Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy in the United States Senate, National Defense, Monday, February 29, 1960

Winston Churchill said: “We arm – to parley.” We prepare for war – in order to deter war. We depend on the strength of armaments – to enable us to bargain for disarmament (and it is my intention, later this week, to make a second address on what positive preparations for disarmament we can make now). We compare our military strength with the Soviets – not to determine whether we should use it – but to determine whether we can persuade them to use theirs would be futile and disastrous – and to determine whether we can back up our pledges in Berlin, Formosa and around the world.

In short, peace, not politics, is at the heart of the current debate – peace, not war, is the objective of our military policy. But peace would have no meaning if the time ever came when the deterrent ratio shifted so heavily in favor of the Soviet Union that they could destroy most of our retaliatory capacity in a single blow. It would then be irrelevant as to whether the Soviets achieved our demise through massive attack, through the threat of such attack, or through nibbling away gradually at our security.

Will such a time come?

The current debate has too often centered on how our retaliatory capacity compares today with that of the Soviets. Our striking force, the President said one week ago Sunday night, is “ample for today - far superior to any other” and large enough to deter any aggressor. But the real issue is not how we stand today but tomorrow – not in 1960 but in 1961, 1962 and particularly 1963 and thereafter. 1960 is critical because this is the year that the money must be appropriated – by this session of this Congress – if we are to obtain even initial results in subsequent years.

This year, our “mix” of forces undoubtedly is “far superior.” But it is indisputable that we are today deficient in several areas – and that in one of those areas, ballistic missiles, our deficiency is likely to take on critical dimensions in the near future.

Those who up uphold the Administration defense budget are right on one count: we cannot be certain that the Soviets will have, during the team of the next Administration, the tremendous lead in missile striking power which they give every evidence of building – and we cannot be certain that they will use that lead to threaten or launch an attack upon the United States. Consequently those of us who call for a higher defense budget are taking a chance on spending money unnecessarily. But those who oppose these expenditures are taking a chance on our very survival as a nation.

The ironic fact of the matter is that despite all the debates, predictions, claims and counter claims, the electorate will never be able to credit properly whichever side is right. For if we are successful in boosting our defenses, and no Soviet attack is ever launched or threatened we shall never know with certainty whether our improved forces deterred that attack, or whether the Soviets would never have attacked us anyway. But, on the other hand, if the deterrent gap continues to go against us and invites a Soviet strike sometime after the maximum danger period begins, a large part of our population will have less than 24 hours of life in which to reflect that the critics of this Administration were right all along.

The only real question is – which chance, which gamble, do we take – our money or our survival? The money must be appropriated now – the survival will not, we hope, be at stake for a few more years.

It is easier therefore to gamble with our survival: it saves money now. It balances the budget now. It reassures the voters now. And now, 1960, is an election year. If a future administration or Congress is confronted with peril – if they lack the means in early 1963, for example, to back up our commitments around the world – that will be their problem. Let them worry about how to get by then, as we are getting by now. We can honestly say our striking force is second to none now – what happens then is their responsibility.

That is the easier alternative – to gamble with our survival. But I would prefer that we gamble with our money – that we increase our defense budget this year – even though we have no absolute knowledge that we shall ever need it – and even though we would prefer to spend the money on other critical needs in more constructive ways.

That is the harder alternative. It is less convenient in an election year. It makes us pay now, with our cash – instead of putting it off, in the hope that we will not have to pay later, with our lives. It exposes us to voter retaliation at the polls now, while the alternative course – if proven wrong – might well leave no voters able to retaliate.

But I am convinced that every American who can be fully informed as to the facts today would agree to an additional investment in our national security now rather than risk his survival, and his children’s survival, in the years ahead – in particular, an investment effort designed, first, to make possible an emergency stop-gap air alert program, to deter an attack before the missile gap is closed; second, to step up our ultimate missile program that will close the gap when completed: Polaris, Minuteman and long-range air-to-ground missiles meanwhile stepping up our production of Atlas missiles to cover the current gap as best we can; and third, to rebuild and modernize our Army and Marine Corps conventional forces, to prevent the brush-fire wars that our capacity for nuclear retaliation is unable to deter.

These additional efforts do not involve a small sum, to be spent carelessly. There are other uses – schools, hospitals, parks and dams – to which we would rather devote it. But the total amount, I am convinced, would be less than one per cent of our Gross National Product. It would be less than the estimated budget surplus.

It is, I am convinced, an investment in peace that we can afford – and cannot avoid.

I should think that anyone who heard tonight’s news to the effect that Mr. Khrushchev said if he could not get an agreement on Berlin, he would sign a peace treaty with East Germany, in which event West Berlin would be a part of East Germany, will consider that to be a crisis which the Soviet Union might not postpone so long.

