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JFK and the United Nations: How would the world be different if he lived?

Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/JFK Presidential Library and Museum

In his 1961 speech to the United Nations, five months after the Bay of Pigs invasion and still in the midst of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy placed hope that the United Nations would be able to resolve the U.S.-Soviet standoff.

 “For in the development of this organization rests the only true alternative to war -- and war appeals no longer as a rational alternative. Unconditional war can no longer lead to unconditional victory. It can no longer serve to settle disputes. It can no longer concern the Great Powers alone.”

At the time, the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union were competing for influence, and the confrontation of the Cuban Missile Crisis would take place just over one year later.

“For a nuclear disaster, spread by winds and water and fear,” he said in September, 1961, “could well engulf the great and the small, the rich and the poor, the committed and the uncommitted alike. Mankind must put an end to war -- or war will put an end to mankind.”

In that speech, President Kennedy began with a tribute to U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, who had died one week before in a plane crash in the Congo and some advisors had advised him to cancel his address. Instead, he spoke of proposals for a new disarmament program, the U.S.-Soviet crisis and about how to resolve the conflicts in Germany, Laos and South Vietnam. He wanted a strong United Nations, which would lead the world on disarmament, create a nuclear test ban agreement, and would cooperate on economic development and outer space exploration.

Rather than an arms race, he called on the Soviet Union to create a “peace race.”

Later, in 1963, a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and two months before he was assassinated, he returned to the U.N. and talked about the dangers presented by the confrontation, returning to his theme of non-proliferation.

“The integrity of the United Nations Secretariat has been reaffirmed. A United Nations decade of development is under way. And, for the first time in 17 years of effort, a specific step has been taken to limit the nuclear arms race, noting the start of steps that would lead to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This week in a panel on the Kennedy assassination, Stefano Vaccara, author of Carlos Marcello: The Man Behind the JFK Assassination, about mafia involvement in the assassination, said, “Things might have been different at the U.N. and in the world, if Kennedy had not been assassinated; he wanted the U.N. to end the Cold War.”

In an editorial in USA Today, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today said that meeting President Kennedy led to his decision to choose a life in public service:

“President Kennedy had great faith in the United Nations. His last speech to the General Assembly just weeks before his death reads like a primer for addressing the problems that still plague us today. He stressed the indivisibility of human rights. He opposed wasteful military spending. He called for racial and religious tolerance. He praised United Nations peacekeeping. And he insisted that we embrace peace not only on paper, but in our hearts. These are all values I defend along with a corps of dedicated United Nations staff members around the world.”

At an event this year marking the anniversary of President Kennedy’s last address to the U.N., Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson reflected on meeting the President as a young Swedish exchange student in Decatur, Indiana: “A 17-year-old boy, khaki pants, sport shirt, crew cut, I was at this dinner…and in front of this whole gathering, the master of ceremonies says ‘Jack, welcome to Indiana, but I tell you one thing, you wouldn’t have been in this room if it hadn’t been for this Swedish exchange student,’” because his host family had promised that he would meet with the young presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.