A Plea for Peace

Said the king to the people everywhere,
“Listen to what I say–
Pray for peace, people everywhere!”
Noel Regney, 1962

…[W]herever we are, we must all, in our daily lives, live up to the age-old faith that peace and freedom walk together….we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on–not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.

–John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1963

My critics will undoubtedly say that this I am very late–perhaps even too late–now that it’s Boxing Day to post a Christmas-related message. I generally find my critics easy to dismiss, but I do have to admit in this instance that there is some merit to their argument, especially if I admit that I intended to post this on Christmas Eve, and didn’t really have time. I can’t really apologize. After all, the Wizard of Monadnock has to take his own advice, doesn’t he? After all, I’ve been talking for some time now about the importance of celebrating, and it would be awfully hypocritical of me to skip that part in favor of writing through the Midwinter Holiday Season. No, I took plenty of time to celebrate and observe–and I loved every minute of it. I’m very lucky, and hope you can look back on the last week or so and feel the same. If not–and either way–the point is that we still have 11 more days of celebration and observance to go, so it’s not too late–not for you to bust out some good times and not for me to write my Christmas post. Even if it is Boxing Day. In fact, to let you in on a little secret, this isn’t even going to be my only Christmas-themed post. And though the solstice was nearly a week ago, I’m going to write more about that, too. With more than half our allotted days still ahead of us, let not the celebration, observance, and, most importantly, mirth cease!

To be as clear as is possible, I need to start by stating unequivocally that I am not a pacifist. I do not believe that the use of force in and of itself is in and of itself immoral or otherwise wrong. I believe, very strongly, that there are times when to avoid fighting is a less moral act than to assent to (or even initiate) combat. I believe things exist which can be accurately termed with words like evil and injustice and that those things, if correctly identified, and if at all within our power, should be defeated by any means necessary. I think that Ghandi was really great, and it is never a bad thing to admire Ghandi or his successful strategy, but I also think it borders on dangerous to use Ghandi as an excuse to ignore the fact that most major changes in human civilizations (just as most major changes in nature and the cosmos) do not occur through passive resistance and, in fact, involve a great deal of violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. also provided a tremendous example of extreme restraint and peacefulness–the man was an American saint and martyr, I can’t emphasize enough–but the struggle for African-American civil rights was never monolithic, nor was it confined to a single isolated period in the early sixties, and the whole story, displaying the ultimately collective influence of disparate forces, includes many less pacifistic elements. The positively revolutionary pacifism of Jesus, who just celebrated his birthday up in heaven (kidding!), is both inspired and inspiring. The notion that we must ourselves be peaceful in order to achieve a just peace, that we must ourselves be transformed if we wish to transform our society, is perhaps at once the most challenging and poignant example we could possibly draw from. Yet despite the great power and truth in his teachings, he was crucified by intolerant Romans and frustrated Judeans, and the benevolence of his legacy as carried on by his “followers” over the centuries, is very much in question, if not outright absurd.

Yet, despite all of this, I am routinely labeled an ideological hippie, and it’s not that far off the mark. I do oppose most wars and I have never believed that patriotism and love of country necessitate a militant or imperial disposition. (If you require additional anecdotal evidence of my bona fides, I’ll share that I have, in fact, even marched in multiple anti-war protests in my day, as they say.) It could perhaps be argued that I am so frequently assigned this category because I essentially do not believe the motivation of “economic interests” to ever be a just one for the sake of war. I believe that quite strongly, in fact.

Yet how often are our broad and stated political positions at odds with the character we exhibit in our own personal lives? Confession time–I view all the people in the world in only three categories: ally, enemy, and noncombatant (as in, “does not matter). An argument can be made that this is a defensive and advantageous strategic outlook with regard to my own status and well-being, but a similar argument can (and often is, even by myself) be made that this is simplistic and unhealthy. It is certainly not peaceful. I don’t mean to suggest that I choose to view the world in this manner. So far as I can control my thoughts, I attempt to ratchet up the empathy, to acknowledge complexity, to recognize the myriad shades in between the black and the white. I mean, I’m a wizard–I have to take a higher view of things. At the same time, I’m just a guy, and my view is often just as lowly as yours, and everyone else’s. On some days, from the moment I wake up, I believe myself to be doing battle with my enemies. Sometimes my enemies are individuals–degrading or inhuman superiors at work, or even just those I must encounter whose values and manner of living I find to be despicable. I have a very hard time applying peaceful principles to my thoughts and often actions regarding these enemies. Sometimes my enemies are larger forces–the Man, the System, capitalism, modern materialism, hyper-individualism–and on those days I find my very soul engaged in a battle with absolutely everything I see before my eyes. This is not a peaceful approach, nor does it have peaceful effects. I can say from experience that my spirit sustains injury and loss of vitality  from a constant and unnecessary combat posture.

