News Conference 4, February 15, 1961

President John F. Kennedy
State Department Auditorium
Washington, D.C.
February 15, 1961
7:00 p.m. EST
347 In Attendance

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. I have several statements to make first, and then I will be glad to submit to questions.

Ambassador Stevenson in the Security Council today has expressed fully and clearly the attitude of the United States government towards the attempts to undermine the effectiveness of the United Nations organization. The United States can take care of itself, but the United Nations system exists so that every nation can have the assurance of security. Any attempt to destroy this system is a blow aimed directly at the independence and security of every nation, large and small.

I am also, however, seriously concerned at what appears to be a threat of unilateral intervention in the internal affairs of the Republic of Congo. I find it difficult to believe that any government is really planning to take so dangerous and irresponsible a step.

Nevertheless, I feel it important that there should be no misunderstanding of the position of the United States in such an eventuality.

The United States has supported and will continue to support the United Nations’ presence in the Congo. The United States considers that the only legal authority entitled to speak for the Congo as a whole is a government established under the Chief of State, President Kasavubu, who has been seated in the General Assembly of the United Nations by a majority vote of its members. The broadening of the government under President Kasavubu is a quite legitimate subject of discussion, and such discussions have been going on in Leopoldville and in New York, but the purported recognition of Congolese factions as so-called governments in other parts of that divided country can only confuse and make more difficult the task of securing Congolese independence and unity.

The United Nations offers the best, if not the only possibility for the restoration of conditions of stability and order in the Congo.

The press reports this afternoon, that Prime Minister Nehru has stated, and I quote, "If the United Nations goes out of the Congo, it will be a disaster." I strongly agree with this view. Only by the presence of the United Nations in the Congo can peace be kept in Africa.

I would conceive it to be the duty of the United States, and indeed all members of the United Nations, to defend the Charter of the United Nations by opposing any attempt by any government to intervene unilaterally in the Congo.

Secondly, I have a statement that we have today recognized the government of El Salvador. It has announced its determination to bring about free and democratic elections in that country, and it seeks solutions for the economic and social difficulties which that country has faced. These objectives are in consonance with our goal of a free and prosperous Latin America. Manifestoes of the government and its agencies have indicated a clear determination to improve the standard of living of the people of that country, particularly those engaged in agriculture. We hope to be able to assist El Salvador in reaching these goals, under the spirit of the Act of Bogota.

Thirdly, this country is most concerned about the very serious problem of unemployment which we have faced this winter, and the more than five and a half million Americans who want to work and can't find a job.

We are particularly concerned about the more than 600,000 Americans who have exhausted their unemployment compensation checks, and who are now on relief. We have sent to the Congress a program which we believe would be of assistance to the country and to them this winter. We do, as you know, provide for extension of unemployment compensation benefits for those who have exhausted their benefits.

We provide aid to unemployed workers. Today, under the law, a child of a worker who is out of work can only receive necessary assistance if his family splits up. We would correct that situation.

Three, we have sent a program up for aid to distressed areas.

Four, we have sent up legislation improving the minimum wage.

Five, we have sent up legislation to the Hill which would provide for an increase in Social Security benefits, and it will be followed by other programs as time goes on.

We have also provided for Executive action, increasing the amount of food available in those areas of the United States where people live on these food packages.

I hope that we can get action on these programs as soon as possible.

Today the Ways and Means Committee of the House held hearings on our program to extend unemployment compensation benefits. I am hopeful that we can move forward this winter, so that some relief can be given to our fellow Americans. And in order to provide a stimulus to our economy, I have provided, with the cooperation of the Departments of the government, for a speedup in programs using funds now available. Over 250 million dollars as we have said will be distributed immediately under the GI dividend program.

There are 4 billion dollars for tax refunds which are coming due. As soon as those who are available for these refunds can put their application in, we will attempt to stimulate and improve and quicken the distribution of these funds.

We provided under the instructions given through the State of the Union Address for 700 million dollars, committed this month for additional Polaris submarines and airlift capacity.

