Title: Address of President Coolidge at the Memorial Exercises Arlington National Cemetery
Date: May 30, 1927
Location: Arlington, VA
Context: President Coolidge addresses those gathered at Arlington Cemetery to pay respects, lauding the prosperity and freedom of America, its growing international presence, and the sanctity of the Constitution.
In accordance with long-established custom we gather here on this returning Decoration Day to pay the tribute of respect and reverence due from their Government to those who have borne arms in defense of the flag of our Republic. In no other country could the people feel, in performing a like ceremony, that they were engaged in a more worthy purpose. When this Nation has been compelled to resort to war, it has always been for a justifiable cause. The pages of its history are not stained with the blood of unprovoked conflict. No treachery has ever exposed our sister nations to unwarranted attack. No lust for conquest, no craving for power, no greed for territory, no desire for revenge has ever caused us to violate the covenants of international peace and tranquillity.
We have robbed no people of their independence, we have laid on no country the hand of oppression. When our military forces have taken the field it has been to enlarge the area of self-government, to extend the scope of freedom, and to defend the principles of liberty. We have established our independence, resisted encroachment upon our sovereignty, maintained our national union, rescued afflicted people from their oppression, and brought victory to the cause of liberty in a world convulsion. To all of our departed dead who, on land and on sea, have offered their blood in the support of this holy and triumphant cause, America to-day brings its affectionate garlands of honor and acclaim.
We can not contemplate these graves which are all about us, we can not recall the history which they symbolize, without a deep consciousness that they have placed upon us an obligation to take a firmer resolution that their sacrifices are to have an influence on our conduct. The place which these heroic figures hold in history is forevermore secure. They did not hesitate, they did not yield, they met their duty squarely. For its fulfillment they were prepared to give their fortunes and their lives. It ought never to be forgotten that it was out of this spirit, supported by these sacrifices, that our country was established, its Constitution adopted and supported, its institutions formed, and its progress and prosperity created, with all that these have meant to the success and happiness of our own people and to the advancement of human welfare all over the world.
Reverence for the dead should not be divorced from respect for the living. If we hold those who have gone before in high estimation, it will reflected in our conduct toward those who are still with us. It would be idle to place a wreath on the grave of the dead and leave ungarlanded the brow of the living. Our devotion to the memory of those who have served their country in the past is but a symbol of our devotion to those who are serving their country at present. Although fortunate circumstances have placed us in the position where we do not need to maintain large and burdensome military forces, although we are a people peculiarly devoted to the arts of peace, yet these are no reasons why we should withhold anything of the just appreciation that is due to those who are devoting their lives to the profession of arms. These men stand ready to respond at any moment to the order of our Government to proceed to any point within our own country or to any portion of the globe where disorder and violence threaten the peaceful rights of our people. Their post is always the post of danger and their lives are spent in service and sacrifice to promote the welfare of their country. America has a just right to satisfaction and pride in the personnel and purpose of its Army and Navy. We can not be loyal to the flag if we fail in our admiration for the uniform.
However much we wish to pursue the paths of peace, however much we are determined to have on terms of good will both at home and abroad, we can not escape the fact that there are still evil forces in the world which all past experience warns us will break out from time to time and do serious damage to lawful rights and the progress of civilization unless we are prepared to meet such situations with armed intervention. We could no more dispense with our military forces than we could dispense with our police forces. While we are firmly convinced that it is altogether practical and possible by international covenants to limit them in size, to consent to their abolition would be to expose ourselves first to aggression and finally to destruction.
If we are sincere in our expressed determination to maintain tranquillity at home and peace abroad, we must not neglect to lay our course in accordance with the ascertained facts of life. We know that we have come into possession of great wealth and high place in the world. There is scarcely a civilized nation which is not our debtor. We are sufficiently acquainted with human nature to realize that we are oftentimes the object of envy. Unless we maintain sufficient forces to be placed at points of peril when they arise, thereby avoiding for the most part serious attack, there would be grave danger that we should suffer from violent outbreaks, so destroying our rights and compromising our honor that war would become inevitable. It is to protect ourselves from such danger that we maintain our national defense. Under this policy it is perfectly apparent that our forces are dedicated solely to the preservation of peace.
Although we are well aware that in the immediate past, and perhaps even now there are certain localities where our citizens would be given over to pillage and murder but for the presence of our military forces, nevertheless it is the settled policy of our Government to deal with other nations not on the basis of force and compulsion, but on the basis of understanding and good will. While we wish for peace everywhere, it is our desire that it should be not a peace imposed by America, but a peace established by each nation for itself. We want our relationship with other nations based not on a meeting of bayonets, but on a meeting of minds. We want our intercourse with them to rest on justice and fair dealing and the mutual observance of all rightful obligations in accordance with international custom and law. We have sufficient reserve resources so that we need not be hasty in asserting our rights. We can afford to let our patience be commensurate with our power.
As Americans we are always justified in glorying in our own country. While offensive boastfulness may be carried to the point of reproach, it is much less to be criticized than an attitude of apologetic inferiority. Not to know and appreciate the many excellent qualities of our own country constitutes an intellectual poverty which instead of being displayed with pride ought to be acknowledged with shame. While pride in our country ought to be the American attitude, it should not include any spirit of arrogance or contempt toward other nations. All people have points of excellence and are justly entitled to the honorable consideration of other nations. While this land was still a wilderness there were other lands supporting a high state of civilization and enlightenment. On the foundation which they had already laid we have erected our own structure of society. Their ways may not always be our ways, and their thoughts may not always be our thoughts, but in accordance with their own methods they are attempting to maintain their position in the world and discharge their obligations to humanity. We shall best fulfill our mission by extending to them all the hand of helpfulness, consideration, and friendship. Our own greatness will be measured by the justice and forbearance which we manifest toward others.
