Press Conference of President Kennedy's


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Press Conference President Kennedy May 17, 1962

THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. Any questions?

QUESTION: Mr. President, with the word "scandal" again in the wind in Washington, would you care to comment on the Billie Sol Estes affair and tell us if you believe that Secretary Freeman has handled the case properly?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, as you know, the Billie Sol Estes case came to public attention when the United States government indicted him on April 5th. We requested a bail of $500,000, which was not granted, it was down to $100,000, and since that time we have been conducting very thorough investigations with nearly 75 members of the FBI involved in this investigation. The affairs are most complicated. Billie Sol Estes dealt through almost 23 companies. In addition, we have taken immediate action against all of those Federal employees of whom there have been four in the Department of Agriculture, who have been involved in improprieties. Investigation is continuing and will continue. The Department of Justice, Internal Revenue, Senator McClellan in the Senate, Congressman Fountain in the House, all of them are involved in attempting to determine whether any Federal employee or Member of Congress were involved in any improper actions.

I can assure you that if any members of the Executive Branch are involved, any improprieties shown, they will be immediately taken action against and immediately disciplined appropriately.

Now, in regard to Secretary Freeman, I have stated already my high regard for him. Secretary Freeman I think has had a matchless reputation. He worked his way through the University of Minnesota. He was a football player. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He had most of his jaw shot off at Bougainville as a Captain in the Marines. He serves as Governor of Minnesota for three terms. He is the head of this Department, has over 100,000 employees, has been a most challenging job, and I have the greatest confidence in the integrity of Secretary Freeman. And I point out again that the matter of Billie Sol Estes came to public attention in the way that it has, because the United States government, this Administration, indicted him.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in the same vein, a little more philosophically, this sort of thing, a scandal in where one or more Federal employees are involved for private gain with people on the outside, this sort of thing seems to recur administration after administration, it doesn't seem to follow any political pattern.

How do you propose to -- or do you have any ideas on how to prevent this or wipe it out?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I agree, that we have over two million employees. You have a good, many people that take advantage, or attempt to influence them, seek private gain, as a result of Congressional intercession, or as a result of special favors in the Administrations. A good many of the decisions that these men make involve large sums of money, contracts, and all the rest. Pressures are put upon them. Some succumb. Most do not.

What we attempt to do is to provide for procedures whereby any improprieties will be immediately detected. We attempt to establish the highest ethical standards which are possible. We take immediate action when an impropriety is revealed, and we attempt to maintain the morale and discipline of the United States government.

Improprieties occur in a good many different kinds of life, whether it's labor, management, government. Not all people are able to withstand these pressures. But we intend that the personnel of the United States government will meet the highest ethical standards possible. And when they do not, action will be taken.

My experience is that the great, great majority of them do. They are not paid very highly in most cases. They are dealing with matters of vital concern, and I think on the whole they do a good job. When they don't, it's most unfortunate and most regrettable because all of us want the Federal service to be of the highest possible standards.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there have been published reports that you have made up your mind to appoint Dr. Weaver as head of the Health, Education and Welfare Department, when a vacancy occurs there. Would you give us your comment on that?

PRESIDENT: No, I have made no decision, because of course no vacancy has occurred. When it does, I will announce a successor, if one does, immediately.

QUESTION: Mr. President, General de Gaulle, a couple of days ago, at a news conference, made some points which seemed to underline the differences between Paris and Washington. He spoke of his determination to proceed with his nuclear deterrent in order not to rely upon the Unites States in that respect.

Also spoke of a confederation rather than a more intimate political unity in Europe, and discounted the efforts of the United States in the Berlin negotiations, which I think he said was trying to square the circle.

Some people believe that these differences between France and the United States are more fundamental and pose a greater danger to the Western Alliance than those between Bonn and Washington, which have been more publicized.

I was wondering if you would care to address yourself to the question of difficulties between France and the United States, and more particularly whether you believe, a year having elapsed since your meeting with General de Gaulle, that it would be worth while for you and the General to get together again?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, one of those three matters, of course, is a matter which involves completely the Europeans. This question of the federation versus confederation, that is a matter which the Europeans must decide.

Our interest in Europe is only that we believe that the freedom of Europe and the defense of Europe are bound up with the freedom and defense of the United States. Therefore, we have made large expenditures in men and money. We have committed ourselves. We have participated as a very active member of NATO. The nuclear deterrent of the United States, I think, has helped defend Europe for a great many years. But as to what the relationship should be between the countries of Europe, that is a matter of course, primarily for them.

