News Conference 8, March 23, 1961

President John F. Kennedy
State Department Auditorium
Washington, D.C.
March 23, 1961
6:00 P.M. EST
426 In Attendance

   Listen to this news conference.

THE PRESIDENT: I want to make a brief statement about Laos.

It is, I think, important for all Americans to understand this difficult and potentially dangerous problem. In my last conversation with General Eisenhower, the day before the Inauguration, on January 19, we spent more time on this hard matter than on any other thing; and since then it has been steadily before the Administration as the most immediate of the problems that we found upon taking office.

Our special concern with the problem in Laos goes back to 1954. That year, at Geneva, a large group of powers agreed to a settlement of the struggle for Indochina. Laos was one of the new states which had recently emerged from the French union, and it was the clear premise of the 1954 settlement that this new country would be neutral, free of external domination by anyone.

The new country contained contending factions, but in its first years real progress was made toward a unified and neutral status. But the efforts of a Communist-dominated group to destroy this neutrality never ceased.

In the last half of 1960, a series of sudden maneuvers occurred, and the Communists and their supporters turned to a new and greatly intensified military effort to take over.

These three maps show the area of effective Communist domination as it was last August, with the colored portions up on the right hand corner being the areas held and dominated by the Communists at that time.

And now next, in December of 1960, three months ago, the red area having expanded -- and now from December 20 now to the present date, near the end of March, the Communists control a much wider section of the country.

In this military advance, the local Communist forces, known as the Pathet Lao, have had increasing support and direction from outside. Soviet planes, I regret to say, have been conspicuous in a large-scale airlift into the battle area -- over one thousand sorties since last December 13th, plus a whole supporting set of combat specialists, mainly from Communist North Viet Nam, and heavier weapons have been provided from outside, all with the clear object of destroying by military action the agreed neutrality of Laos.

It is this new dimension of externally supported warfare that creates the present grave problem.

The position of this Administration has been carefully considered, and we have sought to make it just as clear as we know how, to the governments concerned.

First, we strongly and unreservedly support the goal of a neutral and independent Laos, tied to no outside power or group of powers, threatening no one, and free from any domination. Our support for the present duly constituted government is aimed entirely and exclusively at that result, and if in the past there has been any possible ground for misunderstanding of our desire for a truly neutral Laos, there should be none now.

Second, if there is to be a peaceful solution, there must be a cessation of the present armed attacks by externally supported Communists. If these attacks do not stop, those who support a truly neutral Laos will have to consider their response. The shape of this necessary response will, of course, be carefully considered, not only here in Washington, but in the SEATO Conference with our allies which begins next Monday.

SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, was organized in 1954, with strong leadership from our last Administration, and all members of SEATO have undertaken special treaty responsibilities towards an aggression in Laos.

No one should doubt our resolutions on this point. We are faced with a clear and one-sided threat of a change in the internationally agreed position of Laos. This threat runs counter to the will of the Laotian people, who wish only to be independent and neutral.

It is posed rather by the military operations of internal dissident elements directed from outside the country. This is what must end if peace is to be achieved in Southeast Asia.

Thirdly, we are earnestly in favor of constructive negotiation among the nations concerned, and among the leaders of Laos, which can help Laos back to the pathway of independence and genuine neutrality.

We strongly support the present British proposal of a prompt end of hostilities and prompt negotiation. We are always conscious of the obligation which rests upon all members of the United Nations to seek peaceful solutions to problems of this sort. We hope that others may be equally aware of this responsibility.

My fellow Americans, Laos is far away from America, but the world is small. Its two million people live in a country three times the size of Austria. The security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence. Its own safety runs with the safety of us all, in real neutrality observed by all.

I want to make it clear to the American people, and to all of the world, that all we want in Laos is peace, not war -- a truly neutral government, not a cold war pawn, a settlement concluded at the conference table and not on the battlefield.

Our response will be made in close cooperation with our allies and the wishes of the Laotian government. We will not be provoked, trapped, or drawn into this or any other situation but I know that every American will want his country to honor its obligations to the point that freedom and security of the free world and ourselves may be achieved.

Careful negotiations are being conducted with many countries at the present time, in order to see that we have taken every possible course to insure a peaceful solution. Yesterday, the Secretary of State informed the members and leaders of the Congress, and the House and Senate, in both parties, of the situation and brought them up to date. We will continue to keep them and the country fully informed as the situation develops. QUESTION: Mr. President, can you tell us what reaction you may have had from the Russians, either directly or indirectly, perhaps through the British, with respect to the approach you suggest on this problem?

