John F. Kennedy's first presidential press conference
|John F. Kennedy's first presidential press conference (1961)
|Held in the State Department Auditorium, January 25, 1961 at 6:00 p.m., EST with 418 attendees. First regular live televised presidential press conference.|
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. Won't you be seated.
I have several announcements to make, first. I have a statement about the Geneva negotiations for an atomic test ban. These negotiations, as you know, are scheduled to begin early in February. They are of great importance, and we will need more time to prepare a clear American position. So we are consulting with other governments, and we are asking to have it put off until late March.
As you know, Mr. John McCloy is my principal adviser in this field, and he has organized a distinguished panel of experts, headed by Dr. James Fisk of the Bell Laboratories -- and Mr. Salinger will have a list of the names at the end of the conference -- who are going to study previous positions that we have taken in this field, and also recommend to Mr. McCloy, for my guidance, what our position would be in late March, when we hope the tests will resume.
Secondly, the United States government has decided to increase substantially its contribution towards relieving the famine in the Congo. This will be done by increasing the supply of corn meal and dry milk, by adding contributions of rice, and by airlifting 1,000 tons of food supplies, seeds, and hospital supplies from a number of African nations to the Congo.
It is the intention of the United States government to meet fully the emergency requirements of the Congo, for rice, corn, dry milk and other foodstuffs from our surplus stocks. Assurances have been received from the United Nations that with the help of this program, the flow of supplies will be adequate to relieve the distressed. The United States government will cooperate fully to help the United Nations prevent famine in the Congo.
Third, I am happy to be able to announce that Captain Freeman B. Olmstead, and Captain John R. McKone, members of the crew of the United States Air Force RB-47 aircraft, who have been detained by Soviet authorities since July 1, 1960, have been released by the Soviet government, and are now en route to the United States.
The United States government is gratified by this decision of the Soviet Union, and considers that this action of the Soviet government removes a serious obstacle to improvement of Soviet-American relations.
Our deepest sympathy and understanding goes to the families of the men of the RB-47 who gave their lives in the service of their country. At the same time, I am sure that all Americans join me in rejoicing with the Olmstead and McKone families. The families, as well as the men, comported themselves in these trying times, in a way which is truly in the best traditions of the military services of the United States. Restraint in these conditions is obviously not easy. But they can be assured that they have contributed in large measure to the final achievement of the objective which we all sought, the release of the men.
QUESTION: Mr. President, this RB-47 case was regarded by the Russians as an over-flight, although we took a different position. In the light of this announcement, what will be your general policy on over-flights, and on such things as the U-2 case -- or the U-2 flights? Do you conceive of circumstances which might warrant resumption of such things as the U-2 flights?
THE PRESIDENT: The Soviet government is fully aware of the United States government views with respect to the distinction between the question of the United States Air Force RB-47 and the incident which occurred over Soviet territory on May 1, 1960, involving an American U-2 type aircraft.
Flights of American aircraft penetrating the air space of the Soviet Union have been suspended since May 1960. I have ordered that they not be resumed.
QUESTION: Mr. President, there have been reports that Mr. Khrushchev might come to the United Nations General Assembly for the resumption of the disarmament debate some time in March. If this were to happen, would you welcome a visit by him to Washington for a get-acquainted meeting?
THE PRESIDENT: I have not heard officially of any proposal by Mr. Khrushchev to come to the United States. I have merely seen newspaper reports, and I feel that it would be more appropriate to wait until we had some indication whether Mr. Khrushchev was planning to come to the United Nations.
QUESTION: Mr. President, can you tell us something about what your role was, if you had one, in the release of these fliers? Did this come about as a consequence of some action you took?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, this matter has been under discussion by the American Ambassador and Mr. Khrushchev on one occasion, and representatives of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, since this week end. The fliers were released as of two a.m. yesterday morning, but in the plane taking off there was a tire that was blown, and therefore the plane did not take off. Our last information is that it took off at 5 o'clock our time this afternoon. It will fly to Amsterdam, and then we expect the fliers to be brought to the United States tomorrow afternoon.
