A Look Back to See the Present More Clearly

John F. Kennedy, the Cold War and Echoes of the Climate Change Challenge

JFK Memorial Park photo

In this 50th anniversary year of JFK’s death, it’s worth pondering which of the many causes and themes advanced by Kennedy best speak to our time. John Wihbey reviews a new history by Jeffrey Sachs and looks at the scientific connections between the Cold War era and the age of climate change.


So, let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the 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 small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

President John F. Kennedy, American University, June 10, 1963


The resonant words of President Kennedy’s “Peace Speech,” delivered 50 years ago at American University, came as part of a sustained domestic and international campaign to forge a pact for nuclear de-escalation with the Soviet Union. Crafted in large part by speechwriter Ted Sorensen, who died in 2010, the speech began with a candid acknowledgement of differences — “As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant” — and then offered an olive branch. The tone is soulful, wistful, a palpable idealism tempered by a tragic vision.

JFK Memorial Park photo
Words from Kennedy’s 50-years-ago ‘Peace Speech’ on a monument in JFK Memorial Park, Cambridge, Ma.

But the words were also deeply practical; although they appealed to a quasi-religious dimension implied by our shared globe, the speech was an instrument that served an exact goal. It sought to create a new opening for geopolitical dialogue.

Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev admired it so much that, remarkably, it was printed in full by the main communist news outlets. Ultimately, it bore fruit in the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, considered by many to be among the greatest achievements of diplomacy of the 20th century — and perhaps any century, given the stakes and its coming on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Despite being underplayed in the U.S. press at the time, the speech over the decades has picked up more fans for its distinctive balance of specificity and clarity with its unique cosmic awareness.

In this 50th anniversary year of Kennedy’s death, amid the deluge of “look backs” and media tributes, it is worth pondering which of the many causes and themes advanced by Kennedy best speak to our time. Jeffrey Sachs, the well-known development economist, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and policy advocate for the cause of environmental sustainability, rediscovers an under-appreciated set of lessons that he says may be useful for challenges we now face.

To Move the World photo
Sachs’s new book … ‘a narrative in the service of a contemporary cause.’

Although technically a history book, Sachs’s new To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace is really a narrative in the service of a contemporary cause: Finding a moral language and political approach for addressing challenges of sustainability and climate change. “In Kennedy’s day the dire threat to the air was nuclear fallout,” he writes in the introduction. “In our time it is greenhouse gases. But in both cases the underlying truth is exactly the same: we need to make Earth a fitting home for all of humanity.”

For Sachs, the American University Peace Speech was among Kennedy’s most important. He suggests that the rhetorical crescendo printed above — with its flourish of “And we are all mortal” — constitutes “the most eloquent and important words of the speech, and perhaps of [Kennedy's] presidency.”

It’s a bold claim, given the “ask not” and “long twilight struggle” references that pervade our collective consciousness and popular culture. But views of history change as the present makes new demands. In a warming world, Sachs may yet be proven right. But what about the Cold War-climate connection more generally? Is it a stretch?

Technical Links Between the Cold War and a Warm(ing) War

Setting aside the question of political links for a moment, there is much to be said, interestingly, on the scientific connections between these eras.

The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was only about 320 parts per million when Kennedy gave the Peace Speech in 1963 — compared to 400 ppm in 2013 — but one of the reasons we know that with precision is that monitoring stations such as Mauna Loa in Hawaii had already been set up as part of the burgeoning interests in atmospheric dynamics fueled by the Cold War. Many of the national research laboratories, such as Brookhaven, Livermore, Oak Ridge, Sandia, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), were involved in projects that helped build the very idea of a “climate science.”

Some researchers have begun to mine the annals of recent history to show how climate science itself is impossible to separate from research associated with nuclear weapons and the American Cold War national security state. To see this merely as a historical irony, however, is to miss the point, as it illustrates the inescapable role of technology in helping humans to save themselves from their own technological excesses.