THE PRESIDENT: The British have had a conversation with the Russians, but I think that it is impossible at the present time to make any clear judgment as to what the nature of the response will be. We are hopeful that it will be favorable to the suggestion that we have made the suggestion that the British have made for a cease fire and for negotiations of the matter.

QUESTION: Mr. President, a number, several rather, relatively highly placed economists in government have said recently that the state of the economy is improving and an upturn may be expected in April or May. How do you, sir, view the current state of the economy?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that there are evidences of some improvement in the economy. The question of course is whether the upturn, which usually comes in the spring, will be sufficient to reduce the unemployment percentage, which is high today, to a figure which is more in accordance with the full employment in our society.

We also have to consider whether the upturn will bring us to the use of our national capacity, and whether that upturn will be the beginning of a sustained economic growth this year, and in the immediate years to come. It is impossible to make any judgment at this time in March on these factors with any precision.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there have been reports, sir, that some portions of our Navy, some portions of our Marines, have been alerted and are moving toward that area. Could you tell us something of that, sir, and would it be safe to assume that we are preparing to back up our words, as you have outlined them here?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that my statement is clear and represents the views I wish to express at the present time, and I am hopeful that it will be possible for us to see a peaceful solution arrive in a difficult matter, and I would let the matter rest at this point with that.

QUESTION: Mr. President, is there any kind of indicated deadline, or time limit, by which this government will consider that further action is necessary unless hostilities have ceased in Laos?

THE PRESIDENT: No time limit has been given, but quite obviously we are anxious to see an end to overt hostilities as soon as possible so that some form of negotiations can be carried on. But there has been no precise time limit set.

QUESTION: Sir, I did not mean an ultimatum. I did mean in terms of an indicated time limit in our own minds. If this drags on for a week, or two weeks, or three weeks, is there some time in there ---

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the matter, of course, becomes increasingly serious as the days go by, and that is why we are anxious to see if it is possible at the present time to reach an agreement on a cease fire. The longer it goes on, the less satisfactory it is.

QUESTION: Mr. President, that map would indicate that the Communists have taken over a good part of Laos. Have your advisers told you what the -- how dangerous the military situation is there? Is there a real danger that the Communists will take over the whole kingdom?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, quite obviously progress has been made, substantial progress has been made by the Communists towards that objective in recent weeks, and the royal capital of Luang Prabang has been endangered, and progress has been made southward toward the administrative capital of Vietiane. It is for this reason that we are so concerned and have felt the situation to be so critical.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Do you know how much time the supporters of the Laos government might have for diplomacy? In other words, is there a danger of a quick takeover by the Communists?

THE PRESIDENT: I would say that we are hopeful that we can get a quick judgment as to what the prospects are going to be there. I think that every day is important.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you mentioned earlier in your statement that there were dissident elements in Viet Nam who were carrying on this warfare. There have been many reports of North Viet Namese troops involved. Do we have any intelligence or information that would bear out these reports?

THE PRESIDENT: The phrase "dissident elements," I believe, referred to the internal group, and I also stated that there has been evidence of groups from Viet Nam or North Viet Nam who have been involved.

QUESTION: Mr. President, have the events of the past week changed your view on the advisability of a meeting between you and Mr. Khrushchev?


QUESTION: Mr. President, we are getting conflicting reports in the Capital as to your willingness to accept a compromise on this minimum wage bill, particularly in regard to coverage. Can you give us a little information on what your position is on this?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I am anxious -- I supported the bill that came out of the Committee for a dollar twenty-five cents with expanded coverage over a period of time, and also expanded coverage of nearly four million. I am hopeful that that bill will pass, or a bill as close as possible to it would pass.

I find it difficult to know why anyone would oppose seeing somebody, by 1963, paid a dollar and a quarter in interstate commerce. And in the new coverage, we are talking about businesses which make over a million dollars a year. I find it difficult to understand how anybody could object to paying anybody who works in a business which makes over a million dollars a year, by 1963, fifty dollars a week. I think anyone who is paid less than that must find it extremely difficult to maintain themselves and their family.

I consider it to be a very minimum wage. So that I am hopeful that the House will pass legislation as close to the bill that came out of the Committee as possible, because I must say we are talking about a standard for fellow Americans -- and millions of them and I must say I think that it is in the public interest to pass that bill as closely as possible to the House Committee bill.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there appears to be some national unawareness of the importance of a free Laos to the security of the United States and to the individual American. Could you spell out your views on that a little further?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, quite obviously, geographically Laos borders on Thailand, with which the United States has treaty obligations under the SEATO Agreement of 1954. It borders on South Vietnam or borders on Vietnam, to which the United States has very close ties, and also which is a signatory of the SEATO Pact. The aggression against Laos itself was referred to in the SEATO Agreement.

