Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy Prepared for a Dinner Held by the Democratic National and State Committees, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, NY
I want to talk with you tonight about the issue closest to the heart of every American - the issue of war or peace.
I am a candidate for the office of the Presidency - and any President, as Commander in Chief, faces no more solemn decision than whether to send American troops into battle, knowing they will not all return.
The next President will know, moreover, that any local conflict may suddenly spread into a massive nuclear holocaust, wiping out whole populations and contaminating entire regions - not only in Europe, or Asia, or far-off lands - but here, in America, in our own homes.
I know something of what it means to be responsible for the lives of other men. And if there is one pledge to the American people which I would make above all others, it would be this:
Should I become your President, I will take whatever steps are necessary to defend our security and to maintain the cause of world freedom - but I will not risk American lives and a nuclear war by permitting any other nation to drag us into the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time through an unwise commitment that is unsound militarily, unnecessary to our security, and unsupported by our allies.
That is the pledge I make to you tonight - and that is the basic issue between Mr. Nixon and myself concerning the islands of Quemoy and Matsu.
These names are not now in the headlines, as they were in 1955 and 1958, but they pose a key question in 1960 - a key decision for the next Prsident - in 1961 and 1962 or whenever the Chinese Communists decide for political or military reasons, that they want to put us under pressure.
For these two little islands are closer to the Chinese mainland than Staten Island is to this dinner. Communist artillery can pound them at will, at any time they please. Any time they want to create a crisis - any time they want to frighten world opinion by bringing us to the brink of war, or please world opinion by then halting bombardment - the Communists can decide whether to launch an attack on these islands - including a full-scale attack to take them over from the Chinese Nationalists.
Why should we keep this constant temptation beneath their very eyes? Why should we give them this convenient valve with which to turn on and off the pressure on our forces? Why should Mr. Nixon now want to draw our line of commitment to include these two little islands so vulnerable to Communist take-over?
It is not because these islands are essential to the defense of Formosa and the Pescadores. This Nation is clearly pledged to that defense, and I want to make it clear that if I have anything to say about it, the next administration will stand by that pledge. For there our security is clearly involved. There our prestige is clearly at stake. There our commitment is precise.
But Quemoy and Matsu, according to the best military judgment expressed, are not of any strategic value. They are not essential to the defense of Formosa some hundred miles away. They are not essential to any reinvasion of the mainland, if any - and they are not even defensible themselves against a full-scale invasion, except by attacking the mainland, and thus initiating all-out war.
I do not ask you to take my word for this. It was Christian Herter who said these islands "are not strategically defensible in the defense of Formosa." It was General Ridgway who said it "would be an unwarranted and tragic mistake to go to war" over these islands "not useful" to our security.
It was General Collins and Admiral Spruance who said they were strategically worthless both for the defense of Formosa and the reinvasion of the mainland. It was John Foster Dulles and Gen. Maxwell Taylor who indicated similar views. And it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who said:
"Fundamentally anyone can see that the two islands as of themselves, as two pieces of territory, are not greatly vital to Formosa."
The President's original policy, as I understand it, was to seek a way of stabilizing our line of defense in the Far East and its most logical and defensible line, and while that policy has not been vigorously pursued in recent years, it has had my full support.
But Mr. Nixon disagrees with the views I have just quoted. The conclusions of our top military experts represent what he calls "woolly thinking." He regards his military judgment about the importance of these island to Formosa and a "chain reaction" as superior to theirs.
He emphasizes, moreover, that "it is the principle involved" - not "these two little pieces of real estate. They are unimportant. It isn't the few people who live on them," he said, "they are not too important. It is the principle involved."
The principle, he says, is pulling back from two islands now "in the area of freedom." But if it is bad principle to persuade the Chinese Nationalists to evacuate these islands - in order to save their lives and prevent a war - why was it not equally bad principle when the administration he serves took exactly the same course for exactly the same reasons on the neighboring offshore islands of Tachen in exactly the same situation?
After our fleet helped Chiang evacuate this island, they passed from the "area of freedom" to the area of communism. But Mr. Nixon didn't say a word that was ever publicly recorded.
Even more incredible, he didn't say a word when the Communists took power in Cuba - not 4 miles off their shores, but only 90 miles off our shores.
Mr. Nixon saw what was happening in Cuba. The warning about a coming Communist take-over and a growing anti-Americanism were sounded long before it was too late. But Mr. Nixon apparently did not see any "principle involved" on the once-friendly island of Cuba.
In 1959, when the Red Chinese were moving into India's northern border, he said he was unconcerned.
And in the last 8 years the Communists have penetrated heavily in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, in Laos and elsewhere in Asia, in Guinea and elsewhere in Africa. Tibet passed from the area of freedom. The city of Budapest after a brief, brave reappearance in the area of freedom was crushed back into the Communist camp with ugly brutality. The Chinese island of Ichiang was captured by the Communists.