We cannot avoid taking these measures any more than the average American can avoid taking out fire insurance on his home. We cannot be absolutely certain of the danger. But neither can we risk our future on our estimates of a hostile power’s strength and intentions, particularly when secrecy is that power’s dominant characteristic – and particularly in the light of our consistent history of under-estimating Soviet strength and scientific progress. The chance that our military improvidence will invite a national catastrophe is substantially greater – many, many times greater if you work out the odds on an actuarial basis – than the chance that your house or my house will burn down this year or next. But as individuals we are willing to pay for fire insurance – and, although we hope we never need it, we are surely equally prepared as a nation to pay every dollar necessary to take out this kind of additional insurance against a national catastrophe.

I am calling, in short, for an investment in peace. And my purpose today is to set forth the facts that every American should have to back up this investment.

To the extent possible, I want to avoid the conflicting claims and confusion over dates and numbers. These largely involve differences of degree. I say only that the evidence is strong enough to indicate that we cannot be certain of our security in the future, any more than we can be certain of disaster – and if we are to err in an age of uncertainly, I want us to err on the side of security.

Whether the missile gap (that everyone agrees now exists) will become critical in 1961-62 or 63 – whether during the critical years of the gap the Russian lead will be 2-1, 3-1 or 5-1 – whether the gap can be brought to a close (by the availability in quantity of Polaris and Minuteman missiles) in 1964 or in 1965 or ever – on all these questions experts may sincerely differ. I do not challenge the accuracy of our intelligence reports --. I do not charge anyone with intentionally misleading the public for purposes of deception. For whichever figures are accurate, the point is that we are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival – and this year’s defense budget is our last real chance to do something about it.

I do not want to be told either that we cannot afford to do what is required, or that our people are unwilling to do it. In terms of this budget’s proportion of our Gross National Product, we are not making nearly the defense effort today we were in 1953 – or one-fifth the effort we made during World War II when we knew it had to be done. The Russians, with a far poorer standard of living, and desperate shortages in some consumer goods and housing, are commanding a much greater proportional effort.

It is clear that our Defense Budget is capable of supporting new efforts by cutting waste and duplication – that our overall Budget is capable of including further defense expenditures without causing a serious deficit – that our economy is capable of sustaining a much greater defense effort -- and that, if necessary, our citizens are willing to pay more, in taxes and sacrifices, for our national security, just as they have before.

Where, then, do we need the money – and why? To answer those questions requires a review of the record:

1953 was the critical turning point – it was a year of three critical turning-points. In that year the military situation was transformed by the creation of an H-bomb small enough to put in the nose of a rocket, enabling it to destroy a wide enough area to compensate for what was then the inaccuracy of rockets. In that same year (if not earlier), the Soviet Union made a clear-cut decision to plunge their resources into ballistic missiles – reorganizing a new Ministry of Defense Production to unify research, development and production of missiles – and reorganizing Soviet science, technology and engineering. And finally, in that same year, the United States of American embarked on a policy of emphasizing budgetary considerations in the formulation of defense goals.

By 1954, we had good evidence of the rapid progress of Soviet technicians in these radical new weapons. By 1955, the Killian Committee – an official Administration body – was ready to report that our rate of missile development must be stepped up if the Russian lead was not to endanger our existence in the sixties. By 1956, on his trip to England, Khrushchev was able to introduce into European diplomacy the threat of attack by intermediate range ballistic missiles. By 1957, the Russians were able to announce the successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Also by 1957, another Administration Committee – the Gaither Committee – produced another secret report with another urgent plea for more unity, more priority and more funds for our missile effort.

But throughout this period we continued our emphasis on budgetary limitations. An “Operation Candor” was considered, to lay bare to the public the facts of Soviet missile development – but it was rejected when “wiser counsels” prevailed, to use Robert Cutler’s term – fearing that it might spur demands for military spending that would unbalance the budget. We assigned a “national priority” to the Atlas missile, finally, in 1955; but basically our second-strike capacity was concentrated on bombers carrying nuclear weapons. An air defense scheme was, finally, accepted; but by the time it was well underway, it had become evident that the U.S.S.R. had chosen to concentrate upon the missiles against which our system would prove unavailing.

Then, in the autumn of 1957, the Soviets launched the Sputniks, demonstrating for all the world to see their capabilities in the field of missiles. For the first time since the War of 1812, foreign enemy forces potentially had become a direct and unmistakable threat to the continental United States, to our homes and to our people.

The Soviet Sputniks aroused the country. But the then Secretary of Defense shrugged aside the satellites, saying that this was merely “a neat scientific trick.” One of the President’s advisers referred to Sputnik as a “silly bauble.” The President himself said that his apprehensions were not raised “one iota.”

There was, to be sure, a second new reorganization of the Pentagon. There were new scientific committees appointed. But only belatedly were sufficient time and attention given to our missile program. And even then sufficient funds were not forthcoming – not even all of the funds appropriated by the Congress.

