Dwight D. Eisenhower photo

The President's News Conference

March 04, 1959

THE PRESIDENT. I just had a message from Walter Reed, said that the Secretary was doing very well indeed and had reacted beautifully to this special treatment they gave him yesterday.

Q. Merriman Smith, United Press International: Mr. President, against the background of continuing tension between the East and West, could we ask, for a moment, about the debated need for increasing the defense strength of this country?

I ask specifically, sir, whether you feel that the present 15 minute ground alert for SAC is sufficient, or would you prefer, in times such as these, to have an airborne alert?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, no. I think the alert that is now observed is a good one, and certainly satisfactory for the present moment.

An air alert would be really worse than useless as defense against bombers. You would be much better to have your bombers on the ground.

Now the day will come when the principal threat, if this situation develops along the lines that it appears to be going--now at that time there will probably be a need for air alert; that is, some of your bombers in the air. They will have to be, of course, refueled more quickly because of the fact that they will have lost much of their fuel during their alert basis.

But at this moment, I would say the measures taken by the Defense Department are completely appropriate.

Q. John Scali, Associated Press: Mr. President, you have said there is no room for negotiation with the Soviets in our determination to uphold all our rights and responsibilities in Berlin.

Now, both the Republican and Democratic Parties appear united behind this stand. However, a number of persons, including former Secretary of State Acheson, have suggested that we take some concrete steps in advance to make it clear to the Soviets that we are absolutely determined to remove all obstacles which might be put in the way of access to and from Berlin, both on the land and in the air.

Among the suggestions that have been put forward have been an immediate mobilization of NATO defense forces, both on the land and in the air, with the return to the Continent of British and French divisions, possibly with Turkish and Italian reinforcements, as well as some steps at home to show that we are determined to see this thing through. Could you comment on this thesis?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, you start off with this statement, that I said there was no room for negotiation.

Of course I always say there is room for negotiation. The only place that I said that we--they must be perfectly clear in their minds that we will not retreat from the exercise of the rights that are ours with respect to Berlin, and to carry the responsibilities that are laid upon us by these international agreements until eventually there is a new solution for the German problem.

But, our readiness to negotiate with respect to German peace and everything else has not only been emphasized time and again; if there were indeed no room for negotiation there, then there certainly would be no reason for any kind of a meeting.

Now, did you ever stop to think what a general mobilization would mean in a time of tension?

Ladies and gentlemen, we have been under periods of tension since '49, certainly--it was either '48 or '49 in the first Berlin situation.

Now, if you are going to keep a general mobilization for a long time in countries--democracies--such as ours, well, there is just one thing you have and that is a garrison state. General mobilization means all kinds of diversion of materials and other kinds of resources from the operation of a free economy; it means keeping your nation on a basis of readiness all the time.

This is, to my mind, not only futile; this would be the most disastrous thing we could do.

Q. James B. Reston, New York Times: Mr. President, when Mr. Dulles was in the hospital the first time, I recall that you suggested to General Walter Bedell Smith that he come into the White House to assist you in the field of foreign affairs. Now, what happened to that idea at that time, and do you think it has any validity?

THE PRESIDENT. Do you think that I suggested that he come in?

Q. Mr. Reston: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT. No. I have had General Smith, from time to time, talking to me, questions with which we'd both been familiar in the past. I don't think I ever asked him as a permanent adviser, at least I don't recall it if I did, Mr. Reston. And it has not been suggested at this moment.

Q. Garnett D. Homer, Washington Star: This question arises, sir, from a statement by Secretary of Defense McElroy in testimony before a House committee Monday--that, while it is still our policy not to strike the first blow in any possible future war, whether that is always true in the future is another matter.

Could you say if you can foresee any circumstances in which we might, so to speak, strike the first blow against a possible aggressor?

