Sputnik’s launch by the Soviet Union just over 50 years ago prompted a review of American science, foreign policy, technology and industry. It also prompted a review of the foundations of those practices — education.
Over the next four years, with the leadership of the National Science Foundation, Americans revamped education in each locality, beefing up academic standards, adding new arts classes, new science classes, new humanities classes especially in history and geography (1957-58 was the International Geophysical Year) and bringing up to date course curricula and textbooks, especially in sciences.
On the wave of those higher standards, higher expectations and updated information, America entered an era of achievement in science and technology whose benefits we continue to enjoy today.
We were in the worst of the Cold War in 1957. We had an enemy that, though not really formal in a declared war sense, was well known: The Soviet Union and “godless communism.” Some of the activities our nation engaged in were silly — adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance smoked out no atheists or communists, but did produce renewed harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and anyone else opposed to such oaths — and some of the activities were destructive — Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s excessive and ultimately phony zeal in exposing communists led to detractive hearings, misplaced fears of fellow citizens and serious political discussion, and violations of Americans’ civil rights that finally prompted even conservative Republicans to censure his action. The challenges were real. As Winston Churchill pointed out, the Soviet Union had drawn an “Iron Curtain” across eastern Europe. They had maintained a large army, gained leadership in military aviation capabilities, stolen our atomic and H-bomb secrets, and on October 4, 1957, beaten the U.S. into space with a successful launch of an artificial satellite. The roots of destruction of the Soviet Empire were sown much earlier, but they had barely rooted by this time, and no one in 1957 could see that the U.S. would ultimately triumph in the Cold War.
That was important. Because though the seeds of the destruction of Soviet communism were germinating, to grow, they would need nourishment from the actions of the U.S. over the next 30 years.
Photo from the Kennedy Library: “PX 65-105:185 Hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate Improper Activities in Labor-Management Relations (“McClellan Commitee”). Chief Counsel Robert F. Kennedy and Senator John F. Kennedy question a witness, May, 1957. Washington, D. C., United States Capitol. Photograph by Douglas Jones for LOOK Magazine, in the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LOOK Magazine Collection.”
Fourteen days after the Soviet Union orbited Sputnik, a young veteran of World War II, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, spoke at the University of Florida. Kennedy was an anti-communist of course; and he had seen the smoke of battle and had men in his command die close at hand. The senator had been invited to speak at a banquet for Blue Key, the university’s highest honorary society.
The question Kennedy addressed was the title of his speech, “Can We Compete with the Russians? He would talk about what Americans needed to do to meet the Soviet challenges.
Kennedy’s list of worries is long; his prescriptions are relatively short. His prescriptions end with a plea to the students of the University of Florida, and to students everywhere, to go out and serve. Kennedy’s ultimate answer to the challenge of Soviet communism in foreign relations, science, technology, economics, and the arts, is an educated America.
Americans face a similar set of challenges today, but from different directions. Islamic and nationalistic terrorists threaten peace. China, India, Japan and Europe push America’s technological and science leadership — China may put a man on the Moon before the U.S. gets back there, and both China and India now graduate more engineers every year than the U.S. China’s economy is on a course to eclipse the U.S. as the leading economy in the world. Japanese companies control much of the production of commercial art in the U.S. and the world. Toyota may have displaced General Motors as the world’s leading auto producer in 2007; steel producers and other heavy industry begs for tax relief from the U.S. Congress to push industry away from U.S. borders, something that might have won them demands for trials for treason in 1957.
Americans are not united in facing those challenges, and America is divided in providing the educational support to keep leadership in those areas. In distinct contrast from 1957, some Americans actively campaign to water down or eliminate science education; some call for an end to public schooling and the “educate everybody for the good of the nation” philosophy in favor of a libertarian, “educate only as each family is able” philosophy.
Kennedy laid out his hopes for competing with the Russians, and the U.S. did. The question is salient today with only the competition changed. Can America compete with India, China, Japan, OPEC and Europe?