So that, given the nature of the geography and its location, and the commitments which the United States and obligations which the United States has assumed toward Laos, as well as the surrounding country, as well as other signatories of the SEATO Pact, it is quite obvious that if the Communists were able to move in and dominate this country, it would endanger the security of -- and the peace of all of Southeast Asia. And as a member of the United Nations and as a signatory of the SEATO Pact, and as a country which is concerned with the strength of the cause of freedom around the world, that quite obviously affects the security of the United States.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the United States has made the position all of the way through on this that we want a neutral Laos, but isn't it true that Laos has a nonviable economy and can't exist as an independent country?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it can exist. That was the premise under which the 1954 Agreements were signed. It may require economic assistance but there are many countries which are neutral, which have received economic assistance from one side or the other, and many of those countries are in Southeast Asia and some of them are geographically quite close to Laos, so that I don't think that the final test of a neutral country is completely the state of its economy. The test of a neutral country is whether one side or another dominates it and uses it -- the phrase I referred to, as a pawn in the cold war. We would like it to occupy a neutral category, as does Cambodia.

QUESTION: Mr. President, what is your evaluation of the theory that perhaps the Russians are so active in Laos to keep the Chinese Communists out?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I wouldn't attempt to make a judgment about a matter on which we have incomplete information. I think that the facts of the matter are that there has been external activity and that it has helped produce the result you see on the map, and this is of concern to us. I am hopeful that those countries which have been supporting this effort will recognize that this is a matter of great concern to us and that they will be agreeable to the kind of proposals which we have made in the interests of peace.

QUESTION: Mr. President, are you planning a visit to Venezuela or any other areas of Latin America within the next several months?

THE PRESIDENT: Latin America?

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: No, I am not.

QUESTION: Caracas?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I have no plans for any trip.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the Civil War Centennial Commission has decided it has no authority to provide hotel rooms for Negroes who attend sessions in the South. What is your reaction to that decision?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the Centennial is an official body of the United States government. Federal funds are contributed to sustaining it. There have been appointments made by the Federal government to the Commission, and it is my strong belief that any program of this kind in which the United States is engaged should provide facilities and meeting places which do not discriminate on the grounds of race or color.

I have received the response to my original letter to General Grant, and I am in contact -- going to be in contact again with General Grant to see if we can work out a solution which recognizes the principle that I have just enunciated, because we cannot leave the situation as it is today.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in the event that your strong efforts to reach a neutral Laos go unheeded, would you possibly consider, if necessary then, for SEATO to intervene, or would you spell out a little more clearly what would have to take place?

THE PRESIDENT: I think a careful reading of my statement makes clear what the various prospects are and the critical nature of them.

QUESTION: Mr. President, your Foreign Aid message, particularly the provision for long-term borrowing, has had a rather mixed reception on the Hill, I wonder, sir, could you tell us, in view of the traditional Congressional abhorrence of long-term commitments, what steps you are planning to persuade the country that this is necessary?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that it provides far more effective use of the funds that are available. It is very hard for us to say to X Country that "We are prepared to join you in economic development if you will make the following contributions towards your own development, investments, tax changes and all the rest" if we are only able to say "We can do this only on a 12 month basis." If we could say, "We will join over a five year period of development for the economy of this country which will give you some hope of improving the standards of living of your people and maintaining freedom", it seems to me that that is a far more effective use of our money. One of the reasons why so much money, I think, has been wasted in mutual security programs in recent years has been because they are financed on a year-to-year basis and no evident progress is made within the countries towards a viable economy.

So that I must say that I recognize that the Congress has clear responsibilities for annual appropriations. We are only talking about long-term funding for loans. The Congress would still continue to have its annual appropriations for any other funds, including those which involve military grants. And I would feel that the kind of program we suggested offers the best use of the dollar in these areas. I think progress can be made this way. If we don't get it, I think we will continue to see some of the drift we have seen in these programs in the past.

QUESTION: Mr. President, what are your plans for coordinating our transportation, to save the railroads and keep them running, especially to move missiles?

THE PRESIDENT: I have seen no evidence that the missile -- the movement of missiles is endangered at the present time or in prospect. The problem of commuters, the problem of the financial integrity of the railroads and their movement is in danger -- is in critical position in some areas, and it is a matter of concern to the Congress and this Administration and we are examining what we can usefully do.

