Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Nationality Building Fund Committee Dinner, Gary, Indiana, February 4, 1960

No issue confronting the next President of the United States will be more complex or more difficult than the issue of Eastern Europe. And no issue in a Presidential campaign is in more danger of being exploited in a demagogic fashion – by easy promises and easy slogans – by playing on the hopes and fears of relatives and friends – than this same issue of Eastern Europe.

I would like, therefore, to take this opportunity – in addressing this historic organization which has long been concerned with the problems of that area – to set forth my views as to what the real issues are, and what the next President must be prepared to do, in our relations with the "captive nations" of Europe.

The 1952-1960 Record

The Cambridge Modern History, in referring to the mid-sixteenth century reign of Mary of England, calls it the most eminent example "of the inadequacy of deep convictions and pious motives to guide the state aright." In watching the recent history of Eastern Europe – in seeing heroic efforts to regain freedom crushed by Soviet arms – in seeing millions of people deprived of their freedom – countries stripped of their historic independence – I have often had occasion to recall these words. For they describe – all too clearly – current American policy toward the satellite nations: "deep convictions and pious motives." The so-called policy of liberation, announced so triumphantly by Mr. Dulles in 1952, was born of deep convictions – it was guided by pious motives – but behind the eloquent and moving phrases was no plan of action – no intent to help those who struggled for freedom – no forceful role for the United States to fill. And, as a result, the policy was inadequate "to guide the state aright" in this area – and it failed.

For the facts of the matter are that there is a great deal that we could have done during these last several years. At the end of the war the lights of freedom began to dim and disappear all over Eastern Europe. It seemed as though a new unified empire was arising – an empire of subjugated people – held captive by Soviet force – controlled in every thought and deed by orders from the Kremlin. In that black period all we could hope to do was try and stop the moving tide of Soviet despotism – and in Greece, and Turkey, and Western Europe our bold, creative policies of economic and military aid did call a halt to the Russian march.

But with the death of Stalin in 1953 a new era in Eastern Europe began – cracks began to appear in the monolithic unity of the Soviet camp – a desire for some measure of freedom, some national independence from Russian rule, began to grow. The uprising in East Germany – the Yugoslav rejection of Soviet control – the peaceful revolution in Poland – and, finally, the disastrous and bloody revolution in Hungary – all these events demonstrated that the peoples of Eastern Europe still hungered for freedom – that Russia had crushed opposition but not hope – that while there may be satellite nations there were not satellite peoples – and that there were still thousands prepared to give their all for personal liberty and national independence.

But in the face of rising hopes and growing expectations – in the face of an increasing opportunity to crack the monolithic unity of the Communist World – the United States has adopted a policy which was futile from its very beginning – a policy of empty slogans and impractical formulas – a policy which we never intended to carry out – to which we never gave one iota of tangible support – and a policy whose very adoption, unfortunately deprived us of any hope of formulating real alternatives for Easter Europe, for formulating policies of real action – policies of real hope.

No sooner had the policy of liberation been proclaimed in the election campaign of 1952 than it was tested and found wanting. In June 1953 the East German workers rose in open rebellion against their Communist dictators. Yet from the United States – the country of liberation – there was no reaction. Chancellor Adenauer – while recognizing that military intervention would be unwise – urged us to bring pressure on Russia. The President replied that we felt "deep compassion" that the "German cry for freedom is heard in the whole world." But he offered nothing more – no political, economic, diplomatic or even propaganda moves, no notes to Moscow, no resolutions in the United Nations. Nothing more. And the rebellion was crushed – the light went out.

Throughout the troubled years that followed, we continued to offer hope and encouragement – but no concrete alternatives – in the face of rising discontent in Eastern Europe. And then the violent, tragic, bloody events of Hungary showed clearly just how futile the talk of liberation had been. For two fateful, turbulent weeks, United States policy was practically paralyzed. We did not warn Moscow that intervention in Hungary might threaten world peace. We did not stop the United Nations from repeatedly postponing the Hungarian question. We did not try to fly United Nations observers to Hungary so as to place it under some form of international supervision. We did not even try to make the Soviets feel that we might resist their intervention – to do as much for Hungary as Russia was then doing for Egypt in bluffing the Western powers away from recovering the Suez Canal.

The country which only four years earlier had proclaimed a policy of liberation limited itself to urging that the United Nations "study suitable moves." The policy of liberation had failed, as it was doomed to fail – for hope without action is not a policy.

That policy had encouraged rebellion and refused to support that rebellion. It had encouraged hope and had crushed those hopes. It told the people of Eastern Europe to look to America – and then it showed them that to survive they must accept Soviet domination. And yet, while it prevented us from adopting a realistic policy, our very talk of liberation had given the Russians a ready excuse for maintaining their armies in the satellite countries.

But even then it was not too late to act. The peaceful Polish revolution of 1956 persisted. It had gained a small beach-head of limited individual rights and limited national independence.

But to expand that beach-head, the Poles needed to decrease their economic dependence on Russia – to obtain new sources of grain, fuel, trade, credit and technical assistance.

But once again our hands were virtually tied. Our laws – primarily the Battle Act – recognized no cracks in the Iron Curtain – only enemies and allies, Communist nations and friendly nations. Only after an intolerable delay did we finally offer a nominal amount of help, which included last month's new agreement on farm surpluses. But it was too little – and too late – to keep the Poles from slipping back toward complete dependence on the Soviets.

