Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Today, John F. Kennedy would have been 95 years old.

Speaking at the University of Wyoming fieldhouse

I heard him speak at the University of Wyoming when I was in second grade. Here is that speech, from 1963. He was assassinated fifty-eight days later in Dallas, Texas. I had met Senator Gale McGee on a few occasions, by that time. Here is what I heard:

John F. Kennedy
Address at the University of Wyoming.

September 25, 1963

Senator McGee–my old colleague in the Senate, Gale McGee–Governor, Mr. President, Senator Mansfield, Senator Metcalf, Secretary Udall, ladies and gentlemen:

I want to express my appreciation to you for your warm welcome, to you, Governor, to the President of the University, to Senator McGee, and others. I am particularly glad to come on this conservation trip and have an opportunity to speak at this distinguished university, because what we are attempting to do is to develop the talents in our country which require, of course, education which will permit us in our time, when the conservation of our resources requires entirely different techniques than were required 50 years ago, when the great conservation movement began under Theodore Roosevelt–and these talents, scientific and social talents, must be developed at our universities.

I hope that all of you who are students here will recognize the great opportunity that lies before you in this decade, and in the decades to come, to be of service to our country. The Greeks once defined happiness as full use of your powers along lines of excellence, and I can assure you that there is no area of life where you will have an opportunity to use whatever powers you have, and to use them along more excellent lines, bringing ultimately, I think, happiness to you and those whom you serve.

What I think we must realize is that the problems which now face us and their solution are far more complex, far more difficult, far more subtle, require a far greater skill and discretion of judgment, than any of the problems that this country has faced in its comparatively short history, or any, really, that the world has faced in its long history. The fact is that almost in the last 30 years the world of knowledge has exploded. You remember that Robert Oppenheimer said that 8 or 9 out of 10 of all the scientists who ever lived, live today. This last generation has produced nearly all of the scientific breakthroughs, at least relatively, that this world of ours has ever experienced. We are alive, all of us, while this tremendous explosion of knowledge, which has expanded the horizon of our experience, so far has all taken ‘place in the last 30 years.

If you realize that when Queen Victoria sent for Robert Peel to be Prime Minister-he was in Rome–the journey which he took from Rome to London took him the same amount of time, to the day, that it had taken the Emperor Hadrian to go from Rome to England nearly 1900 years before. There had been comparatively little progress made in almost 1900 years in the field of knowledge. Now, suddenly, in the last 100 years, but most particularly in the last 30 years, all that is changed, and all of this knowledge is brought to bear, and can be brought to bear, in improving our lives and making the life of our people more happy, or destroying them. And that problem is the one, of course, which this generation of Americans and the next must face: how to use that knowledge, how to make a social discipline out of it.

There is really not much use in having science and its knowledge confined to the laboratory unless it comes out into the mainstream of American and world life, and only those who are trained and educated to handle knowledge and the disciplines of knowledge can be expected to play a significant part in the life of their country. So, quite obviously, this university is not maintained by the people of Wyoming merely to help all of the graduates enjoy a prosperous life. That may come, that may be a byproduct, but the people of Wyoming contribute their taxes to the maintenance of this school in order that the graduates of this school may, themselves, return to the society which helped develop them some of the talents which that society has made available, and what is true in this State is true across the United States.

The reason why, at the height of the Civil War, when the preservation of the Union was in doubt, Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant College Act, which has built up the most extraordinary educational system in the world, was because he knew that a nation could not exist and be ignorant and free; and what was true 100 years ago is more true today. So what we have to decide is how we are going to manage the complicated social and economic and world problems which come across our desks-my desk, as President of the United States; the desk of the Senators, as representatives of the States; the Members of the House, as representatives of the people.

But most importantly, as the final power is held by a majority of the people, how the majority of the people are going to make their judgment on the wise use of our resources, on the correct monetary and fiscal policy, what steps we should take in space, what steps we should take to develop the resources of the ocean, what steps we should take to manage our balance of payments, what we should do in the Congo or Viet-Nam, or in Latin America, all these areas which come to rest upon the United States as the leading great power of the world, with the determination and the understanding to recognize what is at stake in the world–all these are problems far more complicated than any group of citizens ever had to deal with in the history of the world, or any group of Members of Congress had to deal with.


