Fifty years ago this week, president John F. Kennedy arrived at the University of Maine to give what would be his last major foreign policy address.
About 15,000 people were there and TV5 broadcast that speech to the entire state.
Jon Small sat down with UMaine history professor Howard Segal to look back on what Kennedy said that day in Orono.
Kennedy said, “While maintaining our readiness for war, let us exhaust every avenue for peace. Let us always make clear our willingness to talk if talk will help, and our readiness to fight, if fight we must.”
Most historians agree, President Kennedy had become less of a cold war warrior in his short time in office, partly because of the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.
“In his first inaugural address, I forget the exact words, we will carry every burden and so forth, you know a characteristic cold war warrior speech. This one, if you compare it, is much more conciliatory, without again being weak in no way whatsoever, so it’s a more mature position.”, said Segal.
Kennedy said in Orono the U.S. should have one goal when it came to our relationship with the Soviets.
Kennedy said, “Convincing the Soviet leaders that it is dangerous for them to engage in direct or indirect aggression, Futile for them to attempt to impose their will and their system on other unwilling people, and beneficial to them as well as to the world to join in the achievement of a genuine and enforceable peace.”
Kennedy pointed to several areas that were in this country’s national self interest that could also be beneficial to the Soviets.
“We can agree to ban above ground testing of nuclear weapons, which he had done with the Soviet Union, on the other hand, it doesn’t stop us from testing underground. That’s within the rules. Second, we can sell wheat to the Soviet Union, but we are certainly not going to sell them weapons.”, said Segal.
Despite the pause in the cold war, Kennedy said the U.S. had to continue to be vigilant.
“So he was hoping for, without of course having any idea of what would actually happen, a better relationship with the Soviet Union, without being naive as to what their intentions were, and a year after he was assassinated, perhaps less than a year, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from office.”, said Segal.
There was some partisan bickering behind the scenes before the speech.
Senator Margaret Chase Smith was upset she had supposedly been excluded from the event, which was probably just an oversight. She did appear on stage.
And, Congressman Clifford McIntyre, who was going to challenge Senator Ed Muskie the next year, was upset he wasn’t invited to Dow Air Force Base to greet the president.
“U.S. Representative Clifford McIntyre almost got into a fight with one of Senator Muskie’s top assistants who told him he was not invited to this greeting party made up entirely of democrats.”, said Segal.
There was peace in the end. All members of Maine’s congressional delegation and Governor John Reed did appear on stage that day, which ended with Kennedy receiving an honorary law degree from the university.
It was certainly a big day in the history of the University of Maine.
The cap and gown Kennedy wore during his visit to Orono is now in special collections at the university.