John F. Kennedy photo

Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, American Legion Convention, Miami Beach, FL

October 18, 1960

Senator KENNEDY. Thank you. Commander McKneally, Mr. Gray, Mr. Drummey, Commander McGuiness of my own native Massachusetts, member of the executive committee, Gabriel Ottoer, fellow Legionnaires, I am proud as the nominee of my party, to come here to this convention. I have been a member of the American Legion for 15 years. [Applause.] And I have learned a good deal about the Legion, especially since 1949; about the work that this organization has done for national defense, for the youth of America, for the strengthening of our country, for its concern about those Americans who have borne the burden of battle in the defense of their country, and I am proud to be here today. [Applause.]

Distinguished guests, Members of Congress, the fundamental problem of our time is the critical situation which has been created by the steady erosion of American power relative to that of the Communists in recent years. That is the fundamental problem which we face as Americans in 1960.

We have heard many general claims and boasts, we have heard how we are first in every area of international competition. We have heard about what must be done to stand firm and to stand up to Khrushchev and all the rest. But no amount of oratory, no amount of oratory, no amount of claims, no unjustified charges, can hide the harsh facts behind the rhetoric, behind the soothing words that our prestige has never been higher and that of the Communists never lower. They cannot hide the basic facts that American strength in relation to that of the Sino-Soviet bloc relatively has been slipping, and communism has been steadily advancing until now it rests 90 miles from this city of Miami. [Applause.]

The implacable Communist drive for power takes many forms and works in many ways, but behind it all, behind every weapon that they have in their arsenal is one basic fact, and that is the military power of the Communist bloc, for it is here that the Communist advance and relative American decline can be most sharply seen, and it is here that the danger to our survival is the greatest.

The development in 1953 of a relatively small hydrogen warhead made missiles the key to future military power. The Soviet Union decided then to go all out in missile development. But here in the United States we cut back our funds for missile development and in our race for outer space. We slowed up the modernization of our conventional forces. We will not have, for example, the new rifle to replace the M-1, which was used by you in World War II and Korea, for 5 years, before there is a complete replacement. [Applause.] And still today the Soviet Union is rapidly building up a striking force that endangers our power to retaliate and our survival itself.

For the harsh facts of the matter are that our relative military strength has not increased as fast as the Russians in ground forces, submarines, and missiles, and our 17 ground divisions are opposed to more than 150 Soviet armored and infantry divisions.

Two, that our ability to meet our commitments to more than 50 countries around the globe has been critically impaired by our failure to develop a jet airlift capacity. Have you seen the pictures of the planes that flew the United Nations forces to the Congo, or to the Lebanon? How many of them were jets? And how long did they take to fly from Western Germany to the Congo and back; that we are moving into a period where the Soviet Union will be outproducing us 2 to 3 to 1, according to the administration's own testimony before the Armed Services Committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on which I serve; that this dangerous deterioration in our military strength has been the result of our willingness to cut our budget, to bear a much lower burden which is not large enough if we are going to maintain our freedom, and words are not a substitute for strength. [Applause.]

These are the facts behind our speaking louder and louder while we carry a smaller and smaller stick. But I do not ask you to take my word for it, for it is your responsibility as members of the American Legion and as citizens of the United States to make your own judgment. That record shows, after you examine it, that every objective expert, every study commission, official or unofficial, Republican or Democratic, came to the same conclusion. We have been slipping and we are moving into a period of danger. The Gaither Committee report prepared in 1957, has been best summed up as portraying this Nation and I quote, "moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power."

The Rockefeller brothers reported in 1958, and I quote, "The United States is rapidly losing its lead over the U.S.S.R. in the military race."

Governor Rockefeller himself has said, and I quote him, "I believe that our position is dramatically weaker than it was 15 years ago."

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

Robert Sprague, Republican, consultant to the National Security Council, testifying before the same committee: "Our military program is inadequate, and its inadequacy," and I quote him, "is a danger to our survival."

Lt. Gen. James Gavin - these are the questions that you must decide, not only as Legionnaires, but as citizens of this country in the next few weeks. Lt. Gen. James Gavin, who jumped in Normandy, who was Director of Army Research and Development, said, and I quote him accurately: "We are in mortal danger. The missile lag portends serious trouble."

Gen. Maxwell Taylor 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, and it has not been done. [Applause.]

