John F. Kennedy photo

Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, United Steelworkers of America Convention, Convention Hall, Atlantic City, NJ

September 19, 1960

Senator KENNEDY. President McDonald, Secretary Treasurer Abel, Vice President Hague, delegates to the 10th Constitutional Convention of the United Steel workers of America and their friends, this is the third time in 4 years that I have been the guest of the United Steelworkers, and I am proud to be here today. [Applause.]

We have met together in Los Angeles, in Atlantic City, and we are going to meet together in a discussion of the problems that face this country in the coming years. [Applause.] Let me say first that I am proud to have the endorsement of the United Steel Workers for the office of the President of the United States. I accept that endorsement. [Applause.]

Last week at the machinists' convention, Mr. Nixon criticized me and misquoted me for identifying myself too closely with the aims of organized labor. He took out of context a speech that I made at Detroit on Labor Day, in which I said that I know that organized labor wants the things that I want for the United States, they want better schools and better hospitals, and they want this country to move forward, and I said on that occasion that organized labor opposes lethargy and economic standstill and weakness at home and weakness abroad. I think the working men and women of this country want what everyone else wants. They want this country to be second to none. They want this country to move. [Applause.]

I would remind Mr. Nixon of what another American said on an earlier occasion: "All that serves labor serves the Nation. All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between the two." That was not Harry Truman and it was not Franklin Roosevelt. It was Abraham Lincoln. [Applause.]

We come and meet at this convention in a difficult and trying time in the life of our country, and as the standard bearer for the oldest political party on earth, I bear, and I think my party bears, a great responsibility. The United States moves in a period of danger.

We are anxious that from this campaign the United States shall gather renewed strength. It is our obligation during the coming 6 or 7 weeks to present to the American people an alternative course of action so that they shall have the opportunity, the American people, to make a choice as to which way they want to go. I think the choice is very clear, and I think the choice has been placed before us not only by the Democrats and by myself, but it has been placed before us by Mr. Nixon and the members of the Republican Party who speak for him. Mr. Nixon has gone through the country saying that we cry "doom and gloom." He has gone through the country saying we have never had it so good. I go through the country saying that this is a great and rich country, but I think it can be a greater country and a richer country and a more powerful country. [Applause.]

I do not believe that the period of the 1960's is a period in which we can conserve, in which we stand still, in which we gather ourselves for renewed effort. We have done that in the 1950's. I think the 1960's are the time for new effort. This election is not 1900. This election is 1912 and 1932 and 1948. This is a time for new go-ahead for this country and the American people. [Applause.] And I shall continue during the coming 6 weeks to present the alternative to the present course of action to the American people.

And what is that alternative? I think the alternative is written in the record of the two parties in this history. I did not suddenly spring up after the Democratic Convention. The Democratic Party was not invented in the last 6 weeks, nor was the Republican Party. Mr. Nixon's record and my record are not both statements we have made in the last few days of the campaign. The record which I have written, the record which I have written for 14 years in the Congress and the record which the Democratic Party has written through 160 years of service to the Nation, are well known to the American people. [Applause.]

And I put the challenge to them in a few words; can you tell me, not in the last 8 years, but in the last century, since the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, can you tell me a single piece of domestic social legislation that served the people that has been initially proposed by the Republican Party? [Response from the floor.]

Senator KENNEDY. Social security, minimum wage, civil rights legislation in the Congress - the Republicans dominated the country and the Congress for years, for nearly a century after the Civil War. Can you tell me when the Congress ever passed a single piece of legislation giving equal rights to our citizens in all that period of time? Did they in 1953 and 1954 when the Congress was dominated by the Republican Party pass a single piece of legislation protecting the rights of our citizens?

[Response from the floor.]

