Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, in the Senate, August 14, 1958

This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.


Mr. President, 400 years ago the British crown and people realized with a sense of shock that they had lost Calais forever. Long considered an impregnable symbol of British supremacy in Europe, this last foothold of English power on the Continent was surrendered to the French in 1558. It is said that when Mary of England died, in the same year, the word "Calais" was engraved upon her heart - but that she was, in the words of The Cambridge Modern History, an eminent example "of the inadequacy of deep convictions and pious motives to guide the state aright." Once they had recovered from their initial panic, the British set about adjusting their thinking and their policies to the loss they had suffered. With their gateway to the Continent gone, they sought new power and influence in the seas. A navy was built, new trade routes promoted, a new maritime emphasis established; and when the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, the panic and pessimism that had followed the loss of Calais were forgotten as Brittania ruled the waves. The old power, the foundation for old policies, was gone - but new policies had brought a new power and new security.

The time has come for the United States to consider a similar change, if we, too, are to depend on something more than deep convictions and pious motives to guide the state aright. For we, too, are about to lose the power foundation that has long stood behind our basic military and diplomatic strategy.


That foundation - one of the key premises upon which our leaders of diplomacy, defense, and public opinion have based their policy thinking - has been, since Hiroshima, our nuclear power. We have possessed a capacity for retaliation so great as to deter any potential aggressor from launching a direct attack upon us. Spokesmen for both parties, in the Senate and elsewhere, have debated our preparedness upon the assumption that this "ultimate deterrent" would deter any Soviet attack. Our retaliatory power, said the President in his 1958 state of the Union message, is "the most powerful deterrent to war in the world today," offering any potential aggressor "the prospect of virtual annihilation of his own country." Possession of similar striking power by the Soviet Union has not altered this basic premise - it is instead described now as the result of a "nuclear stalemate," a point of mutual "saturation" or a "balance of terror."

The hard facts of the matter are that this premise will soon no longer be correct. We are rapidly approaching that dangerous period which General Gavin and others have called the "gap" or the "missile-lag period" - a period, in the words of General Gavin, "in which our own offensive and defensive missile capabilities will lag so far behind those of the Soviets as to place us in a position of great peril."

The most critical years of the gap would appear to be 1960-1964.

This is not to say that during that period we will not retain a nuclear capacity sufficient to rain "virtual annihilation" upon the U.S.S.R. But in view of our unwillingness and inability to strike the first blow, the successful use of that capacity - and the prospects for success must be overwhelming to deter a Russian attack - actually depends upon the proper balance of six factors:

(a) The striking power of the Soviet Union that could be brought to bear upon our retaliatory power in a surprise attack. In the years of the gap this will rest primarily upon their missiles - IRBM's and ICBM's.

(b) The adequacy of American defenses to reduce the success of that Soviet striking power. This will include our distant early warning system, anti-missile missiles when available and other interceptor and defense devices.

(c) The vulnerability of American retaliatory power to destruction by any Soviet weapons penetrating our defense. Exposed missile bases and planes wing-to-wing on the ground are prime examples of this factor; although in a sense it also covers our "destruction tolerance" - the amount of devastation we could endure and still fight back.

(d) The retaliatory power of the United States, its size affecting the amount of such power remaining and available after the initial Soviet attack.

(e) The adequacy of Soviet defenses to reduce the success of our retaliation.

(f) The vulnerability of the Soviet Union and its tolerance of destruction, as a measure of what the Soviets will be able and willing to do after our retaliation.

In short, what might be called the deterrent ratio - in terms of a somewhat oversimplified formula - requires that the sum of (a), (e), and (c) be no greater than the sum of (d), (b), and (f) - if we are to have a stalemate. But as the missile striking power of the Soviet Union increases and our retaliatory power lags - as the adequacy of our continental defense falls behind that of the Soviets - as we fail to reduce sufficiently the vulnerability of our attack installations and planes, as contrasted with the wide dispersal of Soviet-Red Chinese power - and uncertain as we are about the destruction tolerance of our people whose political institutions and way of life are not prepared by tradition for the devastation of battle, again unlike the Soviets - then we must realize that the deterrent ratio during 1960-64 will in all likelihood be weighted very heavily against us.

