Location: Arlington, VA
Context: A Memorial Day commemoration
This nation approaches no ceremony with such universal sanction as that which is held in commemoration over the graves of those who have performed military duty. In our respect for the living and our reverence for the dead, in the unbounded treasure which we have poured out in bounties, in the continual requiem services which we have held, America at least has demonstrated that republics are not ungrateful. It is one of the glories of our country that so long as we remain faithful to the cause of justice and truth and liberty, this action will continue. We have waged no wars to determine a succession, establish a dynasty, or glorify a reigning house. Our military operations have been for the service of the cause of humanity. The principles on which they have been fought have more and more come to be accepted as the ultimate standards of the world. They have been of an enduring substance, which is not weakened but only strengthened by the passage of time and the contemplation of reason.
Our experience in that respect ought not to lead us too hastily to assume that we have been therefore better than other people, but certainly we have been more fortunate. We came on the stage at a later time, so that this country had presented to it, already attained, a civilization that other countries had secured only as a result of a long and painful struggle. Of the various races of which we are composed, substantially all have a history for making warfare which is oftentimes hard to justify, as they have come up through various degrees of development. They bore this burden in ages past in order that this country might be freed from it. Under the circumstances it behooves us to look on their record of advance through great difficulties with much compassion and be thankful that we have been spared from a like experience, and out of our compassion and our thankfulness constantly to remember that because of greater advantages and opportunities we are charged with superior duties and obligations. Perhaps no country on earth has greater responsibilities than America.
Notwithstanding all the honor which this country has bestowed upon the living and all the reverence that has marked its attitude toward the dead who have served us in a military capacity, we are not a warlike Nation. As a people we have not sought military glory. Because of our fortunate circumstances, such wars as we have waged have been for the purpose of securing conditions under which peace would be more permanent, liberty would be more secure, and justice would be more certain. It was this principle that peculiarly characterized the forces who acknowledged as their commander in chief Abraham Lincoln.
While this day was legally established many years ago as an occasion to be devoted to the memory of our country’s dead, it can not but each year refresh the sentiment of respect and honor in which our country holds their living comrades. Of those great armies that maintained the long struggle from 1861 to 1865, which ranked in size with any the world had ever before seen, but a few shattered ranks now remain. The old valor yet lives. The old devotion to country, the old loyalty to the flag remain: But the youth and physical vigor which caused them to be characterized as the boys in blue are gone from these heroes of a former generation.
But the spirit which they so nobly represented two generations ago has not departed from the land. It was resurgent in the days of 1898 and in 1917, and finds a lineal succession in the three branches which make up the land and sea forces of the present day and in the public opinion of the people. Our country has never had a better-equipped Army or a more efficient Navy in time of peace than it has at the present time. The Air Service is being perfected, better quarters are being provided, and our whole Military Establishment is being made worthy of the power and dignity of this great Nation. We realize that national security and national defense can not be safely neglected. To do so is to put in peril our domestic tranquillity and jeopardize our respect and standing among the other nations.
Yet the American forces are distinctly the forces of peace. They are the guaranties of that order and tranquillity in this part of the world, which is alike beneficial to us and all the other nations. Every one knows that we covet no territory, we entertain no imperialistic designs, we harbor no enmity toward any other people. We seek no revenge, we nurse no grievances, we have inflicted no injuries, and we fear no enemies. Our ways are the ways of peace.
We are attempting to make our contribution to the peace of the world, not in any sensational or spectacular way but by the application of practical, workable, seasoned methods and an appeal to the common sense of mankind. We do not rely upon the threat of force in our international relations or in our attempt to maintain our position in the world. We have seen force tried, but the more people study its results the more they must be convinced that on the whole it has failed. Conditions sometimes arise where it seems that an appeal to arms is inevitable, but such conflicts decide very little. In the end it is necessary to make an appeal to reason, and until adjustments are reached by covenants which harmonize with the prevailing sense of justice a final solution has not been found.
