Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy before the Vermont State Holy Name Rally at St. Michael’s College, Burlington, Vermont, May 16, 1954

The great fundamental principles to which we rededicate ourselves today have meaning beyond the church and beyond this state and nation. They are the fundamental concepts of morality and truth which have brought civilization through a series of dark ages, each one with its own particular form of stultification upon man's aspirations and achievements in literature, government, religion, human welfare and international goodwill. We are confronted today with the possibilities of an age far darker than any of those of years gone by, an age in which the political, religious, economic and social institutions and values which we hold dear may well be wiped away.

There is, of course, nothing new about this warning. On all sides we see grim evidence of the fierce struggle for world domination by the Communists whose dogma teaches that for them there is no real security in a world which they do not control. At the same time we see our own desperate effort to secure that balance of power in the world on the side of those countries whose national independence still survives. What is called the structure of containment is cracking in many areas; and our horizons are lit by the flashes of distant conflicts. Young Americans now occupy a hundred far-flung garrisons stretching from the Rhine across a great half circle to Southeast Asia.

This nation is devoting its fortunes and its energies to the efforts of the free world to contain Communist expansion, to resist out-right aggression, and to build strength in those countries on the periphery who may next fall victim to the hidden but unrelenting march of the Communists. Such efforts on our part have required sacrifices by our citizens, and raise fundamental questions on maintaining a healthy economy and a free citizenry while at the same time achieving maximum national security.

This is a struggle of men and arms - of stockpiles of strategic materials and nuclear weapons - of air bases and bombers - of industrial potential and military achievements. This is the physical struggle; and the central problem here is to be equal to the sacrifices and willing to pay the price of ultimate victory. But serious as this material challenge is, of far deeper significance is the moral struggle. This is the "stern encounter" of which Cardinal Newman so prophetically wrote: "Then will come the stern encounter when two real and living principles, simple, entire, and consistent, one in the church and the other out of it, at length rush upon one another contending not for names and words or half views, but for elementary notions and distinctive moral characteristics."

Cardinal Newman spoke of this conflict as yet to come. Doubtless its climax is yet to come, but in essence the conflict has been going on for 2,000 years. It has not been limited to one nation or one form of government. The issues, the slogans, the battle flags, the battlefields and the personalities have been different. But basically it has been the same encounter of opposing principles, of good and evil, of right and wrong.

This ancient struggle is more comprehensive, more deep-rooted and even more violent than the political and military battles which go on today as they have in the past. And yet it is very nearly a silent struggle, with a din not heard in the streets of the world, and fought by weapons more subtle and more damaging than cannons and shells. The encounter of which I speak makes no such uproar. It makes no more noise than the inner process of disintegration which over a period of several hundred years may hollow from within some great tree of the forest, until it is left standing an empty shell, the easy victim of some winter gale.

We can barely hear the stern encounter, and thus too often we forget it. Our minds are intent upon the present and future conflicts of armed might, and upon the brutal, physical side of that ominous war upon which we have bestowed the strange epithet "cold". We tend to forget the moral and spiritual issues which inhere in the fateful encounter of which the physical war is but one manifestation. We tend to forget those ideals and faiths and philosophical needs which drive men far more intensely than military and economic objectives.

As the leader of the Grand Alliance, we must frequently adjust our day-to-day programs in order to maintain the unity which is so important to our success. But in matters of fundamental moral principle, our experience in Indo-China should conclusively demonstrate to use that in the long run our cause will be stronger if we adhere to those basic principles which have guided this nation since its inception. We cannot overlook the moral and idealogical basis of our own policies and of the struggles taking place in the world today in our emphasis upon the military and physical side of the war. If this nation ignores the continuing moral struggle; if we fail to recognize those inner human problems which lie at the root of the great world issues of the day; then we cannot succeed in the maintenance of an effective foreign policy, no matter how many new weapons of annihilation our modern science can assemble, and no matter how many men we pour into the jungles and beachheads of battlegrounds all over the world. Unless the United States bases its foreign policy upon a recognition of moral principles and the idealogical struggle, we cannot hope to win the hearts and minds of those peoples of the world whose support is essential to our success.

Permit me to mention four examples of the moral challenge which we face: First, the unswerving fanaticism of the Communists; second, the weary indifference of so much of the West; third, the anti-Western nationalism of Asia; and finally, the despairing hopes of freedom-loving partisans behind the Iron Curtain.