At the same time, while part of my conscious mind wants to promote tranquility, another very powerful part remains convinced of the righteousness of my cause. Is it not so that justice, righteousness, proper values, awakened life, and humanity as a whole require a passionate and militant defense? I have said as much before. But in my most honest moments (like right now), I am forced to confront the fact that a position of constant struggle fails to make a dent in my self-declared forces of evil, fails to crush the authority figures above me or the despicably inferior peers beneath me, and mostly just makes me tired and cranky.

I lose my energy, my vitality, my peace–and get nothing in return. And for the most part, while other parts of my larger mind can to some degree compensate for these base aspects with reason and insight, I can never turn it off completely.

Politically, I’m a hard-left independent, and the word “bipartisanship” makes me want to break things. I am guilty of dehumanizing my political opponents, and even as I admit this, I have a very hard time figuring out how to humanize them. I know that they are people just like me. But they sure as shit don’t seem like it. Recently, I listened to a podcasted post-election sermon delivered at All Soul’s Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the largest and wildest Unitarian-Universalist church in the country, if not the world. Preaching the sermon that Sunday was the church’s senior minister, Marlin Lavanhar, who is, frankly a brilliant and inspired sage who speaks in a language everyone can plainly understand. Listen for yourself if you’ve got the time–he makes, as a seemingly liberal crusader for social, spiritual, and political justice, a typically brilliant and inspired case regarding the ills of political vitriol and the need to curb it. He describes the prevalence of a political atmosphere that allows the 2012 presidential elections to literally end friendships, to preclude cooperation in an obviously divided country, to eliminate trust and empathy between fellow people. He reveals that the board of All Souls is evenly split between the two political parties, which is a minor shock since everyone knows that all UU’s are democrats. Then again, it is Oklahoma.

I know it’s brilliant. I know it’s inspired. I know it’s right. But while I am grateful for Reverend Lavanhar for challenging me and my mindset, I was unable to agree with the proposed peace on the table.  Those people are just too different, too backwards, too ignorant, too unreachable. Just like most people. Those people represented the human element of the forces of Darkness itself, the ones who stand intentionally blocking the sun, those who block true liberty, those who oppress others, especially those less powerful than themselves. I must oppose them, oppose them to the ends of the earth, for so long as I have strength in my bones and means at my core, the world demands it of me. The good people deserve it. The weak people need an advocate. Those people want to let the lonely perish–or want to cause them to perish, even–they want to worship money and embrace mindlessness, cruelty, and true profanity. Those people might have the same basic homo sapien DNA as me, but they aren’t the same as me at all. There’s absolutely nothing the same about us. We’re not the same kind. Forget peace with these bastards.

I really do try not to be like this. I try to still my inner disposition into something resembling tranquility, and sometimes I even kind of succeed. If it can’t be said that I try to view the others that I encounter with openness and assuming the best (and it can’t), it can be said that I try to approach opposition and antagonism with breadth and acceptance. I try to be humble and remind myself that the most effective way to advance my cause is to shine brighter and take a higher path. It’s not entirely in vain. I don’t always fail. But, more often than I would like, I find myself waking up thinking the words of Michael Corleone: “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies, that’s all.”

***

And so this is Christmas, and Christmas is, in our culture, a syncretic (at best) amalgamation of often special and effective traditions glossing over a bizarre capitalist shitshow. The traditions of family togetherness, song-singing, festive lights, Significant Holiday Meal(s), gift-giving (at its core of generosity and intimacy), the birth of Jesus (though he is ignored or paid only token recognition by virtually everyone involved in the holiday today and irrespective of whether you view the event literally, spiritually or purely on a metaphorical level), and, often very vaguely, peace, are extremely important to us as individuals and as a collective society. Whatever distaste we may feel for the frenzied economic emptiness that quite truly drives our present mid-winter festival, it’s the only time the vast majority of us in this country share a complex and extended holiday or celebration. Think about that for a minute. We can’t afford to lose that. We’re compelled to focus on the positive aspects, and perhaps to accept that we cannot mitigate or change the nature of the unseemly underbelly.

