John F. Kennedy photo

The President's Interview With Robert Stein, Representing a Group of Seven Magazines

August 01, 1963

MR. STEIN, editor of Redbook magazine: I thought we would start, Mr. President, by explaining that our interview with you will be published exactly 1 year after the Cuban missile crisis, and in that time we have signed the test ban treaty, and we have gotten the direct line of communication with MOSCOW.

I wonder if you would tell us how you feel about the dramatic change of climate and what it portends for the pace of such developments in the future?

THE PRESIDENT. We can't tell, of course, how much the climate has changed, whether we are going to have clearer weather ahead. That is our hope. We are making every effort, every responsible effort consistent with our own security, to prevent another great confrontation of the kind we had in Cuba last October.

I am sure that that event had a sobering effect on Mr. Khrushchev. Of course, it was a dangerous moment for the United States. This test ban treaty will, we hope, lessen, although that hope may be disappointed, the prospect of a profusion of nuclear weapons, the acquisition by other countries. In addition, it represents an agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States and other countries, and it may be possible to build on that agreement as time goes on. That is, of course, what we would like to accomplish.

War is not our objective. Peace is our objective, along with our national security, and the security of those allied with us. So I think we will see a very changing world in 1963, which has come about for a whole variety of reasons. It is up to us to steer a course which picks up any favorable wind.

Mr. Stein: Still on the subject of the change, it seemed last spring that the outlook for the treaty was very dark, indeed, and things changed very suddenly. I wonder if you can tell us in any detail what turning points there were and when they occurred, and how?

THE PRESIDENT. I don't think we can make a judgment on what caused Mr. Khrushchev to refuse what he later accepted, which is a limited test ban on the environments, the atmospheric environments. It may have been domestic and economic pressures. It may have been the division of China. It may have been a whole variety of factors pressing upon him. In any case, he did change their policy. I think it is in our interest; I think it is in the Soviet Union's interest; I think it is in the world interest.

I know there are some people who believe that the very fact that the Soviet Union signs it must mean that there is something ominous in it. There are occasions when interests of countries, even though they may be ideologically hostile, may coincide. I think the existence of a possibility of a nuclear war perhaps does affect us both the same way.

Mr. Stein: I am just wondering what that situation has to say about the persistence that people who are interested in peace should have, even in the face of a very discouraging immediate situation.

THE PRESIDENT. President Eisenhower first made this proposal for a limited test ban treaty in 1959, and it was rejected. Now, in 1963, because conditions are a good deal different in some ways in the world than they were in 1959, it has been accepted.

I think it does indicate that we have to stay at these matters. We can't get quickly discouraged. It may be that this will prove to be a disappointment if we stay at it. We can't accept the idea of the inevitability of a nuclear exchange. That is the ultimate destruction of the human race. That is what we have to avoid.

After all, as you suggested, it was only a year ago that we had a direct collision with the Soviets because of their attempts to radically alter the balance of power. Having been through that experience, we have to be cautious in our approaches or in our conduct, but nevertheless, we have to persist.

Mr. Stein: Since the change seems to have been caused more by political decision on the part of the Soviets rather than on the basis of any technical change, does that give you any hope that we can resolve the question of underground tests in the same way, or do you look for technology to settle that question?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I think technology may help settle it, because as seismology becomes a more advanced science, we may be able to discriminate between an earthquake and underground nuclear explosion and, therefore, the degree of inspection we previously insisted upon will not be required. However, that is for the future.

At the present, they have been reluctant to accept inspection and, therefore, we do not have a comprehensive treaty. This treaty does not require inspection.

Mr. Stein: I have been told about the response to your speech on Friday, and apparently it was overwhelmingly favorable. It was a large response as responses go, and yet it seems to me that the people who did respond, considering what is at stake, represent quite a small fraction of the population. Are you sufficiently encouraged by that response, or would you feel that there should be more interest than there is?

THE PRESIDENT. There are 190 million Americans, and I suppose we got several thousand letters. We probably actually got more letters on the freight rate case, I think, than we got on this, but I don't think that means people are not interested. It is just that they don't sit down and write. I think that is unfortunate.

I think letters have an effect on Members of Congress. Everybody's vote counts one in America, but those who sit down and write letters make their votes count more times.

Mr. Stein: When you look back on the last few years of negotiation for the test ban treaty, how do you evaluate the part that individuals and organizations who are interested in peace have played in trying to arouse public support? Do you feel that they have played a significant part in bringing us to where we are?

THE PRESIDENT. I do, because I think there are other groups that have an interest, economic in some cases, political in others, or a militaristic approach to a good many problems. Therefore, those organizations that work for peace, particularly that work for peace responsibly, not merely unilateral disarmament, I think that that makes a significant difference. If President Wilson had been able to mobilize all of the people of this country for the support of the League, our whole history might have been different. But what happens is that those who are in opposition to these efforts usually are well organized and highly motivated, and they make their voices heard up on the Hill and throughout the country, and frequently in the press.