Ever since the last great conflict the world has been putting a renewed emphasis, not on preparation to succeed in war, but on an attempt by preventing war to succeed in peace. This movement has the full and complete approbation of the American Government and the American people. While we have been unwilling to interfere in the political relationship of other countries and have consistently refrained from intervening except when our help has been sought and we have felt that it could be effectively given, we have signified our willingness to become associated with other nations in a practical plan for promoting international justice through the World Court. Such a tribunal furnishes a method of the adjustment of international differences in accordance with our treaty rights and under the generally accepted rules of international law. When questions arise which all parties agree ought to be adjudicated but which do not yield to the ordinary methods of diplomacy, here is a forum to which the parties may voluntarily repair in the consciousness that their dignity suffers no diminution and that their cause will be determined impartially, according to the law and the evidence. That is a sensible, direct, efficient, and practical method of adjusting differences which can not fail to appeal to the intelligence of the American people.
But while we put our trust not on force but on a reign of law and the administration of justice, yet we know that the maintenance of peace can not but to a large extent be dependent upon our sentiments and desires. In spite of all the treaties we may make and all the tribunals we may establish, unless we maintain a public opinion devoted to peace we can not escape the ravages of war. A determination to do right will be more effective than all our treaties and courts, all our armies and fleets. A peaceful people will have peace, but a warlike people can not escape war.
Peace has an economic foundation to which too little attention has been given. No student can doubt that it was to a large extent the economic condition of Europe that drove those overburdened countries headlong into the World War. They were engaged in maintaining competitive armaments. If one country laid the keel of one warship, some other country considered it necessary to lay the keel of two warships. If one country enrolled a regiment, some other country enrolled three regiments. Whole peoples were armed and drilled and trained to the detriment of their industrial life, and charged and taxed and assessed until the burden could no longer be borne. Nations cracked under the load and sought relief from the intolerable pressure by pillaging each other. It was to avoid a repetition of such a catastrophe that our Government proposed and brought to a successful conclusion the Washington Conference for the Limitation of Naval Armaments. We have been altogether desirous of an extension of this principle and for that purpose have sent our delegates to a preliminary conference of nations now sitting at Geneva. Out of that conference we expect some practical results. We believe that other nations ought to join with us in laying aside their suspicions and hatreds sufficiently to agree among themselves upon methods of mutual relief from the necessity of the maintenance of great land and sea forces. This can not be done if we constantly have in mind the resort to war for the redress of wrongs and the enforcement of rights. Europe has the League of Nations. That ought to be able to provide those countries with certain political guaranties which our country does not require. Besides this there is the World Court, which can certainly be used for the determination of all justiciable disputes. We should not underestimate the difficulties of European nations, nor fail to extend to them the highest degree of patience and the most sympathetic consideration. But we can not fail to assert our conviction that they are in great need of further limitation of armaments and our determination to lend them every assistance in the solution of their problems. We have entered the conference with the utmost good faith on our part and in the sincere belief that it represents the utmost good faith on their part. We want to see the problems that are there presented stripped of all technicalities and met and solved in a way that will secure practical results. We stand ready to give our support to every effort that is made in that direction.
While we are thus desirous of the economic welfare of other countries in part because of its relation to world peace, we ought to remember that our own Government owes a great duty to the American people in this direction. It is for this reason in part that I have insisted upon a policy of constructive economy in the national administration. If we can make the circumstances of the people easy, if we can relieve them of the burden of heavy taxation, we shall have contributed to that contentment and peace of mind which will go far to render them immune from any envious inclination toward other countries. If the people prosper in their business, they will be the less likely to resort to the irritating methods of competition in foreign trade out of which arise mutual misunderstandings and animosities. They will not be driven to the employment of sharp practices in order to support and maintain their own position. Being amply supplied with their own resources, they will not be so inclined to turn covetous eyes toward the resources of other nations.
Such a condition will likewise give opportunity to devote our surplus wealth, not to the payment of high taxes, but to the financing of the needs of other nations. Our country has already through private sources recognized the requirements in this direction and has made large advances to foreign governments and foreign enterprises for the purpose of reestablishing their public credit and their private industry. By such action we have not only discharged an obligation to humanity, but have likewise profited in our trade relations and established a community of interests which can not but be an added security for the maintenance of peace. In so far as we can confirm other people in the possession of profitable industry, without injuring ourselves, we shall have removed from them that economic pressure productive of those dissensions, discords, and hostilities which are a fruitful source of war.