Writing last year in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Paul N. Edwards wrote of this “long and surprisingly intimate relationship,” providing chapter and verse on the relationship between nuclear fallout monitoring, our understanding of atmospheric dynamics, technical instrumentation, modeling techniques, and much more. That paper, titled “Entangled histories: Climate science and nuclear weapons research,” concludes:

Many of the links that connect this story seem perverse. Without nuclear weapons and fallout, we might know much less than we do about the atmosphere. Without climate models, we would not have understood the full extent of those weapons’ power to annihilate not only human beings, but other species as well. Today, the laboratories built to create the most fearsome arsenal in history are doing what they can to prevent another catastrophe – this one caused not by behemoth governments at war, but by billions of ordinary people living ordinary lives within an energy economy that we must now reinvent.

Edwards is not alone in this conclusion. Historians of science such as Spencer R. Weart, who in 2003 published The Discovery of Global Warming, have traced these sinews extensively. Montana State University environmental historian Joshua P. Howe’s 2010 Stanford dissertation reviews much of the current related literature. At a more “meta” level, some historians, such as Thomas Robertson in his 2008 paper “‘This Is the American Earth’: American Empire, the Cold War, and American Environmentalism,” have explored the ways consciousness of the natural world evolved and was reshaped by virtue of the nuclear arms race and its cultural projects.

Of course, many environmental-scientific organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, founded in 1969, were spurred initially by concerns over nuclear weapons issues, and, given their expertise, now have seamlessly folded climate change concerns into their portfolio.

What Would Kennedy Do on Climate?

In To Move the World, Sachs notes that as part of the nuclear treaty campaign, Kennedy “set out a technological agenda that would presage the world’s sustainable development efforts for decades to come.” While Sachs does not substantially address Kennedy’s conservation record — or play the historical parlor game of what the President might have done were he to face current global warming problems — the half-century mark anniversary for the Kennedy Administration has also prompted some media reconsiderations of his attitudes and policies toward the environment.

In a fascinating Audubon Magazine essay last year — pegged to the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring’s publication — Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley wrote of Rachel Carson’s connections with Kennedy. Calling them an “environmental tag team,” Brinkley highlighted how Carson’s activism was ultimately embraced by the White House and the New Frontier cohort. Kennedy mentioned “Miss Carson’s book” in a national press conference and launched a Department of Agriculture and Public Health Service investigation into pesticide use. Carson spent time meeting with administration advisers and helped pen Democratic Party policy pieces. Brinkley on the Cold War theme:

Besides sounding the Paul Revere alarm about the pesticide DDT in Silent Spring, Carson also promoted nuclear non-proliferation, even dedicating the book to Albert Schweitzer, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his efforts to end the atomic arms race. Carson, one of the best marine biologists alive, feared the oceans would be poisoned beyond redemption in the coming decades, and that a point of no return was fast approaching. The thought of Kennedy in the White House — a new Roosevelt — lifted her hopes that aboveground nuclear testing would be banned. (Her dream came true in August 1963, when Kennedy signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.)

Carson died shortly after Kennedy did, lending a certain poignancy to their brief, shared cause.

But as with Civil Rights and Vietnam, Camelot mythmaking and retrospective nostalgia can obscure the reality of where Kennedy actually stood on the issues — and the uncertainty surrounding his true policy direction, had he lived. Whether Kennedy would have ultimately passed a Civil Rights or Voting Rights Act, or avoided further escalation in Vietnam, is unknowable. Likewise, on the environment, there are few tangible accomplishments, and only the tantalizing hints of where Kennedy might have gone. Many major pieces of conservation legislation — the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, and many more — became law just a few years after his death.

JFK on yacht photo
Kennedy’s interests in conservation were largely limited to marine resources, the product of his being a ‘yachtsman’. Shown here with brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford. Photo credit: Robert Knudsen. JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

In a paper for the Pacific Historical Review, “John Kennedy, Stewart Udall, and the New Frontier Conservation,” Thomas G. Smith notes that “in three years Kennedy and [Interior Secretary] Udall failed to establish a coherent conservation policy and they were unable to match the record of the two Roosevelts, but their contributions were impressive.” These accomplishments included the creation of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the establishment of three national seashores as well as financing for the purchase of more recreation lands. Kennedy also “sponsored the first Conservation Conference in fifty years,” focused federal resources on water pollution, and “pushed hard for wilderness preservation,” Smith writes. Still, the President “never fully accepted the earth-oriented perspective.”

