Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, North Carolina Democratic Club Dinner, Washington, D.C., March 21, 1959

Much is different between Massachusetts and North Carolina – our geography, our industries, our crops, and our problems. You have sent us your hurricanes – and taken our textiles mills in exchange.

Much is different – but much more is the same. Our borders and your borders extend back to the Atlantic. Our history and your history extend back to the earliest days of this nation – indeed the earliest days of this continent's settlement. Our universities and your universities are noted throughout the land. We take pride in the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock - but they were preceded by the English colony on Roanoke Island in 1585. We take pride in our native sons who helped draft the Declaration of Independence – but they were preceded by the Mecklenburg Declaration and the Halifax Resolution for Independence. We had the Boston Tea Party – you had the Edenton Tea Party. The public school system was started in Massachusetts – the first powered airplane flight was made in North Carolina.

Perhaps most important of all are the similarities in our people – descended from those who carved out a living under rugged circumstances – determined today to secure a better living and a better world for themselves and their children – similar in their character, their integrity, their devotion to their churches and their families. It is on the basis of these similarities that I hope you will permit me, in the words of the old-time orator, to claim kinship here tonight and have that claim allowed.

We in Massachusetts have admired the tremendous progress and the progressive outlook which has characterized North Carolina as long as we can remember. One reason for your remarkable record is obvious – every state administration in North Carolina during this century has been a Democratic administration.

I have known and admired Luther Hodges, Kerr Scott and Clyde Hoey – and I knew of and admired the work of William Umstead, Greg Cherry, J.N. Broughton, old Max Gardner and Cameron Morrison. Their record of leadership – and the record of the other Democratic governors of North Carolina with whom I am less familiar – are in the great Democratic tradition of leader ship – the tradition exemplified by a native son of Carolina whose name is inevitably invoked at these Democratic dinners – Andrew Jackson. I have always thought it an interesting commentary on history that all Democratic dinners across the country always link together two founding fathers of our party, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. For we ought to realize that neither of them was beloved by all Democrats in their day. For example, one prominent Democrat is quoted as saying, in 1824:

"I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has very little respect for the law…his passions are terrible…he is a dangerous man."

This was the statement of Thomas Jefferson.

And who do you suppose it was, when Mr. Jefferson was President, who described him as "too cowardly to resent foreign outrage on the republic" – a man willing "to seize peaceable Americans and prosecute them for political purposes" – a man who seemed to hold himself "above the law." This statement, of course, was made by General Andrew Jackson.

While I am devoted to them both, I think it is appropriate tonight that we invoke in particular the memory of Andrew Jackson. For this year, 1959, marks a notable anniversary – the 130th anniversary of Andrew Jackson's inauguration.

It was, in many ways, a strange figure who set out for Washington some 130 years ago this week. He carried with him both the exultation of overwhelming victory and the tragedy of his wife's sudden death – both the judicial qualities of a Tennessee Superior Court judge and the mud of America's rivers and swamps. He was both a picture of dignity and a master of profanity. His body bore the scars left by savage Indians – the bullets of Tennessee duelists – the shattered ribs suffered in battle for his country. He took with him a warm heart and a cool head – a folksy cob pipe and a sharp, bitter tongue. He was both simple and shrewd, both beloved by the many and suspected by the few. He had, in Sandburg's phrase, "lived on acorns and slept in the rain"; and now he was to be President of the United States.

And marching to Washington behind him were the men and women of every class and group in America – the farmer and the settler, the preacher and the gambler, the little merchant and the Indian fighter and the precinct politician – with their hickory poles raised on high, their flags unfurled, their voices chanting the marching song of Andrew Jackson:

"Hurrah for the Hickory Tree
From the mountain top down to the sea
May it wave o'er the grave
Of the Tory and Knave
And shelter the honest and free."

Hundreds of people from every walk of life swarmed into his White House reception. Ten thousand wildly cheered his inauguration. And a nation of more than 12 million learned a new meaning of the words: Presidential leadership.

This contrast between 1829 and 1959 – between the tireless energies and forceful leadership of Jackson, as compared with the tired and timid leadership we have today – this same kind of contrast was noted in 1933, between the hesitant, moribund outgoing Republican Administration and the new dynamic drive of the New Deal.

And as the Republicans packed to move out, Robert E. Sherwood contrasted the old and the new administrations in a brief, sardonic poem:

"Plodding feet
Tramp – tramp
The Grand Old Party's
breaking camp.
Blare of bugles,
Din – din
The New Deal is moving in."

In Washington today, on every major problem – crises in Formosa and Berlin – the plight of our cities – the neglect of our schools – the inadequacy of our defenses – the remaining pockets of poverty and discrimination – in every case, we see no new ideas, no bold action, no "blare of bugles." We see only "plodding feet…tramp, tramp" – and the "Grand Old Party…breaking camp."

