It is a rare honor and privilege to be with you tonight to join in celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Pere Marquette Council of the Knights of Columbus. When your dinner chairman and my good friend Bill Toland graciously extended this invitation to me, I was delighted to accept - not only because of my friendship with Bill and your other leaders, but also because of the honor attached to addressing this important gathering. This council in 60 years has witnessed many changes - in the altered face of this community and state, in the fast-moving developments in the world about us, and in the challenges we face in our devotion to our nation and church. But throughout these years of change, despite conflicts, pressures and obstacles of every kind, the Knights of Columbus and this Council have remained steadfast in their devotion to the ideals upon which they were initially founded. They have enriched the lives of our church and our community - and we pay tribute to their ideals tonight as we prepare to continue their implementation for 60 and more years to come.
One theme which has always been prominent in the activities of the Knights of Columbus has been your devotion to the national interest. Tonight that national interest is in perhaps greater peril than it has been at any time in the 20th century. We face the prospects of being relegated to the status of a second-class military power. We live for the first time on what may be the front lines in an international war, on the bull's-eye of Soviet missile targets. We face the prospects of Communist control of outer space and the weather, with all the terrible consequences that would have for life on this continent. We face a very real danger of Communist advances spreading throughout most, if not all of the world, through political and economic means as well as military. We face a future which may well bring devastating attacks against which we have no real defense, the loss of our bargaining power at the international conference table, the loss of our peace, our peace of mind, and our way of life.
These are very grim prospects, which most of us would rather not face. We like to talk about where we are ahead instead of where we are falling behind. We like to emphasize what we are going to do instead of what we have failed to do. We like to believe in the triumph of right and justice rather than the advantages of dictators and aggressors. We are accustomed to being first and we do not like to be told that we may be second-best in some areas.
Nevertheless, I believe that you who have gathered here tonight to rededicate yourselves to the ideals which all of us hold dear are entitled to know exactly where we stand in the continuing battle to protect those ideals. Perhaps I am wrong in believing that you want to hear these facts and are able to face them. Perhaps those of us who take this attitude will be called alarmists or demagogues or pessimists who have abandoned hope or politicians who seek to exploit our danger for partisan advantage. But it has always seemed to me that regardless of whether the outlook was favorable or perilous, regardless of which party was in power, a democratic form of government has an unavoidable responsibility to keep the people fully and frankly informed. In this country, the people - all of the people - are the ultimate boss - the government is ultimately dependent upon their confidence, their support and their trust. And once the facts are out, as they always inevitably do come out, the bad along with the good, our faith in our government and in our elected officials will depend upon the extent to which they have been honest and forthright with us. I for one have full confidence in the ability of a free and fully informed people to face the facts with calm and with courage.
Consequently, when I am asked by my constituents worried about the headlines of Soviet sputniks and weapons: "What do we do now?", my answer is that our first task is to find out exactly where we stand and where we are behind. Until we know this, we cannot fully comprehend the enormity of the challenge, the extent of the danger or the nature of the steps which must be taken. Once we know exactly where we stand, we can determine what we must do to catch up, how long it will take and what sacrifices it will require. Much more important than an assessment of blame for our past failures is an assessment of our needs for the immediate future.
Exactly where do we stand today? Such an appraisal is not limited to missiles or even to military strength. On the contrary, the danger is perhaps even greater in non-military areas - in the free world's economic decline, in Soviet political and diplomatic successes, in the ideological struggle for the minds of uncommitted peoples. But it would be impossible to deal adequately with each of these areas this evening - and consequently I shall attempt no more than to "brief" you tonight on our status in the battle to protect our security in the airways and outer space.
The question I am most frequently asked is the one we must first answer: Where are we behind? All of the facts are not yet clear. Some of them are matters of dispute - some of them are top secret - and others will be known definitely only in the tragic event of another war. But on the basis of the testimony before the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee, the addresses of the President and other high officials, and the statements of our leading scientists and other experts, the grim answer to that grim question must include the following:
- We are behind in the development and production of ballistic missiles
- We are behind in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles in terms of actual launchings and useful tests
- We are behind in the development of intermediate range ballistic missiles in terms of present operational capabilities
- We are behind in the development and actual production of improved and more powerful rocket engines
- We are behind in the development and utilization of space satellites and other methods of exploring or conquering outer space
- We are behind in the accumulation and utilization of basic research information on outer space and its control
- We are behind, or will soon be falling behind, in the development of jet engines, new fuels, nuclear powered planes and other scientific advances
- We are behind, or will soon be falling behind, in long range jet bombers with a nuclear bomb capacity
- In short, we are behind, or will soon be falling behind, in overall air striking power, including both missiles and a long range air force, and our general capacity for instantaneous massive retaliation.
But this is not all.
