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Remarks at the Opening Session of the Meeting of the Military Committee of NATO.

April 10, 1961

Lord Mountbatten, members of the Military Committee, and Gentlemen:

I want to express my appreciation to you for your generous welcome this morning, and also to extend to you the warm greetings of the United States Government to the Chiefs of Staff of the nations of NATO as you assemble here for a meeting of the Military Committee. We of course take satisfaction in having your representatives with us regularly, in permanent session, but it is especially good, today, to have in Washington the Military Committee itself. Moreover, it is for me much more than a ceremonial pleasure to meet with you.

You hold a critical responsibility in the affairs of NATO, and I want to talk with you about the substance of the task and about the necessary relation between you as military officers and others of us as political leaders.

NATO, as you gentlemen know, is at a turning point in military planning. In Supreme Headquarters and in many of the capitals of the alliance, work on our future needs is going ahead. As part of this effort, we in the Government of the United States are now well advanced in a careful study of our own view of the military policy of NATO.

Vice President Johnson explained last week in Paris our belief that there should be a reinforcement of the capabilities of NATO in conventional weapons. NATO needs to be able to respond to any conventional attack with conventional resistance which will be effective at least long enough, in General Norstad's phrase, to force a pause. To this end, we ourselves mean to maintain our own divisions and supporting units in Europe and to increase their conventional capabilities.

In addition to strengthened conventional forces, we believe that NATO must continue to have an effective nuclear capability. We hope to consult closely with our allies on the precise forms which the nuclear deterrent should take in future years. In his address last week, Prime Minister Macmillan pointed out the urgency of this question. The United States means to do its full share in working toward an effective solution of this problem, and we believe that the clarity and firmness of our own commitment to the full defense of Europe can be helpful in this direction.

The proper first forum on these matters is of course the North Atlantic Council, and moreover questions of this importance also require careful discussions in each country at the very highest levels of government.

But before I turn to other matters, let me comment briefly on one further military point. In our studies we have found a serious need for a sensitive and flexible control of all arms, and especially over nuclear weapons. We propose to see to it, for our part, that our military forces operate at all times under continuous, responsible command and control from the highest authorities all the way downward--and we mean to see that this control is exercised before, during, and after any initiation of hostilities against our forces, and at any level of escalation. We believe in maintaining effective deterrent strength, but we also believe in making it do what we wish, neither more nor less.

In stating this doctrine, I am reaffirming principles to which the responsible military leaders of NATO have always adhered-but I am also assuring you that the political leadership of the United States will apply both energy and resources in this direction.

And this brings me to my second main point. NATO is remarkable among the alliances of history in its combination of political, military, economic, and even psychological components. What NATO is, at any time, depends not only upon its forces in being, but upon the resolution of its leaders, the state of mind of its people, and the view of all these elements which is held by those who do not always wish us well.

In this situation, it is clearly necessary that there should be close understanding between political leaders and the senior military officers. In our countries, of course, final responsibility always rests with political authorities, and we also have a tradition of respect for the professional judgment of professional soldiers. But in NATO, from the very beginning, it has been essential that neither class of men should accept any arbitrary division of our problems into "the political" and "the military" spheres. The crucial problems have always been mixed. Political leaders have had a duty to share with their senior officers a full understanding of the political purposes of the alliance, and military leaders for their part have had to recognize that in NATO all the important military problems are political problems also.

This recognition of the interconnection between policy and force is an even more compelling necessity today, especially in all the questions which relate to the command, the deployment, and the possible use of nuclear weapons.

In the months ahead, as we share in the framing of NATO's policy and in new decisions which must guide us safely toward the future, we shall need to have the closest and most understanding communication not only from country to country, but from soldier to civilian. Political planning must be aware of military realities, and military plans in turn must be responsive to political considerations--among them such varied and important matters as resource capabilities, national attitudes, and other alliance objectives like our common purpose to advance the economic welfare of the whole free world. Our force goals, our military policy, our deployments, and our war plans themselves must all reflect the purposes and spirit of our great community. Military and political problems are not separable, and military and political men must work ever more closely together.

I hold an office which by our very Constitution unites political and military responsibility, and therefore it is no more than my duty to pledge my own best effort to keep these two kinds of problems together in my mind. I ask the same of you.

In ending, gentlemen, let me turn for one moment from our problems to our accomplishment. NATO has kept the peace of Europe and the Atlantic through 12 dangerous years, and in that time our community has grown in strength and in wellbeing. This is no small accomplishment. I offer to you, and through you to all of NATO's armed forces, the thanks and congratulations of the people and the Government of the United States of America. Let us continue from this bright past to a future which offers us the high task of guarding a free community's peace, and its security, and its freedom.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 10 a.m. in the International Conference Room at the State Department. His opening words "Lord Mountbatten" referred to Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten, Chief of Britain's Defense Staff. Later in his remarks he referred to General Lauris Norstad, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

Another text of this address was released by the White House prior to its actual delivery.

John F. Kennedy, Remarks at the Opening Session of the Meeting of the Military Committee of NATO. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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