Title: American Legion Convention Address
Date: October 6, 1925
Location: Omaha, NE
Context: President Coolidge is speaking to the American Legion about the ability of the American fighting forces to put aside racial, religious, or social stature during a time of crisis and unite as one
Mr. Commander and Members of the American Legion:
It is a high privilege to sit as a member of this convention. Those who exercise it have been raised to the rank of a true nobility. It is a mark of personal merit which did not come by right of birth but by right of conquest. No one can ever question your title as patriots. No one can ever doubt the place of affection and honor which you hold forevermore in the heart of the Nation. Your right to be here results from what you dared and what you did and the sacrifices which you made for our common country. It is all a glorious story of American enterprise and American valor.
The magnitude of the service which you rendered to your country and to humanity is beyond estimation. Sharp outlines here and there we know, but the whole account of the World War would be on a scale so stupendous that it could never be recorded. In the victory which was finally gained by you and your foreign comrades, you represented on the battle field the united efforts of our whole people. You were there as the result of a great resurgence of the old American spirit, which manifested itself in a thousand ways, by the pouring out of vast sums of money in credits and charities, by the organization and quickening of every hand in our extended industries, by the expansion of agriculture until it met the demands of famishing continents, by the manufacture of an unending stream of munitions and supplies, by the creation of vast fleets of war and transport ships, and, finally, when the tide of battle was turning against our associates, by bringing into action a great armed force on sea and land of a character that the world had never seen before, which, when it finally took its place in the line, never ceased to advance, carrying the cause of liberty to a triumphant conclusion. You reaffirmed the position of this Nation in the estimation of mankind. You saved civilization from a gigantic reverse. Nobody says now that Americans can not fight.
Our people were influenced by many motives to undertake to carry on this gigantic conflict, but we went in and came out singularly free from those questionable causes and results which have often characterized other wars. We were not moved by the age-old antagonisms of racial jealousies and hatreds. We were not seeking to gratify the ambitions of any reigning dynasty. We were not inspired by trade and commercial rivalries. We harbored no imperialistic designs. We feared no other country. We coveted no territory. But the time came when we were compelled to defend our own property and protect the rights and lives of our own citizens. We believed, moreover, that those institutions which we cherish with a supreme affection, and which lie at the foundation of our whole scheme of human relationship, the right of freedom, of equality, of self-government, were all in jeopardy. We thought the question was involved of whether the people of the earth were to rule or whether they were to be ruled. We thought that we were helping to determine whether the principle of despotism or the principle of liberty should be the prevailing standard among the nations. Then, too, our country all came under the influence of a great wave of idealism. The crusading spirit was aroused. The cause of civilization, the cause of humanity, made a compelling appeal. No doubt there were other motives, but these appear to me the chief causes which drew America into the World War.
In a conflict which engaged all the major nations of the earth and lasted for a period exceeding four years, there could be no expectation of material gains. War in its very essence means destruction. Never before were contending peoples so well equipped with every kind of infernal engine calculated to spread desolation on land and over the face of the deep. Our country is only but now righting itself and beginning a moderate but steady recovery from the great economic loss which it sustained. That tremendous debt must be liquidated through the laborious toil of our people. Modern warfare becomes more and more to mean utter loss, destruction, and desolation of the best that there is of any people, its valiant youth and its accumulated treasure. If our country secured any benefit, if it met with any gain, it must have been in moral and spiritual values. It must be not because it made its fortune but because it found its soul. Others may disagree with me, but in spite of some incidental and trifling difficulties it is my firm opinion that America has come out of the war with a stronger determination to live by the rule of righteousness and pursue the course of truth and justice in both our domestic and foreign relations. No one can deny that we have protected the rights of our citizens, laid a firmer foundation for our institutions of liberty, and made our contribution to the cause of civilization and humanity. In doing all this we found that, though of many different nationalities, our people had a spiritual bond. They were all Americans.
