Senator John F. Kennedy on Overseas Press Club, 1957

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Three years before he was elected President of the United States, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his book Profiles in Courage, which he co-wrote with his adviser and speechwriter Ted Sorensen. The day the award was announced, May 6, 1957, Senator Kennedy addressed a special Overseas Press Club event honoring the accomplishments of members of the foreign press, which was broadcast over WNYC on May 31, 1957.

Wayne Richardson, the then-President of the Overseas Press Club, introduces Kennedy, whom he calls "a man with a great political future."

"There are many who say 'just wait until 1960'," he continues.

Kennedy's speech begins with an amusing cautionary tale for the newspaper editors in the room, taken from the April issue of American Heritage. "In 1851," he begins, "the New York Tribune under Horace Greeley employed as its London correspondent an obscure journalist by the name of Karl Marx." Marx frequently appealed to Greeley "for an increase in his munificent salary of $5 per installment – a salary which he and [Friedrich] Engels ungratefully labeled as 'the lousiest petty-bourgeois cheating,'" but was consistently refused. And so, Kennedy tells, "Marx, looking around for other means of livelihood and fame, eventually terminated his relationship with the Tribune and devoted his talents full-time to the cause that would bequeath to the world the seeds of Leninism, Stalinism, revolution and the Cold War. If only this capitalist New York newspaper had treated him more kindly, if only Marx had remained a foreign correspondent, history might have all been different. I hope all publishers will bear this lesson in mind the next time they received a poverty-stricken appeal from abroad for a small increase in the expense account." The assembled audience laughs and applauds.

The Senator tackles the subject of the systematic exploitation of what he calls "the satellite people in the largest work house in the world, the Soviet Empire," specifically Poland, which he calls "a classic example of Communist mismanagement, inefficiency and exploitation" at the hands of "absentee Soviet centralization and nationalization." The Polish government's recent requests for increased trade, for friendship, and for American credit and economic assistance, he says, were met with doubt, delay, and indecision, because of differences of opinion in Congress, specifically Senate Minority Leader William Knowland, who argues "our aid will simply strengthen the Communist bloc, relieve pressure on the Soviets, and divert to armament those resources now devoted to staving off Polish discontent."

"I do not say that there are no real risks in aiding the Gomulka government," Kennedy continues. "I do say that risk for risk, dollar for dollar, we cannot fail to meet the Poles more than half-way. ... Other satellites, we may be sure, are watching – and if we fail to help the Poles, who else will dare stand up to the Russians and look westward? ... We can obtain an invaluable reservoir of goodwill among the Polish people, and strengthen their will to resist."

Kennedy's speech culminates in an emphatic request for action from his colleagues in Congress to act on these issues:

I believe it is time, therefore, for the formulation of a new American policy toward the satellites. The basic laws governing our foreign economic policies, such as the Battle Act and the Agricultural Surplus Disposal Act, and too much of the general public opinion, recognize only two categories of nations in the world: nations "under the domination or control" of the USSR or the world Communist movement – or "friendly nations". I suggest to you that there are more shades of gray than these black and white definitions would indicate – that there are and will be nations such as Poland that may yet not be our allies or even officially friendly, but which are at least beginning to move out from Soviet domination and control.

Kennedy concludes this cold war address by quoting Alistair Cooke's book One Man's America, in which the British correspondent describes a darkening afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut: "The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish, therefore, that candles may be brought."

Senator Kennedy applauds the work of foreign correspondents, like those gathered in the audience, as "trained, objective observers working not for our government, but for our newspapers, filing not what the Communists tell them, but what they see and hear on their own." Regarding what he calls "a curtain of silence between ourselves and one-fourth of the world's population," Kennedy argues in favor of allowing reporters to go to China. "A refusal to recognize them diplomatically is one thing, but to pretend that they do not exist ... is another, and I believe [this] should be ended."


President John F. Kennedy died 48 years ago yesterday.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.