Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council Luncheon at the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, California, September 21, 1956

It is a genuine honor and pleasure to have this opportunity to address the members of an admirably outstanding and widely-needed community organization, The Los Angeles World Affairs Council. It is indeed kind for you to invite me to this Luncheon while I am here in California spreading the gospel of the Democratic Party. For I realize that this is a strictly non-partisan organization… and that it was for this reason that my good friend, Democratic National Committeeman Paul Ziffren, had suggested to me that my address might consist of a strictly non-partisan attack upon the foreign policies of the Republican administration.

Actually, my subject today is one of truly bi-partisan import – the proper role of foreign policy in the 1956 political campaign. If, for my examples of criticism, I seem to draw more heavily upon the shortcomings of Republicans than Democrats, I trust you will understand that this is due first in large measure to the fact that a Republican administration is currently in charge of our foreign policy, and, also due, secondly, in part, to the fact that as a politician talking about a question of politics, I have a natural difficulty in overcoming the partisan influences of my environment and my profession.

Although this subject of foreign policy in a political campaign may seem to be less directly concerned with the more substantive issues of world affairs which I assume your usual programs discuss, this Luncheon seems to me to be a particularly apt place for such a topic. For the very existence of your organization, your very presence here today, indicates your awareness of the relationship between American foreign policy and American public opinion – and a Presidential election campaign, probably more than any other part of our public life, helps to materialize and shape that relationship for better or worse.

My message, therefore, is not addressed to Democrats alone – or to Republicans – but to all thinking citizens aware of the critical international issues confronting our nation on every side, and the potential values and the potential dangers of subjecting those issues to the rigors of a political campaign. In times such as these, confronted by a ruthless enemy who need pay little heed to a public opinion he controls and manipulates, we might, in a sense, consider Democracy, political parties and political campaigns to be luxuries – absolutely essential luxuries, to be sure, if that is not a complete paradox of terms, but luxuries nevertheless in terms of the hard necessities of national security. Recognizing that we should and must continue such luxuries, as necessary to our very way of life as well as its survival, there remain nevertheless certain political practices and techniques, particularly in a campaign year, which we cannot afford, in this critical and sensitive area.

Thus I would urge upon you and upon all citizens, as the 1956 campaign opens, the following three criteria or guideposts to political maturity and responsibility in the field of world affairs:

First, that we cannot afford in 1956 to ignore the real foreign policy issues in this campaign.

Secondly, that we cannot afford in 1956 to approach foreign policy campaign issues with partisan distortion, exaggeration or oversimplification.

Third and finally, that we cannot afford in 1956 to alter unwisely the conduct or course of our foreign policy for purposes of political campaign strategy.

Permit me, if you will, to expand and explain each of these points further – for, like so many codes of political conduct, they are more readily agreed to by all concerned only as long as they remain a general statement of ideals without further explanation or specific examples. I. First: We cannot afford in 1956 to ignore the real foreign policy issues in this campaign. There has been considerable emphasis thus far in the campaign upon what are called "pocketbook" or "breadbasket" issues. Each candidate, from time to time, of course, talked hopefully or pessimistically, as the case may be – about the prospects for world peace. But each has also demonstrated his own conviction that the outcome in November hinges more upon the prospects for, and distribution of, continued prosperity. This is not extraordinary. For foreign policy issues according to many of my fellow politicians have always been considered too complex, too gloomy, too far-away for the average voter. He is much more interested, they say, in his job or business or farm, in his level of wages or income, his social insurance, his taxes, his housing and health needs, his cost of living, and so on.

These are important issues, true, particularly in their demonstration of the differences between the two great political parties and the approach of each to the individual and his needs. And, true, foreign policy issues are often complex and they are often gloomy. But they are not far-away – not in the age of atomic rockets and intercontinental missiles – not in these times when they loom nearer and larger than ever before, towering over every other aspect of our lives, rendering close to comparative insignificance the so-called pocketbook issues of the campaign. For we shall have no pocketbooks and no campaigns and nothing else if we fail to master these complex and gloomy issues.