In addition, we are providing through the Post Office a speedup in the programs to build Post Offices, which has been authorized and approved by the Congress previously; but these programs would be developed in a more concentrated period than they would otherwise have been.

For farmers we have provided 75 million dollars additional for loans, to speed spring planting costs and also for farm home loans.

For the Federal highway construction program, we are going to make 734 million dollars to be available to the States this month. This program of course calls for action by the States and the local bodies. And we are sending tonight telegrams to all of the State Governors asking if they also can provide for speedup in their programming.

I want to make it clear that we are going to continue to work in cooperation with the Governors and with the Congress, all agencies of the government, because we want to see the American economy get back on its feet. We want to see these people working again.

In addition, the Small Business Administration plans to increase by 25 per cent the criteria for what small businesses there are that are eligible for defense contracts. By increasing this criteria, we will make other small businesses eligible, who happen to be in areas where there is high unemployment.

I am hopeful that these programs will all be of assistance. Mr. Goldberg's tour showed that in States like Michigan, nearly 350,000 people out of work -- 12 per cent of the people in Gary, Indiana -- over 200,000 steel workers, and they need our help.

I will be glad to answer any questions.

QUESTION: Mr. President, regarding the situation in the Congo and the crisis precipitated there by the Soviet Union, could you evaluate the impact on Soviet-American relations -- your hopes that they might have been improving?

THE PRESIDENT: This statement was carefully drawn -- represents the policy of the United States at this time on these matters, and I am going to confine myself and all questions on the Congo to the statement that we have made, I think that this is the most effective way to deal with it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in a related field, however, Mr. Khrushchev this afternoon -- I think in a message applying to you -- said that he welcomed your proposal that you voiced in the State of the Union Message, for pooling American-Soviet efforts in space exploration projects.

Do you think this sort of pooling and cooperation you envisioned in your State of the Union Message will still be possible under the tense conditions that developed in the UN today?

THE PRESIDENT: I hope that it would be possible for the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop in such a way that the peace can be protected and that it will be possible for us to use our energies along peaceful and productive and fruitful lines.

The development of space, preventing outer space from being used as a new area of war, of course, is of the greatest possible concern to the people of this country.

I am hopeful that it will be possible, if relations between our two countries can be maintained, and can be channeled along peaceful lines, I am hopeful that real progress can be made this year. But it is our earnest hope that the relations can remain harmonious, and that it will be possible for us to cooperate in peaceful ventures rather than to be differing on matters which carry with them such hazards.

QUESTION: Along this line, sir, could you tell us how you would feel about a meeting, at some time in the next few weeks or months, with Mr. Khrushchev? Do you think it would be helpful, or if it should be delayed?

THE PRESIDENT: There are no plans, nor have there been any plans, for any meeting with Mr. Khrushchev. As I said earlier, I have not heard whether Mr. Khrushchev is planning to come to the United Nations meeting. There are no other plans for a meeting at this time.

QUESTION: If he did come, sir, would you welcome a visit with Mr. Khrushchev in Washington?

THE PRESIDENT: I would make a judgment as to what could usefully be done, once we knew what Mr. Khrushchev's plans were. We would make a judgment as to what actions then we would take. But I must say that I have not heard that Mr. Khrushchev is planning to come to the United Nations at this time.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you addressed a conference of businessmen here earlier this week, and one of the officials of that conference noticed afterwards with some satisfaction that you hadn't used the word "recession." He said he thought this was a good thing because in fact there was no business recession.

Was your omission because you agreed with him, or how do you feel about the word and about the economic situation?

THE PRESIDENT: Well as you know, if you are unemployed, and out of a job, you think there's a recession. If you are working, perhaps the impact of the economic slow-down doesn't hit you quite as hard. I think we have been in a recession for some months and that we have not recovered fully from the recession of 1958, which is a matter, of course, of great concern.

We are concerned because while there was an economic slow-down in 1949, and 1954 and 1958, we now have an economic slow-down only two years after the 1958 recession. So this compounds our difficulties. I think that it is well to refer precisely to things, and I would call this a recession.