But during all these losses to the area of freedom, Mr. Nixon never once invoked the principle he now cites.
Why, then, is he suddenly determined to pledge our troops to the defense of these two tiny islands on the Chinese coast? Are they more valuable because Chiang Kai-shek has moved his forces in there without our approval? President Eisenhower said that buildup was "not a good thing to do." Secretary Dulles called it "foolish."
Our top military and diplomatic leaders tried first to prevent the buildup and then to reduce it - and Chiang at one time agreed to a reduction, despite what Mr. Herter calls' his "almost pathological interest" in keeping the islands.
But I recall that in 1955 an amendment to the Formosa resolution - that would have drawn our lines clearly and thus prevented this buildup - was introduced by a great U.S. Senator, Herbert Lehman. I supported that resolution - and I did not regard that policy of caution as appeasement then and I do not regard it as appeasement now.
But Mr. Nixon is not interested in policies of caution in world affairs. He boasts that he is a "risk taker" abroad and a conservative at home. But I am neither. And the American people had a sufficient glimpse of the kind of risks he would take when he said in 1954, "We must take the risk now of putting our boys in" Indochina on the side of the French if needed to "avoid further Communist expansion" there. If ever there was a war where we would have been engaged in a hopeless struggle without allies, for an unpopular colonialist cause, it was the 1954 war in Indochina.
The only war that would make less sense would be a nuclear war over Quemoy and Matsu. The American people know this. When their letters of protest were reported by the State Department at the time of the 1958 crisis, Mr. Nixon complained that this was "sabotage" by a mere "State Department subordinate."
But that was not the voice of a State Department subordinate. That was the voice of a peace-loving people - and in the perilous 1960's, when we will walk the razor edge of danger, a peace-loving people do not want a trigger-happy President in the White House.
Mr. Nixon says that the people who live on those islands "are not too important." I think they are important. I think the lives of the Americans who would be sent to die on these islands are important. I think the American homes and cities which might be wiped out if we were trapped into attacking the Chinese mainland are important.
For it's not Mr. Nixon's life that will be on the fighting line out there. It's not my life. But it will be the lives of America's sons and brothers and husbands who Mr. Nixon would send to fight for what he calls two unimportant little pieces of real estate.
I know something about the difficulty of landing men on these exposed islands and then keeping them supplied. And at a time when we have been steadily reducing our conventional forces and inviting a lag in missile power. I do not intend to let Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communists decide whether our troops shall fight on those islands.
The Red Chinese, let us remember, are going through a dangerous, aggressive, Stalinist phase. We are not going to let them dominate the Far East - we are not going to appease or retreat under pressure; but neither can we reasonably expect them to ignore the presence of hostile troops on islands just off their shores.
The question is no longer whether a line should be drawn - the question is where the line should be drawn. I draw it around Formosa and the Pescadores - the area essential to our security. That keeps the peace.
But Mr. Nixon invites war by drawing it with precision where it has never been drawn with precision before - around Quemoy and Matsu Islands, regardless of whether an attack on these islands is related to an all-out attack on Formosa.
This is now policy - for, as the President stated in 1955, his policy did not enlarge our "defensive obligations beyond Formosa and the Pescadores."
Mr. Nixon, in short, makes a commitment where we have no commitment now, where he is all alone in his view, and where we would be all alone in war. For only Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek shares Mr. Nixon's view as to where that line should be drawn.
That is a foolhardy and reckless decision. If he follows through on it, it would mean a tragic disaster. If he backs down on it, it would mean retreat under Communist pressure.
How much wiser it would be to follow the President's original recommendation - to persuade the Chinese Nationalists to evacuate all military personnel and any civilians who wish to go - now when we would not be seeming to yield under Communist pressure, before real pressure is put on again.
Perhaps the United Nations could work out a plan for neutralization, demilitarization or trusteeship for the islands. Perhaps we could negotiate for the release of American captives in Chinese prisons. But to commit ourselves rigidly to defending these indefensible islands only ties our hands, plays into Communist hands and brings the whole world closer to war.
I do not think the American people will accept such a position. I do not think they will support such trigger-happy leadership. I believe they want peace - that they want us to make only these commitments which can be honored, which our allies will support, and which we have the arms to back up.
"These islands," said Admiral Yarnell, former commander of our Asiatic Fleet, "are not worth the bones of a single American." And I intend to see that not a single American dies on those islands - that firmness and reason characterize our stand around the world - and that we accept the Biblical injunction to "pursue peace."
John F. Kennedy, Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy Prepared for a Dinner Held by the Democratic National and State Committees, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, NY Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/274525