Moreover, we make a great mistake when we attempt to divide too sharply these so-called foreign and domestic issues. Many of those matters of local political impact upon which candidates for all offices, from the Presidency on down, will offer hasty comment and solemn promises – certainly without regard to their international implications in most cases – are in reality issues vitally affecting our foreign affairs and national security. The inequities and outmoded restrictions of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, for example, deeply affect our relations with a number of allies. So do our vacillations on the issue of Reciprocal Trade Agreements and our uncertain tariff barriers. So do the size of our defense budget, the adequacy of our tax structure, the disposal of our farm surpluses, and so on down a long list. These should be considered foreign as well as domestic issues – and approached with the same care by all candidates during the current campaign.

But, returning to the overriding issue of war and peace, there are some who say there is no issue here, for there are no major differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties on this matter. It is true, and fortunately true, that the dominant majorities in each party are in general agreement on the long-range goals of American foreign policy. Republicans and Democrats alike do agree that we want world peace, prosperity, and justice, not war, power, or glory. We do agree that the principle of collective security has replaced the outmoded concept of isolationism. But where we differ, and sometimes differ sharply, is on the manner, methods and the tactics of implementing those goals and principles. My own list of differences, of course, necessarily involves my criticisms of and disappointments in the present administration, and might not be appropriate for this occasion – but the objective record will show, I believe, sharp differences in the manner in which the two parties approach the problems of collective security, international trade, foreign aid, the UN and her affiliates, our defense budget, and so on.

One of the causes of this mistaken belief in party similarity and perhaps one of the greatest errors we all make in this campaign, is the assumption that American foreign policy is simply a question of the battle against communism, a battle which obviously both parties and all Americans support. If that were the case, that might make our task much clearer – but that is simply not the case. The truth of the matter is that the leadership of the West and the maintenance of peace are currently threatened most seriously in four Middle Eastern-Mediterranean areas – Suez, Cyprus, Israel, and French North Africa. In not a single one of these conflicts is the East-West struggle directly or indirectly involved. And in all but the special case of Israel, the conflict is an out-growth of the revolution we have almost ignored while concentrating on the communist revolution – and that is the Asian-African revolution of nationalism, the revolt against colonialism, the determination of people to control their national destinies.

Strangely enough, the home of the Declaration of Independence has not understood this movement… Tied too blindly and too closely to the policies of England, France and other colonial powers, we have permitted the Soviets to falsely pose as the worlds anti-colonialism leader, and we have appeared in the eyes of millions of key uncommitted people to have abandoned our proud traditions of self-determination and independence. Thus arrogant extremists and communists now seek to exploit the most powerful new force to shape the world since World War II – not an atomic weapon, not a military pact, but – more powerful than these – the force of a surging African-Asian nationalism. In my opinion, the tragic failure of both Republican and Democratic administrations since World War II to comprehend the nature of this revolution, and its potentialities for good and evil, has reaped a bitter harvest today – and it is by rights and by necessity a major foreign policy campaign issue that has nothing to do with anti-communism.

Still another obstacle to the proper consideration of foreign policy as a campaign issue is the traditional argument that politics should stop at the water's edge and all Americans should support their nation's actions abroad. Thus it is said, foreign policy issues should be ruled out of the campaign. It seems to me that the Democrats were more emphatic about this four years ago, when they were in office, than they are today – and the Republicans, who exploited the issue of Korea to dangerous extremes in 1952, now take just the reverse position. Moreover, this tradition of bi-partisan support abroad was never intended, in my opinion, to prevent healthy discussion at home. True, care must be taken to avoid bitter political splits that will make subsequent bi-partisan support impossible – party policies must be so shaped as to prevent extreme fluctuations with each change of administration – and responsible candidates must of course refrain from undermining by their headlines any delicate and difficult negotiations being conducted abroad. But to eliminate all such discussions from the campaign, as was suggested earlier in the year, would be, in my opinion, the height of folly.

Finally, there are those who would deny the necessity of foreign policy's role in the campaign for a more tragic reason – a tragic belief that the American people are not capable of deciding these issues at the polls or anyplace else. Popular whims and prejudices are dangers, indeed, as I will discuss more fully in a moment – but in a nation committed to democracy, as Jefferson said, whenever the people are not sufficiently enlightened to exercise their right of decision, the solution is not to withhold it from them but to enlighten them. If our candidates and officials, therefore, will entrust these matters to public judgment in a responsible and mature fashion, the public will, I am confident, act with equally good judgment and responsibility in deciding the nation's course.

