President Kennedy delivers major policy speech at UW on November 16, 1961.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 3/16/1999
  • Essay 968
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On November 16, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), the 35th president of the United States, delivers a major foreign policy speech at the University of Washington Centennial Convocation. He is also in Seattle to attend a dinner that evening celebrating the 25th anniversary of Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989) in Congress. Magnuson, like Kennedy a Democrat, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1936. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

On a clear, crisp November day, President Kennedy, Senator Magnuson, and Washington Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) rode an open convertible in a 20-automobile presidential motorcade from Boeing Field to a 15-block long "Welcome Lane" extending along 4th Avenue from Jefferson Street to Stewart Street. Spectators overflowed the streets and threw confetti from buildings. Twenty-six different bands serenaded the president.

Everybody Came

Greater Seattle, Inc., which organized the event, estimated the crowd to be 90,000. Police reports estimated the number at 25,000 to 30,000 in one report and 50,000 in another. Construction workers working on the Municipal Building paused to watch the motorcade, "dangling their legs above the street from unfinished parts of the building" (The Seattle Times).

"At Fourth Avenue and University Street, where the crowd was at its highest density, masses of people swept off the sidewalks into the street, overwhelming police and Secret Service men, and surged into the street to surround the presidential car. The movement was a spontaneous impulsive tribute to the President and came as a complete surprise to the traffic control and security men" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

After a brief stop at The Olympic Hotel, where he was staying that night, Kennedy proceeded via Aurora Avenue N and N 40th Street to the University of Washington Edmundson Pavilion to give his speech.

Dissenters Protest Cuba Policy and the Bomb

It is not known whether President Kennedy saw two groups of "peace walkers" near Edmundson Pavilion. At 15th Avenue NE and NE Pacific Street about 20 University of Washington students and residents picketed to keep the United States out of Cuba. They held signs that read "FAIR PLAY FOR CUBA," "NO MORE SUGAR TRUST INVASIONS," and "DON'T FIGHT FOR UNITED FRUIT."

Another group, about 75 strong, who called themselves Women Marching for Peace, also picketed near Edmundson Pavilion. Many of the women pushed baby buggies. They had signs reading "END NUCLEAR TESTS NOW," "MAN MUST PUT AN END TO WAR," "PEACE FOR OUR CHILDREN," and "MR. PRESIDENT, PLEASE STOP NUCLEAR TESTING." Both groups handed out leaflets.

The World in 1961

When President Kennedy entered the Pavilion, the audience of 11,000 greeted him with a "spontaneous burst of applause." The president delivered a major and "solemn" foreign policy speech (which lasted 35 minutes) concerning relations with the Soviet Union.

The United States and the Soviet Union were at the height of the Cold War, which had started shortly after the end of World War II. Cuba and Berlin were hot spots. In April 1961, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had organized 1,400 armed Cuban exiles in a failed attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Fidel Castro (b. 1927), the revolutionary Cuban leader who had ousted a U.S.-backed dictator in 1959, responded by publicly aligning Cuba with the Soviet Union.

In July 1961, both the Soviet Union and the United States significantly increased defense spending. On August 20, 1961, East Germany erected a five-foot-high concrete wall dividing East and West Berlin and on October 28, 1961, a tense, 16-hour face off occurred at the Berlin Wall between Soviet and American tanks.

On August 31, 1961, the Soviet Union began conducting aboveground nuclear tests, detonating perhaps 15 bombs during September 1961. The United States responded with its own underground nuclear tests. At the end of October, the Soviets detonated a 50-megaton H-bomb. Local newspapers advised Seattleites on how to construct and stock personal nuclear fallout shelters.

The major foreign policy address delivered at the University of Washington was John F. Kennedy's "first talk" in the Western United States since the inauguration. He delivered the speech "in calm, measured tones." Here are excerpts from the full text of the speech, which was printed in The New York Times:

Text of Kennedy Speech -- Excerpts

"Regents, members of the faculty, students, ladies and gentlemen: It is a great honor on behalf of the people of the United States to extend to you congratulations on the centennial anniversary of this University which represents 100 years of service to this state and country. This University was founded when the Civil War was already on, and no one could be sure in 1861 whether this country would survive. But the picture which the student of 1961 has of the world, and indeed which our citizens have of the world, is infinitely more complicated and infinitely more dangerous. In 1961 the world relations of this country have become tangled and complex.

"One of our former allies has become our adversary and he has his own adversaries who are not our allies. We must work with certain countries lacking in freedom in order to strengthen the cause of freedom. [Ed. Note: This is a reference the the Soviet Union, which was an American ally during World War II, and the American policy of supporting autocratic anti-Soviet regimes.]

