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4 November 2013

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."

By David Miliband

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.

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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.  

Go back to January 1957. A re-elected Eisenhower Administration has settled comfortably back into office just long enough for JFK to accuse it, in an article written for Foreign Affairs, of lassitude and timidity in the face of the great changes in the global environment. JFK named and defined this pivotal moment of changewhen he pointed to a “double pull” in international affairs. 

On one side was the pull of political identity in new states and in newly decolonized states around the world.  Kennedy saw that nationalism in its positive guise was a search for political freedom and self-development.

On the other side of the double pull was the search forunity and cooperation among established states which at the time – as it is today, for all its problems – was most noticeable in Europe. 

This “double pull” was the big insight through which JFK tried to understand and address the world’s great challenges.  

“The task”, wrote Kennedy, “is to strike a realistic balance between the legitimate appeals to national self-determination which pulsate through the uncommitted world and the gravitational pulls towards unity which grow from the technological and economic interdependence of modern states.”

The words are prophetic and profound.  Fifty six years on, the “double pull” deserves examination as a way of looking at the world. I will do so tonight from four angles.

First, it is worth revisiting how and why, in the aftermath of a destructive war, JFK came tounderstand the double pull of nationalism and integration.

Second, it is intriguing to speculate on the advice that JFK would be offering this generation of European leaders about how to move forward.  As economics and politics in Europe seem to be pulling in opposite directions, JFK would, I am sure, be seeking a way for them to be realigned.  It is worth asking how he would achieve that.

Third, it is clear that both sides of the double pull are under pressure in the international affairs of the present day.  In fact, the forces of independence and integration that JFK saw as separate are interacting. Where JFK saw developing world independence and industrialized world integration side by side, today those forces are bound together all around the world.  In Europe there remains demand foreconomic and political integration, notably in the Eurozone, but there are louder voices for loosening and even splintering.  Meanwhile, in Syria and Congo and Afghanistan, the power of national political identity is being overwhelmed by local, communal and sectarian ties.

Fourth, we need a better response to these challenges than the siren calls for isolationism in Europe and America.   As the leader of an NGO with 15000 staff in forty war and disaster-torn countries,my job is to argue for humanitarian action – and here too there is a clue about how to do so in JFK’s speeches.

JFK: Student, Soldier and Politician

John Kennedy first came to Britain in the 1930s, when his father was appointed US Ambassador by Franklin Roosevelt in 1938.  It is fair to say this was one of the more disastrous Ambassadorial appointments.  It also became a painful episode in the Kennedy family history.

Historian Thomas Powers has called Ambassador Kennedy’s embrace of appeasement a “failure of nerve”.  Joe Kennedy just didn’t think the allies could win – and he wanted the US to have no part with a defeat.

The Ambassador’s son tiptoed into this political and personal minefield in his 1940 undergraduate thesis “Why England Slept”.  It explains rather than defends, by arguing that appeasement by successive British governments was the product of public opinion.  

The thesis did distance the future President from his father’s views – but not by much.  Striking proof comes in a letter from father to son about a draft of thesis.  

Ambassador Kennedy was worried that the thesis “gave the appearance of trying to do a complete whitewash of the leaders (of the national government)”.  He counsels his son that leadership is not just about following public opinion and keeping your ear to the ground; it is also about a leader “educating the people when, in his opinion, they are off base”.  It is the difference between “good politics…and good patriotism”.  Good advice then and now.

By 1945, now a decorated and heroic war veteran, as well as best-selling author, JFK had moved on.  In a speech to the American Legion on 11 November 1945, he was calling for America to anchor stability in Europe through a commitment to a conquered Germany. 

It was clear he had learned the lessons of Versailles when he said: “Germany is in no position to build any kind of democratic government, and I do not think it is particularly desirable for the United States to leave Germany a political vacuum which the Russians might be only too glad to fill”.

The fear that the tragedy of history might repeat itselfruns through the picture that his biographer Robert Dallek paints  of JFK at the San Francisco conference of 1946.  This was the conference that led to the creation of the United Nations.  Dallek quotes Kennedy fearing “that the world organization that will come out of San Francisco will be the product of the same passions and selfishness that produced the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.”

This fear was rooted in experience. On his travels in the Autumn of 1951 through Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Thailand, French Indochina, Korea and Japan, Kennedy had seen the great power of nationalism.  He embraced the “search for identity” thatthese states were embarked upon. He understood that national identity was for them a source of emancipation.Indeed, he worried that the US was “definitely classed with the imperialist powers of western Europe.” 

JFK foresaw the Cold War, and signed up as a Cold Warrior, but his condemnation of the Suez imbroglio, and the French war in Algeria, came from both the heart and the brain.  One of his speeches was entitled “Imperialism – the Enemy of Freedom”.   It was pretty radical stuff.  He didn’t see how it was possible to win the propaganda war never mind the Cold War if the West was backing the wrong sides.  

