We have been talking about change and challenge, about leadership and vision. No change in the world about us presents a greater challenge - no problem calls for greater leadership and vision - than the radioactive pollution of our atmosphere by the testing of nuclear weapons.
It is not a simple problem with simple answers. The experts disagree - the evidence is in conflict - the obstacles to an international solution are large and many. But the issue of nuclear tests and their effects is one which should be discussed in the coming months - not as a purely partisan matter, but as one of the great issues on the American scene.
I was glad, therefore, that this issue was raised last Sunday in a constructive and thoughtful way by the Governor of New York. His statement contributed to the dialogue on this basic issue - it represented the position of a leading figure in the Republican Party - and it neither hedged nor equivocated. So I commend Governor Rockefeller for his comments, and hope they will be considered and debated by interested citizens everywhere.
But I must also express my own emphatic disagreement with his statement, which called for this country to resume nuclear test explosions. Such a proposal, it seems to me, is unwise when it is suggested just prior to the reopening of negotiations with the British and Russians at Geneva on this very question. It is damaging to the American image abroad at a time when the Russians have unilaterally suspended their testing. And, while Mr. Rockefeller did suggest that the testing take place underground to prevent fall-out, he discounted the harmful effects of fall-out - which I am unwilling to do.
It is true that the amount of radiation created by bomb tests so far offers no serious threat to the well-being or existence of mankind as a whole. But it is also true that there is no amount of radiation so small that it has no ill effects at all on anybody. There is actually no such thing as a minimum permissible dose. Perhaps we are talking about only a very small number of individual tragedies - the number of atomic age children with cancer, the new victims of leukemia, the damage to skin tissues here and reproductive systems there - perhaps these are too small to measure with statistics. But they nevertheless loom very large indeed in human and moral terms.
Radiation, in its simplest terms - figuratively, literally and chemically - is poison. Nuclear explosions in the atmosphere are slowly but progressively poisoning our air, our earth, our water and our food. And it falls, let us remember, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, on all peoples of all lands, regardless of their political ideology, their way of life, their religion or the color of their skin. Beneath this bombardment of radiation which man has created, all men are indeed equal.
Perhaps the ill effects and the dangers of fall-out from bomb tests can be regarded today, in statistical terms, as minimal. But let us remember that there is still much that we do not know - and that too often in the past we have minimized the perils and shrugged aside these dangers, only to find that our estimates were faulty and that new knowledge inevitably increased our appreciation of these dangers. Let us remember also that our resumption of tests would bring Russian resumption of tests - it would make negotiations even more strained- it would spur other nations seeking entry into the "atomic club", with their own tests polluting the atmosphere - and, in short, it could precede the kind of long, feverish testing period which all scientists agree would threaten the very existence of man himself.
The arguments advanced in favor of a test resumption are not unreasonable. The emphasis is on the weapons development - the necessity to move ahead "in the advanced techniques of the use of nuclear material." This reason is not to be dismissed lightly. Because this country cannot hope to match the Soviets in raw numbers of ground forces, we rely on technical military superiority. We need to develop small nuclear weapons and so-called "clean" nuclear weapons, in order to deter their use or other forms of limited aggression by the enemy. This is not, I might add, justification for cutting back our ground forces and our ability to wage conventional warfare - but it is nevertheless important.
But let us remember that our present test suspension - while unilateral - is implicitly conditional on a Russian test suspension. If we are not developing new weapons in the absence of tests, neither are they. If we will make progress militarily through the resumption of tests, so, in all probability, will they. And the facts of the matter are that, generally speaking, we are ahead of the Russians in the development of atomic warheads but behind in the development of delivery systems. Until this lag can be overcome, there is a lesser value for us in testing and developing further "techniques in the use of nuclear material." In short, for both sides to resume atomic tests today might well turn out to be more of a disadvantage to the west militarily than a help.
I would suggest, therefore, the following alternative position:
1. First, that the United States announce that it will continue its unilateral suspension of nuclear tests as long as the Russians continue theirs, and as long as serious negotiations for a permanent ban with enforceable inspection are proceeding in good faith. Our present extension of the ban expires on December 31st.
2. Secondly, the United States must redouble its efforts to achieve a comprehensive and effective test suspension agreement - and develop a single, clear-cut, well defined and realistic policy for an inspection system and for the other conditions such an agreement must meet. We do not have such a policy today.
3. Third, should it be necessary for our tests to resume, they should be confined to underground and outer-space explosions, and testing of only certain small weapons in the upper atmosphere in order to prevent a further increase in the fall-out menace - and in the hope, moreover, that the Russians and others will be forced by world opinion to follow our example.
4. Fourth and finally, we must step up our studies of the impact of radioactive fall-out and how to control it, through the Public Health Service here at home and a special United Nations monitoring commission abroad. Let us not discover the precise point of danger after we have passed it. Let us not again reject these warnings of peril as "catastrophic nonsense" (to quote Mr. Nixon), as they were rejected in 1956 when put forward by a great Democratic standard-bearer, Adlai E. Stevenson.
These four policy positions are no magic solution - nor can they be achieved overnight without effort. But the new and terrible dangers which man has created can only be controlled by man. And if we can master this danger and meet this challenge, we will have earned the deep and lasting gratitude, not only of all men, but of all yet to be born - even to the farthest generation.
Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 907, Folder: "Wisconsin Association of Student Councils, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2 April 1960".