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The Leader of the Free World.
Leader of the Free World
JFK: A Great President:

A Great President should clearly understand what it means to be the Leader of the Free World.

The President's responsibility cannot be delegated. For he is the one focal point of responsibility.

February 12, 1960

By John F. Kennedy
nsnews guest of honor


I have premised my campaign on the central issue of the Presidency itself-its powers, their use and their decline. . . . For this is no mere popularity contest. We may enjoy the sideshows, the fanfare, and the headlines. But it is a President we are electing. And no Democrat can dodge the real issue of the Presidency's decline if he hopes to win in 1960....

Perhaps we could afford a Coolidge following Harding. And perhaps we could afford a Pierce following Fillmore. But after Buchanan this nation needed a Lincoln-after Taft we needed a Wilson-after Hoover we needed Franklin Roosevelt. . . . And after eight years of Eisenhower, this nation needs a strong, creative Democrat in the White House.

And nowhere is this need more critical than in the conduct of our foreign affairs. For Pennsylvania Avenue is no longer a local thorough-fare. It runs through Paris and London, Ankara and Teheran, New Delhi and Tokyo. And if the soul of a journey is liberty, as Hazlitt has said, then the road from the White House that encircles the globe is freedom's way-the artery that makes all the Free World neighbors as well as allies.

And if Washington is the capital of the Free World, the President must be its leader. Our Constitution requires it-our history requires it-our very survival requires it. In foreign affairs, said the Supreme Court, "the President alone has the power to speak or listen as the representative of this nation."

"The President alone..." And he is alone-at the top-in the loneliest job in the world. He cannot share this power, he cannot delegate it, he cannot adjourn. He alone is the Chief of State, not the National Security Council, Vice-President and all. He alone decides whether to recognize foreign governments, not his Senate minority leader. . . . He alone must decide what areas we defend-not the Congress or the military or the CIA, and certainly not some beleaguered generalissimo on an island domain.

If nuclear tests are to be halted-if disarmament is to become a reality-then he alone must lead the way, and not leave it to the warped judgment of the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] and the Pentagon. And if India is to be saved-if the missile gap is to be closed-if we are to help Latin American democracies (instead of dictators)-the decision is his alone, and not that of the little men with little vision in the Bureau of the Budget.

In this 1960 campaign, four facts ought to be made clear about presidential responsibility in foreign affairs:

First, the President's responsibility cannot be delegated. For he is the one focal point of responsibility. His office is the single channel through which there flow the torrential pressures and needs of every state, every federal agency, every friend and foe.

He does not have to wait for unanimous agreement below, summed up in one-page memoranda that stifle dissent. He does not have to wait for crises to spur decisions that are long overdue. He must look ahead-and sometimes act alone-like Woodrow Wilson, locked in his study, typing his own notes to the Kaiser; or, in the words of his assistant, devouring a stack of state papers like "a starving man with a pile of flapjacks" (somewhat in contrast, I might add, to the veteran White House usher's description of Calvin Coolidge: "No other President in my time ever slept so much").

For Woodrow Wilson knew, in his own words, that in a nation's foreign affairs, the President must of necessity "be its guide-take every first step of action, utter every initial judgment . . . suggest and in large measure control its course. Thus most of the great landmarks of our foreign policy bear the name of the President who initiated them-Washinton's Proclamation of Neutrality, Monroe's Doctrine, Wilson's Fourteen Points, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, and Truman's Point Four Program.

Occasionally we remember secretaries of state as well-but usually when they overshadowed their chief: Seward for the Alaska purchase, not Andrew Johnson; Hay for the Open Door policy, not McKinley; Hughes for the Washington treaty, not Harding. . . . Certainly the President should use his secretary of state. But he should be the captain of the bridge, and not leave it to the helmsman to sail without direction. For in the words of Socrates: "If a man does not know to what port he is sailing, no wind is favorable."

Secondly, the President's responsibility cannot be abdicated to the Congress. Certainly Congress has a role in foreign affairs, constitutionally and practically. It can approve-it can appropriate. But it cannot exercise ultimate power-for it has no ultimate responsibility. It has no way of relating widely separated events, or assessing day-to-day dangers. It has no ambassadors or armies, no access to secret reports, no right to negotiate treaties or construct coalitions. We recognized this in our earliest days when we asked the king of Sweden to address no more letters "to the President and the Senate of the United States."

