John F. Kennedy photo

Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, VFW Convention, Detroit, MI - (Advance Release Text)

August 26, 1960

I am proud to be here today. I am proud to be here as a past commander of the Massachusetts post named after my brother. But I was particularly proud to be a member of the VFW last night - when I arrived - to learn that this Convention, after hearing a series of rosy reassurances, had called for an increase in our defensive strength. That resolution showed courage, it showed conviction, and it showed loyalty to all we hold dear - and it makes me proud to be a member.

I would like to give those rosy reassurances, too, as any American speaker would like to give them. I would like to tell you facts that any American would like to hear. I would like to be able to say to you categorically and proudly that the United States is first in the world militarily, economically, scientifically, and educationally, and will be in the future.

But I cannot make that speech. I cannot in all honesty make those claims. I cannot go to the country with appeals to the voters' complacency. My appeal is to their duty - and it is refreshing to know by your resolution that you who responded to that appeal in years past will not now heed the siren call of false content.

Your convention resolution requires every American to ask himself these questions: Do we know for a fact that we are and will continue to be first in the world militarily, economically, scientifically, and educationally? Have you, since your days in school, ever known any boy or man of unsurpassed strength who did not always receive the respect of his enemies as well as his friends? And then ask your selves whether you have ever known a period when this Nation was treated with less respect and with such open arrogance by our enemies around the world, and regarded with such doubt by our friends.

Possibly the days preceding the War of 1812 are a precedent - when the French and British contemptuously halted our ships and seized our sailors - much as the Russians seized the crew of the American RB47 downed over the East German border. But I can think of no other period in our history when our peace Conferences were broken off with such contempt - when our President was not free to travel abroad - when enemy rockets were rattled from a once friendly nation only 90 miles off our shores - and when the leader of our leading enemy dared to voice an interference in our presidential elections.

These are unpleasant facts - unpleasant to recite - unpleasant to face. But face them we must. For, as Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons in an age of similar peril: "We shall not escape our dangers by recoiling from them."

To face those facts is not disloyal, as some have implied - it is the highest type of loyalty. To state these facts does not divide the country - and let us hope Mr. Khrushchev knows it. As Secretary of State Herter told him some weeks ago, after the convention: "Mr.Khrushchev, do not be deceived."

We are a united country. We are not divided by our views on communism versus freedom, on firmness versus appeasement, on peace versus war. These are not at issue in this campaign. The issue in this campaign is which candidate and which party can best summon all of America's people and resources to rebuild and regain our strength as a free Nation, and I want Mr. Khrushchev to know it.

Those who are gathered in this hall today are accustomed to facing harsh reality. That is our link with each other. That is our link to the past. But the American veteran of today is not looking merely to the past. He is not assuming that his service to his Nation is over.

He is looking ahead instead to the kind of goals for America that he believed in, fought for, and shares with every other American - not an America of special privileges we have not earned - not easy promises of a soft life - but an America that is on the move, that is shoring up its weaknesses, facing up to its challenges, living up to its name and its traditions.

As veterans, we do not ask that our Nation look constantly backward at our deeds of duty and sacrifice. But we do expect a Nation determined that those deeds shall not have been in vain - a Nation determined to maintain and expand the world security and leadership for which we fought.

The harsh facts of the matter are that our security and leadership are both slipping away from us - that the balance of world power is slowly shifting to the Soviet-Red Chinese bloc - and that our own shores are for the first time since 1812, imperiled by chinks in our defensive armor.

We are still the strongest power in the world today. But Communist power has been, and is now, growing faster than is our own. And by Communist power I mean military power, economic power, scientific and educational power, and political power. They are moving faster than we are: on the ground, under the ocean, in the air and out in space.

The world's first satellite was called Sputnik, not Vanguard or Explorer. The first vehicle to the moon was named Lunik. The first living creatures to orbit the earth in space and return were named Strelka and Belka, not Rover and Fido.

I believe that there can be only one possible defense policy for the United States. It can be expressed in one word. That word is "first."

I do not mean first, but. I do not mean first, when. I do not mean first, if. I mean first - period. I mean first in military power across the board. Only then can we stop the next war before it starts. Only then can we prevent war by preparing for it. Only then can we pave the way to disarmament by showing Mr. Khrushchev the futility of Russian armaments.

But let us always remember that Mr. Khrushchev is not going to be impressed by mere words. He is not going to be deterred by mere rhetoric. He is not going to be moved by mere arguments and debate. It would be all right if the next war were to be a war of words. But Mr. Khrushchev respects only one thing: power.