I have briefly reviewed this period of time, because today time is what really matters. The coming missile gap is forecast not so much as the result of any technical lag as of a time lag. The President, I am sure, is right in saying our striking force is “constantly developing to meet the needs of tomorrow” – that “new generations of long-range missiles are under urgent development” – and that our “first Polaris missile submarine will soon be at sea.” But he is talking about what we hope to have in the future – all of which takes time – and the time lag which threatens a critical “missile gap” is roughly equal to the time lag between the Killian Report and the post-Sputnik era.

The history of our current defense posture is not complete, however, without chronicling developments in the U.S. and Soviet conventional forces over this same period.

In 1953, both the Russians and the United States adopted a “new look” policy de-emphasizing ground forces. Generals Zhukov and Ridgeway both opposed these cuts in their respective countries; and in 1955, Zhukov, with Khrushchev’s help, won the battle which Ridgeway lost. Khrushchev expanded, reorganized and, more importantly, modernized and made more mobile Soviet ground forces and conventional weapons. New tactical nuclear weapons and tanks were added to the arsenal. A whole new naval fleet was developed, including the world’s largest submarine fleet – much of it equipped with missiles.

In the United States, the “new look” prevailed. We consistently cut the numbers and strength of our ground forces – our Army and Marines. We consistently failed to provide those forces with modern conventional weapons, with effective, versatile firepower. And we particularly failed to provide the air-lift and sea-lift capacity necessary to give those forces the swift mobility they need to protect our commitments around the world – and to give us the time we need to decide on the use of our nuclear retaliatory power.

But both before and after 1953, events have demonstrated that our nuclear retaliatory power is not enough. It cannot deter Communist aggression which is too limited to justify atomic war. It cannot protect uncommitted nations against a Communist take- over using local or guerrilla forces. It cannot be used in so-called “brush-fire” peripheral wars. In short, it cannot prevent the Communists from gradually nibbling at the fringe of the Free World’s territory and strength, until our security has been steadily eroded in piece-meal fashion – each Red advance being too small to justify massive retaliation with all its risks.

Small atomic weapons are not the answer. For they suffer from much the same handicaps as large atomic weapons. If we use them, the Russians use them. Even the smallest atomic weapon would unleash 100 times the destructive power of World War II’s largest conventional bombs. And even the smallest atomic weapon today produces fission – and thus fall-out – and thus can reduce to a complete shambles the area in which it is used (a friendly area presumably, in these limited wars – but they would not regard our use of atomic weapons as a very friendly act or the resulting holocaust a very limited war). And as the enemy’s losses increase, so will its temptation to raise the ante to all-out nuclear warfare – first.

In short, we need forces of an entirely different kind to keep the peace against limited aggression, and to fight it, if deterrence fails, without raising the conflict to a disastrous pitch.

So much for the record. The facts are not pleasant to record. But they are facts nevertheless. The President spoke a week ago Sunday night of our strength commanding the “respect of knowledgeable and unbiased observers.” But every objective committee of knowledgeable and unbiased observers – which he has appointed, such as the Killian and Gaither Committees, or which have functioned independently, such as the Rockefeller Committee – every private or public study – every objective inquiry by independent military analysts – every statement by Generals Gavin, Ridgeway, Taylor, Power, Medaris and others – every book and article by scholars in the field – all, regardless of party, have stated candidly and bluntly that our defense budget is not adequate to give us the protection for our security or the support for our diplomatic objectives which we may well need in the near future. The conclusions of every such study agreed with this conclusion of the Rockefeller Brothers Report on military policy, published early in 1958:

“It is the judgment of the panel that prepared this report that all is not well with present U.S. security polices and operations. We are convinced that corrective steps must be taken now. We believe that the security of the United States transcends normal budgetary considerations and that the national economy can afford the necessary measures.”

Let me summarize our situation before we turn to the solutions. Unless immediate steps are taken, failure to maintain our relative power of retaliation may in the near future expose the United States to a nuclear missile attack. Until our own mobile solid fuel missiles are available in sufficient quantities to make it unwise for any enemy to consider an attack, we must scrape through with what we can most quickly make available. At the present time there are no Polaris submarines on station ready for an emergency. There are no hardened missile bases. There is no adequate air defense. There is no capacity for an airborne alert in anything like the numbers admittedly needed. Our missile early warning system (BMEWS) is not yet completed. Our IRBM bases – “soft”, immobile, and undispersed – invite surprise attack. And our capability for conventional war is insufficient to avoid the hopeless dilemma of choosing between launching a nuclear attack and watching aggressors make piece-meal conquests.

Time is short. This situation should never have been permitted to arise. But if we move now, if we are willing to gamble with our money instead of our survival, we have, I am sure, the wit and resource to maintain the minimum conditions for our survival, for our alliances, and for the active pursuit of peace.