"We find some who call themselves neutral who are our friends and sympathetic to us, and others who call themselves neutral who are unremittingly hostile to us. We cannot, as a free nation, compete with our adversaries in tactics of terror, assassination, false promises, counterfeit mobs, and crises. We cannot, under the scrutiny of a free press and public, tell different stories to different audiences, foreign and domestic, friendly and hostile. We cannot abandon the slow process of consulting with our allies to match the swift expediencies of those who merely dictate to their satellites. ... We possess weapons of tremendous power, but they are least effective in combating the weapons most often used by freedom's foes: subversion, infiltration, guerilla warfare, and civil disorder. We can send arms to other peoples just as we can send them the ideals of democracy in which we believe. But we cannot send them the will to use those arms or to abide by those ideals.

"In short, we must face problems which do not lend themselves to easy or quick or permanent solutions. And we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient -- that we are only 6 per cent of the world's population and that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 per cent of mankind -- that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity, and that, therefore, there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.

"These burdens and frustrations are accepted by most Americans with maturity and understanding. They may long for the days ... when the atomic bomb was ours alone, or when much of the industrialized world depended upon our economic resources and aid. But they know that those days are gone, and that gone with them are the old policies and the old complacency. ...

"... [T]here are others who cannot bear the burden of a long twilight struggle [and] lack confidence in our long run capacity to survive and succeed. ... There are two groups of these frustrated citizens, far apart in their views yet very much alike in their approach.

"On the one hand are those who urge upon us what I regard to be the pathway of surrender -- appeasing our enemies, compromising our commitments, purchasing peace at any price, disavowing our arms, our friends, our obligations. If their view had prevailed, the world of free choice would be smaller today.

"On the other hand are those who urge upon us what I regard to be the pathway of war: equating negotiations with appeasement and substituting rigidity for firmness. If their view had prevailed, we would be at war today, and in more than one place.

"It is a curious fact that each of these extreme opposites resembles the other. Each believes that we have only two choices: appeasement or war, suicide or surrender, humiliation or holocaust, to be either Red or dead. ...

"The essential fact that both of these groups fail to grasp is that diplomacy and defense are not substitutes for one another. Either alone would fail. A willingness to resist force, unaccompanied by a willingness to talk, could provoke belligerence -- while a willingness to talk, unaccompanied by a willingness to resist force, could invite disaster.

"But as long as we know what comprises our vital interests and our long-range goals, we have nothing to fear from negotiations at the appropriate time, and nothing to gain by refusing to take part in them. At a time when a single clash could escalate overnight into a holocaust of mushroom clouds, a great power does not prove its firmness by leaving the task of exploring the other's intentions to sentries or those without full responsibility.

"Nor can ultimate weapons rightfully be employed, or the ultimate sacrifice rightfully demanded of our citizens, until every reasonable solution has been explored. "How many wars," Winston Churchill has written, "have been averted by patience and persisting good will! How many wars have been precipitated by firebrands!"

"If vital interests under duress can be preserved by peaceful means, negotiations will find that out. If our adversary will accept nothing less than a concession of our rights, negotiation will find that out. With respect to any future talks on Germany and Berlin, for example, we cannot, on the one hand, confine our proposals to a list of concessions that we are willing to make. Nor can we, on the other hand, advance any proposals which compromise the security of free Germans and West Berliners, or endanger their ties with the West.

"No one should be under the illusion that negotiations for the sake of negotiations always advance the cause of peace -- If they are made a mere forum for propaganda or a cover for aggression, the processes of peace have been abused.

"But it is a test of our national maturity to accept the fact that negotiations are not a contest spelling victory or defeat. They may succeed, they may fail. But, they are likely to be successful only if both sides reach an agreement which both regard as preferable to the status quo, and agreement in which each side can consider that its own situation has been improved, and this is most difficult to obtain.

"But, while we shall negotiate freely, we will never negotiate freedom. ... [F]or the first time since the ancient battles between Greek city-states, war entails the threat of total annihilation of everything we know, of society itself. For to save mankind's future freedom, we must face up to any risk that is necessary. We will always seek peace -- but we will never surrender.

"In short, we are neither 'warmongers' nor 'appeasers,' neither 'hard' nor 'soft.' We are Americans, determined to defend the frontiers of freedom, by an honorable peace if peace is possible, but by arms if arms are used against us.

"And if we are to move forward in that spirit, we shall need all the calm and thoughtful citizens that this great University can produce, all the light that they can shed, all the wisdom that they can bring to bear. It is customary, both here and around the world, to regard life in these United States as easy. Our advantages are many. But more than any other people on earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. No other generation of free men in any country has ever faced so many and so difficult challenges -- not even those who lived in the dark days of 1861 when this great University was founded.

