John F. Kennedy photo

Remarks to Student Participants in the White House Seminar in Government.

August 27, 1963

Fellow students of government:

I am glad to welcome you to the White House to express our very warm appreciation to all of you for having come here to Washington and having worked with us during the last 2 months.

I hope that you will decide to come back, as many of you as can, because I think that your services are vitally needed.

Prince Bismarck once said, "One third of the students of German universities broke down from overwork, another third broke down from dissipation, and the other third ruled Germany." I do not know which third of the student body who have been studying here this summer is here today, but I am confident that I am talking to the future rulers of America, in the sense that all people who are citizens, and particularly those who are educated, bear a responsibility for the Government of the United States.

This is a most complex institution. It is an unfortunate fact of history, as we look around the world, that the number of people who are able to maintain this sensitive system of democracy and individual liberty are rather limited. It has been confined, on the whole, to a relatively few areas of the world. Most of the world moves through a far more centralized system of authority which takes the ultimate responsibility upon the governors and not upon the people themselves.

To make this very difficult, sensitive, and complicated system, which demands so much of us in the qualities of self-restraint and self-discipline, to make it possible for us to live together in harmony, to carry out those policies which provide domestic tranquility here at home, and security for us abroad, requires the best of all of us.

I can assure you that there is no career which you will adopt, when you leave college, that will bring you a more and greater sense of satisfaction and a greater feeling of participation in a great effort than will your work here or in your State or in your community.

We sometimes think that the past days were the golden days, that the great figures in the Senate or the great Presidents were the great Presidents and the great Senators. That may be true, but the fact of the matter is that the problems that we deal with, however adequately or inadequately, the problems that we deal with in the 1960's dwarf all of the problems which this country dealt with, with the possible exception of the problems a hundred years ago. Other than that, this generation of Americans--you here who will be in positions of responsibility for the rest of this century--will deal with the most difficult, sensitive, and dangerous problems that any society of people has ever dealt with at any age.

The fact of the matter is, through the whole 19th century this country dealt with only five or six major problems--the right of States, the whole question of slavery--which was tied with States' rights--the tariff, the development of the West, currency problems. In a generalized way those were the major issues of the 19th century, and Calhoun and Webster and Clay, who came to the Congress in the period 1810, 1811, or 1812, were talking about the same problems--the same four or five problems 40 years later in 1850-when they dominated the Senate.

Now the problems come pouring across the desks of the American people, in even a summer, which deal once again with the right of States, with the whole problem of space, and our balance of payments, and what happens in the Middle East, and the relationships between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or Latin America, or in the Far East, or in Saigon--problems which we can deal with in only a limited way, but problems which affect the security of the United States.

So, therefore, we have these highly complex, highly sophisticated questions upon which experts differ, and yet upon which, if our society is to have a solid foundation, the American people must make a final judgment. Even the discussion and debates upon the test ban only indicate, only suggest the complexities of the problems about which we must make up our minds.

As Mendes France said a decade ago, "To govern is to choose." One of the Senators said the other day to Dr. Brown, "Why is it that you and Dr. Teller, who are such experts, can be wholly in disagreement?" Dr. Brown, who ran the laboratory out in California where Dr. Teller now works, now works for the Department of Defense. Dr. Foster, who opposes the treaty, now runs the laboratory where Dr. Brown worked. Dr. Bradbury, who supports it, runs Los Alamos. How does a Senator, how does a President, how do the people of the United States make a final judgment? There is, of course, no easy answer. What it requires is, finally, a choice about what your estimate is of the great movements of history, or the immediate movements, the security of your country, its well-being, the prospects for peace, the dangers of war, and the hope that it is possible to make progress in this rather small globe.

Now, to make a judgment on that, or on balance of payments, or in what actions the Federal Government should take this summer in order to prevent economic downturn in 1964, what is the mix of fiscal and monetary policy which the situation requires in 1963 when, once again, the experts differ? And they can be summoned to every office here or on the Hill and they will come to a different conclusion. That requires the best talent we can get to come to Washington-and to stay home--but in any case to participate, to be not only an acquiescent bystander, but to be a participant who has a feeling, who takes a part, who doesn't read a daily column and have his mind made up for him but, instead, attempts to the best of his ability to understand the great issues and, then, to attempt to have his view carried out, and not leave it to those who have a specialized interest, who pour the mail upon us, inundate us, with their views while the great majority of American people are unheard of. So that is what we are asking you to come back to this place and work on.

The Greeks defined happiness as the full use of your powers along lines of excellence, and I can imagine no place where you can use your powers more fully along lines more excellent in the 1960's than to be in the service of the United States.

We appreciate your coming here. You have done a good job. You have given us an opportunity to realize that the future is going to be in good hands, and we have been very proud to have you among us.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke on the South Lawn at the White House to about five thousand college students, summer employees of the Government. In the course of his remarks he referred to conflicting testimony at the nuclear test ban treaty hearings by Dr. Edward Teller, Dr. Harold Brown, Dr. John S. Foster, and Dr. Norris Edwin Bradbury (see "Nuclear Test Ban Treaty," Hearings Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 88th Congress, 1st Session, August 12-27, 1963 (Government Printing Office, 1963)).

John F. Kennedy, Remarks to Student Participants in the White House Seminar in Government. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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