John F. Kennedy understood, on a very basic level, that our shared hopes and values are far greater than the isms that keep us divided. In his now famous American University speech- delivered just five months before his public execution in Dallas-JFK referred to the Soviet Union in a way that no other American politician had up until that point. “Today, should total war ever break out again—no matter how—our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours…. [W]e are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counter-weapons.”
Kennedy’s words could not be more relevant today. Due primarily to the threat of nuclear proliferation that he warned about, today the world itself has become a target. If there is a conventional nuclear war in 2018, it will not be the United States and Soviet Union which suffers alone. Every nation will be at risk. Every city will be threatened. Every island will be under siege. Every wilderness will be under attack. The stakes have never been higher.
What made Kennedy such a gifted leader was his understanding. He understood that we all share the same earth. We all share the same drinking water. We all breathe the same air. We all rely on the same supply of oxygen. We all need food. We all need birds and sunlight. We all need the love of friends and family. We all need a spiritual connection. Kennedy understood, in the most pragmatic terms conceivable, that so little separates humanity. Even as a politician and man of faith, he understood that politics and religion can, if used deceptively, make people sick of being in the world. And even as an economist and strategist of warfare, he understood that these elements in society, if used callously, can make the human race scared to dream. So deep was this man’s understanding of the human condition. In his words, “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.”
Now is the time to heed Kennedy’s warnings, to use his words as signposts. We must proceed with confidence that we have the power to resist self-destruction. The human heart is capable of tremendous compassion, bravery, and excellence. It is also capable of genocide. Humanity is ambition and ingenuity, but it has carried out the most ghastly acts of cowardice. The question now is simple: What responsibility are we willing to take to make the future one we want to live in?