The Call of the Dead



Delivered in the State Oratorical Contest held at Sterling Morton Junior College in Cicero, Ill., May 15, 1940

This speech won first prize. Mr. Johnson is a speech student at Lincoln College

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 558-559.

TODAY with the tramp of Germany's iron-shod warriors echoing and reechoing along the cobbled streets of the Dutch and Belgian villages; with Great Britain and France struggling desperately to maintain their positions in Europe; with Mussolini in Italy crouched like a lion ready to spring at any moment upon his Balkan victims; with Russia, fresh from a bloody victory over Finland, contemplating other conquests; with China and Japan pitting their might against one another in a conflict which foretells long years of suffering and loss; with the sound of war drums beaten all over the world resounding in our ears, we the youth of America find ourselves faced with this black and terrifying question; "Shall we of this generation fight in a second world war?"

Twenty-three years ago we entered a war in Europe saying to ourselves, and believing, that we were fighting to save democracy and to end all wars. We truly had no other purpose. Two million American youth were transported across the ocean where they were plunged into an inferno to perish by fire, by arms, by deadly gases, and famine, while twenty-four nations of Europe grappled for supremacy.

We see them on their weary marches, in the mud-filled trenches, on the shell-torn fields where Death rode whistling on every wind, and even the mists were charged with deadly peril. We see them in the trenches at the zero moment; we see them go over the top. We watch them die on foreign fields. We see them lying there hideously still—fertilizer for acres of ground so that next year's crop of poppies might be redder where they have lain!

And now we hear a kind of sigh—like the moan of many voices far away—

"Who goes there,
In the night,
Across the storm-swept plain?
We are the ghosts of a valiant war,
A million murdered men!"

A deathly silence follows, then, very near and very terrible, the voices of the dead call to us: Enough of This! Stop This Slaughter! Yes, spirits of those million murdered men, we hear your call. We know that you are right. Foreign war for America must never be again.

What other answer can we give when we consider what a fearful loss of human life results from war? Think of it! Ten Million known dead; nineteen million wounded; four million missing. A total of thirty-five million casualties— the harvest of the last war! And this does not include the inestimable physical agony of the mortally wounded, not

instantly killed; of the seriously wounded who live, dragging out a miserable existence worse than death. Who can determine the human loss through race deterioration since the strongest died and only the weakest survived?

We must keep out of Europe's wars because they cost too much. The money cost of the last war has been conservatively placed at two hundred billion dollars. That means nine million dollars an hour every hour for four years; $20,000 for each hour since the birth of Christ. It cost $25,000 to kill a man. That's the official price tag on each of the wooden crosses that bloom in Flanders Fields where the poppies used to blow. But the cost does not stop here. We have the economic cost of the men killed— veteran's relief—interest on war debts—settlement of war claims—restoration of devastated areas—monetary devaluation—economic retardation! Not even Dr. Einstein could figure out a complete estimate of the cost of that war!

Again, we must keep out of Europe's quarrels because war produces economic chaos. The financial crash of 1929, the low agricultural prices of 1932, the decline in the value of world trade, unemployment problems, strikes, losses in wages and salaries, all the horrors of our worst depression years—Here are the results of the World War!

Should the United States enter a second world war we would be helping set back the clock of progress for centuries by abolishing the moral, social, and ethical restraints built up in that fine but perishable process called civilization. The callousness, cynicism, greed and materialism festered in the nation as a whole by war would again send their germs coursing through the human organism. There would again be broken families, loss of social self-control in government, in industry and in business, while enormous crime waves always follow war.

Yes, we must keep out—but Europe is in great agony— Senator Borah read this description of one of her battlefields. "Chunks of human flesh were quivering on the branches of the trees * * * A half dozen houses were burning. Mules and horses were pawing in their own entrails * * * The whitewashed church was bespattered with blood and brains * * * Men were running about howling with insanity. Their eyes protrude from their sockets * * * One woman was sitting against a wall trying to push her bleeding intestines back into her abdomen * * * A man lay nearby, digging his teeth and his fingers into the ground * * * A child sat on a doorstep whimperingly holding up the bleeding stumps of its arms to a dead woman whose face was missing."

We cannot contemplate such a scene without realizing that our sympathy for these suffering people is deep and intense—What can we do to help and at the same time insure our own permanent peace?

Herbert Hoover advises that:

1st—We strengthen our Army and Navy. Such action hesays "guarantees the peace of half the globe." 2nd—"Put our own house in order"—It would be folly todeny America has many problems of her own today. 3rd—Demonstrate to the world that true liberalism is notdead—prove "That the hope of humanity lies not inkilling and regimenting men but in preserving them andenlarging their lives. 4th—With our strength we can again heal many woundsof war—feed the starving, succor the distressed and carefor the innocent.

5th—We can advise those who make the Peace and help to "secure some justice, some freedom, some hope to the world.

At the last meeting of the great Tercentenary Celebration at Celebration at Harvard University in 1936, a great educational leader of England made an eloquent and convincing argument to the effect that there would never be another such centennial at Harvard because within a hundred years, civilization as we know it would be "blacked out." The next speaker, an economist from the University of London agreed and expanded the thesis. It was a dark moment for all. Then arose President Conant of Harvard and said, "Mr. Chairman, I move you that we adjourn to meet again in 2036." So does the New World answer the Old. And so must we, the youth of America, answer all gospels of defeatism.

Is there a solution of man's greatest problem? Is there an answer to our prayers for peace? Because a war is now in progress, there are those who say, "Men are always going to fight—human nature is like that—you can't change human nature!" The Germans have an expression "Mann ist was er ist." And many peace-loving Americans are saying, "It looks as if force is after all the only thing one can surely depend on."

In spite of the clouds of war and hate and suspicion cloud our present horizon, however, we know in our saner moments that some time this war will be over; some time again there must be peace. Then comes the time and opportunity for trying something that will keep nations from each other's throats. What will it be? Will it be a real League of Nations—with the United States taking its rightful place therein? Will it be just a new re-alignment and balance of power in Central Europe? Will it be a United States of Europe? Or will it be Clarence Streit's plan of Union Now—a union of the democracies of the world—so strong that no power or group of powers can successfully combat it? Or perhaps Pierre Von Paassen's plan of complete disarmament—-the one plan which he says has never been tried?

One thing to me seems certain. We the youth of America must stay clear of this war in order that we may build and keep a civilization alive in the world—in order that there may be a place where reason, justice and truth may prevail-in order that there be a great strong power large enough and strong enough to help the bankrupt, horror-sated nations come back into civilized life again. There are millions of the youth of Europe who literally and tragically have a "rendezvous with death." Let us the youth of America keep a rendezvous with life!

We shall never be able to give any contribution to the salvation of mankind if we, ourselves become involved in the war. "Let us give leadership; let us give help; let us give money; let us give education; let us give courage; but let's not give it with blood."

If we do, what answer shall we give to the spirits of those millions who gave up their lives that war might be brought to an end? What answer can we give?

"Who goes there, At the dawn,
Across the sun-swept plain?
We are the hosts of those who swear
It shall not be again."

Spirits of strong, brave, American youth slaughtered on Mars' bloody altar, we make you this solemn promise—it shall not be again.