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President Kennedy, the Press and the National Security Question

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, “President and the Press” Speech, April 27, 1961.

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Today’s guest post is by Elizabeth Brightwell, a Miller Center Student Ambassador and a fourth year student at the University of Virginia majoring in English and French and working on her MA in Public Policy at the Batten School.

Fifty-two years ago, on April 27th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association in New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. His speech, titled “The President and the Press,” addressed the role of the press in helping American efforts to curb communism; the speech discussed the standards for releasing sensitive materials that might compromise national security. The President’s address came just over one week after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in which the U.S. trained and funded parliamentary group, Brigade 2506, unsuccessfully invaded Cuba. In the days leading up to the invasion, the media had leaked plans for the invasion, which was intended to be a surprise.

The plans for the Bay of Pigs Invasion began after the Cuban Revolution replaced Fulgencio Batista, an ally of the U.S., with Fidel Castro. A Cuba led by Castro concerned the U.S. government especially because Castro began expropriating the country’s economic assets from the U.S. and developing a relationship with the Soviet Union.  It was actually President Dwight Eisenhower who initiated and authorized the bulk of the Bay of Pigs planning process. President John F. Kennedy, however, gave the final nod of approval for the invasion, which began on April 17th, 1961 and ended in defeat three days later. One hundred and eighteen Americans were killed and 1,202 were captured and the invasion was a major embarrassment for the U.S. President Kennedy subsequently ordered many internal investigations of the invasion plans, preparations and execution.

The plans for the Bay of Pigs were classified and intended to be kept secret in the interest of national security and in the interest of the plans’ success. The plans, however, were not as secret as the Administration would have wished. Much of the news media, especially smaller publications, were aware of the story. Before the invasion, The New Republic sent the White House detailed plans for the operation asking if their release would compromise national security. Obviously, the Kennedy Administration requested that all U.S. media refrain from any such releases but the fact remained that the plans had been compromised. The Miami Herald did not release any of the information. However, according to George Beebe, who worked for the newspaper, “Everyone in Miami knew about it. I had a five-part series in my desk for two months but I didn’t want to be the first S.O.B. to release the story.” Not all publications adhered to the same set of principles. On April 7, 1961, ten days before the planned invasion, the New York Times released a limited—in the interest of national security—version of the invasion plans.

The failure of the Bay of Pigs was not entirely the result of these leaks, but the widespread of awareness of the invasion plans certainly did not help to protect the element of surprise. President Kennedy’s speech on April 27th was intended to, in his own words, “examine the proper degree of privacy which the press should allow any President and his family.” Kennedy’s remarks were not hostile or angry towards the press. He displayed a bit of humor as he told a member of the New York Times, “Maybe if you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.” Despite his ability to joke, President Kennedy did blame the press for contributing to the Cuban disaster and called for the press corps to hold itself to a higher standard.

Under the modern presidency, the press has generally gone along with the president, joining forces against a common foreign enemy during a time of war. However, at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion and because the Cold War and the anti-communism efforts of this period were never part of an officially declared war, the president and the press didn’t share this same relationship.  In his speech, President Kennedy argued that even in an undeclared war, leaks could compromise national security and compromise government operations:

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…

The speech marked an important turning point in the expansion of the use of national security doctrine to justify withholding sensitive information. In expressing his discontent with the press’s news coverage of the Bay of Pigs, the president noted there is a need for both “far greater public information” and “far greater official secrecy.” He told reporters:

Every newspaper now asks itself, with respect to every story: "Is it news?" All I suggest is that you add the question: "Is it in the interest of the national security?" And I hope that every group in America—unions and businessmen and public officials at every level—will ask the same question of their endeavors, and subject their actions to this same exacting test.

Read and listen to the entire speech in the Miller Center’s archives here.

Date edited: 04/23/2013 (9:58AM)


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