|The American Presidency Project|
|• John F. Kennedy|
|Television and Radio Interview: "After Two Years - a Conversation With the President."|
|December 17, 1962|
WILLIAM H. LAWRENCE, American Broadcasting Company:  As you look back upon your first 2 years in office, sir, has your experience in the office matched your expectations? You had studied a good deal the power of the Presidency, the methods of its operations. How has this worked out as you saw it in advance?
THE PRESIDENT. Well, I think in the first place the problems are more difficult than I had imagined they were. Secondly, there is a limitation upon the ability of the United States to solve these problems. We are involved now in the Congo in a very difficult situation. We have been unable to secure an implementation of the policy which we have supported. We are involved in a good many other areas. We are trying to see if a solution can be found to the struggle between Pakistan and India, with whom we want to maintain friendly relations. Yet they are unable to come to an agreement. There is a limitation, in other words, upon the power of the United States to bring about solutions.
I think our people get awfully impatient and maybe fatigued and tired, and saying "We have been carrying this burden for 17 years; can we lay it down?" We can't lay it down, and I don't see how we are going to lay it down in this century.
So that I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.
[2.] Mr. Lawrence: Well, Mr. President, that brings up a point that has always interested me. How does a President go about making a decision, like Cuba, for example?
THE PRESIDENT. The most recent one was hammered out really on policy and decision over a period of 5 or 6 days. During that period, the 15 people more or less who were directly consulted frequently changed their view, because whatever action we took had so many disadvantages to it, and each action that we took raised the prospect that it might escalate with the Soviet Union into a nuclear war. Finally, however, I think a general consensus developed, and certainly seemed after all alternatives were examined, that the course of action that we finally adopted was the right one.
Now, when I talked to members of the Congress, several of them suggested a different alternative, when we confronted them on that Monday with the evidence. My feeling is that if they had gone through the 5-day period we had gone through in looking at the various alternatives, the advantages and disadvantages of action, they probably would have come out the same way that we did. I think that we took the right one. If we had had to act on Wednesday in the first 24 hours, I don't think probably we would have chosen as prudently as we finally did, a quarantine against the use of offensive weapons.
In addition, that had much more power than we first thought it did, because I think the Soviet Union was very reluctant to have us stop ships which carried with them a good deal of their highly secret and sensitive material. One of the reasons I think that the Soviet Union withdrew the IL-28's was because we were carrying on very intensive low-level photography. Now, no one would have guessed, probably, that that would have been such a harassment. Mr. Castro could not permit us to indefinitely continue widespread flights over his island at 200 feet every day, and yet he knew if he shot down one of our planes, that then it would bring back a much more serious reprisal on him. So it is very difficult to always make judgments here about what the effect will be of our decisions on other countries. In this case, it seems to me that we did pick the right one; in Cuba of 1961 we picked the wrong one.
[3.] George E. Herman, Columbia Broadcasting System: I would like to go back to the question of the consensus and your relationship to the consensus. You have said and the Constitution says that the decision can be made only by the President.
THE PRESIDENT. Well, you know that old story about Abraham Lincoln and the Cabinet. He says, "All in favor, say 'aye,'" and the whole cabinet voted "aye," and then, "All opposed, 'no,'" and Lincoln voted "no," and he said, "The vote is no." So that naturally the Constitution places the responsibility on the President. There was some disagreement with the course we finally adopted, but the course we finally adopted had the advantage of permitting other steps if this one was unsuccessful. In other words, we were starting in a sense at a minimum place. Then if that were unsuccessful, we could have gradually stepped it up until we had gone into a much more massive action, which might have become necessary if the first step had been unsuccessful. I would think that the majority finally came to accept that, though at the beginning there was a much sharper division. And after all, this was very valuable, because the people who were involved had particular responsibilities of their own; Mr. McNamara, Secretary of Defense, who therefore had to advise me on the military capacity of the United States in that area, the Secretary of State, who had to advise on the attitude of the OAS and NATO. So that in my opinion the majority came to accept the course we finally took. It made it much easier. In the Cuba of 1961 the advice of those who were brought in on the executive branch was also unanimous, and the advice was wrong. And I was responsible. So that finally it comes down that no matter how many advisers you have, frequently they are divided, and the President must finally choose.
The other point is something that President Eisenhower said to me on January 19th. He said "There are no easy matters that will ever come to you as President. If they are easy, they will be settled at a lower level." So that the matters that come to you as President are always the difficult matters, and matters that carry with them large implications. So this contributes to some of the burdens of the office of the Presidency, which other Presidents have commented on
[4.] Sander Vanocur, National Broadcasting Company: Mr. President, during the Cuban crisis, there was some problem that you are apparently familiar with and bored with by now, about the possibility of a President talking in very private and secret conversations with his advisers, and that somehow leaking out. Do you think that this is going to inhibit the free, frank flow of advice that every President has to have?
THE PRESIDENT. No, I think it is unfortunate there are that sort of conversations, but there are what--1300 reporters accredited to the White House alone? There are I suppose 100 or 150 people who are familiar with what goes on in the Security Council meetings in one way or another. You have the people who are actually there. Then you have got the others who are given instructions as a result of the decisions there, and I suppose people do talk. And then as I said at the time of the Cuban disaster in April of 1961 that success has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. I suppose when something goes well, there is more tendency to talk at all levels, and frequently the reports are inaccurate. I would say the security is pretty good at the National Security Council. It is unfortunate when it is breached.
[5.] Mr. Vanocur: Is it true that during your first year, sir, you would get on the phone personally to the State Department and try to get a response to some inquiry that had been made?
