Your Government on War

JFK 1960By Robert C. Koehler
COTO Report

“Our primary long range interest in Geneva, however, is general and complete disarmament, designed to take place by stages, permitting parallel political developments to build the new institutions of peace which would take the place of arms. . . . While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both.”

That was President John F. Kennedy speaking to the 1963 graduating class of American University —announcing that the human race was ready to move beyond war. This was the speech in which he revealed that talks on a Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union had begun, and that the U.S. was unilaterally suspending atmospheric nuclear testing.

Fifty years later, the words seem like an archaeological find — quaint, strange, shocking. Look, common sense! Perfectly preserved. Once upon a time, such a goal — disarmament, the end (good God!) of war itself —had political cred at the highest levels.

Kennedy even had the audacity to proclaim that peace wasn’t totally a matter of our enemy du jour, the Soviets, changing their behavior. “I also believe,” he said, “that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs.”

Politics that makes room for self-reflection? While he proceeds to bash the Communists for bad-mouthing the U.S., he calls their rhetoric “a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”

This is politics outside the simple zone of winning and losing. Kennedy dared to suggest that that peace was complex, that it was not a mere matter of military strength and the power to dominate, and that “our enemy” was not subhuman. The American public was ready to hear this half a century ago. What happened? And more to the point, how do we return to this cutting edge of political sanity?

As I listened to Kennedy’s speech, which a number of people have pointed out to me recently, what struck me even more, perhaps, than the words themselves, was that the president seemed to be speaking from a position independent of the American and global military-industrial consensus. That this should stand out as unusual — that my inner political child should feel moved to ask, “Is a president allowed to do that?” — is truly unnerving.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, the highest levels of American government were capable of representing more than just the status quo, and were not irrelevant to real social change. Once upon a time, principles stood independent of politics. It was always shaky, of course. The Kennedy presidency was flawed; the Vietnam War was set at simmer. But once upon a time, one could look for real values in the political arena . . . and find them.

What has happened in the intervening years has been a hollowing out of those principles and of democracy itself — a moral bottoming out, you might say. What has happened is that the military-industrial consensus has taken control. No more nonsense. War wins. We’re addicted to it.

“But any awake American can see that PRISM is only one sock on a long line of dirty laundry,” Erin Niemela wrote recently at Common Dreams. “The list of U.S. government abuses and failures to protect stretches far and wide. . . .

“While PRISM and the rest of the gang are individually sordid, when combined they are the track marks of a far more pervasive, widespread, life-wasting problem. One that has systematically attacked not just the Fourth Amendment, but also the First, Second, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and 10th. No matter how hard we advocate for the Fourth Amendment now, others will fall so long as this substance burns through the veins of the Republic.

“This is your government on war.”

Whatever the threats that emanate from beyond or within the national borders, the overwhelming condition that concerned citizens — the ones, for instance, in sync with Kennedy’s 1963 speech — must address is that the government itself is the problem, and its abuses both at home and abroad are only going to escalate until its addiction to war is curbed. And the first step in this process is to declare: no future wars. The seductive rhetoric pushing “the next war” is a lie. It’s always a lie, concealing the addiction. The game stops here. No future wars!

Niemela proposes a constitutional amendment: “The American people, in accordance with the promotion of international justice, peace, human rights and dignity, hereby renounce the use of organized, armed force to resolve intra- and inter-state conflict; neither war nor war-making processes shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

David Swanson, in response, proposed enforcing the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which the United States along with more than 80 other nations signed, agreeing that the settlement of all disputes between signatory nations “shall never be sought except by pacific means.”

The precedent is there. I don’t doubt that the moral passion, in the U.S. and around the globe, is there as well. The idea of ending war can no longer be compromised. Can it regain the political presence it had 50 years ago? That part is up to us.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.

© 2013 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

Courage Grows Strong at the Wound(Xenos Press) is now out.

The book is a collection of my essays fused into several narratives. They run the gamut from the highly personal (dealing with grief, the death of my wife, single parenting) to the acutely political. The book is about the quest for both inner and outer peace, the urgency of both, and the fragile future we are giving birth to.

“Koehler’s points are made with a combination of journalistic acumen and spiritual precision. He takes you by the brain and will not let you go to sleep, will not let you shut down, will not let you look away– and yet, in the same essay – will not let you lose hope, and will not let you stop believing in the spirit of goodness that lies within us.” – from the foreword, by Marianne Williamson

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One response to “Your Government on War

  1. The mythology of JFK must end. http://books.zcommunications.org/chomsky/rc/rc-c02-s14.html The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) is regularly invoked in this connection. On its import, we may turn to McGeorge Bundy, hardly one given to downplay the achievements of the Kennedy Administration, or its peaceful intent. The LTBT “was indeed limited,” he writes, and did not impede the technological advance in nuclear weaponry, which is what was important to US strategic planners. Bundy agrees with Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission under Kennedy and Johnson, that “what produced the treaty was steadily growing worldwide concern over the radioactive fallout from testing,” along with Kennedy’s ability to show “moderation” after facing down Khrushchev at the missile crisis, and the latter’s interest in appearing to be “on the same level” as the US after that demonstration of Soviet weakness. The same show of strength enabled JFK to deliver a “peace speech” in 1963, Bundy observes.52

    It also set off the next phase of the arms race, as the USSR tried to compensate for the weakness that had been exposed by JFK’s military build-up and uncompromising public posture, which helped bring the world all too close to nuclear war.

    Another common belief is that JFK was so incensed over the failure of the CIA at the Bay of Pigs that he vowed to smash it to bits, sowing the seeds for right-wing hatreds. Again, there are problems. As historians of the Agency have pointed out, it was Lyndon Johnson who treated the CIA “with contempt,” while JFK’s distress over the Bay of Pigs “in no way undermined his firm faith in the principle of covert operations, and in the CIA’s mission to carry them out.” JFK promised to “redouble his efforts” and to “improve” covert operations. He fired the CIA’s harshest critic (Chester Bowles) and appointed as Director the respected John McCone, who “revitalized the intelligence process,” though persistent failures kept the Agency from returning to the “golden age.” Nevertheless, the CIA was “reestablished…in White House favor” and became a “significant voice in policy making” under Kennedy, particularly in 1963, “as covert actions multiplied in Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and Africa” (including new instructions in June 1963 to increase covert operations against Castro). Under JFK, the CIA Director became “a principal participant in the administration, on a par with the Secretary of State or of Defense.” The enthusiasm of the Kennedy brothers for counterinsurgency and covert operations is, of course, notorious.53

    Roger Hilsman, Director of State Department Intelligence under Kennedy, writes of the efforts of the Administration to streamline intelligence operations and make them more “effective and appropriate,” overcoming the incompetence of recent operations so that later ones would better serve US interests. The intent is well illustrated by Hilsman’s discussion of CIA Director Allen Dulles’s defense of the successful overthrow of the governments of Iran (Mossadegh) and Guatemala (Arbenz). “Dulles is fundamentally right,” Hilsman states. If the Communists remain “antagonistic” and use subversion, then we have a right “to protect and defend ourselves” — by overthrowing a conservative parliamentary regime or a reformist democratic capitalist government and imposing a murderous terror state.54

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