JFK therefore arrived in office in 1961 with a remarkable breadth of exposure to the world.  And the “double pull”he diagnosed in opposition exercised him throughout his period in office.  You could say it taunted him.  

JFK knew the power of political nationalism yet was concerned by the spread of communism.  He was a strong supporter of the Truman Doctrine – committing resource to push back again Soviet support for governments around the world – as well as an antagonist of “imperialism”.  So there was tension there.

Meanwhile, he was attracted by the prospect of transatlantic cooperation with the new grouping of European states, but found General de Gaulle blocking British entry precisely because he feared such transatlantic cooperation.  So there was frustration too.

There are differences today, of course.  The economic balance of power has shifted in the world – towards emerging economies and away from the west.  The power of deep ethnic and religious divisions challenges national unity, from Libya to Syria and Sudan. And of course the Eurozone’s handling of the Euro crisis, and the long term failure to resolve some fundamental issues about the future of the EU, has not just fractured the hard won unity of the European project, but dealt a blow to the idea that this kind of shared sovereignty was a model of the future.

But the dilemmas posed in the article – identity versus cooperation, localism versus internationalism, hope versus fear – persist.  So we should ask ourselves two questions. What would JFK say about the future of Europe today? And how do we go beyond a “double pull’ analysis to respond to the global crises now around us.  

JFK and the Future of Europe

JFK’s view of European integration was conditioned by its extraordinary economic success.  German GDP had been growing at 8% a year from 1950-1960.  French GDP was growing at 4% a year and industrial production had doubled from 1947-57.  Britain was an unhappy outlier with the lowest GDP growth in western Europe.

European integration looked like the way of the future.  The economics spoke to it, and the politics demanded it.Today, of course, Europe is facing economic trauma not economic growth; the rise of far right parties rather than far left; a growing disconnect between people and institutions.  So what would JFK say?   I think there are six clear lessons from his experience.

Let us start with Britain and its role in Europe.  Kennedywas very clear that the interests of Britain and the interests of Europe were bound up in a common future.

Britain was the key to unlocking the positive potential of the EEC and the EEC was the key to preserving the economic prosperity and the political clout of Britain. 

Kennedy had no truck with an alliance of the English speaking peoples, and rejected outright the idea that Britain should retain its preferential trading ties to its excolonies while in the EU.  He thought the Commonwealth of only historical rather than current interest.

Probably the best summary of his position can be found in the transcript of Kennedy’s meeting with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in April 1961.  Kennedy applauded German efforts to unite western Europe.  The minute of the meeting then goes on:

“We had informed Prime Minister MacMillan that we hoped the UK would play a leading role in the economic and political integration of Europe and that the British would join the EEC.  It is best for the Atlantic Community if the UK joined the EEC on an unconditional basis.”

For the US, British entry into the EEC was in the words of Assistant Secretary of State George Ball “a kind of lodestone”.   Recalling a conversation with Ted Heath in 1961, Ball continued: “We were persuaded that, if the British were to join the Common Market with the recognition that it was not a treaty but a process and that it could lead – if it were to succeed – to a degree of unity which might be comprehended in a sort of federation of Europe, if Britain were prepared to do this and bring its unquestioned political genius to bear on this with a full appreciation of what it was doing, that it would make a very great contribution to the unity of Europe, to the cohesion of the West and to the strength of the whole free world.”

JFK had deep affection for Britain, and was a distant relative of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.  But he was also a deeply rational President, rather than a nostalgic one.  He had no time for wallowing in past glories. 

He saw the assets that Britain brought and should still bring to the European project. I have no doubt he would want us there still.  

Sitting as I now do in New York, there is bafflement at the idea that Britain might leave an institution that costs £1 per week per British citizen.  It is taken as unhappy proof that we are thinking about opting out of the 21stcentury.  The warnings to Euro-sceptics from political and business leaders could not be clearer: opting out of Europe is your choice, but if you do that then you count yourselves out of the Transatlantic Partnership too.  The message is simple: be very careful. You may end getting what you want and finding it was not what you wanted after all.

The second lesson is that JFK would be urging economic expansion on Europe’s leaders.

JFK was by no means a knee-jerk Keynesian. In the 1960 Presidential campaign, for example, he pledgedthat budgets would be balanced except in cases of “national emergency or serious recession”.   His Administration laced cautious Republicans in the Treasury with devout Keynesians in the Council of Economic Advisors. 

But when it came time to choose, Kennedy passionately embraced the cause of economic expansion.  By the end of 1962 he was sufficiently concerned by high unemployment and relatively low growth to set the stage for a massive ($13bn) tax cut, which helped drive unemployment below 4% and created 13 million jobs in the 1960s (vs 7 million in the 1950s)

His reasoning, set out in December 1962, is instructive.  The diagnosis was simple: “Surely the lesson of the last decade is that budgets deficits are not caused by wild-eyed spenders but by slow economic growth and periodic recessions, and any new recession would break all deficit records.” 