QUESTION: Mr. President, one of your task forces recommended that you resist any early move towards general disarmament negotiations until a firm and fixed U. S. policy could be worked out. What is your reaction to that report, and how much time do you think it might take to get a firm, fixed U. S. position?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Mr. McCloy has responsibility over the area of disarmament, as well as nuclear testing. He has, as I have said, set up this advisory committee on nuclear testing. We expect to also get the American position clearer on general disarmament. There is not the same deadline that we have been facing on the nuclear testing, where we were supposed to resume in early February. But I can state that this was a matter which was discussed early this week by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State and Mr. McCloy, and we are preparing clarification of the American positions on disarmament.
QUESTION: Mr. President, what more can you tell us about the long conversation that Ambassador Thompson had with Mr. Khrushchev, including whether the tone of that conversation was anywhere near as friendly as that of the messages that Khrushchev has sent you?
THE PRESIDENT: I would say the tone was friendly, and as a result of the conversations, as I have said, the decision was made to release the fliers. But the conversations were conducted in an atmosphere of civility.
QUESTION: Could you give us any indication at all as to what other subjects were taken up, in addition to the release of the RB-47 fliers?
THE PRESIDENT: No. I think that I would have to stand on my previous statement.
QUESTION: Does your Administration plan to take any steps to solve the problem in Fayette County, Tennessee, where tenant farmers have been evicted from their homes because they voted last November, and must now live in tents?
THE PRESIDENT: The Congress, of course, enacted legislation which placed very clearly responsibility on the Executive Branch to protect the right of voting. I supported that legislation. I am extremely interested in making sure that every American is given the right to cast his vote without prejudice to his rights as a citizen, and therefore I can state that this Administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection, with all vigor.
QUESTION: Sir, would you please tell us how it was possible for you to do by Executive Order what Mr. Benson always told us was impossible for him to do without more legislation? I refer to the order expanding the distribution of food to the unemployed and giving them more variety in their diet.
THE PRESIDENT: I would not attempt to comment on Mr. Benson, and I don't think there's any question of our rights to issue the Executive Order under the authorities given to us by the Constitution and by legislative action.
I think that we are within our rights. It is a judgment as to what is the best use to make of the funds that are available. The funds are quite limited. The diet which is being provided for the people who are unemployed is still inadequate. Nevertheless, we have used the funds that are available to the maximum, and I don't think that there is any question that we were within our rights.
QUESTION: Could you tell us how and when you learned that these fliers were going to be released?
THE PRESIDENT: I learned as a result of the conversations which Ambassador Thompson had with the Soviet officials, and therefore we were informed as to the date that they would be released and the time yesterday.
QUESTION: Mr. President, there has been some apprehension about the instantaneous broadcasts of Presidential press conferences such as this one, and the contention being that an inadvertent statement is no longer correctible, as in the old days, could possibly cause some grave consequences.
Do you feel that there is any risk or could you give us some thought on that?
THE PRESIDENT: It is my understanding that the statements made by President Eisenhower were on the record, and they may have been a clarification that could have been issued afterward, but it still would have been on the record as a clarification, so that I don’t think that the interests of our country -- it seems to me they are as well protected under this system as they were under the system followed by President Eisenhower, and this system has the advantage of providing more direct communication.
QUESTION: Under what conditions would you consider reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba, and are you considering such a step now?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, to take the last part first, we are not considering such a step, at the present time. I may say that the United States is interested, and I think that this Administration is extremely interested, in movements in Latin America and Central America, and the Caribbean, which provide a better life for the people.
And if American interests may be damaged by those movements, or revolutions, or whatever term you want to use, we feel that this should be a matter that should be negotiated. What we are, of course, concerned about is when these movements are seized by external forces and directed not to the improving the welfare of the people involved, but towards imposing an ideology which is alien to this hemisphere. That is a matter of concern, particularly when that intervention takes the form of military support which threatens the security and the peace of the Western Hemisphere.
Now, I am hopeful that governments will be established throughout all of Latin America, and governments which are established -- and I think nearly all of them do share the same view -- that we have to provide in this hemisphere a better life for the people involved, that we are interested in that, that we are concerned about it, that American policy will be directed towards that end. But we are also concerned that in the name of that peaceful revolution, when it is seized by aliens for their purposes, it is very difficult for the United States to carry on happy relations with those countries.