Santayana’s Ghost left a copy of Sen. Kennedy’s speech, printed out from the website at the JFK Library, with a sticky note that said, when held up to the light, “READ THIS!”
Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Blue Key Banquet at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, October 18, 1957
From the Kennedy Library: This is a redaction of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. One draft of the speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library. A link to the page images is given at the bottom of this page. [Link preserved at this site]
CAN WE COMPETE WITH THE RUSSIANS?
We meet tonight on this festive occasion in an atmosphere of tension and dissension. The autumn air is filled with calls for a special session of Congress, for a full-scale investigation of our missile and satellite program, for a new arms commission or weapons czar. There are satellites in the sky, strontium in the atmosphere and hurried conferences on the Trans-Atlantic cable. Many Americans, shocked at our failures, dismayed at our set-backs, fearful of our course, are asking themselves the one question I would pose to you tonight:
Can we compete with the Russians?
Can we compete with the Russians? We have always assumed the answer was automatically yes. To express doubt has been unpatriotic and un-American, a sign of weak-kneed thinking or hopeless pessimism, a demonstration of a lack of faith in our nation and in our way of life. Of course, it was felt, we could compete with the Russians – were we not, after all, the greatest, richest, most powerful, most intelligent nation on the face of the earth, our armies never defeated, our factories never out-produced, our ideals never outshone in their appeal to the rest of the world? Compete with the Russians? We can outrun them, outsmart them, and outmaneuver them at every turn – even more drastically than what the University of Florida is going to do to Mississippi State tomorrow afternoon.
This, I repeat, is the feeling of confidence, of superiority, of security, that has characterized our attitude, officially and unofficially, since the very start of the Cold War.
But tonight I must ask the question again – soberly if not sadly, objectively if not smugly – can we compete with the Russians? Can our political system, with its free elections and free criticism – our economic system, with its free labor and free enterprise – our educational system, with its free choice of careers and methods – compete with a totalitarian state with leaders who need give little thought to the popularity of their course, who need pay little tribute to the public opinion they manipulate, and who may force, without fear of retaliation at the polls, their citizens to sacrifice present laughter for future glory. Can we compete with a nation that has absolute power to determine the number of scientists it shall produce and the projects on which they shall work – that can determine with little regard to public feeling what proportion of its economic resources shall be applied to the instruments of war and diplomacy, and what proportion to consumer luxuries. Can Washington compete with Moscow – where there are tonight, I can assure you, no citizen petitions for lower taxes, no rivalry between the services on the jurisdiction of missile development, no pleas to end conscription, no complaints from friendly governments about not being consulted on policy changes, no allocation of steel for washing machines, and no scientists deciding to leave government service to devote their talents to developing a new detergent.
Where can we compete with the Russians? In recent years, the Communists have scored political-ideological victories in Southeast Asia and Latin America, diplomatic victories in the Middle East and Asia, and military victories in Indo-China and Hungary. Their economic, technical and military assistance programs have been more consistently successful than ours in furthering their objectives – their propaganda more effective in saving dissension – their voting bloc in the UN more cohesive. Even our geographic advantages are crumbling, as the Russians establish their first solid foot-hold in the Middle East, NATO fades, and intercontinental missiles and jet bombers reduce the significance of time and space.
In short, the Russians are singing, with some justification and with some results, the old refrain – “Anything you can do, I can do better.” And they are demonstrating it in the four key areas of the Cold War – military build-up, productive capacity, foreign economic relations and scientific achievement.
First, recall, if you will, the record of comparison in the race for military security. When, some ten years ago, Americans expressed concern over the Russian edge in manpower, we were reassured by our monopoly of nuclear power. When the Russians developed and tested atomic and then hydrogen weapons, we were reassured by our superiority in air power. When the Russians passed us in terms of fighter aircraft and prepared to pass us in terms of jet, long-range bomber strength, we were reassured that our superiority rested in ballistic missile and satellite developments. And now we enter the age of sputnik.
