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David Miliband's speech on the lessons from JFK: full text

"Kennedy’s great insight was to know that we can live together better and more peaceably if we find ways to co-operate."

International Rescue Committee president and former foreign secretary David Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images.

It is a true honour to have been asked by the Kennedy Memorial Trust to deliver this lecture marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.

I first encountered the memory of John Kennedy in 1978.  I was a teenager spending a year with my parents in a suburb of Boston. The November of that year was marked by moving remembrance of the terrible day 15 years before when Boston’s most famous 20th century son had been gunned down in Dallas.  It was only ten years since the assassination of Robert Kennedy, so the wounds were especially raw.

A decade on, I was in Boston again for the 25thanniversary of the assassination.  This time, however, I was there because of the Kennedy Scholarships set up to fund the studies of young British graduate students at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  My own personal debt to the scholarships is obvious.  Along with 500 graduates of the program I am honoredto be charged with promoting causes dear to the late President’s heart.

I recall the mood in 1988 as less sombre than a decade earlier.  The time that had passed had allowed pain to give way to celebration, leavened as always with pathos.

Now, fifty years on, the half-century gives us, I think, an opportunity for another reassessment: neither hagiography nor jealous backbiting.

John Kennedy’s achievements in office were real.  Not just what he did, but what he stopped.    Twice he averted Armageddon in his handling of the Berlin and Cuban Missile crises.  Knowing the pain of war, and burned by the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, he learned his lesson. JFK’s vision - from preventing nuclear proliferation to supporting the spiritual conscience of the nation through the arts - was inspiring not just in America but across the world.    

There are important caveats.  Kennedy did articulate a comprehensive vision of civil rights, providing the template for Johnson’s wave of reforms, but only shortly before his death.  He might have avoided the quagmire that became Vietnam, but that hope rests on faith more than proof.  He did get the American economy moving, but he did not address the key supply side problems in the US economy.

Nonetheless, JFK’s life and Presidency are a testament to two of the greatest causes known to progressive politics: the promise of democratic government at home and the optimism of international engagement abroad.  It is on the latter point that I am focused tonight.