Televised Interview with President Kennedy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

There are times when it is hard to pin down presidents as to what their thoughts are regarding certain issues or situations. A news conference, or televised interview, is one way to get the president on record. The TV co-anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley wanted the president to address the issues of the day on their news program. At the same time, Kennedy wanted to present an image of a president who was in control of major events and in tune with what the American people desired.

Summary Overview

There are times when it is hard to pin down presidents as to what their thoughts are regarding certain issues or situations. A news conference, or televised interview, is one way to get the president on record. The TV co-anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley wanted the president to address the issues of the day on their news program. At the same time, Kennedy wanted to present an image of a president who was in control of major events and in tune with what the American people desired.

While the interview covered more than just the events in Vietnam, what was happening in that country formed a significant portion of the dialogue. Although Kennedy stated that the anti-communist operations were proving successful, he acknowledged that there were other South Vietnamese domestic concerns that were also concerns for the United States. In retrospect, what Kennedy had to say about these issues foreshadowed what came to pass within a few months.

Defining Moment

Television had helped Kennedy win the presidency, and he used it to communicate his thoughts not only to American, but also to foreign leaders. Thus, in September 1963, he allowed the anchors of evening news broadcasts to interview him. Having conducted one with CBS, this second one was with NBC news co-anchors, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. At that time, the two hosted the top-rated evening news program, which meant that any interview they conducted was guaranteed to have a large audience.

Having been in office for more than two and a half years, Kennedy had been dealing with Vietnam since day one. The increase in military advisors and economic aid had been a consistent part of his foreign policy. For over a year, there had been some in the administration who had questioned American policy, especially as it related to supporting the South Vietnamese government headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem. In private conversations earlier in the year, Kennedy himself had expressed such concerns. Only a month earlier, Kennedy had replaced the American ambassador to South Vietnam, Frederick Nolting, a strong supporter of Diem, with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a skeptic regarding Diem's government. In addition, rumors were circulating of the CIA pushing some South Vietnamese generals to undertake a coup, adding uncertainty to the situation.

With those events in the background, President Kennedy sat down with Huntley and Brinkley to answer questions regarding current programs and proposals of his administration. His obvious hope was to strengthen support for his administration from the American populace and from members of Congress. As regards the questions related to South Vietnam, Kennedy made it clear that he had concerns about the South Vietnamese government, without overtly withdrawing his support for it. The fact, however, that he mentions some of these concerns makes it clear that they were more serious than he wanted to let on. His refusal to answer a question about the CIA should have been expected, although that was the question that probably needed answering the most.

Author Biography

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963) was born into a wealthy family in Boston. His parents pushed all their children to succeed. He graduated from Harvard, having written his senior thesis—published in 1940—on the topic of why Britain was unprepared for World War II. He served as a naval officer World War II, winning medals for courage. In 1946, he was elected to the House of Representatives. In 1952, he was elected to the US Senate. The following year, he married Jacqueline Bouvier. He was elected president in 1960, the first Catholic to hold that position. His foreign policy was staunchly anti-communist, while domestically, he pushed for equality and an increase in emphasis upon the space program. Kennedy was assassinated on November 21, 1963. Since he was president for a relatively short period, a number of his programs and ideas had not yet been implemented. Nevertheless, his youthful image and enthusiasm inspired many throughout the country.

Chester “Chet” Huntley (1911–1974) was a journalist from Montana who worked his way up on radio and television. His big break came when he co-anchored the 1956 national political convention coverage. In 1956, he became co-anchor, with David Brinkley, of the NBC evening news until his retirement in 1970.

David Brinkley (1920–2003) was born in North Carolina and began his journalism career while still in high school. In 1943, he moved to Washington and became the NBC White House correspondent. Co-anchoring the evening news with Huntley, Brinkley then continued with NBC after Huntley's retirement. In 1981, he moved to ABC and initiated a new Sunday morning news format, staying with that network until his retirement in 1997.