And we can’t deny that, in our only truly shared celebratory experience each year, peace sneaks in. It’s almost never overt. We don’t stop wars for Christmas (for what it’s worth, we don’t stop wars for the Olympics anymore, either). We don’t generally use Christmas as an occasion for a broad societal discussion of ending wars and embracing peace, although perhaps we should. But very quietly, perhaps even subversively, peace is out there during these days, floating in the air, lurking and prowling, just as present if not as prominent as the fat caricature of St. Nicholas himself. I mean, the symbolism of peace is everywhere–the quiet of winter is peaceful, the prettiness of decorative lights against the backdrop of early darkness is peaceful, pine trees are peaceful, candles are peaceful, the happiness of children is peaceful and on and on. We even pay vocal lip service to peace in no less than twelve major traditional Christmas songs (there may be more, but you’ll quickly find twelve in a cursory Google search), and we can actually largely thank the Bible for this. Those passages both directly describing and closely associated with the Nativity of Jesus, the birth of the Christ Child into the world, contain a high proportion of declarations of peace and advocacy thereof. Peace on Earth, good will to men!

Unfortunately, like so much of Christmas’ biblical roots, I’ve often observed that even when the words are sung, and even when sung with some sincere feeling, no one is ever really singing for peace, as in, like, ending wars, except for John Lennon.

Besides Lennon and Ono’s plea (which brings tears to my eyes even when I hear it in June), and despite my known status as a technical non-Christian, I’ve also always been drawn to the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It’s a pretty tune to me, musically, but I’m also drawn to its simple story of a message that begins with a sentient wind telling a talking sheep about a star in the sky and makes its way to end with a king telling the “people everywhere” to pray for peace. I love the innocence of the message’s procession through a socio-political hierarchy, and the fact that the spirit of goodness wins, in this song. The king, instead of making war or talking politics, implores us to pray for peace. Yes, it’s because of the message of the child, but I don’t care what kind of atheist or anti-Christian you are, praying for peace is something that I get behind and that everyone should get behind.

This year, however, I viewed this song in an entirely different light after reading its background, freely available on Wikipedia. The song was written in October 1962, which happened to be the moment worldwide humanity undoubtedly came closest to self-annihilation, also known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In all seriousness, tens of millions of people, if not hundreds of millions, almost got blown up at that time. Few places in America were more certain to be incinerated than New York City, which was where lyricist Noel Regney was at the time. The inspiration for the song came as he saw babies being pushed in carriages down the sidewalk, and thought of the fact that those very babies had a decent chance of being annihilated at any moment. If this sounds morbid or overdramatic to us now, I can assure you that it was nothing, during October of 1962, short of honest realism. Out of October 1962 and December 2012, one of those months actually held the possibility of being the end of the world. So when you take another look at the lyrics of this beautiful song, there’s a reason the star the night wind sees has a “tail as big as a kite.” There’s a reason the song the lamb hears is “high above the trees, with a voice as big as the seas.” This guy is talking about a nuclear bomb, not as an abstraction or a plot device in an action movie, but as something that could strike at any moment.

When you take another look, when you take another listen to the song, knowing what you now know about it, you might be able to understand why the king–who can just as easily make war or engage in some form of nefarious exploitation–would plead for peace. Sometimes, the alternative to peace is annihilation of all parties involved. Maybe, just maybe, going down that path I often tread to righteous battle with my categorized and cataloged enemies, can lead only to the end of all of us.

Even when I want to crush or eliminate those people, those so different from myself as to be apparently a different kind of creature, I find that I don’t want everybody destroyed. Even the worst of them…maybe I don’t want them to win or gain power, but deep in my heart, despite my mental inclinations, I don’t want them snuffed out. So if you present it to me in such stark contrast and such clear terms, that the only two options available are peace and death, the choice becomes clear. It becomes imperative.