On the matter of Berlin, it is a matter of the greatest concern to us. We wish to have some voice in events there, because if the "moment of truth" comes, it is the United States which is expected to take the very vigorous action which could involve our security as well as that of Western Europe. And to use an old familiar American expression, we wish to be in on the take-off in these matters.

I have already commented why I think it is desirable to continue these conversations with the Soviet Union over Berlin. It's a vital matter which involves the interests of both. It's highly charged. I see only advantage in carrying on a conversation; before any conclusions are reached, of course, we would attempt to have an agreement among our Allies.

Now the third matter move is the philosophical matter. We do not believe in a series of national deterrents. We believe that the NATO deterrent to which the United States has committed itself so heavily, provides very adequate protection. Once you begin, nation after nation, beginning to develop its own deterrent, or rather feeling it is necessary as an element of its independence to develop its own deterrent, it seems to me that you are moving into an increasingly dangerous situation. First France, then another country, then another, until a very solid and, I think, effective defense alliance may be somewhat weakened.

Now that, however, is a decision for the French. If they choose to go ahead, of course, they will go ahead, and General de Gaulle has announced that they are going ahead. We do not agree, but he cannot blame us if we do not agree any more than we blame him if he does not agree with us.

Now as to the long-range future of Europe, this is a matter, as I have said, of debate inside France and inside Europe, but I will say, speaking personally, that however difficult becomes this dialogue with General de Gaulle over what I would call the Atlantic Community, and the respective roles of each country within it, I would think it would be a far more difficult situation if General de Gaulle was not as stalwart in his defense of the West. We do not look for those who agree with us, but for those who defend their country and who are committed to the defense of the West. I believe General de Gaulle is. So we will get along. I am not sure that we would get any greater agreement if we met. There is a limit to the advantages of these kinds of dialogue, but we will continue, at least, to maintain a contact which I hope will not be acrimonious, certainly in this case.

QUESTION: Mr. President, could you bring us up to date on the Laotian situation since the dispatch of our troops to Thailand? Specifically, do you feel that we have increased the chances of our getting caught in a shooting war in Southeast Asia?

THE PRESIDENT: We are continuing to hope that there will be a national -- a government of national union, which has been our policy, as you know, for a year. We are going into Thailand at the decision of the Thai government, our own decision to provide for the defense of Thailand. The latest information indicates no further breach of the cease fire.

We also have indications that the three Princes will engage in conversation shortly. I hope they will produce a government. That is our object, because I have already indicated the great hazards of a shooting war in Asia, in the jungles of Asia; and it is our object to bring about a diplomatic solution which will make the chances of such a war far less likely.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in light of your answer to this question, sir, could you give us any idea how long the American troops will be needed in Thailand?

THE PRESIDENT: I cannot, at this time.

QUESTION: Have you any idea under what conditions they might return?

THE PRESIDENT: I cannot, at this time. They have only been in there for a very short while, and we can't tell when they will come out. It will depend a good deal on what conditions are in Thailand and the neighboring countries.

QUESTION: Mr. President, could you tell us, please, sir, what you would consider the restoration of an effective cease-fire? Would this involve the withdrawal of the Communist forces to their position before the attack on Nam Tha, or more or less a quiescence which could permit the talks to go forward on the government?

THE PRESIDENT: Obviously, we would prefer as great a withdrawal to the line that was in effect a week or so ago as we could get. I would think, however, that a peace along the line which now may exist, of course, is essential.

QUESTION: Mr. President, would you review for us the considerations that you had in mind last week end when you took this rather swift action to move more American troops into Thailand?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. We are concerned about the breach of the cease-fire, the sign of deterioration in Laos, which brought Communist forces to the border of Thailand, up in the -- near the Mekong River section, up not too far from Nam Tha, and we did not know whether this was an indication of a general breach of the cease-fire which, of course, would immediately imperil Thailand. So that in our desire to stabilize the situation, we got in touch with the government, which was already in touch with us, and worked out the proposed course of action.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the railroads and five operating unions broke off talks today. There has already been a Presidential Commission report on this dispute so the next step may be up to you. Can you tell us, do you have any action in mind, and when you might act?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think we are keeping in very close contact with it. They have the recommendation of the Board, and Secretary Goldberg is watching it very carefully, and if there is anything that we can do appropriately, we will do it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, President de Gaulle seems intent on creating a defense community apart from NATO. If he continues in this way, do you think there is any danger of reviving an isolationist sentiment in this country?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it would be quite a long time before the members of Europe, all of them, would feel in a position to defend themselves without the presence of the United States. The United States does not maintain nearly 300,000 troops, and spend over a billion dollars, and therefore in gold, in Europe because it chooses to do so against the wishes of those who are present. We have been asked to come and asked to stay. If we were not asked to stay, then we would take, I think, a different view of it. But I have not heard anyone suggest that the United States today withdraw from Europe, or that it relaxes its guarantees which consist of all kinds of defense procedures.

