Listen to the audio of this Press Conference here.


President John F. Kennedy
State Department auditorium
Washington, D.C.
March 8, 1961
3:00 p.m. EST
350 In Attendance

THE PRESIDENT: I have several announcements to make.

First, I want to say a word on behalf of Radio Free Europe, which is now making its annual appeal for support from all of our citizens. For more than ten years this enterprise has been reaching out to people in Europe, Eastern Europe, with truth and devotion to liberty as its message. While this radio is at work, with listeners numbering in the millions, the competition of ideas in these countries is kept alive. The individual Americans, by giving to Radio Free Europe, may be sure that they are bringing a beacon of light into countries to which millions of us are tied by kinship, and whose hope for freedom all of us must share.

This is a peaceful concern but a firm one. Radio Free Europe needs and deserves our generous help.

Secondly, Mrs. Kennedy and I are giving an afternoon reception at the White House next Monday, with the Latin American Ambassadors to the United States, the Council of the OAS, as well as Members of Congress concerned with Latin American affairs.

I will take the opportunity, at the close of the reception, to make a major statement of some of my views about the problems of the Americas.

Third, pursuant to my instructions, each Federal department and agency has renewed its procurement and construction plans for the remainder of the current fiscal year, through June 30, 1961, for the purpose of speeding up its contracts and purchases, with available funds. Total of obligations for the remainder of the fiscal year is now planned to be 660 million dollars higher than before the directive. If this acceleration proceeds as planned by the agencies, direct Federal purchases of goods and services will be increased in the January-March quarter by an annual rate of about one quarter of a billion dollars, and in the April-June quarter by an annual rate of about three quarters of a billion dollars.

Next, I wish to announce that the Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr. Erlander, will make an informal visit to the United States for a period of ten days, beginning March 28th. The Prime Minister and I will meet together on the 29th, after which Mr. Erlander will visit other parts of the United States.

I am very pleased with the prospect of meeting the Prime Minister, and we Americans have many close ties with Sweden and its people. And I extend a most hearty welcome to him.

It has been brought to my attention, next, that 5,000 Indian and Eskimo children under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior are not in school, and cannot attend school until facilities are built for them.

These children live on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, in Alaska, and on the Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi. In addition, other thousands are housed in overcrowded and obsolete boarding and day facilities, some hazardous to their health and safety.

I have instructed the Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Udall, to submit to the Congress without delay plans to correct this situation.

I am announcing the appointment and scheduled departure this evening of a special mission to review the status and effectiveness of the United States economic policies in Bolivia.

The Chairman of the three-person mission is Dr. Willard Thorpe, and the other two members are Mr. Jack Corbett and Mr. Seymour J. Rubin.

This mission will arrive in La Paz on March 9th, and spend approximately two weeks before returning to Washington to report their recommendations for a plan of action to be followed by United States agencies in Washington and Bolivia.

An adviser to the mission, Mr. Coerr, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, has already arrived.

Finally, I want to say that in response to the first Executive Order, the number of people receiving surplus food has doubled, from 3,500,000 in December to 6,100,000 at the present time. The value of the food being distributed monthly has doubled -- $12.80 before the expanded program went into effect, $24.40 in retail value at the present time.

In addition, this has doubled the protein value of the direct distribution of food.

And this is the last statement: The Cuban Red Cross, the American Red Cross, and U.S. Navy today combined in a three-way effort to combat a polio breakout in Guantanamo City, Cuba, some 31 miles from the Naval Base. Earlier today, the Red Cross Director at the U.S. Naval Base in southeastern Cuba has a phone call from a male Red Cross nurse in Guantanamo City saying there was an outbreak of polio, with three children dead and ten more stricken.

All available vaccine had been used by the hospitals in Guantanamo City, and aid was needed to give vaccine for at least one hundred more children, which they were unable to obtain. The Red Cross Director at the base got permission from Admiral Edward J. O’Donnell to send all the vaccine which could be spared. They carried and sent enough vaccines for 160 first inoculations to the northeast gate, where she met the Cuban Red Cross ambulance where the transfer was made.