I’ll go a little further out on a limb and suggest that, listening to the song with these informed ears, even those of us who are technically non-Christian in one form or another can begin to see why the message being passed along centrally concerns “the child”–the child who will bring us goodness and light and whom we honor with gifts of silver and gold and worship. One might say–and I’m inclined to agree–that the notion that we require a supernatural solution to our worldly affairs, that we must either individually or collectively be somehow “saved by God and/or his son” can be disempowering and lead many to abandon all action, improvement, or effort as futile when it’s not. At the same time, look at what we did with nuclear weapons. We almost blew all of us up, on purpose, and we very much still could, whether on purpose or by mistake. Case in point, during the Johnson administration several years after the pinnacle of danger that autumn, we, the good guys of the United States, had as our backup plan, in the event anything strange or bad seemed to happen, a procedure for blowing up…everyone, regardless of what had actually even occurred or who (if anyone) was at fault.

Sometimes, it’s okay for even the staunchest humanists among us to admit that we really could, you know, use some help sometimes. You don’t have to adopt an overarching reliance on skyward assistance that may well never come in order to admit that the entirely verifiable humans might not always be able to extricate themselves from webs of their own making. It may not hurt, at certain times, when our natures as both individuals and as “fallen” societies are unable to embrace the higher (and indeed much safer) ways of peace and empathy, for us to draw upon some higher source of light which exists within us yet also above and all around us. There is an Almighty. There is a unified cosmic mosaic. I can’t and won’t promise any kind of neatly packaged “success,” but when it seems that we cannot think or do or embody what is right and what is peaceful, I will promise that it will never hurt us to look upward and receive whatever we may be so fortunate as to be given.

***

On one side of the high-stakes tensions of October 1962 (“our” side) was President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a man who possessed, even in all of this, enough hope and optimism and faith to state that “Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.” That’s a bold and challenging statement, given what we know, but that’s not even the half of it. JFK and his counterpart on the Soviet side, Nikita Khrushchev (with whom he exchanged very personal and sincere letters), had at least one thing in common–both were surrounded by hard-liners pushing for an ultimate show-down between the United States and the Soviet Union, east and west, capitalism and communism. On the American side, the arguments (and peculiarities of those making them) varied, but followed a general theme–that the Soviet Union was bent on world domination, that nuclear war was inevitable in the long run, and that we needed to start a nuclear war immediately, before the Soviets could catch up to our arsenal and technology.  There were men at the highest levels of both the military and the executive branch openly describing victory scenarios in which tens of millions of Americans would die–but we’d kill more of them. They called that a win. These were people who were all around President Kennedy, passionately making the case for victory at a cost which should objectively be considered utterly unjustifiable for any cause.

Merely thinking about that prospect should give us pause. It should give me pause when I contemplate my own “victory” over my antagonists and oppressors, for victory often demands a price that brings us all down.

Yet war is always still the easier option. Especially when facing a hostile and worthy adversary who could possibly strike at any moment. As any United States president, charged with protecting the country from all enemies, and absolutely surrounded by advisers and officials–some of whom considered the best and brightest of the entire country–advocating an invasion of Cuba and/or an immediate nuclear bombardment of Moscow, it would be difficult to resist the natural and instinctual urge to display strength and avoid showing the kind of weakness one would show by backing down. It would be difficult to resist the advice, indeed, the hysterical warnings and ravings, of the top echelon of advisers in the United States. It may even seem arrogant to do so. To follow the natural course of “national defense” and “prudent and realistic advice” would seem to any outside observer to be inevitable.

But Kennedy, despite what anyone says and despite his very real human frailties, actually was a man of courage and conviction. This is not manufactured by the myth of Camelot or conjured from the romanticization of an assassinated young leader but actual indisputable fact. It would have been far easier to Kennedy to charge forward into the hellfire along with all of the enthusiastic people around him. He didn’t, though. He didn’t fire. He didn’t invade. He didn’t attack. He negotiated a deal in which (downplayed) concessions would be made by the Americans in exchange for a removal of missiles from Cuba, a deal which, quite skilfully, minimized any appearance on either side of capitulation. That’s diplomatic genius, the political science equivalent of the Theory of General Relativity, or something like that.

