Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Democratic City Committee Annual Pre-Election Dinner, Easton, Pennsylvania, October 30, 1957

… (96 Senators) … A visit to Pennsylvania, of course, is always a privilege for anyone interested in the history of the Senate – for it was in this state that the Congress and Constitution were created, and Congress sat for several years before establishment of the capital in Washington.

All Senate historians are indebted to Pennsylvania's first Senator, William Maclay – for it is his diary that provides the best description of those early Senate sessions about which we would otherwise know very little. Take for example, the vivid picture of that early Senate we are able to draw from Maclay's diary entry for April 3, 1790: "Went to the Hall. The minutes were read. A message was received from the President of the United States. A report was handed to the Chair. We looked and laughed at each other for half an hour, and adjourned." (I might add that several meetings of the Senate last session would be very nearly identical with this – except we looked and laughed at each other, with a few speeches thrown in, for 5½ hours instead of half an hour, and then we adjourned.)

It was here in Pennsylvania that the Senate first decided in 1794 to open its sessions to the public by providing galleries for spectators. "Some of the younger members," Vice President Adams warned, "may descend from their dignity so far, perhaps, as to court popularity at the expense of justice, truth and wisdom, by flattering the prejudices of the audience; but I think they will lose more esteem than they will acquire by such means."

There is no denying the fact that the Senate since that day in Philadelphia has contained members – not all of them young – who courted popularity at the expense of justice, truth, and wisdom. But it is also true that such Senators have in the end enjoyed less esteem than those who chose, in Webster's words, to push their "skiff from the shore alone" into a hostile and turbulent sea. One such courageous Senator was a little-known man from Pennsylvania, Edgar Cowan. Senator Cowan was one of those whose conscience led him to break with his party and state in the bitter days that followed the outbreak of the Civil War. A very able lawyer from Westmoreland County in the western part of your state, he was elected to the Senate in 1861 at the age of 45 as one of Pennsylvania's most prominent Republicans. But he could not agree with the more radical leaders of his party that the purpose of the war was the conquest of the southern states – instead of the suppression of a rebellion. He refused to support his party's confiscation act, legal tender act, national bank act, and attempted expulsion of Senator Bright of Indiana. As a result, he was bitterly denounced by his state and party. Senate Republican leader Ben Wade called Cowan the "watchdog of slavery." The Republicans of Allegheny County officially censured him at their annual convention.

But Edgar Cowan stood firm in his adherence to the Constitution and his own ideals – and, in the turbulent reconstruction period that followed the end of hostilities, he refused to follow those Senate Republican leaders who wanted Andrew Johnson to administer the downtrodden southern states as conquered provinces which had forfeited their rights under the Constitution. Believing instead that a charitable and Constitutional approach to reconstruction had been desired by his idol Abraham Lincoln – for whom he had been an elector in 1860 – Edgar Cowan attended a national unity convention in Philadelphia in 1866 and served as chairman of its committee on resolutions. As the reward for his courage, Pennsylvania denied Edgar Cowan reelection to the Senate; and when Andrew Johnson nominated him to be Minister to Austria, his own former colleagues in Washington – caught up in the maelstrom of what Claude Bowers aptly termed an age of hate – refused to confirm his nomination. But before Edgar Cowan died in 1885, both the wisdom and the courage of his course were recognized in Washington and Pennsylvania alike.

There are dissonant voices within the Democratic Party today, voices that threaten at times to pull our party to shreds. There are those of us who disagree with our southern brethren on issues of race relations, those of us who disagree with Congressman Walter on immigration, disagreements on labor and agriculture and a host of other issues. But we Democrats are not like Russians, walking out of the United Nations because their point of view was voted down. We are not like the Republicans, driving out of the party the George Norrises and Bob LaFollettes who disagree with them.

We Democrats will always have dissension within our party – for Democrats, unlike Republicans, champion the right of dissent. We will always have differences within our party – for Democrats, unlike Republicans, come from all different areas of the country with different needs and problems. But let us agree to disagree as Democrats, within our party organization. The common bonds of our party – a common tradition, a common spirit, a common cause and an inseparable destiny – holds us within the party we honor and serve.

We recognize that what unites us is greater than what divides us – and in that spirit we meet tonight as Democrats – not as Northern, Southern, liberal, or conservative Democrats, not as New Deal, Fair Deal, States Rights, Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania Democrats – but as just plain unashamed, unyielding and unbeaten Democrats. Those of us who recognize that the Democratic Party is bigger than one man, one section or one issue – who recognize that the nation and the times require a united, responsible party to assume the reins of leadership, to save the nation from drift and disaster – will join hands in working toward our common goals for the American people. And I for one am confident that the American people, in every section of the country, of every race and religion and occupation, will in turn recognize the necessity and desirability of continuing progressive leadership in the Congress in 1958, and resuming responsible, thoughtful leadership in the White House in 1960.