Mr. Vanocur: Do you recall any response that you received from somebody who was not suspecting a phone call in the State Department, any specific response somebody made to you?
THE PRESIDENT. No, they always respond. They always say "yes." It takes a little while to get it. You know, after I met Mr. Khrushchev in Vienna and they gave us an aide memoire, it took me many weeks to get our answer out through the State Department coordinated with the British, the French, and the Germans. It took much too long. Now, it seems to me we have been able to speed it up, but this is a constant problem in various departments. There are so many interests that are involved in any decision. No matter whether the decision is about Africa or Asia, it involves the Europe desk, it involves the desk of the place, it involves the Defense Department, it might involve the CIA, it frequently involves the Treasury, it might involve the World Bank, it involves the United Nations delegation. So it seems to me that one of the functions of the President is to try to have it move with more speed. Otherwise you can wait while the world collapses.
[6.] Mr. Vanocur: You once said that you were reading more and enjoying it less. Are you still as avid a newspaper reader, magazine--I remember those of us who traveled with you on the campaign, a magazine wasn't safe around you.
THE PRESIDENT. Oh, yes. No, no, I think it is invaluable, even though it may cause you--it is never pleasant to be reading things that are not agreeable news, but I would say that it is an invaluable arm of the Presidency, as a check really on what is going on in the administration, and more things come to my attention that cause me concern or give me information. So I would think that Mr. Khrushchev operating a totalitarian system which has many advantages as far as being able to move in secret, and all the rest--there is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn't write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn't any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.
Now, on the other hand, the press has the responsibility not to distort things for political purposes, not to just take some news in order to prove a political point. It seems to me their obligation is to be as tough as they can on the administration but do it in a way which is directed towards getting as close to the truth as they can get and not merely because of some political motivation.
[7'] Mr. Lawrence: Mr. President, in the light of the election returns, which at the congressional level at least were certainly a defeat for the Republican hopes, how do you measure your chances for significant success domestically in the Congress just ahead?
Mr. Lawrence: Did the complexion of the House change a little bit by these shifts?
THE PRESIDENT. I would say slightly against us more than it was. We are not in quite as good shape as we were for the last 2 years, but we are about where we were the last 2 years, which means that every vote will be three or four votes either way, winning or losing.
[8.] Mr. Lawrence: Do you have a very crucial vote at the outset on this Rules Committee fight again, do you think?
THE PRESIDENT. I hope that the Rules Committee is kept to its present number, because we can't function if it isn't. We are through if we lose--if they try to change the rules. Nothing controversial in that case would come to the floor of the Congress. Our whole program in my opinion would be emasculated.
[9'] Mr. Lawrence: As a young Congressman, sir, you voted to impose a two-term limitation on Presidents. Now that you have held the office for a while, and also observed its effect on President Eisenhower's second term, would you repeat that vote, even if the amendment did not apply to yourself?
THE PRESIDENT. Yes, I would. I would. I know the conditions were special in '47, but I think 8 years is enough, and I am not sure that a President, in my case if I were reelected, that you are at such a disadvantage. There are not many jobs. That is not the power of the Presidency--patronage--at all. They are filled in the first months. Most of those jobs belong to the members of the Congress, anyway. So patronage is not a factor. I think there are many other powers of the Presidency that run in the second term as well as the first.
Mr. Vanocur: Mr. President, on that point--
THE PRESIDENT. The fact is, President Eisenhower has great influence today in the Republican Party, and therefore in the country, and has great influence in foreign policy, and he does not even hold office. In some ways his influence is greater to some degree. So that the same is really also true of President Truman and President Hoover. I don't think that it depends--the influence of a President is still substantial in his second term, though I haven't had a second term-I think it is.
Mr. Vanocur: Mr. President, on that point, much of your program still remains to be passed by the Congress. There are some people who say that you either do it in the next 2 years, or it won't be done, should you be elected to a second term. Do you share that point of view?
THE PRESIDENT. No. In the first place, I think we have got a lot by. I was looking at what we set out to do in January of the other day, and on taxes, and on social security, welfare changes, area redevelopment, minimum wage, Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress, the Disarmament Agency, and strengthening the defenses and strengthening our space program--we did all those things, the trade bill, not perhaps to the extent in every case of our original proposal, but substantial progress. I think we can do some more the next 2 years. I would think there are going to be new problems if I were reelected in 1965, and I don't think-I don't look at the second term as necessarily a decline. I don't think that at all. In fact, I think you know much more about the position.
It is a tremendous change to go from being a Senator to being President. In the first months, it is very difficult. But I have no reason to believe that a President with the powers of this office and the responsibilities placed on it, if he has a judgment that some things need to be done, I think he can do it just as well the second time as the first, depending of course on the makeup of the Congress. The fact is I think the Congress looks more powerful sitting here than it did when I was there in the Congress. But that is because when you are in Congress you are one of a hundred in the Senate or one of 435 in the House, so that the power is so divided. But from here I look at a Congress, and I look at the collective power of the Congress, particularly the bloc action, and it is a substantial power.
[10.] Mr. Vanocur: Mr. President, power like charity, as you have noted, begins at home, and you seem to have one view of what we need to do at home, and Congress seems to have another view. A lot of money will be appropriated for defense and national security, but there is a certain reluctance to devote money to another form of capital investment--education and other things like that at home. Is it purely a question of money, or is this religious thing really going to make it impossible for you to get an education act passed?