So in answer to your question, we have no plan at present to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, because of the factors which are involved on that island.
QUESTION: Mr. President, you have said in the past, sir, that the President should be in the thick of the political battle, and I wondered, sir, if you could tell us what part you are playing in the efforts to expand the Rules Committee, and whether you feel your domestic program -- whether the success of your domestic program in part depends on expanding the Rules Committee?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the Constitution states that each House shall be the judge of its own rules, and therefore the Speaker of the House, Mr. Rayburn, has been extremely anxious that the House be permitted to settle this matter in its own way.
But it is no secret that I would strongly believe that the Members of the House should have an opportunity to vote themselves on the programs which we will present. That, I think, is the reason the people selected them to go to the House of Representatives, and to the Senate, and selected me as President, so that we could present programs and consider programs and vote on programs which are put forward for the benefit of the country.
I am hopeful that whatever judgment is made by the Members of the House, that it will permit the Members to vote on these bills. This is a very difficult time in the life of our country. Many controversial measures will be presented which will be in controversy and will be debated. But at the end, the majority of the Members of the House, the majority of the Members of the Senate, I hope, will have a chance to exercise their will, and that a small group of men will not attempt to prevent the Members from finally letting their judgments be known.
For example, we have a housing bill which is going to come before the Congress this year. We have an aid-to-education bill. We have legislation which will affect the income of farmers. Shouldn't the Members of the House themselves, and not merely the members of the Rules Committee, have a chance to vote on those measures?
But, the responsibility rests with the Members of the House, and I would not attempt in any way to infringe upon that responsibility. I merely give my view as an interested citizen. (laughter)
QUESTION: Mr. President, are any plans being made to implement the recommendations in the Voorhees report on the Cuban refugee problem? And secondly, do you plan to appoint somebody to continue Mr. Voorhees' work?
THE PRESIDENT: We are considering the recommendations of Mr. Voorhees and the whole problem of the Cuban refugees, but I wouldn't have any statement to make on it at this time.
QUESTION: Mr. President, what is the official government position in regard to the Portuguese-seized ship? Can the Navy board it, if and when it makes contact?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I believe that the location of the ship has been determined. Perhaps we could give the location of it.
At the present time, the instructions are for the Navy to continue its accompaniment of the ship. The Santa Maria has been located by Navy P-2-V aircraft, and the position is approximately 600 miles north of the mouth of the Amazon River, it is headed on a course of 117, a speed of 15 knots, and the exact position at 10 minutes after four was 10-35 North, 45-42 West.
It will be trailed by aircraft, to be picked up by the destroyers of our African task force. There are Americans involved, and their lives are involved.
But I have not given any instructions to the Navy to carry out any boarding operations, though of course we are concerned about the lives of the Americans involved, and also because we are concerned because the ship belongs to a country with which the United States has friendly relations.
QUESTION: Mr. President, in consequence of Mr. Khrushchev's apparent indication last week end of willingness to release the American fliers, have you sent any communication to him through Ambassador Thompson, or otherwise?
THE PRESIDENT: Have I sent a message since the release of the fliers?
QUESTION: Since his communication to us through Ambassador Thompson?
THE PRESIDENT: We have had several exchanges with the Soviet authorities. I do not believe that one has taken place since the release of the prisoners, but that's partially because there has been this delay about their leaving Moscow.
QUESTION: Mr. President, there is meeting here now a nationwide group of labor, agriculture and industry, which wants to abolish or restrict the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act. They say that it robs us of gold, robs American workers of jobs. What is your position on such a proposal?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that their meeting here is well within their rights as citizens of the United States, and I think that we should listen to their views. This is a matter of great concern.