These are not easy facts to face - and once faced, their implications are not easily comprehended. But the facts must be faced - and soon. Our peril is not simply because Russian striking power during the years of the gap will have a slight edge over us in missile power - they will have several times as many: Intermediate range missiles to devastate our own country, installations, and Government; and history's largest fleet of submarines, and possibly long-range supersonic jet bombers, to follow up this advantage. If by that time their submarines are capable of launching missiles, they could destroy 85 percent of our industry, 43 of our 50 largest cities, and most of the Nation's population.

We shall have no such supply of missiles with which to retaliate - particularly after our few exposed IRBM bases in Europe and the Mediterranean are attacked. We have not yet even successfully completed a test of our Atlas or Titan ICBM's; while Russian test successes are now established.

Progress on what appears to be one of our best hopes, the Polaris, has lagged; at least, on 4 Polaris submarines authorized by Congress in addition to the 5 already under development. I understand they may even now be threatened by a possible Defense Department order. A threat to impound funds provided by Congress is contained in a letter from Secretary McElroy to the Committee on Armed Services. We shall rely to a great extent on manned bombers - bombers which face a problem of sufficient alert and sufficient dispersal to avoid decimation, particularly if current Middle East trends should curtail our base operations in that area - bombers that lack an adequate refueling system to penetrate Soviet borders without some 2 to 4 refuelings from our inadequate tanker supply.

Even then we shall encounter a Soviet air defense, and dispersal or concealment of vulnerable power, far superior to our own - a margin, according to some estimates, which the Soviets will be able to maintain at a level 2 to 4 times greater than our own. Indeed, our own DEW system and other continental defense bulwarks - many of which the Soviets will hope to knock out before or during the first blow - were planned for manned bombers, and must be redesigned and rebuilt before they are adequate for the missile age.

In short, the deterrent ratio might well shift to the Soviets so heavily, during the years of the gap, as to open to them a new shortcut to world domination. A portion of their homeland would still almost inevitably be destroyed, no matter how great their defenses or how decimated our retaliatory power. And without doubt world opinion would not tolerate such an attack. But our experience with the illogical decisions of Adolf Hitler should have taught us that these considerations might not deter the leaders of a totalitarian state - particularly in a moment of recklessness, panic, irrationality, or even cool miscalculation.

Surely we realize that the possibilities of serious miscalculation of war by inadvertence, of having both sides caught in a course which would lead to an all-out war which neither originally contemplated, of the calling of a bluff, or of the sudden spreading of a limited war, are very real possibilities, if we but recall the Soviet Union's miscalculations on Korea in 1950, our own miscalculation of the Red Chinese reaction in 1951, our near intervention at Dienbienphu in 1954, the Soviet threats of rocket war at the time of the Suez invasion in 1956, and the possibilities of massive intervention by both sides which the situation in Iraq would have posed this year, had that struggle continued for very long. For many years, now, we have been living on the edge of the crater. We know full well the lack of communications between ourselves and our adversaries, the mutual suspicion and hostility, the increased risks taken by the Soviets as their striking power grows. Let no one think, therefore, that a Soviet attack, inadvertent or otherwise, is impossible, because of the H-bomb damage which we would still hope to rain upon the Soviets.

The Soviets, moreover, will be as well aware as we of their advantage during the years of the gap. We cannot expect them to sit idly by, and make no profitable use of it, while we strive to catch up. If General Gavin is correct in estimating Russian lead time to be twice as short as ours - 5 years, as compared to 10 - we may not even catch up in 1964, or thereafter. We cannot expect them to give us the same advantage - by sitting by until our missile power equals their own - that we gave to them during the years of our atomic monopoly.


