John F. Kennedy
Final Address to the United Nations General Assembly
delivered 20 September 1963, New York, NY
[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio.]
Mr. President, as one who has taken some interest in the election of Presidents, I want to congratulate you on your election to this high office.1
Mr. Secretary General, delegates to the United Nations, ladies and gentlemen:
We meet again in the quest for peace. Twenty-four months ago, when I last had the honor of addressing this body, the shadow of fear lay darkly across the world. The freedom of West Berlin was in immediate peril. Agreement on a neutral Laos seemed remote. The mandate of the United Nations in the Congo was under fire. The financial outlook for this organization was in doubt. Dag Hammarskjold was dead. The doctrine of troika was being pressed in his place, and atmospheric nuclear tests had been resumed by the Soviet Union.
Those were anxious days for mankind and some [men] wondered aloud whether this organization could survive. But the 16th and 17th General Assemblies achieved not only survival but progress. Rising to its responsibility, the United Nations helped reduce the tensions and helped to hold back the darkness.
Today the clouds have lifted a little, so that new rays of hope can break through. The pressures on West Berlin appear to be temporarily eased. Political unity in the Congo has been largely restored. A neutral coalition in Laos, while still in difficulty, is at least in being. The integrity of the United Nations Secretariat has been reaffirmed. A United Nations Decade of Development is under way. And, for the first time in 17 years of effort, a specific step has been taken to limit the nuclear arms race.
I refer, of course, to the treaty to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water -- concluded by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- and already signed by nearly 100 countries. It has been hailed by people the world over who are thankful to be free from the fears of nuclear fallout, and I am confident that on next Tuesday at 10:30 o'clock in the morning it will receive the overwhelming endorsement of the Senate of the United States.
The world has not escaped from the darkness. The long shadows of conflict and crisis envelop us still. But we meet today in an atmosphere of rising hope, and at a moment of comparative calm. My presence here today is not a sign of crisis, but of confidence. I am not here to report on a new threat to the peace or new signs of war. I have come to salute the United Nations and to show the support of the American people for your daily deliberations.
For the value of this body's work is not dependent on the existence of emergencies; nor can the winning of peace consist only of dramatic victories. Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.
Today we may have reached a pause in the Cold War -- but that is not a lasting peace. A test ban treaty is a milestone -- but it is not the millennium. We have not been released from our obligations -- we have been given an opportunity. And if we fail to make the most of this moment and this momentum -- if we convert our new-found hopes and understandings into new walls and weapons of hostility -- if this pause in the Cold War merely leads to its renewal and not its end -- then the indictment of posterity will rightly point its finger at us all. But if we can stretch this pause into a period of cooperation -- if both sides can now gain new confidence and experience in concrete collaborations for peace -- if we can now be as bold and farsighted in the control of deadly weapons as we have been in their creation -- then surely this first small step can be the start of a long and fruitful journey.
The task of building the peace lies with the leaders of every nation, large and small. For the great powers have no monopoly on conflict or ambition. The Cold War is not the only expression of tension in this world, and the nuclear race is not the only arms race. Even little wars are dangerous in a nuclear world. The long labor of peace is an undertaking for every nation -- and in this effort none of us can remain unaligned. To this goal none can be uncommitted.
The reduction of global tension must not be an excuse for the narrow pursuit of self-interest. If the Soviet Union and the United States, with all of their global interests and clashing commitments of ideology, and with nuclear weapons still aimed at each other today, can find areas of common interest and agreement, then surely other nations can do the same -- nations caught in regional conflicts, in racial issues, or in the death throes of old colonialism. Chronic disputes which divert precious resources from the needs of the people or drain the energies of both sides serve the interests of no one -- and the badge of responsibility in the modern world is a willingness to seek peaceful solutions.
It is never too early to try; and it's never too late to talk; and it's high time that many disputes on the agenda of this Assembly were taken off the debating schedule and placed on the negotiating table.
The fact remains that the United States, as a major nuclear power, does have a special responsibility to the world. It is, in fact, a threefold responsibility: a responsibility to our own citizens; a responsibility to the people of the whole world who are affected by our decisions; and to the next generation of humanity. We believe the Soviet Union also has these special responsibilities -- and that those responsibilities require our two nations to concentrate less on our differences and more on the means of resolving them peacefully. For too long both of us have increased our military budgets, our nuclear stockpiles, and our capacity to destroy all life on this hemisphere -- human, animal, vegetable -- without any corresponding increase in our security.
Our conflicts, to be sure, are real. Our concepts of the world are different. No service is performed by failing to make clear our disagreements. A central difference is the belief of the American people in self-determination for all people.
We believe that the people of Germany and Berlin must be free to reunite their capital and their country.
We believe that the people of Cuba must be free to secure the fruits of the revolution that have been betrayed from within and exploited from without.