When we look over the rest of the world, in spite of all its devastation there is encouragement to believe it is on a firmer moral foundation than it was in 1914. Much of the old despotism has been swept away. While some of it comes creeping back disguised under new names, no one can doubt that the general admission of the right of the people to self-government has made tremendous progress in nearly every quarter of the globe. In spite of the staggering losses and the grievous burden of taxation, there is a new note of hope for the individual to be more secure in his rights, which is unmistakably clearer than ever before. With all the troubles that beset the Old World, the former cloud of fear is evidently not now so appalling. It is impossible to believe that any nation now feels that it could better itself by war, and it is apparent to me that there has been a very distinct advance in the policy of peaceful and honorable adjustment of international differences. War has become less probable; peace has become more secure. The price which has been paid to bring about this new condition is utterly beyond comprehension. We can not see why it should not have come in orderly and peaceful methods without the attendant shock of fire and sword and carnage. We only know that it is here. We believe that on the ruins of the old order a better civilization is being constructed.
We had our domestic problems which resulted from the war. The chief of these was the care and relief of the afflicted veterans and their dependents. This was a tremendous task, on which about $3,000,000,000 has already been expended. No doubt there have been cases where the unworthy have secured aid, while the worthy have gone unrelieved. Some mistakes were inevitable, but our people and our Government have at all times been especially solicitous to discharge most faithfully this prime obligation. What is now being done is related to you in detail by General Hines, of the Veterans’ Bureau, a public official of demonstrated merit, so that I shall not dwell upon it. During the past year, under the distinguished and efficient leadership of Commander Drain, the Legion itself has undertaken to provide an endowment fund of $5,000,000 to minister to the charitable requirements of their comrades. The response to this appeal has been most generous and the results appear most promising. The Government can do much, but it can never supply the personal relationship that comes from the ministrations of a private charity of that kind.
The next most pressing problem was the better ordering of the finances of the Nation. Our Government was costing almost more than it was worth. It had more people on the payroll than were necessary, all of which made expenses too much and taxes too high. This inflated condition contributed to the depression which began in 1920. But the Government expenditures have been almost cut in two, taxes have been twice reduced, and the incoming Congress will provide further reductions. Deflation has run its course and an era of business activity and general prosperity, exceeding anything ever before experienced in this country and fairly well distributed among all our people, is already at hand.
Our country has a larger Army and a more powerful Navy, costing annually almost twice as much as it ever before had in time of peace. I am a thorough believer in a policy of adequate military preparation. We are constantly working to perfect our defenses in every branch-land forces, air forces, surface and submarine forces. That work will continue. Our Military Establishment of the Army and Navy, the National Guard, and the Reserve Corps is far superior to anything we have ever maintained before, except in time of war. In the past six years we have expended about $4,000,000,000 for this purpose. That ought to show results, and those who have correct information know that it does show results. The country can rest assured that if security lies in military force, it was never so secure before in all its history.
We have been attempting to relieve ourselves and the other nations from the old theory of competitive armaments. In spite of all the arguments in favor of great military forces, no nation ever had an army large enough to guarantee it against attack in time of peace or to insure its victory in time of war. No nation ever will. Peace and security are more likely to result from fair and honorable dealings, and mutual agreements for a limitation of armaments among nations, than by any attempt at competition in squadrons and battalions. No doubt this country could, if it wished to spend more money, make a better military force, but that is only part of the problem which confronts our Government. The real question is whether spending more money to make a better military force would really make a better country. I would be the last to disparage the military art. It is an honorable and patriotic calling of the highest rank. But I can see no merit in any unnecessary expenditure of money to hire men to build fleets and carry muskets when international relations and agreements permit the turning of such resources into the making of good roads, the building of better homes, the promotion of education, and all the other arts of peace which minister to the advancement of human welfare. Happily, the position of our country is such among the other nations of the world that we have been and shall be warranted in proceeding in this direction.
