John F. Kennedy photo

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

August 26, 1960

Senator JOHN F. KENNEDY. Commander, Governor Williams, Vice Commander Connell, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to be here today. I am proud to be here as a past commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post named after my late brother. But, I was particularly proud to be a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars when I arrived in this city last night when I learned that this convention, after a series of rosy reassurances, had called for an increase in our defensive strength. That resolution showed courage 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 the American people 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, scientifically, economically, 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. That is not the function of any American.

My appeal is to their duty, and it is refreshing to know by your resolution you responded to the appeal, as you have in years past, the appeal of our country.

Your convention resolution requires that every American 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 yourselves whether you have ever known a period in the history of this country where this Nation was treated with less respect and with more arrogance by our enemies around the world, and regarded with such doubt by our friends?

I received this summer a letter from a woman who has spent her life in Africa. She said that for the first time in that continent the people friendly to freedom were growing more doubtful and the Communists growing more confident.

Possibly the days preceding the War of 1812 are a precedent, when the French and the 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 cannot think of any 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 rattled off the coast of the United States 90 miles away, 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 a period of similar peril for Great Britain:

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 conventions:

Mr. Khrushchev, do not be deceived.

We are a united country. We are not divided in 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.

This is the only purpose of this debate.

As veterans, we don't ask this Nation to constantly look back on our service, on our deeds of sacrifice. But we do expect that a nation will try to make of itself such a standing in the world that the sacrifices of those who died in the last wars will be worthy of our present effort.

We are still the strongest power in the world today. But Communist power has been, and is now, growing faster than our own and at a greater rate of growth, and by "Communist power," I mean military power, economic power, scientific power and educational and political power. They are moving faster than we are.

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.

Now let me make it clear that I believe there can only be one defense policy for the United States and that is summed up in the word "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.

Let us always remember that Mr. Khrushchev is not going to be impressed with words. He is not going to be deterred by rhetoric. He is not going to be moved by mere argument or debate. We cannot at the age of 65 make Mr. Khrushchev into a Democrat or a Republican by debate. Mr. Khrushchev respects only one thing, and that is power.

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

The facts of the matter are that we are falling behind in our rate of growth. The missile lag looms large. Our Army and Marine Corps lack the manpower and airlift. We need to put SAC on an airlift around the clock and it is not on airlift today, as I visited the SAC headquarters last Saturday afternoon. We need to increase the thrust of our rocket engines. The Soviet Union's recent missile that they recovered weighed 5 tons and until we get a powerful rocket engine second to none, we are going to be second in space, with all of the significance which space is going to have.

We do not want the Soviet Union to be the first country to put a reconnaissance rocket around the globe, which will be like having a flight of U-2's pass over our country every day.

All this can be done. All this can be done in this country, but let us put an end to this policy of deciding our fiscal requirements and then deciding what we can spend on defense. Let our danger decide our fiscal requirements, and then fit our fiscal requirements to meet them.

As you know, there is a dispute over whether the administration should unfreeze defense funds previously appropriated by this Congress. Let me make my position crystal clear. I not only feel that these funds should be unfrozen; I strongly urge the next President of the United States, whoever he may be, to whichever party he may belong, to send to Congress in January specific requests:

(1) For accelerating the Polaris and Minuteman missile programs.

(2) Expanding and modernizing our conventional forces.

(3) Protecting our retaliatory capacity by an airborne alert.

(4) Streamlining our Defense Establishment to give primary attention to our

primary needs.

That message must be sent next January, whoever is President of the United States.

This convention is no different in my opinion though its experience may have been different, than any other group of Americans. There isn't anyone in this country who would not do anything to preserve this country's freedom. We are willing to bear the burden.

Thomas Paine once said during the American Revolution: "The cause of America is the cause of all mankind." I think in a very real sense the cause of all mankind is the cause of America.

I do not want it said of us that in our years of responsibility when the veterans of the Second World War had been out of service for 15 years and of the First World War for 43 years and of the Korean war for 7 years, with all of the 20 million Americans who once bore arms in defense of their country, I do not want it said in our time and in our generation that our country began to slip behind.

I do not want historians to write in 1970 or 1975 that it was in these years that Communist power began to spread, that the Communist balance of power began to shift in their direction.

I want it said that these were the years when freedom stood up and when the United States, as the head of the free nations, bore its burdens, bore its responsibilities, and insured the survival of freedom.

Have we ever had a greater chance? There is not a single man here or a woman who is not prepared to do in peacetime what he did in war; assume the burdens of the defense of his country. This is the most dangerous time in the life of our country. All of us as members of a free society have a role to play.

I don't run for the Presidency - and I am sure no other candidate does - merely saying that if he is elected life will be easier. I don't believe it at all. I think that the next 10 years are going to be the most critical years since our Republic was founded. But therefore, that being true, should we not be willing to devote all of our energies in order to protect our security?

I congratulate the Veterans of Foreign Wars because in your resolution you faced up in the way that you could to the problem that your country faced.

During the Korean war a young American was called out of the ranks by the Chinese captain and they said to him, "What do you think of Gen. George C. Marshall?"

He said, "I think General Marshall is a great American."

He was hit with the butt of a rifle and knocked to the ground. They picked him up and said, "What do you think of Gen. George C. Marshall now?"

He said, "I think General Marshall is a great American."

This time there was no rifle butt because in their own way they had classified him and determined upon his courage.

I think as individuals and as members of the greatest country on earth we, too, are going to be called out of the ranks and we too in the 1960's must give the affirmative answer. [Great applause.]

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

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