He inscribes his own copy of UPI telex announcing it to the man who made it possible - Norman Cousins - his intermediary to Soviet Premier Khrushchev
The unique memento of JFK’s finest hour reads: “Moscow – The United States, Russia, and Britain today ended historic talks that diplomatic sources said sealed final agreement to end the East-West nuclear years in space, in the atmosphere, and underwater”, and is inscribed “To Norman Cousins, with warm regards, John F. Kennedy.”...
The unique memento of JFK’s finest hour reads: “Moscow – The United States, Russia, and Britain today ended historic talks that diplomatic sources said sealed final agreement to end the East-West nuclear years in space, in the atmosphere, and underwater”, and is inscribed “To Norman Cousins, with warm regards, John F. Kennedy.”
As tensions between East and West settled into a Cold War, scientists in the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union conducted tests and developed more powerful nuclear weapons. The increase in power and number of these weapons meant that a nuclear war would result in mutual assured destruction. Then in the late 1950s, dangerous levels of radioactive deposits were found in wheat and milk in the northern United States. Now it was clear that nuclear conflict would not only effect the nations at war, but would pollute the planet and could end life on earth. As scientists and the public gradually became aware of the dangers of radioactive fallout, they began to raise their voices against nuclear testing. Leaders and diplomats of several countries sought to address the issue. The Soviet Union and the United States suspended nuclear tests – a moratorium that lasted from November 1958 to September 1961.
John F. Kennedy had supported a ban on nuclear weapons testing since 1956, as he believed it would prevent other countries from obtaining nuclear weapons. He took a strong stand on the issue in the 1960 presidential campaign. But once in the Oval Office, political and military advisors feared that the Soviet Union had continued secret underground testing and had made gains in nuclear technology. They pressured Kennedy to resume testing. In August 1961, the Soviets announced their intention to resume atmospheric testing, and over the next three months the Soviet Union conducted 31 nuclear tests. It exploded the largest nuclear bomb in history – 58 megatons – 4,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Discouraged and dismayed by the Soviet tests, President Kennedy pursued diplomatic efforts before allowing renewed testing by the United States. In his address to the United Nations on September 25, 1961, he challenged the Soviet Union “not to an arms race, but to a peace race.” But Kennedy was unsuccessful in his efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement and reluctantly announced the resumption of atmospheric testing. American testing resumed on April 25, 1962. With both the superpowers again testing in the atmosphere, the situation was alarming.
Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, in which both President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev found themselves dangerously close to starting a nuclear war. Many of their advisors pushed for just such a conflict, which worried them even further. At Missile Crisis’s height, everyone – people on the streets and children in school – was talking about whether the world would exist next week. Kennedy and Khrushchev realized that they had come too close to war for comfort, and both leaders sought to reduce tensions between their two nations. As Khrushchev described it, “The two most powerful nations had been squared off against each other, each with its finger on the button.” JFK shared this concern, once remarking at a White House meeting, “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.” In a series of private letters and using a backdoor intermediary named Norman Cousins, Khrushchev and Kennedy reopened a dialogue on banning nuclear testing.
Norman Cousins was the Editor-in-Chief of the Saturday Review, a widely read and well respected weekly magazine of the arts and sciences. He also became a leading advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament, and was co-chairman of the Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Cousins began his efforts to end nuclear weapons explosions in the 1950s. During the 1956 U.S. presidential campaign, he helped convince former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, to make the halting of nuclear testing a key issue in his campaign. He established a major nuclear disarmament organization: the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. In 1957, the new organization, which became known as SANE, made its debut with an advertisement, written by Cousins, in The New York Times and other newspapers. The ad, calling for the immediate suspension of nuclear testing by all countries and signed by 48 prominent Americans, declared that stopping nuclear tests would halt radioactive contamination and provide “a place to begin on the larger question of armaments control.” SANE became the key player in the anti-nuclear testing firmament.
In this context, Cousins stepped forward in an effort to break the great-power deadlock over a test ban treaty. Asked by Pope John XXIII to speak with Khrushchev in order to improve relations between the Vatican and the Kremlin, the SANE leader arranged to meet with Kennedy in November 1962 before his departure. During their discussion, Cousins inquired if the President wanted him to use the visit to transmit a peace and disarmament message to the Soviet premier. In response, Kennedy urged Cousins to act as his intermediary and convince Khrushchev that his administration sought peaceful relations with the Soviet Union and that a test ban treaty would provide an important route toward this goal. Cousins agreed, and met alone with Khrushchev that December for an intense exchange that lasted more than three hours. Khrushchev expressed his desire to meet Kennedy “more than halfway” in the quest for peace, adding that they should move “right away…to conclude a treaty outlawing testing of nuclear weapons.” Five days later, Khrushchev dispatched a lengthy letter to Kennedy devoted entirely to the test ban issue, with proposals that left Kennedy exhilarated. This was the first direct communication between the Soviet and U.S. leaders since the Cuban missile crisis, two months earlier.