THE PRESIDENT. Well, education--it is certainly the question of how the funds will be distributed, how they will be shared is one of the factors. The integration question is another matter which comes into it. I think--you know, Thomas Jefferson once said to expect the people to be ignorant and free is to expect what never was and never will be. Here we are going to have twice as many people trying to go to college in 1970 as 1960. That means we have to build as many buildings in 10 years as we built the whole 160 years of our country's history. Then you have got these millions of young boys and girls who are dropping out of school, who are unskilled, at a time when unskilled--when skilled labor is needed, and not unskilled. So we need money for vocational training to train them in skills, to retrain workers, to provide assistance funds for colleges, and then to provide assistance to those who are going to get doctorates, higher advanced in engineering, science, and mathematics. We have a severe shortage there. And yet we are asking for space, defense, and all the rest. The Soviet Union is concentrating on this. So all this requires funds, but it is all in controversy. Some people feel the Federal Government should play no role, and yet the Federal Government, since the land grant act and back to the Northwest Ordinance, has played a major role. I think the Federal Government has a great responsibility in the field of education. We can't maintain our strength industrially, militarily, scientifically, socially, without very well-educated citizenry. And I think the Federal Government has a role to play. So we are going to send up a program. Unfortunately, because of the fact, as you mentioned, and other reasons, we have come close to getting assistance to education passed, but we have not been successful.
Mr. Lawrence: Mr. President, is your problem of getting an education bill through this year made more difficult by the events at Oxford, Miss., and the use of Federal troops there?
THE PRESIDENT. Yes, I think so.
THE PRESIDENT Well, as I say, this is a case of where we have come very close, and President Eisenhower came close, and we came close once, we got a bill through the House-through the Senate, almost through the House--and we didn't get it. Then another try for higher education through the Senate and the House, and then it failed--the conference failed. Now, Oxford, Miss., which has made this whole question of the Federal Government and education more sensitive, in some parts of the country I suppose that is going to be a factor against us. I don't really know what other role they would expect the President of the United States to play. The court made up of Southern judges determined it was according to the Constitution that Mr. Meredith go to the University of Mississippi. The Governor of Mississippi opposed it, and there was rioting against Mr. Meredith, which endangered his life. We sent in marshals, and after all, 150 or 160 marshals were wounded in one way or another out of four or five hundred, and at least three-fourths of the marshals were from the South themselves. Then we sent in troops when it appeared that the marshals were going to be overrun. I don't think that anybody who looks at the situation can think we could possibly do anything else. We couldn't possibly do anything else. But on the other hand, I recognize that it has caused a lot of bitterness against me and against the National Government in Mississippi and other parts, and though they expect me to carry out my oath under the Constitution and that is what we are going to do. But it does make it more difficult to pass an education bill. But I think we shouldn't penalize this great resource of our youth for all these reasons. Instead, we ought to do the job and get these schools built, these teachers compensated, and higher education available to all these boys and girls--every time I drive around the country, that is all you see, are 6- and 7- and 8- and 9-year-old children who are going to be pouring into our schools and colleges, and every Governor will tell you that is his major problem, providing educational facilities, where the National Government has a responsibility.
[11.] Mr. Vanocur: Do you think we could turn for a moment to this subject of the President's responsibility in foreign affairs? Now, when some Congressmen disagreed with your course of action over Cuba on that Monday, the responsibility you have by the Constitution in this is very clear, but in domestic matters the responsibility is divided. How do you use the Presidency, in Theodore Roosevelt's phrase "the bully pulpit," to move these men who really are kind of barons and sovereigns in their own right up there on the Hill? Have you any way to move them toward a course of action which you think is imperative?
THE PRESIDENT. Well, the Constitution and the development of the Congress all give advantage to delay. It is very easy to defeat a bill in the Congress. It is much more difficult to pass one. To go through a committee, say the Ways and Means Committee of the House subcommittee and get a majority vote, the full committee and get a majority vote, go to the Rules Committee and get a rule, go to the Floor of the House and get a majority, start over again in the Senate, subcommittee and full committee, and in the Senate there is unlimited debate, so you can never bring a matter to a vote if there is enough determination on the part of the opponents, even if they are a minority, to go through the Senate with the bill. And then unanimously get a conference between the House and Senate to adjust the bill, or if one member objects, to have it go back through the Rules Committee, back through the Congress, and have this done on a controversial piece of legislation where powerful groups are opposing it, that is an extremely difficult task. So that the struggle of a President who has a program to move it through the Congress, particularly when the seniority system may place particular individuals in key positions who may be wholly unsympathetic to your program, and may be, even though they are members of your own party, in political opposition to the President--this is a struggle which every President who has tried to get a program through has had to deal with. After all, Franklin Roosevelt was elected by the largest majority in history in 1936, and he got his worst defeat a few months afterwards in the Supreme Court bill.
So that they are two separate offices and two separate powers, the Congress and the Presidency. There is bound to be conflict, but they must cooperate to the degree that is possible. But that is why no President's program is ever put in. The only time a President's program is put in quickly and easily is when the program is insignificant. But if it is significant and affects important interest and is controversial, therefore, then there is a fight, and the President is never wholly successful.
Mr. Vanocur: Mr. President, which is the better part of wisdom, to take a bill which is completely emasculated, that you had great interest in and accept it, or accept its defeat in the hope of building up public support for it at a later time?
THE PRESIDENT. Well, I would say given the conditions you described, I think it would be better to accept the defeat, but usually what has happened, and what has happened to us in the last 2 years, a good many of our bills passed in reasonable position, not the way we sent them up, but after all, the Congress has its own will and its own feelings and its own judgment, and they are close to the people. The whole House of Representatives has just been elected. So that it is quite natural that they will have a different perspective than I may have. So I would say that what we ought to do is to do the best we can. But if it is completely emasculated, then there is no sense in having a shadow of success and not the substance.