I do not say that the President has remained silent on these issues. On the contrary, we have heard many a bold platitude – promising action on a variety of fronts, as long as it's not too complicated, not too controversial, and doesn't cost any money. The content of those daring White House messages remind me of the exhortation from King Lear that goes: "I will do such things – what they are yet I know not – but they shall be … the terrors of the earth."

We are given glib phrases instead of leadership – popular slogans instead of leadership – popular slogans instead of a program. In 1829, as Parrington has put it, it was a "battle between homespun and broadcloth for control of the Government." Today the choice might be said to lie between Main Street and Madison Avenue – and the Democratic Party is going right down Main Street.

When an administration lets fall the reins of leadership, they must be firmly held by the Congress – in this case the Democratic Congress – we must exercise that leadership.

Some may say that there are no longer any major issues – that the battles of the past have all been won – that there are no major differences between the two major political parties – and that future elections will be decided more on the basis of personalities and public relations.

But I know that no one in this room agrees with that analysis. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won and the issues are not all gone.

On the contrary, our agenda today is, if anything, even longer than it was in the 1930s. We have not yet eliminated the malignant effects of poverty, injustice, and illness from the land. We have not yet met the needs of some four million unemployed workers – of more than four million people driven from their farms – of the nearly seven million families, in this the richest land on earth, still trying to get by on less than two thousand dollars a year. We have not yet met the needs of some 15 million families housed under what the Bureau of the Census classifies as substandard conditions. We have not yet ended the waste of our natural resources – reversed the decay that is blighting so many of our major cities – or, most tragic of all, found the means of stopping man's destruction of man.

But while our agenda of unfinished tasks may remind us of the 1930s, the role of our party, our Government and our nation in the years that lie ahead is certain to be completely different. For we are also challenged by problems which were never even foreseen by Franklin Roosevelt, much less Andrew Jackson. We are confronted with crises which the policies of the New Deal and the Fair Deal cannot adequately meet, however much we may enjoy their imitation by their one-time detractors.

For now the age of consolidation is over – and once again the age of change and challenge has come upon us. We are faced with a whole new set of problems – a whole new set of dimensions. We are at the edge of this nation's greatest age of expansion, growth and abundance – at the edge of a new era for our nation, our world and all mankind.

Here at home, we are approaching the day of a two hundred million population, a five hundred billion dollar national income, a trillion dollar economy. These trends are recognized in our universities – they are recognized by market analysts and industrial statisticians throughout the country – and they are planning accordingly. But our Government is not planning accordingly. And if the future is not grasped quickly, it may be lost to us forever.

And what is true at home is even more true in the areas of the foreign policy and defense. Steps taken now will bear results in two or five years – steps postponed now may never be taken at all.

[Pages 15-19 are missing from the large print reading copy of the speech]

in a policy of massive retaliation once the Russians know that retaliation will be too weakened by their assault to be effective.

This is particularly true because the Russians themselves have taken the steps necessary to protect their own striking power and homeland against our retaliation. they initiated last summer a vast and meaningful civil defense program – they possess a high quality warning and alert network – they have the territory for a program of effective base dispersal, including, it is reported, plans to use railroad flat cars, which can be constantly shifted, as launching platforms for ballistic missiles – and they are considered by many to maintain general superiority in air defense. Their anti-aircraft system is capable of handling several incoming targets simultaneously and firing an anti-aircraft missile at each one. Moreover, while the courage and determination of no one exceeds that of the American people, it is clear that the Soviets are better prepared by history, by their political institutions and by their way of life for the devastation of battle – so that even if enough of our retaliatory arm survived their attack and penetrated their defenses to inflict casualties as high as 20 million, the Kremlin would know that this figure is no greater than their losses in World War II.

Consequently, the fact that we may potentially possess the power to inflict casualties up to 200 million people – the fact that we have this "unimaginable destructive power" of which the President speaks – these are not sufficient to deter a Soviet attack if they thought that power could be smashed. On the contrary, our possession of that kind of destructive power may only provoke the Soviets to attack during an international crisis when they fear our panic may cause us to strike first.

I do not wish tonight to go into the details of the current arguments in the Pentagon on a minimum versus a maximum deterrent, on the merits of counter-force versus finite strategy. But I do say that our essential task is to make certain that our retaliatory arm or striking force is fully protected – to make certain that enough would survive the first Russian blow to devastate the USSR. Once we are sure of that, we will be less concerned over whether we are matching the Russians missile for missile, submarine for submarine, or man for man. And we may well be able to devote some of those funds to strengthening our conventional forces, our allies and our civilian defense program. Admiral Burke stated it this way the other day: "The really important thing about a deterrent force is not numbers but invulnerability; not total numbers built, but numbers we will be able to use."

But the hard facts of the matter are that we have not taken the steps necessary to secure our striking force against devastation. I realize that the President sought to reassure us by stating that our striking forces us by stating that our striking forces are protected "by a vast early warning system and by powerful air defense forces." I know that the following day so called "reliable sources" in the Pentagon let it be known that more of our ICBM bases would be "hardened" underground and that a trial air alert for our SAC bombers would be tested. But the fact remains that we are ill prepared to withstand a Soviet attack – we are ill prepared to save enough of our striking power to retaliate effectively – and make no mistake about it: the Russians know it.