In fact, it was much more. Thanks in equal part to John Kennedy as well as almost exactly the same restraint and resistance to almost exactly the same hard-line militarism on the part of Premier Khrushchev, the world was saved. Seriously, literally, with no exaggeration. These two men, by resisting the easy path of war, saved the world. I’m writing this right now because neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev gave the order to fire, which saved my northeastern urban-dwelling parents from getting fried twenty-two years before I was even born.

They didn’t give up there. For each of them, the end of the world had come too close. Nearly as soon as the official crisis came to a close, both leaders signaled via back-channel messages their willingness to cool the tensions and even discuss potential arms control agreements. As recounted by Terry Golway and Robert Dallek in their examination of Kennedy’s speeches, Let Every Nation Knowthe message Kennedy directed his agent to deliver was that “there’s no one in either part more anxious to get an agreement on arms control than I am,” telling him to make sure the Soviet leader understood that the United States did indeed desire to reduce tensions. Later in the secret negotiations, Khrushchev was reported to have stated, “You want me to set all misunderstandings aside and make a fresh start? All right, I agree to make a fresh start.” More bold words–the kind demanded of any peace-loving, peace-advocating individual such as myself and maybe yourself, too.

But Kennedy also worked on an even more radical message, a message intended equally, if in different ways, for an American audience as for a Soviet one. He kept his ideas secret from many of his closest advisers, fully anticipating their rabid opposition to what he was about to do. Few outside of his brother Bobby and Ted Sorensen, the pacifist Unitarian Universalist in the center of all this war-mongering who wrote the speech–what came to be known as “the Peace Speech”–John Kennedy delivered on June 10, 1963, only a few months before he would be assassinated. As Golway and Dallek describe it for us, “After crises in Berlin and Cuba, after the failure to find common ground in Vienna and the forecast for a cold winter, after sitting through meetings where men spoke matter-of-factly about the deaths of millions, John Kennedy on June 10, 1963, challenged his fellow citizens to think about peace rather than war.”

To call it a challenge to the public (and to both governments) is a dramatic understatement. Kennedy’s plea is moral, humanistic, and utterly radical. Many have (rightfully) heaped praises upon Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, his remarks on civil rights, and his rousing rallying cry for the space program and mission to the moon, but none of these was more significant, important, or mind-blowing as what Kennedy did at American University’s commencement that day. I know it’s a half hour long, but if you find a moment when you have that kind of time, just listen to it. If it is impractical for you to watch the video, read the full text here. Remembering the context of militarism and nationalism and Cold War Fever and the proximity of the entire world to complete destruction, listen to what the man says–and try to imagine anyone alive and in power today delivering something of this magnitude:

Who is this crazy person talking? Is this Michael Moore or John Kennedy? This is a sitting American president? I can’t help but love Obama as much as the next guy, but we’ll never see this level of radical courage from our current president, whatever his virtues may be. To recap and comment on some highlights:

He begins by quoting from a British poet laureate named John Masefield speaking on the subject of a university. “…'[A] place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth my strive to make others see.’ I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived–yet it is the most important topic on Earth: world peace.” Everyone listening thinks this already is bold and declarative, but he wastes no time going even crazier. “What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children–not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

What? Not a Pax Americana? Not victory that equals death? What is this liberal nonsense about the “worth” of life on Earth and extending the benefits to people who aren’t Americans? These are totally foreign concepts to our national discourse today, and this man was speaking them from a podium at the most dangerous moment in American history–you know, when we can at least kind of plausibly claim to possess actual, like, enemies. He goes on in a reasonable explanation, again, the kind of explanation many of us long to hear from our leaders today, an explanation of the futility and suicidal nature of nuclear war and the way in which it has changed the very notion and viability of “total war.” He calls peace “the necessary rational end of rational men”–not rhetoric designed to swell and pluck the heartstrings but a logical argument designed to appeal to the intellect.

Then he first touches on an even crazier idea that is most relevant to us today. “But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude–as individuals and as a nation–for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And…every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward–by examining his own attitudes toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Untion, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home.” Hard to believe anyone ever, no less in the last century, would dare to challenge the attitude not of others, but of ourselves. It’s the very thing on which I rambled at length earlier, the very thing I have the most difficult time with. Self-examination and self-correction. The notion that the responsibility for peace rests on all our shoulders is a heavy burden and great challenge indeed.