Secondly consider the advantages of the Russian system in terms of industrial capacity. We in this country can produce twice as much steel as the Soviet Union – but roughly one-fourth of this goes to automobiles, and a large proportion of the rest is in sheet and strip, for refrigerators, washing machines and other consumer goods. Practically all of the Russian steel capacity, on the other hand, is devoted to structural, heavy steel shapes and steel plate production – for armaments and capital goods, for developing their own capacity and for exporting to the underdeveloped nations the capital goods they cannot obtain in sufficient quantity from us. The Soviet Union may still lag behind this nation in terms of total national production – but it has passed us, believe it or not, in the production of capital goods, in industrial output generally, in its rate of industrialization and productive growth, and in the production of military end items.
Third, consider the advantages of a monolithic economy that can ignore the wishes of consumers, taxpayers and Congressional Committees in concluding arrangements for foreign aid and trade. Indonesia wants ten technicians, says Mr. Krushchev – send them twenty. The World Bank demands 4% interest on a capital loan to Burma – we’ll let them have it for 2%. Ceylon is trying to sell rubber at the world price – we’ll pay them 10% above the world price. Syria needs to buy expensive oil-refining equipment – we shall sell it to them at a loss. Afghanistan needs markets for her wool and cotton – we shall buy it whether we need it or not.
Fourth and finally, consider the advantages enjoyed by the Russians in channeling their scientific and educational resources into the cold war. There have been attempts in recent weeks, as previously, to console the American people with the message that every Russian gain is either a crude imitation or the result of espionage or stolen secrets. The truth of the matter is that the Soviet Union already has available for this kind of work more engineers and scientists then we presently have in any capacity in this country, and very nearly as many as this country and. western Europe combined. In recent years, the output of new engineers and scientists in the U.S.S.R. has surpassed that of the total United States and Western Europe classes graduating in these fields – and their current enrollment of engineering and science students in institutions of higher education exceeds our own. This lead is not merely one of numbers, but of quality as well. A special study concluded by the Joint Atomic Energy Committee of the Congress concluded that “the training given Soviet engineers and scientists is of a high order, and compares favorably with the best in the United States and Europe.”
It is rather difficult to reverse these trends when the teaching of the physical sciences and mathematics in our own secondary schools has declined; when about half of those with talent in these fields who graduate from high school are either unable or uninterested in going to college; and when, of the half who enter college, scarcely 40% graduate. It is rather difficult to reverse these trends when nearly a million boys and girls are deprived by the classroom shortage of full-time schooling, when millions more are held back in unwieldy classes of forty or more, and when we pay the average railway conductor nearly twice as much as we pay the teacher who conducts our elementary classes.
This is a wonderful, wealthy country in which we live – we can buy stock on margin, television on credit and a new freezer on the installment plan. We can demand from our government higher subsidies and lower taxes, and vote out of office those who do not comply with our wishes. We can make more political speeches, hold more press conferences, stage more conventions and plan more formal dinners than any three Communist countries in the world combined. We can take comfort in the fact that, although Russian diplomats may have scored in Syria, one of our teams won the World Series. They may have launched the first space satellite – but we were the first to come out with the Edsel.
But can we, I ask, can we compete with the Russians? I do not ask this question, or raise these doubts, in order to replace complacency with panic. This is not a time for panic, for fatalism or for political maneuvering. I would not want our future course in the cold war determined by either those who, with their eye on our nuclear stockpile, glibly assert that we have nothing to fear – or those who, with their eye on the Russian moon, cry out frantically that all is lost. Let us be calm, let us be realistic, let us be determined, let us face up squarely to the question: can we compete with the Russians?
If we are to answer that question in the affirmative – and we must, for our very life and way of life depend upon it – it will require a full-scale reassessment of our methods, our objectives and our role. We are not going to give up our liberties to match the Soviet ability to make hard and swift decisions. We are not going to bid against the Russians for the privilege of seeing who can send the most aid to a wavering nation. We are not going to duplicate their trade agreements that call for repayment in surplus agricultural commodities, as long as we cannot get rid of our own.