I do think we should be conscious of the fact, of course, that the balance of trade has been substantially in our favor in the last year, but we are continually concerned about those imports which adversely affect an entire industry and adversely affect the employment of a substantial number of our citizens. The present laws, peril-point and escape clause, of course, all take those matters into consideration. But I am glad to have them here. I am glad to have them express their views. I think the Congress should consider their views carefully, and I hope that in their consideration they will consider the whole problem of trade. And I do think we should realize that the balance of trade has been in our favor, and the gold flow would have been substantially worse if we had not had this favorable balance of trade.
QUESTION: Mr. President, in relation to the gold flow problem, the outgoing Administration has ordered a cutback in the number of American military and civilian dependents stationed abroad in the so-called hard currency nations. The day before your Inaugural, the outgoing Defense Secretary advised your incoming Defense Secretary in the matter of urging him that relief should be sought as soon as possible because of what the outgoing Defense Secretary termed the adverse effect of the order on the morale of the military and their families. Have you had a chance to make up your mind on that position?
THE PRESIDENT: Mr. McNamara and Mr. Dillon have discussed the effect of this order on military morale, our military strength, the rate of re-enlistment, and it is really a question of determining what alternative steps can be secured which would be less harmful, but which would protect the flow of gold.
I do expect to make some reference to this matter of gold outflow in the State of the Union address. I will send, within a two-week period after the State of the Union address, a Message to the Congress dealing with the gold outflow and our recommendations for meeting it. And we will, at that time, come to some judgment as to whether a more satisfactory method of protecting our gold could be secured than providing for the return of the families of Americans serving abroad in the military.
I will say that our study, so far, has convinced us that the dollar must be protected, that the dollar can be protected in its present value, that exchange controls are not essential; but it is a most serious problem, and it will be the subject of a Message to the Congress.
QUESTION: The State of New York gave you one of your handsomest majorities in the 1960 election campaign, but now the Democrats of New York are rather bitterly divided over leadership.
As the leader of the Democratic Party nationally, are you going to take some steps to try and heal the splits in New York?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the people in New York, the Democratic organizations in New York who are interested in the success of the Democratic Party, they have to make their judgments as to what kind of party they want to build there.
I have asked Mr. Bailey, the new Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to lend a helping hand in attempting to alleviate some of the distress. (laughter)
QUESTION: Mr. President, sir, do you have any plans for quick Federal aid for the unemployed?
THE PRESIDENT: We are going to send a Message to the Congress right after the State of the Union Address, on what steps we think the government could profitably take to provide the protection for the unemployed, and also to stimulate the economy.
On the immediate question, I will discuss that in the State of the Union Address on Monday.
QUESTION: Mr. President, now that the Soviets have released the RB-47 fliers, could you estimate for us the chances of you meeting with Premier Khrushchev.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. There is no relationship nor has there been in the discussion between the two matters. And therefore, there has been no change in my previous statement that there are no plans at the present time for meeting with Mr. Khrushchev.
QUESTION: Mr. President, will you tolerate the continued abuse of executive privilege, to suppress information which is needed by Congress? For instance, now that you are President, will you direct the USIA to give the Senate Foreign Relations Committee those prestige polls which you urged the previous administration to make available during the campaign?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me say that I would have no objection at all to polls, or at least the results of the polls being made available, and I will be delighted to check in and see what we could do about making it available to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the House Foreign Relations Committee, if they would like them.
QUESTION: On the larger question, Mr. President, about the abuse of executive privilege, to suppress all sorts of information, what is your position on that, is it?
THE PRESIDENT: That is a statement, really not completely a question.
QUESTION: Well, I believe that you yourself agreed –
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that's why I stated that it would be well to release these polls, and that is why I said that I would be glad to release these polls.
Now, if other matters come up, we will have to make a judgment, whether it is an abuse, or whether it is within the Constitutional protection given to the Executive, and I would hope that we can, within the limits of national security, make available information to the press and to the people; and I do think that it would be helpful to release the polls which were discussed last fall.
QUESTION: Mr. President, on that subject, Press Secretary Salinger said today -- indicated today, there might be a need for a tightening on information on national security. Doesn't the policy of deterrence require that the enemy have knowledge of our strength -- of our intentions and the ability to carry them out -- and wouldn't we risk a possible miscalculation by tightening up information?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that the enemy is informed of our strength. I think Mr. Salinger, in his statement today at lunch, indicated his judgment based on his experience so far, that there had been very ample information given so that the enemy can make a determination as to our strength. I am anxious that we have a maximum flow of information, but there quite obviously are some matters which involve the security of the United States, and it is a matter on which the press and the Executive should attempt to reach a responsible decision.