QUESTION: In line, sir, with your statement a moment ago that you hoped that the relations between United States and Russia would improve, Admiral Arleigh Burke is quoted in some newspapers today, in an interview, in which he makes some rather sharp comments on American and Russian relations. And among other things says that the United States Navy would sail into the Black Sea if it so chose.

I am asking, sir, is this in line with your Administration policy that all high officials should speak with one voice?

THE PRESIDENT: I have been informed, and perhaps Mr. Salinger can correct me, that that interview was given on January 12, which was before the Administration took over on January 20th, and before we gave any indication that we would like all statements dealing with national security to be coordinated. I would say that this makes me happier than ever that such a directive has gone out. (laughter)

QUESTION: Mr. President, I would like to change the scene here to Cuba, if I may, for a moment. A member of Congress has raised the issue of possible conflict in our trade policy towards Cuba. He points out that under President Eisenhower's order, all exports from this country to Cuba were barred. On the other hand, we are now importing considerable quantities of Cuban goods.

Specifically this Member of Congress pointed out one liquor company has purchased 12 million dollars of Cuban molasses. Also we are importing considerable quantities of Cuban fruit and vegetables.

Have you done anything about it, or are you going into this matter, or contemplate doing anything about this?

THE PRESIDENT: The molasses has not been purchased as yet. It was intended, as I understand, to be purchased during the next months. That is a private transaction. There are 70, I think or 80 million dollars' worth of fruit, tobacco, and so on, which is coming in mostly to Florida. We are now making a study of what would be the most beneficial action we could take in regard to that.

On the molasses, there is some question as to under what conditions we could intervene in that transaction. But of course it has been my hope that that transaction would not be consummated. But I am not convinced that we are totally without resources, and we are considering what we could take to --


THE PRESIDENT: --- to consider that particular transaction. 12 million dollars, I believe, is supposed to be made into gin, and I am not sure that is in the public interest. (laughter)

QUESTION: Would you care to comment, please sir, on the space probe towards Venus, made by the Soviets recently? Do you think this would point up any space gap between our two countries, and do you see there is any need for a speedup in our efforts in that field?

THE PRESIDENT: The Soviet Union, as I said in the State of the Union, of course, is ahead of us in boosters; and there is indication they are going to be ahead of us for some time to come. This was, as I said in my statement at the time, this is a scientific achievement that is an impressive one.

We have made exceptional gains in space technology, which may not be as dramatic as Sputnik, or as a probe to Venus, but which in the long run does, at least I think should, give all Americans satisfaction in the efforts that we have made.

Boosters, however, we are behind on, and its a matter of great concern. The Soviet Union made a significant breakthrough in this area some years ago. They have continued to maintain their lead. It explains why they were ahead of us in Sputnik. It explains why they have been able to put larger objects into space. We have to recognize that their chances of continuing to do that, unless we are able to make a breakthrough before the Saturn booster comes into operation -- unless we are able to make a scientific breakthrough, we have to recognize that we are in a secondary position on boosters. It is a matter of great concern.

We have sufficiently large boosters to protect us militarily, but for the long, heavy explorations into space, which requires large boosters, the Soviet Union has been ahead, and it is going to be a major task to surpass them.

QUESTION: Mr. President, this is a question on the sound dollar. A relative of yours, a Republican relative, Mr. Byrd Auchincloss, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has started a one-man campaign to regain or restore the sound dollar. He has said that the public needs to be inspired by some forceful leadership in Washington to lead them in one major phase, and that is in fighting government waste.

Sir, do you propose to spark such leadership from the White House, or do you have other means in mind by which the public can assist you in regaining the sound dollar?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't want to deny kinship, but to the best of my knowledge he is not related to me.

QUESTION: I believe he said he was your step-second cousin. (laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: Well then, he is related to me but we have not met, and I have not heard from him directly. We want to -- as a matter of fact, several Members of the Congress -- I was Chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Reorganization which attempted to put through some of the Hoover Commission recommendations, and we are going to continue to work with a smaller staff in the White House. And I am hopeful that all members of this government will not consider, now that they have been placed in positions of responsibility, that the test of their good work is the size of their staff. We are going to continue to try, and we will seek the cooperation of every citizen of this country, in making sure that we get value for every dollar that the government spends.