But nuclear destruction is not the only way in which the Soviets will be able to use their advantages in striking power. War is not so much an objective of foreign policy, as an instrument - a means of securing power and influence, of advancing a nation's views and interests. In the years of the gap, the Soviets may be expected to use their superior striking ability to achieve their objectives in ways which may not require launching an actual attack. Their missile power will be by the shield from behind which they will slowly, but surely, advance - through sputnik diplomacy, limited brushfire wars, indirect non-overt aggression, intimidation and subversion, internal revolution, increased prestige or influence, and the vicious blackmail of our allies. The periphery of the free world will slowly be nibbled away. The balance of power will gradually shift against us. The key areas vital to our security will gradually undergo Soviet infiltration and domination. Each such Soviet move will weaken the West; but none will seem sufficiently significant by itself to justify our initiating a nuclear war which might destroy us.

Throughout the years of the gap, a direct Soviet attack may be our greatest danger. But it is these other avenues of Soviet advance - with a thrust more difficult to interpret and oppose, yet inevitably ending in our isolation, submission, or destruction - which may well constitute the most likely threat.

Four hundred years ago, the English lost Calais. That event altered the course of British diplomacy and military policy, and changed the direction of British public opinion. The acceptance of the loss, and the adjustment of policy, were not easily or quickly accomplished; but they occurred eventually.

There is every indication that by 1960 the United States will have lost its Calais - its superiority in nuclear striking power. If we act now to prepare for that loss, and if, during the years of the gap, we act with both courage and prudence, there is no reason why we, too, cannot successfully emerge from this period of peril more secure than ever.


Unfortunately, our past reliance upon massive retaliation has stultified the development of new policy. We have developed what Henry Kissinger has called a Maginot-line mentality - dependence upon a strategy which may collapse or may never be used, but which meanwhile prevents the consideration of any alternative. When that prop is gone, the alternative seems to many to be inaction and acceptance of the inevitability of defeat. After all, once the Soviets have the power to destroy us, we have no way of absolutely preventing them from doing so. But every nation, whatever its status, needs a strategy. Some courses of action are always preferable to others; and there are alternatives to all-out war or inaction.

But the adjustment is made more difficult by our traditional failure to link our national strategy and our thinking to our military status. We have extended our commitments around the world, without regard to the sufficiency of our military posture to fulfill those commitments. Changes in our defense status are rarely reflected in our diplomatic policies, pronouncements, and planning. The State and Defense Departments negotiate with each other at arm's length, like so many Venetian envoys, without decisive leadership to break through the excess of bureaucratic committees, competition, and complacency. We think of diplomacy and force as alternatives to each other - the one to be used where the other fails - as though such absolute distinctions were still possible.

Today, we are approaching the years of the gap as though the situation were normal, and as though other assumptions were unchanged - or, in some quarters, at least, as though the problem were one of arms, alone. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In the years of the gap, our threats of massive retaliation will lose most of their impact.

In the years of the gap, every basic assumption held by the American public with regard to our military and foreign policies will be called into question. Among the assumptions to be invalidated will be the following 10, which probably are most fundamental to our thinking in the 20th century.

First. American arms and science are superior to any others in the world.

Second. American efforts for worldwide disarmament are a selfless sacrifice for peace.

Third. Our bargaining power at any international conference table is always more vast and flexible than that of our enemy.

Fourth. Peace is a normal relation among states; and aggression is the exception - direct and unambiguous.

Fifth. We should enter every military conflict as a moral crusade requiring the unconditional surrender of the enemy.

Sixth. A free and peace-loving nation has nothing to fear in a world where right and justice inevitably prevail.

Seventh. Americans live far behind the lines, protected by time, space, and a host of allies from attack.

Eighth. We shall have time to mobilize our superior economic resources after a war begins.

Ninth. Our advanced weapons and continental defense systems, established at a tremendous cost and effort, will protect us.

