June 19, 2020
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.
I have been thinking about this quote often and it was on my mind even before the start of 2020 and the events that have sparked this period of justifiable protest. What do I think about this quote? Of course, the answer will come after the explanation of what this quote means and why it was first uttered.
Who First Said, ‘Those Who Make Peaceful Revolution Impossible …’
Anyone who uses this quote will tell you that John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, first uttered this line, but they usually don’t tell you when. President Kennedy said this during a speech he made in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 13, 1962 (Wade). Kennedy was addressing Latin American diplomats and discussing the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress.
The Alliance for Progress was an economic development program established in March 1961 by the United States and 22 Latin American countries (“Alliance”). The goals of the program were laid out in the Charter of Punta del Este, ratified in August 1961 (“The Charter”). Among the stated goals of the program were the more equitable distribution of income, improvements in health and welfare, the stabilization of export prices, and the stabilization of domestic prices (“Alliance”).
What Did Kennedy Mean When He Said, ‘Those Who Make Peaceful Revolution Impossible …’?
Before I can discuss the meaning of the quote, let’s show more of the speech to provide more context. In the middle of the speech, Kennedy discussed the aims of the Alliance for Progress and he expressed that it was the responsibility of the developing nations receiving aid to make the most of it and improve economic conditions in their countries. He also noted that the United States had a responsibility to help its sister nations in the Americas succeed:
For too long my country, the wealthiest nation on a poor continent, failed to carry out its full responsibilities to its sister republics. We have now accepted that responsibility. In the same way those who possess wealth and power in poor nations must accept their own responsibilities. They must lead the fight for those basic reforms which alone can preserve the fabric of their own societies. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.
These social reforms are at the heart of the Alliance for Progress. They are the precondition to economic modernization. And they are the instrument by which we assure the poor and hungry — to the worker and the campesino — his full participation in the benefits of our development and in the human dignity which is the purpose of free societies …
In short, Kennedy acknowledged that economic instability — particularly in terms of income inequality — presented a danger to society at large. When everyone can meet a basic acceptable standard of living, they are truly free. They can maintain their dignity, and they will be more compelled to participate in various levels of society.
What Do People Generally Mean When They Use This Quote Now?
Salvador Allende, the president of Chile from 1970-1973, may started to change the meaning of JFK’s quote when he used it in his December 4, 1972, speech to the United Nations:
Latin America has left the era of protest behind her. Needs and statistics contributed to an increased awareness. Reality has shattered all ideological barriers. All attempts at division and isolation have been defeated and there is an ardent desire to coordinate the offensive in defence of the interests of the countries on the continent and the other developing countries.
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. These are not my words. I simply share the same opinion. The words are those of John F. Kennedy.
The greater context of this speech concerned Allende’s strong stance against imperialism and colonization (particularly in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia), Chile’s fight for autonomy and dignity, and Allende’s desire to unite with other countries in the South American subcontinent. At the time, about 13 million people in South America were unemployed, 50 million were underemployed, there were vast disparities in literacy, and the continent had lost about $9 billion in wealth to imperialist countries in 30 years. Imperialism and colonization negatively impacted Chile, and Allende sought to move his country from capitalism to a socialist model (“Speech to the United Nations”).
Nowadays, when people use JFK’s quote, they are alluding to something different. While many people will agree that poverty and income inequality are forms of violence and can contribute to instance of crime, the use of the quote is kind of a veiled threat against (a) government(s) that no longer respond to the people.
Do I Agree with This New Interpretation?
In a word, yes.
In the United States, for example, we have watched many of our institutions become calcified, and those institutions include Congress and the courts.
For starters, we barely have a functional democracy. At the national level, we deal with illegal mass purges, unaccountable voting machines, uncounted mail-in ballots, and other tricks that both major parties use to disenfranchise voters. Elections may be fairer at the local level, but voters still must deal with entrenched interests and lawmakers who are bought off.