Historical Document

THE PRESIDENT. On the whole, I think this country has done an outstanding job. A good many countries today are free that would not be free. Communism's gains since 1945 in spite of chaos and poverty have been limited, and I think the balance of power still rests with the West, and I think it can increase our strength if we make the right decisions this year, economically, here at home and in the field of foreign policy. Two matters that we have been talking about are examples of that. One is the tax cut which affects our economic growth, which affects the whole movement of this country internally; the test ban treaty which affects our security abroad and our leadership. That is why I think it is very important that the Senate pass it. You know the old story that who prepares for battle that the trumpet blows an uncertain sound. Well, I think that if the United States Senate rejected that treaty after the Government has committed itself to it, the sound from the United States around the world would be very uncertain.

Mr. Huntley: Mr. President, in respect to our difficulties in South Viet-Nam, could it be that our Government tends occasionally to get locked into a policy or an attitude and then finds it difficult to alter or shift that policy?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, that is true. I think in the case of South Viet-Nam we have been dealing with a government which is in control, has been in control for 10 years. In addition, we have felt for the last 2 years that the struggle against the Communists was going better. Since June, however, the difficulties with the Buddhists, we have been concerned about a deterioration, particularly in the Saigon area, which hasn't been felt greatly in the outlying areas but may spread. So we are faced with the problem of wanting to protect the area against the Communists. On the other hand, we have to deal with the government there. That produces a kind of ambivalence in our efforts which exposes us to some criticism. We are using our influence to persuade the government there to take those steps which will win back support. That takes some time and we must be patient, we must persist.

Mr. Huntley: Are we likely to reduce our aid to South Viet-Nam now?

THE PRESIDENT. I don't think we think that would be helpful at this time. If you reduce your aid, it is possible you could have some effect upon the government structure there. On the other hand, you might have a situation which could bring about a collapse. Strongly in our mind is what happened in the case of China at the end of World War II, where China was lost, a weak government became increasingly unable to control events. We don't want that.

Mr. Brinkley: Mr. President, have you had any reason to doubt this so-called “domino theory,” that if South Viet-Nam falls, the rest of southeast Asia will go behind it?

THE PRESIDENT. No, I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Viet-Nam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya, but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it.

Mr. Brinkley: In the last 48 hours there have been a great many conflicting reports from there about what the CIA was up to. Can you give us any enlightenment on it?

THE PRESIDENT. No.

Mr. Huntley: Does the CIA tend to make its own policy? That seems to be the debate here.

THE PRESIDENT. NO, that is the frequent charge, but that isn't so. Mr. McCone, head of the CIA, sits in the National Security Council. We have had a number of meetings in the past few days about events in South Viet-Nam. Mr. McCone participated in every one, and the CIA coordinates its efforts with the State Department and the Defense Department.

Mr. Brinkley: With so much of our prestige, money, so on, committed in South Viet-Nam, why can't we exercise a little more influence there, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT. We have some influence. We have some influence, and we are attempting to carry it out. I think we don't—we can't expect these countries to do everything the way we want to do them. They have their own interest, their own personalities, their own tradition. We can't make everyone in our image, and there are a good many people who don't want to go in our image. In addition, we have ancient struggles between countries. In the case of India and Pakistan, we would like to have them settle Kashmir. That is our view of the best way to defend the subcontinent against communism. But that struggle between India and Pakistan is more important to a good many people in that area than the struggle against the Communists. We would like to have Cambodia, Thailand, and South Viet-Nam all in harmony, but there are ancient differences there. We can't make the world over, but we can influence the world. The fact of the matter is that with the assistance of the United States, SEATO, southeast Asia and indeed all of Asia has been maintained independent against a powerful force, the Chinese Communists. What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say because they don't like events in southeast Asia or they don't like the government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists. I think we should stay. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.

Mr. Huntley: Someone called the civil rights issue in 1964, I think, the fear of the political unknown. Would you agree?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes. I think that what they are wondering is what effect this will have, whether the North, which has supported civil rights in the past, will continue to support it. I think they will. I think the bill we put in is a reasonable bill, and I think that—my judgment is that we will not divide this country politically into Negroes and whites. That would be a fatal mistake for a society which should be as united as ours is. I think it should be divided, in other words, Republicans and Democrats, but not by race.

