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Excerpts of Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy, American Legion Convention, Miami Beach, FL - (Advance Release Text)

October 18, 1960

* * * The critical situation which has been created by the steady erosion of relative American strength and prestige in the past 8 years. We have heard many general claims and boasts; we have heard how we are first in every area of competition: we have heard how we must be firm; how we must stand up to Khrushchev; how we must be united.

But no amount of oratory, no extravagant claims or vociferous braggadocio, no unjustified charges, can hide the harsh fact that behind the rhetoric, behind the soothing words and the confusing figures, American strength relative to that of the Soviet Union has been slipping, and communism has been advancing steadily in every area of the world, until the Iron Curtain now rests on the island of Cuba, only 90 miles away.

The implacable Communist drive for world domination, which now penetrates every continent and every section of the world, takes many forms; and the battle against communism is fought on many fronts. I would like to talk for a few minutes about one of those fronts, the front of military power. For it is here that the Communist advance, and relative American decline, can be most sharply seen; and it is here that the immediate danger to our survival is the greatest.

Eight years ago, when the administration took office, it inherited the most powerful military force in the history of the world, an America whose military supremacy was unchallenged and seemingly unchallengeable. The previous administration had developed the first atomic and hydrogen bombs, built up the greatest atomic striking force in the world, developed, in the Navajo project, the rocket engines which are now used in the Thor ICBM and the Atlas ICBM, and so nearly completed testing for the Atlas ICBM that construction was about to begin.

In that year, in 1952, no one dared challenge our power, even the most rabid partisan could make no issue of our defense, and that is what we seek, an America so strong that defense is not an issue, but a matter of pride to all Americans. And that is the kind of defense we intend to have.

Yet within 1 year the tide had begun to turn. The development of a relatively small hydrogen warhead has made missiles the key to future military power. The Soviet Union decided to go all out in missile development. But here, in the United States, we cut back on funds for missile development. We slashed our defense budget. We slowed up the modernization of our conventional forces until, today, the Soviet Union is rapidly building up a missile striking force that endangers our power to retaliate - and thus our survival itself.

For the harsh facts of the matter are that:

Our relative military strength has not increased as fast as the Russians', particularly in ground forces, submarines, and missiles - and our 17 ground divisions are opposed to more than 150 Soviet armored and infantry divisions;

Our ability to meet our commitments around the globe has been critically impaired by the failure to develop an airlift capacity sufficient to move our forces to developing trouble spots;

We are moving into a period when the Soviet Union will be outproducing us two or three to one in the field of missiles - a period relatively vulnerable and when our retaliatory force will be in danger of destruction through a Soviet surprise attack - the period of the missile gap;

This dangerous deterioration in our relative military strength has been the direct result of shortsighted budgetary policies and bad judgment in Washington.

These are the facts behind our claims of advancing military might - the facts which lie behind our current policy which seems to be "speak loudly while carrying a smaller and smaller stick" - and a policy which - with your help - we will reverse.

But I do not ask you to take my word for this. For it is your responsibility and the responsibility of every voter to weigh the record carefully, and examine the conclusions of those who analyzed our situation impartially, far from the heat of an election campaign.

And that record shows that every objective expert, every study commission, official or unofficial, Republican or Democrat, came to the same conclusion: We have been slipping and we are in danger.

The Gaither Committee report, prepared in 1957 at the request of President Eisenhower, has been best summed up as portraying this country as a "nation moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power."

The Rockefeller Brothers report in 1958 said: "The United States is rapidly losing its lead over the U.S.S.R. in the military race."

Mr. Rockefelkr himself has said: "I believe that our position is dramatically weaker today than it was 15 years ago."

Robert A. Lovett, a former Secretary of Defense and a lifelong Republican, testified before a Senate committee that "We are doing something short of our best."

Mr. Robert Sprague, consultant to the National Security Council and a lifelong Republican, testified before the same committee that "Our military program was inadequate and its inadequacies were a danger to our survival."

