For one thing, Kennedy knew that above-ground tests weren't really valuable. Halting them wouldn't hurt us.
He also knew Khrushchev would most likely agree.
Terrified by how close the world had come to nuclear war over Cuba, Khrushchev had sent Kennedy frantic signals of his own about wanting a test-ban. Two days before JFK spoke, Khrushchev had said yes to holding test-ban talks in Moscow. Kennedy took a leap but was reasonably sure he’d land on his feet. Even more important than what he knew, though, were two essential things Kennedy did.
First, talking to the enemy.
But usually Americans know what’s really naïve is not talking to the other side, even if we don’t trust them. That’s why we negotiate with car dealers.
Those who lived through the Cold War by ducking under desks to protect us from Russian nukes, remember feeling a lot more scared by Russia than we are now by Iran. Kennedy, unafraid to negotiate, talked to Khrushchev all the time. They talked through moments of fury and despair, on a hotline, in messages, and through intermediaries.
Second, JFK did something else that has a bad name: playing politics.
Today, people use that phrase to mean something not in the public interest. It can mean cultivating the other side so the result benefits both.
JFK cultivated Khrushchev like he was a fence-sitting senator. Was Khrushchev beleaguered by his radical rightwingers? Give them no ammunition. Did Khrushchev doubt JFK's word? Work with emissaries the Russians would trust to feel him out, including a peacenik magazine editor, Norman Cousins—a little as if Barack Obama secretly sent Rachel Maddow to Teheran to feel out the Iranians.
After he and Khrushchev agreed on terms, Kennedy was just as involved cultivating people at home.
Getting the Senate to ratify a test-ban treaty wasn’t a given. Republicans and powerful Democrats disliked it, including Senate Armed Forces Chair, Richard Russell. Like Lincoln a century before, JFK won approval by unrelenting attention to counting—and—winning votes.
Does that diminish the importance of the speech itself?
Only if we think results should come solely from eloquence. In the real world, speeches accomplish things when they're part of a shrewdly worked-out strategy, not always possible in the frenzy of White House life but something that I remember doesn't happen enough.
The full picture of "Strategy for Peace" includes this: a president unafraid to talk to the other side; insightful enough to see not just Russians as human but the one Russian he needed to say yes; willing to risk concessions; and to confront those in his own party. That's where the real boldness lay.
Kennedy, Sorensen tells us, was impressed by a story he'd heard of a German chancellor talking to his successor just after World War I had begun.
"How did it happen?" asked one.
"Ah," the other said, "If one only knew."
"If this planet is ever ravaged by nuclear war," Kennedy said, "I do not want survivors to ask ...'How did it all happen?'" "
“Strategy for Peace” presented an idea that made nuclear war less likely. Sorensen, and those AU grads in the audience—were right to be thrilled.
But fifty years later, we know what the AU grads couldn't: boldness reflected not just that afternoon but in the months before. We should applaud and learn from both the way Sorensen handled the language of peace—and JFK the more important levers of politics.
Lehrman is an adjunct professor of Public Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. and a former Democratic speechwriter for Al Gore and John Kerry.