THE PRESIDENT. No, Mr. Horner. I will discuss that for a moment in this fashion: the right of self-preservation is just as instinctive and natural for a nation as it is for the individual. Therefore, if we know we are, at any moment, under a threat of attack, as would be evidenced by missiles or planes coming in our direction, then we have to act just as rapidly as is possible, humanly possible to defend ourselves.

But when you go beyond that point, I don't know exactly what this conversation meant, for the simple reason that I'm quite sure the Congress is not thinking of amending the Constitution and putting in the hands of the President the right to declare war. This is a congressional function and it must be observed. But I do point out that when you have got certain circumstances that put your life or could put your life or the Nation's life right at stake, then there is no time, and whatever would be necessary the President would then order.

Now, you know I'm certainly far from a complacent person. On the other hand, I don't think we ought to be thinking all the time, every minute, that while we are sitting here, we are very apt to get a bombing attack on Washington. The reason we have very great and expensive intelligence forces is to keep us informed as well as they possibly can. So, I don't believe we ought to be arguing some points too much, of this kind, because I believe we create more misapprehension than we do understanding.

Q. Carleton Kent, Chicago Sun-Times: Mr. President, last week a White House caller reported that you had sent a letter to Governor Rockefeller commiserating with him on his budget troubles. Could you tell us something of what you said to him and whether he replied, and what was in the reply?

THE PRESIDENT. Who told you this? [Laughter]

Q. Mr. Kent: Well, the Senator who called at the White House.

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I remember that I sent Nelson Rockefeller a note a couple of weeks ago. It certainly didn't require any answer, and I don't remember exactly what I said; but I do remember that I said we were at least two people that believe we ought to live within our means.

I didn't say anything about how you did it, but I did say that. [Laughter]

Q. Robert C. Pierpoint, CBS News: What is your reaction to the Russian note, or to the terms set forth by the Russians in that recent note proposing a foreign ministers conference?

THE PRESIDENT. As you know, this note, as usual, is very, very long, and of course it takes long and earnest study by our staffs before any detailed comment would be in order.

It starts off, of course, on the negative side, with the usual-oh, repetitions of their great efforts toward peace, charging us with all sorts of evil intentions. And it is filled with distortions.

There is one of them, by the way, I think I ought to correct. It is to the general effect that the United States, or the West, has rushed right in after the war to rearm West Germany. Now, there was no rearmament of West Germany that started at all until after West Germany had become a member of NATO in 1954.

East Germany had 50,000 troops under arms in 1950, and by 1953, had some 225-240,000 under arms in East Germany.

So this kind of distortion is the thing that we find constantly in the propaganda coming from the other side.

Now, on the more hopeful and positive side, you will find in the final paragraphs the admission that there could be something done by foreign ministers rather than heads of state, and indicating some--oh, lessening of the rigidity of the propositions they have heretofore advanced, certainly in the notes of, I think it was last November and of January.

So I would say: well now, you have at least that on the positive side; we are taking it for the moment just as optimistically as we can and, certainly, with our allies we will study how we can make any answer that could be constructive.

Q. Peter Lisagor, Chicago Daily News: Mr. President, in the past our position has been that we would not talk about Berlin as a free and demilitarized free city, or about separate peace treaties with West and East Germany.

From what you have just said, do you mean now that we might indeed go and talk to them about these problems at a foreign ministers conference?

THE PRESIDENT. No. I said that with respect to West Berlin and our rights and our responsibilities we could not abandon them, we never would abandon them. That is what I said.

Now, within the whole field of a peace treaty there could be very many different types of solutions, propositions, advanced; and I think all of them would have to be discussed in, as far as you could, a constructive manner.

Let's remember this: our policy and our agreement in 1955 at Geneva was that Germany would be reunited by means of free elections. For the moment, that has certainly been thrown overboard by the Soviets. They say the only possibility is by negotiation between these two separate Germanys.

Well, I don't see how that can possibly be a feature of any proposal made now. We stand, with our allies, as our policy is that the uniting of Germany would come about, should be by free elections.