[12.] Mr. Lawrence: Mr. President, in the exercise of Presidential power, and I think perhaps the best known case and the most widely talked about was your rollback of steel prices after they had been announced by the steel companies, some people have suggested that in retrospect that perhaps you would not have acted so vigorously. Is there any truth in this suggestion?
THE PRESIDENT. I must say it would have been a very serious situation though I don't like to rake over old fires, I think it would have been a serious situation if I had not attempted with all my influence to try to get a rollback, because there was an issue of good faith involved. The steel union had accepted the most limited settlement that they had had since the end of the second war, they had accepted it 3 or 4 months ahead, they did it in part, I think, because I said that we could not afford another inflationary spiral, that it would affect our competitive position abroad, so they signed up. Then when their last contract was signed, which was the Friday or Saturday before, then steel put its prices up immediately. It seemed to me that the question of good faith was involved, and that if I had not attempted, after asking the unions to accept the noninflationary settlement, if I had not attempted to use nay influence to have the companies hold their prices stable, I think the union could have rightfully felt that they had been misled. In my opinion it would have endangered the whole bargaining between labor and management, would have made it impossible for us to exert any influence from the public point of view in the future on these great labor-management disputes which do affect the public interest. So I have no regrets. The fact is, we were successful.
Now, supposing we had tried and made a speech about it, and then failed. I would have thought that would have been an awful setback to the office of the Presidency. Now, I just think, looking back on it, that I would not change it at all. There is no sense in raising hell, and then not being successful. There is no sense in putting the office of the Presidency on the line on an issue, and then being defeated. Now, an unfortunate repercussion of that was the strong feeling that the Government might interfere in a good many labor-management matters, or that it might interfere in the whole question of the free enterprise system. It was regrettable that that general conclusion was drawn in this particular incident. Given the problem that I had on that Tuesday night, I must say I think we had to do everything we could to get it reversed.
[ 13. ] Mr. Lawrence: Mr. President, your predecessor, President Eisenhower, in his farewell message to the people just before he left office, warned of the dangers of a possible military-industrial complex that might threaten the very nature of the democracy. Have you felt this threat at all while you were in office?
THE PRESIDENT. Well, it seems to me there is probably more in that feeling perhaps some months ago than I would say today. Of course, every time you cancel a weapons system, it affects a good many thousands of people, the interests of a community, the interests of members of Congress, the interests of the state, and we have had a long fight, for example, over the B-70, which we have felt is a weapon that isn't worth the money we would have to put into it. But it is a very difficult struggle with the Congress. Twice now Congress has appropriated the money for the program, twice we have not spent that money. But I must say as of today I don't feel that the pressure on us is excessive.
Mr. Lawrence: Well, I was particularly attracted, sir, by an advertisement, a two-page color advertisement this week in one of the national magazines, for the Project Skybolt missile.
Mr. Lawrence: And it claimed only successes for the missile, it mentioned no failures, though you had pointed out five, and it said that this system would save billions of dollars in tax dollars if developed. Now, did you regard that as pressure on you?
THE- PRESIDENT. Well, I think it was an attempt to influence our decision. I see nothing wrong with that. The fact of the matter is that this Skybolt is very essential to the future of the Douglas Company. There are thousands of jobs that are involved. There are a good many people in the United States who feel that this program would be useful, and of course the British feel very strongly about it. So I think the ad was an attempt to bring what the Douglas Company feels are the facts to my attention, to Mr. McNamara's, in a different form. In fact, I saw that ad today. The only thing that we ought to point out is, we are talking about $2.5 billion to build a weapon to hang on our B-52's, when we already have billions invested in Polaris, and Minuteman, we are talking about developing now Titan III and other missiles. There is just a limit to how much we need, as well as how much we can afford to have a successful deterrent. Your submarines in the ocean, we have Minutemen on the ground, we have B-52 planes, we still have some B-47's, we have the tactical forces in Europe. I would say when we start to talk about the megatonnage we could bring into a nuclear war, we are talking about annihilation. How many times do you have to hit a target with nuclear weapons? That is why when we are talking about spending this $2.5 billion, we don't think that we are going to get $2.5 billion worth of national security. Now, I know there are others who disagree, but that is our feeling.
Mr. Herman: As we move forward technically, Mr. President, new weapons systems and new devices which may be vital to the future of the country seem to get more and more expensive, and to involve more and more thousands of men working on them. Are we coming to a point where perhaps we are going to be so involved that once you start a new weapons system into the works, you will be almost bound to continue it, because to discontinue it would dislocate the economy, put thousands out of work again, and so forth?
THE PRESIDENT. Well, that is a problem. In addition, these systems are always two or three or four times more expensive than they look like they are going to be. One of the problems that we have now is the question of whether we should begin to put out the Nike-Zeus system, which is an anti-missile missile system around this country. We hope sometime to develop a system which will permit us to fire a missile at a missile coming toward us and destroy it, and thereby prevent an atomic attack on the United States. But it will cost billions. There is no sense going ahead until that system is perfected. Some think now is the time, but we are going to wait for a further period of investigation. But there isn't any doubt that if you don't build the B-70 or you don't build the Skybolt, this involves thousands of jobs, and the welfare of communities, and this is one of our toughest problems. On the other hand, we can't have our defense budget go out of sight. We are now spending $52 billion a year, which is a tremendous amount of money, and we could go up to 60 or 65 billion if we didn't tighten as much as we can.
Mr. Herman: Did the Nike-Zeus program get any impetus from Mr. Khrushchev's boast that he can hit a fly in the sky at the moment?