I want to take this opportunity and this incident to emphasize again that our difference of opinion on matters affecting Cuba are not with the Cuban people. Rather, we desire the closest, and harmonious and friendly, and most sympathetic ties with them. Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you told us last month that you expected to have an answer from the Defense Department about this time, on whether there is or is not a missile gap. Are you able to say at this time whether there is, or is not?

THE PRESIDENT: We are concluding our review of the recommendations which the Defense Department has made for changes in the Defense budget. I am hopeful that this survey can be completed in the next few days, and then we plan to send the results of our study to the Congress. And at that time we will indicate what I believe to be the relative defensive position of the United States and other countries, and what needs to be done to improve it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, I am sure you are aware, sir, of the tremendous mail response that your news conferences on television and radio has produced. There are many Americans who believe that in our manner of questioning or seeking your attention, that we are subjecting you to some abuse or a lack of respect.

I wonder, sir, in this light, could you tell us generally your feelings about your press conferences to date, and your feelings about how they are conducted?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you subject me to some abuse, but not to any lack of respect, I don't think (laughter). I must say that I do know that there are difficulties, and I know that it places burdens on members of the press to have to stand up, particularly when I am not able to recognize them. On the other hand, if it were changed and one member stood up, then perhaps that would not be a satisfactory device. So that I think that along with the old saying about "Don't take down the fence until you know why it was put up," I would say we should stay with what we now have.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the approach to a peaceful settlement in Laos seems to have run into a dead end with the rejection by two of the proposed members of the three-nation neutral commission. And the Soviet Union apparently still insists upon the approach of an ICC action there, and an international conference. I wonder if in your review of the situation you have reached any conclusions as to what step the United States should now take to avoid the expansion of the war in Laos?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the United States had been hopeful that it would be possible to set up some procedures where neutral nations could guarantee the security of Laos, and also isolate it from military pressures on both sides.

We are going to have to consider what other procedures might be followed to achieve that goal. But this is a matter now of discussion with our friends, and with others, and I am hopeful that we can achieve a result which will bring stability to Laos, permit it to maintain its independence, bring peace to the area, and self-determination.

Those are very difficult goals to achieve, given the situation which we found upon assuming our responsibilities. But we are going to continue, and are now continuing to take every step that we can to achieve that goal.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there has been considerable comment, sir, that your program up to now has illustrated what the country can do for the people. I think a lot of people have asked me, and I am asking you, sir, at what point does your program tell what the people can do for the country?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we are trying to do something on some of these programs. We are trying to do two or three things on the domestic program. We are trying to protect and provide jobs for people. That is, I should think, a matter of concern to all Americans, and we are committed to that goal, and the programs which we have sent up to the Hill have that object in mind. We are also trying to strengthen our educational system which needs to be strengthened over the long period in which we are going to be tested. And we are trying to provide for a more orderly and effective program of medical care for the elderly.

Now, these programs, in my opinion, are in the public interest, and they are being assessed in that regard.

I would say, as I have said from the beginning, that in time I have no doubt that all of us will find ourselves tested in our attempts to maintain the independence of the United States, and the independence of those countries to which we are committed. These programs are an attempt to provide for a viable economy, which I think is essential for the security of the United States, and for the security of those countries which are dependent upon it. It is also an effort to provide equality of opportunity to the extent that at least we can do so for all Americans. So that I think that it's in the public interest.

QUESTION: Sir, would you help to clarify the aid to private schools issue? The National Defense Education Act passed in 1958 provides loans for private and elementary, secondary schools for equipment, and existing provisions as well as your recommendations allow for construction loans for private colleges.

I wonder if you would give us your view on proposals to add to your school bill provisions for loans, as differentiated from grants for private and parochial elementary and secondary schools?

THE PRESIDENT: You have mentioned three rather different programs which involve different purposes and different constitutional problems.

The first program was the National Defense Education Act, where loans were provided for non-public schools for specific purposes -- languages, I believe, and also for science and engineering. Twenty million dollars was provided which, interestingly enough, only about 1,300,000 dollars has been used for loans. That was the first.

Now the second type of program you discussed -- I supported that program. In my opinion, there is not evidence as yet that that suggests a serious constitutional problem, because it is tied very closely to national. defense.

