Sputnik, and of the "missile gap" which was forecast and feared by responsible and well-informed men both in and out of government between 1957 and 1961. There was ground for doubt and need for rapid action; the ground and the need were recognized, and important steps were taken, but an appearance of complacency led to an appearance of weakness, with considerable costs abroad. These costs would surely have been greater had it not been for the remarkable personal standing of President Eisenhower.

At the beginning of the Kennedy Administration there was need both for further action and for a reëstablishment of confidence. The new President himself had feared the missile gap and had pressed his concern in the campaign. It was with honest surprise and relief that in 1961 he found the situation much less dangerous than the best evidence available to the Senate had indicated the year before. His Administration moved at once to correct the public impression, and thereafter, throughout his term, he encouraged and supported policies of action and of exposition which aimed to ensure not merely that American strategic power was sufficient—but that its sufficiency was recognized.

The adequacy of American strategic strength is a matter of such transcendent importance that it must always be a legitimate topic of political debate. "How much is enough?" is a question on which honest men will differ, and interested parties will find room and reason for their claims. Thus it is natural that in the present political year we have ranging shots already from the fringes, some saying that our strength is too little and others that it is too great. Just as it is the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to ensure the adequacy of our strength, so it is his task, either directly or through his principal defense officers, to meet and overcome such criticism. The present Administration will not be lax in the exposition of the real situation, and no one who has closely examined the present and prospective balance of strategic strength can doubt that this year any assertion that we are weak will be found wanting to the point of irresponsibility.

There is an equal obligation to meet the arguments of those who think we are too strong. When these arguments grow out of fundamentally different views on the purpose and meaning of effective strategic strength, it may be necessary to agree to disagree. "Unilateral disarmament" is a tainted term, but it does embody something of what is desired by most of those who criticize our present strength as gravely excessive. The Presidents of the nuclear age have recognized that the law of diminishing returns applies to strategic missiles as to all other commodities; they have also agreed with President Johnson's comment that our nuclear defense expenditures can never be justified as a W.P.A. for selected towns or states. But they have all rejected the gamble of limiting our strategic strength in terms of any absolute concept of what is enough. They have measured our strength against that of the Soviet Union and have aimed at strategic superiority; that superiority has had different meanings at different stages, but seen from the White House its value for peace has never been small.

Yet even in this rejection of the underlying arguments which move so many of those who find our strength excessive, a President who cares for peace will respect their general concern. It is entirely true that nuclear strength can be provocative, that it is full of the hazard of accident or misuse, and that it imposes upon its commander, in his own interest as in that of mankind, a passion for prudence. All the Presidents of the nuclear age have understood this responsibility and have sought to meet it by insisting on disciplined and responsible control of this power. In the case of President Kennedy the pressing need was that as the number and variety of weapons systems increased, there should be ever more searching attention to effective command and control. To him this was a better answer to the dangers of accident than some arbitrary limitation of numbers; a thousand well-controlled and safely designed missiles could be less dangerous than a hundred of lower quality, as well as more effective in deterrence.

A related point was the President's powerful aversion to those nuclear weapons which could be used effectively only in a first strike. In 1961 and 1962 he faced a series of judgments on major systems; he always preferred the system which could survive an attack, as against the system which might provoke one. In the same way and for related reasons he preferred the system which was on the high seas or at home to that which required a base abroad and evoked a real or pretended charge of encirclement from Moscow.

The Commander-in-Chief must be strong, then, but also restrained. And as his strength must be recognized, so must his restraint. The doctrine of "massive retaliation" was never as absolute as Mr. Dulles at first made it seem, and its real weakness lay not in the undoubted fact that against certain kinds of aggression a nuclear response would be necessary, but in the appearance of a bomb-rattling menace which it created. The Presidency does well to avoid this appearance; in the Kennedy Administration the rule was that statements of strength and will should be made as calmly as possible. The President himself watched constantly to prevent the appearance of belligerence, and when the White House watch nodded-as in one magazine account in which a single phrase out of context was seized upon by Soviet propaganda—he made his dissatisfaction plain.