If you feel that the Members of Congress were more talented 100 years ago, and certainly the Senators in the years before the Civil War included the brightest figures, probably, that ever sat in the Senate–Benton, Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and all the rest-they talked, and at least three of them stayed in the Congress 40 years–they talked for 40 years about four or five things: tariffs and the development of the West, land, the rights of the States and slavery, Mexico. Now we talk about problems in one summer which dwarf in complexity all of those matters, and we must deal with them or we will perish.

So I think the chance for an educated graduate of this school to serve his State and country is bright. I can assure you that you are needed.

This trip that I have taken is now about 24 hours old, but it is a rewarding 24 hours because there is nothing more encouraging than for those of us to leave the rather artificial city of Washington and come and travel across the United States and realize what is here, the beauty, the diversity, the wealth, and the vigor of the people.

Last Friday I spoke to delegates from all over the world at the United Nations. It is an unfortunate fact that nearly every delegate comes to the United States from all around the world and they make a judgment on the United States based on an experience in New York or Washington; and rarely do they come West beyond the Mississippi, and rarely do they go to California, or to Hawaii, or to Alaska. Therefore, they do not understand the United States, and those of us who stay only in Washington sometimes lose our comprehension of the national problems which require a national solution.

This country has become rich because nature was good to us, and because the people who came from Europe, predominantly, also were among the most vigorous. The basic resources were used skillfully and economically, and because of the wise work done by Theodore Roosevelt and others, significant progress was made in conserving these resources.

Theodore Roosevelt with John Muir at Yosemite

The problem, of course, now is that the whole concept of conservation must change in the 1960’s if we are going to pass on to the 350 million Americans who will live in this country in 40 years where 180 million Americans now live–if we are going to pass on a country which is even richer.

The fact of the matter is that the management of our natural resources instead of being primarily a problem of conserving them, of saving them, now requires the scientific application of knowledge to develop new resources. We have come to. realize to a large extent that resources are not passive. Resources are not merely something that was here, put by nature. Research tells us that previously valueless materials, which 10 years ago were useless, now can be among the most valuable natural resources of the United States. And that is the most significant fact in conservation now since the early 1900’s when Theodore Roosevelt started his work. A conservationist’s first reaction in those days was to preserve, to hoard, to protect every non-renewable resource. It was the fear of resource exhaustion which caused the great conservation movement of the 1900’s. And this fear was reflected in the speeches and attitudes of our political leaders and their writers.

This is not surprising in the light of the technology of that time, but today that approach is out of date, and I think this is an important fact for the State of Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain States. It is both too pessimistic and too optimistic. We need no longer fear that our resources and energy supplies are a fixed quantity that can be exhausted in accordance with a particular rate of consumption. On the other hand, it is not enough to put barbed wire around a forest or a lake, or put in stockpiles of minerals, or restrictive laws and regulations on the exploitation of resources. That was the old way of doing it.

The old way of doing it

Our primary task now is to increase our understanding of our environment to a point where we can enjoy it without defacing it, use its bounty without detracting permanently from its value, and, above all, maintain a living balance between man’s actions and nature’s reactions, for this Nation’s great resources are as elastic and productive as our ingenuity can make them. For example, soda ash is a multimillion dollar industry in this State. A few years ago there was no use for it. It was wasted. People were unaware of it. And even if it had been sought, it could not be found–not because it wasn’t here, but because effective prospecting techniques had not been developed. Now soda ash is a necessary ingredient in the production of glass, steel, and other products. As a result of a series of experiments, of a harnessing of science to the use of man, this great new industry has opened up. In short, conservation is no longer protection and conserving and restricting. The balance between our needs and the availability of our resources, between our aspirations and our environment, is constantly changing.

