Lessons from Kennedy’s last speech

Lessons from Kennedy’s last speech

This month marks the 60th anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination. Of all the things remembered and retold about that terrible day, the insights and ideas the president shared in his last speech are seldom included. That’s understandable given the trauma of Nov. 22, 1963. Yet Kennedy’s words have a timeless quality and seem especially relevant today – and if heeded, could be especially helpful – as we wade into yet another “long twilight struggle.”

A strong defense industrial base promotes a strong America.

Speaking in Fort Worth, Texas, Kennedy noted how during the days of World War II, “the great Liberator bombers … were produced here.” He described how the “first truly intercontinental bomber, the B-36, was produced here.” He added that Fort Worth factories were producing B-58 bombers and that Iroquois helicopters – “a mainstay in our fight against the guerrillas in South Vietnam” – were products of Fort Worth.

In short, Kennedy lauded the national character of America’s defense industrial base and the central role of the defense industrial base in U.S. military readiness.

America’s defense industrial base today is a shell of what it was and what it needs to be. Where dozens of defense contractors once served as the arsenal of democracy, only a handful remain: 51 defense firms have been whittled down to five. Retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix adds, “During World War II, the United States had over 50 shipyards, public and private, that could either build or repair ships in excess of 500 feet in length. Today it has fewer than 20 … One of China’s shipyards is so large that its capacity surpasses that of all U.S. shipbuilders combined.”

It’s well known that President George Washington advocated military preparedness to deter America’s enemies. “There is nothing so likely to produce peace,” he counseled, “as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” Less well known is something Washington said about maintaining a strong defense industry – a concept also embraced by Kennedy: “A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined,” Washington declared. “Their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent on others for essential, particularly for military, supplies.”

Global engagement is the price of freedom.

“This country, which desires only to be free, which desires to be secure,” Kennedy explained, “has borne more than its share of the burden … We would like to live as we once lived. But history will not permit it.” He noted that Americans live in “a very dangerous and uncertain world,” that superpower confrontation had “occurred on at least three occasions … in the last three years,” and that “no one can say when it will come again.”

Kennedy was reminding his countrymen that isolation and disengagement are not an option for the United States. With Pearl Harbor still in living memory for much of the country, that was an easier case to make in 1963 than it is today.

We constantly hear about the costs of engagement – and they are many – but we seldom contemplate the costs of disengagement: Pearl Harbor in 1941; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan, which spawned the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al-Qaida, which maimed Manhattan; Iraq in 2011, which unleashed the Islamic State; Afghanistan in 2021, which is today birthing another generation of nightmares.

Kennedy and his generation understood that engagement doesn’t create dangers for America, but rather enables America to address existing dangers – and that the United States is engaged on the world stage not to go looking for troubles, but rather to prevent troubles from exploding into another world war.

Deterrence is costly; war is more costly.

Kennedy reported, “We have increased the defense budget of the United States by over 20% … doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert … doubled the number of nuclear weapons available … (and) added five combat-ready divisions to the Army … and five tactical fighter wings to the Air Force.”

With $886 billion earmarked for defense in 2024, it might look like America is well-armed and fully funding its military. But looks can be deceiving. Today’s defense budget represents just over 3% of GDP (less than half of what Americans were investing in defense in 1963). As a result, the Army is straining to deter war in Europe with one-third the soldiers it deployed during the Cold War. Navy leaders say they need 500 ships; they have 296. Air Force B-52 bombers are nearly old enough to draw Social Security.

Against that backdrop, tyrants and terrorists are literally rolling back the free world.

Xi Jinping’s China has absorbed Hong Kong, illegally constructed and militarized islands in an effort to annex the South China Sea, threatened to seize Taiwan, used military exercises to blockade Taiwan, attacked India, violated Japanese and Philippine waters, waged a relentless cyber-siege against the United States, and tripled its nuclear arsenal. 

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is trying to erase Ukraine, occupies parts of Georgia and Moldova, has attacked U.S. and British planes operating in international airspace, and has unleashed military threats against Moldova, Norway, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland and Sweden – democracies all.

Xi and Putin are collaborating with tyrants in Belarus, Syria, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and Iran.

North Korea – with its 1.3-million-man army and growing nuclear arsenal – is sending arms to Russia and constantly threatens to attack the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Iran equips Russia with kamikaze drones, foments revolution across the Middle East, bankrolls Hezbollah and Hamas, harbors al-Qaida’s leader, lumbers toward the nuclear club and targets Americans.

Hamas invaded and seized Israeli territory. Hezbollah envisions occupying Israel. The Islamic State dreams of replacing the free world with a global death-cult caliphate.

Now, as in Kennedy’s day, fielding a military with global deterrent capabilities demands bipartisan cooperation. Unlike in Kennedy’s day, America faces a $32 trillion debt.

America’s alliances serve America’s interests.

“We put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defensive alliances with countries all around the globe,” Kennedy observed. 