In short, we believe that all the world -- in Eastern Europe as well as Western, in Southern Africa as well as Northern, in old nations as well as new -- that people must be free to choose their own future, without discrimination or dictation, without coercion or subversion.
These are the basic differences between the Soviet Union and the United States, and they cannot be concealed. So long as they exist, they set limits to agreements, and they forbid the relaxation of our vigilance. Our defense around the world will be maintained for the protection of freedom -- and our determination to safeguard that freedom will measure up to any threat or challenge.
But I would say to the leaders of the Soviet Union, and to their people, that if either of our countries is to be fully secure, we need a much better weapon than the H-bomb -- a weapon better than ballistic missiles or nuclear submarines -- and that better weapon is peaceful cooperation.
We have, in recent years, agreed on a limited test ban treaty, on an emergency communications link between our capitals, on a statement of principles for disarmament, on an increase in cultural exchange, on cooperation in outer space, on the peaceful exploration of the Antarctics, and on tempering last year's crisis over Cuba.
I believe, therefore, that the Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, can achieve further agreements -- agreements which spring from our mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction.
There can be no doubt about the agenda of further steps. We must continue to seek agreements on measures which prevent war by accident or miscalculation. We must continue to seek agreement on safeguards against surprise attack, including observation posts at key points. We must continue to seek agreement on further measures to curb the nuclear arms race, by controlling the transfer of nuclear weapons, converting fissionable materials to peaceful purposes, and banning underground testing, with adequate inspection and enforcement. We must continue to seek agreement on a freer flow of information and people from East to West and West to East.
We must continue to seek agreement, encouraged by yesterday's affirmative response to this proposal by the Soviet Foreign Minister, on an arrangement to keep weapons of mass destruction out of outer space. Let us get our negotiators back to the negotiating table to work out a practicable arrangement to this end.
In these and other ways, let us move up the steep and difficult path towards comprehensive disarmament, securing mutual confidence through mutual verification, and building the institutions of peace as we dismantle the engines of war. We must not let failure to agree on all points delay agreements where agreement is possible. And we must not put forward proposals for propaganda purposes.
Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity in the field of space, there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon. Space offers no problems of sovereignty; by resolution of this Assembly, the members of the United Nations have foresworn any claim to territorial rights in outer space or on celestial bodies, and declared that international law and the United Nations Charter will apply.
Why, therefore, should man's first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries -- indeed of all the world -- cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending some day in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries.
All these and other new steps towards peaceful cooperation may be possible. Most of them will require on our part full consultation with our allies -- for their interests are as much involved as our own, and we will not make an agreement at their expense. Most of them will require long and careful negotiation. And most of them will require a new approach to the Cold War -- a desire not to "bury"2 one's adversary, but to compete in a host of peaceful arenas, in ideas, in production, and ultimately in service to all mankind.
The contest will continue -- the contest between those who see a monolithic world and those who believe in diversity -- but it should be a contest in leadership and responsibility instead of destruction, a contest in achievement instead of intimidation. Speaking for the United States of America, I welcome such a contest. For we believe that truth is stronger than error and that freedom is more enduring than coercion. And in the contest for a better life, all the world can be a winner.
The effort to improve the conditions of man, however, is not a task for the few. It is the task of all nations -- acting alone, acting in groups, acting in the United Nations, for plague and pestilence, and plunder and pollution, the hazards of nature, and the hunger of children are the foes of every nation. The earth, the sea, and the air are the concern of every nation. And science, technology, and education can be the ally of every nation.
Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world -- or to make it the last.
The United States since the close of the war has sent over 100 billion dollars worth of assistance to nations seeking economic viability. And two years ago this week we formed a Peace Corps to help interested nations meet the demand for trained manpower. Other industrialized nations whose economies were rebuilt not so long ago with some help from us are now in turn recognizing their responsibility to the less developed nations.
The provision of development assistance by individual nations must go on. But the United Nations also must play a larger role in helping bring to all men the fruits of modern science and industry. A United Nations conference on this subject held earlier this year at Geneva opened new vistas for the developing countries. Next year a United Nations Conference on Trade will consider the needs of these nations for new markets. And more than four-fifths of the entire United Nations system can be found today mobilizing the weapons of science and technology for the United Nations' Decade of Development.
But more can be done:
But man does not live by bread alone, and the members of this organization are committed by the Charter to promote and respect human rights. Those rights are not respected when a Buddhist priest is driven from his pagoda, when a synagogue is shut down, when a Protestant church cannot open a mission, when a Cardinal is forced into hiding, or when a crowded church service is bombed. The United States of America is opposed to discrimination and persecution on grounds of race and religion anywhere in the world, including our own Nation. We are working to right the wrongs of our own country.