The question, of course, is whether or not each side will present its case to the people in a responsible fashion. And this brings me to my second major criteria for this campaign – namely:

II. Secondly, we cannot afford in 1956 to approach foreign policy campaign issues with partisan distortion, exaggeration or oversimplification. Some of my fellow Democratic orators, for example are too often repeating the alarming charges that we are unquestionably losing both the cold war and the armaments race, while the Republican platform, on the other hand, boasts that in the past four years the spread of Communist influence has been checked, the danger of war has receded and the position of the free world has become much stronger. Neither description, of course, is correct – and little service is done to the cause of healthy foreign policy debates by continued exaggerations of this sort.

Criticism, where justified, is, as I said, desirable; and the task of criticizing our nation's current conduct of foreign policy falls, of course, to the opposition party – today the Democratic Party. I hope and pray that my fellow Democrats will not look upon the Republican strategy of 1952, however successful, as a guide for re-winning control of the Government in 1956. For, although in this and other areas Democratic administrations have also been guilty of irresponsibility, I feel that the 1952 Republican campaign provides us with our best and most recent example of the irresponsible approach to foreign policy during a political campaign. I trust that the Democratic Party will not speak as intemperately of Suez and Indo-China as the Republicans did of Korea – that we will neither make a deceptively meaningless promise to "go there" or seek, but such slogans as "win or get out," to appeal at the same time to those desiring more aggressiveness and those desiring less. I trust that we will not in order to win their votes exploit the hopes and miseries of millions of Americans looking in vain for the "liberation" of their iron curtain relatives. And I trust that we shall make no assertions concerning the use of our military forces, such as those made regarding use of the Seventh Fleet in the Formosan Straits, that confuse the issues, alarm our Allies and endanger our own security.

On the contrary, I have high hopes that 1956 will offer the voters a far saner, a far sounder discussion of foreign policy issues than 1952. After all, as the result of the change in administrations both parties should now be able to concentrate on current policies instead of berating and distorting the distant past. By any fair standard, Yalta, the loss of China and our entry into Korea, for example, should not be campaign issues today; and neither should the Republican isolationism of 1940, or the old battle of Asia-first versus Europe-first. Let us all agree that neither party is a "war party"; and that neither party's errors in the conduct of foreign affairs – and both have made plenty of them – were motivated by sinister designs or by a softness toward Communism. Let us also agree, for example, that the Republicans do not deserve the blame for the instability of French Governments; and neither do they deserve the credit for Stalin's death or the hydrogen stalemate and basic changes in Soviet foreign policy that followed that death as a matter of course. The sooner we clear out all such nonsensical charges and claims by both sides, the sooner we can get to the real issues But assuming we do discuss the real issues, let us approach them with hard reason and accurate statements. Let us avoid, on both sides, the use of emotionally loaded but meaningless terms like appeasement or co-existence. Let us avoid the use of slogans and catch-words that promise everything while promising nothing. And let us, above all, admit that the problems we face are difficult problems indeed – difficult to solve, difficult sometimes to ever explain, difficult in the burdens they require the voters to bear. The temptation to describe some problems in simple black and white terms, and to offer easy, quick solutions, is a very great temptation indeed – but I am hopeful that neither party will do anything to obtain the support of the American voter that is in itself unworthy of that support. The pressures are great to take the seemingly popular way out – with lower taxes, thundering denunciations, and glittering but irredeemable promises – but courage and constancy are not dead, I know, in either political party.

Enough then of these frantic boasts and foolish words, enough of painless superficial solutions. Words will not stop wars; intemperate criticism will not bring constructive action; and cruel disillusions at home and bitter misunderstandings abroad are too high a price to pay for the empty promises of magic solutions. This is no time to kid ourselves, our people and our allies with press agent platitudes – and I know we won't be kidding our enemies. Let us instead ask the American people to face up to these hard, ugly questions before disaster, not afterwards when we have but one choice. And I am confident that the people thus entrusted, will in the long run reward the courageous and not the cowardly – that they will honor those who faced up to the fact that there are no easy shortcuts instead of those who glibly obscured the issues with false hopes and promises.