I could not make a prediction about what those matters will be, but I think all of us here are aware that there are some matters which it would not be well to discuss at particular times. So we will just have to wait and try to work together and see if we can provide as much information as we can within the limits of national security. I do not believe that the stamp "National Security" should be put on mistakes of the Administration which do not improve the national security. And this Administration would welcome, anytime that any member of the press feels that we are artificially invoking that cover. But I must say that I do not hold the view that all matters and all information which is available to the Executive should be made available at all times, and I don't think any member of the press does. So it is a question of trying to work out a solution to a sensitive matter.
QUESTION: Mr. President, in the past two days, Secretary of State Dean Rusk has issued statements, one with your name on it, to the effect that this country wants to return to quiet, private diplomacy. Could you give us some idea of the meaning behind this, Mr. President? Are you trying to suggest that to Khruschev, you would like to resort to this for the time being, without offending him or making him go off the cordial path he's on at the present time?
THE PRESIDENT: The last part of that?
QUESTION: Are you trying to suggest to Mr. Khrushchev, what you are saying in these statements, that you don't want a summit meeting now, you would like it to go through private channels, and trying to do this without offending him or getting him off the cordial path he's on now?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I would just say, without accepting the question completely as a premise, I would say that the Secretary of State is anxious to explore with interested countries what chance we have of lessening world tension, which in some areas of the world is quite high tonight. Therefore, there are occasions when traditional exchanges between diplomats and the countries involved are in the national interest. And that, I think, is what Mr. Rusk is directing his attention to. I am hopeful that from those more traditional exchanges we can perhaps find greater common ground.
QUESTION: Mr. President, sir, do you favor Senator Humphrey's suggestion that we send surplus foods to Red China through the U.N. or CARE, or some similar organization?
THE PRESIDENT: Well I will say two things: First, Red China and the Chinese Communists are exporting food at the present time, some of it to Africa, some of it has gone I think to Cuba; and therefore that is a factor in their needs for food from abroad.
Secondly, we have had no indication from the Chinese Communists that they would welcome any offer of food. I am not anxious to offer food, if it's regarded merely as a propaganda effort by the United States. If there is a desire for food, and a need for food, the United States would be glad to consider that need, regardless of the source. If peoples’ lives are involved, if there is a desire for food, the United States will consider it carefully. I do say that in this case, however, there are these examples of food being exported during this present time, or recent history; and secondly, there has been a rather belligerent attitude expressed towards us in recent days by the Chinese communists, and there is no indication, direct or indirect, private or public, that they would respond favorably to any action by the United States.
QUESTION: Mr. President, the task force report on Space has been criticized as partisan opinion. There also has been criticism that the report was made without any contact with NASA officials, without any attempt at liaison during the transition period, and there is concern that no one has so far been named to head the agency. Could you comment on these charges?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the task force was free to make the kind of report that in their best judgment the events called for. The task force was made up of men of broad experience in this field. I think it was really a blue ribbon panel. They presented their views. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that their views are necessarily in every case the right views. I am hopeful -- we have appointed an Acting Director -- I am hopeful that before the week is out we will have a Director of NASA.
QUESTION: Mr. President, you have directed your departmental heads to take a new look at the Eisenhower budget, with indications that you may have some partial revisions. Can you now say whether you hope or expect to live within the $80,900,000,000 spending figure which your predecessor laid down?
THE PRESIDENT: That study of the Budget is now going on, and I could not give you an answer yet. We have not finished our study.
QUESTION: Mr. President, your Inaugural Address was unusual, in that you dealt only with America’s position in the world. Why, Mr. President, did you limit yourself to this global theme?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, because the issue of war and peace is involved, and the survival of perhaps the planet, possibly our system; and therefore this is a matter of primary concern to the people of the United States and the people of the world.