A great mass of the people frequently are not heard or may not be informed, may not understand the arguments, may feel the arguments are too complicated, may be so involved in their own private lives that they don't have time to take an informed interest in world events or in great national issues. Therefore, the field is left to a few participants on both sides. I think that the wider we can spread this debate the better off we will be.

Mr. Stein: You said in your speech that there is no lobby in Washington for our children or our grandchildren. I have the feeling that perhaps some people hesitate to inform themselves and to make their feelings known because they feel they don't have comparable authority that stacks up against people in positions, people in legislative positions or people who are generals or scientists. I am just wondering how you feel about the question of their moral authority to be part of the lobby in this direction?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, that is the whole presumption upon which this country is based, that the people are equipped to render a judgment. I think that they are and they do, and I think it is important for them to recognize that.

What I am concerned about is that in these matters relatively few people enter the debate. After all, as I said when I spoke in July, a nuclear exchange that would last 60 minutes would produce over 300 million deaths. That means that everybody is involved in this debate.

Mr. Stein: In going beyond the issue of the limited test ban treaty, what would you recommend, or would you have any advice for people who are interested in peace on where to focus their efforts? Should it be towards the underground treaty, should it be towards missile reduction, safeguards against surprise attack, or troop reduction?

THE PRESIDENT. These are all matters which we are discussing with the Soviet Union. I think what we would hope would be the support for that exploration of their intentions.

Mr. Stein: Not in any particular order, but just in general?

THE PRESIDENT. That is right.

Mr. Stein: There have been several novels and there will be very shortly several motion pictures dealing with the whole question of nuclear war by accident, or by unauthorized action. The question that seems to be in people's minds is, are we any safer in that regard than we were a year or two ago?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, we are, because we have developed techniques for preventing the firing of an atomic weapon without control from Washington, safety links, codes, and all the rest which I think provide as much as man can for the prevention of accidental war. But, of course, as these weapons proliferate into other countries, and more and more countries get them which may not have this sophisticated means of control, then the chance of accidental explosion increases.

Mr. Stein: Right now we are better off, though, than we were?

THE PRESIDENT. That is right We are, because of technical progress.

Some of the recent writings on the subject give a totally distorted picture of the maximum effort that has been made to maintain control. We spend a good deal of time on this matter. I think control is complete. Mr. Stein: One final question.

If we look ahead, say, 5 years from now, and we take a realistic view, what kind of an armed or disarmed world can we expect to be living in?

THE PRESIDENT. I wouldn't attempt to make a judgment for 5 years, because, as you know, the last 12 months have brought about a rather sharp reversal and the next 12 months may bring another one, so we can't make precise judgments. I think that if we maintain our national strength, if we maintain the vitality of our economic system, if we maintain our alliance, if we see a world, particularly in the underdeveloped world, which is becoming increasingly fruitful, prosperous, then I would think that in 5 years we could be in a stronger position. I think what is happening behind the Iron Curtain, where, instead of a monolith, one great unit which existed in a sense in Stalin's time, you are getting all these evidences of national interest, national feeling, even in areas which are Communist-controlled, which indicates that there is a great desire for individual and national independence. It is very helpful to us.

So I think we could be better off 5 years from now than we are now. But the danger is always with us. We can only be better off, it seems to me, if we maintain our strength and if we proceed with care. On the other hand, we should attempt to work for peaceful solutions to problems which in the past have brought war.

Mr. Stein: Is there anything else you would care to say to the women in this country, sir?

THE PRESIDENT. They are the most intimately concerned with the future as mothers. We appreciate the support they give to these efforts to prevent the ending not only of our political system, but of the race.

We have gone since 1945, in the development of nuclear bombing, into an entirely new period which we are not even aware of. Most people who talk about nuclear weapons have no conception of what it all means, but the fact is that the weapons are there, and it is important that we develop a means for settling disputes peacefully instead of, as we have done through history, resorting to the use of arms.

Mr. Stein: Thank you, Mr. President.

Note: The interview, held in the President's office at the White House, concluded a series of exchanges with editors of seven magazines capable of reaching 34 million women readers. Earlier, on June 14, the President had met with the editors in the Cabinet Room for an hour's question and answer period on the general subject of what women can do to preserve the peace. This meeting resulted in more than 50 pages of transcript, to be used as the basis of articles to appear in the November issue of the seven magazines.

Following the signing of the nuclear test ban treaty in July, Mr. Stein, as the representative of the editors, returned for the concluding interview with the President, printed above.

In addition to Mr. Stein the following editors took part in the series of exchanges: Robert Atherton (Cosmopolitan), Robert Jones (Family Circle), Wade H. Nichols and Ray Robinson (Good Housekeeping), John Mack Carter and Mary Harvey (McCall's), Robert S. Cramer and Mary Buchanan (Parents' magazine), and Eileen Tighe (Woman's Day).
See also Item 449.

APP Note: This is Public Papers of the Presidents, John F. Kennedy: 1963, document #319a

John F. Kennedy, The President's Interview With Robert Stein, Representing a Group of Seven Magazines Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives