JFK’s San Luis Dam speech inspires vision

President John F. Kennedy gave a speech Saturday, Aug. 18, 1962 for the groundbreaking ceremony of the San Luis Dam site in the eastern hills of the Diablo Mountain Range.

Fifty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy visited Pacheco Pass and gave a speech I wish every American politician today might take to heart. He gave it to a crowd of Californians who met on Saturday, Aug. 18, 1962 for the groundbreaking ceremony of the San Luis Dam site in the eastern hills of the Diablo Mountain Range. The words Kennedy spoke that hot, dusty, summer day are not well-remembered now, but I believe they offer wise advice on what good governing is all about.
The day before his arrival to our region, Kennedy left the White House for a jaunt around the country visiting sites in the west where the federal government worked with state governments in the management of our nation’s water resources. First, he travelled to the largest earth-rolled dam in the world in Pierre, S.D. He then visited the western Colorado construction site of the Fryingpan-Arkansas project built to transport water from 9,000 feet through a mountain in the Rockies to irrigate eastern Colorado farmland. Kennedy next stopped at Yosemite National Park, becoming the first president to visit this wilderness jewel since Theodore Roosevelt spent a few days camping with conservationist John Muir in 1903.
That Saturday morning, a helicopter took Kennedy from Yosemite to the San Luis Dam site. Here he met other dignitaries, including California Gov. Pat Brown, several congressional representatives and senators, and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. People who had gathered for the groundbreaking heard Kennedy give a speech about the benefits that can come from an attitude of cooperation between the federal and state governments.
“Things do not happen,” Kennedy told the attendees. “They are made to happen. And this project is the result.”
Shortly after these words, he said the projects he visited in his trip were examples of how Americans can team together.
“We are a very independent people, 180 million, and it is hard for us to agree on any course of action,” he said. “We always have some different ideas of how that course of action can be made more perfect, and yet, in this case, one part of your state has been willing to help another part.
In the case of Colorado, western Colorado has been willing to divide its water with eastern Colorado. In the case of this project, and Colorado and South Dakota, the people from the eastern United States have been willing to invest their tax money in this part of the country because they realize that as this state does well, so does the United States.”
Kennedy warned that it is dangerous for citizens from different parts of United States to refuse to share in a partnership with other citizens in other sections.
“That is the way to stand still,” he said. “The way to move ahead is to realize that we are citizens of one country who can freely move from one state to another, and as one state does well, so do the others. And if one state stands still, so do all the rest. Progress represents the combined will of the American people … It’s only when we join together in a forward movement that this country moves ahead and that we prepare the way for those who come after us.”
Kennedy’s message to the crowd – and to us today – is that the role of government is to work to strengthen America for tomorrow, to look to the future and not to the past for our greatest accomplishments.
Following his speech, Kennedy joked, “It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help blow up this valley.” He then pushed a dynamite plunger. A cloud of dust formed in the distance, marking the official start of the San Luis Dam project.
Fifty years after Kennedy set off that explosion of dynamite, San Luis Dam and the San Luis Reservoir serve as components in California’s water management infrastructure. They benefit the whole state including our own South Valley region. Good management of water has helped build California into the top agricultural state in America, feeding much of our nation’s citizens as well as people around the world. San Luis Dam has been an important infrastructure project in building our nation’s economic strength.
Consider the loss to our nation if a divisive political climate, such as what we suffer now, had prevented the construction of the San Luis Dam. I doubt such a beneficial project would get through the gauntlet of political discord in Congress today. Kennedy’s speech at a Pacheco Pass groundbreaking reminds us that visionary leaders set aside their political differences and join together on common ground for a common benefit.
Editor’s Note: This is the last of Marty Cheek’s columns. To avoid a conflict of interest and per this newspaper’s policy, the column will be suspended pending the outcome of the Morgan Hill Unified School District board race.

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