Thoughts on Negotiation from President John F. Kennedy

Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as president of the United Sates. In honor of the occasion, the JFK library in Boston has made available, in digital format, many letters, writings and movies from its archives.

When Kennedy took office on January 20, 1961, the world was in the midst of the Cold War. Two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union–were dealing with each other based on what politicians deem “mutually assured destruction.” Fears of nuclear war were very real and dictated the course of foreign policy for both countries.  Yet, in his inaugural address to the country, Kennedy talked about negotiation. This is what he said:

“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.”

Kennedy summarized the win-win theory of negotiation masterfully. He advocated looking for common ground. He also thought that negotiations should be civil while still demanding assurances and proof from the other party.

On March 21, 1961, Kennedy wrote the following in a National Security Action Memorandum on the US-USSR Commercial Air Transportation Agreement:

“Prior to the initiation of the US-USSR negotiations on the draft agreement, I would like to have prepared for my approval a statement of objectives to be sought and the general principles to be followed in the negotiations. Such a statement would serve as a guide to the negotiators in responding to the Soviet counter proposals, as well as ensure that the negotiations are closely linked to our over-all relations with the USSR.”

Here Kennedy makes certain that negotiations have clear and stated objectives to serve a guide to the negotiators, and to make it easier to answer any counter moves.

You can access these and other documents at the John F. Kennedy library online:

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