In his prescription he posed a classic Kennedy choice: “The choice is not between a tax cut deficit and a budgetary surplus.  It is between two different kinds of deficit…a chronic deficit of inertia as the unwanted result of a restricted economy or a temporary deficit of transition to achieve a budget surplus.”

Kennedy had seen how the Depression of the 1930s was a threat to democracy across Europe.  Today unemployment is 12 per cent in the Eurozone – and above 25% in Spain and Greece, with youth unemployment in those countries somewhere between 50 and 75%.  Investment is down nearly 20% on 2007 levels.  GDP is 3% below the pre-crisis peak. 

Judged by what he did in office, JFK would now be telling European leaders that they need to get Europe moving by stimulating the demand side of the economy. 

The third lesson is that JFK would be on the side of those who want to expand the circle of free trade. He described his Trade Expansion Act of 1962 as “the most important international piece of legislation affecting economies since the passage of the Marshall Plan.”  It allowed the President to cut tariffs on all goods by 50% and eliminate them entirely on good produced primarily in the US and EEC.

So JFK would, I am sure, be a big supporter of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  He would probably be wryly amused that we are still talking about a free trade areas across the Atlantic fifty years after he first mooted it, but he would be strongly supportive, as much if not more because of the geopolitical symbolism of Europe and America setting a global example as because of the economic gain in the short term.

This raises a fourth point which is that it is vital toensure that the division between the Euro Ins and theEuro Outs does not become a new division in Europe.  JFK would argue that although the collapse of the Euro would be a disaster for Europe, Europe is about so muchmore than the Euro. 

In other words JFK would surely be strongly opposed to a “two tier” Europe and make the case for an expansive European agenda for 28 members of the EU, not just 17, led by a strong European Commission. 

This means a deeper and stronger single market, consistent with Prime Minister Cameron’s speech in January 2013.  But it means more.  JFK summed it up as follows: “We believe that a united Europe will be capable of playing a great role in the common defence, of responding more generously to the needs of poorer nations, of joining with the US and others in lowering trade barriers, resolving problems of commerce, commodities and currency, and developing coordinated policies in all economic, political and diplomatic areas.”

JFK saw nothing untoward in different European countries leading on different aspects of European integration – what today we call variable geometry.  And critically important, he saw the need for strong institutions to represent the collective interest. 

So I think JFK would worry about the diminishing power of the European Commission, and argue strongly that a confederation of 28 countries needs a strong umpire to hold the ring between disparate nations.

The fifth point is about the breadth of the European Union.  JFK would agree with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt that the future of Europe will be forged in Istanbul as well as London, though he would probably add Belgrade and Pristina as well as Kiev and Moscow to the list.

Turkey loomed large in the Cuban missile crisis, and its membership of Nato was already in the 1960s a critical bridge to the East.  Today Turkey confronts chaos to its neighbours South and East, and indifference bordering on disdain from Europeans to the West. This is a dangerous combination.

There are good reasons to be concerned about constitutional norms and human rights in Turkey, but every reason for these concerns to lead to closer embrace by the EU rather than further distance.

The sixth and final point is about the EU’s role in the wider world.  I think Kennedy would support the US ‘pivot’ to Asia, but would argue that if the US is going to pivot to Asia, it should do so not alone but with the European Union. 

The case for recognizing the significance of what is happening in the East is overwhelming.  With 50 million people a year joining the global middle class, the economic terms of trade are clearly changing. 

So the pivot would not primarily be military. It would beeconomic, political, cultural and educational.  But for JFK that would increase the need for transatlantic cooperation, with the clear aim of engaging the rising powers in a rules-based international system. 

JFK would see the power of European and North American markets in shaping global regulation.  He would recognize that the combined soft power of the two Continents was greater than the sum of the two parts.  He would be urging the Chinese leadership to opt into a shared system of global rules and institutions – and would see a western united front as key to that. 

JFK’s vision of an “Atlantic Partnership” was therefore deeply-felt and properly thought-through.  The idea of a double pull remains powerful and relevant today.  But we need to go beyond it.  Today’s problems do not fall into the easy categorization that his big idea implies.  

Beyond the Double Pull

Kennedy talked as if identity and integration were two poles around which different parts of the world – developing and developed – would spin on separate axes.  Yet today they are spinning around the same axis.  Local identity on the one hand, global engagement on the other, and the relationship between them, is the issue of our time. The humanitarian sector presents some acute examples of this.

Here are the top issues on my desk as President of the IRC at the moment:

There are 300 000 Syrian children in Lebanon without education.  Syria’s refugee crisis with over two million expelled from the country, 5 million displaced within it, neighbouring countries buckling under the strain, populations inside the country cut off by the fighting, is the defining crisis of our times. 