1. It will take more than force of arms to dispel the fervid fanaticism of Communist troops. No matter how much we may hold them in contempt, we must admit that the Communists have instilled into their people a philosophy that shows itself in the most extraordinary acts of dedication and self-sacrifice. At Dien Bien Phu in Indo-China, hordes of Communist troops hurled themselves to inevitable death on the approaches of that fortress in order that their comrades might achieve victory once the bullets of the French Union forces had been spent. In the Koje prison riots, unarmed Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war marched to certain death in order to give their cause a propaganda weapon in the struggle of the West, and cannot help but marvel, however much we may hate their cause, at the constancy of the guerrillas of Indo-China's leader Ho Chi Minh, who fought for well over a decade first against the Japanese, and then against the French, in the swamps and jungles of Southeast Asia.

In contrast to this devotion to a single cause - which we find repugnant, there exist problems of the spirit in our own camp which the leaders of the West dare not fail to recognize: problems which include the indifference and cynicism with which so many in the West regard a cause which seeks to establish the dignity of man and the supremacy of the moral order; problems which include the disintegration of our common social order and the slow attrition of our religious, ethical and cultural foundations; problems which include the inertia and escapism which characterize those rightfully weary after long years of war and sacrifice. But it is in this matter of devotion to moral principles that the Communists extend to us our greatest challenge. For we must match their fanaticism with our own self-sacrifice if we are to strengthen the ties which bind all free people together.

3. But the great masses of the peoples of Asia and Africa, on whose support our success must ultimately depend, are not attracted by most of those Western ideals. Most of them have never heard of free competitive enterprise. Most of them cannot read, do not have enough to eat, and have never heard of a hospital. Only a comparatively few of them have ever seen a white man; and most of these regard white men as exploiters, enslavers and invaders. The preservation of free democratic institutions is no rallying cry to these people. The nationalization and the collectivization of private property does not shock those whose personal resources are almost non-existent.

These are peoples who yearn for the dignity and freedom of independence, who for centuries have been under the domination of Western powers. If their own homeland is torn by war, as in Indo-China or Malaya, they are likely to regard it coldly as a war between two foreign powers struggling for domination of their country. What is even more discouraging is the fact that the Communists, by promising political independence and economic equality, have captured for themselves the banner of nationalism under which these peoples are willing to fight, if at all.

In Indo-China, our friendship with France restrained us from actively and firmly pushing for the full independence of the Associated States. Yet complete Vietnamese independence was essential to rally the native and other Asiatic forces necessary to wage successfully the battle against communism; and we would have better served France itself, and the cause of the whole free world, if we had remained true to our traditional policy of helping all oppressed people. Such steps as are now being undertaken, and even they appear to lack the necessary finality, may again be too little and too late.

4. Finally, compare the moral principles that inspire the fanatic Communist, the cynical Westerner, and the neutral Asiatic with those that still live to inspire the oppressed sufferers behind the Iron Curtain. For those 800 million people who live out their lives in despair and deprivation, totalitarian power has been substituted for individual rights and human decency. From the 19 million people of East Germany to the 10 million persons in Communist controlled Viet Minh, there is no rejoicing in the name of religion and independence on this Sunday afternoon.

The torture of Cardinal Mindszenty, the incarceration of Cardinal Wysznski and Archbishop Stepinac, and the oppression of Catholics, Protestants and Jews throughout the area dominated by communism are designed to destroy the God-given faith of an enslaved people. But the riots in East Germany, and the discontent evidenced through the Iron Curtain area, demonstrate to the free world that their devotion to political and religious freedom cannot be so easily crushed.

There is no magic formula for rolling back the Iron Curtain, no simple solution in terms of "liberation", "psychological warfare", or a "new look initiative" in foreign policy.

But if our nation recognizes the spiritual and moral elements of the stern encounter, and if we can offer hope to the troubled in mind, and courage to the brave in spirit, then we shall have helped to keep alive the faith that will one day be free. Let us remember these words spoken by Sir Roger Casement to the jury which had convicted him of high treason for his part in the organization of the Irish in 1914: Our hope, said Sir Roger, "renews with each generation the claims of the last. The cause that begets this indomitable persistency, the faculty of preserving through centuries of misery the remembrance of lost liberty, this surely is the noblest cause men ever strove for, ever lived for, ever died for. If this be the case I stand here today indicted for, and convicted of sustaining, then I stand in a goodly company and a right noble succession."

There is our message for today, for those under the heel of the Soviets and for those of us who still enjoy the light of freedom; there is our faith and our task. Let us not fail its fulfillment.

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 894, Folder: "Vermont Holy Name rally, St. Michael's College, 16 May 1954".