THE PRESIDENT. He might hit a fly, but whether he could hit a thousand flies with decoys--you see, every missile that comes might have four or five missiles in it, or would appear to be missiles, and the radar screen has to pick those out and hit them going thousands of miles an hour, and select which one is the real missile and which are the decoys, when there might be hundreds of objects coming through the air. That is a terribly difficult task. You can hit one. What you are trying to do is shoot a bullet with a bullet. Now, if you have a thousand bullets coming at you, that is a terribly difficult task which we have not mastered yet, and I don't think he has. The offense has the advantage.
Mr. Herman: You think he has mastered the art of hitting one bullet?
THE PRESIDENT. Yes; so have we.
[14.] Mr. Lawrence: Mr. President, you spoke the other day of the dangers and difficulties of slow communications between here and the Soviet Union, as it exhibited itself during the Cuban crisis. I suppose this would be an even graver problem if your radar screen were to pick up missiles or at least what appeared to be missiles in any substantial number?
THE PRESIDENT. Yes. Well, there is--one of the arguments for the continuation of the airplane is that if you picked up missiles coming toward you, you could have your planes take off and be in the air. Then if it proved to be a false alarm, then you could call them back. For missiles, you can't do that, and the President might have to make a judgment in a 15-minute period, and the information would be incomplete. You recall that incident where the moon came up, and it appeared to be a whole variety of missiles coming in. Of course, it was picked up several years ago. I think that is oversimplified. The fact of the matter is that the United States could wait quite long because we have missiles in hardened sites, and those missiles, even if there was a missile attack on the United States, those missiles could still be fired and destroy the Soviet Union, and so could the Polaris submarine missiles. So that I don't think there is a danger that we would fire based on incomplete and inaccurate information, because we were only given 5 or 6 minutes to make a judgment. I think the Polaris alone permits us to wait to make sure that we are going to have sufficient in hand that he knows that we could destroy the Soviet Union. After all, that is the purpose of the deterrent. Once he fires his missiles, it is all over anyway, because we are going to have sufficient resources to fire back at him to destroy the Soviet Union. When that day comes, and there is a massive exchange, then that is the end, because you are talking about Western Europe, the Soviet Union, the United States, of 150 million fatalities in the first 18 hours. Now, you could go on, if everybody aimed at cities in order to have as many killed as possible in all these communities with all the weapons you could fire, you could kill, and then you might be having more fire. So that the nuclear age is a very dangerous period, and that is why I frequently read these speeches about how we must do this and that. But I think they ought to just look at what we are talking about.
Mr. Lawrence: How urgent is this need for quicker communication between here and the Soviet Union?
THE PRESIDENT. It Is desirable. It is not--if he fires his missiles at us, it is not going to do any good for us to have a telephone at the Kremlin--but I do think that--and ask him whether it is really true. But I do think that it is better that we should be quicker than we now are. It took us some hours in the Cuban matter, and I think that communication is important. In addition to the communications with the Kremlin, we have very poor communications to a good deal of Latin America, and we don't know what is going on there very frequently. So we are trying to improve our communications all around the world, because that knowledge is so vital to an effective decision.
[15.] Mr. Vanocur: Mr. President, have you noted since you have been in office that this terrible responsibility for the fate of mankind has--notwithstanding the differences that divide you--has drawn you and Mr. Khrushchev somewhat closer in this joint sense of responsibility? He seems to betray it, especially in his speech to the Supreme Soviet earlier.
THE PRESIDENT. I think in that speech this week he showed his awareness of the nuclear age. But of course, the Cuban effort has made it more difficult for us to carry out any successful negotiations, because this was an effort to materially change the balance of power, it was done in secret, steps were taken really to deceive us by every means they could, and they were planning in November to open to the world the fact that they had these missiles so close to the United States; not that they were intending to fire them, because if they were going to get into a nuclear struggle, they have their own missiles in the Soviet Union. But it would have politically changed the balance of power. It would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality. So it is going to be some time before it is possible for us to come to any real understandings with Mr. Khrushchev. But I do think his speech shows that he realizes how dangerous a world we live in.
The real problem is the Soviet desire to expand their power and influence. If Mr. Khrushchev would concern himself with the real interests of the people of the Soviet Union, that they have a higher standard of living, to protect his own security, there is no real reason why the United States and the Soviet Union, separated by so many thousands of miles of land and water, both rich countries, both with very energetic people, should not be able to live in peace. But it is this constant determination which the Chinese show in the most militant form, and which the Soviets also have shown, that they will not settle for that kind of a peaceful world, but must settle for a Communist world. That is what makes the real danger, the combination of these two systems in conflict around the world in a nuclear age is what makes the sixties so dangerous.
Mr. Vanocur: Ambassador Kennan,1 who has some knowledge of the Soviet Union, wrote in one of his recent books that what you are dealing with here is a conditioned state of mind, that there is no misunderstanding here, that the only thing the Soviets really understand is when you present them with a set of facts and say to them, "This is what we are going to do." This they understand. Have you found that there is any way to break through to Mr. Khrushchev, to make him really aware that you are quite sincere and determined about what you say, sir, or is this a total--
THE PRESIDENT. Well, it is difficult. I think, looking back on Cuba, what is of concern is the fact that both governments were so far out of contact, really. I don't think that we expected that he would put the missiles in Cuba, because it would have seemed such an imprudent action for him to take, as it was later proved. Now, he obviously must have thought that he could do it in secret and that the United States would accept it. So that he did not judge our intentions accurately.