Secondly, representing a new Administration, I think the views of this Administration are quite well known to the American people and will become better known in the next month. I think that we are new, however, on the world scene, and therefore I felt that there would be some use in informing countries around the world of our general view on the questions which face the world and divide the world.
QUESTION: Mr. President, you have spoken of the situation where there are crises in the world now. One of these places is Laos. Do you have any hopes that a political settlement can be negotiated there?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, as you know, the British government has presented to the Soviet Union -- and to the best of my information an answer has not been received by the British -- of a proposal to re-establish the International Control Commission. We ought to know shortly whether there is any hope that that Commission can be re-established.
As to the general view on Laos, this matter is of great concern to us. The United States is anxious that there be established in Laos a peaceful country, an independent country, not dominated by either side, but concerned with the life of the people within the country. We are anxious that that situation come forward, and the United States is using its influence to see that that independent country, peaceful country, uncommitted country, can be established under the present very difficult circumstances.
QUESTION: In discussing with the Soviet Union the release of the RB-47 fliers, did we also take up with Mr. Khrushchev the fate of Francis Gary Powers the U-2 pilot, and the 11 fliers that were missing from the C-130 that was shot down inside Armenia in 1958?
THE PRESIDENT: The matter of the 11 fliers was discussed, and Mr. Khrushchev -- the Russians, rather, have stated that their previous public statements on these fliers represent their view in the matter, that the newspaper magazine story which was written by an Eastern German did not represent the facts. So, on the matter of Mr. Powers, we have not discussed it at this time because he is in a different category than the fliers that were released. One was an over-flight and the other was a flight of a different nature.
QUESTION: Mr. President, did the Russians ask any quid pro quo, or did we make any concessions to them in exchange for the release of these fliers? If not, how do you account for this remarkable turnabout in their relations with us?
THE PRESIDENT: The statement which I have made is the statement which the United States government put forward on this matter, which I read to you earlier in regard to over-flights.
I would not attempt to make a judgment as to why the Soviet Union chose to release them at this time. I did say in my statement to Mr. Arrowsmith that this had removed a serious obstacle in the way of peaceful relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, and I would judge that they desired to remove that serious obstacle.
QUESTION: Does that mean, sir, that they accepted a reassurance of no more over-flights as an exchange?
THE PRESIDENT: It is a fact that I have ordered that the flights not be resumed, which is a continuation of the order given by President Eisenhower in May of last year.
QUESTION: Mr. President, your own election has stimulated renewed proposals for electoral reform. Do you have any objection to changing the present method of electing Presidents, or do you favor any of the proposals?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I do have some thoughts on it. One is that in the first place, having been through the experience in 1956, I think it was, of an attempt to substantially change the electoral college, it is my judgment that no such change can secure the necessary support in the House, the Senate, and in the States of the Union.
The area where I do think we perhaps could get some improvements would be in providing that the electors would be bound by the results of the State elections. I think that that would be a useful step forward. The electors, after all -- the people vote, they assume the votes are going to be cast in the way which reflects the judgments of a majority of the people of the State. And therefore, I think it would be useful to have that automatic, and not set up this independent group who could vote for the candidate who carried the State or not, depending on their own personal views. That would be the first.
Secondly, I am hopeful that the Congress would consider the suggestions made, I think first by President Theodore Roosevelt, and later by Senator Richard Neuberger, of having the national government participate in the financing of national campaigns, because the present system is not satisfactory. Perhaps it would be useful to go into that in more detail later, because I do think it is a most important subject. But I would say for the present that this matter of the electors would be an area where I think we could usefully move.
QUESTION: Mr. President, on a related subject, without being morbid, have you given any consideration to the problem which President Eisenhower resolved with his Vice President; that is, the problem of succession in the case of injury, illness, or some incapacitation? Have you thought of some agreement with the Vice President, such as your predecessor had, or some other?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes -- well, I haven't developed that at this present time, though I do think that President Eisenhower's decision was a good one, and I think it would be a good precedent. Nothing has been done on it as yet, but I think it would be a good matter which we could proceed on.
(MARVIN ARROWSMITH, AP): Thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.