President Kennedy and the OECD

©JFK Library

50 years ago, on 22 November 1963, US President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The shockwave of that tragedy rocked the world and still reverberates today. The sadness at President Kennedy’s untimely death was equally heartfelt in the corridors of the OECD, an international organisation whose creation in September 1961 he personally and strongly supported.

President Kennedy proudly evoked the OECD project in his first State of the Union address on 30 January 1961, and expounded his vision for the organisation in his ratification statement two months later. In that statement, issued on 23 March, President Kennedy said:

On behalf of the United States, I have ratified the convention establishing the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. I have done so with great satisfaction, and with expectations that [it] will become one of the principal institutions through which we pursue the great aim of consolidating the Atlantic Community. As I said in my inaugural address, ’United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.’

In giving its advice and consent to this act of ratification, the United States senate has affirmed the intention of the United States to enter upon a new era of co-operative enterprise with our Atlantic partners. We face a broad spectrum of common economic problems.

And OECD should prove a useful forum in which the member states can consider and act together on a number of the vital questions. The first OECD secretary-general, the late Thorkil Kristensen, whose last meeting with President Kennedy was scheduled for October 1963, just a month before the assassination, was adamant about the vital role President Kennedy had played in establishing the OECD.

“Normally one would not expect a head of state to have much to do with an international organisation”, Kristensen wrote in an obituary in the OECD Observer, “but the OECD owes unusually much to the late John F Kennedy because of his invigorating influence in its formative stage.”

Kennedy understood the “interdependence of the continents”, Kristensen pointed out, and this inspired the president’s global vision for the organisation. For instance, President Kennedy was particularly keen from the very outset that, for the OECD to make sense, Japan should become a member. Regrettably he did not live to see that day materialise, for Japan joined the organisation in 1964 (though they signed the accession agreement in 1963). Nor was Kennedy’s vision focused on the developed world; rather he saw the organisation as a hub of knowledge and experience that would radiate outwards and provide for “the hopes for growth of the less-developed lands”. It is a vision that led President Kennedy to propose the creation of the OECD Development Centre in May 1961.

 President Kennedy, or Jack as he was popularly known, was a person of remarkable energy and intelligence, and his sense of leadership and charisma won him admiration and respect in all walks of society and throughout the world. He symbolised a new optimism of hope and unity, and helped open a whole chapter in history which is still unfolding today. Though gone 50 years ago this week, John F Kennedy remains an icon of our times. The OECD stands as a living tribute to his legacy.

John F Kennedy would be 96 today. OECD Secretary-General Kristensen’s closing lines still ring true: “It is difficult to accept that he is no longer among us.” Rory Clarke

President Kennedy on a visit to the 82e Division Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 12 Oct 1961


President Kennedy’s statement on the Ratification of the OECD Convention, 23 March 1963, courtesy of John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the American Presidency Project

President Kennedy’s 1961 Annual State of the Union message to Congress, 30 January 1961

OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría, statement to mark the 50th anniversary of untimely death of US President John F. Kennedy, 22 November 2013

Clarke, Rory, Lyndon Thompson (2011) “A m: How the OECD was won”, in OECD Yearbook 2011 

©OECD Observer, Issue No 297, Q4 2013

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