A Program for the Sixties

The question is: Where do we go from here? Liberation has failed. No substitution has been adopted. What principles should guide the next President as he determines our Eastern European policy? How can the United States take advantage of growing weaknesses in Communist unity – how can we restore hope – hope for personal freedom and hope for national independence? And how can we do these things without a war which would bring an end to freedom in Eastern Europe, and without encouraging rebellions which would only force Soviet intervention and another Hungarian disaster?

Let me emphasize one point: It is not too late. We can still act. There is much in Eastern Europe to give us hope that the future could be better. Under the surface gloss of unwavering ideology, of automatic obedience to Moscow rule, domestic problems are being given equality with the aims of international Communism. The old rulers of the Stalinism era are again, and the young men of the future are getting their training and their political skills by dealing with local economic, social and political issues. More and more, the Soviet Union is depending on economic weapons rather than armed might to keep the satellites faithfully in orbit. And through it all – under and above these other conflicting tides – the historic surges toward nationalism and self-determination, which have long marked the history of Eastern Europe, and asserting themselves once again.

Hope and spirit are rising in peoples who see in the limited Polish success their own opportunity for a restoration of freedom. And that hope is our greatest danger and our greatest opportunity.

There is no magic formula – no simple way to promise an immediate end to Soviet rule. What we need basically is a policy of vigorous, imaginative effort and continual pressure – a policy which would bring about a peaceful and gradual evolution of Eastern European nations toward freedom – a policy which would create a ferment that recall's Jefferson's warning that "the disease of liberty is catching."

First, we must arm ourselves with more flexible economic tools. We must be willing to recognize growing divisions in the Communist camp, and we must be willing to encourage those division. In its final week of the 1959 session, the Senate passed an amendment to the Battle Act – co-sponsored by Senator Aiken of Vermont and myself – which was designed to provide our government with a more flexible set of economic tools to promote peaceful change behind the Iron Curtain. It would permit the use of such tools whenever it appeared to the President that such encouragement would help wean the so-called captive nations away from their Kremlin masters. We urgently need such legislation, which was originally defeated in the Senate by a one-vote margin when I offered it a year earlier. We need that legislation if we in this country are finally going to take the initiative in Eastern Europe, instead of merely reacting to every move by the Kremlin.

If this amendment can pass the House of Representatives this year – if our policy can finally begin to recognize that there are varying shades and degrees within the Communist World – then, and only then, can we take the initiative away from the Soviets in Eastern Europe. In Poland in particular – and in any other crack that appears in the Iron Curtain – we can then begin to work gradually, carefully and peacefully to promote clear relationships and nourish the seeds of liberty.

Secondly, we must never – at the summit, in any treaty declaration, in our words or even in our minds – recognize Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. We must never let the Soviet Union forget its pledges of Potsdam and Yalta – to grant national self-determination to its captive nations. We must condemn Soviet abuses, and continually remind the world that millions of people are enslaved to Soviet rule. To do otherwise would not only be unfaithful to our own traditions – it would turn the peoples in Eastern Europe away from the West, condemning them permanently to Soviet rule.

Third, we must adopt policies which recognize and encourage Eastern Europe's traditional identification with the European community. For centuries these countries were a part of Europe's culture, history and economy. They belonged in the Western World, not the Eurasian Empire. Even the Soviet Union cannot rewrite that much history.

We must strive to restore this contact – to lessen Eastern Europe's identification with the Soviet Union – to once again reunite it with the traditions of freedom and national independence it once enjoyed. We should invite the satellite nations to participate in all-European projects – to share in intellectual and cultural exchanges – to lower barriers to travel and trade – to work toward the resolution of ancient disputes.

And we should offer our own concrete examples of friendship and goodwill – offering to use, for example, our frozen Polish funds to build the national library and archives that Poland so badly needs. Let us remind the people of Poland and Eastern Europe that we in the West share their traditional pride in libraries, culture and learning – and that machines and missiles and the material boasts of the Soviet Union are not enough to make the spirit free.

Fourth, and finally, we must eliminate their very real, however unfounded, fear of the West – in particular, their fear of Germany. We must make plain our intention that disputes between West and East be settled by peaceful negotiation, not by force – that never again will Eastern European nations be violently stripped of their territories and resources.

These must be our policies for the sixties – policies which will awaken the interest of rising new young leaders in Eastern Europe, who do not share the distrust and fear of the last decade – policies which will reawaken the hope of their people for freedom and for the good life – policies which, far more effectively than slogans of liberation, will in truth, liberate the enslaved.

And while that work is underway, let us keep alive the faith and hope and love of our friends in Eastern Europe today. Let us recall to them – let us instill in them – the spirit of Casimir Pulaski, the young Pole, who left his native land to fight for American independence 180 years ago and whose heroic death in our Revolution was mourned by all Americans. Let us remember that he crossed an ocean to fight the good fight of freedom – because he knew, as we know, that it is a continuing fight that knows no oceans, no boundaries, no limitations. And on both sides of the ocean, let us remember how the Moravian nuns of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania presented him, according to legend, with the banner under which he led his troops – and their hymn of consecration was put into these immortal words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

"Take thy banner! and beneath
The battle-cloud's encircling wreath,
Guard it, till our homes are free!
Guard it – God will prosper thee!"

Today we in the United States hold Pulaski's banner in our hands. It is our duty to hold it high, to be worthy of it, to respond to the challenge of Casimir Pulaski's descendants in Poland today and their friends throughout Eastern Europe, when they say: "Guard it, till our homes are free! Guard it – God will prosper thee!"

Source: David F. Powers Personal Papers, Box 32, "Nationality Building Fund Committee, Gary, IN (with program and news clipping), 2 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.