A similar discipline was enforced throughout the Administration upon both civil and military officials. Those who have read speech drafts for clearance know how seldom there is need for major change, and how often divergence between Presidential purposes and a speaker's draft can be corrected by revision which reconciles the real purposes of both. And again it is not only the act of coördination but the appearance of it which is helpful. The nuclear age multiplies the mistrust that peaceable men must feel toward military men who appear not to be under effective control, and nothing adds more to a President's reputation abroad than recognition that he is Commander-in-Chief in fact as well as in name.

Yet the Kennedy years show again, as the terms of strong Presidents have shown before, that harmony, not conflict, is the normal relation between the Armed Services and the Presidency. The maintenance of clear Presidential control over military policy and over public statements gave rise to some criticism, and intermittently there were assertions that this or that military need was being overridden—this or that viewpoint silenced. Energy and strength in the Office of the Secretary of Defense produced similar worries, and challenges to cherished privileges were not unresisted. But the center of emphasis belongs on the fact that the Presidency has these powers in this country; a President who uses them firmly, with a defensible concept of the national security, can count on the support of the officers and men of the Armed Forces. The American tradition of civilian control is strong and the tradition of loyalty among professional officers high; the services are eager for a strong and active Commander-in-Chief. The armed strength of the United States, if handled with firmness and prudence, is a great force for peace.


The President who seeks peace must have a clear view of the Soviet Union. The one great weakness of Franklin Roosevelt was that he did not; he had not the advantage of living, as all his successors have, through the realities of the years after 1945. Nothing is gained for peace by forgetting Czechoslovakia or Hungary or the recurrent menace to Berlin, or Korea or Southeast Asia or any of the dozens of times and places where Communists with help from Moscow have sought to put an end to liberty.

Mr. Kennedy had this clear view. He had it before he became President; he confirmed it in his first state papers; he understood not only the unrelenting ambition and the ruthlessness of Communism, but also the weakness and disarray of much of the non-Communist world. And for almost two of his three years—from the very beginning until the offensive weapons were gone from Cuba—he had an exposure to Communist pressure in Berlin, in Laos, and in the Caribbean which could only confirm the somber estimate with which he entered office.

Against these pressures he was firm, and to meet them more effectively he greatly strengthened the defenses of the United States—not merely in strategic weapons for basic deterrence, but also in forces designed more precisely to meet the hazards of each point of pressure. The reserves who were called up for Berlin never fired a shot in anger, but military service by Americans has seldom made a more effective contribution to the defense of freedom and the keeping of peace. The new kinds of strength deployed to South Viet Nam have not finished that hard job, but they have prevented an otherwise certain defeat and kept the door open for a victory which in the end can be won only by the Vietnamese themselves. And never in any country did President Kennedy leave it in doubt that Communist subversion is always the enemy of freedom, and of freedom's friends, the Americans.

Yet always—and again from the beginning—he put equal emphasis on the readiness of the United States to reach honorable settlement of all differences, the respect of the United States for the reality of Soviet strength, and the insistence of the United States that both sides accept and meet their joint responsibility for peace.

He rejected the stale rhetoric of the cold war; he insisted not on the innate wickedness of Communism but on its evil effects. The Communist world was seldom if ever "the enemy." Characteristically, as in his Inaugural Address, the President used a circumlocution whose unaccustomed clumsiness was proof that it was carefully chosen: "those nations who would make themselves our adversary." Characteristically, too, what he there offered them was a request "to begin anew the quest for peace."