Our propaganda and ideological warfare will probably never be as successful in telling falsehoods, arousing hatreds and sowing doubt and disunity. And finally, when both sides possess sufficient nuclear weapons and missiles to devastate the entire earth in case of war, reaching what Sir Winston Churchill called the point of “saturation”, then any advantage in this area, even if it could be achieved, would be meaningless.
In what area, then, can we successfully compete with the Russians, as compete we must The answer, it seems to me, lies in our area of greatest weakness – for it is also our area of greatest strength: the American people – their capacity for leadership, their determination to survive, their willingness to sacrifice. We will not, we cannot, we dare not sacrifice our liberties, however great a luxury or inconvenience they may sometimes seem in competing with the Russians. But can we sacrifice some of our comfort, some of our economic pleasures? Have we, in short, the spiritual resources required to make a sacrifice of our material blessings large enough to match the Russian advantage obtained through denying both the blessings of liberty and the blessings of prosperity?
It is a discouraging prospect, I agree. Record budgets, burdensome taxes, heavy debts and not enough left over for essential programs here at home have been our lot, as for more than ten years we generously distributed foreign aid to our friends abroad – and we had every reason to hope that the extent of this aid and the extent of European recovery would have made possible by this time a relaxation of our efforts.
But it would be self-defeating, I am afraid, to consider the job finished. For the great challenge to our status and security in the next several years may well be neither military nor political, but economic – and the most critical problem in this economic sphere is the problem of underdeveloped nations in the uncommitted world. For in the midst of this age of prosperity and abundance, this age of rising wages, profits, production end consumption, the standard of living for much of the world is declining, their poverty and economic backwardness are increasing, their share of the world’s population is growing, and their vulnerability to Communist exploitation becoming daily more obvious. In the world community of nations, the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Per capita income in the United States may have climbed to some $2,000 a year for every man, woman and child – but it is $110 a year in Egypt, $54 in India and $25 in Libya. The world may be enjoying more prosperity than ever before – but, strange as it may seem, it has also never seen so much poverty in all its history.
Among the primary causes of this ever-widening gap is the overwhelming and utterly unprecedented world population explosion. We are now adding more inhabitants to our globe each year than presently constitute the entire population of France; and this still-rising rate threatens to double the world’s population before the 20th Century is out. To feed each day’s increase in population requires that we find 150 square miles of new arable land every day.
To feed one year’s gain alone would require a new farm as large as the state of Illinois. And, unlike previous increases, the greatest gains have came in the poverty-stricken, under-developed countries least able to support them – in Latin America, where the population is increasing more than four time faster than that of Northwestern Europe; in East Asia, increasing more than three times as fast; and in the Middle East. This explosion has resulted not, as most assume, from an increased birth rate but from a phenomenal reduction in these countries in the death rate, from the control of infectious diseases, sanitation improvement, and medical progress.
Mexico, for example, will double its population during the next twenty-three years, largely because it has decreased its death rate in the last decade by an astonishing 43%. In already crowded Puerto Rico the death rate has declined. 82%. In Ceylon, the DDT war on malaria mosquitos has cut the death rate in half, so that in twenty years the population will have doubled –with 600 persons for every square mile! The prevention, reduction: and elimination of cholera, malaria, venereal disease, smallpox and other plagues of mankind; the introduction of public health centers, insecticides, antibiotics, free milk and mass vaccines – these and other advancements have all shown tremendous progress – while at the same time presenting a serious challenge to the American people.
To greet this challenge, the old “relief and rehabilitation” concepts of foreign aid are no longer adequate. A new emphasis is needed, to act as “seed” capital to private investment, both from this country and from Europe – for irrigation and power projects, communications and harbor improvements – through long term loans wherever possible, and through private investors to the extent feasible.