It has been in accordance with these principles that we have made generous settlements of our foreign debts. The little sentiment of “live and let live” expresses a great truth. It has been thought wise to extend the payment of our debts over a long period of years, with a very low rate of interest, in order to relieve foreign peoples of the burden of economic pressure beyond their capacity to bear. An adjustment has now been made of all these major obligations, and they have all but one been mutually ratified. The moral principle of the payment of international debts has been preserved. Every dollar that we have advanced to these countries they have promised to repay with some interest. Our National Treasury is not in the banking business. We did not make these loans as a banking enterprise. We made them to a very large extent as an incident to the prosecution of the war. We have not sought to adjust them on a purely banking basis. We have taken into consideration all the circumstances and the elements that attended the original transaction and all the results that will probably flow from their settlement. They have been liquidated on this broad moral and humanitarian basis. We believe that the adjustments which have been made will be mutually beneficial to the trade relations of the countries involved and that out of these economic benefits there will be derived additional guaranties to the stability and peace of the world.
But if we are to maintain our position of understanding and good will with the nations abroad, we must continue to maintain the same sentiments at home. We are situated differently in this respect from any other country. All the other great powers have a comparatively homogeneous population, close kindred in race and blood and speech, and commonly little divided in religious beliefs. Our great Nation is made up of the strong and virile pioneering stock of nearly all the countries of the world. We have a variety of race and language and religious belief. If any of these different peoples fall into disfavor among us, there comes a quick reaction against the rest of us from the relatives and friends in their place of origin which affects the public sentiment of that country, even though it may not be actually expressed in the official actions of their Government. Such misunderstandings interfere with our friendly relations, are harmful to our trade, and retard the general progress of civilization. We all subscribe to the principle of religious liberty and toleration and equality of rights. This principle is in accordance with the fundamental law of the land. It is the very spirit of the American Constitution. We all recognize and admit that it ought to be put into practical operation. We know that every argument of right and reason requires such action. Yet in time of stress and public agitation we have too great a tendency to disregard this policy and indulge in race hatred, religious intolerance, and disregard of equal rights. Such sentiments are bound to react upon those who harbor them. Instead of being a benefit they are a positive injury. We do not have to examine history very far before we see whole countries that have been blighted, whole civilizations that have been shattered by a spirit of intolerance. They are destructive of order and progress at home and a danger to peace and good will abroad. No better example exists of toleration than that which is exhibited by those who wore the blue toward those who wore the gray. Our condition to-day is not merely that of one people under one flag, but of a thoroughly united people who have seen bitterness and enmity which once threatened to sever them pass away, and a spirit of kindness and good will reign over them all.
The success with which we have met in all of these undertakings is a matter of universal knowledge. We are at peace with all the world. Those of this generation who passed through the World War have had an experience which will always cause them to realize what an infinite blessing peace is. We are in an era of unbounded prosperity. The financial condition of our National Government is beginning to be more easy to be borne. While many other nations and many localities within our own country are struggling with a burden of increased debts and rising taxes, which makes them seek for new sources from which by further taxation they can secure new revenues, we have made large progress toward paying off our national debt, have greatly reduced our national taxes, and been able to relieve the people by abandoning altogether many sources of national revenue. We are not required to look altogether to the future for our rewards and find in our lot nothing but sacrifices for the present. Now, here, to-day, we are all able to enjoy those benefits which come from universal peace and nation-wide prosperity.
As these old soldiers, the living descendants of the spirit of Washington that made our country, go down toward the setting sun, representing the spirit of Lincoln, who saved our country, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are leaving behind them the same spirit, still undaunted, still ready to maintain in the future a more abiding peace and a more abounding prosperity, under which America can continue to work for the salvation of the world.
Citation: Foundations of the Republic
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Dennis Peterson who prepared this document for digital publication.