Techtonic plate theory would have to wait for confirmation
until secret US navy maps of the undersea topography
were declassified in 1966 

One of the great resources which we are going to find in the next 40 years is not going to be the land; it will be the ocean. We are going to find untold wealth in the oceans of the world which will be used to make a better life for our people. Science is changing all of our natural environment. It can change it for good; it can change it for bad. We are pursuing, for example, new opportunities in coal, which have been largely neglected–examining the feasibility of transporting coal by water through pipelines, of gasification at the mines, of liquefaction of coal into gasoline, and of transmitting electric power directly from the mouth of the mine. The economic feasibility of some of these techniques has not been determined, but it will be in the next decade. At the same time, we are engaged in active research on better means of using low grade coal, to meet the tremendous increase in the demand for coal we are going to find in the rest of this century. This is, in effect, using science to increase our supply of a resource of which the people of the United States were totally unaware 50 years ago.

Another research undertaking of special concern to this Nation and this State is the continuing effort to develop practical and feasible techniques of converting oil shale into usable petroleum fuels. The higher grade deposits in Wyoming alone are equivalent to 30 billion barrels of oil, and 200 billion barrels in the case of lower grade development. This could not be used, there was nothing to conserve, and now science is going to make it possible.

Investigation is going on to assure at the same time an adequate water supply so that when we develop this great new industry we will be able to use it and have sufficient water. Resource development, therefore, requires not only the coordination of all branches of science, it requires the joint effort of scientists, government–State, national, and local–and members of other professional disciplines. For example, we are now examining in the United States today the mixed economic-technical question of whether very large-scale nuclear reactors can produce unexpected savings in the simultaneous desalinization of water and the generation of electricity. We will have, before this decade is out or sooner, a tremendous nuclear reactor which makes electricity and at the same time gets fresh water from salt water at a competitive price. What a difference this can make to the Western United States. And, indeed, not only the United States, but all around the globe where there are so many deserts on the ocean’s edge.

It is in efforts, I think, such as this, where the National Government can play a significant role, where the scale of public investment or the nationwide scope of the problem, the national significance of the results are too great to ignore or which cannot always be carried out by private research. Federal funds and stimulation can help make the most imaginative and productive use of our manpower and facilities. The use of science and technology in these fields has gained understanding and support in the Congress. Senator Gale McGee has proposed an energetic study of the technology of electrometallurgy–the words are getting longer as the months go on, and more complicated-an area of considerable importance to the Rocky Mountains.

Progress marches on

All this, I think, is going to change the life of Wyoming and going to change the life of the United States. What we regard now as relative well-being, 30 years from now will be regarded as poverty. When you realize that 30 years ago r out of 10 farms had electricity, and yet some farmers thought that they were living reasonably well, now for a farm not to have electricity, we regard them as living in the depths of poverty. That is how great a change has come in 30 years. In the short space of 18 years, really, or almost 20 years, the wealth of this country has gone up 300 percent.

In 1970, 1980, 1990, this country will be, can be, must be–if we make the proper decisions, if we manage our resources, both human and material, wisely, if we make wise decisions in the Nation, in the State, in the community, and individually, if we maintain a vigorous and hopeful ‘pursuit of life and knowledge–the resources of this country are so unlimited and science is expanding them so greatly that all those people who thought 40 years ago that this country would be exhausted in the middle of the century have been proven wrong. It is going to be richer than ever, providing we make the wise decisions and we recognize that the future belongs to those who seize it.

Knowledge is power, a saying 500 years old, but knowledge is power today as never before, not only here in the United States, but the future of the free world depends in the final analysis upon the United States and upon our willingness to reach those decisions on these complicated matters which face us with courage and clarity. And the graduates of this school will, as they have in the past, play their proper role.

I express my thanks to you. This building which 15 years ago was just a matter of conversation is now a reality. So those things that we talk about today, which seem unreal, where so many people doubt that they can be done–the fact of the matter is, it has been true all through our history–they will be done, and Wyoming, in doing it, will play its proper role.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke in the University field house at Laramie. In his opening words he referred to U.S. Senator Gale McGee and Governor Cliff Hansen of Wyoming; President George D. Humphrey of the University; U.S. Senators Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf of Montana; and Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall.

Citation: John F. Kennedy: “Address at the University of Wyoming.,” September 25, 1963. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9433.

Charles deGaulle at the funeral of John F. Kennedy

Happy 95th Birthday, Mr. President. We might have had you still with us.



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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