Recently, I’ve begun to worry about the way Duke students think about world peace. I blame our society to a certain extent, whose pessimism masquerades as realism and has gradually stripped the concept of its dignity. Then again, some of the blame rests with us as students. We’ve created an academic environment in which using the words “world peace” in a sentence feels somehow unprofessional and unintellectual. There is a subtle but real pressure to just not go there.
What a sad fate for a cause Americans once championed.
In his commencement speech at American University in 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke about what he called “the most important topic on earth: world peace.” He urged his audience of graduates to commit themselves to the cause of peace for all nations. He did more than pay lip service to an abstract, by calling not only for American goodwill, but for action.
While the 20th century was by no means peaceful, it is striking to me that world peace was a legitimate objective for the nation at a time when the United States faced grave, existential threats; but now that such threats are gone our dedication to the cause is wavering.
By 1963, Americans had become intimately familiar with war. World War II, which claimed the lives of 3 percent of the world’s 1940 population, had ended just 18 years prior. The Korean War ended in 1953, and by the 1960s the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union lingered above the nation like a storm cloud. Yet these realities only amplified the power of Kennedy’s call for peace. His audience could look back into their not-so-distant history, into their own personal experiences, and find all the evidence they required of the value of peace and the high price of war.
More than that, as the Soviet Union and the United States divided the world between their spheres of influence and consolidated them with alliances and defense treaties, it became eminently clear that small wars anywhere risked igniting war everywhere. It was one of those rare moments in history when world peace felt like the necessity it has always been.
Like our grandparents and parents before us, we are familiar with living during a time of war, but our relationship to it has led us to believe that certain wars, in certain places, are tolerable. In recent years, the institutions created to achieve world peace—the United Nations being the foremost—have lost legitimacy in the eyes of Americans who have watched the violence in Syria rage on for 5 years, claiming almost half a million lives. The emergence of ISIS crushed our hopes yet further, and even Europe, a beacon of stability, has been touched by war in eastern Ukraine. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, decades of fighting have claimed over 5 million lives since 1998, and smaller conflicts exist around world that never make headlines.
We are also growing up in the time of America’s longest conflict. For fourteen years, we’ve watched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a distance that distorts our perception of what war really is. In one sense, these wars are an all-too-visible part of our lives, and yet they’ve been almost invisible at the same time.
The wars were visible in that we heard so much about them. I still vividly recall writing Christmas letters to wounded soldiers as a child and driving by “Pray For Our Troops” banners on holidays, and watching nightly newsreels updating the American public on war efforts abroad. Most of us were raised to be thankful for the men and women fighting for us in far away places. Perhaps we prayed for them at the dinner table or stood for them at our ball games. We knew war was out there, but we didn’t know war.
The wars were invisible to us in that the average American has never experienced the traumas and direct impacts of war. With the exception of Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks, no foreign nation has launched an attack on American soil in two hundred years. The September 11 attacks were emotionally devastating—physically so for the victims and their families—but the threat which terrorist attacks pose to our country is primarily psychological, not physical. The United States is a secure country whose wars are fought on distant continents.
There hasn’t been a draft in decades and most of our children will be raised without ever seeing a weapon fired with intent to kill.
How do we reconcile those realities? What happens to the idea of world peace when a generation, our generation, is raised in a world in which domestic peace and foreign wars can apparently coexist?
Sadly, we become numb. In our heart of hearts, we acquiesce to the defeatist view, as President Kennedy would have put it, that war is inevitable and world peace is unachievable. We’ve already begun to accept that our own peace and security is not just a first priority, but that it’s sufficient. Consider, for example, how reluctant the American people have been to intervene in Syria, despite the atrocities committed there by the Assad regime. Increasingly, we believe that we should isolate ourselves from conflicts beyond our borders and focus on protecting the little island of peace we’ve managed to carve out for ourselves. It is important to protect ourselves, but as the wealthiest, most powerful and influential nation on earth, we also have a moral obligation to promote peace everywhere.
War is not an unshakable fixture of human society. It is a terrible byproduct of flaws not yet corrected, but by no means uncorrectable.
In that same speech, President Kennedy reassured that “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. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable—and we believe they can do it again.”
I wholeheartedly agree with this, the spirit I hope that Americans, and Duke students, might find again. There is no easy route to the now-vague reality of world peace. Diplomacy, economic development, involvement in the international community, a military that respects civilian government; all of these form the foundation for peace in the United States and they can be applied elsewhere. What matters most right now is that Americans, and especially our generation, might rediscover their misplaced ambition, resolve and hope.
Ian Burgess is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “from the mountaintop,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.