1 George F. Kennan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, March 14, 1952--July 29, 1953.
Well, now, if you look at the history of this century, where World War I really came through a series of misjudgments of the intentions of others, certainly World War II, where Hitler thought that he could seize Poland, that the British might not fight, and if they fought, after the defeat of Poland they might not continue to fight, Korea, where obviously the North Koreans did not think we were going to come in, and Korea, when we did not think the Chinese were going to come in, when you look at all those misjudgments which brought on war, and then you see the Soviet Union and the United States so far separated in their beliefs, we believing in a world of independent sovereign and different diverse nations, they believing in a monolithic Communist world, and you put the nuclear equation into that struggle, that is what makes this, as I said before, such a dangerous time, and that we must proceed with firmness and also with the best information we can get, and also with care. There is nothing--one mistake can make this whole thing blow up. So that--one major mistake either by Mr. Khrushchev or by us here--so that is why it is much easier to make speeches about some of the things which we ought to be doing, but I think that anybody who looks at the fatality lists on atomic weapons, and realizes that the Communists have a completely twisted view of the United States, and that we don't comprehend them, that is what makes life in the sixties hazardous.
[16.] Mr. Herman: Your discussion of contact with the Soviet Union, of operating and acting with care, leads me irresistibly to the picture of Mr. Gromyko sitting right here, perhaps on this very couch--2
THE PRESIDENT. Right here.
2 Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had visited the President on October 18.
Mr. Herman: Right there--just before--
THE PRESIDENT. Right next to Mr. Vanocur.
THE PRESIDENT. No, I read to him my September statement, in which we said we would take action if they put missiles in. He did not respond. That is why I say, we are quite a long way from being--Mr. Khrushchev and I are in the same boat in the sense of both having this nuclear capacity, and also both wanting to protect our societies. Where we are not on the same wave is that the Soviets expand their power and are determined to, and have demonstrated in Cuba their willingness to take great risks, which can only bring about a direct collision. Now, I spent a whole day at Vienna 3 talking about his speech he made on January 6, 1961, in which he said he was going to support wars of liberation, and I said this is the way for the United States and the Soviet Union to end up in direct confrontation, which is what happened in Cuba. You can't have too many of those, because we are not sure on every occasion that the Soviet Union will withdraw as they did in the case of Cuba. And the United States finds it difficult to withdraw when our vital interests are involved.
3 See 1961 volume, this series, p. 438.
Mr. Lawrence: Mr. President, were you tempted at any time when Gromyko sat there open-faced and said that there were no offensive weapons, to just get up and go to your desk and pick up a photograph--
THE PRESIDENT. No, because our information was incomplete and we had not completely determined what our policy would be. The information came in Tuesday, our conversation was on Thursday. We were carrying out intensive reconnaissance. We were still considering the advisability of another course of action. And therefore, it would have been very unwise for us to inform him in detail what we knew. We did not want to give him the satisfaction of announcing what he was doing. I think it was very important that the United States announced it before he did.
Mr. Lawrence: We might have lost the initiative then?
THE PRESIDENT. Yes. He might have announced it, and we would have been responding then to an initiative of theirs. This way we held the initiative. So it was very important that we not tell him, although I did not mislead him, because as I say, I read my September statement, and he must have wondered why I was reading it. But he did not respond.
[17.] Mr. Vanocur: Mr. President, a lot of people have said that it is necessary--and these are a lot of the demonologists who have some knowledge about the Soviet Union-that it is necessary for an American President to protect Mr. Khrushchev, because he is the best Soviet prime minister we will ever get. Do you feel that is really the duty of an American President or is it the duty of an American President to protect the national interest?
THE PRESIDENT. No, I don't think it is our duty to protect Mr. Khrushchev. This argument that his successor would be worse--I don't know what his successor will be like. What I think is our duty is to try to protect our vital interests, protect the security of the free world, and have Mr. Khrushchev understand our intentions clearly enough so that he can proceed about his business in a way which does not threaten our security, and does not bring a war. We don't want to have to protect our security by means of war. But Mr. Khrushchev has to understand that there are vital interests in the United States for which we will fight, and if he will come, he and the Communists and the Soviet Union will come to devote their energies to demonstrating how their system works in the Soviet Union, it seems to me his vital interests are easily protected with the power that he has, and we could have a long period of peace. Then we could make a judgment which system does do the job. We believe ours does. He has argued that his does, internally. But instead, by these constant desires to change the balance of power in the world, that is what, it seems to me, introduces the dangerous element.
Now, I do think in fairness, if you read his speech this week, you can see that we would be far worse off--the world would be-if the Chinese dominated the Communist movement, because they believe in war as the means of bringing about the Communist world. Mr. Khrushchev's means are destruction, but he believes that peaceful coexistence and support of these wars of liberation, small wars, will bring about our defeat. The Chinese Communists believe that by constantly hitting, and if war comes, a nuclear third world war, they can survive it anyway with 750 million people. So we are better off with the Khrushchev view than we are with the Chinese Communist view, quite obviously. But Mr. Khrushchev does not wish us well, unfortunately.
Mr. Vanocur: Is there anything we can do to influence this growing split within the Communist bloc, or should we just tend to the world that we have, and make sure that it is not ripe for Communist penetration?
THE PRESIDENT. I think that this dispute which has become intensified is a matter that I think if we would, as you suggest, devote our attention to so much of the world which is in very desperate condition, some of the countries of Latin America, Africa, Asia, which need our assistance, which need our support, if we do our job of strengthening the free world, then we will be, it seems to me, creating pressure, a counter-pressure against the Communist advance, and that communism internally, under that kind of pressure, will find its lot more difficult.