Let us examine for a moment the Republican drift of leadership on the domestic scene. The Republicans, of course, are claiming success for their program – and predicting victory for their party – because, they say, prosperity prevails throughout the land. But I ask you: prosperity for whom? Where is the prosperity for our farmers, who have seen their prices and income go steadily down as their debts go steadily up? Where is the prosperity for our small businessmen, who have seen their profits decline 52% while business failures jumped to record highs? Where is the prosperity for our working men and women whose average earnings have increased less than ⅙th as much as the increase in the profits of our largest corporations? Where is the prosperity for our consumers, who see prices at an all-time high, their installment debt increasing, and their personal savings declining: What kind of prosperity is it that sends children to overcrowded schools, that sends the sick and disabled to overcrowded hospitals, and that maintains pockets of chronic unemployment in all parts of the nation.

To be sure, there is prosperity for our largest corporations, whose profits have increased 61 percent. There is prosperity for the Defense Department's 100 largest contractors, who have received 68 percent of all the contracts. But I don't think that is what you call prosperity here in Pennsylvania.

Every time President Eisenhower says this so-called prosperity is equally shared by all segments of our economy, I am reminded of the rabbit stew served during the meatless days of World War II … etc …

I do not say that this leaderless, rudderless Administration has not made any records for the history books. Consider Mr. Eisenhower's budget – the highest peacetime budget in the history of our country, a budget with more Federal employees and more alphabet agencies than Franklin Roosevelt ever dreamed of. Mr. Eisenhower's five budgets exceed the last five Democratic budgets under Harry Truman by nearly 74 billion dollars, enough to run the whole Federal Government for an entire year even under a Republican Administration.

What is called, for want of a better name, New Republicanism is breaking some other records too. The cost of living is at an all-time high, so high that it will cost the American people nearly $7 billion more just to live through 1957 than it did in 1955. There are more monopolistic business mergers than ever before, more small business failures and bankruptcies under Modern Republican Administration. Their attitude is very much like the man who complained to me on the street the other day that his wife was always asking him for money, … etc. …

But the real clue to the meaning of Modern Republicanism was delivered by Republican National Chairman Alcorn. "I would like to see us (Republicans) develop," he said, "a greater pride in partisanship – a feeling that anything Republican is good because it is Republican."

I only hope that the Democratic Party never becomes that "Modern." I trust that we shall always put our nation first, that we shall consider each proposal regardless of its source, that we shall defend the president not only against his enemies abroad but also against his friends at home, and that we shall support the President whenever we think he is right – whether he is a Republican President in 1957 or a Democratic President in 1961.

Let us turn now to the critical need for leadership in foreign affairs. And when I say leadership, I do not mean popularity, or publicity, or prestige, or even power – all of which have during the past five years been frequently confused with real executive leadership in Washington – and, I might add, in Newport, Augusta, Gettysburg, Thomasville, Key West, and Denver. I mean real, executive leadership, imagination, and initiative.

A leader does not sit back and await with hope but no help the efforts of others to loosen the grip of Soviet control, as in Poland and Eastern Europe. A leader is not caught wholly unprepared for a revolution in Hungary, an invasion in Suez, a coup in Syria, a Communist foothold in Indonesia, or a Gluck in Ceylon. A leader does not condemn Adlai Stevenson's suggestion for suspension of H-bomb tests as a "theatrical gesture … catastrophic nonsense (and) … dangerous wishful thinking," only to tell the world a few months later that this is our leading proposal for disarmament. A leader does not make campaign promises heard in the cellars of Eastern Europe about a new policy of "liberation" that will push back the Iron Curtain, only to prove in East Germany, Hungary, and Poland that we are prepared to give them all assistance short of help. Retreat, retraction, reluctance, retrenchment, regret – these are all characteristics of our foreign policy today and they are not the characteristics of a leader.

The free world cries out for leadership – strong, responsible, vigorous leadership – before it is too late, too late to save both peace and freedom. In recent years, the Communists have scored political-ideological victories in Southeast Asia and Latin America, diplomatic victories in the Middle East and Asia, and military victories in Indo-China and Hungary. Their economic, technical, and military assistance programs have been more consistently successful than ours in furthering their objectives – their propaganda more effective in sowing dissension – their voting bloc in the UN more cohesive. Even our geographic advantages are crumbling, as the Russians establish their first solid foothold in the Middle East, NATO fades, and intercontinental missiles and jet bombers reduce the significance of time and space.

As our position in the Cold War becomes more and more critical, what has happened to our preparedness to deter a Hot War? When, some ten, years ago, Americans expressed concern over the Russian edge in manpower, we were reassured by our monopoly of nuclear power. When the Russians developed and tested atomic and then hydrogen weapons, we were reassured by our superiority in air power. When the Russians passed us in terms of fighter aircraft and prepared to pass us in terms of jet, long-range bomber strength, we were reassured that our superiority rested in ballistic missile and satellite developments. And now we enter the age of sputnik.

