Marking the 50th anniversary of the final address to the United Nations by United States President John F. Kennedy today, senior UN officials reaffirmed his strong support for concerted multilateral action to tackle the daunting challenges facing the planet.
On 20 September 1963 Mr. Kennedy delivered a speech in the UN General Assembly Hall which frankly acknowledged that suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union were at an all-time high on the heels of the so-called “Cuban missile crisis.”
He said that while the long shadows of conflict and crisis envelope the world, the delegates were meeting “in an atmosphere of rising hope”, and at a moment of comparative calm following the approval of the landmark Treaty of Moscow – concluded by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States - to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water.
Speaking to delegations following a black and white film of Mr. Kennedy’s address, UN General Assembly Vuk Jeremic said today’s world is not threatened by an acute missile crisis “but by the runaway menace of growing economic instability, rising social inequality and spiralling environmental degradation.”
He stressed that for all its imperfections, the “UN is the only institution we have that can credibly establish the parameters of a universal transition to sustainability.”
Referring to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Brazil in 2012, and the ongoing days of action to reach the anti-poverty goals known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Mr. Jeremic said, “I would like to believe that historians will look back on Rio as our pivotal point, and that like JFK before us, we shall have the courage to see further ahead, aim higher than in the past, and aspire for more than taking a step or two away from the precipice.
“With “hope, confidence, and imagination,” it is now our turn to “move the world” in a new direction.”
In that final address, Mr. Kennedy said: “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, noting the start of steps that would lead to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty.
His presence at the UN was “not a sign of crisis, but of confidence,” Mr. Kennedy said. “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.”
He stressed that the UN would not survive as a static organization, and that the authors of the UN Charter did not intend that it be frozen in perpetuity: “The United Nations, building on its successes and learning from its failures, must be developed into a genuine world security system.”
In his message for the commemoration, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Mr. Kennedy’s vision extended far beyond a divided world, noting human rights, rule of law, financing for UN peacekeeping operations, as well as wastefulness of military spending and imperative of tolerance across racial and religious lines
“In his final speech to the United Nations, President Kennedy expressed deep appreciation for this Organization, but he also said ‘what the United Nations has done in the past is less important than the tasks for the future’.
“Today we remember President Kennedy’s visionary leadership and his principled ideals. But more importantly, we look ahead with even greater resolve to realize peace, development and human rights everywhere in our world,” Mr. Ban said in a message delivered by Deputy-Secretary-General Jan Eliasson.
Mr. Eliasson also told the participants a personal story about his days as an exchange student in Decatur, Indiana, a state in the United States, and how a promise from his host family led to a meeting with Mr. Kennedy, then a presidential candidate.
“A 17-year-old boy, khaki pants, sport shirt, crew cut, I was at this dinner…and in front of this whole gathering, the master of ceremonies says ‘Jack, welcome to Indiana, but I tell you one thing, you wouldn’t have been in this room if it hadn’t been for this Swedish exchange student’,” Mr. Eliasson said.
Mr. Kennedy then wrote on a menu, which Mr. Eliasson said he kept, “Thank you for bringing me to Indiana. I wish you a pleasant stay in the United States.”
Jeffrey Sachs, economist and head of the High-Level Advisory Panel Forum to oversee progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also praised Mr. Kennedy’s legacy, noting that “he helped to save the world from the brink of annihilation… and he spoke words that will live for as long as humanity survives.”
Mr. Sachs hailed Mr. Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, for the “profound care” and “judgement on which our lives depended” to hold back.
They proved at the height of the Cold War that the two superpowers seemingly on a path of collision could find a way to peace, Mr. Sachs said.
Also addressing the event, Kerry Kennedy, a human rights activist, disclosed personal stories related to the Cold War standoff in 1962.
She also disclosed how her father, Robert F. Kennedy, and Mr. Kennedy had travelled to Vietnam, and despite strong political pressure, he strove to withdraw the bulk of US military personnel from the South East Asian country.
Ms. Kennedy said that her uncle had wanted his epithet to be: He kept the peace.