Now the day may come when Western Europe may feel that it can maintain its own security, and of course it would relieve the United States from a very heavy burden. But that day has not come. We want Western Europe to be independent and free. We want to prevent the outbreak of a war. We want no one to be in any doubt about the intentions of the United States. You have obviously seen, on two occasions, when war broke out in Europe, there was some question of what the ultimate attitudes of the United States would be. NATO does not leave that in question. NATO guarantees. So this is an important defense for Europe, an important defense for us, and every evidence I have is that the Europeans wish that to continue.

Now the day may come when their power is such that they can proceed on their defense without the United States, and no one in the United States that I know of wishes to stay a moment longer than our presence is desired or desirable.

QUESTION: Mr. President, former President Eisenhower, in connection with the Estes case, has suggested that all the investigative agencies, in contrast to his own administration, are under one political party. He suggested the possibility that you might wish to follow the precedent of President Coolidge, and invite some Republicans in, to lay before them some of the information on the Estes case, that they might not know of. Do you regard this as a good idea?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I have great regard for Senator McClellan, who I do not believe approaches any matter such as this on a partisan basis, and his Committee is made up of Republicans and Democrats. All the information which we have will be made available to that Committee, and all of the reports of the FBI.

As I have stated before, Mr. Wilson, this matter came to public attention because this Administration indicted Mr. Estes before a State agency in Texas or any place else moved. In the case of some of the recent matters, to which reference was made, they were not brought out by the Administration in power, but brought out by Congressional investigating Committees. We did not have any evidence by either Republicans or Democrats of a major concern about the possibility that Mr. Estes would be involved in so many operations which had such little basis. So that I can assure you that the information which is collected will be turned over to the Congressional committees involved, to the Republican and Democratic counsels of each Committee, and that Senator McClellan will, I am sure -- Congressman Fountain in the House, and all of the others will meet their responsibilities very fully, as we are attempting to meet ours.

QUESTION: Mr. President, today is the 8th anniversary of the Supreme Court school desegregation decision. Do you feel that progress in this area has been rapid enough?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think we can always hope that more progress can be made in the area of Civil Rights, or equal opportunity. Whether it's in employment or education or housing or anything else, there's a good deal left undone. While progress has been made, I think we can always improve equality of opportunity in the United States.

QUESTION: Sir, why is it that we have no intercontinental ballistic missile warning system to the south of us in the Gulf or South America, in view of some of the recent reports that the Russians have said that they might come at us from the south?

THE PRESIDENT: Because our early warning system, as you know, was first developed for airplanes, which were coming from the north. Then it was converted to missiles, and it is being completed for missiles, in the north. A flight to the south is an extremely long trip, which does not permit the kind of accuracy which a northern flight would permit, and as we develop Minute Men and other missiles which can take off with very little notice, the advantages of a long trip with relative inaccuracy will be far less to the Soviets.

Their hope, in other words, of knocking out our ability to strike them, after they might have struck us, of course, is far less to the south. But my judgment is that as time goes on, such a system will be developed.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the stock market slump lately seems to indicate a lack of investor confidence in the economic outlook. Do you have any comment on the behavior of the market?

THE PRESIDENT: No. I think that -- I would not attempt to figure its ups and downs. As you remember, it took a very sharp slump in 1956, just before we had an extremely good year the next year. At that time, I think in 1957, the value of the stock compared to the earnings was about 12 to 1. At the time of the high here it was around 22 to 1. But every indication that we have indicates that this is going to be a record year in profits, wages, productivity.

The new figures, which I think have been announced this afternoon, call for a construction at an annual rate of 1.5 million housing units, which is the highest we have had for three years. So we believe that the United States economy should have confidence. But the question of the relationship between stock prices and earnings is a matter for those who are in that business.

QUESTION: Sir, would you care to answer former President Eisenhower's charge that many bills you support would put too much power in the Presidency and that's the real threat to liberty in this country?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, he gave -- I don't want to get into a political discussion with President Eisenhower. I think he gave five examples. One was our farm bill.