Lt. Gen. James Gavin, Chief of the Army's Research and Development under this administration, declared: "We are in mortal danger; the missile lag portends trouble of a serious nature."

Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Chief of Staff under this administration, said in 1959: "* * * we are now threatened with a missile gap that leaves us in a position of potentially grave danger."

And the American Legion itself only last year urged that our conventional forces be maintained at a higher level than they have now reached. But that recommendation, too, has---

In fact, the only reassuring statements we have are the claims of those in power who want to stay in power, the soothing sirup fed to anxious Americans to make them forget the tragic mistakes of the last 8 years: the cutbacks in our budget for research and development, the slashes in Army personnel, the impounding of funds voted by the Congress, the silencing of critics, the consistent overriding by the Budget Bureau of the requests made by our Service Chiefs for the funds they knew they needed to carry out the missions assigned to them.

I say that what we need are not reassurances, but strength, not words but weapons, and I intend to see that we get them.

For talk is cheap. Tough words are easy. Wagging one's finger under Mr. Khrushchev's nose costs the taxpayers nothing even if all you're saying is "You may be ahead of us in rockets, but we are ahead of you in color television." But words do not stop Mr. Khrushchev. Debates do not deter Mr. Khrushchev. He will be impressed and ready to talk peace only when we can show one quality above all others and superior to his: strength.

The question now is: What must we do to regain our strength? The decision is only partly military but until an effective and enforceable arms control agreement can be negotiated, we must build the military power necessary to keep our commitments and stop the next war before it starts. The President of the United States has a constitutional obligation to provide for the common defense and should that office be mine in January, I would call for the following changes:

First - We must take immediate steps to protect our present nuclear striking force from surprise attack. Today, more than 90 percent of our retaliatory capacity is made up of aircraft and missiles which have fixed unprotectable bases whose location is known to the Russians. We can only do this by providing SAC with the capability of maintaining a continuous airborne alert and by pressing projects such as the Hound Dog air-ground missile which will enable manned bombers to penetrate Soviet defenses with their weapons. We must also step up our lagging Atlas base program. For missiles without bases are worthless, adding nothing to our defense and wasting our all to limited missile capacity.

Second - We must step up crash programs to provide ourselves with the ultimate weapons, the Polaris submarines and Minuteman missiles, which will eventually close the missile gap by providing us with an invulnerable retaliatory force.

Third - We must modernize and give increased mobility to our conventional forces, our only protection against limited war. As long as we have the airlift capacity to rush only one division to a trouble spot anywhere on the globe and as long as we are still relying on the old M-1, while the Soviet is 10 years ahead in rifle development, as long as we are relying on the M-48 tank which can be outranged and outshot by the Soviet T-54, we are in trouble.

Fourth - We must reorganize our Defense Department - allocations, roles and missions - in accordance with the logic of modern weapons systems and technology, transforming the Joint Chiefs of Staff into a defense level staff rather than the representatives of the three services, creating an authority which will be directly responsible for stimulating scientific research and discovery and eliminating the duplication of function which has resulted from the creation of 39 separate civilian status offices in the Pentagon.

All this and much more must be done. But it is also clear that an increased military effort is not enough. More and better weapons are not enough. A reorganized Defense Department is not enough.

For the harsh fact of the matter is that in the past 8 years not a single Soviet fighting man has crossed the frontier of the free world - not a single Soviet missile has been fired at the United States - not a single Soviet bomb has dropped on our cities or the cities of our allies.

Yet in those same 8 years Cuba has been lost to the Communists. Laos has begun to slip behind the Iron Curtain. Ghana and Guinea have moved toward the Soviet bloc. A revolution in Iraq virtually destroyed our Middle Eastern Baghdad Pact. The Communists have captured control of one of the key factions in the fight for the Congo. And Communist influence - propaganda and subversive activities - has grown and prospered in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa, and in the Middle East.

In short, freedom has been on the defensive all over the globe and the Communists have made enormous gains without firing a single shot. For although military power gives stability and prestige to Communist activities, although it increases their prestige and perhaps their daring, military power is not the ultimate Communist weapon in the struggle for world domination.