Third and finally, we cannot afford in 1956 to alter unwisely the conduct or course of our foreign policy for purposes of political campaign strategy. There is, I know, considerable pressure on the present administration to consider the domestic political situation as a part of the foreign policy decision-making process. Trade barriers are being demanded by influential economic groups. Increased attention to the problems of their homelands are being demanded by important nationality groups. And a wide variety of public myths and public prejudices demand appealing campaign promises and commitments that may be regretted once the battle is over and the harsh facts of the world struggle are once again considered in the sober light of the post-election dawn.

Let us hope that the administration will not yield to these campaign pressures. Let us hope that neither side will attempt some dramatic but dubious scheme, such as President Truman's decision – finally revoked – to send Chief Justice Vinson to Moscow during the course of the 1948 campaign, and General Eisenhower's pledge of four years ago to go to Korea if he were elected. (Many of you may know, incidentally, that sometime earlier in the campaign of 1952, Governor Stevenson had quietly turned down a post-election invitation to appear in California because of his determination to go to Korea if elected – a decision which he refused to announce publicly for fear that it would be interpreted as a political artifice.)

Perhaps the greatest danger is the pressure for delay. Every four years, the United Nations General Assembly postpones its Fall meeting until an unusually late date following the American elections, no matter what urgent matters need prompt attention, a practice that is hardly a tribute to the courage and independence of our foreign policy spokesmen or to the calm and maturity of our political campaigns, and whatever administration is in power is likewise confronted with the temptation to delay its own unpopular decisions until after the second Tuesday in November. In 1952 this was true of our attitude on Korea; in 1954 this affected our role in the partition of Indo-China; and now in 1956, I suspect that the exigencies of the political campaign are causing the administration to delay making public any cold appraisal of the steps which must be ultimately taken to meet the Suez crisis.

As long as we back the British and French in Suez, but only so far – as long as we support British policy in Cyprus but do not vote for it – as long as we proclaim our sympathy to the end of Colonialism but abstain from voting on specific issues – as long as we are neither members nor non-members of the Baghdad Pact but some kind of half-member – in short so long as we can continue to play the game both ways and hopefully antagonize no one – then, the administration feels, we can get through the election. But this kind of indecision, compromise and half-heartedness, which has characterized Democratic Administrations in election years also, has tragic consequences. Both parties, too, have been all too willing in the past to make inflammatory statements intended for domestic policy consumption without regard to the antagonisms they arouse among our puzzled friends abroad.

I think, therefore, that this 1956 election presents a crucial test to the role of public opinion in a democratic foreign policy. Historians have remarked that the decline of Great Britain's power and glory in world affairs began when British public opinion first began to exercise influence upon the course of her policies. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence to support the proposition that American public opinion, with our traditional sympathies for people seeking their freedom, has wisely prevented American foreign policy on colonial issues from being associated even more closely with the European Colonial powers.

In short the role of public opinion in the coming election and in the years to follow can be a source for great good or great evil – a source of weakness or a source of strength. We can fluctuate between hysteria and complacency, between recklessness and cowardice – or we can contribute the wisdom and support of an enlightened public to the guidance of a sound and constructive foreign policy.

This year, 1956, is the test. In 1952, as I already mentioned, demagoguery and distortions played too large a role in the political campaign and too large a role in the decision of the electorate. If this is repeated by either political party with success in 1956, then we may expect in the future a foreign policy which is not really a foreign policy at all but one tied essentially to domestic policy considerations.

The conduct of our policies with respect to Israel, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Poland and others will be determined more by the political potency of nationality groups in this country than by the stricter requirements of our national interest as a whole. Our policy for China – if indeed we have any policy today – will be determined by emotional appeals and local pressure groups rather than our long-range objectives for the Far East. Bi-partisanship, reason and decisiveness will disappear from the foreign-policy making process.

If, on the other hand, our political parties and their leaders demonstrate that they are willing and capable of debating these solemn issues without resort to half-truth, slogans, and hypocritical promises and appeals – if they have the courage to state the unpleasant facts of the alternatives facing us – if they refuse to bid for the votes of pressure groups and the uninformed by means of short-cut promises – then 1956 will indeed be a year of promise and greatness, a year of hope for the era of peace that lies ahead, and a year of fulfillment for the vision we call the democratic way of life.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 895, "'Proper Role of Foreign Policy in the 1956 Political Campaign,' Los Angeles World Affairs Council luncheon, 21 September 1956." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.