While it is true that we are paying out far more money and maintaining a much stronger Military Establishment than ever before, because of the conditions stated, we have been able to pursue a moderate course. Our people have had all the war, all the taxation, and all the military service that they want. They have therefore wished to emphasize their attachment to our ancient policy of peace. They have insisted upon economy. They have supported the principle of limitation of armaments. They have been able to do this because of their position and their strength in numbers and in resources. We have a tremendous natural power which supplements our arms. We are conscious that no other nation harbors any design to put us in jeopardy. It is our purpose in our intercourse with foreign powers to rely not on the strength of our fleets and our armies but on the justice of our cause. For these reasons our country has not wished to maintain huge military forces. It has been convinced that it could better serve itself and better serve humanity by using its resources for other purposes.
In dealing with our military problems there is one principle that is exceedingly important. Our institutions are founded not on military power but on civil authority. We are irrevocably committed to the theory of a government by the people. We have our constitutions and our laws, our executives, our legislatures, and our courts, but ultimately we are governed by public opinion. Our forefathers had seen so much of militarism, and suffered so much from it, that they desired to banish it forever. They believed and declared in at least one of their State constitutions that the military power should be subordinate to and governed by the civil authority. It is for this reason that any organization of men in the military service bent on inflaming the public mind for the purpose of forcing Government action through the pressure of public opinion is an exceedingly dangerous undertaking and precedent. This is so whatever form it might take, whether it be for the purpose of influencing the Executive, the legislature, or the heads of departments. It is for the civil authority to determine what appropriations shall be granted, what appointments shall be made, and what rules shall be adopted for the conduct of its armed forces. Whenever the military power starts dictating to the civil authority, by whatsoever means adopted, the liberties of the country are beginning to end. National defense should at all times be supported, but any form of militarism should be resisted.
Undoubtedly one of the most important provisions in the preparation for national defense is a proper and sound selective service act. Such a law ought to give authority for a very broad mobilization of all the resources of the country, both persons and materials. I can see some difficulties in the application of the principle, for it is the payment of a higher price that stimulates an increased production, but whenever it can be done without economic dislocation such limits ought to be established in time of war as would prevent so far as possible all kinds of profiteering. There is little defense which can be made of a system which puts some men in the ranks on very small pay and leaves others undisturbed to reap very large profits. Even the income tax, which recaptured for the benefit of the National Treasury alone about 75 per cent of such profits, while local governments took part of the remainder, is not a complete answer. The laying of taxes is, of course, in itself a conscription of whatever is necessary of the wealth of the country for national defense, but taxation does not meet the full requirements of the situation. In the advent of war, power should be lodged somewhere for the stabilization of prices as far as that might be possible in justice to the country and its defenders.
But it will always be impossible to harmonize justice and war. It is always possible to purchase materials with money, but patriotism can not be purchased. Unless the people are willing to defend their country because of their belief in it, because of their affection for it, and because it is representative of their home, their country can not be defended. If we are looking for a more complete reign of justice, a more complete supremacy of law, a more complete social harmony, we must seek it in the paths of peace. Progress in these directions under the present order of the world is not likely to be made except during a state of domestic and international tranquillity. One of the great questions before the nations to-day is how to promote such tranquillity.
The economic problems of society are important. On the whole, we are meeting them fairly well. They are so personal and so pressing that they never fail to receive constant attention. But they are only a part. We need to put a proper emphasis on the other problems of society. We need to consider what attitude of the public mind it is necessary to cultivate in order that a mixed population like our own may dwell together more harmoniously and the family of nations reach a better state of understanding. You who have been in the service know how absolutely necessary it is in a military organization that the individual subordinate some part of his personality for the general good. That is the one great lesson which results from the training of a soldier. Whoever has been taught that lesson in camp and field is thereafter the better equipped to appreciate that it is equally applicable in other departments of life. It is necessary in the home, in industry and commerce, in scientific and intellectual development. At the foundation of every strong and mature character we find this trait which is best described as being subject to discipline. The essence of it is toleration. It is toleration in the broadest and most inclusive sense, a liberality of mind, which gives to the opinions and judgments of others the same generous consideration that it asks for its own, and which is moved by the spirit of the philosopher who declared that “To know all is to forgive all.” It may not be given to infinite beings to attain that ideal, but it is none the less one toward which we should strive.