Talk is cheap, words are not enough, waving our finger under Khrushchev's face does not increase the strength of the United States, especially when you say to him [applause] - especially when you say, as you wave your finger, "You may be ahead of us in rockets, but we are ahead of you in color television." I will take my television black and white. [Applause.]

The question is, What must we do to regain our strength? In my judgment, in January 1961, the next President of the United States, whoever he may be, should do the following things:

First, we must take immediate steps to protect our present nuclear striking force from surprise attack. Today, more than 90 percent of our retaliatory force is made up of aircraft and missiles which move from unprotectable bases, whose location is known to the Russians.

Second, we must step up crash programs on the ultimate weapon. The Polaris submarine, the Minuteman missile, which will eventually close the missile gap.

Third, we must modernize, and I think especially give an airlift capacity to the armed services, particularly the Army. It does not do any good to have 17 divisions stationed here if you can't move them around the world within 24 or 48 hours. I would put that near the top, to move them by jet all around the globe to increase our forces substantially. [Applause.] But I want to make it clear that this is only the background to the struggle of power. Not one Soviet soldier in the last 8 years has crossed the frontiers of the free world. Not one Soviet bomb has dropped from missiles or from airplanes. And yet the Soviet power has steadily increased. Cuba has been lost for the time being, I hope, to the Communists. Laos has begun to slip behind the Iron Curtain and may in the next 7 or 8 days. Ghana and Guinea in Africa have moved toward the Soviet bloc. A revolution in Iraq destroyed the Middle Eastern Pact. The Communists have captured control of one of the key factions in the fight for power in the Congo. And Communist influence, propaganda, and subversion, are moving in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. I believe the American Legion should consider carefully the present technique which the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists are employing in order to increase their power.

When President Roosevelt was President, when President Truman was President, in the early part of the 1950's, the struggle was to build sufficient military power to prevent the Soviet Union from crossing national frontiers. But now they move in and begin to capture the nationalist movement in Nigeria. They captured the movement of Lumumba in Congo. They captured the Castro movement in Cuba. They are working to capture other movements in South America. And without a soldier crossing into those countries, without a shot being fired, by the change of mind of a paratroop commander in Laos, a country which we spent more money in per capita than any other country in the world, a country where we spent $300 million, where we have been paying the army for the last 2 years, they are about to seize control of Laos, and not a Communist soldier or a Russian soldier has crossed the boundary of Laos.

How do we stop this kind of conquest in the sixties? This is the kind of conquest that we are going to have to face, the kind that puts heat on in the United Nations, the kind that puts the pressure on, the kind that compels the countries of Africa to vote against us on the admission of Red China, the kind of heat that causes a candidate for President of Brazil to come up and call on Castro in order to secure his support in the fight in Brazil. They work in Venezuela. They work in Mexico. Russian soldiers do not move and yet their power increases. They could, by 1970, control great sections of the earth without ever advancing their armies beyond their present frontiers. So we have to concern ourselves with building up our military power because their military power is behind their expansion, but that is not enough, if we are going to stop the Communist advance in the 1960's. [Applause.]

Basically they believe that the United States lacks the nerve, the will, and the determination for a long, long hard fight. It is one thing to stand up to a military invasion, it is one thing to go to war and defeat the Japanese and Hitler. It is quite another thing, year after year, decade after decade, to be engaged in struggles all around the world, in countries which we did not know anything about 10 years ago, but where we and the Communists are now locked in deadly embrace.

If they capture more countries of Latin America, if they increase their influence in Africa, if India should begin to move in another direction, if they are successful this week, this month, or this fall, in Iran, in taking Iran away from its Western ties, they have gained a great victory, and we sit back. That is my dispute with this administration. That is the issue which this country has to face. Are we doing enough? I don't think we are. [Applause.] I want to make it very clear to Mr. Khrushchev and to anyone else who wonders, I will not cut our present commitments to the cause of freedom if I am elected President of the United States anywhere in the world - the Formosa Straits, Latin America, Africa, Asia - I support our present effort to build strength, not merely to hold the line but to expand freedom all around the globe. [Applause.]

I have never believed in retreating under any kind of fire. [Applause.] And although I do not want to get into any comparison of military experience, I believe it clear that anyone who says the reverse is guilty of a malicious distortion. [Applause.] And I want Mr. Khrushchev and anyone else to understand that if the Democratic Party wins this election, he will confront in the 1960's an America which is not only militarily strong, but which is waging the offensive for freedom all over the globe. [Applause.]