And he pressed in this same direction himself. In Laos, in Berlin, and most persistently of all in the search for a test ban, the President's powers, from beginning to end, were used toward the goal of agreement. Agreement must never be surrender; that would be no service to peace. The firmness of the United States under pressure was made plain both in Berlin and in Southeast Asia. But firmness was a means to honorable settlement, not an end in itself. Harboring no illusion about the difficulty of success, the President nevertheless persevered. He was convinced that at the least it was essential to leave no doubt, in all these issues, of the good will and peaceful purpose of the United States. If there were to be a continued arms race, or a test of strength, it must be plain where the responsibility lay. But the larger truth, as he saw it, was that in these areas of difference there was real advantage to both sides in reliable agreement—if only the other side could be brought to see its own real interests, free of ambition that would be resisted, and of fear that was unjustified.

In 1961 and 1962 the invitation to seek peace together met a thin response. True, the threat to Berlin, so noisy in 1961, and so sharpened by the confession of Communist bankruptcy which was the Wall, seemed slightly milder in 1962. And an agreement was reached on Laos, imperfect in its terms and in its execution, but much better than no agreement at all. It was in Laos above all that one could see the advantage to both sides of even the most incomplete disengagement, as against a tightening and sharpening of confrontation.

But no agreement at all had come in the field nearest the President's heart—that of limiting the nuclear danger. On the contrary, Soviet tests had led inexorably to American tests. It was somehow a measure of the Kennedy temper and purpose that of all the Soviet provocations of these two years it was the resumption of testing that disappointed him most.


The Cuban missile crisis was the most important single event of the Kennedy Presidency. As the President himself pointed out afterward, it was the first direct test between the Soviet Union and the United States in which nuclear weapons were the issue.

Although vast amounts have been written about the crisis, we still have no solid account of one half of it—the Soviet side. What is not known of one side limits our ability to assess action on the other, and this limitation should warn us against judgments that this act more than that, or one advantage more than another, was decisive. It does not prevent a more general judgment of the main elements contributing to success.

What is at once astonishing and wholly natural is the degree to which the clear components of this success are precisely those to which the Presidency had been bent and not only in the Kennedy Administration: strength, restraint, and respect for the opinions of mankind.

That strength counted we cannot doubt—though it is typical of the uncertainties of assessment that the partisans of specific kinds of strength remained persuaded, afterward as before, of the peculiar value of their preferred weapons. Believers in nuclear dissuasion as an all-purpose strategy asserted the predominant role of strategic superiority; believers in the need for conventional strength, while not usually denying the role of SAC in the success, were convinced that what mattered most was usable non-nuclear strength at the point of contest. Interesting as this argument may be, it can have no certain conclusion. Prudence argues for a judgment that all kinds of military strength were relevant. The existence of adequate and rapidly deployable strength, at all levels, was the direct result of the reinforcement of balanced defenses begun in 1961.

A further element of strength in this crisis was the firmness and clarity of the Presidential decision to insist on the withdrawal of the missiles. This was not merely a matter of one speech or even of one decision from a week of heavy argument. It was a position clearly stated, and internationally understood, well before the crisis broke. It was reinforced in its power, and the Communist position correspondingly weakened, by the repeated Soviet assertions that no such weapons were or would be placed in Cuba.

The strength of this position, like the strength of the available military force, was reinforced by its disciplined relation to a policy of restraint. That nuclear weapons should not be strewn around as counters in a contest for face was a proposition commanding wide support. Any impulse to discount or disregard the direct threat to the United States, as a problem for the Americans to solve, was deeply undercut by awareness of the difference between American and Soviet standards of nuclear responsibility as revealed in this moment of danger.

More broadly, the strength and restraint of the American position in October stood in striking contrast to the position in which others found themselves. As a first consequence, and to a degree that exceeded predictions, the allies of the United States both in this hemisphere and in Europe were clear in their support, though in public comment, especially in the United Kingdom, there was evidence of the difficulties we should have faced if we had been less clearly strong, restrained, and right.

It can be argued, of course, that in this crisis the opinions even of close allies were not crucial, and it does seem probable that such critical decisions as the turn-around of arms-bearing ships and the announcement that the missiles would be removed were not determined by O.A.S. votes or by world opinion. This particular crisis might have been successfully resolved even in the face of doubt and division among allies whose immediate power at the point of contest was negligible.