For these burdens are essentially the President's-and he cannot shift his responsibility to the Congress, under the guise of bipartisanship, asking our support for an unknown policy on Quemoy and Matsu, asking our support for a Middle East doctrine that was more public relations than policy. For bipartisanship does not mean-and was never designed to mean rubber-stamping every executive blunder without debate. . .

No modern President of either party, of course, would deceive the Congress-like Secretary of State Webster, reportedly using his own secret map to convince the Senate that he had cheated the British in drawing the Canadian border, while at the same time Lord Ashburton was using his own secret map to convince Parliament that in reality he had cheated Webster. Nor will today's Congress and Executive actually meet in mortal combat-as Secretary of State Clay and Senator John Randolph did, when the Senate wasn't consulted on the Panama Conference, and the Senator denounced Clay's aged mother for bringing into the world "this being, so brilliant yet so corrupt, which, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shines and stinks."

But even today the President should be prepared to resist unwarranted congressional intrusions in foreign affairs. Above all, he must protect his Foreign Service against thoughtless congressional attacks and investigations. There are always some farm organizations looking out for their department-just as labor unions, veterans, business groups, and postal employees look out for theirs. But the Foreign Service has no pressure groups, no constituency-only the President. And the next President-a Democratic President-must champion and restore this vital agency.

Third, the President's responsibility is to all the people. He must strengthen them-and draw strength from them; educate them-and represent them; pledge his best-and inspire theirs. If he rejects "Operation Candor" as politically dangerous, if he constantly reassures an imperiled nation that all is well, if he answers all critics with an air of infallibility, or, worst of all, if he himself is not informed and therefore cannot inform the people-then the Presidency has failed the American people.

We cannot be reassured that we are building the best defense merely because we now have a general in the White House. For we have had generals in the White House before-and when Grant was asked in 1868 if he really wanted to be President, he was honest enough to reply:"No, I am a military man, not a statesman. I would just like to be Mayor of Galena long enough to build a sidewalk from my house to the station."

Our greatest foreign policy Presidents were not military men. They did not request unquestioning faith. They kept the people informed. They eloquently defined the aims and aspirations of the nation. Mr. Eisenhower's messages may be delivered in well-chosen words-but they sound more like the chairman of the board describing another profitable quarter.

There has been no willingness to say the harsh things that sometimes need to be said-to take the hard steps that may not be popular or convenient-like Thomas Jefferson, purchasing the Louisiana Territory despite outcries from the budget-cutters of his day that we could not afford \\$15 million for this "wilderness"-or like George Washington, standing by the Jay Treaty despite being abused, as he wrote, "in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to Nero, to a notorious defaulter or even to a common pickpocket."

Compare these Presidents to those who yielded to public pressure instead of educating it: Madison being dragged into a war he knew was unsound; McKinley being led into a war he knew was unnecessary; Harding blessing a disarmament conference he knew was unwise; Coolidge hailing a peace pact he knew was unwQrkable. We cannot afford in the turbulent sixties the persistent indecision of a James Buchanan, which caused Ohio's Senator Sherman to say: "The Constitution provides for every accidental contingency in the Executive-except a vacancy in the mind of the President."

In 1960 we must elect a President who will lead the people-who will risk, if he must, his popularity for his responsibility....

Fourth and finally, the President's responsibility is to the Free World as well as the nation. Even before the Constitution was ratified, Jefferson predicted that "the election of a President some years hence will be much more interesting to certain nations of Europe than the election of a king of Poland ever was." And today, as the 1960 campaign begins, every nation of Europe-and the world-is in fact watching our politics and policies. As the British cartoonist David Low has said of every Free World citizen: "Fate has made us all Honorary Americans."

And thus the President of the United States-the leader of that Free World-must represent all its nations, in his every word and deed. And to them in turn his words-in his every press conference and message-represent the real "Voice of America." If they hear not one voice but many-from State, from Treasury, from Defense-they feel in doubt. And if they see him in doubt, they feel betrayed. . .