Leadership in international affairs requires something more than a Secretary of State who can go around the world in less than 80 days. It requires something more than a Secretary of Defense who came in with a sputter and went out with a sputnik, who stated in 1956 that he didn't care if the Soviets were first with a satellite – and who stated in 1957 that it was just "a nice scientific trick."

Presidential adviser Randall may call it "a silly bauble," Senator Wiley a "great propaganda stunt", Deputy Secretary Quarles "no cause for alarm" and Cabinet Secretary Rabb "without military significance" – delighted to hear that the launching of the satellite, with its clear indications of Soviet missile leadership, doesn't raise the President's "apprehensions one iota" – but the truth of the matter is that the pigeons are coming home to roost at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House itself – and they are darkening the Washington sky. I would like to read to you from a letter I have recently received from one of the nation's top engineers engaged in technical and scientific work on matters of defense, for he states our situation far better than I can describe it to you:

"The preponderance of the scientific community working upon rocketry, guidance and electronic detection devices are alarmed over our inferior position and further by the incredible complacency of the Eisenhower administration. Most of us working upon the nation's military devices feel that the country is bordering upon catastrophe, the consequences of the demonstrated superiority in rocketry and guidance evinced by the USSR. We feel that this nation may find itself in the same position as Japan after Hiroshima, and in the near future.

"Mr. Eisenhower has diminished the truth in regard to these matters. The President's military prestige is such that his complacency reassures the public. (But) this may not continue without the loss of the nation.

"This issue of national military failure is certainly the greatest ever to face the nation."

I do not say that all is lost … that the United States will never regain the lead in the defensive and deterrent strength required to keep the peace secure and the world free. But we need action, not complacency, in Washington – leadership, not drift. Perhaps we shall have to wait until 1960 to obtain that kind of leadership – I pray it will not be too late. But three steps can be taken immediately.

First, The President should, on nationwide television, tell the American people the truth about where we stand in the weapons race – where we have lost ground, where we are in danger, what we need to do, and what burdens the people will have to assume.

Secondly, The President should issue the necessary executive orders to put our lagging, half-hearted missile program on a top priority, round-the-clock basis, eliminating wasteful competition, assuring sufficient funds, and concentrating the scientific, military, and financial resources of the nation in another Manhattan Project-type effort.

Third, The President should send to the Congress a comprehensive legislative program for the intensified development and utilization of American scientific and technical manpower and know-how, attracting additional scientists to government service and making certain their findings and views are given high level attention instead of being pigeon-holed.

This is not a time for panic, for fatalism, or for handicapping our efforts with political charges end investigations. Let us be calm and realistic, let us be determined and forthright – but, in the elections of 1958 and 1960, let us be heard.

So long as there is one child without milk, so long as there is one family without a decent home, so long as there are aged persons without pensions, working mothers without fair wages, struggling farmers without income, so long as there are overcrowded schools, inadequate hospitals, and families on relief, so long will the need for the Democratic Party continue – and so long will we be called upon to assume the responsibilities of leadership.

I do not pretend to say that the future will always be rosy, even under a Democratic Administration. There will be crises, there will be problems. But only the Democratic Party has the enthusiasm and the determination and the new ideas necessary to meet those problems. We can build the schools and the hospitals and the homes and the dams that our nation needs. We can wage unrelenting war against drought and poverty and illiteracy and illness and economic insecurity. We can build, through strength and justice and realistic leadership, a lasting peace. And we can go forward to a new and better America, never satisfied with things as they are, daring always to try the new, daring nobly and doing greatly. It is in this spirit that we meet here tonight. It is in this spirit that we will sweep the nation in 1958 and 1960.

But to carry this spirit forward, to carry the torch of our party and our principles, we will need stout-hearted men such as yourselves in every part of the country. We ask of you not despair or discord, but light and leadership.

Recall, if you will, the story which Alistair Cooke tells in his book, "One Man's America," that well illustrates my point. On the 19th of May, 1780, as he describes it, in Hartford, Connecticut, the skies at noon turned from blue to gray and by mid-afternoon had blackened over so densely that, in that religious age, men fell on their knees and begged a final blessing before the end came. The Connecticut House of Representatives was in session. And as some men fell down in the darkened chamber and others clamored for an immediate adjournment, the Speaker of the House, one Colonel Davenport, came to his feet. And he silenced the din with these words: "The Day of Judgment is either approaching – or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish, therefore, that candles may be brought."

Fellow Democrats, we who are here tonight concerned with the dark and difficult tasks ahead ask once again that our party bring candles to illuminate our way.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 898, "Democratic City Committee annual pre-election dinner, Easton, Pennsylvania, 30 October 1957." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.