Today the United States of America is the greatest Nation on earth. And today we all agree that this is the most powerful Nation on earth. But what of 5 or 10 years from now? This Nation in 1965 will still be the greatest - but will it still be the most powerful?

The facts of the matter are that we are falling behind - behind in our schedules, behind in our needs, behind the Russians in our rate of progress. The missile lag looms larger and larger ahead. Our Army and Marine Corps lack the manpower, the weapons and the jet airlift mobility to put out a brush-fire war before it becomes a conflagration. We need to put our Strategic Air Command on an air alert and under wide dispersal - improve our systems of continental defense - step up our antisubmarine warfare effort - increase the thrust of our rocket engines - harden our missile bases - and modernize our outdated Pentagon research, organization, and weapons evaluation.

All this and more. must be done. It all can be done. Let us hope that it will not require the launching of Russia's first reconnaissance satellite peering down on every part of the Nation like a daily fleet of U-2 planes. I think the American people are willing to undergo whatever is necessary for the world's best defense. They want to know what is needed - they want to be led by their Commander-in-Chief.

And they do not accept the argument that their criticisms are selling America short. On the contrary, it is the people who say America cannot afford to spend this money - who say America cannot afford the world's best defense - who in truth are selling America short.

While our enemies daily grow more arrogant, more threatening, and more powerful, we are planning this year to spend on our defense effort a smaller proportion of our total national product and our total Federal budget than at any time since the pre-Korean period.

Let us put an end to this policy of deciding our fiscal requirements - and then trimming our defenses to meet them. Let our dangers decide our defense requirements - and then fit our fiscal policies to meet them.

As you may know, there is currently a dispute over whether the administration should spend the additional defense funds voted by the last Congress.

Let me make my own position crystal clear: I not only feel very strongly that these funds must be unfrozen and spent; I strongly urge the next President of the United States, to whichever party he belongs, to send to the Congress in January specific requests for:

Accelerating our Polaris, Minuteman, and other missile programs;

Expanding and modernizing our conventional forces, giving them the versatility and mobility they require;

Protecting our retaliatory capacity from a knockout blow through the hardening and dispersal of bases, the use of an air alert, and improvements in our air defense system; and

Streamlining our Defense Establishment to give primary attention to our primary needs.

That message should be sent next January, regardless of who is President regardless of what it will cost and regardless of how popular it will be.

I think the American people are ready to face the facts and pay the cost - as this convention resolution has demonstrated. I think the American people have been shocked by the turn of events - by sputnik and the Suez, by Cuba and the Congo, by the collapse of the summit and the riots in Japan. And I do not believe they regard the statement of our needs - in your resolution or my address - as either defeatist or disloyal. For we are proud of our country and we know what it can do with a little leadership. But when you are proud of something, you don't let it deteriorate. You don't let it stand still so others can run over it.

If the day ever comes when the American people are not able to face the facts - or are not allowed to face the facts - then we will be all through as a Nation. The first test of leadership in this country is not an ability to argue with the Russians - anyone can do that. It is the ability to tell the people the truth about our danger - and to summon the people to meet it.

And this is where the veterans have a special role to play. For we remember the meaning of peril. We remember the warnings we sounded in years gone by, even when our might was unchallenged, our hopes were high and our enemies still far behind. And we remember, too, those first dark days of World War II, when many were downcast or fainthearted - only to see America dot the skies with planes, fill the seas with ships, and dispatch one victorious mission after another, the best-trained, best-equipped and most successful fighting force in the world's history.

Today the challenge is somewhat different - not only because the enemy has the power to destroy us - but because he also seeks, by economic and political warfare, to isolate us. He intends to out-produce us. He intends to outlast us.

And the real question now is whether we are up to the task - whether each and every one of us is willing to face the facts, to bear the burdens, to provide the risks, to meet our dangers - and to provide for them.

Will we be like the Congressional war hawks prior to the War of 1812, who responded to the arrogant treatment our sailors were receiving with tough talk and a hard line - but who failed to provide our Nation with the frigates needed to keep the peace? Or will we say with Theodore Roosevelt that "if we are to be a really great people, we cannot avoid meeting great issues. All that we can determine is whether we shall meet them well or ill."

John F. Kennedy, Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, VFW Convention, Detroit, MI - (Advance Release Text) Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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