But so narrow a judgment neglects two great hazards. Immediately, a serious division among the allies might have provoked action elsewhere, most dangerously at Berlin (and indeed in all the postwar annals of the bravery of West Berlin there is no moment in which the courage and strength of the Berliners—and indeed of all free Germans—have been more important in discouraging adventure). And even if no such adventure had been attempted, the position after the crisis would not have been one in which "the quest for peace" could easily be led from Washington. It was and is the central meaning of this affair that a major threat to peace and freedom was removed by means which strengthened the prospects of both.

The October crisis came out better than President Kennedy or any of his associates had expected. The analysis suggested above would not have been compelling in the discussions of the week of October 15, and the predominant reaction in Washington on October 28 was one of simple and enormous relief. In the weeks after the crisis, attention was diverted, first by backstairs gossip over who gave what advice, and then by a renewal of political debate over Cuba, a problem of another order of meaning than the missile crisis, and one which had rightly been left essentially as it was, while the major threat was removed. And finally, it was far from clear, in the immediate aftermath, that "those who had made themselves our adversary" in such a sudden and shocking way would now be ready for a different relation.

But what is important for our present purposes is that what shaped American action in this crisis—what set and sustained the tempered response, both to danger and to success—was the President. And while the man in the office was Kennedy, with a taste and style of his own, I think it is right to claim that the office as well as the man was embodied in the resolution, restraint, and responsibility that governed in these weeks.


As the great disappointment of 1961 was the renewal of testing, so the great satisfaction of 1963 was the limited test-ban treaty.

The withdrawal of missiles from Cuba did more than end a specific crisis of great gravity. It also signaled an acceptance by the Soviet Government, for the present at least, of the existing nuclear balance. In that balance there is American superiority, as we have seen, but it is a superiority that does not permit any lack of respect for the strength of the Soviet Union. No safer balance appears possible at present. No overwhelmingly one-sided margin is open to either side, and it was one lesson of the Cuban affair—as of many others since 1945—that it was well for peace that Communist strength should be matched with a margin. But the purpose of this margin must still be peace, and the aim of policy must still be to get beyond conflicting interests to the great common need for a safer prospect of survival. This is the meaning of the limited test-ban treaty.

If the missile crisis was the proof of American strength in conflict, the test-ban treaty was the proof of American readiness to work for this common purpose. And whatever the moving forces on the Soviet side, in the non-Communist world the Presidency was the necessary center of action. A special and distinguished role was played by the British Prime Minister, but Mr. Macmillan would be the first to recognize that it was mainly through his close relation to two Presidents that he was able to make the British contribution effective. It is only the American President who can carry the American Senate and the American people in any agreement on arms control, and it is only with American participation that any such agreement can have meaning for the Soviet Government.

Unless a President uses these powers with energy, arms control agreements are improbable. The momentum of the arms race—the power at work to keep it going almost without conscious new decision—is enormous. Military men in all countries find it hard to approve any arms control proposal which is not either safely improbable or clearly unbalanced in their own favor. In the United States only a strong Commander-in-Chief with a strong Secretary of Defense is in a position to press steadily for recognition that the arms race itself is now a threat to national security. Only the President can ensure that good proposals are kept alive even after a first rejection, and that new possibilities are constantly considered—so that there may always be as many proposals as possible on the table waiting for the moment of Soviet readiness. The readiness to meet all threats must be matched by a demonstrated readiness to reach agreement.

