Kennedy’s UN Speech in 1961

In writing for my post on The Sword of Damocles, I noted that the first reference of the sword of Damocles was made by President Kennedy at a UN speech in 1961 in reference to nuclear weapons. However, I noticed that it is possible Kennedy is using extortion to push for the elimination of nuclear weapons.  Let’s look.

Speech before the United Nations (UN)

His purpose in the speech is two-fold. First, he wants to pay tribute to the deceased Secretary General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold, and stop calls for the creation of a triumvirate leadership by the Soviet Union.  Since the inception of the United Nations, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China hold permanent veto on the UN Security Council (UNSC).  Any one veto is enough to stop the proposals of the UNSC.  The Soviet Union was utilizing this with great effect to keep U.S.-led proposals on Berlin, nuclear testing and other issues from moving forward.  To further solidify their success in the UNSC, the Soviet Union had been pushing to reorganize the Secretariat to provide the Soviet Union a veto on the UN Secretariat by requiring unanimous consent amongst three equal leaders–the triumvirate.  This would keep any unfavored action from proceeding inside the UN.  Kennedy appeals to the body that this would stop the peace the UN has worked on creating and is thus his reference

But to give this organization three drivers-to permit each great power to decide its own case, would entrench the Cold War in the headquarters of peace.

Second, he desires to move forward on a nuclear testing ban, specifically one that would ban all nuclear testing, but is also taking the moral high-ground in proposing an all out atmospheric testing ban known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty.  This is one measure that the Soviet Union has been blocking within the UNSC.  To accomplish these goals, Kennedy is appealing to the UN through the fear of nuclear annihilation and ineffectiveness to resist the change proposed by the Soviet Union and to eliminate the weapons of war which hold the world in fear.  This extortion is not all bad because it demonstrates something the U.S. made clear during the early days of the Cold War—the moral high-ground of the United States.  Kennedy is using the moral capital of the U.S. in contrast to the Soviet Union to push forward and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Is this extortion?

As I have shown in previous posts extortion is using threats to get someone to do something that they would not normally do.  I don’t think that Kennedy’s speech qualifies here.  He is appealing to reason regarding the destructive power of nuclear weapons and wanting to build trust to prevent force instead of relying on mutual assured destruction.  Ironically this mutual assured destruction provided Kennedy great latitude during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the nuclear triad allowed flexible negotiations with the Soviet Union without sacrificing capability; something the Soviets could not say the same.

So, while Kennedy’s speech here is appealing to the horror of nuclear war and destruction to accomplish his goals of extending the moral capital of the U.S., he isn’t extorting the population or the UN because achieving a world free of nuclear weapons is something anyone would do.  However, today as then it still is not probable.

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