Thank you, Mr. President, Professor Sachs, for convening today’s event. I’m very proud to be here today, representing the United States Government, to mark the anniversary of President Kennedy’s final address to the United Nations fifty years ago this month, but more than that, to celebrate the legacy of a truly extraordinary American leader.
A portrait of President Kennedy hangs in my office at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, just across the street from here, and literally looks out my window at this institution. I’ve often thought how fitting it is that his likeness keeps watch on the United Nations – and on us – for JFK’s public life was entwined with this place.
We’re gathered today to commemorate a speech he made just weeks before his untimely death. But he took his first steps on the path that would ultimately bring him to the rostrum of the General Assembly 18 years earlier when, as a 27 year-old naval veteran turned journalist, he covered the San Francisco convention that produced the UN Charter. “It would be no exaggeration,” one of his biographers wrote, “to say that it was in San Francisco in the spring of 1945 that Jack’s political career began.”
But, in the end, I didn’t hang President Kennedy’s portrait for his sake, but for mine – for ours. Because there is no better teacher, still, than President Kennedy of the way we should approach this or any institution: with our eyes lifted up toward its transcendent ideals…but our feet planted firmly on the ground. President Kennedy was steadfastly committed, as we still are, to the United Nations. But his support for the United Nations project was all the more impressive because it wasn’t naïve or blind: he was keenly aware of both the possibilities – and the limitations – of the United Nations, and all the aspirations of humankind that it represents.
And because of that insight, that understanding that was really both generous and wise, it’s remarkable – truly remarkable – how many of his words speak to our century as clearly as they did to his. As we’ve just heard, pick a passage almost at random from his address fifty years ago this month, or his previous address here in 1961, and the words could be – should be – spoken today in the General Assembly.
On reform of the institution itself, a subject especially close to my heart: the UN, he said, “will either grow to meet the challenges of our age, or it will be gone with the wind, without influence, without force, without respect.”
Or this passage, written in a very different September, but so fitting for this one: “Terror is not a new weapon. Throughout history it’s been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or by example. But inevitably, inevitably, they fail.”
Or his warning about the perils of weapons of mass destruction, where he cautioned us to distinguish between those “willing to talk” and those “willing to act,” and he reminded us that “true inspection” -- and verification “within the framework of the United Nations” – are, as he said, indispensable conditions of sincere disarmament.
His call to remember that “human rights are indivisible,” and that “this body cannot stand aside when those rights are abused or neglected by any member state.”
And his urging that we harness our will and our technology to meet the challenges of, as we heard, “plague and pestilence…plunder and pollution, the hazards of nature and the hunger of children.”
Were he with us still, President Kennedy would be gratified, I think, to see how we’ve answered some of those calls.
Our 35th President, the author of the limited nuclear test ban treaty, would be proud to know that our 44th President led here a historic meeting of the UN Security Council that unanimously adopted robust, binding steps to reduce nuclear threats and hosted the first ever Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, where 47 countries agreed to work together as an international community and is fully committed to seeking the consent of the United States Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.
The President who established the Peace Corps just two weeks before he last spoke here, would be pleased to know that his successor has embraced the Millennium Development Goals and is committed to advancing efforts to achieve them by 2015.
And the young President who came here to say “the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings” would surely approve of another young President’s Global Development Policy, launched in 2010, that focuses on achieving sustainable development outcomes, promoting broad-based economic growth, investing in innovations with the potential to solve long-standing development challenges and building public sector capacity.
Now, the realist in President Kennedy would not be surprised to see how much more work we have to do on all these fronts. Nor would he be surprised to see how many of his warnings about the threats to our freedoms and our futures remain sadly relevant today.
But the idealist in him would tell us to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon, and that it is our commitment to marching forward, not the inevitable setbacks that we will experience along the way, that will write the final chapter of our story.
So the very best way we can honor the extraordinary legacy of an extraordinary man is not to look back but to look ahead.
To rededicate ourselves to his vision.
To continue to answer his call in our time.
To – as he said it better than any of us ever could – put our hands to the plow without looking back, and move the world to a just and lasting peace.
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