The second program we are talking about are loans to all colleges. And in my opinion -- and also, of course, scholarship assistance to the students. That is in a different position, at least to the best of my judgment from secondary education. Secondary education is compulsory. It is provided for every student, every citizen -- every citizen must attend school.

We are providing a program which we have sent to the Congress of grants for public schools. And therefore, in my opinion, that is the program which I hope will be passed.

Now the problem of loans to secondary education does institute serious Constitutional problems. I don't think that anyone can read the Everson case without recognizing that the position which the court took, minority and majority, in regard to the use of tax funds for non-public schools, raises serious Constitutional questions.

I have expressed my view on them. I think the Congress should consider carefully what its view is on them, and what kind of programs it wants to recommend in his area. The Congress, as I say, has recommended grants to private colleges in the past.

I used -- I think, a week or two ago I gave that as an example. It has used in the National Defense Education Act -- it has used loans for specific purposes. Whether across-the-board loans would be Constitutional is the question which, in my opinion, raises a serious Constitutional question.

Now I am hopeful that the Congress will enact grants. If the Congress and Congressmen wish to address themselves to the problem of loans, which is a separate matter -- we are not talking about, in this bill, loans to secondary education -- then I am hopeful that it will be considered as a separate matter, that the Congress will consider the Constitutional problems, and then consider what action they would want to take, and we will be glad to cooperate in every way. But I am hopeful that while that consideration is being given, that we will move ahead with the grant program.

QUESTION: Are you suggesting, Mr. President, that Congress, if it wants to provide for long-term, low-interest loans for private and parochial schools, ought to have a separate bill?

THE PRESIDENT: I definitely believe that we should not tie the two together. I think that there are sufficient Constitutional questions which the Members of Congress will have to consider. I believe, in view of the fact that this Act is directly, in its title and in its purpose, directed to giving grants to public schools, that we should proceed with that bill.

Now any other matter, I think, it seems to me, should be taken up as a separate issue, if you want to then discuss loans. I have given my view of the Constitutional problems involved in across-the-board loans. As the questioner indicated, there have been some kinds of loans to non-public schools which have been supported by the Congress and signed by the President and about which no Constitutional problem has yet been raised, and the National Defense Education Act is the best example.

But across-the-board loans, as this group knows, this matter was not brought up in the last -- President Eisenhower sent several Messages to the Congress dealing with Federal aid to education. I believe there were one or two times when it was voted upon in the House.

I do not recall that there was a great effort made at that time to provide across-the-board loans to an aid-to-education bill. The only time, in my knowledge, that it was brought up, was by the end of the last Session in August, by Senator Morse, and then just in the Senate. But it was not made a matter of great interest at that time, and I am concerned that it should not be made an issue now, in such a way that we end up the year with, again, no aid to secondary schools.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you said last week, as I recall it, that there was no room for debate about this matter.

THE PRESIDENT: Grants. There's no room for debate about grants. There is obviously room for debate about loans, because it has been debated. My view, however, is that the matter of loans, to the best of my knowledge and judgment, though this has not been tested by the courts, of course, in the sense that grants have been. But by my reading of the Constitutional judgments in the Everson Case, my judgment has been that across-the-board loans are also un-Constitutional.

QUESTION: That suggests you would veto a bill that provided for across-the-board loans, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that I made my view very clear. I think it is always a mistake, before we even have legislation, to talk about what I am going to do, but I think it is very clear about what my view is, of grants and loans across the board to non-public schools.

Now, colleges are in a different category. Specific programs of grants, even to colleges which are non-public, have been supported by the Congress and signed by the President. Loans and even grants to secondary education, under some circumstances, might be held to be Constitutional. But across the board to all non-public schools, in my opinion, does raise a serious Constitutional question, which after reading the cases and giving it a good deal of thought, in my opinion, at least to my judgment, would be un-Constitutional.

Now, the President has an obligation, and the Congress, to consider this matter very carefully. I am extremely sympathetic to those families who are paying their taxes for public education and also sustaining the rights -- sustaining their children in non-public schools. They carry a heavy burden.

But I have made my position very clear for many months, and have to make my position clear now, at least as long as I am here, on what I believe to be the Constitutional problems.

