JFK on the evil of secrecy

This is an address President John F. Kennedy gave to the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27, 1961.

What’s particularly interesting about the speech is that it’s about the communist threat, yet, it’s a speech about the evils of secrecy and the importance of a free press.

Rather than embrace the post-9/11 philosophy of greater paranoia, Kennedy embraced the opposite. And let no one tell suggest that the Soviets didn’t pose as great a threat as Al Qaeda.

John F. Kennedy meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. (Photograph from the U. S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.)

John F. Kennedy meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. ( Photograph from the U. S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.)

I’ve cut the first several paragraphs, as they’re not really relevant, though they’re included in the audio, and you can read them here at the JFK library. (H/t ZDNet)

My topic tonight is a more sober one of concern to publishers as well as editors.

I want to talk about our common responsibilities in the face of a common danger. The events of recent weeks may have helped to illuminate that challenge for some; but the dimensions of its threat have loomed large on the horizon for many years. Whatever our hopes may be for the future–for reducing this threat or living with it–there is no escaping either the gravity or the totality of its challenge to our survival and to our security–a challenge that confronts us in unaccustomed ways in every sphere of human activity.

This deadly challenge imposes upon our society two requirements of direct concern both to the press and to the President–two requirements that may seem almost contradictory in tone, but which must be reconciled and fulfilled if we are to meet this national peril. I refer, first, to the need for a far greater public information; and, second, to the need for far greater official secrecy.

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.

Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions.

Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it.

President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson prior to ceremony for the Workmens' Compensation Commemorative Stamp, Washington, D. C., White House, South Lawn. (Photo taken by a Park Service employee on duty, August 1961.)

President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson prior to ceremony for the Workmens’ Compensation Commemorative Stamp, Washington, D. C., White House, South Lawn. (Photo taken by a Park Service employee on duty, August 1961.)

And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment — that I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes, or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.

But I do ask every publisher, every editor, and every newsman in the nation to reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country’s peril.

In time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort based largely on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy. In times of “clear and present danger”, the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security.

Today no war has been declared — and however fierce the struggle may be, it may never be declared in the traditional fashion. Our way of life is under attack. Those who make themselves our enemy are advancing around the globe. The survival of our friends is in danger. And yet no war has been declared, no borders have been crossed by marching troops, no missiles have been fired.

Photo © by Jeff Dean - then a student at Lawrence College, Appleton, Wisconsin.

Photo © by Jeff Dean – then a student at Lawrence College, Appleton, Wisconsin.

If the press is awaiting a declaration of war before it imposes the self-discipline of combat conditions, then I can only say that no war ever posed a greater threat to our security. If you are awaiting a finding of “clear and present danger,” then I can only say that the danger has never been more clear, and its presence has never been more imminent.

It requires a change in outlook, a change in tactics, a change in missions — by the government, by the people, by every businessman or labor leader, and by every newspaper.

For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence — on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day. It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific, and political operations.

Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed. It conducts the Cold War, in short, with a war-time discipline no democracy would ever hope or wish to match.

Nevertheless, every democracy recognizes the necessary restraints of national security — and the question remains whether those restraints need to be more strictly observed if we are to oppose this kind of attack, as well as outright invasion.

For the facts of the matter are: that this nation’s foes have openly boasted of acquiring through our newspapers information they would otherwise hire agents to acquire through theft, bribery, or espionage; that details of this nation’s covert preparations to counter the enemy’s covert operations have been available to every newspaper reader, friend and foe alike; that the size, the strength, the location, and the nature of our forces and weapons, and our plans and strategy for their use, have all been pinpointed in the press and other news media to a degree sufficient to satisfy any foreign power; and that, in at least in one case, the publication of details concerning a secret mechanism whereby satellites were followed required its alteration at the expense of considerable time and money.

The newspapers which printed these stories were loyal, patriotic, responsible, and well-meaning. Had we been engaged in open warfare, they undoubtedly would not have published such items. But in the absence of open warfare, they recognized only the tests of journalism and not the tests of national security. And my question tonight is whether additional tests should not now be adopted.

JFK addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963. (Photo by federal employee Abbie Rowe.)

JFK addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963. (Photo by federal employee Abbie Rowe.)

That question is for you alone to answer. No public official should answer it for you. No governmental plan should impose its restraints against your will. But I would be failing in my duty to the nation, in considering all of the responsibilities that we now bear and all of the means at hand to meet those responsibilities, if I did not commend this problem to your attention, and urge its thoughtful consideration.

