Remarks at the Democratic Club Dinner, Spokane, Washington, February 11, 1960

Since January 1953, this nation has passed through a period which has been marked by indecision and doubt. When we should have sailed hard into the wind, we drifted. When we should have planned, sacrificed and marched ahead, we stood still, sought the easy way, and looked to the past.

These were vital years, vital to the greatness of our nation. For on the other side of the globe another great power was not standing still and she was not looking back and she was not drifting in doubt. The Soviet Union needed these years to catch up with us, to surpass us, to take away from us our prestige and our influence and even our power in the world community. They want to "bury" us, as Mr. Khrushchev says, but not necessarily by war – by possessing the most powerful military establishment, by boasting the most impressive scientific achievements, by dominating the most markets and trade routes by influencing the most needy or neutral nations through aid and trade and diplomatic penetration.

That is how they hope to “bury” us – to extend their sphere of influence – to build respect for the Communist system – and to prove to the underdeveloped countries that their route, the communist route, is the better route to industrial development. And that is what the Soviets have been working on these last seven years of American drift. I do not say that all was perfection in 1952, under the last Democratic Administration. But we were in 1952 the unchallenged leaders of the world in every sphere – militarily, economically and all the rest. We were building strength and friendships around the world. We were successfully containing the spread of Communist imperialism. And we were the leaders of a free world community that was united, dynamic and growing stronger every day.

And now it is 1960. The Russians beat us into outer space. They beat us around the sun. They beat us to the moon. Half of Indo-China has disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. Tibet and Hungary have been crushed. For the first time in history, Russia has its long-sought political foothold in the Middle East – and even an economic foothold in Latin America. And meanwhile we have been forced to abandon the Baghdad Pact – to send Marines to Lebanon and our fleet to Formosa – to endure our Vice President being spit upon by our former "Good Neighbors" – and to forget our plans for a meaningful NATO.

But all these more dramatic, more publicized events only symbolize what has happened. The seven year record of Russian gains and American gaps is not a pleasant one. But let us total up the balance sheet. Let us face the facts.

1. Militarily. I would not say that the Russians possess an overall superiority. But we have fallen behind the Soviet Union in the development and production of ballistic missiles – both intercontinental and those of intermediate range. They have surpassed us in the thrust of rocket engines, jet engines and new types of fuel. They now have more long-range modernized submarines than we do – more, in fact, than Nazi Germany had entering World War II – and they may well be pulling ahead of us in numbers in long-range jet bombers with a nuclear bomb capacity. Their continental air defense is thought to be superior – their installation better dispersed, better concealed and better protected.

They devote twice as much of their resources to military efforts as we do – even though we are twice as rich.

All this they have done – while we, for seven years, have cut our forces, reduced our budgets, held back our missile programs, wasted our money and time and scientific talent – and all the while assuring the American people that we could never be second-best. Democrats in the Congress tried to fight these trends. But we did not control the Defense Department, or the Budget Bureau, or the White House. In 1961 we will.

2. In education, science and research, the story under this administration has been the same. We harassed our scientists. We overcrowded our schools. We cut back our research. We underpaid our teachers. We let brilliant students drop out after high school. The President would not support an adequate program to construct desperately needed classrooms, at either the public school or college level.

But meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, the Russians were putting twice as much of their resources into education. Their teachers commanded top salaries. Their classrooms contained fewer pupils per teacher. Their curricula were stronger in terms of science, mathematics, physics and languages. Their most talented students were kept in school. The new Soviet budget, approved in early November, puts its biggest increase in science and education.

I am convinced that American education and American science, given the necessary funds and effort and leadership, can work miracles – miracles that could well surpass any the Russians have ever envisioned. But it will take a new administration to do the job.

3. The third vital area of competition is in economic power. "Development of Soviet economic might," said Mr. Khrushchev to the 21st Communist Party Conference, "will give Communism the decisive edge in the international balance of power." No area of competition is more vital to our leadership and prestige. But for seven years we have kept our sights low, fluctuating between inflation and recession, handicapped by serious pockets of high unemployment, low purchasing power and declining farm income, hamstrung by high interest rates and tight money. While our annual average rate of growth was thus roughly 3 per cent, the Russians were up to 6 per cent, twice as high. Their industrial capacity is expanding nearly three times as fast as ours, at an annual rate of 91⁄2 per cent. To be sure, they started a lot further back and they still have a long way to go – but 30 years ago this was a relatively backward nation! If these trends continue, they could increase their defense budget by over 50 per cent in the next seven years with no new strain.

