Thursday, December 29, 2011

Better dead than red, revisited

Please excuse my flipping this post forward; it got buried...

Early this year, in a 'come to it cold' look at John F. Kennedy's inaugural address on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I was struck by its beleaguered tone -- its somber sense that freedom and even human life itself were on a double knife's edge of communist domination or nuclear war.

In Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, I just happened on a smidgeon of context:
In 1961 Americans were asked whether the country should "fight an all-out nuclear war rather than live under communist rule." Eighty-seven percent of men said yes, while "only 75 percent of the women felt that way -- proof that women are pacifist only in comparison to men of the same time and society (location 11629).
Never mind just now Pinker's point about gender. Reflect for a moment just how ready Americans were, or thought they were, to " bear any order to assure the survival and the success of liberty" (though nuclear war was not the burden that JFK had in mind).

Earlier in Better Angels, in a discussion of the odds of catastrophic conflict and the long-term trend toward greater peacefulness so grievously interrupted by the two world wars, Pinker highlights in passing the fact that for many years, many people expected a third cataclysm.  When Kennedy challenged a generation "tempered by war" to focus its energy on more peaceful pursuits, World War II was only sixteen years in the past -- a shorter interval than that between World Wars I & II. Given the rhythm of then-living memory, the Cuban Missile Crisis 21 months later may have felt right on schedule. Perhaps, too, that episode of brinksmanship concentrated people's minds, and its peaceful resolution somewhat changed expectations.

I have mentioned before that Pinker's Better Angels, whatever the weak points or blind spots in its argument, is altering my perception of almost everything I read.  How true that is of Kennedy's speech. My reread this morning gave me chills. First, because of that "beleaguered tone": the risk of global war felt so much more present then than now, for all our terrorism-triggered terror. Then, because Kennedy dared to envision a world without war.  The speech strikes a delicate balance between an effort to project peace through strength -- willingness to fight when necessary -- and a direct overture, to the Soviets and to the world at large, to channel human energy elsewhere:
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms--and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Only at the close is this appeal to our better angels directed at "my fellow citizens":
Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are--but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Imagine the neocon ridicule if Obama envisioned an end to war, rather than merely to nuclear weapons.  But Pinker's opus documents that we've gone a long way in 50 years toward meeting Kennedy's goal.  He deserves enduring honor for framing it in a way that resonated.

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