In many cases, peaceful protest is not enough to gain the attention of lawmakers, let along get them to vote in favor of legislation that could help the most people. The courts have been overrun by corporatists who rule in favor of large companies and prejudiced judges who may give tougher sentences to the accused based on their race and gender. At the same time, the executive branch has grabbed more power and the courts have rarely contradicted the president on important issues.
We have also seen police departments become militarized and when departments get heavy equipment, they will always find a reason to use it. This is a recipe for disaster, as we have seen with these current protests that have been sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and many others. These protests have also been fueled by the pandemic and loss of jobs across the country.
Additionally, there has been a growing threat against protesters. In 2017, I shared some information about legislatures in “red” states considering laws to make it legal to kill protesters or otherwise make peaceful protest illegal. If those bills were to become law, they would leave those with legitimate grievances no choice but to violently protest and destroy property to get their points across. Our current president is expressly threatening protesters. This may lead to an escalation involving the actual military and all bets are off.
Am I Condoning Violence?
No, I’m not condoning violence or vandalism, but I think that both are inevitable in certain situations. This leads to a discussion about the monopolization of violence, which I won’t get into here. But I will say that poverty can lead to desperation and the combination of income inequality and state violence will ultimately lead to a backlash from the people. All these could be avoided if people have a functional democracy, a better-informed public, and engaged public, and an equitable economy.
This is a warning that elected officials must heed. They ignore it at their own peril.
“Address on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKPOF/037/JFKPOF-037-026. Accessed 14 June 2020.
“The Charter of Punta del Este, Establishing an Alliance for Progress Within the Framework of Operation Pan America; August 17, 1961.” The Avalon Project. Lillian Goldman Law Library. Yale Law School, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/intam16.asp. Accessed 14 June 2020.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Alliance for Progress.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 March 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Alliance-for-Progress. Accessed 14 June 2020.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Salvador Allende.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 September 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Salvador-Allende. Accessed 15 June 2020.
HelmerReenberg. “March 13, 1962 – President John F. Kennedy at the first Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress.” YouTube, 28 November 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HahBXAoya6Q. Accessed 17 June 2020.
“Remarks on the First Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKWHA/1962/JFKWHA-080-004/JFKWHA-080-004. Accessed 14 June 2020.
“Salvador Allende: Speech to the United Nations (excerpts).” Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/allende/1972/december/04.htm. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
Wade. “JFK: Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” From the Trenches World Report, 26 November 2014, https://fromthetrenchesworldreport.com/jfk-those-who-make-peaceful-revolution-impossible-will-make-violent-revolution-inevitable/112870. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
3 thoughts on “Famous Sayings #187 — ‘Those Who Make Peaceful Revolution Impossible …’”
I do have a thought on this subject, as your line of thinking parallels my own. I’m a public historian specializing in American military history (the wars, not so much the black ops) and the Founding Era more broadly. I found your article because I was looking for exactly what you answered: the context of this quote. I’ve done a lot of writing lately because of the national crises, but not in a place anyone’s likely to find it. I’m an advocate of using Article V of the Constitution to bring about exactly this peaceful revolution. I’ve said to a few people recently that the Constitution has only two mechanisms that reserve to the sovereign People the Natural Right to alter their form of government as the Declaration states. One is Article V, and the other is the 2nd Amendment. If we don’t use the former, we will see more of the latter. It’s that simple. I’m in no position to make threats; I’m just a library guy who recognizes the gathering clouds of war. And there are a lot of people standing in the way of an Article V convention to reign in the federal government – making violence inevitable. I had no idea Kennedy had said this. Thank you very much for filling in the story!
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You are welcome and thanks for your comment. I am glad to know that I helped you with your research.
Fantastic piece. I am not a historian and know little about the Kennedy years, though they are not that far before my time. The context in which you placed this famous quote did not change its meaning for me but it did give me a slightly deeper appreciation for it. Thank you so much and a Happy and better New Year to us all.
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