One of the most natural of reactions during the war was intolerance. But the inevitable disregard for the opinions and feelings of minorities is none the less a disturbing product of war psychology. The slow and difficult advances which tolerance and liberalism have made through long periods of development are dissipated almost in a night when the necessary war-time habits of thought hold the minds of the people. The necessity for a common purpose and a united intellectual front becomes paramount to every thing else. But when the need for such a solidarity is past there should be a quick and generous readiness to revert to the old and normal habits of thought. There should be an intellectual demobilization as well as a military demobilization. Progress depends very largely on the encouragement of variety. Whatever tends to standardize the community, to establish fixed and rigid modes of thought, tends to fossilize society. If we all believed the same thing and thought the same thoughts and applied the same valuations to all the occurrences about us, we should reach a state of equilibrium closely akin to an intellectual and spiritual paralysis. It is the ferment of ideas, the clash of disagreeing judgments, the privilege of the individual to develop his own thoughts and shape his own character, that makes progress possible. It is not possible to learn much from those who uniformly agree with us. But many useful things are learned from those who disagree with us; and even when we can gain nothing our differences are likely to do us no harm.
In this period of after-war rigidity, suspicion, and intolerance our own country has not been exempt from unfortunate experiences. Thanks to our comparative isolation, we have known less of the international frictions and rivalries than some other countries less fortunately situated. But among some of the varying racial, religious, and social groups of our people there have been manifestations of an intolerance of opinion, a narrowness to outlook, a fixity of judgment, against which we may well be warned. It is not easy to conceive of anything that would be more unfortunate in a community based upon the ideals of which Americans boast than any considerable development of intolerance as regards religion. To a great extent this country owes its beginnings to the determination of our hardy ancestors to maintain complete freedom in religion. Instead of a state church we have decreed that every citizen shall be free to follow the dictates of his own conscience as to his religious beliefs and affiliations. Under that guaranty we have erected a system which certainly is justified by its fruits. Under no other could we have dared to invite the peoples of all countries and creeds to come here and unite with us in creating the State of which we are all citizens.
But having invited them here, having accepted their great and varied contributions to the building of the Nation, it is for us to maintain in all good faith those liberal institutions and traditions which have been so productive of good. The bringing together of all these different national, racial, religious, and cultural elements has made our country a kind of composite of the rest of the world, and we can render no greater service than by demonstrating the possibility of harmonious cooperation among so many various groups. Every one of them has something characteristic and significant of great value to cast into the common fund of our material, intellectual, and spiritual resources.
The war brought a great test of our experiment in amalgamating these varied factors into a real Nation, with the ideals and aspirations of a united people. None was excepted from the obligation to serve when the hour of danger struck. The event proved that our theory had been sound. On a solid foundation of a national unity there had been erected a superstructure which in its varied parts had offered full opportunity to develop all the range of talents and genius that had gone into its making. Well-nigh all the races, religions, and nationalities of the world were represented in the armed forces of this Nation, as they were in the body of our population. No man’s patriotism was impugned or service questioned because of his racial origin, his political opinion, or his religious convictions. Immigrants and sons of immigrants from the central European countries fought side by side with those who descended from the countries which were our allies; with the sons of equatorial Africa; and with the Red men of our own aboriginal population, all of them equally proud of the name Americans.
We must not, in times of peace, permit ourselves to lose any part from this structure of patriotic unity. I make no plea for leniency toward those who are criminal or vicious, are open enemies of society and are not prepared to accept the true standards of our citizenship. By tolerance I do not mean indifference to evil. I mean respect for different kinds of good. Whether one traces his Americanisms back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years to the steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of to-day is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat. You men constituted the crew of our “Ship of State” during her passage through the roughest waters. You made up the watch and held the danger posts when the storm was fiercest. You brought her safely and triumphantly into port. Out of that experience you have learned the lessons of discipline, tolerance, respect for authority, and regard for the basic manhood of your neighbor. You bore aloft a standard of patriotic conduct and civic integrity, to which all could repair. Such a standard, with a like common appeal, must be upheld just as firmly and unitedly now in time of peace. Among citizens honestly devoted to the maintenance of that standard, there need be small concern about differences of individual opinion in other regards. Granting first the essentials of loyalty to our country and to our fundamental institutions, we may not only overlook, but we may encourage differences of opinion as to other things. For differences of this kind will certainly be elements of strength rather than of weakness. They will give variety to our tastes and interests. They will broaden our vision, strengthen our understanding, encourage the true humanities, and enrich our whole mode and conception of life. I recognize the full and complete necessity of 100 per cent Americanism, but 100 per cent Americanism may be made up of many various elements.