And I also point out that this matter was not made an issue in recent years, until this time, except in the case of the amendment offered at the end of the last Session by Senator Morse which was just offered in the Senate and was not offered in the House of Representatives, to the best of my knowledge.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you have taken executive action in the field of civil rights. Do you feel there is a need now for legislation in this area, and if so do you plan to offer any at this Session?

THE PRESIDENT: When I believe that we can usefully move ahead in the field of legislation, I will recommend it to the Congress. I do believe that there are a good deal of things we can do now in administering laws previously passed by the Congress, particularly in the area of voting, and also by using the powers which the Constitution gives to the President through executive orders. When I feel that there is a necessity for a Congressional action, with a chance of getting that Congressional action, then I will recommend it to the Congress.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you are, and the Democratic Party are, on record in opposition to the changing of Indian treaties without the consent of the Indians. The Army Engineers are about to build a huge Consua Dam on the upper Allegheny River which will flood a third of a Western New York Indian reservation, in direct violation of a treaty that was signed by George Washington with the Seneca Indians. Have you any inclination at all to halt that project in favor of the so-called Morgan alternate project which would not violate the treaty?

THE PRESIDENT: My recollection is that this matter has been tested in the courts, has it not?

QUESTION: Yes, it has. The Supreme Court has upheld it.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I have no plans to interfere with that action.

QUESTION: Mr. President, on the assumption that Mr. Thompson has by now caught up with Mr. Khrushchev, I wonder if you can tell us the contents of your message to the Soviet Premier, and what the thinking was behind this message at this time?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I would think that it would be more properly a matter that would best be left to Mr. Thompson and Mr. Khrushchev. It is a letter to me, and I think it would be discourteous and unwise to reveal such a letter without any indication that it has been received and some response given.

As far as the purpose of the letter, the purpose of the letter was to give, in general, some of my views on the questions which are at issue now around the world; and also to indicate my strong confidence in Ambassador Thompson to speak for me and for our country at this time in any discussions he might have with Mr. Khrushchev.

QUESTION: Mr. President, back on the subject of education, there has been rising speculation that the openly developing fights over the issues of segregation and religion as they are involved in the legislation may well stop them before they start.

How do you assess the possible damage of those issues as pertaining to your legislation on building schools and loans to teachers' salaries, and do you intend to carry the issue more strongly to the public directly?

THE PRESIDENT: This matter, of course, these two, and of course other groups who are opposed to any action in this area, have all contributed to the fact that -- in spite of this matter has been debated for a number of years -- passed the Senate at least two or three times, that we have never gotten legislation, so that obviously it is going to be a difficult matter to secure the passage of legislation this year.

But I do not think that there is anything more important than to have good schools, well trained competent teachers. When the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established, one of the first acts that were taken was the establishment of a public school. The Northwest Ordinance, the land grant colleges, all indicate the long traditional interest which our government and people have had in strengthening our education. We are as good in the long-range sense as our schools are.

And therefore I am extremely interested in seeing the country this year place additional emphasis upon education -- additional support to education.

In one area alone, as I mentioned some time ago, those people who are first thrown out of work are at the bottom of the educational ladder. The papers are filled with ads requiring scientists, technicians, engineers, on the West Coast and all across the country. People who can't find jobs are people who were not well educated in the beginning.

I think everyone should have a maximum chance to develop his talents. I do not believe that that can be done effectively without passage of this bill this year. I am therefore hopeful that however strong the feelings may run -- and I am very conscious of them -- on all of these other matters, that the program of scholarships for college students, of loans to colleges, because we are going to have to double the number of children in 1970 that we do today applying for admission to our colleges, and grants for public schools, I am hopeful that that will be passed this year.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in order to avoid another snafu, as the one that had involved the 45 pieces of ball-bearing machinery that were originally scheduled to go to Russia, what instructions have you issued to the Departments of Defense and Commerce regarding export license for American manufacturers to iron curtain countries?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I am hopeful the procedures can be improved. There was a difference of opinion between the Commerce Department and the Defense Department, and there was a difference in emphasis in the Defense Department's position over a period of time, though they did take the view, from the beginning, that it was not in the national interest. It has been, I think, quite unfortunate the way it was handled. I am hopeful that in the future we can set up better procedures so that a better judgment can be made.

