Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Washington, D.C., February 11, 1959

I am grateful for your generous hospitality, and for the honor you accord me by your invitation to speak. I regret – as you regret – the fact that my own state of Massachusetts has never participated in this program. Yet I know – as you know – that the advance of public power in this country has never depended entirely on the work of those from the area affected.

For think back, if you will, to the fight that began nearly forty years ago. It is more than a thousand miles from McCook, Nebraska to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The voters of Nebraska would never receive any electricity from the Tennessee River. Their merchants were not interested in its navigation. Their homes were not threatened by its floods. And yet for 20 years they watched that great river be harnessed by the tireless efforts of their own Senator – George W. Norris.

He fought its battles in the Senate and over the nation – against powerful trusts and powerful lobbies – against inertia and delay and overwhelming odds. And when, with tears filling his eyes, he stood in 1933 on the causeway of Wilson Dam with Franklin Roosevelt and watched the river roaring beneath them, he saw, as he said, his dreams come true.

The Norris Bill for REA followed – so did Bonneville and Grand Coulee and all the rest. And the whole New Dean power program, in the words of Congressman Pierce of Oregon, became a monument – to stand for all time to the “wisdom, the foresight, the courage, and the tenacity” of George W. Norris.

That is the spirit this program needs in Washington today in our Executive Branch – wisdom, foresight, courage and tenacity – the spirit of Nebraska’s Norris – enough wisdom to understand that our unfinished resource development is our greatest natural force for peace and plenty – enough foresight to recognize that electricity is the key to our nation’s future – enough courage to make the bold decisions for power development that have to be made, regardless of conservative banking theories or private inconvenience – and, finally, enough tenacity to initiate and fight for a program that means something, that moves ahead and gets the job done, regardless of all the pressures and all the hurdles and all the opposition that have to be overcome.

George Norris was never discouraged by defeat. He was never frightened by the odds against him. He was never deceived by misleading propaganda or by irrelevant theories or by worthless compromise. “I would rather go down to my political grave with a clear conscience,” he once declared, “than ride in the chariot of victory.” That, I repeat, is the kind of leadership this program needs in Washington today – that is the kind of leadership which we are not now getting in the Executive Branch – and that is the gap which you in the field and we on the floor must work together to fill.

There are those who, by their very praise of your efforts, would have you believe that this fight is all over – that the battles of the Twenties and the Thirties, the battles of George Norris, have all been won – that this is a time to be contented with your progress, to be satisfied with your accomplishments and – by implication – to be treated like any other successful utility.

I am certain that no one in this organization agrees with such sentiments. I am certain no one here believes that the issues are all gone or the problems all solved. It is true that most farms now have electric lights. It is a fact that REA cooperatives and power districts are well established, well accepted enterprises. There is no doubt that the dream first visualized by George Norris and Sam Rayburn and Franklin Roosevelt has been fulfilled.

But today we are faced with new problems and new horizons never even foreseen by George Norris. For this nation has now completed its age of consolidation – the age of change and challenge is upon us. We are at the very edge of our greatest era of expansion, growth and abundance – at the edge of a new and better era for our nation, our world and all mankind. The standards of the past will not do – the goals of the present are not enough – we must move ahead to seize the future and to make it ours.

We are approaching the time when this nation will boast a 200 million population, a $500 billion national income, a trillion dollar economy – and a grave responsibility as the food market for a world whose population is actually doubling. The key to that future is power – power on the farm as well as the factory – power in the country as well as the city.

The history of the REA demonstrates that the farmer’s consumption of power can double in as short a time as five years. Let no one doubt, then, that the role of REA is as vital now, and in the years to come, as it has ever been in the past quarter of a century.

For rural electrification cannot stand still in an age when it must either move ahead – or wither on the vine. But if it is to move ahead, REA rates must remain low – more generating capacity must be developed – the vast resources of nuclear energy must be tapped – and the guiding spirit of George Norris must prevail here in Washington. For it is an ironic fact – I say it is a tragic fact – that the kind of dynamic leadership and initiative we need in the Executive Branch is lacking today at the very time you need it most.

Instead of new help, we get new handicaps. Instead of more funds, we get more restrictions.

This tremendous gathering is not, and should never be, a partisan meeting. The pledge of George Norris and Sam Rayburn that REA would forever remain non-partisan must always be kept. And all of us here are honored indeed that the President of the United States has spoken here this afternoon.

But without being either partisan or captious, I think we are entitled to respectfully take a closer look at the power policies of this administration. Those policies, after all, can make or break this organization’s program. They can double the accomplishments of the last 25 years – or they can undo them. So whatever party is in the White House, Republican or Democratic – whatever your own party affiliation may be – you are not only entitled – you are obligated – to examine those Administration policies in critical detail.

Basically, those policies today follow one consistent theme: slow-down, hold-back, stretch-out. It is not, as some would have you believe, a battle between the “spenders” and the “savers” – for REA is a form of saving – saving hours and lives on the farm – saving farms for our nation’s needs – and saving and returning to our nation’s government every dollar loaned with interest. In taxes on new appliances, new equipment and new farm income, the miracle of REA has returned to the public treasuries many times the entire cost of the program. So let no one tell you that REA should be cut back in any drive for economy. If we want to increase national income to balance the budget, then REA should be expanded, not restricted.

But there are no efforts to expand – there are no new Federal power starts – there are no priorities for rural coops seeking nuclear plants. We are confronted, on the contrary, with an attempt to rewrite the past – to rewrite the history and intent of the REA Bill – in order to deny coops the rights to operate in areas which could potentially be served by a private power company – absolutely regardless, mind you, of how high those private power rates are, how poor its service may be, or even how unlikely its intentions really are of serving those customers.