If we are to have that harmony and tranquillity, that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.
The same principle that it is necessary to apply to the attitude of mind among our own people it is also necessary to apply to the attitude of mind among the different nations. During the war we were required not only to put a strong emphasis on everything that appealed to our own national pride but an equally strong emphasis on that which tended to disparage other peoples. There was an intensive cultivation of animosities and hatreds and enmities, together with a blind appeal to force, that took possession of substantially all the peoples of the earth. Of course, these ministered to the war spirit. They supplied the incentive for destruction, the motive for conquest. But in time of peace these sentiments are not helps but hindrances; they are not constructive. The generally expressed desire of “America first” can not be criticized. It is a perfectly correct aspiration for our people to cherish. But the problem which we have to solve is how to make America first. It can not be done by the cultivation of national bigotry, arrogance, or selfishness. Hatreds, jealousies, and suspicions will not be productive of any benefits in this direction. Here again we must apply the rule of toleration. Because there are other peoples whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, we are not warranted in drawing the conclusion that they are adding nothing to the sum of civilization. We can make little contribution to the welfare of humanity on the theory that we are a superior people and all others are an inferior people. We do not need to be too loud in the assertion of our own righteousness. It is true that we live under most favorable circumstances. But before we come to the final and irrevocable decision that we are better than everybody else we need to consider what we might do if we had their provocations and their difficulties. We are not likely to improve our own condition or help humanity very much until we come to the sympathetic understanding that human nature is about the same everywhere, that it is rather evenly distributed over the surface of the earth, and that we are all united in a common brotherhood. We can only make America first in the true sense which that means by cultivating a spirit of friendship and good will, by the exercise of the virtues of, patience and forbearance, by being “plenteous in mercy”, and through progress at home and helpfulness abroad standing as an example of real service to humanity.
It is for these reasons that it seems clear that the results of the war will be lost and we shall only be entering a period of preparation for another conflict unless we can demobilize the racial antagonisms, fears, hatreds, and suspicions, and create an attitude of toleration in the public mind of the peoples of the earth. If our country is to have any position of leadership, I trust it may be in that direction, and I believe that the place where it should begin is at home. Let us cast off our hatreds. Let us candidly accept our treaties and our natural obligations of peace. We know and everyone knows that these old systems, antagonisms, and reliance on force have failed. If the world has made any progress, it has been the result of the development of other ideals. If we are to maintain and perfect our own civilization, if we are to be of any benefit to the rest of mankind, we must turn aside from the thoughts of destruction and cultivate the thoughts of construction. We can not place our main reliance upon material forces. We must reaffirm and reinforce our ancient faith in truth and justice, in charitableness and tolerance. We must make our supreme commitment to the everlasting spiritual forces of life. We must mobilize the conscience of mankind.
Your gatherings are a living testimony of a determination to support these principles. It would be impossible to come into this presence, which is a symbol of more than three hundred years of our advancing civilization, which represents to such a degree the hope of our consecrated living and the prayers of our hallowed dead, without a firmer conviction of the deep and abiding purpose of our country to live in accordance with this vision. There have been and will be lapses and discouragement, surface storms and disturbances. The shallows will murmur, but the deep is still. We shall be made aware of the boisterous and turbulent forces of evil about us seeking the things which are temporal. But we shall also be made aware of the still small voice arising from the fireside of every devoted home in the land seeking the things which are eternal. To such a country, to such a cause, the American Legion has dedicated itself. Upon this rock you stand for the service of humanity. Against it no power can prevail.
Citation: Everett Sanders Papers, Library of Congress
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Robert Manchester who prepared this document for digital publication.