But I must say that it is extremely difficult for those who are making the judgment. Caution tells them to send nothing, and therefore -- on the other hand, we are anxious to permit some degree of trade, which does not weaken our security or increase our danger, to be carried on with countries. After all, countries in Western Europe are carrying on very intensive trade with the Soviet Union, and some countries with Communist China, so that what they cannot get here they get there. So we wish to bring some reason to it.

But it is a difficult matter, but after this experience, which has been not wholly satisfactory, Governor Hodges is giving this matter close attention with Secretary McNamara and see if we can improve our procedures. This was not the best example of government in action.

QUESTION: Mr. President, I have a two-part question on the RB-47 fliers. First, sir, can you tell us now where, when and under what circumstances the fliers were shot down? And second, are such flights being continued?

THE PRESIDENT: I think the fliers discussed the matter quite fully with the press last Friday.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in connection with trade, some domestic groups, including labor unions, are turning to economic boycotts as their answer to import competition. I wonder if you could state your position on this approach to international trade difficulties?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I am hopeful that those boycotts will not spread. The Congress has set up certain procedures by which those industries that are hard hit can protect themselves -- the peril point, the escape clause, the procedures before the Tariff Commission. Congress is going to have an opportunity to consider the whole matter of reciprocal trade, I believe, next year. I recognize that these workers are hard hit, but they are not always able to make a judgment of what the total national need is, and also the need internationally. I have seen some cases where boycotts have been suggested where the percentage of import is fractional compared to the domestic market, one or two percent. Well now, if we are not going to follow the procedures set down by the American people acting through their Congress, but instead every group is going to take it into their own hands, then of course, we are going to have action taken against us in those countries. We send abroad a good deal if important goods and employ hundreds of thousands and millions of people. As I suggested before, the balance of trade has been in our favor by four or five billion dollars.

Two can play this game. Unions in other countries can refuse to unload our goods. And pretty soon we will find ourselves with an exacerbated situation among friendly nations and also which will be harmful to the gold flow.

QUESTION: Mr. President, could you give us your thinking on the problem of Communist China, in view of the latest word from the Warsaw negotiations; that is, that the Chinese will not consider the admittance of the 32 American correspondents, and they will not consider the release of the prisoners? I believe there was some hope that if we could exchange correspondents with the Chinese that it might be a step towards more harmonious relations?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, that was our hope, and if they are unwilling to do that, of course that hope has been dimmed. They have been, as we know, extremely belligerent towards us, and they have been unfailing in their attacks upon the United States. But of course, I think part of that has been because they recognize that the United States is committed to the defense -- committed to maintaining its connections with other countries, and committed to its own defense and the defense of freedom. But they have been extremely harsh in their attacks upon us, and I would like to see a lessening of that tension. That is our hope from the beginning. But we are not prepared to surrender in order to get a relaxation of tension.

QUESTION: During the debate on the Meriwether nomination, Senator Morse raised some questions about whether this nominee had a police record, and he said that you had sent up to see him one of your legislative aides who had read certain notes from the FBI files. I wonder if you could enlighten us as to what are the facts?

THE PRESIDENT: I informed the conference and the Senate that I looked over Mr. Meriwether's FBI record, before I sent it to the Senate. Mr. Meriwether is now a Member of the Export-Import Bank, and confirmed by the Senate, by a rather large figure, and I am confident that he will do a good job.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in regard to the Peace Corps, to do away with the objection of some countries which may not welcome American corpsmen, the suggestion has been made that you propose a United Nations Corps of which the American corpsmen would be a part. Do you have a comment on that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that that could usefully be considered. It is not intended that any member of the American Peace Corps would go to any country where he was not warmly welcomed. In addition, as I have said from the beginning, we are putting our major emphasis, at the beginning, on teachers. And I am hopeful that those countries which are interested in understanding our country and our traditions would welcome these young men and women. But they will be sent only where they are welcome, and I would certainly feel that we should consider with the United Nations how we can bring our programs into harmony.

(MARVIN ARROWSMITH, AP) Thank you, Mr. President.