Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Fourth Annual Rockhurst Day Banquet of Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, Saturday June 2, 1956

In recent years, key farm states such as Missouri have been visited by an increasing number of politicians all over the country. But I must confess that this is my first trip to this state - and I am thus deeply gratified for the honor that Rockhurst College has bestowed upon me in presenting me with an Honorary Degree.

Much is different between Missouri and Massachusetts. We live on a beachhead on the cold Atlantic; you live deep in the heartland of America. We harvest the rolling sea, you harvest the rolling prairie. You send us hogs and corn; we send you carnations and cranberries.

Yes, much is different, but much is the same - the same sense of self-reliance, the common determination to see our country progress, the mutual recognition of the responsibilities as well as the privileges of self-government. Indeed, many citizens of your state and mine are descended from the same hardy forebears who forged the union in which both states now unite.

I have not been unfamiliar with the history of Missouri and her statesmen - and I think one episode is of considerable relevance to those of us commemorating this Fourth Annual Rockhurst Day. It was little more than 88 years ago today that Senator John Brooks Henderson of Missouri faced a decision more difficult than any he had ever known and more far-reaching in its consequences than any he would ever have to make. That issue was the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson by the radical Republican movement dedicated to his destruction and to the exploitation of the defeated Southern states. Senator Henderson, then but 41 years old and the second youngest member of the Senate, had already achieved national prominence. He was one o the most influential leaders keeping the State of Missouri in the union and the sponsor of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. He was in 1868 no staunch follower of Andrew Johnson - on the contrary, he was a supporter of the Tenure-of-Office Act which had led to the impeachment charges and a severe critic of Johnson's conduct of office. He was, on the other hand, noted for his political independence - he had, for example, defied his party by becoming the only regular Republican to vote against the bill restricting the President's authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

Thus the radical Republicans knew that John Henderson's vote was not as certain as they might hope, and every effort was exerted to obtain from him an advance committal to vote guilty. Only Edmund G. Ross of Kansas endured more pressure and abuse than John Henderson. Missouri newspapers assailed him, party leaders bullied him, spies hounded him during his every waking hour. Finally the full delegation of Republican Congressmen from Missouri, accompanied by a prominent state legislator, called upon the Senator and demanded that he vote for the President's conviction. To do otherwise, they warned, would be to rebel against the nearly unanimous wishes of his party and state, and insure his own defeat for reelection the following year. Beset by doubts as to his proper responsibility under a representative form of government, and feeling trapped in his own office by his friends and associates, Henderson wavered. He meekly offered to wire his resignation to the Governor, enabling a new appointee to vote for conviction; and, when it was doubted whether a new Senator would be permitted to vote, he agreed to ascertain whether his own vote would be crucial.

But an insolent and threatening telegram from Missouri restored his sense of honor, and he swiftly wired his reply: "Say to my friends that I am sworn to do impartial justice according to law and conscience, and I will try to do it like an honest man."

John Henderson voted for the President's acquittal, the last important act of his Senatorial career. Denounced, threatened and burned in effigy in Missouri, he did not even bother to seek reelection to the Senate. Years later his party would realize its debt to him, and return him to lesser offices, but for the Senate, whose integrity he had upheld, he was through.

It seems to me that, as the people of Missouri and indeed the nation look back upon the courageous but tragic career of Senator Henderson, they will better appreciate the special contribution to our society made by Rockhurst and similar institutions. For in 1956, as in 1868, the individual citizen has an urgent but difficult responsibility to determine the facts and the policy decisions to be based upon those facts. And yet he knows that his political leaders, and most of his newspapers, are stating the facts from their point of view - not dishonestly, not carelessly, and frequently not even knowingly - but simply because their role is the role of the advocate not the judge. Even government finds it difficult to present the truth in an age when "truth" has become a weapon in the struggle for power - truth that is bent, twisted and subverted to fit the pattern of national policy. Frequently, we in the West feel ourselves forced by the drum beat of lies and propaganda to be "discriminating" in our selection of what facets of the truth we ourselves will disclose.

Thus, the responsibility of a free university to pursue its own objective studies, to carry on the continuing search for the truth - both for its own sake and because only if we possess it can we really be free - is even more important today than ever before. Rockhurst College has succeeded in carrying out this mission, so that today it stands as a bulwark on the North American continent in the battle for the preservation of Christian civilization.

I would like to discuss with you today in more detail an example of one of those issues where the truth and the right frequently are very difficult to determine - and where the use of catchwords and equivocal terms has made more possible the misunderstanding of this issue by American citizens. The issue to which I refer is the growing and recurrent problems of colonialism, nationalism and the attitude of the United States and her allies.

Since World War II rudely shook our attitude of isolation, we have, for the sake of our own security, found our destiny to be closely linked with that of the British and the French, the Dutch and the Belgians - nations which still hold under their subjugation large areas of the world upon which they feel their ultimate security depends.

And thus we have been caught up in a dilemma which up to now has been insoluble. We want our Allies to be strong; and yet quite obviously a part of their strength comes from their overseas possessions. We want the uncommitted peoples of the Middle East, Asia and Africa to remain free from the ever-reaching tentacles of Soviet influence and responsive to the leadership of the United States and our allies - and yet those uncommitted peoples look upon those allies with at least as much suspicion in most cases, and more in some, as they do the Soviet Union. We fight to keep the world free from Communist imperialism - but in doing so we hamper our efforts, and bring suspicion upon our motives, by being closely linked with Western imperialism. We want - indeed we desperately need, if the deterrent power of our Strategic Air Command is to have any meaning - to maintain Western bases in Cyprus, in North Africa and in all the other areas around the borders of the Soviet Union - and yet we stand to lose those bases if the Communists are able to captivate the nationalistic movements that seek to drive out all vestiges of Western domination. We have permitted the reputation of the United States as a friend of oppressed people, in short, to be hitched to the chariot of the conqueror; because we have believed we could have it both ways.

