President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during a visit to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, on Jan. 22, 2015.
Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama to follow in John F. Kennedy’s historic footsteps

When President Barack Obama takes the stage to discuss the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday morning, he will do so from American University — the same location where President John F. Kennedy outlined a plan to curb nuclear arms in a historic address delivered more than 50 years ago.

Known as one of Kennedy’s most powerful speeches, “Strategy of Peace” laid out a hopeful, yet realistic route for world peace at a time when the U.S. and Soviet Union faced the potential for an escalating nuclear arms race. Kennedy addressed American University graduates mere months after the fierce standoff over the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time, world powers were gathered in Geneva to discuss complete nuclear disarmament.

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The hurdles Kennedy faced now seem distant, yet his words still resonate when taken in the context of Obama’s proposed Iran nuclear deal — a plan reached in mid-July after lengthy, painstaking negotiations in Geneva between world powers.

“The bottom line is this: This nuclear deal meets the national security interest of the United States and our allies,” Obama said in a press conference following the announcement of a deal. “It prevents the most serious threat – Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon – which would only make the other problems that Iran may cause even worse. That’s why this deal makes our country and the world safer and more secure.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that under the auspices of the deal, Iran could still assemble nuclear weapons after the plan expires in 15 years — they could do so much sooner, he warned, if the nation decides to cheat.  

The deal, which includes lifting sanctions on Iran, is currently going through a 60-day review period and will face an eventual vote in Congress. Many lawmakers on the right have come out strongly against it, claiming the deal does not go far enough in limiting Iran and safeguarding Israel from possible attack. Presidential candidate and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham likened the plan to throwing gasoline on a fire.

Meanwhile, Obama has vowed to veto any attempt to block the deal.

Obama said in July that he expected robust debate over the deal. Similarly, Kennedy made the point on June 10, 1963, that conflict and argument were to be expected in working toward the peace he envisioned. Kennedy encouraged the country to focus on practical steps toward peace, rather than unrealistic, idealistic dreams of infinite goodwill.

“There is no single, simple key to this peace — no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers,” Kennedy said. “Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process — a way of solving problems.”

In eloquent language, the Massachusetts native also warned of the dire threat nuclear arms posed to the world and encouraged persistence in addressing the complex challenges at hand. Kennedy insisted his proposal to ban nuclear tests and prevent the spread of nuclear arms would “decrease the prospects of war.”

“Surely this goal is sufficiently important to require our steady pursuit, yielding neither to the temptation to give up the whole effort nor the temptation to give up our insistence on vital and responsible safeguards,” he declared.

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Kennedy also cautioned against hopelessness and cynicism. “Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament — and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude,” he said. “I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude — as individuals and as a Nation — for our attitude is as essential as theirs.”

His speech at American University went on to be published in Soviet newspapers, and reportedly contributed to changing the attitude of Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. On July 25, less than two months after Kennedy’s speech, and after 12 days of negotiations, world powers completed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. On September 24, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of 80-19.

Even before his success in pushing the treaty through, Kennedy presented a realistic take on the limitations of such a plan — while also highlighting how very necessary it was.

“No treaty, however much it may be to the advantage of all, however tightly it may be worded, can provide absolute security against the risks of deception and evasion,” he said in his historic address. “But it can — if it is sufficiently effective in its enforcement and if it is sufficiently in the interests of its signers — offer far more security and far fewer risks than an unabated, uncontrolled, unpredictable arms race.”

Obama will likely use his platform at American University to further highlight how the nuclear plan with Iran would provide a safer path than the current uncertainty. How history will receive his speech, however, remains to be seen. 

Barack Obama, history, Iran, John F. Kennedy, Nuclear and Nuclear Policy

Obama to follow in John F. Kennedy's historic footsteps