He goes on to reject the notion that we are doomed–he uses that word–that forces outside our control direct our destinies. “Man can be as big as he wants,” Kennedy said, “…Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again.” This is an absolutely inspiring challenge to hear from any leader, a call so filled with optimism and even pure faith–not faith that we’ll be saved from the outside but faith that we have the potential within to save ourselves. He teaches us–and so long as you’re listening, this is really teaching–that “World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor–it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement…the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.”

How true these words actually are. Part of the difficulty I personally find with a disposition of peace toward my world is the notion that I must love my neighbors and my complete inability to do so. Perhaps it can, at times, be this unrealistic goal that prevents me from accomplishing the possible, like “mutual toleration” and a recognition that those we hate today might become potential allies tomorrow. How many times have I seen it happen? Even within my narrow allies and enemies paradigm, I’ve seen some of my most favorite allies transformed from former enemies with whom I’ve made peace and found common cause. This is what he’s talking about, here. Enemies are not like diamonds, they’re not forever, so we shouldn’t go around acting like we expect them to be. When he warns us “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats”, he’s starting to sound like that crazy Unitarian Okie we visited earlier, and he’s not talking about republicans, he’s talking about the Soviet Union, the great archetypal enemy one of Kennedy’s lesser and less eloquent successors came to term the “Evil Empire.” And if that’s true about the Soviets, perhaps we ought to be careful not to adopt a distorted and desperate view of those antagonists we see in our own world, and perhaps we ought not to assume that conflict is inevitable and on its way. Perhaps that might change our outlook and our behavior.

He then says some really crazy stuff, the last sentence of which you may well have heard before. “For we are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease. So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” A sitting President openly acknowledging that money for weapons could be better spent combating problems shared by all people, regardless of nation, a sitting President perhaps going even further out there than Marlin Lavanhar in his spectacular reminder of the simple universality of all of us. All of us. Even the people you hate. Even the people who oppress you or who stand for everything you feel is vile and depraved in the world. Even the most perfect enemy, which is to whom he is literally and directly referring–we’re all in this together. We’re all among the humans. We all breathe and die and feel and care. Even those we’re tempted to call the worst among us. 

No mistake about it, this speech, which so boldly challenged the mentality of the Cold War, which so directly threatened the preferred mindset of the military-industrial complex, is perhaps most radical when we attempt to apply it to our own lives, when we attempt to actually apply these ideals that so readily bring tears into our eyes, especially at this time of year. He goes on for a few minutes with a contrasting and more familiar tone, slightly more bellicose, criticizing the USSR’s perceived unfriendliness towards freedom and self-determination for other countries (even if, in reality, our behavior could hardly be said to have been any better) and re-declaring our commitment to defend West Germany and our other allies against the “primary cause of world tension today”, the communist impulse to “impose their political and economic system on others.” But the argument is not brash for its own sake, nor is it an emotional or nationalistic one. Instead, he’s again making the practical rational case. Whether he was right or wrong on this particular point (which is fairly difficult to determine for sure), his argument is that the Soviets should be less aggressive in other countries because it makes the conditions for peace much more likely. It’s not about beating the enemy or changing their thinking or destroying their ways but about promoting a shared coexistence in which we all, for better or worse, at least survive.

His closing challenge revisits the theme of inward change: “Finally, my fellow Americans, let us examine our attitude toward peace and freedom here at home. The quality and spirit of our own society must justify and support our efforts abroad. We must show it in the dedication of our own lives….wherever we are, we must all, in our daily lives, live up to the age-old faith that peace and freedom walk together….we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on–not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.”

Appealing to the best aspects and incarnations of ourselves carries the inevitable downside that it reminds us how often–perhaps the vast majority of the time–we are not our best selves or our best incarnations. The true inspiration lies, however, in the reminder that these “better angels” do not merely exist outside of us, above us, or around us, but within us. We carry that potential each and every day, and we’ve got the ability to approach our antagonists–be they middle management, mindless life-killers, traitorous former comrades, or a nuclear-armed super-power–with understanding, informed tolerance, and the olive branch of peace.

Peace. That thing that is in all of our interests. Please, this Midwinter–and this is a plea to myself just as much as a plea to all of you–go in peace. May there truly be peace on Earth, good will toward men, and may that truly start right where you are today.

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