Senator KENNEDY. Was a single piece of legislation passed in those years that increased the minimum wage of our people, that increased their social security, that increased public housing, that increased private housing? Can you tell me what the position was of the Republican Party in the August session of the Congress on minimum wage? It was opposition to the $1.25 an hour, and it was opposition, wholehearted opposition, to providing medical care for our elder citizens. One Republican voted for it and 44 Democrats voted for it. That is the record which is before the American people. I think the choice is very clear. To those Americans who want to stand still, who look back, I say they should vote for the Republican Party. To those Americans who are not satisfied, who may feel that we are ahead, as Mr. Nixon said to Mr. Khrushchev, in color television, I am not satisfied, while he was ahead in rockets. I am not satisfied. I can look at color television and have rockets. [Applause.]

Mr. Nixon, speaking in Portland, Oreg., said: "There are those who are going around the country crying 'doom and gloom,' but we just built the largest shopping center in the world."

I am not satisfied to have the largest shopping center as long as the Soviet Union is moving in Latin America, Asia, and Cuba. I think we can do better; that is the question before us in 1960. [Applause.]

Now, if there is any group in the United States who recognizes the need to do better it is the men and women who are here at this convention. The production of steel is the hallmark of an industrial society. If the Soviet Union overnight should knock out 50 percent of our steel capacity we would feel we were ruined. And yet the economic policies of this administration have contributed to one-half of our steel capacity being unused, 100,000 of our steelworkers out of work, other thousands working part time. Who can say that they have never had it so good? They have had it better and they are going to have it better. [Applause.]

Are we going to slip and slide through the 1960's? Are we going to have a recession in 1954 and 1958 and a slowdown in 1960, and the future bringing we don't know what in 1961? Are we going to have economic policies and leadership which provides a stifling of the American economy when we need schools and hospitals and roads and private investment? Are we going to stand still and become as we were last year, the lowest country or economic growth of any major industrialized society in the world? Or are we going to go ahead? Are we going to move again? [Response from the floor.]

Senator KENNEDY. I think this is a serious election, and I think we offer a clear alternative to the American people. This union has seen good times and bad times. This union went through a strike of over 6 months, during the last year. That strike came in part because the steel companies in 1957 had their last great year when their productive capacity was used to the full. Steel settlements come from two factors, first from both the union and the company, recognizing their public obligation, and secondly, when the economy is moving along so that there is an incentive on both the company and the union to get together, to make a contract, to go back to work. But if the steel companies find that one-half of their capacity produces as much steel as the market is consuming, or if they feel that they can produce in 6 months what the market consumes in a year, then they would just as soon face up and say, "Let's settle this matter right now, let us rewrite our working standards, let's stand still, let them strike. We will use up our inventory, use up our backlog, and 6 months from now we can go back to work and our profits will still be up."

You get an agreement when there is a need for steel, you get an agreement when the economy is moving ahead, you get an agreement when there is incentive on both sides to sign a contract and get back to work. So the difficulties of last year were not only tied up with the inequities of the Taft-Hartley Act emergency section, but they were also tied up with the fact that 1959 was not a boom year. As long as you have a slowdown in our economy, so long will you find it difficult to work out satisfactory collective bargaining procedures.

Dave McDonald, who has been a friend of mine and supporter for many months and years, has put forward a suggestion that the only way to meet the problem of overabundance is to have a 32-hour week. [Applause.] My own feeling is I would prefer a different solution. I would prefer the solution of this economy going ahead at such full blast that in 40 hours a week we barely produce what we can consume, that at the time when we have a productive race with the Soviet Union, at a time when we need all the steel we can get to take care of a population which is increasing and which will double in 40 years, I would like to see economic and fiscal policies by this Government will be directed toward stimulating the economy so that the steel industry works full time and so your people go back to work.

I respect his suggestion, and we are friends enough so that we can disagree. Our objective is the same; full time work for our people, enough leisure to enjoy themselves. [Applause.] But I feel before we move to 32 hours that we should try an administration which is dedicated to full economic growth, which wants our people and our country working, which wants our steel pouring out, which wants us to grow comparable to that of Western Germany and France and England, which doubled the economic growth of the United States last year.

