JFK on transparency in a time of war

August 4, 2010 | By | 5 Replies More

I found this speech of JFK’s to be tremendously powerful, and the applicability to today’s situation should be obvious.  Kennedy was speaking to the American Newspaper

President John F. Kennedy. Image via Wikipedia

President John F. Kennedy. Image via Wikipedia

Publisher’s Association on April 27th, 1961.  The whole speech is worth reading, but I wanted to highlight a few key excerpts, especially in the context of Wikileaks’ release of war documents from the Afghanistan theater.  Kennedy simultaneously pleads for a more well-informed public, while arguing that the press ought to be mindful of national security issues in choosing which stories to publish.  You can almost imagine him talking about the danger posed by terrorists in the present day, rather than the danger of Communism in the Cold-war 1960s:

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. 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.

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.

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.

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 does not 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.

Contrast the ideas contained within that speech with the out-of-control surveillance state in which we now live, which demands full knowledge of your most intimate details, while refusing to provide any real transparency as to their motives or actions.

I recently finished watching a program which bears directly on this topic from the BBC entitled “The Power of Nightmares- the Rise of the Politics of Fear”.  It’s available in DVD form– 3 discs of about an hour each.  The series compares and contrasts the rise of radical Islamic movements with the rise of the Neoconservatives, and what a stunning program!  I can’t recommend this series too highly.

The first episode discusses the views of political philosopher Leo Strauss, who mentored many of those who would go on to become leading lights in the neoconservative movement.  The most important of Strauss’ ideas to understand in this context is that of “noble lies”– or as Wikipedia puts it, “myths used by political leaders seeking to maintain a cohesive society.”  In other words, the powerful in society must lie to their people in order to accomplish their goals.  The neoconservatives seized on this concept to hype the danger facing America– first, from the Cold War, and now from terrorism.

The second episode delves deeply into developments in the world of radical Islam during the 1980’s, as well as examining the efforts of the out-of-power neoconservatives to derail the Clinton presidency.  This episode was, to me, the least interesting of the three.

The final episode, “The Shadows in the Cave” (referring to Plato’s allegory of the cave) was absolutely fascinating.  The series uses interviews with key actors, as well as academics and other interested observers to make the case that terrorism is an over-hyped phenomenon.  Of course terrorism exists, but the danger to the average American or Brit is vanishingly small.  However, the fear of terrorism can be useful to those in power.  The film explores the Bush doctrine of pre-emption versus what can actually be proven by the evidence, and some of the examples are shocking.  For example, the film claims that al-Qaeda simply does not exist in the form portrayed by American leaders.  The film claims that there is no highly organized, regimented network of terrorists and sleeper cells controlled by the evil-genius Osama bin-Laden.  Terrorists no doubt exist, but only by hyping the threat to extremely exaggerated levels can these politicians maintain control of the levers of power.  If that sounds like conspiracy theory to you, remember that Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, has agreed with CIA director Leon Panetta that there are only perhaps 50-100 members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and perhaps another 300 or so in Pakistan.  Yet how much blood and treasure have we spent pursuing this phantom?


Tags: ,

Category: Censorship, Current Events, Films and Videos, History

About the Author ()

is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. The BBC series The Power of Nightmares is also viewable on the internet: http://bit.ly/dmtjDx

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Thanks for the links all, I wasn't aware it was viewable on-line.

    Despite admitting that there are only around 300 al-Qaeda members in Pakistan, the U.S. still claims that they are the major threat to our homeland security, according to a new report from the State Department.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: Here's an audio recording of Kennedy's phenomenal speech.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: I couldn't agree more with the following sentence you wrote:

    "Contrast the ideas contained within that speech with the out-of-control surveillance state in which we now live, which demands full knowledge of your most intimate details, while refusing to provide any real transparency as to their motives or actions."

    Not only is Al Queda being conjured up (for the reasons you've suggested). Al Queda will never be the kind of threat the Soviet Union was. Al Queda will never be able to aim thousands of nuclear tipped missiles at the U.S. THAT was the reality while Kennedy was President.

    We currently face a much smaller threat than the U.S. faced in the 60's and 70's yet we are much more panicked. Why? I think that you're correct, that the politicians talk like this because they can get the terrified citizens to eat out of their hands. Just as it was discussed in the "The Power of Nightmares."

Leave a Reply