Today, along with every American of my generation, I turned my lonely eyes to Dallas, then to Arlington National Cemetery, and then to the void. What went to the grave with Kennedy that is still missing a half century later?
The usual answers involve hope, dreams, idealism. You hear them in Kennedy’s 1963 commencement address at American University, where he denounces the “dangerous, defeatist belief…that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.” He went on to declare, “We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
Soaring rhetoric, indeed—but Kennedy immediately brings it back to earth. He tells his audience that he is not talking about an “absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will.” Instead, “Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.”
Towards the end of the speech, Kennedy presents such a concrete proposal, for a ban on the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. The treaty was ratified in early October 1963, six weeks before his murder.
It’s hard to be more pragmatic than that. What is missing today is not Kennedy’s idealism: in fact, much of today’s political gridlock has been caused by too many ideals, defined as absolute and infinite. What is missing is the conviction that history provides a medium for human action, a place for humans to work out human destiny.
“No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” When I read these words to my undergraduate class yesterday, I had to admit that I wasn’t sure I really believe them—but I am sure that if we don’t believe something like them, then we are doomed. This is an existential belief: one you decide to live by, not that you can prove through logic.
What’s missing in our civic life is an existential belief in history. Its absence becomes evident when you read Kennedy’s words—in the 1963 commencement address, in his inaugural address, in his nomination acceptance speech, among many others—where he repeatedly appeals to the lessons of history and the unchanging founding principles of American history. He is also deeply aware of the radical change in history with the advent of nuclear weapons.
For Kennedy, nuclear weapons are Historical Exhibit A of forces that grip humanity in a sense of doom, because, while human-made, they seem beyond human capacity to control. Today, the prime exhibit is climate change—also a human-generated problem, also one threatening life on the planet, also seeming beyond control. Nuclear arms and climate change both result from technological prowess unmastered by historical prowess. So unmastered, technological prowess feels like Fate, dooming humankind.
History has to master technology, not the other way around. Yet Kennedy’s own death began a decline in belief that history provides a reasonable field for action. His assassination mocks this conviction. Now and then, this event is senseless, random, inexplicable, terrifyingly ambiguous. How can you work with history when it kicks you down and drags you to a meaningless dead end?
Kennedy would say: an early grave was my fate, but it does not mean that mankind is ruled by Fate. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” History can work. Make it work. Get to work.