It is because of our belief in these principles that we wish to see all the world relieved from strife and conflict and brought under the humanizing influence of a reign of law. Our conduct will be dictated, not in accordance with the will of the strongest, but in accordance with the judgments of righteousness. It is in accordance with this policy that we have thought to discontinue the old practice of competition in armaments and cast our influence on the side of reasonable limitations. We wish to discard the element of force and compulsion in international agreements and conduct and rely on reason and law. We recognize that in the present state of the world this is not a vision which will be immediately realized, yet little by little, step by step, in a very practical way, we should show our determination to press on toward this mark of our high calling.
Our Government has recently been attempting to proceed in accordance with these principles in its relations with China, Nicaragua, and Mexico, and in inviting Japan and Great Britain to participate in a three-power naval limitation conference.
While the foreign relations of this country are becoming more and more important, and constitute a field to which it will be necessary for our Government and our people to give much more attention than is now realized, yet it is our domestic affairs that must always assume the first rank. Nations which are worn by dissension and discord, which are weak and inefficient at home, have little standing or influence abroad. Even the blind do not choose the blind to lead them. Foreign peoples are certainly going to seek assistance only from those who have demonstrated their capacity to maintain their own affairs efficiently. If we desire to be an influence in order and law, tranquillity and good will in the world, we must be determined to make sufficient sacrifices to live by these precepts at home. We can be a moral force in the world only to the extent that we establish morality in our own country.
This day had its inception in the desire to do honor to those who had followed the flag in our great domestic struggle for the preservation of the Union and the supremacy of the Constitution. Like all principles expressive of a great truth, it has gradually broadened in its aspects to include within its sacred domain all of those who have followed our flag. But we should never permit this 30th day of May to go by without some expression of our peculiar debt of gratitude to those who offered their lives to their country under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. When that great conflict was ended, when it was apparent that our Federal Union was to be perpetual, that our Constitution was to be supreme, that all our people were to be free, America spoke with a new authority in the affairs of the world.
The questions at issue in those days were decided with all the finality which can attach to human affairs. Those who had taken a leading part in their decision were the prominent exponents of a policy of reconciliation. General Grant pled for “Harmony and good feeling between the sections,” while General Lee declared “Restoration of peace should be the sole object of all.” The people of our generation have seen these admonitions needed and these hopes realized.
The advocates of secession were not confined in our history to any one section. They had appeared in the hills of Pennsylvania, they had met in convention in New England, they had adopted resolutions in Kentucky, they had taken up arms in South Carolina. That issue has been decided. It has no advocates now. But it has left its heirs and successors in all the different brands of sectionalism with their special pleaders who are oftentimes extremely vocal. In the eyes of our National Government all parts of our country are equally important and entitled to equal consideration. They are all parts of one common whole, which must succeed or fail together. All efforts to set one part against another part, to advance one section at the expense of another section, are a species of disloyalty to the spirit of the Union. It is only a small nature that wishes to divorce himself and his locality from the rest of the Nation. The true American contemplates the shore, the mountain, and the plain, and instead of desiring to withdraw himself from any of them rejoices in his realization that they are all his country.
The integrity of the Union rests on the Constitution. Unless that great instrument is to be the supreme law of the land, we could have no Union worthy of our consideration. In its original inception it was the product of prayerful consideration by the best endowed minds that were ever turned to political deliberation. Although it was drafted in convention, it represented the mature thought of the country. Into it went the genius of Adams and Jefferson, of Franklin and Madison, of Hamilton and Washington. It has been expounded by Webster and other statesmen in the Congress, and adjudicated by Marshall and other magistrates on the bench. With its three independent departments, the executive, legislative, and judicial, it established a republican form of government incomparable in the guaranties of order and liberty with which it has endowed the American people. As a charter of freedom and self-government it is unsurpassed by any political document which ever guided the destinies of a people.
We have made our place in the world through the Union and the Constitution. We have flourished as a people because of our success in establishing self-government. But all of these results are predicated upon a law-abiding people. If our own country should be given over to violence and crime, it would be necessary to diminish the bounds of our freedom to secure order and self-preservation. In whatever direction we may go we are always confronted with the inescapable conclusion that unless we observe the law we can not be free. Unless we are an industrious, orderly nation we can neither minister to our own requirements or be an effective influence for good in the world. All of these things come from the hearts of the people. So long as they have the will to do right and the determination to make sacrifices, our institutions will stand secure at home and respected abroad. It is to those had that will, who showed that determination, that we to-day do honor.
We can not leave this hallowed ground, decorated as it is to-day with all the flowers which loving memory has brought, without realizing anew that it was the spirit of those who rest here which gave us our independence, our Constitution, who Union, and our freedom. They have bequeathed to us the rarest, richest heritage which was ever bestowed upon any people. Their memory speaks to us always, reminding us to what we have received from them and of our duty to dedicate ourselves to its preservation and perfection.
Citation: Everett Sanders Papers, Library of Congress
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Cindy Phan who prepared this document for digital publication.