Dwight D. Eisenhower photo

Remarks Opening the White House Conference of Mayors.

December 14, 1953

Mr. Peterson, and I suppose I may address the audience collectively as Your Honor the Mayor:

I assume this is an historic occasion. I have not looked up my history carefully, but I know of no other time when the President of the United States felt it necessary to invite to a conference the Mayors of our cities, in order that they might together discuss--and the staffs might discuss with you--national security.

In our Constitution there is an expression "To provide for the common security"--a responsibility that, of course, falls upon the national government. Our government is a Republic, and there is a division of power, not only functionally but geographically, with the hope that the maximum of power will be reserved at the local level. And with power goes responsibility.

But the real occasion for this particular type of conference is that for the first time in history, cities have become principal targets for any enemy seeking to conquer our Nation. The city has moved from a position of support in the rear. That position of the spiritual, the moral, the intellectual, the industrial and mobilization support for armies and navies and air forces-has moved out in a very distinct way into the front line.

And so that creates problems. They can be solved only if we consult together and act intelligently. I do not mean to say, of course, that the Federal Government is disabused of responsibility--has lost its responsibility merely because the target is a city. Far from it. But now we have got to a place where the matter can no longer be handled by professional or organized military forces, and where we must all act together in the operation of any plan necessary for our safety.

I think it is most easily described or explained by the simple truth that what would be necessary is the readiness of fire departments, hospital and health departments, police departments, sanitation departments with our water and our sewage and all the rest of it--all must be prepared to handle their jobs.

Now, if the Federal Government tried to come in to do that, in that preparatory period, it would certainly be unwarranted interference and justifiably resented. As a matter of fact, it would be impossible. So, of course, we all have jobs. In the carrying out of our job here, we intend to do everything that is reasonable, decent and proper in supporting the cities in meeting their own problems.

But again, I want to point out something about fighting-about war. Many of you here, of course, have been through the very worst parts of our past war. One great military leader said, "The moral is to the physical in war as three is to one," and I think every soldier who has come after him has believed that he understated the case.

The winning of war--the effectiveness in such things--is in the heart, in the determination, in the faith. It is in our beliefs in our country, in our God, everything that goes to make up America.

Now, first of all, then, this great problem lies in one that is really outside the realm of money and the material preparation. It is in conviction and belief, in readiness and discipline and all of the things that need to be done by the population to save itself. It isn't easy.

When a threat is not immediate with us, the ordinary American is not particularly anxious to get out and do a drill that he thinks has a little bit of the infantile about it. He possibly sees himself back in primary school, where we had drills on evacuating the schoolroom, in case of fire. But there was a very great principle there.

Ordered haste will save you, and panic will destroy you. So it is, first of all, against the incidence of panic that we must be prepared. In other words, there must be understanding produced by leadership, inspired leadership--leadership that is unafraid.

Now I probably could use no words that would exaggerate my concern that this thing is done, because I believe it is so feasible and possible to do it. On the other hand, I would not have you think from any words of mine that I believe we haven't time to do this, that we must move in hysteria and in such tense concern that we get nothing intelligent done. I don't believe that for an instant. The United States is far too strong, its resources too great. It is rich in its allies and it is rich in its own material, human, and spiritual resources. We can do this job, and do it in such a way that we will very greatly add to the reluctance of anybody to attack us.

But, of course, they know that with every increase in the destructiveness of weapons, with every increase in the ability to place those weapons where they choose, that the value of surprise in war--always great--has gone up tremendously.

In other words, Pearl Harbor was a disaster because it was a surprise. Had everybody been ready and waiting, the attack could not have been launched.

We have got, within reason, to be ready. I think no one has ever described the defense needs of the United States better than did Washington, who said, "We must always retain a respectable posture of defense." This means, if you are going to apply that term, that everybody has to use his judgment. We can't be an armed camp. We are not going to transfer ourselves into militarists. We are not going to be in uniform, going around yelling "Heil" anything. We are simply going to do our job, but do it intelligently.

And knowing a disaster can occur where we can visualize times when the fire department and police department are practically paralyzed and all the water mains are broken and no lights in town, now, what do we do? How much warning have we had? What can we do? It is getting over reasonable preparation without being hysterical. That is our job.

I never like to talk too somberly because I don't believe that the courage of America is such that you have to deal in dread terms too long. All I am trying to do is appeal to the common sense of America to do what is necessary, not to lose our freedoms, not to be a people that wall constantly in the shadow of fear.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at the State Department auditorium. In his opening words he referred to Val Peterson, Administrator of the Federal Civil Defense Administration.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Remarks Opening the White House Conference of Mayors. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232539

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