Select Page

New Frontier of the Ocean

November 26, 1963 — Annual Award Dinner, Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University, The Conrad Hilton Hotel, Chicago IL


Mr. Chairman, Your Excellency, Right Reverend and Very Reverend Monsignori, Father Maguire, Dr. Sheehan, Your Honor Mayor Daley, Dr. Pechous, Reverend Fathers, and Ladies and Gentlemen:

Last spring when your Committee extended the flattering invitation to address the Annual Cardinal Stritch Award Dinner of the Loyola Medical School, though pride tempted me to accept with alacrity, prudence counseled otherwise. First, this annual dinner has increasingly come to be known as one of the most distinguished and important charity events in America, attended by an audience of considerable intellectual distinction and wide knowledgeability. And I was somewhat painfully aware of my limitations as a speaker on so significant an occasion. Second, I realized that this was to be a strictly nonpoliticalnon-political event, and that my subject must be one quite free of any partisan overtones. As you so well know, ladies and gentlemen, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a speaker of known political convictions to avoid political imputations, if not implications, in a presidential campaign year.

But in the end I accepted your wonderful invitation, because happily I thought I had found in “The New Frontier of the Ocean” a politically nonpartisannon-partisan subject. It was my intention to tell you tonight that we are entering the new Ocean Age; that our nation’s destiny will be linked ever more closely with the success of our national oceanographic efforts and research plans.

And because of the special interest of this audience, a good part of that talk was to have been concerned with the many extraordinary advances being made in marine biology and underwater medical research.

That talk you will not hear tonight.

You see, last Friday, at one o’clock, I was sitting writing on a jet plane, en route from Arizona to New York. I was struggling with my briny topic, trying to give it a few light, salty touches when the pilot’s voice, urgent and somber, abruptly filled the plane with the terrible news that our President had been assassinated. I wrote no more on the talk that day. The pages that lay on my lap were suddenly dampened with real salt water¾ ¾ the salt of one American’s tears. My mind and heart, like yours, have since been full offilled with horror and grief.

Tonight you will hear not just my words on the importance of an oceanography program to our Nation’snation’s destiny. You will hear President Kennedy’s words — which have never been heard before. The correspondence I shall read to you, between the President of the United States and myself, a private citizen, no longer belongs to me. It belongs now to you — the people, and to the nation’s archives.

I would prefer not to read my own letter, but I must because it initiated the exchange, and it is essential to your understanding of the President’s response.

On August 22nd last, I wrote President Kennedy the following letter:

“Dear Mr. President:

On the 4th of July last, in Philadelphia, I had the honor to keynote the fourth annual conventionFourth Annual Conventionof the Underwater Society of America. The invitation to address this gathering of distinguished underwater oceanographers, archeologists, photographers, engineers, biologists, ichthyologists, and submarine researchers, fell to me no doubt consequent to the regrettable fact that the conventionConvention could think of no other available “public figure” who was deeply interested in the overall question of inner space exploration.

“In that address, I expressed the fervent hope that our Government would, before too many years passed, undertake a “Project Neptune,,” dedicated to “the total underwater proposition that man can and will explore, research, hunt, farm, mine, colonize, and tour earth’s inner space for the increasing enrichment of mankind.” I was not aware when I spoke, Mr. President, that you had for some time been considering a beginning to just such a vast undertaking.

“Surely your proposed $2,300 million plan to explore the sea, announced this week, will rank as one of the greatest achievements of your administration.Administration. I even venture to predict that 10ten years from now, if your “Project Neptune” goes energetically forward under a coordinating Oceanographic Agency of the Government, it will be recognized throughout the world as the single most exciting and profitable scientific undertaking of your administration.

“Certainly there is no nation so geographically, scientifically, economically favored as we are for this challenging and richly rewarding undertaking. In a great hydro-space thrust we can, in a matter of a few years, outdistance all the oceanographers of the U.S.S.R. and other nations, whose original contributions to underwater exploration have, unhappily, so far been greater than our own.

“The very fact that our only deep-sea craft, the ten-year-old, second-hand Trieste, was the private invention of a poor and humble Swiss professor of physicsPhysics, August Picard, has so far seemed the measure of our own lag in abysmal exploration. The many pronged hydro-space thrust your program envisages will swiftly change our underwater posture, and it calls for loud cheers from the entire nation.

“Unhappily, Mr. President, for certain psychological and superstitious reasons (which I touched on in my Convention address), the tremendous significance and importance of your inner space project has not been grasped by the American public — or the press. For example, the announcement of it appeared in the New York Times on page 9, and it probably received even less attention from the rest of the country’s press.

“May I respectfully suggest that no one but yourself can assure “Project Neptune” the headline attention it deserves. I hope you will consider sending a special message to Congress about it.