Brinkley notes that Kennedy’s interests in conservation were largely limited to marine resources, the product of his being a “yachtsman” — and also a devoted reader of Thoreau’s Cape Cod — whose parochial concerns about his beloved Nantucket largely drove his actions.

According to Smith, Udall, a towering figure in the history of environmental policy, wrote in his journal that Kennedy had good environmental instincts, but he “doesn’t feel the indignation the two truly great conservation Presidents [the Roosevelts] felt for the despoilers, and he doesn’t respond to the land with their warmth or excited interest.”

JFK showed “no interest in hiking,” Smith writes.

A Future from ‘Our Rational Hopes, Not Our Fears’

Kennedy’s accomplishment in stopping atmospheric nuclear testing was of course an “environmental” victory of sorts, but only in the narrowest sense. It may seem a trivial point, but it is one worth remembering as our new “global crisis” confronts us. In the narrowest sense, climate change is a science question, a pollution issue, a technical challenge. But in order to gain the political support needed, a much bigger framing — one that speaks to shared humanity and common world goals, while still acknowledging our differences — may be required.

Sachs photo
Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Jeffrey Sachs’s To Move the World makes its biggest intellectual contribution in this area of how to frame and win on thorny international problems. President Kennedy found a way to persuade the American people, the U.S. Senate, and, most impressively, his sworn enemies to take a first, giant step toward peace. It is the kind of victory that has thus far been elusive, whether through the United Nations or the U.S. Senate, on the issue of climate change.

Sachs says that the “most important lesson that we learn from John Kennedy is to fashion the future out of our rational hopes, not our fears.” JFK set clear goals, worked assiduously toward them, and when the time came to market them to the public, he underplayed the value of the Test Ban Treaty while simultaneously inspiring courage. “This treaty is not the millennium,” Kennedy told the nation. “It will not resolve all conflicts, or cause the communists to forego their ambitions, or eliminate the dangers of war.” But indeed it became the first step in ending the Cold War, and for Sachs that lesson resonates through today.

There are of course many ways in which the climate change problem differs from the scourge of nuclear weapons. Yet both are about inhabiting the “same planet” and breathing the “same air.” There may be more commonalities than we think.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War began to end at last. We often see these two chapters in history as discontinuous, a bipolar world giving way to a globalized one, with few of the older lessons applicable. Sachs does not think this way. Kennedy’s victory on the major challenge of his times — although only partial and provisional — means we cannot easily dismiss that historical model.

“Sustainable development can alleviate global tensions and solve global problems if, following Kennedy’s suggestions, the goals of sustainable development are defined more clearly and made more manageable and less remote,” Sachs writes. “In our time we could at least take steps toward solutions to the great sustainable development challenges we face.”

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to The Yale Forum, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: johnwihbey@gmail.com, Twitter: @wihbey)
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2 Responses to John F. Kennedy, the Cold War and Echoes of the Climate Change Challenge

  1. I looked up the dedication referenced by Mr. Brinkley in Rachel Carson’s book: It has broader application than just nuclear war and supports Mr Wihbey’s thesis re links to climate change:

    “To Albert Schweitzer who said: ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.’

  2. Dan Rogers says:

    JFK’s American University commencement speech was delivered just a few days after my own graduation from law school in 1963, and I really took it to heart at the time. At the time I was surprised, and confused, by the fact that our Commie enemies actually seemed to like the speech while our own media people paid little attention to it, treating it just like so much dove-ish boilerplate.

    I was soon headed off to the Army and a couple of years of honest-to-goodness nuclear brinkmanship craziness in the mid sixties. The hawks were in charge for sure, and we were on our way to winning the Cold War!

    Cooler heads prevailed, thank God. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one reasonable cooler head prevailed — Gorbachev’s — along with one aging and addled head — Reagan’s — and we all survived to see this new tomorrow when we can fight over carbon dioxide instead of nuclear radiation.

    What would Kennedy do about carbon dioxide “pollution”? He was a reasonably intelligent fellow, so I would like to think he would treat it as inconsequential. But of course he was also a consumate politician, so maybe he would side with Al Gore and run for re-election, vowing to close down all the coal-fired power plants in the country and thus reverse climate change throughout the world.