FCNL - Friends Committee on National Legislation Inc.

06/10/2023 | News release | Distributed by Public on 06/10/2023 04:32

A 60-Year-Old Call to Peace

In May 1962, a group of Quakers from FCNL and AFSC headed to the White House to meet with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. Ed Snyder, FCNL's second executive secretary, invited a young David Hartsough-then a volunteer-to join him, "five other weighty Quakers, and a little young squirt, David Hertz," for the meeting.

Here's how he described their time:

"…It was an amazing experience for all of us sitting in the Oval Office with Kennedy and his rocking chair next to the fireplace. And we were in a little semi-circle, and he actually was interested in listening to us, not in just pontificating as President of the United States to 'know-nothing' Quakers. But we were encouraging him to take more leadership to try to move us away from the nuclear arms race which was threatening the lives of all of us…

"…He told us, 'I have been reading The Guns of August,' and said, 'before the first World War, all the nations were armed to the teeth to try to keep from getting involved in a war and that's exactly what got everybody into that war. It's scary how similar the situation was then to what it is now in 1962.'"

From there, the story would get particularly interesting for David, and important for the rest of the world, though he did not know it at the time:

"I encouraged [President Kennedy] to challenge the Russians to a peace race. He kind of smiled and said, 'If you're serious about this, you're going to have to build a much more powerful movement in this country to enable me to do this.'"

President Kennedy was so invested in the conversation that he told his secretary upon coming in to inform him of his next appointment, "Tell them to wait. I'm learning something from these Quakers." After meeting for a while longer, both the president and the Quakers left the meeting knowing what work lay ahead: to help build a more powerful movement towards peace.

Then in 1963, this happened, according to David:

"Within a year, he made his famous speech at American University, which I think was maybe the most profound speech that any president has ever made. He talked about how we need to understand the Russians, as 'there are human beings there,' and look at things from the other perspective. Then he said we need to 'challenge the Russians to a peace race.' So that was certainly a memorable experience for a 20-year-old."

That famous speech turns 60 today. It is as relevant now as it was at that American University commencement ceremony on June 10, 1963. In it, he asked, "What kind of peace do we seek?" I think the Quakers have an answer for that.

Now in his 80s and a renowned author, David Hartsough volunteered with FCNL from 1959 to 1962, completed his alternative service with us from 1962 to 1964, and worked as an FCNL lobbyist from 1960 to 1970-a pivotal decade in this country's history. For more on his time at FCNL, see his Q&A in the latest issue of the Washington Newsletter.