- We are behind in our ability to fight local or "brushfire" wars
- We are behind in the number of divisions, mechanized and otherwise, which we can put into the field
- We are behind in submarines and in the current production of submarines
- We are behind in the production of military end items, in our rate of industrialization and productive growth
- We are behind in the production of new scientists and engineers
- We are, in short, in danger of falling behind in terms of overall military capabilities, on land, sea and air.
Undoubtedly this list is only a beginning. Nor would the full list of where we are behind tell the whole story of where we are lagging and what we must do. For we must also keep in mind the fact that we have no adequate defenses today to a Soviet missile aimed at Boston from a submarine 500 miles out at sea. We have no adequate protection for our Strategic Air Command bombers now parked wing to wing on a limited number of congested bases, where most of them could be destroyed by a missile attack before they could get off the ground. We have made poorer use of
our intelligence than the Russians - we have taken longer to make decisions - we have devoted less of our strategic materials and fewer of our scientists to this crucial struggle for security and survival.
Very obviously I do not say that we have lost the whole battle. Nor do I say that this grim list represents the full picture. America is not weak, our forces are not debilitated, our advantages have not all vanished. I present this list tonight because I think it is upon these areas we must concentrate - because this is the list we cannot ignore any longer. If such a list - of areas in which we are behind or falling behind - is shocking to the average American citizen, then it is time we were shocked. For all of our old beliefs, all of our basic policies, all of our most entrenched practices must now be reappraised in the harsh light of the new Soviet position.
This will not be easy. Obsolete weapons and defense systems must be discarded, regardless of the efforts and cost they represent. New missiles and weapons, nuclear-powered aircraft and space vehicles - operating from moving, concealed or submerged bases - must replace less costly but more vulnerable means of massive retaliation.
As long as the Strategic Air Command is our strongest arm, prompt steps must be taken to disperse its bases still more widely, increase that portion of the fleet which is continually airborne and shorten its alert-response period even further. Our Allies must possess intermediate range missiles until we develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Moscow from our own shores. Our basic concepts of a citizen Army and Selective Service; our traditional systems of budgeting, researching, procuring, developing and assigning weapons; our interservice competitions and divisions - all of these must be re-examined in the harsh light of the Soviet "moon".
Still more must be done to accelerate and expand our research and development programs; speed up the development and manufacture of the intermediate and intercontinental missiles now being worked on; strengthen our educational systems; streamline the decision-making process; increase cooperation with our allies, particularly in the exchange of information; build shelters and store food and machinery as a precaution against Russian attack; build as quickly as possible an early warning radar system capable of detecting missiles; and take other urgent steps not heretofore contemplated.
But even more will be required if we are to compete successfully with the Russians, if we are to weather the present peril and regain the initiative in world affairs. We are not going to do it by giving up our precious liberties in order to match the Soviet ability to make hard and swift decisions. We are not going to conscript scientists and engineers or turn our nation into an armed camp. We are not going to bid against the Russians for the privilege of seeing who can send the most aid to a wavering nation. We are not going to duplicate their trade agreements that call for repayment in surplus agricultural commodities, as long as we cannot get rid of our own. We shall never dictate to our allies the unwavering line the Soviets extract from their satellites. Our propaganda and ideological warfare will probably never be as successful in telling falsehoods, in arousing hatreds or in sowing doubt and disunity. And even if we could make bigger, better and more terrible weapons than the Russians, if we could achieve the capacity to destroy their nation (if not the world) with five bombs instead of fifty, such an advantage is obviously meaningless.
Upon what can we rely? Where can we compete? In what can we find hope for the future? The answer, I believe, lies ultimately in the very principles which we honor tonight - the principles of our religious heritage. It is a heritage which teaches us self-discipline - which will enable us to sacrifice economic convenience and physical comfort to a degree sufficient to offset the sacrifice of human values and liberties which has been extracted from the Russian people. It is a heritage of rich spiritual resources, renewing our energies and determination even when the day is darkest and the odds most overwhelming. It is a heritage that enables us to build with Christian and non-Christian nations alike a spirit of unity and brotherhood far stronger than the unanimity that the Russian tanks brought to Budapest. Our heritage has taught us to respond to the needs of other humans when they are in difficulty and to the principles of human justice when they are under fire. No communist dictatorship, no Godless totalitarian society, no people living in fear of the future and without faith in themselves, can ever match the wealth of that inheritance.
I ask tonight, therefore, that we concern ourselves as a nation not only with our armaments and armies, not only with our scientists and engineers, our diplomatic alliances and economic assistance - but that we concern ourselves as well with the spiritual resources which have made this nation great.
John Boyle O'Reilly once 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 world is small tonight, and our enemy is loose in it. It is our task in the years that lie ahead to meet this challenge with all the wisdom and all the understanding that have been bestowed upon us as a nation.
Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 899, Folder: "Pere Marquette Council of Knights of Columbus, South Boston, Massachusetts, 12 January 1958".