The government spends a great dead of money. In fact, I asked yesterday Mr. Bell to talk to Senator Douglas and Congressman Hebert, who had conducted hearings on waste in the Pentagon and have suggested it might be possible to save more than a billion dollars, to meet with them. And we are going to continue to meet with every citizen, and now whether he is my relative or not, I would be glad to hear from Mr. Auchincloss. It is an important problem. When the government spends over 80 billion dollars, we know we can do a better job in spending that money more wisely. And I would be delighted and I welcome the view of Mr. Auchincloss, or any other citizen, and all members of this Administration, to try to maintain a balance between revenue and expenditures.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in regard to your program to distribute surplus foods to needy people in other countries, two weeks ago Dr. Fry, who is head of the World Council of Churches, advocated that this be done through government channels and not through church or other private agencies. He said that the private agencies just can't insure that the food is going to reach the most needy, which our government regulations require. Has your Administration formulated a policy on this, or do you have a comment on it?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, of course, we have some that does go through the government, and then we have relied upon private agencies. I would be very reluctant to abandon private agencies, because they have done a first class job in assisting us to get this food out.

I would be glad to see his comments and see what his suggestions would be. The alternative, of course, would be for us to distribute through the government involved; and we have never felt that that was better than having it done through voluntary groups. But Mr. McGovern is now in Latin America, and he is looking at what we can do in that area, in Food for Peace, and I am sure that he will come back with some proposals on how we can make this distribution more effective.

QUESTION: May I just say -- excuse me, sir -- Dr. Fry does not suggest clothing and so forth. He still wants that which is contributed voluntarily to be distributed through the church. But just our government surplus food.

THE PRESIDENT: We will look into that.

QUESTION: Mr. President, have you determined whether or not any employee of our State Department was responsible, or had any part in advancing the Communist foothold in Cuba; and if so, sir, will you take steps to remove them from office?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that probably miscalculations were made by our country in assessing in Cuba, but I have no evidence that anyone did it out of any other motive but to serve the United States.

QUESTION: Mr. President, to clarify an earlier answer you made, is it your view that we can proceed in serious negotiations with the Soviet Union in such areas as arms control and nuclear test ban, while they continue to agitate the situation in the United Nations and in the Congo? In other words, can we conduct relations with them in compartments?

THE PRESIDENT: I am hopeful that all countries that are members of the United Nations will make a determination to operate in the Congo through the United Nations. I think that that's essential. As I said in my statement, unilateral intervention by one country or group of countries outside of the United Nations would endanger the United Nations and endanger peace in Africa. I am hopeful that will come to be the judgment of all members of the United Nations, and if it does, I think that we will find ourselves with the prospects of peace increased.

QUESTION: Following up Mr. Kent's question, Mr. President, the Republican Party as a whole seems to also take the view that your Administration has overstated the economic recession.

I wonder, sir, if you have given any thought to conferring with the Republican Leaders in Congress in hopes of getting their support for your program to solve the economic recession, and if you have made available to them all the information that your Administration has on the economic situation?

THE PRESIDENT: To answer your second part, we have made available all the information that we have. I have described it. Everyone can look at these figures and come to the conclusion -- their own conclusion. I see no necessity or desirability of minimizing our problems. I think only by facing the problems, with precision, is it possible to get action.

I want the cooperation of the Leadership on both sides and will make every effort that I can to seek the support of Members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle.

But anyone who looks at the million cars in inventory today, who looks at the figures on unemployment, who looks at the steel capacity operating at about 50 per cent capacity, who looks at the 600,000 Americans who have exhausted their unemployment compensation, who looks at five and a half million Americans who are out of work, who looks at our decline in economic growth since last spring, I would say would come to the same conclusion that I have: That it's necessary for us to take action.