Mr. Huntley: But in the Congress, do you see the issue coming down to a full scale test of strength, or do you see it ending in a compromise?

THE PRESIDENT. We don't start off with a compromise. I hope it is going to pass as close to the form in which we sent it up as possible.

Mr. Brinkley: Do you plan to see President Tito this fall, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I don't know. It would depend in part, and there are other Presidents who will be coming to the United Nations, and I would expect to see most of them.

Mr. Brinkley: Mr. President, Harry Truman was out for his walk this morning and he said he did not think we should have a tax cut until we get the budget balanced, and the other day Senator Humphrey was saying in the Senate that what the American people think is true is very often more important than what actually is true. In view of all that, what do you think about cutting taxes while the budget is still in deficit?

THE PRESIDENT. The reason the Government is in deficit is because you have more than 4 million people unemployed, and because the last 5 years you have had rather a sluggish growth, much slower than any other Western country. I am in favor of a tax cut because I am concerned that if we don't get the tax cut that we are going to have an increase in unemployment and that we may move into a period of economic downturn. We had a recession in ‘58, a recession in 1960. We have done pretty well since then, but we still have over 4 million unemployed. I think this tax cut can give the stimulus to our economy over the next 2 or 3 years. I think it will provide for greater national wealth. I think it will reduce unemployment. I think it will strengthen our gold position. So I think that the proposal we made is responsible and in the best interests of the country. Otherwise, if we don't get the tax cut, I would think that our prospects are much less certain. I think the Federal Reserve Board has indicated that. Nineteen hundred and sixty-four is going to be an uncertain time if we don't get the tax cut. I think that to delay it to 1964 would be very unwise. I think our whole experience in the late fifties shows us how necessary and desirable it is. My guess is that if we can get the tax cut, with the stimulus it will give to the economy, that we will get our budget in balance quicker than we will if we don't have it.

Mr. Huntley: The affirmative economic response to Britain's tax cut seemed to be almost immediate. Would it be as immediate in this country, do you think?

THE PRESIDENT. I think it would be. Interestingly enough, the British came forward with their tax cut in April, passed it within a month. They have experienced economic benefits from it. Unemployment has been substantially reduced. They have a larger deficit than we do. Yet the only criticism was that it wasn't enough. Nearly every economist has supported us. I think it is in the best economic interests of the country, unless this country just wants to drag along, have 5 or 6 million people unemployed, have profits reduced, have economic prospects, have our budgets unbalanced by a much larger proportion. The largest unbalanced budget in the history of this country was in 1958 because of the recession—$12 1/2 billion. The fact of the matter is that, of course, Government expenditures do go up in every administration, but the country's wealth goes up. President Eisenhower spent $185 billion more than President Truman. But the country was much wealthier. It is much wealthier now than it was in the last year of President Eisenhower's administration. I think our economic situation can be very good. I think what we have proposed is a responsible answer to a problem which has been part of our economic life for 5 or 6 years, and that is slack, failure to grow sufficiently, relatively high unemployment. If you put that together with the fact that we have to find 35,000 new jobs a week, I think the situation in this country calls for a tax reduction this year.

Mr. Huntley: Thank you, Mr. President.

Glossary

difficulties with the Buddhists: a reference to the massive social protests taking place against the Diem government over the latter's treatment of Buddhist groups

Kashmir: a disputed territory bordering northwest India and northeast Pakistan

Saigon: the capital of South Vietnam; today, Ho Chi Minh City

Document Analysis

By the time President Kennedy came into office, television had truly become a national media. He used it extensively, including being the first chief executive to have his press conferences broadcast live. Kennedy held sixty-four press conferences in his thirty-four months in office, with additional interviews, as in the case of this one, also taking place. The relationship between Kennedy and the news media was less adversarial than has been the case for presidents in recent years. The status of events in South Vietnam was of interest to the nation. One item emerging from the interview is how the United States can support a government with which it has major disagreements. The other principal concern is the ongoing struggle with communism. The anti-communist tone of Kennedy's responses is in line with his political orientation throughout his life. Whether or not he was as optimistic as his responses indicate, Kennedy did try to assure the American public that the communist push for expansion was being thwarted. His counsel is for patience, as American interests would ultimately prevail.

