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Message to the Conference of State Civil Defense Directors.

May 08, 1963

I WOULD like to take this occasion to commend you as State Civil Defense Directors on the significant progress made over the past year.

Your work is, of necessity, focused on the grim problems which the Nation would meet if ever faced with nuclear attack. This is a subject which no one likes to think about unless they have to. But those who carry leadership and management responsibility in public or private life cannot turn their backs on reasonable measures to minimize loss of life under nuclear attack. Their leadership is particularly needed during quiet periods when little public enthusiasm can be expected for such activities. This takes persistence, courage and close cooperation between the executive and the legislative branches, and between the political parties at all three levels of government.

Federal, State, and local governments each have immense and inescapable responsibilities to prepare for survival and recovery from the kinds of attack which must be faced as real possibilities, however unlikely, over the years ahead. Major responsibility for the survival part of this difficult task was assigned in August 1961 to the newly created Office of Civil Defense in the Department of Defense; major responsibility for recovery planning was assigned at the same time to the newly created Office of Emergency Planning in the Executive Office of the President. Many of you are Emergency Planning Directors, as well, and have first hand experience with both aspects of these problems.

Since that time, a sensible and practical civil defense program has been developed which has the potential of saving tens of millions of lives which would be exposed to lethal fallout radiation in the event of a major nuclear attack on the United States. This program does not purport to offer security under these dreadful conditions, but it does significantly improve the chances of survival of our people as individuals and as communities, and thus of national survival and recovery.

The new Federal civil defense program has been in operation for only a little over a year. The first stage of the program has concentrated on finding and making effective use of the already existing shelter space for over 100 million people.

One of the most heartening developments this year has been the widespread willingness of building owners to permit their buildings to be marked and used as public shelters and to donate valuable space to the storage of shelter supplies, without any compensation except the satisfaction of knowing that they are contributing to the safety of their communities and defense of their country.

Progress in the new civil defense program has precipitated crucial decisions for civil defense which confront State and local governments and the Congress this year.

Congress faces the requirement for additional funds to complete the financing of the last third of the shelter supplies needed to provision surveyed shelter space over the year ahead for an estimated 70 million people. County and municipal budgets must carry the costs of installing these supplies. There is every reason to believe that this essential operation will be successfully concluded.

The next stage of this nationwide effort will require additional Federal financial assistance to communities and institutions planning to meet the local deficiency in shelter space which has been defined for the first time by the recently completed survey.

I am confident that there will soon be a careful congressional review of the civil defense problem, and I hope it will lead the Congress to the same general conclusions which have appeared inescapable to the Secretary of Defense and to me. These conclusions form the basis for the program which is already well started.

The significance of these pending decisions should be clearly understood. We are forced to spend over $50 billion this year for defense and to press forward with every opportunity to maintain the peace and protect our people and institutions. A fallout shelter oriented civil defense program is a necessary element in this balanced effort to maintain an effective national security posture.

Because it involves the direct participation of the American people in preparation for the possibility of a war we seek to avoid, civil defense quite naturally evokes conflicting emotions and attitudes. Federal leadership in civil defense, therefore, must be shared by the Congress. I believe our people have a right to expect to be led and not followed by their Government in matters of national defense.

There is every reason to believe that the balanced search for peace through diplomacy, military strength and economic progress will prevent nuclear war and perhaps in the years ahead reduce the risk under which we live today. We know from recent experience how real these risks are and in the years ahead we must face the fact that they may well increase if the control of nuclear weapons spreads to more nations and 'possibly less responsible hands.

For this reason, it makes sense to work today toward more effective civil defense tomorrow. The present national civil defense program is a soundly conceived and practical minimum effort in this direction. I consider this program a sensible and necessary undertaking in which the Federal Government has clear responsibility to provide consistent and continuing leadership, including the necessary financial support without which the States, counties, and local communities cannot meet their responsibilities.

Congratulations to all of you who are so effectively laying the base for realistic measures to reduce the vulnerability of our people to nuclear attack.

Note: The President's message was delivered to the conference in Washington by Steuart L. Pittman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense.

John F. Kennedy, Message to the Conference of State Civil Defense Directors. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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