Rumors swirled around Washington after the Bay of Pigs. Who directed this disaster? Who would get blamed? Kennedy first side-steped the question in his aggressive speech on 20 April 1961 to the the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE; text is here). But the issue would not go away. Kennedy gave his famous answer at a press conference on 21 April 1961 (transcirpt here):
Question by NBC’s Sander Vanocur (Wikipedia):
Sir, since last Saturday, a certain foreign policy situation has given rise to many conflicting stories. But during that time, reporters in Washington have noticed that there has been a clamming up of information from formerly useful sources. To my knowledge the State Department and the White House has not attempted to take a representative group of reporters and say “these are the facts as we know them.” And this morning we are not permitted to ask any further questions abut this foreign policy situation. In view of the fact we are taking a propaganda lambasting around the world, why is it not useful, sir, for us to explore with you the real facts behind this, or our motivations?
Answer by the President:
Well, I think in answer to your question that we have to make a judgment as to how much we can usefully say that would aid the interest of the United States. One of the problems of a free society, a problem not met by a dictatorship, is this problem of information. A good deal has been printed in the paper. I wouldn’t be surprised if those of you who are members of the press would be receiving a lot of background briefings in the next day or two by interested people or interested agencies.
There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan, and I wouldn’t be surprised if information is poured into you in regard to all the recent activities.
Now, I think we see some of the problems, to move from this particular case, in the problem of Space, where the Soviet Union — no reports were made in regard to any experiments that they carried out. “Our man in space” — I saw in a national magazine about some student said the Americans talk a good deal about their man in space. The Soviet Union says nothing and yet it wins. Well, that is one of the problems of a democracy competing and carrying on a struggle for survival against a dictatorship.
But I will say to you, Mr. Vanocur, that I have said as much as I feel can be usefully said, by me, in regard to the events of the past few days. Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I am the responsible officer of the government, and that is quite obvious, but merely because I do not believe that such a discussion would benefit us during the present difficult situation. I think you will be informed and some of the information, based on what I have seen, will not be accurate.
This satisfied the American people, and Kennedy’s ratings in the polls rose.
For more about this topic
- “Speechwriting, Speechmaking, and the Press: The Kennedy Administration and the Bay of Pigs“, Thomas W. Benson (Prof of Rhetoric, Penn State U), Spring 1999
- For evidence of JFK’s brass cojones, read Virtual JFK. I had a low opinion of JFK until I read this.
About the “victory has a hundred fathers” quote
- The exact quote Kennedy used was said by Field Marshal von Rundstedt in the film The Desert Fox (1951).
- The earliest known use of this saying is by the Italian diplomat, and son-in-law of Mussolini, Count Caleazzo Ciano (1903-44). 1942. “La victoria trova cento padri, e nessuno vuole riconoscere l’insuccesso”, from The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943, volume 2 (see Google Books).
Posts on the FM website about our leaders
- Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
- “Lights, Camera, Democracy” by Lewis Lapham, 24 May 2009
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