"This nation was then torn by war. This territory had only the simplest elements of civilization. And this city had barely begun to function. But a university was one of their earliest thoughts -- and they summed it up in the motto that they adopted [for the University of Washington]: 'Let There be Light.' What more can be said today, regarding all the dark and tangled problems that we face than, 'Let there be light.' And to accomplish that illumination, the University of Washington shall hold high the torch" (The New York Times, November 17, 1961).

Warren Magnuson Honored

After the speech the president returned to The Olympic Hotel. His next public engagement was at the hotel at Senator Warren Magnuson's 25th Anniversary dinner. Seated at the head table with the President and Senator Magnuson were 10 U.S. Senators including Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, four U.S. Representatives, and Premier W. A. C. Bennett of British Columbia.

The dinner's main purpose was to raise funds for Senator Magnuson's upcoming election. Nearly 3,000 people paid $100 for dinner: The Olympic Hotel could not seat them all. Four large ballrooms and six smaller dining rooms were filled and additional tables were set up on the Hotel's mezzanine. The overflow went to Victor Rosellini's 410 Restaurant (410 University Street) across the street from The Olympic Hotel. President Kennedy went to each ballroom to make brief remarks before giving his main talk in the Grand Ballroom at about 9:25 p.m. Most of the diners saw the talk on closed circuit television.

President Kennedy stated, "No man has done more to transform the face of this state in the last 25 years than your senior senator." The president commented on how effortlessly Senator Magnuson was able to get legislation passed.

Kennedy and Nuclear Power

President Kennedy commented on the failure of the U.S. Congress to approve funding to convert Hanford Atomic Works into an electrical power plant. "All who say that the United States should not commit itself to being the leader in the peacetime use of atomic energy -- those who say we should waste this resource which we have now in the Pacific Northwest and which has been fought for by Senator [Henry] Jackson at Hanford -- those who say 'no' to this country I believe are going to find as time goes on in the next 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years that all their predictions of failure and disaster [regarding nuclear plants] will have been proven wrong as they have been in the last 25 years" (The Seattle Times).

Shortly before 10 p.m. the president returned to the Presidential Suite on the 11th floor of The Olympic Hotel.

Covert Operation

More than 30 years later, word got out that a secret meeting was held with President Kennedy during this stay at The Olympic Hotel. At the time, this was known to only a few individuals. While researching his 1997 book, The Dark Side of Camelot, Seymour M. Hersh interviewed former Secret Service agent Larry Newman, who spilled the beans.

Newman joined the Secret Service in 1960, and his first major assignment on presidential detail was to provide security during Kennedy's trip to Seattle. The Seattle Police Department was most cooperative, and one entire floor of The Olympic Hotel was sealed off, as requested by the Secret Service.

Soon after Kennedy returned from his speech at the University, Newman heard a "commotion up at the elevator." A local sheriff "had come out of the elevator with two hookers and was bringing them down toward the presidential suite." Dave Powers, Kennedy's aide, came out of the suite, thanked the sheriff for bringing the women up, and took them inside.

Before leaving, the sheriff warned the women that if word ever got out about their liaison, he'd make sure that they would both go to Steilacoom -- a state mental hospital -- where they would never get out. Newman was shocked that the sheriff said this, let alone that everyone on security detail considered this kind of "meeting" with the president as commonplace. One of the policemen asked Newman if this happened all the time, to which he could only reply, "Well, we travel during the day. This only happens at night."

Later that evening, Newman went on a security check around the floor. At least six police officers were supposed to be guarding the fire escapes, but he found the posts unmanned. He later found policemen in a fire-escape well, which -- because the hotel is U-shaped -- had a view of a room near the presidential suite. The gauze curtains were drawn, but not the heavy blinds. Inside, two women on the White House staff were having a three-way sexual encounter with Kennedy's close aide and friend, Kenneth O'Donnell. The officers were passing around a pair of binoculars, but Newman told them to return to their posts.

The next morning President Kennedy departed shortly after 8 a.m. At 8:54 a.m. his plane took off from Boeing Field. Thus ended his 21-hour stay in Seattle.


The Seattle Times, November 12, 1961, pp. 1, 18; Ibid., November 16, 1961, p. A, 5; Ibid., November 17, 1961, p. 2; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 17, 1961, pp. 6, 10; The New York Times, November 17, 1961, pp. 1, 17; Chronicle of the 20th Century ed. by Clifton Daniel (Mount Kisco, NY: Chronicle Publications, 1987), 864, 865, 869-872; Seymour M. Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (New York: Little Brown and Company, 1997), pp. 226-228.
Note: This essay was expanded by Alan J. Stein on December 27, 2005.

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