This is not a call of despair. It is a call for action – a call based upon the belief that at this moment in history our security “transcends normal budgetary considerations.”

But merely calling for more funds is not enough. Money spent on the wrong systems would not only be wasteful – it could slow us down. Merely to criticize is not enough, without stating clearly and candidly that to correct the situation will cost money. That money is not either mysteriously or easily made available. But I have indicated that I think the money must and can be made available, from elsewhere in the Pentagon, elsewhere in the Budget, and elsewhere in the economy -- including, if necessary, from additional tax revenues.

I am suggesting, therefore, three major changes in the pending defense budget:

First - We must provide funds to protect our investment in SAC, as long as it is our chief deterrent – primarily by making possible an airborne alert – keeping 25% of our nuclear striking force in the air at all times, to prevent them from being destroyed along with their bases in the event of a sudden attack. The Congress cannot and should not order such an alert now – only the President has the information and responsibility necessary to make that decision. But no President will feel free to do so, in view of the enormous cost, wear and tear involved, unless funds are provided for more flight and maintenance crews, more planes and parts, more tankers and more fuel. Any portion of the money appropriated for this purpose not actually used for this purpose should be used to speed up construction of our new ballistic early warning system – so that our planes will be off the ground before the missiles arrive – and further to disperse our bases, to reduce the chances of one paralyzing blow.

Second - We must provide funds to step up our Polaris, Minuteman and air-to-ground missile development program, in order to hasten the day when a full, mobile missile force becomes our chief deterrent and closes any gap between ourselves and the Russians. As a power which will never strike first, our hopes for anything close to an absolute deterrent must rest on missiles which come from hidden, moving or invulnerable bases that will not be wiped out by a surprise attack: Polaris missiles on atomic submarines, Minuteman missiles on moving flat-cars or in underground complexes, or long-range air-to-ground missiles on slow-flying planes or launching platforms. A retaliatory capacity based on adequate numbers of these weapons would deter any aggressor from launching or even threatening an attack – an attack he knew could not find or destroy enough of our force to prevent his own destruction.

But long-range air-to-ground missiles and launching platforms are still in an early stage of development. Polaris submarine goals have been consistently pushed back, with the proposed budget providing funds for starting only three. The Minuteman program likewise is suffering from delay, with no real start on either the moving railway car concept of the elaborate underground launching facilities required. If we hope to close whatever missile gap exists in 1963 or thereafter, these funds must be provided in 1960.

Third - We must provide funds to augment, modernize and provide increased mobility and versatility for the conventional forces and weapons of the Army and Marine Corps. The more difficult a decisive nuclear war becomes the more important will be the forces designed to oppose non-nuclear aggression.

There are other essential needs requiring additional funds in this Budget as well: to complete and improve our continental defense and warning systems and to disperse our bases, as already mentioned – to accelerate Atlas Missile development – to equip us for anti-submarine warfare – to restore our Merchant Marine – to expand our space and military research – and to initiate a realistic fall-out shelter program.

But the three stated above are the most critical. Our hopes for peace – for disarmament – for the time when the money required for this effort can be used for more constructive and enlightened uses all over the world – depend upon our obtaining the deterrent strength to which these three categories are vital. That is our real goal – an end to war, and an end to the arms race, an end to these vast military departments and expenditures. We want to show our greatness in peace, not in war. We want to demonstrate the strength of our ideas, not our arms (and that is why, at the same time we prepare our deterrent, we must also prepare for disarmament – with specific concrete plans and policies that will strengthen our position at the bargaining table. I shall propose some positive steps for peace along these lines in my second address this week). But to secure that peace – to make certain that we never invite war – we must act now to build our security.

I repeat: we shall never be able to prove beyond all doubts that the efforts I have outlined are necessary for our security. We are taking a gamble with our money. But the alternative is to gamble with our lives.

Some say that it is deplorable that these facts are discussed on the Senate Floor. I agree. It is not the discussion that is deplorable, however, but the facts. The Russians already know these facts. The American people do not. The debate itself is not deplorable – it is deplorable that the situation deteriorated to this point where it became a matter for debate. In matters of this kind, the only wise and safe course is leave a margin so large as to preclude any doubt or debate.

For when we are in doubt, our allies are in doubt – and our enemy is in doubt – and such doubts are tempting to him. While those doubts persist, he will want to push, to probe and possibly to attack. He will not want to talk disarmament. He will not want to talk peace at the Summit.

I urge that this Congress, before the President departs for the Summit, demonstrate conclusively that we are removing those doubts – and that we are prepared to pay the full costs necessary to insure peace. Let us remember what Gibbon said of the Romans:

“They kept the peace – by a constant preparation for war; and by making clear to their neighbors that they were as little disposed to offer as to endure injury.”

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 906, "'An Investment for Peace,' Senate Floor, 29 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.