Western nations are withdrawing from military operations in Afghanistan, currently costing the US $10 billion a month.  But the humanitarian needs of the country are immense, and although it wouldn’t be popular recognize that Afghanistan is going to need our help for many years to come.

Africa is experiencing an economic boom the like of which it has never known, but for those parts of the continent left behind by strife and poverty, the gapbetween the best and the rest is growing not diminishing.  So we at IRC are thinking about how to bring our work to scale in Africa, working with the local business and the African philanthropic community as well as traditional western donors.

Climate change is adding scale and complexity to refugee flows, with the rate of natural disastersrising from one every three days in the 1980s to one every day in 2010.  Yet there is no legal recognition of a climate refugee in any legal text.  

One response to these challenges is try and protect our own interests and identity by rejecting global engagement and integration, be it economic or social or political.  You hear it a lot. The left is fearful of the economics of globalization; the right fears immigration and the social impact.  

But where the isolationist spirit is fearful, JFK’s spirit was fearless. JFK recognized the economic pain associated with globalization; he did not minimize the challenges of large scale movement of people; he spoke himself of how the American people were tired of war and leery of foreign entanglement; but the logical and emotional pull of international cooperation was for him overwhelming.

JFK would be shocked that while there are fewer wars than ever before, there are more refugees fleeing conflict than ever before; astonished that in a world where there average person is three times richer than fifty years ago, absolute poverty remains a scar on the lives of 1.2 billion people living on less than $1 a day; appalled that UN funding calls for humanitarian aid for the Syria crisis are only forty per cent funded.

Parts of the developing world are gripped by a cycle of civil conflict, poverty, corruption and resource stress; meanwhile the industrialized world is hesitant about global engagement.   If we are not careful, this will be the dangerous double pull of our times.  Not a virtuous circle but a vicious one.

The alternative is contained in JFK’s own speeches. He glimpsed a future in which interdependence was the overwhelming fact of international affairs, and international engagement, respectful of the weak but led by the strong, as the only answer.

In Philadelphia on July 4th 1962, JFK’s Independence Day speech had christened the US Constitution a ‘Declaration of Interdependence’.  He used a great phrase: “the indivisible liberty of all not the individual liberty of one”.  He asserted that the drive for independence around the world was coming to a successful close, and that “a great new effort for interdependence” was the agenda of the future.

JFK never lived to see what he called “not just peace in our time but peace for all time”.  But I think we can say with confidence that he would view the end of the Cold War not as the end of the business of peace-making but the start.  Far from diluting the need for international engagement, he would see that it creates new possibilities and requirements for it.  In this interdependent world we cannot choose to shelter behind the walls of a fortress.

The reason is that JFK’s internationalism was driven by humanity and not just anti-communism.  Every young American who participates in the Peace Corps – serving in a poor foreign land – knows that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to mankind a decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.  It is a spirit I see every day in my new job.  From post-trauma support for abused women to medical help in conflict zones, IRC staff inspire me with their bravery, compassion, and innovation.  And many of them have been through the Peace Corps.

Today, we need an International Peace Corps not just an American one.  But as I see every day in my job, we need more than that.  Innovation in the way aid is delivered.  Partnerships between philanthropy, business and government.  Economic renewal, by the poor for the poor, as a central part of the development story.  

JFK managed to combine confidence with humility in describing the responsibilities of western countries to each other and to the wider world.  Respectful of other cultures and countries, he had a profound belief that the value system of human rights, social justice and scientific rationality which united Europe and America was in fact a universal value system and not just awestern one. 


The official history of the IRC includes a nice story of President Kennedy’s practical humanity.  At the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the early 1960s, the IRC set up in Hong Kong to support Chinese refugees.  We also argued for change in the US policy of excluding Chinese refugees.  In response President Kennedy changed the quota from a token 105 a year to 10,000 over a two year period. 

Today they and their children and grandchildren are contributing to American society.  There is a modern day parallel in the Syria crisis, where UNHCR have proposed 30 000 resettlements, but the US and UK have yet tofollow Germany and Spain in stepping up.  These vulnerable people desperately need a change in policy.

Since JFK left office everything has changed but one thing has stayed the same.  

Kennedy’s great insight was to know that we can live together better and more peaceably if we find ways to co-operate. Through common institutions we come together. We talk, discuss, and find ways to live in this world that technology and  mobility is making smaller.

Office cuts heroes down to size.  Hindsight allows us to put microscopes on the flaws.  

But the election of John Kennedy to the Presidency over Richard Nixon remains a relief and a blessing.  

The 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination will evoke sadness, admiration and nostalgia.  But the insights he developed for the 1960s remain relevant in the 21st century.  They are the true living legacy of JFK. They are a gift for our times.