10 Famous Commencement Speeches


President John F. Kennedy at American University, 1963

john f kennedy, american university
President John F. Kennedy addressed the graduates of American University on June 10, 1963. © Bettmann/CORBIS

"Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

This commencement address had a higher purpose. Just months after the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union, when nuclear war was still a real threat, President John. F. Kennedy used the occasion to deliver a peace-laced talk to the entire world. The speech, which took a month to craft, was written in secret because he feared Pentagon officials would oppose its conciliatory tone.

Kennedy asked Americans to consider their attitudes:

"Too many of us think is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable ... We need not accept that view ... Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war."

Kennedy then announced that he, Nikita Khrushchev and Britain's Harold Macmillan would be entering talks about a comprehensive test ban treaty and that the U.S. wouldn't conduct further nuclear tests as long as no other country did either [source: PBS].

Within days of the speech, a telephone hotline between Washington, D.C. and the Kremlin was established. And on Aug. 5, just two months after the speech, all three countries signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It was the next best thing to total disarmament [sources: Clymer, JFK Library].