But if the President is to be creative in foreign policy, his party must be creative. . . . Historically and inevitably the forces of inertia and reaction in the Republican Party oppose any powerful voice in the White House-Republican or Democrat-that seeks to speak for the nation as a whole. Theodore Roosevelt discovered that. Herbert Hoover discovered that and, even before he could run for President, Nelson Rockefeller discovered it. Even President Eisenhower considered forming a third party in 1954. No Republican President, no matter how dedicated, can escape the quicksand of his party's entrenched interests.

But the Democratic Party is a national party-it believes in strong leadership and, with your help, we will give the nation that leadership in January 1961.

John Adams, our second Chief Executive, would not war with France, despite popular pressures from this young and reckless land. In this way he preserved the infant nation-he paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase-but he also insured his own bitter defeat for reelection. Yet later, as death drew near, he wrote to a trusted friend: "I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than this: "Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France..."

In 1960, the next President of the United States must be prepared to take upon himself the responsibility of peace with all the world.


[POSTSCRIPT] The "textbook/cloned" historians that CNN routinely parades over the air, thrive on the statistical claim that Eisenhower kept involvement in Vietnam low whereas Kennedy escalated America's commitment to over 16,000. But a simple statistical analysis, of the sort that McNamara used to project optimism is absolutely meaningless. Colonel Fletcher Prouty, former liaison between the CIA and the Pentagon, explains the meaningless "numbers game" that superficial analysts use to distort history. According to Colonel Prouty:
Don't get trapped into the numbers game. JFK had about 16,000 US military in Vietnam. He emphasized that they were not in combat slots, but this does not count all the guys with the CIA, etc... But this was true of the Eisenhower days. I and my whole squadron were in and out of Vietnam all the time in 1952, 1953 and 1954 and I am sure that the people who followed me in that job were there even more. My brother was with a group in Hanoi in 1954 and 1955. We had alot of guys helping at Dien Bien Phu ...aerial work mostly. We had naval units and plenty of army people. On top of that, the CIA had large units from Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines in Vietnam and they had been there a long time. They began to go with Lansdale in '54. It is not the numbers that matter. It is what the President intended. JFK let things roll along...things that had been started by Eisenhower, and some of them grew. But he was going to get out of there by 1965 and wanted a record of bringing men home during 1963 and 1964. When I was working on NSAM 263 [Taylor/McNamara Report] I was very well briefed on this plan of Kennedy's. He was getting out and he wanted that on the record. That is why he was shot. [High Treason, Appendix A, p.469)

There are no shortage of references citing Kennedy's commitment to pull out of Vietnam by 1965. As a matter of fact, Kennedy was so absolutely committed to withdrawal, he actually believed that anyone who suggested otherwise was a blundering idiot. In his own words, Kennedy defined the political and the moral challenges he faced over the war in Vietnam when he said:

If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I am reelected... In 1965, I'll become one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. I'll be damned everywhere, but I don't care. (High Treason Appendix A-p.467)

To be sure, partisan and ideological bickering has obscured this simple, undeniable fact, and Canadians are probably in the best position to resolve the controversial quagmire of hostile disagreement. In particular, when Kennedy asked Canadian Prime Minister Pearson about what he would do in Vietnam, Pearson told him that he would pull out and Kennedy's reply did not leave any room to doubt his firm intentions. Indeed, when Prime Minister Pearson advised him to pullout, Kennedy said, "Any damn fool knows that. The question is, how?" And so, in the final analysis, if Kennedy was not assassinated, "any damn fool knows" that win, draw or lose, Kennedy would have ended America's involvement in the Vietnam war by 1965 as promised, and Lyndon Johnson would have been denied the opportunity to reverse his plans.

And that is the ultimate tragedy of the Kennedy assassination. As President, we granted him the opportunity to save the world by averting nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we denied him the opportunity to spare us the grief over Vietnam. And that is what makes John F. Kennedy the greatest and the most underestimated President in world history. To be sure, common ignorance has made us retreat in the comfort of "we will never know what might have been", but we know the man, we understand his leadership qualities, we know what he had planned, and we know that it would have made all the difference in the world. It is no longers safe to hide behind ignorance.

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