JFK Has Busy Day

President John F. Kennedy announces that the U.S. may cease atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons on this day in 1963. Before the day was out, he had also signed a bill prohibiting wage discrimination toward women and sent a telegram to Governor George Wallace of Alabama asking him not to prevent black students from registering at the University of Alabama.

Eight months after a frightening showdown between himself and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet missiles in Cuba, Kennedy took tentative steps toward improved relations with the Soviet Union. In a commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C., Kennedy announced that the U.S. did not seek a Pax Americana–an American-enforced peace modeled after the Roman Empire–and sought instead a new strategy of peace. He declared that the U.S. was willing to cease testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and announced that the U.S., Britain and the U.S.S.R. had agreed to initiate test-ban treaty negotiations. However, Kennedy made clear that the atmospheric testing pledge was contingent upon other nations making the same commitment and he did not mention whether the U.S. planned to stop underground or underwater testing. Within two months, the superpowers would agree to terms on a nuclear test ban and sign a limited treaty that prohibited nuclear-weapons tests in the atmosphere, space or underwater. It did not ban tests underground.

After the American University speech, Kennedy returned to the White House, where he signed into law H.R. 6060, establishing the Equal Pay Act (EPA), which prohibited, in his words, the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job. At the time, one in three American workers was a woman–25 million women in all–many of whom were working mothers and/or the sole breadwinner in their family. Despite this, women earned on average 59 cents to the dollar earned by men in the same job. In his remarks at the signing, Kennedy asked Congress to consider provisions to the bill to increase funding for day-care centers and proposed greater tax cuts for working women. The Equal Pay Act is currently enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).

Later that day, Kennedy sent a personal telegram to George Wallace after the Alabama governor had repeatedly promised to block two black students from entering the state university. In the telegram, Kennedy asked Wallace to comply with two previously issued court orders, of May 21 and June 5, which affirmed the students’ right to register. Kennedy warned Wallace that setting an example of defiant conduct would give the president no recourse but to activate the Alabama National Guard to enforce federal law. At the time, Alabama was the only state that had not integrated its education system. On June 11, Wallace defied the court orders yet again and Kennedy activated the National Guard. Wallace relented later that day and allowed the students to register.

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