On many earlier occasions, I have said — and your newspapers have constantly said — that these are times that appeal to every citizen’s sense of sacrifice and self-discipline. They call out to every citizen to weigh his rights and comforts against his obligations to the common good. I cannot now believe that those citizens who serve in the newspaper business consider themselves exempt from that appeal.

I have no intention of establishing a new Office of War Information to govern the flow of news. I am not suggesting any new forms of censorship or any new types of security classifications. I have no easy answer to the dilemma that I have posed, and would not seek to impose it if I had one.

But I am asking the members of the newspaper profession and the industry in this country to reexamine their own responsibilities, to consider the degree and the nature of the present danger, and to heed the duty of self-restraint which that danger imposes upon us all.

Every newspaper now asks itself, with respect to every story: “Is it news?” All I suggest is that you add the question: “Is it in the interest of the national security?” And I hope that every group in America — unions and businessmen and public officials at every level — will ask the same question of their endeavors, and subject their actions to the same exacting tests.

And should the press of America consider and recommend the voluntary assumption of specific new steps or machinery, I can assure you that we will cooperate whole-heartedly with those recommendations.

Perhaps there will be no recommendations. Perhaps there is no answer to the dilemma faced by a free and open society in a cold and secret war. In times of peace, any discussion of this subject, and any action that results, are both painful and without precedent. But this is a time of peace and peril which knows no precedent in history.

It is the unprecedented nature of this challenge that also gives rise to your second obligation — an obligation which I share.

And that is our obligation to inform and alert the American people — to make certain that they possess all the facts that they need, and understand them as well — the perils, the prospects, the purposes of our program and the choices that we face.

No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary.

I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.

I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers — I welcome it. This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy.

And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate, and sometimes even anger public opinion.

This means greater coverage and analysis of international news — for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission.

And it means, finally, that government at all levels, must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security — and we intend to do it.

It was early in the Seventeenth Century that Francis Bacon remarked on three recent inventions already transforming the world: the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press. Now the links between the nations, first forged by the compass have made us all citizens of the world, the hopes and threats of one becoming the hopes and threats of us all. In that one world’s efforts to live together, the evolution of gunpowder to its ultimate limit has warned mankind of the terrible consequences of failure.

And so it is to the printing press — to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news — that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Badgerite

    Oh, and here is another choice quote from the article at TPM entitled US Spy Network Will Survive Any Amount of Public Outrage,Experts Say:

    Britain needed US intelligence to help thwart a major terrorist attack, New Zealand relied on it to send troops to Afghanistan, And Australia used it to convict a would be bomber.

    All feats were the result of a spying alliance known as Five Eyes that groups together five English -speaking democracies, and they point to a vital lesson: American information is so valuable, experts say, that no amount of public outrage over secret US surveillance powers would cause Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to ditch the Five Eyes relationship.

    The broader message is that the revelations from NSA leaker Edward Snowden are unlikely to stop or even slow the global growth of secret-hunting — an increasing factor in the security and prosperity of nations.

    I think that is about right. Those programs will survive because they are needed.

  • Badgerite

    Also at the TPM site:

    A North Korean bound ship from Cuba carrying ballistitc missles and other non-conventional arms hidden in a shipment of sugar was stopped in Panama.
    AND

    Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, leader of the brutal Mexican drug cartel Zetas, has been captured in northern Mexico.

    Do you know who I would not rely on to get any of that done? Glen Greenwald, Edward Snowden, Anonymous, or Julian Assange. Or, Dennis Kucinich.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Aye… whatever ideals we may have once had as a nation, however imperfectly embraced or aspired to have been abandoned.

    Our government has been spying on us, contrary to the law and the Constitution. Yet apparently the problem is we’re not allowed to know this is happening. Not allowed, that is, except for the tens of thousands of government employees and private contractors involved in the spying infrastructure.

  • nicho

    But now that we’re in a permanent “state of war,” the government wants a permanent state of secrecy. Both of those work to the benefit of the corporatocracy and to the detriment of the 99 percent.

  • Badgerite

    I don’t care how many women he slept with or where he slept with them, that man was one of the most thoughtful and visionary men to sit in the Oval Office, ever. And he is exactly right. If they want the people’s support with these surveillance programs, whether it is inconvenient or makes us a little more vulnerable or not, they must give the public some access to information about it and how it works in order to get that support. I understand the difficulty. Knowing what restraints are on the government is also knowing what actions you can take that might evade intelligence gathering. But what is the alternative? A complete black out of information?

  • Whitewitch

    Ahhh to be young again and to believe in all that JFK stood for. I am afraid those days are long gone.

  • Indigo

    All that happened long ago on another planet in a dimension of space-time that has vanished into a black hole in a distant galaxy, far, far away,

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