And I want to make it clear that if the Democratic Party is not successful in this campaign, we will continue to fight for the maintenance of freedom around the globe. [Applause.]

We will rebuild our diplomatic corps so we don't send ambassadors and others out because they have contributed to a campaign, who can't even speak the language, who can't even pronounce the names [applause] who can't even pronounce the names of the heads of the countries, who have never been there, who want to stay there for a year while the Communists stay there day after day, speaking the dialect, working subversion, attempting to win control of the country.

There are four countries in Africa which are independent which are members of the United Nations, and there is not an American diplomatic member of our Foreign Service in residence in any of the four. When Guinea became independent it took us 2 months to recognize its independence. It took us 8 months to send an ambassador ------------------------- was there the day they got independence, and Guinea now supports the Communist foreign policy.

We brought more students from Africa 10 years ago than we do today. From all over the world, we brought more foreign students by the U.S. Government a decade ago than we do today. We had more diplomatic personnel in Western Germany in 1957 than we did in all of Africa. We offered 300 scholarships to the Congo in June. That is more scholarships than we offered to all of Africa the year before. Do you know how many Congolese are studying here? Six. I don't think it is good enough. I don't think this is good enough. I don't think we have never been stronger. I don't think our prestige is so high that we can't do better. I don't think the Communists are about to collapse. I believe we have to build strength, we have to stand for freedom, we have to demonstrate some vigor in our foreign policy. [Applause.]

Do you know how many Voice of America programs in Spanish we have had to Latin America in the last 8 years? None, except for the 3 months of the Hungarian crisis. Do we have a Voice of America program to Cuba today to tell them that Castro is lying, when he speaks about us? To tell them that we want them to be free, that we believe in the democracy, that we are telling them our story? Do you think we have a Government sponsored Voice of America program in Spanish to Cuba today? No, let us come back from the mainland of China for a minute and worry about what is happening right off the mainland of the United States. [Applause.]

I want to make it clear that the United States is a great revolutionary country, that believes in the most extraordinary doctrine that man has ever put forward, that the Communist system is as old as Egypt, and if we give our cause dedication and vitality and energy and foresight, if we build strength here in the United States, if we get our economy moving again, if we educate our children, if we say that being second is not good enough, that being first, if first, but first when, and first maybe is not good enough. I have the greatest possible confidence that we can meet any challenges. [Applause.]

Can you tell me one good reason why the United States should have been producing twice as many scientists and engineers 10 years ago as the Soviet Union and producing half as many today? Those of you who are Legionnaires, maintain your membership in the Legion because in time of war you responded to the service of our country; you will recall that in the novel "On the Beach," the lone American survivors of World War III are standing on the beach in Australia, awaiting the inevitable end from a cloud of radioactivity. The senior officer 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 don't want to be the President of a nation perishing under the mushroom cloud of a nuclear warhead, and I intend, if President, or if I continue in the Senate, to build the defenses which this country needs, and which freedom needs. [Applause.]

But neither do I wish to be the President of a nation which is being driven back, which is on the defensive, because of its unwillingness to face the facts of our national existence, to tell the truth, to bear the burdens which freedom demands, a nation which may be declining in relative strength, and with the world coming to an end, as T. S. Eliot said, "Not with a bang, but with a whimper."

That isn't what we are going to do. I have the greatest feeling that the 1960's can be a bright period in our national history, but in order to determine whether we are going to pick ourselves up again, we are going to have to have leadership which is willing to tell the truth, which does not run on a program of everything is being done that must be done, but says instead what other leaders have said in other times of crisis. It is time we went to work again. It is time we started our country moving again. It is time we picked ourselves up and moved ourselves into the 1960's. That is the great question that we face. [Applause.] After the Spartans were wiped out at the Battle of Thermopylae fighting against the Persians, there was carved in the rock above their graves, 300 of them, "Passerby, tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service."

Now, Legionnaires, who were willing in war to follow faithful to the service of our country, I ask you in the 1960's to live and live faithfully to the service of the cause for freedom and the cause of the United States. Thank you. [Standing ovation.]

John F. Kennedy, Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, American Legion Convention, Miami Beach, FL Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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