I come here today as a man who has served on that Committee on Labor for 14 years, and I come here today as the candidate for the Democratic Party, and more important than that, I come here as the standard bearer for a party in direct line of succession with three great Presidents of this country in this century, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. [Applause.] I think the theme for our party and country was said by Franklin Roosevelt when he came before 100,000 people in Franklin Field, Philadelphia, in 1936, to accept the second Presidential nomination. In that speech he said:

Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine Justice weighs the sins of the coldblooded and the sins of the warmhearted in a different scale. Better the occasional faults of a government living in the spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

I think for the last 8 years we have had a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. As long as there are 15 million Americans living in substandard housing, as long as the average unemployment compensation check for workers thrown out of work in this country is $32 a week, as long as there are millions of Americans who do not even receive the inadequate $1 an hour minimum wage, as long as the average check for laundry women in five large cities of this country is 65 cents an hour for a 48-hour week, as long as there are 4 million families receiving a food surplus package from our Government every month, so long is there need for the Democratic Party. [Applause.]

What I have been saying to you today affects the security of the United States, and it affects our security around the world. If the United States is strong and moving here at home, then we will be moving around the world. The reason that Franklin Roosevelt was a good neighbor to Latin America was because he was a good neighbor to the Americans. [Applause.] If we are moving at home, if we have full employment in this country, if our automobile and steel and oil and coal is working and putting our people to work and producing, then our future is secure, because we set up here in the United States not only the kind of society under which we want to live, but we set up the kind of society which people all over the world will want to follow. I don't run for the office of the Presidency saying that if I am elected life will be easy. I think the 1960's will be difficult. But I do run for the office of the Presidency saying that we can do better, and that we must do better.

This is the great issue. Those who want to stay and those who want to go, those who say "Yes" to the 1960's, and those who say "No," those who look to the past and those who look to the future, I think the alternative is clear before us, and I join with those who in this country during the last century have moved ahead, have broken new ground.

I ask your help in this campaign. I ask you to join me. Give me your help, your hand, your voice, and we can move this country ahead. Thank you. [Applause.]

I will give you one more thought before I leave this happy hall. [Applause.] Let me just say that in this election I am reminded 100 years later, and I think all of us are interested in our families, in their security and our country's security, and we are also interested in what happens to the United States around the world. I think whoever is going to be the next President of the United States must recognize that it will be a task more burdensome, more heavy, with decisions which involve us all more deeply than ever before in this country's history. But this is not a race merely between Mr. Nixon and myself. And in a very real sense it is not a race just between the members of two political parties. I think it is the kind of decision which is comparable to the decision which the United States made in 1932. In 1932 the United States, I think, took a decision which preserved freedom here in the United States. I think the great issue in 1960 is for us to take the kind of decisions which will preserve freedom around the world.

Thomas Paine said in the Revolution of 1776 that the cause of America is the cause of all mankind. I think in 1960 the cause of all mankind is the cause of America. If we fail, I think the case of freedom fails, not only in the United States, but every place. If we succeed, if we meet our responsibilities, if we bear our burdens, than I think freedom succeeds here and also it succeeds around the world. Mr. Khrushchev has said that our children will be Communists. I don't accept that view. I think if we do what we have to do, if we start this country boiling again, then I think there is every prospect that his children will be Communists.

I am reminded in the fact of the election of 1860 that Lincoln, hard pressed, wrote to a friend, "I know there is a God and that He hates injustice. I see the storm coming, and I see His hand in it. If He has a place and a part for me, I believe that I am ready." Now, 100 years later, we know there is a God and we know He hates injustice, and we see the storm coming But if He has a place and a part for us, I believe that we are ready. Thank you. [Standing ovation.]

John F. Kennedy, Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, United Steelworkers of America Convention, Convention Hall, Atlantic City, NJ Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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