Through legislation and administrative action, through moral and legal commitment, this Government has launched a determined effort to rid our Nation of discrimination which has existed far too long -- in education, in housing, in transportation, in employment, in the civil service, in recreation, and in places of public accommodation. And therefore, in this or any other forum, we do not hesitate to condemn racial or religious injustice, whether committed or permitted by friend or foe.
I know that some of you have experienced discrimination in this country. But I ask you to believe me when I tell you that this is not the wish of most Americans -- that we share your regret and resentment, and that we intend to end such practices for all time to come, not [only] for our visitors, but for our own citizens as well.
I hope that not only our Nation but all other multiracial societies will meet these standards of fairness and justice. We are opposed to apartheid [and] all forms of human oppression. We do not advocate the rights of black Africans in order to drive out white Africans. Our concern is the right of all men to equal protection under the law. And since human rights are indivisible, this body cannot stand aside when those rights are abused and neglected by any Member state.
New efforts are needed if this Assembly's Declaration of Human Rights, now 15 years old, is to have full meaning. And new means should be found for promoting the free expression and trade of ideas -- through travel and communication, and through increased exchanges of people, and books, and broadcasts. For as the world renounces the competition of weapons, competition in ideas must flourish -- and that competition must be as full and as fair as possible.
The United States delegation will be prepared to suggest to the United Nations initiatives in the pursuit of all the goals. For this is an organization for peace -- and peace cannot come without work and without progress.
The peacekeeping record of the United Nations has been a proud one, though its tasks are always formidable. We are fortunate to have the skills of our distinguished Secretary General and the brave efforts of those who have been serving the cause of peace in the Congo, in the Middle East, in Korea and Kashmir, in West New Guinea and Malaysia. But what the United Nations has done in the past is less important than the tasks for the future. We cannot take its peacekeeping machinery for granted. That machinery must be soundly financed -- which it cannot be if some members are allowed to prevent it from meeting its obligations by failing to meet their own. The United Nations must be supported by all those who exercise their franchise here. And its operations must be backed to the end.
Too often a project is undertaken in the excitement of a crisis and then it begins to lose its appeal as the problems drag on and the bills pile up. But we must have the steadfastness to see every enterprise through.
It is, for example, most important not to jeopardize the extraordinary United Nations gains in the Congo. The nation which sought this organization's help only three years ago has now asked the United Nations' presence to remain a little longer. I believe this Assembly should do what is necessary to preserve the gains already made and to protect the new nation in its struggle for progress. Let us complete what we've started. For "No man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back," as the Scriptures tell us, "No man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God."3
I also hope that the recent initiative of several Members in preparing standby peace forces for United Nations call will encourage similar commitments by others. This Nation remains ready to provide logistic and other material support.
Policing, moreover, is not enough without provision for pacific settlement. We should increase the resort to special missions of fact-finding and conciliation, make greater use of the International Court of Justice, and accelerate the work of the International Law Commission.
The United Nations cannot survive as a static organization. Its obligations are increasing as well as its size. Its Charter must be changed as well as its customs. The authors of that Charter did not intend that it be frozen in perpetuity. The science of weapons and war has made us all, far more than 18 years ago in San Francisco, one world and one human race, with one common destiny. In such a world, absolute sovereignty no longer assures us of absolute security. The conventions of peace must pull abreast and then ahead of the inventions of war. The United Nations, building on its successes and learning from its failures, must be developed into a genuine world security system.
But peace does not rest in the charters and covenants alone. It lies in the hearts and minds of all people. And if in this world out here4, no act, no pact, no treaty, no organization can hope to preserve it without the support and the wholehearted commitment of all people. So let us not rest all our hopes on parchment and on paper; let us strive to build peace, a desire for peace, a willingness to work for peace, in the hearts and minds of all of our people. I believe that we can. And I believe the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings.
Two years ago I told this body that the United States had proposed, and was willing to sign, a limited test ban treaty. Today that treaty has been signed. It will not put an end to war. It will not remove basic conflicts. It will not secure freedom for all. But it can be a lever. And Archimedes, in explaining the principles of the lever, was said to have declared to his friends: "Give me a place where I can stand -- and I shall move the world."5
My fellow inhabitants of this planet: Let us take our stand here in this Assembly of nations. And let us see if we, in our own time, can move the world to a just and lasting peace.
Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)
1 Kennedy is referring to recently elected President of the General Assembly Dr. Carlos Sosa Rodriguez of Venezuela.
2 A reference to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's infamous phrase, as translated in English, delivered during a gathering of foreign diplomats in Moscow in 1956: "About the capitalist states, it doesn't depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don't like us, don't accept our invitations, and don't invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!" [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_will_bury_you, emphasis added]
4 As prepared draft for the speech rendered this phrase "And if it is cast out there, then no act...."
5 See here for origins of and variations on this phrase
Audio Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum
Video Source: The Miller Center
Page Updated: 9/27/21
Page Updated: 9/27/21
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