Today, despite our greater wealth, they roughly match our contribution for defense, foreign aid, industrial investment and research development – and their new 1960 budget, a peace-time record, continues this emphasis.

While our power resources are neglected and wasted they accelerate their energy development. In 1975 they aim to out-produce us in hydroelectric power. While the Administration found merit in "no new starts", the Soviet Union began construction of hundreds of new dams. While we respected budgetary limitations upon hydroelectric development, they tripled their capacity.

Just a few years ago we considered our lead in energy production safe. We had five times the hydroelectric capacity of the Soviet Union – a long lead in atomic energy development – and the largest dams in the world. Now they are within striking distance of our total hydroelectric capacity. In three years they will have over 500,000 kilowatts of atomic power capacity. Three years ago work was completed on the world’s largest dam – but it was on the Volga River. Another dam, in Siberia, which is schedule for completion in 1963, will have twice the capacity of the Volga River Dam. Even China has planned a dam which will be 12 to 20 times the size of Grand Coulee, the largest dam in the United States. This is in striking contrast to our "no new starts." While we increase transmission lines at the rate of 31⁄2 per cent a year, the Soviet Union increases these lines at the rate of 20 per cent a year. Our heaviest transmission line is 345 kilovolts; the Russians have 500 kilovolt lines and are planning 1000 kilovolt lines.

4. In agriculture, while we are weakening our farm economy and penalizing our farmers for their increased efficiency and productivity, the Russians – as Mr. Khrushchev made clear – are determined to pass us. Already their agricultural production is expanding faster than their population. Their grain production is up an estimated 30 per cent. Their production of fertilizer has expanded, on the average, some 11 per cent every year since 1951. And now they are out to match us in meat, butter and milk. If our agricultural economy collapses, if our so-called surpluses remain a liability to the taxpayers instead of a blessing to the hungry world, then they, not we, may become the world’s greatest arsenal of food. But this need not happen – and I am hopeful that a new Administration, and a new Secretary of Agriculture, would see that it does not happen.

5. Finally, look at the contrasting changes in aid and trade abroad. When we abruptly abandoned the Aswam Dam in Egypt as economically unfeasible, the Russians went ahead to build it. When we refuse Latin American countries loans for their oil development programs, because we think it should be left up to private enterprise, the Russians move in and make the loan. While we starve the Development Loan Fund – our best tool to help the underdeveloped world get on its own feet – the Sino-Soviet bloc has already actually passed us in economic assistance to selected key areas, the potential trouble spots of the world: Indonesia, Ceylon, The United Arab Republic States of Egypt and Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen – and, more recently – Iraq, Nepal and Ethiopia.

Their cultural program is a part of this. They have spent more than one-half billion dollars over the past few years to send their artists, dancers, and other entertainers all over the world – we have allotted $2-3 million a year for this purpose. They spent $50 million on their exhibit at the Brussels World’s Fair – we spent $14 million.

This is what has been going on – for seven long years. I do not say the picture is all bad. I do not say that the other side of the ledger is all blank. But neither can we afford to ignore these facts and their implications any longer. I do not think the American people have been made aware of these facts. We have been complacent, self-contented, easy-going. It brings to mind the words of Franklin Roosevelt in 1928, after two terms of Harding and Coolidge. "The soul of our country," said F.D.R., "lulled by material prosperity, has passed through eight gray years."

"Eight gray years" – years of drift, of falling behind, of postponing decisions and crises. And, as a result, the burdens that will face the next administration will be tremendous. The gaps between ourselves and the Soviet Union will be many – and dangerous – and still growing. It is not too late. For we have in this country all the strength and all the vision and all the will we need – if we will only use them. And perhaps these seven gray years, and these spectacular Russian gains, have awakened us from our sleep. The Russian pennant on the moon has shown us our task. Mr. Khrushchev’s confident boasts have outlined our challenge.

And I think we can live up to it. I think we can make up for these years of doubt and indecision. I think we can close the gaps and pull ahead. It will take everyone’s help, as this record makes clear – officeholders, farmers, teachers, businessmen, miners, taxpayers, workers and bankers. But together we can build a better nation – and a better, happier, more peaceful world, where life is good and men are free and freedom never falters.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 906, "Democratic Club dinner, Spokane, Washington, 11 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.