We are confronted, in addition, with a Federal Power Commission that does not believe in public power and does not understand the preference clause. We are confronted with a Secretary of Agriculture who insists on political clearance for REA loans. We are confronted with inaction and inertia, with delay and deterioration.

The President made five requests affecting REA coops in his Budget Message – and that is the program by which you should judge current administration views. That is the hard, unchangeable record of what they really want:

First, they want Congress to authorize less loan funds than are admittedly needed.

Secondly, they want electric coops to go to “private sources” for the rest of their money.

Third, they want Federal loans to come out of a so-called revolving fund – which unfortunately doesn’t revolve and has no funds.

Fourth, they want to increase the interest rate on REA loans; and

Fifth and finally, they want to impose new taxes on coops – not REA coops yet, perhaps, but this is the opening wedge.

That is their five point program for REA. That is their answer to the challenge of the future. That, I submit, is what has happened to the heritage passed down by George Norris and Franklin Roosevelt.

There are still those who cry “socialism” at every mention of public power and REA. There are still those who call for the program’s liquidation or sale. But they no longer represent the greatest threat. This new, more subtle, more dangerous attack on REA is launched with honeyed words by those who profess to be its friends – by those who praise your success and conclude that you no longer need what they regard as special privileges. From now on, they say, let the financing of the REA be in accord with standard banking theories – let its money come from the usual financial sources – let its operations be that of any private utility.

Such an argument completely misunderstands the nature and purpose of the REA program. Congress did not pass this program to implement any banking theory. Our primary concern was not whether the government made money on the program, lost money or broke even. They were interested in having the farms of America serviced with electricity – in making first-class twentieth century American citizens out of our rural population. The only basic question was – what kind of program was necessary to accomplish this result? Had it required an interest rate of one percent to fulfill our objective, we would have provided for an interest rate of one percent. Had it required a grant-in-aid, we would have provided a grant-in-aid.

There are, after all, many types of Federal grant and loan programs. In some the interest rate is high – in some it is low – in some there is no interest charge at all – and in others the money is simply contributed. In each case, the Congress first decides what objective it is trying to accomplish; and it then determines what kind of financial arrangements are necessary to do the job.

No one has ever pretended that standard banking and utility practices would apply in having thinly populated areas, where power lines are particularly exposed to the ravages of the weather, completely serviced by non-profit organizations. How could they? But Congress asked the REA to do this job – and we cannot go back on our word now that it has been successfully done.

Moreover, all systems are not yet financially secure – and we cannot have different interest rates for different borrowers. But if and when financial stability is achieved for all rural systems, that is not a signal to increase interest rates and costs to the system – it is a signal to reduce the cost of electricity to the farmer. That, after all, is and must remain the primary purpose of this program.

You are not, let us remind these critics, the recipients of some Federal charity – a charity which is to be cut off when the recipient is no longer poverty stricken. On the contrary, you are doing an essential job at the request of the Congress for the benefit of the entire nation – and it is the nation which is grateful to you.

Moreover, how can anyone say that your job is finished – that all your goals have been realized? The water resource development potential of this nation has barely been tapped. The rushing waters of too many rivers are still destructive instead of creative – too many streams are still badly polluted – too many areas still lack irrigation and recreation programs.

The President of the United States need not look very far for an example of our unfinished agenda. From the back porch of the White House, one can see the Potomac River flowing only a few hundred yards away. It is one of our most famous, one of our most scenic, one of our most important rivers. It is, in addition, one of the most polluted, one of the most neglected, and one of the least developed. We can send our visitors from foreign lands to the Tennessee Valley or to the Columbia Valley – but we cannot point with any pride to the Potomac River here in the Nation’s Capital. The Administration can call attention to comprehensive programs for the Upper Colorado or the Arkansas Valley – but it somehow ignores the fact that flowing by the Capital is a river rapidly filling with silt, badly polluted, inadequately controlled at flood tide, lacking in wildlife and recreational facilities, and failing to provide its potential supply of low-cost power to the rural and other electric systems in this area.

From your long experience, you know this need not be the case. This is not merely an issue of recreational conveniences – or even local development – and certainly not one of partisan politics. For electric power today is an all important factor in our competition with a ruthless adversary. While here in this country our new starts decline, the REA is neglected, the Russians move ahead. In recent years their rate of growth in power generating capacity has far outstripped our own. For Soviet projects now completed or underway are each greater in capacity than the Grand Coulee Dam. By 1975, at present rates, their total capacity will far exceed our own.

What does this mean? It means the Russians can better disperse their industries, increase their output, strengthen their economy, and satisfy their consumer demands. It means that we are losing ground every time we abandon our responsibility to exploit fully the great resource potential of the Potomac River or Hell’s Canyon.

This, after all, is the real issue of our times. The hard, tough question for the next decade – for this or any other group of Americans – is whether any free society – with its freedom of choice – its breadth of opportunity – its range of alternatives – can meet the single-minded advance of the Communists.

Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction – but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the inside of the earth and the inside of men’s minds?

We travel today along a knife-edged path which requires leadership better equipped than any since Lincoln’s Day to make clear to our people the vast spectrum of our challenges.

In the words of Woodrow Wilson: “We must neither run with the crowd nor deride it – but seek sober counsel for it – and for ourselves.”

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 902, "National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Washington, D.C., 11 February 1958." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.