Tenth. Victory ultimately goes to the nation with the highest national income, gross national product, and standard of living.

All of these concepts will be altered or questioned in but a few years. It is unthinkable that we approach the years of the gap with the same sense of normalcy, the same slogans and economies, the same assumptions, tactics, and diplomatic strategy.

Although other peoples have learned to live for years exposed to enemy attack, I realize that it is hard for us to accept the reality of our danger - particularly when we have been told each year that our defenses were daily stronger and superior to any other. I realize that we are reluctant to reexamine policies arduously reached, or to believe that these problems cannot be postponed. But it is precisely this substitution of our preferences for our responsibilities that has led us to the brink of the gap. Our missile lag is not the cause of the gap - it is but another symptom of our national complacency, our willingness to confuse the facts as they were with what we hoped they would be, to appeal at the same time to those who wanted a quick solution and those who wanted a less burdensome one. The people have been misled; the congress has been misled; and some say with good reason that on occasion the President himself has been misinformed and thus misled. For we have been passing through a period aptly described by Stanley Baldwin, in a great House of Commons debate, in disclosing Britain's unpreparedness to the House of Commons in 1936, as "the years the locusts have eaten."


Perhaps the most serious result of this complacency - and the one we must first reverse - was our willingness to place fiscal security ahead of national security. We tailored our strategy and military requirements to fit our budget - instead of fitting our budget to our military requirements and strategy. We facilitated the adoption of this popular course through a variety of appealing shibboleths proclaimed to the Nation each year by the President:

Maximum safety at minimum cost (1953 state of the Union).

Sustained military capability at the lowest possible cost (1954 budget message).

Our defenses have been reinforced at sharply reduced costs (1956 state of the Union).

We cannot afford to build military strength by sacrificing economic strength (1954 budget message).

Future defense costs must be held to tolerable levels (1957 budget message).

Adequate military strength within the limits of endurable strain upon our economy (1953 state of the Union).

In recent years we have heard a good deal about an alleged quotation from Lenin who is supposed to have stated that the destruction of the capitalistic world would come about as a result of overspending on arms. I would say that has probably been the most valuable quotation the Communists have had other than "Workers of the World, Unite." But the fact of the matter is that was not said by Lenin. However, this slogan, which has been spread before us during this decade, has caused us constantly to emphasize economic considerations rather than military considerations, and has been used as an authority for that policy. The fact is that Lenin never stated it. Nevertheless, I should think that in the future it would rank high among the slogans which had proved to be useful in the effort to destroy the capitalistic system.

There were many others. The rationale was simple:

To build excessively * * * could defeat our purposes and impair or destroy the very freedom and economic system our military defenses are designed to protect (1956). * * * Any program that endangers our economy could defeat us (1957). * * * To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another (1953).

The fact of the matter is that during that period when emphasis was laid upon our economic strength instead of our military strength, we were losing the decisive years when we could have maintained a lead against the Soviet Union in our missile capacity. These were the vital years we lost, the years the locusts have eaten, and it is quite obvious we obtained economic security at the expense of military security, and that this policy will bring us into great danger within the next few years.

I have never been very persuaded by this argument. It has always seemed to me that the converse was much more persuasive - that to emphasize budgetary limitations without regard to our military position was to avoid an inconvenient effort by inviting the disaster that would destroy all budgets and conveniences. Surely our Nation's security overrides budgetary considerations - the President himself indicated this was true in times of war. Then why can we not realize that the coming years of the gap present us with a peril more deadly than any wartime danger we have ever known? And most important of all - and most tragically ironic - our Nation could have afforded, and can afford now, the steps necessary to close the missile gap.

But our task now is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix a course for the future.


Our attention is logically and necessarily directed first at the short-range military steps necessary to keep the deterrent ratio from shifting still further to the Red side and to lessen their advantage, if possible. Here other Senators have distinguished themselves in thoughtful addresses or committee action - including in particular the majority leader, Mr. Johnson, the junior Senator from Missouri, Mr. Symington, and the junior Senator from Washington, Mr. Jackson.