Q. Mrs. May Craig, Portland (Maine) Press Herald: Mr. President, the Khrushchev-Macmillan communiqué praises an increase of trade between Britain and the Soviet Union, and said that a British trade mission would come soon to Moscow to increase it still further.

We had understood that the United States turned down Mr. Mikoyan's proposal for more trade on credit, particularly because of the slave labor there, and particularly also because they haven't paid us what they owe us.

Has there been or will there be a change in our trade policy toward the Soviet Union?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, Mrs. Craig, all I can say there, is this: there is a continuing committee, both in the State Department, and then it meets, you know, in Europe each year on the allied position on this business of trade with the Communists.

There have been changes made in not so much our policies but you might say in our specific items in which we are ready to see other countries trade. I do not believe that at this moment we are ready for any radical change in policy with respect to trade.

Q. Chalmers M. Roberts, Washington Post: Mr. President, Prime Minister Macmillan said in Moscow that he had advanced some new ideas, or tentative ideas on breaking the Geneva nuclear test suspension deadlock, and the British say that these were discussed with you before they were submitted.

Could you tell us something of the approach involved in this?

THE PRESIDENT. It is perfectly true that Mr. Macmillan had some different ideas than we have had expressed, and the study that we have given them so far does not reassure us that they are completely practical.

However, we have had no objection whatsoever to his bringing up these new ideas on his own, and to come back to us with such information as he could get. But I am not at liberty to discuss the details of what he suggested to me.

Q. Mr. Roberts: Could you say, sir, whether it involves the idea of establishing a threshold below which certain types of, say, underground explosions would be permitted?

THE PRESIDENT. I think I'd better not go any further into the details, Mr. Roberts.

Q. Kenneth M. Scheibel, Gannett Newspapers: Getting back to Governor Rockefeller, do you think that the stand that he has made on the budget issue in New York will advance or deter his chance of being the presidential nominee next year?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, now, there have been a number of things on my mind this week since I saw you, but that has not been one of them. [Laughter]

And I'll tell you this: at this distance, I am not one either to agree or disagree with the details of his budgetary plan, or to disagree and agree with his critics. I don't know enough about it.

I know what I read in the papers, and I know that he's got his troubles; but he apparently is trying to attack it honestly, and if he attacks it honestly, why, there can be no great scar left on the solution that is attained.

Q. Roscoe Drummond, New York Herald Tribune: Mr. President, on the basis of what was said on both sides in Moscow, do you feel that Mr. Macmillan's visit has served a useful purpose, as far as practical or end results are concerned?

THE PRESIDENT. I think, Mr. Drummond, it's very difficult to speculate too much about that. But I will say this: I feel, frankly, it was a trip that had to be made, and since there were some moments that were a bit brighter than the others, because there were some places that it was quite dark, I think, all in all, certainly all Britain would feel better by the fact that he did go and see and talk.

Now, when you come down to the possibility that there may have been some lessening of this rigidity of which I speak in the Soviet attitude, that we can't tall until events unfold a little bit further.

Q. Charles W. Roberts, Newsweek: Sir, the Times of London and other British papers are saying today that because of Secretary Duties' illness, the leadership of the Western World in the cold war has passed to Great Britain.

Do you feel that they must take a greater share of leadership in this situation?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I never think of this business as resting exclusively upon individuals.

The United States has a present position that is unlike that of any other country, in the free world. Because of that position, American policy, American statement, American action is very significant, and that is what makes America a leader in the whole free world.

With respect to Secretary Dulles' illness, all of us, of course, deplore the absence of a man from his post who is so experienced, so wise, and so strong as this one.

Well, let's remember that he has been, over the years, himself selecting and training a team. There is a tremendous depth in the State Department of knowledge and understanding and capacity. And finally, whether I like it or not, I am constitutionally responsible for the conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States, and no two men have ever had a closer association and collaboration in such problems as these as have Secretary Dulles and I.