In the midst of questions on civil rights, the test ban treaty, the upcoming United Nations session and a tax cut, Huntley and Brinkley raise the issue of Vietnam. The videos available from this interview show a friendly atmosphere, but that does not mean that the newsmen do not want to get the scoop on other reporters. Unlike four years later, when Vietnam became a central issue for all of America, it is still an emerging concern in 1963. When asked by Huntley, Kennedy does acknowledge that the United States sometimes gets “locked into a policy” even when change might be needed. As part of the response to that question, Kennedy raises the issue of the Buddhist protests against the Diem regime. (Diem had focused on the needs of the Catholic Vietnamese rather than the Buddhist majority.) While, to a certain extent, Kennedy tries to reduce the importance of the protests by stating that they were in “the Saigon area,” in reality, this is an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation. Anti-government protests normally occurred outside the capital, which was always under tight security. The Buddhist protests had started in Hue in May and, by September, were spreading widely throughout the country. Kennedy's reference to the Saigon demonstrations is an indirect indication that the policy of supporting Diem might be moving toward a conclusion.

Several of the questions deal with what steps might be taken to pressure the Diem government into changing its policy toward South Vietnamese Buddhists. This had moved to the front pages of the American media in 1963 because, in an act of ultimate protest, a Buddhist monk had set himself on fire in Saigon that June. While not directly addressing the specifics of the Buddhist protests or their cause, Kennedy asserts that the United States “should use our influence in as effective a way as we can” regarding these and other issues. He also acknowledges that the United States should not “expect these countries to do everything the way we want.” Related, yet not acknowledged in this interview, is the question about CIA activity. Kennedy refuses to say anything about it, although the question is raised because of rumors that the CIA was trying to instigate a coup. Declassified documents show that the CIA had indeed discussed a coup with some Vietnamese generals, but had not necessarily instigated the conversations.

Essential Themes

Kennedy responds more directly to some questions regarding Vietnam than was the case for other presidents in similar situations. One point that he makes clearly is that there's a limit to what foreign aid can buy. To expect that any nation receiving assistance from the United States will do whatever the United States desires, is misguided. Thus, there are various things happening in South Vietnam of which the United States does not approve. However, it also is apparent that there are limits to what is acceptable to the United States. Thus are the (not incorrect) rumors about the CIA discussing a South Vietnamese coup raised. While nothing Kennedy ever says points directly to allowing a South Vietnamese-led coup to take place in South Vietnam only two months later, his intimation of having problems with the Diem regime suggests encouragement of those considering such an action. As was seen in November, the patience that Kennedy counseled did have its limits.

Throughout his discussion of South Vietnam, and various regions of Asia, Kennedy makes it clear that the ultimate goal is stopping communism. When asked about the domino theory, that if South Vietnam fell other Southeast Asian countries would as well, Kennedy responds that he does “believe it.” Throughout the interview, when asked about possible changes in the American position or actions in South Vietnam, Kennedy always raises the concern about how these things will affect the effort to stop the spread of communism. Having the majority of the South Vietnamese population support the government of South Vietnam, or questions as to whether the United States should cut its foreign aid, are questions and concerns that Kennedy accepts as valid. However, overriding all of these interests is the need to stop communism from taking control in new countries. This was one of America's and Kennedy's guiding principles. And ultimately, it was this concern that drew the United States further into the conflict in South Vietnam. The Vietnam War was the result of this strong anti-communist mindset dominating the scene in the post-World War II era.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Chomsky, Noam. Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture. Cambridge: South End Press, 1993. Print.
  • Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. 1965. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Print.
  • Sorenson, Theodore C. Kennedy. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Print.
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