“Few Americans (alas, even fewer editors) seem aware of the tremendous advances that have been made, or of the even greater ones still to be made in the whole field of oceanography. Only you can focus the Nation’snation’s attention on the many challenges of the inner space proposition: Thethe farming and mining of our undersea resources; the possibilities of mineral, archeological and meteorological discoveries; the possibility of fresh water recovery; and the finding of a new range of antibioticsanti-biotics for human use. Only you can bring together for all to reflect upon, the many sciences — geology, physics, biology, mathematics — which are being today applied to inner space exploration. Only you can paint the comprehensive picture of the military, commercial, and scientific purposes your program will serve.

“I feel sure that such a message will become a document of historic significance whose lusterlustre can never be dimmed by any political event or consideration. No President, perhaps, in all American history has proposed a national undertaking more challenging and more potentially fruitful for our country and for mankind than “Project Neptune.”

“With renewed expression of admiration,

On August 23, just three months ago, the President responded:

“Dear Clare:

“Your inspiring talk on the exploration of ‘inner spacespace’ certainly strikes a responsive note. I share your conviction that exploration of the seas and the life it nurtures can be one of the most challenging and rewarding activities of this decade. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance that the ocean resources and an understanding of the effects of the physical phenomena associated with the seas holds for our future.

“As you note, we have made a determined effort with considerable success in my administration to stimulate research in oceanography. We have set our sights to comprehend the world ocean, its boundaries, its properties, its life, and its processes, motivated by the very same prospects that you describe.

“In 1961, when we made our first review of the nation’s research activities in oceanography, we noted two serious shortages¾ ¾ trained scientists capable of specialized work in oceanography and research facilities. Research ships, computers, adequate instruments, and laboratory buildings were badly needed. Existing facilities were sparse and mostly obsolete. Furthermore, the lack of facilities made it impossible to increase substantially the number of students who were studying at any one time. Impressed by these facts, we have concentrated our resources during these first years on efforts to improve the facilities for research and to increase as rapidly as possible the number of oceanographers being educated. We are replacing obsolete ships, modernizing laboratories and providing additional support for research programs.

“In 1950, the Federal Government’s expenditures for oceanography amounted to only $39 million dollars. My budget submitted to the Congress for 1964 requests $156 million dollars for oceanographic research and facilities.

“I am enclosing two reports prepared by the Interagency Committee on Oceanography, the Government group responsible for planning our activities in this field. One describes our plans for 1964 and the other outlines the ten year program for oceanographyOceanography which prompted the news report that you saw. Incidentally and perhaps inevitably these reports lack the sparkle and enthusiasm that punctuates your paper. As you will see, the program is already substantial and the ten year plan calls for continued growth which should give the United States the preeminent position you desire.

“You call attention to the modest scale of our effort in deep diving vehicles. This may indeed be an area that should be enhanced. Our disheartening effort to locate the lost submarine, Thresher, shows how inadequate is our ability to explore the very great depths. Stimulated by the Thresher tragedy the Navy is currently developing a research program whose purpose will be to achieve a major improvement in our ability to work in the deep sea.

“I share also your concern over the fact that the tremendous challenge and importance of these activities is not generally appreciated. This stems in large part, I believe, from the fact that the research necessarily consists of a very large number of interrelated activities of which no single one fires the imagination. I am considering adopting your descriptive phrase, “Project Neptune,” which would serve to focus attention on the scope and significance of these activities. Possibly too, I will have the opportunity to incorporate a message on oceanography into one of the talks I plan to make before scientific groups during the fall.

“Thank you very much for your encouraging letter and please let me have any further thoughts that may occur to you on the problem of creating a public awareness of these research opportunities.


“John Kennedy.””

Ladies and gentlemen, President Kennedy did not live to find the hoped for occasion to draw America’s attention to Project Neptune. I think he would be happy tonight to know that the Cardinal Stritch Medical School has given his brilliant ideas this posthumous platform of your hearts and minds.

I must add one further footnote to the history of President Kennedy’s profound interest in his oceanographic program. On September 26, 1963, with the President’s approval, a team of six Government oceanographers, including Dr. James H. Wakelin, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and& Development, and Dr. Edward Wenk, Jr., assistantAssistantto the President’s science adviser,Science Advisor Dr. Jerome Wiesner, came to New York to dine with my husband and me, and a group of writers andthe editors of Time, Inc. Until midnight they expounded the President’s deep desire for America’s writers and America’s press to publicize and bring about a better understanding of Project Neptune.

Yes, our President has put out upon the mightiest ocean of all, ¾ the one we, too, shall all explore in time — the ocean of eternity — bounded by the unknown and unknowable height and breadth and depth of God. But the oceans John Kennedy has left behind, he has bid us to explore, to exploit, to conquer — for the security of America and for the benefit of all mankind.



Source: Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 88th Congress, First Session, Vol. 109—Part 19, (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office) 1963, pps. 24882-24883.