Now, I just can't tell what is going to be the length of time in which we'll have a relationship of this kind and a system of this kind, how long it's going to endure. We do have an Acting Secretary and he is responsible until I have designated someone else, or designated him in another capacity.

Q. Edward T. Folliard, Washington Post: Mr. President, the story is going around again that Mr. McElroy is going to resign as Secretary of Defense, and this has led to some criticism. The argument is that Mr. McElroy is thinking about leaving just about the time he has caught on to the job. The argument goes further that a successor, if he is another businessman, will just about have caught on to the job when your administration comes to an end.

Some people, including Walter Lippmann, think this job ought to go to a man versed in the art of government, in other words, a politician.

How do you feel about that, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT. I would just say this: I have been absolutely satisfied with Mr. McElroy's performance. I think he has learned his job quickly, and I think he has acted like a statesman and a very splendid public servant.

Now, I'm going to keep him just as long as I can, although I recall that when he accepted this post, he did say that he would have, sooner or later, to look to his own affairs, and he couldn't promise definitely that he could last out the whole tour. But, I'll say this: I know his sense of duty, and if things got tighter, well I think he'd forget all the rest of it at the time because he wouldn't want to break up the team then for anybody.

Q. David P. Sentner, Hearst Newspapers: Mr. President, what significance do you attach to the exploits of Pioneer IV?

THE PRESIDENT. I have been talking to the scientists about this, and of course I was highly pleased that the test came off as they planned. As you know, they did not plan to orbit the moon. Actually, my latest information as I came in here was that the thing was exactly 203,000 miles from us as we started this talk, but it's going past the moon I think on the order of about 37,000, plus or minus 2,000; it will be orbiting around the sun; and its signals, the signals it has transmitted, have been most interesting to our scientists, particularly in giving additional information on this belt of radioactivity that has been discovered around the earth and is of such tremendous interest to our scientists. That's about the answer.

Q. Gordon E. White, Chicago American: Mr. President, recalling that you won your first nomination in Chicago in '52, do you have any sentimental desire for the Republican Party to return to Chicago for its '60 convention? [Laughter]

THE PRESIDENT. I'll leave that to them. No, I have no feeling about it whatsoever.

Q. Sarah McClendon, Camden Courier-Post: Sir, this has to do with the nuclear ship Savannah--

THE PRESIDENT. Go right ahead, Mrs. McClendon.

Q. Mrs. McClendon.' Thank you. This has to do with the nuclear ship Savannah, the first in history, and the cargo vessel you were so interested in.


Q. Mrs. McClendon: About 2 weeks ago, New York Shipbuilding wrote a letter with the acceptance of the Maritime Administration, a letter to you, asking that you be the principal visitor and Mrs. Eisenhower sponsor this ship next July or August, depending upon your convenience; and they are very anxious to know if you would like to come--

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I'll tell you, just before Mrs. Eisenhower left she told me she had been invited to sponsor it, but she took a look and she said she'd have to come back and do a little bit more studying before she could give any answer to this thing.

Q. William McGaffin, Chicago Daily News: Mr. President, there is a report that the Democrats in Congress plan to hold back about $3 million [$3 billion] of the supplementals that you have requested for fiscal '59, and vote them in fiscal '60 instead. Their aim would be to make you unbalance your budget with your own requests. Have you any comment, sir?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, remember, balancing the budget is not of interest merely to ourselves. Our friends, the nations with whom we trade, the nations that are increasingly using the dollar as a medium of exchange, they are interested in the knowledge that we can pay our bills.

Now, we have had this very bad year from the standpoint of budgetary balance in 1957, when income was way down, and the expenditures, some of it due to one reason or other--one, to help increase employment, and the other brought about by sputnik complexes--caused a big gap.

Now, as quickly as we can get back to a pay-as-you-go basis, the freer the world will feel about this whole affair. Therefore, to unbalance a budget for political purposes, I couldn't imagine anything worse.