Congress, as a start, must broaden the authority and increase the capitalization of the International Development fund which the Senate launched in this year’s Mutual Security Act. We must explore, too, the possibility of utilizing our vast and costly agricultural surpluses as a means of capital investment abroad – sending them to under-developed nations who may not be suffering from a shortage of those products, but who can then devote the human and material resources which would otherwise be devoted to feeding their population to the building of roads, dams and other capital improvements.
This problem of underdeveloped areas is only one aspect of our race with the Russians. Here as elsewhere, there are no easy decisions to make or simple problems to solve. What we need from the American people, then, is not sacrifice alone but leadership – the service of dedicated, responsible leaders, who can look beyond. the problems of the next election to see the problems of the next generation. Where are those leaders to come from? Primarily from the University of Florida and the University of Massachusetts, from all of the colleges and educational institutions of our nation. In the long run, it is upon these colleges and the type of graduates they produce that our answer to the Russian threat ultimately depends.
I do not say that our political and public life should be completely turned over to college-trained experts who ignore public opinion. I would not adopt the provision from the Belgian Constitution of 1893 giving three votes instead of one to college graduates (at least not until more Democrats go to college). Nor do I suggest that the University of Florida be given a seat in Parliament as William and Mary College was once represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
But I do urge that each of you, regardless of your chosen occupation, consider entering the field of politics at some stage in your career, that you offer to the political arena, and to the critical problems of our society which are decided therein, the benefits of the talents which society has helped to develop in you. I ask you to decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil – or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education.
Prince Bismarck had it reduced to a formula – one third of the students of German universities, he once stated, broke down from overwork; another third broke down from dissipation; and the other third ruled Germany. (I leave it to each of you to decide which third is here tonight.)
But if you are to be among the rulers of your land, from precinct captain to President, if you are willing to enter the abused and neglected profession of politics, then let me tell you that our profession stands in serious need of the fruits of your education. I realize that no education is usually considered necessary for political success, except the ability to find your way around a smoke-filled room. But; in truth we stand in dire need of men who can ride easily over broad fields of knowledge – men, for example, like Thomas Jefferson, whom a contemporary described as “A gentleman of 32, who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.” We do not need political scholars whose education has been so specialized as to exclude then from participation in current events – men like Lord John Russell, of whom Queen Victoria once remarked that he would be a better man if he knew a third subject – but he was interested in nothing but the Constitution of 1688 and himself.
And so it is here that our hopes for competing with the Russians must be fulfilled, here in this citadel of learning, from which you can take with you upon graduation all the accumulated knowledge and inspiration you may need to face the future. I am assuming, of course, that you will be taking something with you, that you do not look upon this university as Dean Smith regarded Oxford. It was truly a great seat of learning, he said; for all freshmen who entered were required to bring some learning with them in order to meet the standards of admission – but no senior, when he left, ever took any learning away; and thus it steadily accumulated.
We want you to bring some learning away, to bring enlightenment, vision, and illumination to a troubled world. Recall, if you will, the story which Alistair Cooke tells in his book, ”One Man’s America,” that well illustrates my point. On the 19th of May, 1780, as he describes it, , in Hartford, Connecticut, the skies at noon turned from blue to gray and by midafternoon had blackened over so densely that, in that religious age, men fell on their knees and begged a final blessing before the end came. The Connecticut House of Representatives was in session. And as some men fell down in the darkened chamber and others clamored for an immediate adjournment, the Speaker of the House, one Colonel Davenport, came to his feet. And he silenced the din with these words: “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.” Students and friends of the University of Florida, we who are here today concerned with the dark and difficult task ahead ask once again that you bring candles to illuminate our way, to show us whether and how and where we can compete with the Russians. Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps it is too difficult, too burdensome or too late. But we dare not fail to make the effort. “Men’s hearts wait upon us,” said Woodrow Wilson in 1913 – “Men’s lives hang in the balance, men’s hopes call upon us to say what we will do. Who shall live up to this great trust? Who dares fail to try.”