Speech at the Americans for Democratic Action Dinner

February 24, 1967


Philadelphia, PA

When a hundred student body presidents and editors of college newspapers; hundreds of former Peace Corps volunteers; dozens of present Rhodes scholars—when these, the flower of our youth, question the basic premises of the war, they should not and cannot be ignored. Among these protesters, most will serve, if called upon, with courage and responsibility equal to any. But their basic loyalty and devotion does not and cannot obscure the fact of dissent.

These students oppose the war for the the same reason that many of you feel anquish: the for brutality and the horror of all wars, and for the particular terror of this one. But for our young people, I suspect, Vietnam is a shock as it cannot be to us. They did not know World War II or even Korea. And this is a war surrounded by rhetoric they do not understand or accept; these are the children not of the Cold War but of the Thaw. Their memories of Communism are not of Stalin’s purges and death camps, not even the terrible revelations of the Twentieth Party Congress, or the streets of Hungary. They see the world as one in which Communist states can be each others’ deadliest enemies or even friends of the West, in which Communism is certainly no better, but perhaps no worse, than many other evil and repressive dictatorships all around the world—with which we conclude alliances when that is felt to be in our interest…

However the war may seem to us, they see it as one in which the largest and most powerful nation on earth is killing children—they do not care if accidentally—in a remote and insignificant land. We speak of past commitments, of the burden of past mistakes; and they ask why they should now atone for mistakes made before many of them were born, before almost any could vote. They see us spend billions on armaments while poverty and ignorance continue at home; they see us willing to fight a war for freedom in Vietnam but unwilling to fight with one hundredth the money or force or effort to secure freedom in Mississippi or Alabama or the ghettos of the North. And they see, perhaps most disturbing of all, that they are remote from the decisions of policy; that they themselves frequently do not, by the nature of our political system, share in the power of choice on great questions which shape their lives…

The nonrecognition of individuality—the sense that no one is listening—is even more pronounced in our politics. Television, newspapers, magazines are a cascade of words, official statements, policies, explanations, and declarations; all flow from the height of government, down to the passive citizen; the young must feel, in their efforts to speak back, like solitary salmon trying to breast Grand Coulee Dam. The words which submerge us, all too often, speak the language of a day irrelevant to our young. And the language of politics is too often insincerity—which we have perhaps too easily accepted but to the young is particularly offensive. George Orwell wrote a generation ago that: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the ontinuation of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the progressed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

There is too much truth for comfort in that statement today. And if we add to the insincerity, and the absence of dialogue, the absurdity of a politics in which Bryon de la Beckwith can declare as a candidate for lieutenant governor of Mississippi, we can understand why so many of our young people have turned from engagement to disengagement, from politics to passivity, from hope to nihilism, from SDS to LSD.

But it is not enough to understand or to see clearly. Whatever their differences with us, whatever the depth of their dissent, it is vital—for use as much as for them—that our young feel that change is possible; that they will be heard; that the cruelties and follies and injustices of the world will yield, however grudgingly, to the sweat and sacrifice they are so ready to give. If we cannot help open to them this sense of possibility, we will have only ourselves to blame for the disillusionment that will surely come. And more than disillusionment, danger, for we rely on these young people more than we know…If we look back with pride at the lives we led, we know above all that we will judge ourselves by the hope and direction we have left behind…

And if, when we reach out to them, we are tempted to dismiss their vision as impossible, or their indignation as naive, let us remember, as the poet [Keats] says, that:

None can usurp the height
But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.

Note: This speech was lengthened and reworked to become the first chapter of Kennedy’s book To Seek a Newer World, published in 1967.