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When JFK Came to Utah (and how it helped end the Cold War) —Stiles

(From the 2007 Archives)

When I see President Bush address a crowd of people, we can all be sure the audience was screened and re-screened before they ever got inside the venue. President Bush doesn’t handle dissent too well these days, though to be fair, I’d bet the next Democratic president takes the same way out. Facing a hostile crowd, acknowledging and confronting an opposing opinion, has become an antiquated notion for many, when in fact, it’s an essential part of the decision-making process. President John F. Kennedy understood that better than most.

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was determined to ease tensions between East and West. Both he and Khruschev knew they’d come within a hair’s breadth of a total nuclear war that could have killed hundreds of millions of people in both countries. Kennedy and Khruschev wrote long and emotional letters to each other over the next few months and Kennedy, each expressing their own fears and worries for the future.

In the summer of 1963, the two leaders proposed a nuclear test ban treaty that would forever end above-ground nuclear explosions. It was a small step for both countries but an important one. But Kennedy knew he could not hope to easily reverse the Cold War mentality of most Americans. “Peace through Strength” was the Air Force motto and who could argue with that? To cooperate with our enemy was to appease our enemy—that could only lead to disaster.

Kennedy had to change that mindset. He decided to make his case in the most conservative state in America—and he did it in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

Here are some excerpts:

I know that many of you in this State and other States sometimes wonder where we are going and why the United States should be so involved in so many affairs, in so many countries all around the globe. If our task on occasion seems hopeless, if we despair of ever working our will on the other 94 percent of the world population, then let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country.

From the beginning of this country, from the days of Washington, until the Second World War, this country lived an isolated existence. Through most of our history we were an unaligned country, an uncommitted nation, a neutralist nation. We were by statute as well as by desire. We had believed that we could live behind our two oceans in safety and prosperity in a comfortable distance from the rest of the world. The end of isolation consequently meant a wrench with the very lifeblood, the very spine, of the Nation. Yet, as time passed, we came to see that the end of isolation was not such a terrible error or evil after all. We came to see that it was the inevitable result of growth, the economic growth, the military growth, and the cultural growth of the United States.

We must first of all recognize that we cannot remake the world simply by our own command. When we cannot even bring all of our own people into full citizenship without acts of violence, we can understand how much harder it is to control events beyond our borders.

Every nation has its own traditions, its own values, its own aspirations. Our assistance from time to time can help other nations preserve their independence and advance their growth, but we cannot remake them in our own image. We cannot enact their laws, nor can we operate their governments or dictate our policies.

We must recognize that foreign policy in the modern world does not lend itself to easy, simple black and white solution. If we were to have diplomatic relations only with those countries whose principles we approved of, we would have relations with very few countries in a very short time. If we were to withdraw our assistance from all governments who are run differently from our own, we would relinquish half the world immediately to our adversaries. If we were to treat foreign policy as merely a medium for delivering self-righteous sermons to supposedly inferior people, we would give up all thought of world influence or world leadership.

For the purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world. We cannot adopt a policy which says that if something does not happen, or others do not do exactly what we wish, we will return to “Fortress America.” That is the policy in this changing world of retreat, not of strength.

More important, to adopt a black or white, all or nothing policy subordinates our interest to our irritations. Its actual consequences would be fatal to our security. If we were to resign from the United Nations. break off with all countries of whom we disapprove, end foreign aid and assistance to those countries in an attempt to keep them free, call for the resumption of atmospheric nuclear testing, and turn our back on the rest of mankind, we would not only be abandoning America’s influence in the world, we would be inviting a Communist expansion which every Communist power would so greatly welcome. And all of the effort of so many Americans for 18 years would be gone with the wind. Our policy under those conditions, in this dangerous world, would not have much deterrent effect in a world where nations determined to be free could no longer count on the United States.

Kennedy was stunned by the response. His speech received a standing ovation. If Utah could understand and embrace Kennedy’s efforts for peace, surely the rest of the country would as well. The Mormon Tabernacle event gave JFK the confidence he needed to make further gestures of peace and goodwill to the Soviet Union. It may have been one of the last bright moments in a young life that would be cut short, just eight weeks later in Dallas.

But it did prove that honesty and courage and frankness still had a place in American Life, that a liberal president could make his case before a conservative audience, and that he could be given the benefit of the doubt, whatever their political leanings might have been going into it.

Can you imagine either of our political parties being that broad-minded today? And yet, in so many ways, an honest conversation is exactly what we need.



AND this YouTube link to the audio of his SLC speech:


The Feb/Mar Z (click the cover)

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