Jeffrey Sachs is the world’s best-connected development economist. An academic with highly developed communication skills, he has always managed to secure access to policy makers and to offer them advice.
His record is controversial. Back in the 1990s he worked on Russia’s transition from a command to a capitalist economy. He advocated the approach that Yeltsin adopted — shock therapy. The result was pensioners on the streets selling off furniture, jewellery and even their clothes to raise cash for food. Whilst there were many other factors at play, it now seems obvious that China’s transition to capitalism was better handled. China didn’t take Sachs’s advice.
More recently Sachs has argued that development assistance would be a more effective way of achieving western foreign policy objectives than the use of military force. And he has focused on Africa, where he has faced less criticism, championing sustainable development and playing a notable role in reducing the damage done by HIV, malaria and TB.
However one assesses Sachs’s record, this book is something of a departure for him. After years trying to work out how underperforming economies can reach their full potential, he has taken time out to offer an act of homage to his childhood hero — John F. Kennedy. And he has singled out one of JFK’s speeches for particular praise.
Sachs thinks that some pieces of JFK rhetoric, such as his inauguration address, have hogged the limelight for too long. The true masterpiece, he believes, was a speech delivered to the American University in Washington DC in June 1963 and generally referred to as the Peace Speech. Sachs has come up with an argument making the case that the Peace Speech deserves wider recognition.
I took a look at the speech before reading Sachs’s analysis. As you would expect, it contains some finely sculpted phrases: ‘Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable,’ JFK declared. But he moved beyond rhetoric, announcing that, in the interests of seeking agreement on a nuclear-test-ban treaty, the US would not conduct overground tests as long as no one else did.
Peace, JFK argued, should not be seen as a militarily enforced Pax Americana. Americans should consider the possibility that they failed to comprehend the Soviet Union. Equally, the USSR should realise that it misunderstood the US and, in particular, Moscow needed to accept that Washington’s nuclear arsenal was defensive.
Even if this all sounds eminently reasonable there were limits to how far JFK was prepared to go. No one who heard the speech could really believe that he intended to confront what his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower had famously described as the ‘military industrial complex’. (At least that’s what he called it in public. In private he described it as the ‘military industrial congressional complex’.) For all JFK’s talk of de-escalating the arms race, it’s worth remembering that he ordered such a rapid increase in the US nuclear arsenal that, by the time he was assassinated, Washington had seven times as many warheads as Moscow.
Why then does Sachs see the Peace Speech as so important? As he convincingly argues, it is all about context. Before the speech, he says, both sides had unrelentingly used Cold War rhetoric. In the last year of his life, emboldened by his success in defusing the Cuban missile crisis, JFK handled issues of international security with a new confidence and in a new way.
He wanted to unshackle himself from right-wingers in the Senate and the US military leadership who wanted to block a test ban and to arm West Germany with nuclear weapons. The Peace Speech was aimed not only at Khrushchev but also at hardliners closer to home.
Perhaps the key insight in the book is JFK’s remark to an aide that he and Khrushchev faced similar challenges: ‘He would like to prevent a nuclear war, but is under severe pressure from his hardline crowd, which interprets every move in that direction as appeasement. I’ve got similar problems.’ The Peace Speech was part of a process by which JFK appealed to hope rather than fear and outflanked the hard-liners in both countries by building trust with Khrushchev directly. The test-ban treaty was agreed and ratified and was the first step that led, years later, to détente.
JFK did not end the Cold War. He did not defeat Soviet communism. But the Peace Speech helped move US policy from confrontation to containment. Sachs makes his case. It was a good speech.