Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, November 14, 1959

What we need in this country today is another Will Rogers -- willing to laugh at our pomposity, skillful at ridiculing hypocrisy and falsehood, able to smile at adversity -- and at the same time fighting them all the way.

For the hour at which we are arrived in American life today is strangely similar to the one in which Will Rogers reached his peak -- an hour of sloth and drift and decay. In a surface view, perhaps, life in our time -- as in the 1920's of Will Rogers' -- is gay and careless, prosperous and contented. People come and go, more concerned with the good life than with the good society, with no concern for the hard, rough road that lies ahead.

But the slow corrosion of luxury -- the slow erosion of our courage -- are already beginning to show. Our profits may be up -- our standard of living may be up -- but so is our crime rate. So are the sales of tranquilizers and the number of children dropping out of school.

Nearly one out of every two American young men is rejected by Selective Service today as mentally, physically or morally unfit for any kind of military service. Nearly one out of every three American prisoners of war in Korea was guilty of collaborating with the enemy, in either a major or minor way. Nearly one in seven engaged in major offenses, such as broadcasting propaganda or spying on his fellow prisoners. And 38 percent of our men died in captivity, the highest rate in all our history. And yet, on the other hand, among Turkish and Columbian soldiers taken prisoner -- many of them injured and many of them poorly educated -- not a single one died -- not a single one collaborated in any significant way -- and the whole group maintained a remarkable sense of discipline.

And that is why I say today we need Will Rogers' candor and courage, his sense of reality and responsibility. For in his day, also, the nation had seemed to lose perspective and drive. As F.D.R. said in 1928: "The soul of our country, lulled by material prosperity, has passed through eight gray years." The nation was fat and contented to hold on to what it had -- to keep out new immigrants and new ideas. It had lost its vision of far horizons. Its outlook was petty and near-sighted, following the words of Omar Khayyam: "Take the cash and let the credit go -- nor heed the rumble of a distant drum."

And then Franklin Roosevelt emerged to lead the charge, in the best of all wars. It was the war of thought against matter, of reason against slogans, of the public good against private interest, of responsible leadership against aimless drift, of moral accountability against moral indifference.

We need that kind of leadership today. We need that kind of candor today -- that willingness to tell the people the hard facts that face us. We need to be told that the next decade is not all peace and progress -- that we cannot take for granted our security, our liberty or even our future. For, as John Boyle O'Reilly wrote:

"The world is large when its weary leagues two loving hearts divide;
But the world is small when your enemy is loose on the other side."

The years ahead will be the most exacting in our long history. Our enemies in the East will subject us and our system to every test, to every trial. For they know that if they can break us, the future will lie golden before them. To maintain our freedom -- to demonstrate that we are the true revolutionaries, not the communists, whose monolithic structure is as old as Ancient Egypt -- to show that we represent the age of the future, that they are the past -- all this will require a greater discipline, a greater sacrifice and a greater vitality than our country has ever known.

The next forty years will determine -- perhaps for centuries -- whether we or the communists are to prevail; whether the world will be all slave or all free. We in the United States are the only sentinel at the gate; beyond the walls the campfires of the enemy can be seen. If we cannot demonstrate our determination to be second to none in every field of human activity and human thought, then we shall have -- by our own indifference -- thrown away the world's last great hope.

The hard, tough question for the next decade is whether any free society -- with its freedom of choice, its breadth of opportunity, its range of alternatives -- can meet the single-minded advances of the enemy. We cannot begin to meet it unless we recognize the task that is before us and the responsibility that is ours.

And you know and I know that we have the will and the strength and the moral fibre if only it can be summoned. There was, in Korea, another young prisoner of war -- who was singled out of the line-up upon capture and asked his opinion of General Marshall. "General George C. Marshall," he replied, "is a great American soldier." Promptly a rifle butt knocked him to the ground. And he was stood up again to face his captors -- and again he was asked: "What do you think of General Marshall?" And again he gave the same steadfast reply -- only this time there was no rifle butt, no punishment at all. They had tested his will, his courage to resist, his manhood -- and now they knew where to classify him.

Where will we be classified when our own will and spirit are tested? Among the weak or the tough-minded? Among the lovers of comfort or the lovers of liberty? It should be obvious that this next decade is going to be tough. There are not going to be any easy answers. There are not going to be any convenient escapes. There are no lazy ways to place the blame and burden on anyone else. It is all up to us -- up to each and every one of us. If we are willing to try -- to take on the task -- to assume the risks -- to make the sacrifice and meet the cost -- to fight, to try, perhaps to fail, only to try again -- then we can succeed. And we can be a stronger, better nation and people -- deserving of our world role and deserving of our national heritage.

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 905, Folder: "Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 14 November 1959".