More air tankers to refuel our SAC bombers and more air-to-ground missiles to lessen the need for their deep penetration of Soviet territory are among the first steps to be taken while we expedite our longer range ICBM and IRBM developments, and our progress on atomic submarines, solid fuels, the Polaris, and the Minuteman. Our continental defense system, as already mentioned, must be redesigned for the detection and interception of missile attacks as well as planes.

It should be obvious from our Lebanon experience that we lack the sea and air-lift necessary to intervene in a limited war with the speed, discrimination, and versatility which may well be needed to keep it limited - and without weakening our ultimate retaliatory power. It is shocking to realize that units entering the Lebanon pipeline at the time of the Iraqi revolt emerged at the other end to find that by then the dust had settled and we had already recognized the new regime and it was time to evacuate.

We need to reduce what General Gavin describes as a "critical cut" in our military manpower begun in 1954. With the support of a majority on this side of the aisle, I offered an amendment in 1954 to block a cut in military divisions from 19 to 17; but as General Gavin now points out:

Congress was assured that our combat strength was not being reduced. We were simply cutting the fat * * * That the contrary was the case few outside the Department of the Army seemed willing to admit.

Finally, if we do not take care, we will create a second gap - between the date when our present ready weapons are obsolescent and the date when our ballistic missiles are operational in any sufficient quantity. To prevent this short-term gap, and to make certain that we have ended the missile-lag by 1964, when we shall have mass production, we hope, of the Minuteman solid-fuel missile, may well require a complete reexamination of our traditional systems of evaluating, budgeting, researching, assigning, developing, and procuring weapons.


But discussions of new armaments are not enough - and too late to halt the gap. The gap will begin in 1960. And while stepped-up defense efforts are essential to insure its close in 1964 and thereafter, and to lessen its impact in between, the years of the gap demand something more than a purely military answer.

A Maginot-line reliance upon the military answer of massive retaliation has frustrated policy discussions to date, as mentioned - we must now be prepared to demonstrate that we have other courses besides military action and no action at all. For absence of power no more dictates an absence of policy than the presence of power. On the contrary, ancient man survived the more powerful beasts about him because his wisdom - his strategy and his policies - overcame his lack of power. We can do the same. We dare not attempt less, nor do we dare rely wholly upon those same policies in effect during the years of our retaliatory lead.

What is the fundamental approach to formulating a strategy from a basically but only temporarily disadvantageous position? It is first, of necessity, to work for a real peace - for a reduction of armaments, a reduction of tensions, and a reduction of areas of dispute. The goal of universal disarmament - at least in the area of nuclear weapons and long range ballistic missiles - takes on an urgency not heretofore demonstrated by American negotiators who felt they held most of the trump cards. We must redouble our efforts in that regard - and the work of the Senate Disarmament Subcommittee, headed by the distinguished junior Senator from Minnesota, Mr. Humphrey, has made a major contribution to illuminating areas where our efforts might be redoubled.

But that failing, as well it might, once the Soviets are in the driver's seat, though we must never stop trying - the question again arises as to what basic strategy we employ during the years of the gap.

The best and most recent example is that provided by the Soviets themselves during the years of their gap - when American might was superior. While we would not imitate the Communists per se, they demonstrated the classic strategy of the underdog - and soon we will be the underdog. It is basically a strategy of making the most of all remaining advantages and making the most of the enemy's weaknesses - and for us to buy the time and opportunity necessary to regain the upper hand. This will require not only strong leadership in Washington but also expert ambassadors in the field - men equal to the best of any other nation, who are skilled in the needed techniques of probe and prudence, and whose judgments and reports are more reliable than some of those which misled us in Indochina and other difficult areas in years gone by.

Twentieth Century America is not accustomed to this underdog strategy - although it was expertly practiced by our Founding Fathers in time of peace as well as war. And we can practice it now.