For the Communists seek to undermine freedom, to achieve the triumph of communism by exploiting chaos and discontent in every corner of the world, by taking advantage of our weak spots, our failures to build the strong and stable governments which are the only guarantee of freedom. The Communists have a strategy for world conquest and that strategy rests in the future, as it has in the past, on the use of every weapon of economic and ideological conflict to win the allegiance of the uncommitted nations of the world and increase their dependence on the support of the Soviet Union, on the use of local Communist revolutionaries to subvert and destroy free government and on their belief that the United States lacks the will and the endurance to engage in a prolonged and difficult struggle for the protection of freedom. And I believe that their great successes of the past 8 years have encouraged them in this belief.

I do not believe that the steady retreat of freedom in the past 8 years has stemmed from a policy of surrender. Rather it has stemmed from an inability to understand the broad challenge of Soviet communism, to understand the wide range of their economic, social, and ideological and military offensive and from an inability to meet that challenge. And in case the reckless oratory of this campaign has confused and deluded Mr. Khrushchev, I want to make one thing clear to the Kremlin:

I will not cut our present commitment to the cause of freedom anywhere in the world. I have never believed in retreating under fire. And althongh I do not want to enter into any comparison of military experience of personal losses in war, I believe that it is clear that anyone who accuses me of a policy of surrender is guilty of a malicious distortion.

And I want Mr. Khrushchev to understand another thing: If the Democratic Party wins this election he will confront in the sixties an America which is not only militarily strong but which is waging the offensive for freedom on all the many fronts of the cold war.

We will restore the vitality of the American economy, increasing our rate of economic growth and caring for the needs of our own people so that the uncommitted peoples of the world will look once again to America and not to Moscow or Peiping for guidance and leadership in their own fight for economic progress.

We will rebuild our diplomatic corps so that we can send skilled and compassionate men to represent us all over the world, men who know the problems and concerns of the areas in which they are stationed, who can represent the cause of freedom with credit, men who are selected for their ability and not the size of their campaign contributions.

We will step up our efforts to educate the future leaders of Africa and Asia and Latin America. The youth of these areas are desperately in need of the training which will enable them to man the governments and run the economies of their developing nations. If we do not give them this training they will look for it behind the Iron Curtain where their misunderstanding of America will increase under Communist indoctrination.

We will increase our Voice of America programs and all our other information services in order to carry the message of America to the world.

We will identify ourselves with the rising tide of freedom and nationalism throughout the world. The ideals of our own Revolution have become the ideals of people everywhere, and the triumph of those ideals - of national independence and an end to tyranny - is inevitable. We can no longer support the status quo or colonial rule if we are to win the friendship and trust of the emerging world.

We must make every effort to help build the stable and progressing economies on which freedom depends. National independence cannot exist without political independence - and want and poverty and hunger are the conditions under which communism feasts and prospers.

These are just some of the steps which we must take if we are to succeed in halting the steady advance of communism - an advance which is now on our very doorstep in Cuba.

In the novel "On the Beach," the lone American survivors of world war III are standing on a beach in Australia, awaiting the inevitable end from the spreading cloud of radioactivity. The senior in the group turns to the others and says, "You know, I could run for President."

That is not the Presidency for which I run. I do not want to be the President of a nation perishing under the mushroom cloud of nuclear holocaust. And I intend to build the military defenses which will prevent such a disaster. But neither do I wish to be the President of a nation which is being driven back because of its own unwillingness to make the sacrifices and bear the burdens which the struggle for freedom demands - a nation which is perishing, in the words of T. S. Eliot, "not with a bang but a whimper."

That is the real issue of our time. And all the slanders and insults, the accusations of surrender and softness, the distortions and rhetoric, cannot obscure the hard fact of our mounting danger.

And my only pledge to you is this: That if I am elected I will summon all the resources of this great and strong Republic to make the coming years the years when freedom grew strong and began to move ahead.

John F. Kennedy, Excerpts of Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy, American Legion Convention, Miami Beach, FL - (Advance Release Text) Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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