52. Editorial Note

On the morning of March 30, 1962, President Kennedy visited the Department of State for a scheduled off-the-record meeting with Department officials down to the level of desk officer. The meeting was held in the Department’s new auditorium. In introducing the President, Secretary of State Rusk noted that “there has been no other President who could look around this room, in which are gathered the policy officers of the Department of State, and see as many officers whom he has known personally, and with whom he has worked intimately and directly on a great many complex and important questions in the conduct of our foreign relations, and that is deeply appreciated.”

President Kennedy began his remarks by indicating his and the country’s dependence on the experience and counsel of the Department of State and the Foreign Service. “I know that those of you who work in the Foreign Service frequently feel beleaguered and surrounded, dealing not only with those who are our adversaries abroad, but also with those who are our most difficult friends, and here in the United States with those who fail to understand the complexities of foreign policy. I recognize, therefore, that you may sometimes get tired of reading magazine articles on what’s wrong with the State Department. You may occasionally wonder whether the long work that you do, with your willingness to serve here and abroad, is fully understood by the people of this country. I’m sure it is not and I’m sure it never will be in its entirety. We have had such a long tradition of isolation that to be thrust suddenly upon the world scene as a leading power requires a change in thinking which is bound to cause serious misunderstandings among our people about those who conduct our foreign policy.

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“In addition, our foreign relations are so complicated and so difficult and so sophisticated and so sensitive that it is impossible-except for those very few who live with these problems-to be fully aware of the subtle distinctions of policy. How could the average American be expected to understand the reasons why we help Yugoslavia and try to isolate Cuba, or why we recognize and carry on intensive dialogues with the Soviet Union and isolate China, or why we assist a dictatorship in Spain while we preach the doctrine of freedom and democracy in Latin America, why we insist as a matter of policy on a coalition government in Laos (even though coalition governments have not always had happy results, in our experience) while on the other hand we become more and more involved in sustaining the government of nearby Viet-Nam. These are all difficult and complicated and sensitive decisions upon which we may or may not be right, but which in any case require a good deal of understanding. So I do not think you should ever expect that they will be fully understood, and therefore you must carry on your struggle with a recognition that you are serving the interests of your country, and that it is the responsibility of those of us who hold public positions to attempt to explain those problems as best we can.”

The President then referred to “a tendency in this country—this is particularly true of our press, and I think it’s probably true also of our Foreign Service, from the cables that we read—to be overly sensitive to hostility abroad. . . . I do sometimes feel that as a country, as a people, as a service, as an executive, and as a Congress, we are too responsive to the pressures which those who are associated with us bring to bear upon us—pressures of disapproval which cause us to be constantly reexamining our own policies to see how we can bring them into line with one country after another. I think we probably should be tougher and try to pursue our own style with a little more vigor and direction.”

The President referred to a statement once made by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “He said that the secret of the survival of the British Empire was that they never trusted the judgment of the man on the spot. I never understood that until recently, but I do think we have a tendency to oversympathize with the problems of the country to which we are accredited—those of us who may be serving abroad. . . . We want to be sure that we have very disinterested and hard-boiled judgment by the people who are there because we depend upon those people to give us guidance in our policy, but if what we get constantly represents not merely a report of the viewpoint of the other country, but an endorsement of that viewpoint, then those of you who sit at the desks and must make a judgment—and coordinate our policy with the desks of other countries and other regions—will find yourselves with an almost impossible job.”

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The President called for maintaining “the utmost discretion so that we can have a good deal of ease and fluidity in carrying on our negotiations abroad.” Turning to another point, “if I have one real criticism, it is that I think we move too slowly. I know the difficulties of coordinating policy and making judgments on sensitive matters, but I do think we have to move with more speed . . . more vigor here. We depend completely on the Department. . . . You have to coordinate the policy within the Department and within the various agencies, but I do think that you should attempt in every way possible to speed your work up, and to make sure that committees and inter-departmental groups do not permit a smothering of your initiative on which so much depends.”

The President referred to the important work of Ambassadors and Foreign Service officers on the spot at crucial moments. “It is a remarkable fact that the most interesting offices—the areas which place the greatest responsibility upon an Ambassador—are not the traditional ones of Western Europe, but Latin America, Africa, and Asia. These areas I think give the greatest opportunity to a Foreign Service officer to render direct and really unique service. . . . Thirty years ago it seemed that the great days of Ambassadors of the nineteenth [century] were over because of the cable. Now suddenly we have a new period where Ambassadors can play a most significant role.”

President Kennedy then took questions from the floor on several subjects, including the possibility of increased communication with Communist China, the Department’s relationships with Congress and with other agencies, and Presidential broadcasts on foreign policy to the American people. (“Draft for President’s Revision,” Transcript of the President’s Remarks, prepared by Bundy; Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, Department of State, President’s Talk to State Department, 3/30/62; an unedited draft transcript is ibid.)

A covering memorandum of April 4 from Bundy to Deputy Executive Secretary Brubeck transmitted Bundy’s draft with the following comment:

“Here is a draft which I cleaned up over the week end for the President’s consideration. His current feeling is that the paper should not have further circulation. If it is to be circulated, some of the informal comments will have to come out—and if they come out, what is left is a bit dull. “On the other hand, I am sure he will be glad to know the Department’s views on this matter. If, for example, the Department thinks that a summary, omitting the bracketed passages, would be useful to Ambassadors, I think the President might well be willing to have it circulated.” A handwritten notation by Bundy reads: “This should not be copied or duplicated over there, in any way, without President’s further consent—or circulated except to men you yourself choose.” (Ibid.)