Now, I agree there are arguments to be brought about if you are going to take substantive matters of the needs of this country. I may think something is a luxury, someone else may think it's a need, but I have used my best judgment. I have used the judgment of all the advisers I can get in the whole administration to put down a balanced budget. That, to my mind, is one of the things that will keep our dollar stable, it will be one of the great influences in keeping the living costs from going up; and above all, it will be one of the things to inspire more confidence throughout the world in the American currency and American economy.

Q. Richard L. Wilson, Cowles Publications: In the communiqué issued by Macmillan and Khrushchev there was a reference to some kind of inspection and control within an agreed area of Europe.

I would like to ask if you have any renewed interest in the general idea of troop withdrawals or disengagement in central Europe?

THE PRESIDENT. I think the things of which you speak, if they ever come about, must be within a general agreement in which we have confidence.

I repeat, time and tune and again, that any agreement in which we can have confidence and therefore take appropriate and accompanying actions such as some reduction in forces and reduction in alerts and reduction in expenditures, that must come about if there is some, you might say, self-enforcing element in these agreements so that we can have confidence.

I think, therefore, what we are talking about now are details of such a thing.

I believe you can start both from the general and from the detailed end. If you can take one problem, for example, inspection--there can be inspections which could be controlled; that's coming in it from the detailed angle. If you take from the general, then you have to have a stronger and better evidence of confidence on both sides.

Q. J. F. Ter Horst, Detroit News: Sir, a few moments ago you said that you thought the British people felt better because Mr. Macmillan had gotten together with Mr. Khrushchev.

Do you think the American people would feel better if you got together with this same gentleman?

THE PRESIDENT. No, it wouldn't necessarily--the cases wouldn't be the same.

For a long time there has been a great deal of pressure in his country for a meeting between himself and Mr. Khrushchev, and he did owe Mr. Khrushchev a return call from about a year or a year and a half ago; so there was no reason he shouldn't do this and nothing necessarily was expected out of it.

What I keep deploring is this idea of talking about summit meetings when you cannot see any possibility of a constructive step coming out of it. And if a constructive step does not come out of such a meeting, then in my mind the meeting should not be held.

Q. Edward P. Morgan, American Broadcasting Company. Along that same line, Mr. President, Mr. Khrushchev seems to have developed the unfortunate talent of being able to turn on and off international crises at will.

Under the curious circumstances that exist, including those of propaganda, do you feel that this is an international fact of life, so to speak, that we simply have to endure, or are there real ways in which we can put him diplomatically on the defensive?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I think here and there you can; but the trouble of it is, here is a very strident and a very, you might say, pervasive propaganda machine, and it's being used to the very limit of capacity.

I don't mean to say that this can't be done once in a while, but we seem to understand it--I mean we as a people--more than it seems to get understood around the earth.

But, as to living with it, I would say this, Mr. Morgan: we are living in sort of a half world in so many things. We are not fighting a war, we are not killing each other, we are not going to the ultimate horror. On the other side of the picture, we are not living the kind of normal, what we'd like to call a normal life of thinking more of our own affairs, of thinking of the education and happiness of our children, and all that sort of thing that should occupy our minds.

Now, in many ways we are doing that, and one of the manifestations of that thing is this kind of propaganda and sometimes vituperation that is just poured at us all the time.

Therefore, we have two problems: one, not to allow ourselves to get thrown off balance, to get frightened, to get hysterical about the thing; but on the other hand, don't be so indifferent that we are certain that it's just a cry of "Wolf."

We just must not ever be indifferent to what is happening in the world today.

Marvin L. Arrowsmith, Associated Press: Thank you, Mr. President.

Note: President Eisenhower's one hundred and fifty-third news conference was held in the Executive Office Building from 10:30 to 11:04 o'clock on Wednesday morning, March 4, 1959. In attendance: 236.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, The President's News Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/235297

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