JFK On Secrecy And Censorship

from the blast-from-the-past dept

Glyn Moody points us to a blog post that has a video/audio clip of a John F. Kennedy speech to the press about secrecy and censorship, which is getting some attention for the contrast to the way our government is responding to the Wikileaks controversy.

The key paragraph is the one that opens the video:

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.

Compare that to the way our government has been responding — demanding that US companies block access to Wikileaks and other such moves.

Of course, if you read the full speech from JFK (which was given to the American Newspaper Publishers Association), it’s really quite nuanced. JFK argues forcefully against censorship from the government — but actually is suggesting that the press consider self-censoring itself, taking into account the impact that it could have if it publishes certain information. However, he does try to make it clear that he does not want criticism or errors to be shielded from the public — just that he hopes the press will decide for themselves to avoid publishing info that directly reveals vital points to enemies of the country.

In the end, I actually think these two paragraphs may be even more powerful than the one that most people are talking about:

I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers–I welcome it. This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

Too bad we’re not hearing much of that from our politicians today.

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Comments on “JFK On Secrecy And Censorship”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The cold war was easy. “America good, Russia bad”. It’s straight stuff. You know who is on each team, and that’s all good.

Now we fight a war where you neighbor might be a terrorist. Maybe his son, or his wife… we don’t know. We end up in an uncomfortable place where we are not scared of the commies and their big nuclear bomb in Cuba, now we are worried about the swarthy skinned guy at the minimart who says “allah akbar” when you are in the store.

We live in different times. Just as we needed “A well regulated Militia” at some point in the past, times change. It is nice to think of history and learn from it, but sometimes things just don’t work out quite as expected.

We could run the country like Kennedy, but then again, under those rules, our President likely would have already been killed by yahoos or terrorists, riding around in his convertible limo.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

learn your history, or you will be doomed to repeat it. Ever hear of the red scare? Everyone was afraid of communism infiltrating the US and people started getting paranoid about who was an infiltrator or not. Here’s another word McCarthyism, same exact thing.

So no, this is nothing new. What JFK said was true then and is true now.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

What’s going on now isn’t about terrorism, it’s political opportunism. People figured the red scare was crap after the cold war, people have yet to figure it out this time around.

The communist scare spawned from WWII where the USSR proved quite well that it could kill with the best of them. Even back then, though no one said it, I think the US knew that the USSR was what actually won the war. Then this force that beat the Nazis starts looking our way, that’s a vary serious threat that only later turned out to be crap.

A communist then is our terrorist now.

RandomGuy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“The red scare wasn’t terrorism, it was political opportunism”

How charmingly naive. If you think the red scare was political opportunism and current day terrorism isn’t, then it simply illustrates just how good the government has become at doing what they do.

Propaganda is alive and well my friend, only now instead of posters featuring crudely stereotypical depictions of ‘the enemy’ with monstrously exaggerated features, you have the slick media machine of Hollywood churning it out.

The only reason you’re scared of your neighbour is because that’s what the media is telling you. How many people do you know that have been victims of homegrown terror attacks?

How many homegrown terror attacks have actually occured? Subtract those which were FBI showboating, I’m talking about real terror attacks.

“As soon as people figured it out, suddently there was no issue.”

Let’s hope the people figure this one out, too.

Mr Big Content says:

Re: Too bad that Kennedy didn't know about terrorism.

Ah, those halcyon, peaceful days so succinctly portrayed by Norman Rockwell. Life was so easy and trouble-free then. Nobody had to work hard for a living, or have any kinds of worries about personal safety. No worries about Wall Street crashing. Even the cars didn?t need seat-belts! They never knew anything like the troubles we have to deal with now.

To take some idealistic pronouncement from those more innocent times and try to apply it to today is just … trying to turn back the clock to a time that never existed.

harbingerofdoom (profile) says:

Re: Re: Too bad that Kennedy didn't know about terrorism.

hrm… so in times of safety and peace the rules are different? how bout in times of war, unrest and danger… say… the mid 1700s to early 1800s? certainly dangerous times by anyones standards…

?[The people] have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean the characters and conduct of their rulers.?- john adams 1765

?A nation under a well regulated government should permit none to remain uninstructed. It is monarchical and aristocratical government only that requires ignorance for its support.? – thomas paine 1792

?Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.? – george washington 1796

?The right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of communication among the people thereon has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.? james madison 1798

?A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.? – james madison 1822

Anonymous Coward says:

Politicians say one thing and do another

It would be interesting to do some research into exactly what kind and amount of information was being classified by JFK’s administration during this time. I don’t believe that the President’s philosophy on secret information was adopted by J. Edgar Hoover.

Wherever there is competition, there will be secrets. Thia is true in sports, business, politics, war, diplomacy, love, science, and many other fields of human endeavor. To say that there should be no secrets in areas such as this is just foolish.

Chris in Utah (profile) says:


I’ve had these words burned in my memory since I’ve heard them years ago. Techdirt has been in my fore thoughts 2 years after since I first heard them. JFK wasn’t taught in my AP US history, let alone my regular history class. It is the first thing I bring up to new friends when talking about why I have a problem with public schools why this address isn’t the first thing heard when talking about the 1st amendment. Glad you came across it, finally (no offense) Mike.

Ronald J Riley (profile) says:

Are Big Corps Driving Wikileaks Censorship?

Has anyone considered that large companies may be eager participants in censoring Wikileaks because they have as much or more dirty linen they are trying to hide? Considering Bank of America’s history of questionable conduct, they could be lobbying the government to do their dirty work. It would not be the first time (Data Treasury).

Ronald J. Riley,

President – http://www.PIAUSA.org – RJR at PIAUSA.org

Other Affiliations:
Executive Director – http://www.InventorEd.org – RJR at InvEd.org
Senior Fellow – http://www.PatentPolicy.org
President – Alliance for American Innovation
Caretaker of Intellectual Property Creators on behalf of deceased founder Paul Heckel
Washington, DC
Direct (202) 318-1595 – 9 am to 9 pm EST.

justbite_me (profile) says:


It was stated the very word “secrecy” is repugnant. Well, there are some things that are better to remain unknown. When something is marked “Secret/ Top Secret” it is better to not know, than be held accountable for knowing. When it marked “Secret” there is a reason for it, so keep your nose out of it, and your curiosity in check. Ignorance is bliss. WARNING!!!!!! Before you go the Wikileaks route think about the consequences of being caught especially if you are in the US Military, like that twit Manning. The Military will either Roast and Toast him or “BANG, BANG, you’re dead”, Neither one is good for you.

Anonymous Coward says:


I repeat the question: How many people in the US were killed by the communists on US soil?

Homegrown terror? 9/11 is effectively internal terrorists acts. These were people living in the US on visas. You know, the guy next door. We should not forget that the World Trade Center was a victim of a terrorist act before that as well.

Most of us don’t know who terrorists are until they act. I like to think that the authorities are working to try to find them before they act, rather than just using a spatula to pick up the pieces after they are done.

We live in different times. When TD goes off quoting some historical figure, it is usual so far out of context as to be meaningless. I will admit that most of it plays well to the sheeple around here.

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