In the case of the limited test ban it was President Kennedy himself who reached the conclusion in the spring of 1963 that the United States would not be the first to make further atmospheric tests. That quite personal decision, recognized at the time as fully within the Presidential power, and announced in an address on peace whose power and conviction were immediately recognized, is as likely an immediate cause as any for the announcement, less than a month later, that the Soviet Government would now be willing to sign an agreement which had been open for two years. There followed a period of negotiation and then a debate on ratification, and in these again the Presidency was central. The test-ban treaty, as we have all told each other a hundred times, is only one step, and President Johnson has made clear his determination to seek further steps with all the energy and imagination the government can command. Meanwhile the lesson of the test ban is that no step at all can be taken in this field unless the President himself works for it. A President indifferent to arms control, or easily discouraged by Soviet intransigence or irresponsibility, or inclined to a narrow military view of the arms race, would be a guarantee against agreed limitation of armaments. Conversely, where there is zeal in the search for agreement, refusal to accept initial disappointment as final, a cool and balanced assessment of the risks of agreement against the risks of unlimited competition, and a firm use of the powers of the office, the Presidency can become—as in this case—an instrument of hope for all men everywhere.


In concentrating attention upon the great requirements of strength and a love for peace, and in using as examples such very large matters as the missile crisis and the test-ban treaty, I do not pretend to have exhausted the connections between the Presidency and the Peace, even as they showed themselves in the short Kennedy years. There is more in the Presidency than the special powers of the Commander-in-Chief or the special responsibility for pressing the hard cause of disarmament. There is more, too, than a need for understanding of Soviet realities. The Presidency is a powerful element in the strength or weakness of the United Nations, as every Secretary-General has known. The Presidency remains the headquarters of the Great Alliance, as even the most separated of national leaders has recognized. The Presidency is an indispensable stimulus to Progress in the Americas. The Presidency must make the hard choices of commitment that have brought both honor and difficulty, as in Korea in 1950, or in South Viet Nam in 1954. The White House visit and the White House photograph are elements of democratic electioneering not just in the United States, but wherever the name of the American President can bring a cheer. The death of a President men loved has shown how wide this larger constituency is. Allies, neutrals, and even adversaries attend to the Presidency. When the American President shows that he can understand and respect the opinions and hopes of distant nations, when he proves able to represent the interests of his own people without neglecting the interests of others, when in his own person he represents decency, hope, and freedom—then he is strengthened in his duty to be the leader of man's quest for peace in the age of nuclear weapons. And this strength will be at least as important in meeting danger as in pursuing hope.

The Administration in Washington, led now by President Johnson, will face new problems and make new decisions, and as time passes the new imprint of a strong mind and heart will be felt increasingly—in the Presidency, in the Government, and in the world. President Kennedy would have been the last to suppose that the purely personal characteristics of any President, however loved and mourned, could or should continue to determine the work of the Presidency after his death. President Johnson will conduct the office in his own way. Yet the short space of three months is enough to show plainly that the pursuit of peace remains his central concern, while the effective transfer from one Administration to the next has reflected the fact that loyalty to President Kennedy and loyalty to President Johnson are not merely naturally compatible, but logically necessary as a part of a larger loyalty to their common purpose.

And as we remember John Kennedy, let us separate the essential from the complementary. The youth, the grace, and the wit were wonderful, but they were not the center. There lay courage, vision, humanity, and strength, tested on the path to the office, and tempered by the office itself. It is these qualities, applied to the greatest issues, that belong not only to the man but to the job.

It is my own conviction that this kind of President and this kind of Presidency reflect the general will of Americans. Temperate use of strength, respect for honest difference, sympathy for those in need, and a readiness to go our share of the distance—these qualities, which I have described in phrases borrowed from our new President, are qualities of the American people. They have their opposites in our character too, but these are what we honor; these we expect of our Presidents. In the terrible shock of President Kennedy's death there were many—perhaps too many—who saw the foul deeds of a few days in Dallas, and not the dead President himself, as the embodiment of the real America. They were wrong. As a man, as a President, as a servant of the Peace, he was what we are, and his achievement belongs to us all. Strengthened by his service the Presidency continues, and so does the quest for Peace.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.


Close We are offering free and open access for a short period of time. Read more about why we are doing this.