When negotiations between the superpowers bogged down, Cousins met with Kennedy and pressed him to adopt “a breathtaking new approach toward the Russian people, calling for an end” to the Cold War. In a follow-up message, he proposed “the most important single speech” of Kennedy’s presidency, a speech that would “create a whole new context for the pursuit of peace.” Enthusiastic about the idea, Kennedy had Cousins discuss the speech with Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s special counsel and major speechwriter, who drew on a draft by Cousins and prepared it for delivery. This was Kennedy’s famous speech at American University, and Cousins was the initiator of the idea.
In his commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963, Kennedy delivered perhaps his most important speech (aside from his Inaugural Address). He announced a new round of high-level arms negotiations with the Russians, and boldly called for an end to the Cold War. Kennedy focused on what he called “the most important topic on earth: world peace.” In the nuclear age, he said, “total war makes no sense” and peace had become imperative. “A fresh start,” he argued, should be made on “a treaty to outlaw nuclear tests.” He reported that he had ordered a halt to U.S. atmospheric testing and had arranged for the beginning of high-level treaty negotiations in Moscow. “Confident and unafraid,” Kennedy concluded, “we labor on—not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.”
The Soviet government broadcast a translation of the entire speech, which was unheard of at the time, and allowed it to be reprinted in the controlled Soviet press. President Kennedy selected Averell Harriman, an experienced diplomat known and respected by Khrushchev, to resume negotiations in Moscow. An agreement to limit the scope of the test ban paved the way for a treaty. By excluding underground tests from the pact, negotiators eliminated the need for the on-site inspections that worried the Kremlin. On July 25, 1963, negotiators for the two nations were ready to initial an agreement to ban testing in the atmosphere, in space, and underwater. As Richard Reeves writes in his book President Kennedy: Profile of Power, “The American team telephoned the White House Situation Room. It was one o’ dock in the afternoon in Washington, and Harriman reached McGeorge Bundy, who said the President was right there with him, but was on the phone with Prime Minister Macmillan. The text was read twice to Kennedy and he said, “Okay, great!” Harriman walked back into the Kremlin conference room and signed “W.A.H.” on the document. Hours later, Kennedy took a bulletin from the United Press International telex in his office – ‘Moscow – The United States Russia and Britain today ended historic talks that diplomatic sources said sealed final agreement to end East-West nuclear tests, in space, in the atmosphere and underwater’ – and wrote across it: ‘To Norman Cousins, with warm regards, John F. Kennedy.’”
On July 26, in a television address announcing the agreement, Kennedy stated that a limited test ban “is safer by far for the United States than an unlimited nuclear arms race.” The Nuclear Test Ban treaty was signed in Moscow on August 5, 1963, and over the next two months Kennedy convinced an uncertain public and a divided Senate to support the treaty. The Senate approved the treaty on September 23, 1963, by an 80-19 margin, and Kennedy signed the ratified treaty on October 7, 1963. This was the first ever treaty to ban the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was a turning point in the Cold War, a conflict which, though it had more than two decades left to run, was never again so threatening or acrimonious. That is why it is widely considered Kennedy’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment as president, and many consider it his greatest accomplishment overall. It was also his final significant achievement, as six weeks later JFK was dead.
We offer the very UPI telex referenced in Reeves’s book, as it was received at the White House on July 25, 1963, containing the first official notice that the Test Ban Treaty had been agreed upon. Its text is quoted above. Photographs of Kennedy signing the treaty shows Cousins standing behind him in the Oval Office. Perhaps this precious memento of Kennedy’s most important achievement in office was given to Cousins at that time. Provenance: the Cousin’s estate.
Both Kennedy and Khrushchev took risks to make the treaty happen, as both made powerful enemies. The hawks in the United States, including some highly placed military men like Curtis LeMay, considered the treaty a defeat and reviled Kennedy for agreeing to it. The media gave opponents a very public platform. In the Soviet Union, Khrushchev faced stiff opposition from similar quarters. So the treaty was difficult to pull off, and soon both men would be gone. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and by March 1964 the plot to oust Khrushchev was hatched. He was removed in October 1964. So neither man long survived ratification of the Test Ban Treaty.
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