The Goals of American Foreign Policy: Columbus Day Dinner

October 11, 1966


Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York, NY

The year 1492 symbolizes the three parts of the American experience: our past conquests, our present dangers, and the most spacious of our future hopes.

At the same moment that men were flaunting danger to master a primitive continent, the civilization of the world was reaching one of its greatest moments. In the Italy from which Columbus came, Lorenzo the Magnificent was ending his rule, Bellini and Michelangelo were creating wonders of beauty, and Leonardo da Vinci was penetrating the mysteries of science and art. That Italian Renaissance was destined to shape the thought and history of our world as profoundly as the voyages of Columbus.

We are as much the inheritors of one as of the other. The first: daring, the building of new worlds, the search for opportunity and even for wealth and power. The second: the desire to build a civilization to liberate the full capacities of its own people and to take upon itself the burden of helping to illuminate the lives of all men.

For the first time in five centuries since Columbus, we have the chance, the power, and the obligation not only to build a great nation for ourselves but to be powerful, shaping forces in that world from which he came, and in obscure continents he barely knew.

For most of those five centuries, the rest of the world mattered to us only when it touched our own concerns. During most of our history as a nation, we tried to avoid entanglement in the affairs of others. Yet today, our armies fight in Asia and guard the borders of Europe…

…Moreover, our achievements are reshaping the planet…Our weapons have changed large-scale warfare from national policy into a threat to the existence of the human race…and the words “give me liberty or give me death” have been scrawled on sidewalks and walls from Indonesia to Nigeria.

Wealth and power and influence are thus inescapable facts. For much of the postwar period, we have used that strength to meet threat after threat: deterring the ambitions of conquerors, rebuilding Europe, organizing our allies, seeking guarantees of peace, and trying to resolve conflicts…

All of these threats and conflicts are still with us…We have grown accustomed enough to our danger and responsibility so that we can now ask ourselves the question: For what reason? To what larger purpose must we put our might and energy and the fantastically varied skills of our people?

The answer begins at the heart of our concerns as a nation: the well-being, freedom, and security of our own people. Those, we must be willing to defend with all our resources and, when necessary, with our lives. But that alone is not enough. Pericles said of Athens: “The admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs.”

Those proofs are not the forgotten conquests of the Athenian fleet; just as the proofs of fifteenth-century Italy are not the armed strength and wars of her cities. Through the history of the world, the boundaries of great empires have faded and dissolved, their cities fallen into decay, and their wealth scattered.

What remains is what they accomplished of enduring value and what they stood for. What remains is the contribution they made to the unity and knowledge and understanding of man. What remains is what they added to the hope and well-being of human civilization and to its capacity for future progress.

None of us here, as individuals, seek success or wealth purely for its own sake. We all hope to make a larger contribution: to our families, our occupation or profession, our community, and our country. This must be true also for America as a nation, if we wish it to take that luminous and lasting place in history which is now within its grasp.

Our country began as a center of hope, not only for those who came here but for those who did not. Thomas Jefferson told us, “We are pointing the way to struggling nations who wish, like us, to emerge from their tyrannies also.”…

Think how our world would look to a visitor from another planet as he crossed the continents. He would find great cities and knowledge able to create enormous abundance from the materials of nature. He would witness exploration into understanding of the entire physical universe, from the particles of the atom to the secrets of life. He would see billions of people separated by only a few hours of flight, communicating with the speed of light, sharing a common dependence on a thin layer of soil and a covering of air. Yet he would also observe that most of mankind was living in misery and hunger, that some of the inhabitants of this tiny, crowded globe were killing others, and that a few patches of land were pointing huge instruments of death and war at others. Since what he was seeing proved our intelligence, he could only wonder at our sanity.

It is this monstrous absurdity—that in the midst of such possibility, men should hate and kill and oppress one another—that must be the target of the modern American Revolution.

This does not mean that we neglect our own interest. For this is our interest. That interest is not just to prevent our own devastation or to find markets for our goods. In a dwindling world where a century of change tumbles into a decade, pursuit of goals so narrowly conceived would bring disaster.

An America piled high with gold, and clothed in impenetrable armor, yet living among desperate and poor nations in a chaotic world, could neither guarantee its own security nor pursue the dream of civilization devoted to the fulfillment of man.

Our true interest, therefore, is to help create a world order to replace and improve that shattered when World War I opened the doors to the twentieth century; not an order founded simply upon balance of power or balance of trade; but one based on the conviction that we will be able to shape our own destiny only when we live among others whose own expectations are unscarred by hopelessness, or fear of the strong, or the ambition to master other men…

The spirit and meaning of this nation will be in jeopardy if we grapple it to ourselves rather than extend it to others. History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.

I cannot present nor would it be appropriate to present a detailed guide for working out the ideals of American purpose. Yet certain objectives are becoming clearer.

It is not permissible to allow most of mankind to live in poverty, stricken by disease, threatened by hunger, and doomed to an early death after a life of painful labor. It is easy to debate, at great skillful length, the merits of one particular form of foreign assistance or another, the need for self-help, or the mechanics of development. The fact is that the fortunate fraction of mankind now has the technology and the knowledge to improve all these afflictions, and we must seek huge leaps of imagination and effort to shatter the frustrating and resistant barriers between capacity and human need. We must also help find a way to dissolve the attitudes which permit men to indulge those passions and ambitions which keep the world in constant conflict, and which threaten the survival of all of us…

Nor is the peace we seek simply the absence of armed conflict or hostile division. It is the creation among nations of a web of unity, woven from the strands of economic interdependence, political cooperation, and a mounting flow of people and ideas…

We must, if we seek not merely to lead but to lead greatly, act consistently with our belief in human freedom and equality. Those are the seminal values of our entire history. We realize that for many, liberty today is often a remote pursuit, lacking urgency to those enslaved by material want. Nor should we, if we could, compel other countries to adopt our principles. Yet there should be no doubt that we stand—in Africa or Asia or in Latin America, and in the United States itself—on the side of equality and increasing freedom; never yielding that position to the demands of temporary expediency or short run—realism. For if we allow immediate considerations, one by one, to chip away proclaimed ideals and values, then we soon stand for nothing at all ,except ourselves…

Nor should our own success and good fortune allow us to treat with scorn or condensation or lack of understanding those who are struggling to build nations under the crushing weight of instability, desperate economies, and fragile society…

All of these are guidelines which must, of course, be translated into policies and acts in every part of the world over many years. Yet they may help us toward an opportunity which is granted to few generations in few lands. For we are a nation which reached the height of its power and influence at a time when the old order of things is crumbling and a new world is painfully struggling to take shape.

It is a moment as fully charged with opportunity as that granted to Columbus or the heroes of the Italian Renaissance. It offers to this nation the chance for great achievement—or perhaps the greatest and most destructive of failures. It is a voyage more hazardous and uncertain than that which we celebrate today. For we seek to cross the dark and storm-scarred seas of human passion and unreason, ignorance, and anger. They were as uncharted in Columbus’s time as they are today. Yet we have been thrust out upon them by our mastery of the continent he discovered and the knowledge his age began. The way is uncertain and the trip is charged with hazard. Yet perhaps we can say, in the words of Garibaldi to his followers: “I do not promise you ease. I do not promise you comfort. But I do not promise you these: hardship, weariness, and suffering. And with them, I promise you victory.”