I do think we have a tendency to think of the world as Communist and free, as if it were two units. The fact of the matter is our world is so divided, so poverty stricken, so desperate in many conditions, that we have a full time job just strengthening the section of the world which is not Communist, all of Africa, newly independent and poverty stricken. Here we have the Prime Minister of Somali who came the other day, $45 per year the per capita income. The average wage in the United States manufacture is about 194 a week. Forty-five dollars a year; well, now, he has got staggering problems. You can go through Latin America and parts of northeast Brazil, $100 a year they are living on. So we have got a big job to do in our own area. If we can strengthen that area, as communism in my opinion is a completely fallacious and really is a system which really does not suit the desires of the average man, then I think we can be successful.
[18.] Mr. Herman: During the Cuban crisis when there was an offer of inspection inside Cuba by Premier Khrushchev, did you have any hope that there might really be a breakthrough, a start to achieving some kind of peace between our two systems, so that we can work on our own problems?
THE PRESIDENT. No, I don't think that is there yet. Now, it may come in time.
Mr. Herman: Did you have hope when it was offered that it might actually come about?
THE PRESIDENT. No, but I do think at least that Cuba, as I think the speech this week, which was an important speech, has made Mr. Khrushchev aware of the dangers of the United States and the Soviet Union clashing over an area of vital importance. So that I think is a very salutary fact. But I don't think we are about to see a whole change in Communist policy.
Mr. Herman: Would there have been any breakthrough if there had been international inspection of Cuba allowed, do you think, a start, a thin edge of a wedge?
THE PRESIDENT. No, I don't think that would have materially affected it, because I don't think we would have gotten the kind of inspection which really is necessary, because a totalitarian system cannot accept the kind of inspection which really is desirable. What you are saying really is that Cuba be opened, the Soviet Union be opened. They are not going to open it, because a totalitarian system must exist only in secrecy.
Mr. Herman: Have the inspections that we have had anywhere in the world, for example, in North Korea, or any place else, given you any hope that it will work as a system?
THE PRESIDENT. No, the camera I think is actually going to be our best inspector.
Mr. Lawrence: Mr. President, is there anything in the end of the Cuban crisis or the substantial end of it, at least getting off a fever pitch, and other problems around the world that would lead you to think that a summit meeting would be useful any time in the near future?
THE PRESIDENT. No, not just now. I think that the Vienna meeting was useful. It was useful for me, and I think--but I don't think we should go back to that, unless we really see our way clear to making an agreement on nuclear testing or disarmament, or in Europe itself, coming to some understanding. That is what we really want to do. As I say, this is too dangerous a period for us to be or to want to have a tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, and therefore I think we should encourage any relaxation of their policy of supporting those causes hostile to us. But until we see some breakthrough in some one area, I don't see there is much advantage in Mr. Khrushchev and I meeting, even though we have been in communication, and therefore I think at least we have some--and we are in negotiation in New York through our representatives, but I don't think there is a need for us to meet now. I think probably he feels the same way.
[19.] Mr. Lawrence: Many expected, Mr. President, that Berlin would "hot up" right after our elections. That seemed to be the timetable, perhaps incorrectly. Is there any feeling on your part that what happened in Cuba has led to greater caution in Berlin in so far as the Soviet and East German Governments are concerned?
THE PRESIDENT. Oh, I think the Chairman-nobody wants to go through what we went through in Cuba very often, and I think they realize that West Berlin is a vital interest to us, and that we are committed there, and that we are going to stay there. On the other hand, he has a very vital interest in East Germany, in trying to prop up that regime, and trying to solidify his position in Eastern Europe. So Berlin is a dangerous position always, particularly because of its geography, because we have to keep communications to an area which is 120 miles behind their lines so this always gives them a chance to tighten the grip on our windpipe there. But I would think he would proceed with some care, because I think he realizes it is the combination of a vital interest and one which has the chance of a direct encounter. So that I think that, as I say, Mr. Khrushchev's speech showed that he knows. And those who are attacking Mr. Khrushchev in the Communist camp, particularly the Chinese, as being too soft--I think Mr. Khrushchev realizes the care with which he must proceed now, as do we.
[20.] Mr. Herman: Would you explain, sir, why you said in your toast to Chancellor Adenauer that this was a turning point, a new era in history?
THE PRESIDENT. I think it is a climactic period. We have had a number of them. It is not the, but it is--after all, Cuba was the first time that the Soviet Union and the United States directly faced each other with the prospect of the use of military forces being used by the United States and the Soviet Union, which could possibly have escalated into a nuclear struggle. That is an important fact. Secondly, the Chinese-Indian struggle, between these two enormous countries, the two largest countries in the world, when the Soviet has devoted so many years to building its policy of friendship with India, the fact that China then attacked them. And third, the relation between the Soviet Union and China, as a result of the Sino-Indian dispute, as a result of the United States dispute with the Soviet Union over Cuba, I would say that that makes this a very important period.
[21.] Mr. Vanocur: Sir, how do you as the leader of the Western alliance, of the strongest member nation, how do you get the European countries, which are becoming increasingly more independent, increasingly more prosperous, which is what you said you hoped they would become, how do you get them to follow your lead? Apparently Secretaries McNamara and Rusk have not come back with an altogether satisfactory report from the NATO meeting, the Europeans seem unwilling to build conventional forces. Do you have any great power to determine--
THE PRESIDENT. No, in the first place you can do your part. We are doing our part. We have--our troops in Western Europe are the best equipped, we have six divisions, which is about a fourth of all of the divisions on the Western front. They are the best equipped. They can fight tomorrow, which is not true of most of the other units. So we are doing our part there, and we are also providing the largest naval force in the world. We are also providing the nuclear force in the world, and we are also carrying out the major space program for the free world, as well as carrying the whole burden in South Viet-Nam. So the United States is more than doing its part. We hope Western Europe will make a greater effort on its own, both in developing conventional forces, and in assistance to the underdeveloped world.