Let me make it very clear that one of the problems in agriculture, of course, has been the tremendous increase in commodities which must be stored, and one of the problems in the Estes case is this very one.

The fact of the matter is there was in 1953 about $2.5 million of surpluses that had to be stored. Now it is $9 billion, for which we pay $1 billion a year. Mr. Estes went into the grain storage business way back in 1959. In fact, of the $7 million which the Federal government has paid to him for storage, about $5 million of it was paid prior to January 1961. Now we are going to have an agricultural bill before the Congress in the next two or three weeks, and I think the American people should understand very clearly that if the bill which we proposed is defeated, we will then go back, automatically, by statute, to the Benson program, which provides no effective controls on production, a support price which will increase by large amounts the amount of materials that we have to store away, and the burden to the taxpayer.

This could involve billions of dollars over the next four or five years. Unless we can bring into balance supply and demand more effectively than we have done, and we have done it in cotton and tobacco, and unless we can do that in grain, you are going, to have not 9 billion to be stored away, but 10, 11, 12, 13, or 14. We spend $6 billion a year as a budget item for the government every year on agriculture. It will go up 7, 8, 9. So I think that we have to have an effective balance between supply and demand, or otherwise you have these situations where grain storages are bursting at the seams, and you have the kind of pressures which we have been witnessing in recent months.

And I think the best hope represents this legislation. And let me make it very clear, if this bill is defeated it will cost the taxpayers of the United States $4 billion more in the next four years for agricultural appropriations as well as storage.

So this represents, in my opinion, a chance to do something for the farmer that is effective, and the consumer, and also for the taxpayer. And those who oppose it are committing us to an expenditure of at least four or five billion dollars over a very short period of time, as well as taking our storage problem up to 11, 12, 13 billion and I think it would be a great, great mistake. I think this represents our best chance to do something about the kind of situation which resulted in Mr. Estes' manipulations.

QUESTION: Mr. President, we have unofficial estimates that the 1963 Budget deficit will be from four to seven billion dollars. Have you any report from your officials as to what it will be?

THE PRESIDENT: No, we don’t. It depends, of course, on the state of the economy. As I have said from the beginning, if the economy reaches the level that we had hoped it would, and if the Congress takes action on Postal legislation, and if it meets its responsibilities, as I hope it will in the field of agriculture, our budget should be within balance.

Now if the economy falls below what it should, if the Congress takes no action on Postal rates, and if it defeats our efforts in Farm legislation, then there will be a very different problem which we will have to face up to.

But I do want to point out that one of the most important steps we can take in the general public interest is the support of this legislation, because people who vote against it, feeling that this is a--we don't want any new legislation on the book -- have to realize that there is permanent legislation on the books which then goes into effect, which is known as part -- which was identified with Mr. Benson, which did not brim prosperity to the farmer or well-being to the Federal budget.

QUESTION: Mr. President, Ambassador Dean indicated this week that after we finish our tests, and the Russians finish their tests, that perhaps there would be a very good atmosphere to achieve a nuclear test ban. Do you share his view, and also, do we have any reason to believe that this might be true?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think we have to wait until the situation develops, where our tests are concluded. I understand there seems to be evidence the Soviets may test. We will then have to see what the situation is.

QUESTION: Mr. President, following up last week's discussion on misunderstandings between ourselves and the West Germans, sir, you have talked to the West German Ambassador, so has Mr. Rusk, and in addition Mr. Dowling has been to see the Chancellor. Can you tell us, sir, are our relations with the West Germans back on the track, or moving in that direction now?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I think they are. We are now waiting, as a result of the conferences in Athens, and as a result of our suggestions directly to the German government and the Chancellor, for their comments and any proposals they might make on the access authority which was the matter of most immediate concern. We shall hear from that, I am sure -- from them shortly.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in the light of your insistence on price and wage stability, what is your reaction to the decision of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers yesterday to demand a 35-hour week from employers?

THE PRESIDENT: I believe we should have a 40-hour week. I have said that from the beginning.

QUESTION: Mr. President, your earlier answer on the European problem, about the possibility of Europe some day being able to defend itself, suggests the possibility that Europe might some day become what some people call a third force.

Do you think that this could happen and still be in the interests of the whole Atlantic Community, or would this so disrupt the Atlantic Community that it would be a detriment?