As a result, our policies and statements on these matters have too frequently been characterized by indecision, confusion, haste, timidity, and an excessive fear of giving offense. In the United Nations we have abstained on some key issues, vacillated on others, and prevented others from being even placed on the agenda. Our Secretary of State has spoken of Goa, and our Ambassador to France has spoken of Algeria, in terms which have led our motives and our sympathies to be questioned by those who seek the end of colonial rule. This is not a new pattern - our course in Indo-China under the Democratic as well as the Republican Administrations antagonized the Vietnamese people, refueled the propaganda machines of the Vietminh Communists and in the long-run proved to be a disservice to the Free world as a whole and even to France itself.

This policy - if it can be called a policy - of trying to look both ways at once, of trying to bury our heads in the sand when a colonial issue arises, of trying to please everybody and displease nobody - this is the policy which our Department of State likes to call "neutrality" on colonial issues. And when asked about it at a recent news conference, Secretary Dulles had this to say: "We expect to continue to take a position of neutrality because that is our general policy with relation to these highly controversial matters which involve countries both of whom are friends and where we ourselves are not directly involved."

I must respectfully disagree with the able Secretary, though I stress again the fact that this is no partisan matter. We are directly involved, deeply involved in these issues. They may not involve our possessions - they may not involve our treaties - they may not always even involve our military bases. But we are directly involved - our standing in the eyes of the free world, our leadership in the fight to keep that world free, our geographical and population advantages over the Communist orbit, our prestige, our security, our life and our way of life - these are all directly involved. How then can we be wedded to this do-nothing policy called "neutrality". How can we be afraid to touch these "highly controversial" disputes between two friends, when their continuation - and our reluctance - only serve to strengthen the hand of the mutual enemy of us all?

I do not wish to oversimplify an endlessly complex problem. Nor do I wish to deny the success we have had in helping free countries remain free, and the value of the steps we have taken in the right direction on this subject. But the time has come for the United States to take a more forceful stand.

I urge, therefore, that this nation, acting within appropriate limits of judgment and discretion, inform our Allies and the world at large that - after a reasonable period of transition for self-determination - this nation will speak out boldly for freedom for all people - whether they are denied that freedom by an iron curtain of tyranny, or by a paper curtain of colonial ties and constitutional manipulations. We shall no longer abstain in the United Nations from voting on colonial issues - we shall no longer trade our vote on such issues for other supposed gains - we shall no longer seek to prevent the subjugated peoples of the world from being heard. And we shall recognize that the day of the colonial is through.

Of course such a stand will displease our allies - but it will displease the Soviets even more. For whether our allies like it or not, and whether they act to impede it or not, sooner or later, one by one, the traditional colonies of the Western powers are breaking free. The primary question is whether they will then turn for association and support to the West - which has thus far too often hampered and discouraged their efforts for self-determination - or turn to the Communist East - which has (however hypocritically, in view of its own colonial exploitation) inflamed their nationalistic spirits and assumed the role of freedom's defender. I emphasize again that I do not fail to appreciate the difficulties of our hard pressed Allies - but I feel that their present colonial policies only serve to make easier the way of the Communist transgressor.

The path I suggest for this nation will not be easy. We will find our policies hailed by extremists, terrorists and saboteurs for whom we could have no sympathy - and condemned by our oldest and most trusted friends who will feel we have deserted them. We will encounter the most difficult problems of government and justice known to man - the fate of the large and justifiably alarmed European minorities in North Africa - the lack of preparation for self-government on the part of many peoples eager to govern themselves now - the likelihood of this nation being forced to take the place of the present colonial powers in providing the economic assistance which these new nations will need for many years - and the danger to Western naval and air bases located in these key areas.

But we have faced difficult problems before - and we have faced them successfully whenever we were resolutely determined to take the hard, bold steps necessary for their solution.

If we are to secure the friendship of the Arab, the African and the Asian, we cannot hope to accomplish it solely by means of military pacts and assistance. Neither can we purchase it through extensive programs of economic grants and subsidies. We cannot win their hearts by making them dependent upon our handouts. We cannot keep them free by selling them free enterprise. Describing the perils of Communism or the prosperity of the United States will be to no avail. No, the strength of our appeal to these key populations - and it is rightfully our appeal, and not that of the Communists - lies in our traditional and deeply felt philosophy of freedom and independence for all peoples everywhere. Whatever restraints may have been imposed upon this philosophy in our foreign policy pronouncements during the past decade, there can be no doubt that it still represents the basic attitudes of the overwhelming majority of the American people.

Today this issue confronts us in Algeria, Cyprus, West New Guinea and elsewhere. Tomorrow it may be in Portugese Goa or Singapore - and the next day it may be in Togoland or Tanganyika.

There are some who recognize these issues but dismiss them as unimportant. What has all this to do, they say, with the thought of war in the Middle East or the deterioration of our position in the Far East? The answer is, I believe, that these issues are fundamental to practically every crisis now occurring or which will occur in the next generation. For whatever the dispute may be that creates the headlines - we can never escape the fact that we are dependent upon the decisions of people who have hated, as their ancestors before them for centuries hated, the white men who bled them, beat them, exploited them and ruled them. Perhaps it is already too late for the United States to repudiate these centuries of ill will, and to firmly but boldly press for a new generation of friendship among equal and independent states. But we dare not fail to make the effort.

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 895, Folder: "Rockhurst College, Kansas City, Missouri, 2 June 1956".