Kennedy recognized that America’s allies are outer rings of America’s security – and seldom entangle America in war. President Woodrow Wilson adamantly explained during World War I, “We have no allies.” Nor was the United States drawn into World War II by an alliance. Rather, the trigger was Japan’s attack on an isolated outpost of an isolated America.

Similarly, it wasn’t an alliance that pulled America into the Korean War. Rather, America’s own diplomatic missteps served as a green light for Stalin and Kim. Yet alliances forged after World War II and after Korea have deterred war. By building up a common defense, specifying clear consequences and clear commitments, and recognizing that America’s security is tied to other parts of the globe, America’s system of alliances surely helped prevent the Cold War from turning into World War III.

From the Indo-Pacific to Europe to the Persian Gulf, our allies are making real contributions to the common defense today.

NATO allies are increasing defense spending by 53% between 2021 and 2026. Poland is devoting 4% of GDP to the common defense. Germany is nearly doubling defense spending. Britain, Canada and Germany are spearheading deterrence operations in the Baltics, France in Romania, Italy in Bulgaria.

Japan is doubling defense outlays and will soon boast the world’s third-largest defense budget. Japan is partnering with the United States to codevelop a system to intercept hypersonic missiles, upconverting warships into full-fledged aircraft carriers armed with F-35Bs, turning remote islands into airbases, and beefing up defenses on its southernmost islands.

South Korea has increased defense spending 37% in recent years, shipped tanks to Poland and shared ammunition with Ukraine.

Australia is doubling its submarine fleet, building a facility to service allied F-35s, and partnering with the United States on weapons-production and intelligence-gathering.

Israel has attrited Iran’s presence in Syria through an ongoing targeted air campaign. Israel partnered with the United States on cyber-operations that stunted Iran’s nuclear program. And as it dismantles Hamas, Israel is defending the frontlines of civilization.

In the ongoing war on terrorism, allies from the Americas, Indo-Pacific and Europe are launching airstrikes, unleashing cyberattacks, training partner armies, eliminating terrorist commanders and conducting commando assaults against terror cells.

Twenty allies form the core of the Combined Maritime Forces, which promotes freedom of the seas around the Arabian Peninsula.

All of these initiatives serve U.S. interests.

NSC-68, the pivotal national-security document that served as a roadmap for navigating the Cold War, noted that defending the free world and securing the national interest “cannot be accomplished by us alone.” That was true in 1963 and remains true today.

Holding the ultimate high ground is crucial.

“We believe that the new environment – space, the new sea – is also an area where the United States should be second to none,” Kennedy declared.

The contest for the ultimate high ground was very much in doubt in 1963. But Kennedy led a bipartisan effort to position America to win what we might call “the first space race.”

Fast forward 60 years, and a new space race is underway. Losing this space race could jeopardize America’s interests far more than Sputnik.

Russia recently threatened to attack Western satellites used to help Ukraine defend itself. It was no empty threat. In late 2021, for instance, Russia tested a ground-launched antisatellite (ASAT) weapon. In 2020, Russia tested a satellite-borne kill vehicle. This followed a similar test in 2017, when Russia deployed a satellite that “launched a high-speed projectile into space,” Space Force officials revealed. In addition, the Russian military has deployed satellites capable of “rendezvous and proximity operations” – military parlance for maneuvering around other satellites to monitor, disrupt and/or disable them.

China is openly contemplating use of nuclear weapons in low-earth orbit to rip apart Western satellite networks. China has launched what space experts describe as “batches” of military-intelligence satellites. China also has tested a system designed to deliver hypersonic glide vehicles into low-earth orbit until such time as they are needed to strike ground-based targets. The Pentagon reports that Beijing has a robust arsenal of directed-energy weapons, jammers and ASATs designed to target satellites. Indeed, China has conducted at least three provocative ASAT tests.

Economic vitality is vital to national security.

“For the United States to fulfill its obligations around the world requires that the United States move forward economically,” Kennedy argued in Fort Worth. Toward that end, he championed free enterprise, advocated policies to help business “prosper and expand,” and pursued growth-oriented tax policies. As Kennedy recognized, America’s reach and role overseas have always been a function of its economic strength and economic dynamism at home. 

Regrettably, among many of those who have come of age since the end of the Cold War, there’s neither an innate recognition that free enterprise is better than the alternative nor a default belief in the power of economic freedom: 49% of U.S. adults born since 1981 (the millennial generation and Generation Z) would “prefer living in a socialist country,” and 51% of millennials reject capitalism outright.

This drift away from free enterprise threatens to de-vitalize America’s economy and undermine America’s security. Today, as in Kennedy’s day, the United States faces peer adversaries that are building up and pushing out, which means America needs to defend its interests, which means America needs a military, which means America’s military needs resources, which means America needs a strong economy. As President Kennedy understood, that won’t be possible if America turns away from free enterprise.