THE PRESIDENT: I think it would be most regrettable to attempt to break what has been built by so many men of good will in every country, the Atlantic Community. When you talk about third force, of course, it has a number of meanings. But my judgment is that the security of the West is best tied to a continuation of the Atlantic Community and its expressions through NATO. Within NATO, of course, there will be the European Community, which will form a very effective, I hope, and strong and vital force for the stability of the West, and we have supported that. Every Administration, including this one, has supported the building of the European economic community even though it may not be, in every case, in our economic interest, because we believe it builds a stronger Europe. That's why we support the admission of Great Britain. So there is no difference of opinion between Europeans on this matter and ourselves.

What I would regret would be any effort which would attempt to divide Europe from the United States, and perhaps Canada, because I believe that the oceans should unite rather than divide. I do not anticipate that that will come. I think the mutual dependence is so obvious. But I do suggest that if that day should come, we would not want to give any one the impression that we were in Europe in order to impose ourselves, but really rather to meet our common obligations.

We have been accepted in Europe on that spirit, and we will stay in Europe as long as the desire is there for us to stay. And I have seen no serious evidence that any one desires us to leave, because I think they realize that that would affect adversely the security of Europe and the balance of power.

QUESTION: Mr. President, it seems uncontradicted that Mr. Estes was around town spreading quite a little bit of money around trying to be helpful, and I wonder if you have run across any indications that there was any favoritism or negligence resulting from this, in the appointment of the man to the National Cotton Advisory Committee initially, or in the cotton allotment pools at a later stage, or in the grain storage?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, these are all matters being investigated. I think Secretary Freeman has already suggested that he has not been able to determine that such favoritism. But I believe that we should wait until these investigations are completed. I am not informed about all the details of all transactions. All I know is that as of today it does not appear that Mr. Estes was given--as Secretary Freeman has said? But I don't take anything for granted in this matter. That is why we have 76 FBI agents working on it. As I have said, the Department of Agriculture has assigned a penalty against him of nearly $600,000. I am sorry our bail was not accepted at a half a million dollars, and this government is staying right on Mr. Estes' tail.

QUESTION: Mr. President, what was the legal basis for our sending troops to Thailand? Was it a bilateral arrangement that we have with the Thai government, or was it possible secret arrangements?

THE PRESIDENT: No, the actual legal basis was to put us in a position to fulfill our obligations under the SEATO Treaty.

QUESTION: Under SEATO. Well, Mr. President, are the other members of the SEATO Treaty organization doing the same?

THE PRESIDENT: They have been asked to do so, and there has been indication of a favorable response from several of them. This is a decision for them. But we have responded and met our obligations.

QUESTION: Mr. President, speaking of Presidential power, there have been some reports from Massachusetts of the use of Administration's aid and comfort to the Senatorial campaign. I wonder if you have laid down any line as to what should be the role of yourself and your associates in this Primary contest?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I have already commented that I am not becoming involved in this campaign. I don't know what you are referring to. But I am very sympathetic. I would like to comfort my brother, if that is what you mean, but I am not involving myself in this campaign.

QUESTION: What about your associates?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, what are you referring to? What actions are you referring to?

QUESTION: Is there a rule as to whether they should go up to the State or not?

THE PRESIDENT: No member of the White House Staff is planning to go to the convention, nor will be, to the best of my knowledge, in Massachusetts between now and the convention.

QUESTION: Mr. President, back on the subject of Southeast Asia, has there been any indication that the Pathet Lao intended to march against Thailand or against the capital of Laos: and second, under what conditions would the United States send its troops into Laos?

THE PRESIDENT: In answer to your first question, I don't know what their intentions may be. I am hopeful their intentions will be to maintain the cease-fire. Obviously, as I have said, the breach of the cease-fire in the base of Nam Tha was a blow to the concept of a cease-fire. That is what initiated our action in the case of Thailand. Now on the second matter, we have to wait and see. I think it is very important that the Princes form a government of national union for the preservation of their own country.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in the light of the situation to which Mr. Smith alluded and the occurrence of the Estes situation, do you plan any steps to notify or to tell people in your service, and in the Departments, to remind them of the problems involved in influence, and so on in the government? Do you plan any stepped up---

THE PRESIDENT: We have, as you know, at the beginning of the Administration, set down what we regarded as ethical standards for the members of the Administration. I think the fact that action has been taken in each of the cases where an impropriety may have occurred immediately, I think is the best evidence that we do not wish to have anyone who serves, even indirectly, or can be suspected of serving, two masters. So that I think it is very clear that wherever this occurs we will take immediate action.

(Merriman Smith, UPI) Thank you Mr. President.


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