The fact that a judgment was made, the last year, about what 1960 would be -- 1960 was not the most prosperous year in our history as had been estimated earlier. We now find ourselves obliged to take action this winter. And by calling it a recession, or saying it's not a recession, calling it a plateau, that's no excuse for not taking action.

In my opinion, it is essential that we move forward this winter, because we don't want to find ourselves in the winter and the spring and the summer debating about our problem of whether we are in an economic recession, or whether we have an economic decline, and finding at the end of the Congressional Session that no action has been taken. It is only that all of my statements have had the impact, I believe, of a snowflake on the Potomac, which was the description used by a distinguished Member of the Congress. I hope they have more effect than that.

QUESTION: Mr. President, your task force on distressed areas considers an independent agency with an Administrator directly responsible to you, the most efficient way of coping with this urgent problem. They are fearful that it might get fragmented if it were made a Bureau in the Commerce Department. Do you have any objection to the creation of an independent agency under your authority?

THE PRESIDENT: I believe that it would be most advantageous to have it in the Department of Commerce with all of the resources of the Department of Commerce to supplement its work. That would be my first choice. If the Congress makes a different judgment, however, I would accept that, and say that an independent agency would be useful.

But I do think with Governor Hodges, who is committed to the program, with a Cabinet officer to represent interviews at Cabinet meetings, and with the broad range of responsibilities which the Department of Commerce has, that that is the best place to put it. But this is a matter on which I would certainly listen to the Congress if they came to a different conclusion.

QUESTION: Mr. President, if other nations become reluctant to assign troops to the UN for police work in the Congo, would you tell us whether we would consider contributing American units?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we are now hopeful that the policy which the Secretary General has followed, of securing the troops for the Congo from Africa and Asia, we are hopeful that that is going to be successful. And until that fails, I don't think we should go under any assumption that he is going to fail, and if he does fail; then we will have to make a new judgment.

But I am hopeful that those countries which are most involved with maintaining the security and independence of the African countries and peace in Africa, that they will continue to respond to the Secretary General’s appeal for support; and that is also true, of course, of Asian nations who are also concerned. Particularly the smaller countries, we hope that they can maintain control of the troop movements, and not begin to have troops from larger countries with all of the hazards that that might bring.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in view of your remarks about the Congo, and other world problems, do you regard the future developments in the Congo as a kind of good faith test for the prospect of improving the international atmosphere as a whole?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, of course, if we fail -- if the United Nations fails in the Congo -- if we who are members of the United Nations fail -- then of course the future usefulness of the United Nations will be impaired. And I think this would be particularly serious for small countries.

As I said in my statement, the United States is a strong country. We can defend ourselves. The countries which I think must rely particularly upon the United Nations are smaller countries.

The smallest country in the United Nations has the same vote in the General Assembly as the Soviet Union or the United States. Therefore, I would think that they would be reluctant to see the United Nations fragmented, to see its usefulness impaired, to see the authority of the Secretary General, who represents all the members of the United Nations, to see it lessened. So I regard this as a most important test for the future effectiveness of the United Nations.

QUESTION: Mr. President, sir, do you find that the United States as a great power, as you have described, with legitimate interests all around the world, is sometimes hampered in the pursuit of these national interests by its membership in the United Nations? Could you conceive of a situation, perhaps, in Latin America where we would be hampered in a place where we had a vital interest, by United Nations action?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I suppose it is possible always to conceive of situations. But I will say that the United Nations' action -- for example, the fact that they maintained troops in the Ghaza Strip for a number of years, I think has been helpful in maintaining peace in that area. The Congo has been an extremely difficult assignment and responsibility for the United Nations. But at least we have not had, as yet, massive, unilateral intervention by great powers with all of the risks of war that that might bring, and with all the dangers to the peace that that might bring, because of the way the United Nations has met its responsibilities. So I am a strong believer in the United Nations. While it is possible to say that they might interfere with some legitimate interests of ours in the future, I am prepared to say that their actions in the past, at present, and I believe in the future, represent the legitimate, common interests of all members of the United Nations.

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