Consider for a moment the advantages we retain even after our retaliatory lead is lost:

We retain an economic and industrial advantage, of little use once a bomb is dropped, but of considerable use now in building situations of strength and goodwill in such key areas as India and Tunisia. There is no need to waste this advantage in a drawn-out recession - and the Congress has an important opportunity to utilize this advantage in an action this week on the Development Loan Fund - the best hope for nations seeking the capital necessary to outstrip their population increases.

We retain an ideological advantage, better equipped than any nation in the world to export the revolutionary ideas of the Declaration of Independence, and thus lead, not frustrate, the nationalist movement against imperialism of any variety, East and West. Particularly after our recent excursion in the Middle East, we are regarded in too many parts of the world as an enemy of popular rule - when we had every right to enjoy the cleanest, strongest reputation in this regard of any nation on earth.

We retain a geographical advantage, essential to adequate dispersal and warning systems, and to the encouragement of local resistance to the Red tide. Although, as Mr. Dulles has said, we cannot make popularity our goal, we must shape our attitudes and procedures in a way that will not cost us our geographical advantage. We do not retain that advantage simply through paper alliances with the reactionary, unpopular governments which have no indigenous support; and recent events in the Middle East should also have taught us that, to maintain that geographical advantage, no commitment at all is better than one which we cannot or should not honor, which the local populations did not request, which our allies do not support, and which is politically or militarily unfeasible.

How well we learned that lesson, to be more precise and to compare strength, may soon be tested in the case of Quemoy and Matsu. I do not think there is greater folly than to leave our commitment in that area as vague as the Secretary of State has left it. If the Chinese should assume we are not going to come to the defense of Quemoy and Matsu, and it is the intention of the United states to come to the aid of those islands, we could find ourselves embroiled in a struggle which could lead to a major political action and perhaps to disaster for all of us, East and West.

As we approach the years of the gap, the U.S.S.R. will also retain weaknesses for us to probe - chief among them is the Achilles heel of the satellite nations. The Congress and administration must reverse those policies, last affirmed by a 1-vote margin in June, which hamstring our flexibility in attempting to wean the satellites from the Soviets, and to drive new wedges into each new crack in the Iron Curtain.

It is interesting, at a time when we are being charged before the United Nations with carrying on an imperialistic policy in the Middle East, to note that the Soviet Union should have begun to tighten in the most formidable way the screws of its control in Poland by an attempt to crack down and destroy the independence of the church, which is the largest single force within Poland against the Stalinist policies of some of the Communist leaders. That is the most genuine imperialism. It is to be hoped United States policies will be clear throughout the world to exploit it and to spotlight it, in our own efforts, in our own propaganda, and in our own diplomacy.

There is no point now in consolidating the Red bloc with our talk of massive retaliation - now we must seek ways of dividing it.

In short, to sound the alarm is not to panic - it is not to sell America short. It gives the enemy no encouragement he did not already possess. But the sound of the alarm does warn us that time is running out - that no matter how complex the problems, how discouraging the prospects, or how unpopular the decisions, these facts must be faced. Complacency or hysteria will not help. Sustained and informed constructive effort will help - not to provide all the answers for the future, but to help assure us that there will be a future.

In Gibbon's volumes on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he stated that the Romans maintained the peace by a constant preparation for war and that they indicated to the enemies on their periphery they were as little disposed to endure injury as to offer it. I do not say we should only prepare for war. But we should certainly use all elements of national policy - economic, diplomatic, and military - in order to prepare us for the most serious test in our Nation's history, which will be impending in the next 5 years.

No Pearl Harbor, no Dunkirk, no Calais is sufficient to end us permanently if we but find the will and the way.

In the words of Sir Winston Churchill in a dark time of England's history:

Come then - let us to the task, to the battle and the toil - each to our part, each to our station * * * Let us go forward together in all parts of the (land). There is not a week, nor a day, nor an hour to be lost.