It is my intention to discuss this problem in more detail on the Senate Floor in the near future. But I want to emphasize tonight a few basic requirements for securing our striking force. In the future, an efficient network of anti-missile missiles may be of some help – a radar warning system, once it is redesigned and rebuilt for the missile age, may be of some help – but as the period of warning moves from 30 minutes to 15 minutes to zero, as the Reds also learn that high altitude nuclear explosions can disrupt our radar for hours, we must talk in terms of surviving a Russian striking force that will successfully penetrate our defenses. When that happens, there are only three basic hopes for the survival of our own retaliatory force:

first, that they won't know where that force is –

secondly, that, even if they know where it is, they won't be able to hit it; and

third, that, even if they hit it, they won't be able to destroy it.

In reverse order, this requires three steps on our part – three steps which have not yet received the effort and attention they need:

first, the so-called hardening of our bases – so even if they hit us, they can't destroy us.

secondly, the dispersal of our forces – so even if they know where we are, they can't hit us; and

third, the mobility of our weapons – so they won't know where we are in the first place.

The problems of hardening, dispersal and mobility are not as glamorous or as exciting or as politically captivating as new missiles, moon shots and space vehicles. But there is no point in talking about our matching Soviet missile strength when just one of their 5 megaton attack missiles can destroy an entire squadron of 10 U.S. missiles sitting on the ground – or when one landing as far as 6 miles away could wipe out the entire SAC force sitting in hangars or on runways above the ground.

Our bases must be hardened if our retaliatory capacity is to mean anything – and this includes underground hangars covered by very thick, reinforced concrete roofs. It means underground headquarters and protected communications systems, if we are to reach the decision to retaliate in the midst of destruction and chaos, and communicate it to the units that will have to carry it out. Our extensive warning network of delicate instruments most certainly should be hardened.

The cost of building a hardened base, I am told, is only roughly $15 million or 17% more than a so-called "soft base". Yet, at least until recently, four of the nine first generation Atlas bases were planned to be soft – and the remaining five were to be only slightly hardened and above ground. Our missile installations planned for overseas are all soft. In the last three successive budgets substantial amounts for hardening have been slashed out as wasteful expenditures. Ironically enough, in the past the Administration has not gone ahead in preparing these bases on the grounds that our rate of missile development is uncertain – now we are told not to radically increase our missile efforts because we do not have enough hardened bases ready for them.

Similarly, we have not taken the necessary steps to achieve the degree of readiness and dispersal that could save much of our weapons system in case of attack. We do not seem to realize that in terms of military proximity, we are closer to the Soviet Union today than France was to Germany in 1939 – devastation is literally minutes away. But as yet, we do not even have one-third of our SAC bombers in the air and ready for combat at all time, as popularly believed; and we have not provided the crews, tankers and funds necessary for this kind of "air alert". Nor has there been a sufficient dispersal of our air bases, particularly in Europe – or enough emphasis on developing the atomic powered planes which might someday give us a weapons system that is permanently in orbit.

Finally, we will achieve a high degree of mobility and camouflage of our weapons not earlier than 1961 – when the Polaris-missile firing submarine is completed – and perhaps not until 1965, when we hope to be in full production of Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. Both promise to be invaluable assets to our defense – it will be difficult, for example, for the enemy to learn the position of the Polaris and to detect its path. Just as in the Revolutionary War, fire power from the sea can still be projected on the land; and the single, most effective hiding place on the earth's surface still lies in the ocean's depths which cover 60% of our planet. And yet Polaris research and development, which are far from complete, have been held back by money eliminated from the budget before it was sent to Congress, and still further by the Administration's refusal to use the funds voted by the Congress.

If we do not begin to reverse these trends now, it will be too late. I am told, for example, that it takes a minimum of two years to complete a hard base even after the designs are finished. To harden our bases, to disperse our forces, to put a quantity of planes on a round-the-clock alert, to push the development of atomic airplanes and Polaris missiles and all the rest – all of this obviously will require a greater effort and a greater sacrifice than we have as yet been willing to make. But as Edmund Burke told the British Parliament over a century and a half ago:

"We must meet a vicious and distempered energy with a manly and rational vigor. For virtue (unlike evil) is limited in its resources – and thus we are doubly bound to use all that, in the circle drawn about us by our morals, we are able to command."

That is the heart of our problem. We are not aggressors or dictators – we will neither strike first nor coerce or dictators – we will neither strike first nor coerce our people into unwilling sacrifices. But we are in a race with just such an enemy – a race for survival.

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 far side of space and the inside of men's minds?

We travel today along a knife-edged path which requires leadership better equipped than any since Jackson'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, "North Carolina Democratic Club annual dinner, Washington, D.C., 21 March 1959." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.