QUESTION: Mr. President, during the campaign you made a pledge, I believe, that if you became President you would issue an Executive Order to ban segregation in Federal Housing projects. I wondered if you had any plans to implement that pledge any time in the near future?

THE PRESIDENT: We are considering those areas. We have already, as you know, in one area, the area of employment by government contractors, issued an extremely strong, the strongest Federal order that has ever been issued, with detailed facilities for implementation.

We are considering other Executive Orders that could be usefully issued. In addition, the Department of Justice is moving ahead in carrying out the Congressional mandate in regard to voting. So this matter of use of executive authority in order to establish equality of opportunity in all areas is a matter which will have the continuing attention of this Administration.

QUESTION: Mr. President, taking the aggressive Communist attitude on Laos, together with the negative Russian posture at the opening, the reopening, of negotiations in Geneva on test ban, does this combination of circumstances disappoint you about the prospect of really improved relations with the Soviet Union?

THE PRESIDENT: I am hopeful that it will be possible for the United States to make progress towards lessening tension in our relations with the Soviet Union. Quite obviously, this is a critical area. I think the kind of response that we get to our efforts for peace in this area will tell us something about what kind of future our world is going to have, and we will have to wait and see what that response will be, and then I could perhaps give you a better answer as to what our long-range prospects will be, after we see what happens here.

QUESTION: Mr. President, if these responses aren't forthcoming and aren't favorable on your proposals here, and we have to shoot, would you use your Executive Orders and authority, or is the purpose of Mr. Rusk going to the Senators a preparation of asking for a declaration of war is case it really becomes a shooting matter out there?

THE PRESIDENT: I think it would be best to consider it as I stated it in my statement. The prospects, alternative responsibilities -- I have stated them, I think, as clearly as today they can be stated. We will know a good deal more in the coming days.

QUESTION: Mr. President, concerning another aspect of this Communist threat. Russia and Red China publish an estimated three to four billion books a year, sending a large proportion to the non-committed nations, and an AP story says that our USIA was able to send only a trifling fraction to these countries -- last year, I guess less than five million. Does this book gap -- doesn't this present a tremendous obstacle to our winning the minds of the uncommitted peoples, and does our Administration plan to close this gap?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I agree both the Chinese Communists and the Russians have poured large sums of money into subsidizing cheap book publications which have poured into many sections of the world, and is a matter of concern. I think the point is excellent. Mr. Murrow has been considering what we could do in an expanded way in this area. There are other areas where they have also made a greater effort, radio broadcasts to Africa and so on, as well as exchanges. So we have the whole problem, of which books is a part, in this struggle between freedom and control.

QUESTION: Mr. President, I have a question about conventional forces in relation to the Laos situation. You have been reviewing the recommendations of your Secretary of Defense on conventional forces. Have you come to any decision on building them up, and have you found them adequate to deal with the Laos situation ---

THE PRESIDENT: We will be sending a Message on Monday or Tuesday on those changes we are going to make in Defense, and at that time we will give, I think, a more adequate response than I could give here to your question. We are going to discuss the entire military budget. Quite obviously, we are stretched around the world with commitments to dozens of countries, and it does raise the question of whether a greater effort should not be made.

QUESTION: Mr. President, could you tell us, sir, what in your opinion this country has obtained out of its roughly 310 million dollars' worth of aid sent in the past six or seven years to Laos?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, Laos is not yet a Communist country, and it's my hope that it will not be.

QUESTION: Mr. President, are you contemplating a further -- a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko within the next week, or have you one scheduled with him?

THE PRESIDENT: A further meeting? I don't see what you mean.

QUESTION: A meeting.

THE PRESIDENT: No, I have no plans for a meeting.

QUESTION: Mr. President, because it is such an obvious move, could you tell us what Mr. Salinger handed you just a moment ago? (laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, he handed me -- I will not draw the cloak of Executive privilege around it. The point was made that Viet Nam, these are the sorts of things he knows, that Viet Nam is not a signatory of the SEATO Pact, but is a protocol country under the SEATO Pact. (more laughter)

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you agree with Secretary Dillon's estimate that corporate profits for fiscal 1962 will be about 3 billion dollars under President Eisenhower's estimate, and, if so, will your budget take these lower revenue estimates into account?

THE PRESIDENT: The budget estimates will be lower than were estimated in January, substantially lower than they were last October, and a good deal lower than they were estimated to be a year ago. We are sending a budget message up tomorrow which gives our opinion on what those receipts will be. But the economy, as it has slowed down, of course, the profit squeeze has been on, and the returns to the government have been lessened which have affected the budget picture.

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