Now, we can't force them to do it. We can't say, "Well, if you won't do it, we are going to withdraw our forces and leave Europe naked." But I think the United States has done pretty well in carrying its burdens, and we hope that Western Europe, now that it is prosperous, will do its part. We put $12 billion in Western Europe in 4 years, from '48 to '52. The amount of assistance we have given Latin America for the Alliance for Progress is a fraction of that.
So we have a right, it seems to me, as we have done and proven that we are not sunshine soldiers with respect to Europe itself, there isn't a country in Europe that is putting, of the countries that we are talking about, that is putting as many men and as large a proportion of its population and its gross national product into defense as we are.
[22.] Mr. Vanocur: Well, sir, do you reach a point where you have to say, "Fish or cut bait; I can't go to the American people and ask them to assume this burden if they know that you are going to do this?" For example, the Skybolt.
THE PRESIDENT. Well, look at the Skybolt. The United States has developed the Skybolt. We put in $350 million into Skybolt. No other country has put anything into the actual manufacture of Skybolt. If we completed it, the British would have bought a hundred missiles, we would have bought a thousand. It would have cost us $2.5 billion. We today pay 30 percent of the infrastructure costs of NATO, the supply lines to the depots in Europe. It costs us about $3 billion in our balance of payments. The aid we give around the world is--you know, the American people are very critical, and the American press prints a lot of bad news, because bad news is news and good news is not news, so they get an impression always that the United States is not doing its part. When I just think of what we have done for 15 years, since '45, the countries we have sustained, the alliances of which we are the whole, the center, the willingness of the United States to accept burdens all around the world, I think it is a fantastic story. We have one million Americans today serving outside the United States. There is no other country in history that has carried this kind of a burden. The other countries had forces serving outside of their own country, but for conquest. We have two divisions in South Korea, not to control South Korea, but to defend it. We have a lot of Americans in South Viet-Nam. Well, now, no other country in the world has ever done that since the beginning of the world--Greece, Rome, Napoleon, and all the test always had conquest. We have a million men outside and they are trying to defend these countries. Now what we are saying is that rich Western Europe must do its part, and I hope it will.
Mr. Herman: Nothing that a President ever says is without effect, Mr. Kennedy. Aren't you sure that these words that you have just uttered will come back to you when the appropriations bill starts through the Congress, that you will hear yourself quoted?
THE PRESIDENT. No, I think the American people ought to know what they are doing, and I think Western Europe--Western Europe's success, after all, represents the greatest success of American foreign policy, since World War II, the rebuilding of Europe. It is just what we want. They are hound to have differences of opinion with us. But all we ask Western Europe to do is not look in and just become a rich, careful secluded group, but to play their role in this great world struggle, as we have done it. We are going to continue to do it in the United States, but we ought to recognize how much we have done, and not always be feeling--whenever I read a dispatch from Europe, it is usually rather critical, even in the Skybolt stories that come out are critical of the United States. My goodness, we have done a tremendous job in this country!
Mr. Herman: But can they play their role without developing their own nuclear weapons and their own nuclear deterrent, and isn't it against our policy to have this proliferation?
THE PRESIDENT. Well, we don't want six or seven separate nuclear powers in Europe diverting their funds to nuclear power, when the United States has got this tremendous arsenal. But if these countries want to do it, we are not stopping them from doing it. We're not opposing it. If the French decide they want to become a nuclear power themselves, that is their decision. The question is whether the United States should join in helping make France a nuclear power, then Italy, then West Germany, then Belgium. How does that produce security when you have ten, twenty, thirty nuclear powers who may fire their weapons off under different conditions? That isn't in our interest, or in my opinion in the interest of peace, or the interest of Western Europe. And it is awfully expensive. Why duplicate what we have already done, and are doing in Western Europe today, as long as our guarantees are good?
[23.] Mr. Vanocur: Mr. President, back before you were elected, your father used to have a favorite story he told reporters. He asked you once why do you want the job, and he cited the reasons why you shouldn't want it, and you apparently gave him an answer--I don't know whether it satisfied him, but apparently you satisfied yourself. Would you give him the same answer today after serving in this office for 2 years?
THE PRESIDENT. Oh, you mean that somebody is going to do it?
THE PRESIDENT. Yes. I think that there are a lot of satisfactions to the Presidency, particularly, as I say, we are all concerned as citizens and as parents and all the rest, with all the problems we have been talking about tonight. They are all the problems which if I was not the President, I would be concerned about as a father or as a citizen. So at least you have an opportunity to do something about them. And if what you do is useful and successful, then of course that is a great satisfaction. When as a result of a decision of yours, failure comes or you are unsuccessful, then of course that is a great setback. But I must say after being here for 2 years, and having the experience of the Presidency, and there is no experience you can get that can possibly prepare you adequately for the Presidency, I must say that I have a good deal of hope for the United States. Just because I think that this country, which as I say criticizes itself and is criticized around the world, 180 million people, for 17 years, really for more than that, for almost 20 years, have been the great means of defending first the world against the Nazi threat, and since then against the Communist threat, and if it were not for us, the Communists would be dominant in the world today, and because of us, we are in a strong position. Now, I think that is a pretty good record for a country with 6 percent of the world's population, which is very reluctant to take on these burdens. I think we ought to be rather pleased with ourselves this Christmas.
|Citation: John F. Kennedy: "Television and Radio Interview: "After Two Years - a Conversation With the President."", December 17, 1962. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9060.|
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