We Should Think Less of Political Difference


By WILLIAM B. BANKHEAD, Temporary Chairman of the Democratic National Convention

Keynote address, delivered July 15, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VI, pp. 613-616.

MR. CHAIRMAN and fellow Democrats: I am very deeply grateful for the honor and privilege of being named as temporary chairman of this convention. It is a great personal gratification to be introduced by the man who has been of such inestimable value and service to the Democratic party for two terms as our National Chairman and who likewise has served with great success, ability and distinction as Postmaster General of the United States —your friend, and mine, the Hon. James A. Farley.

It is a heartening and inspiring spectacle to look out upon this vast assemblage of the representatives of the Democratic party of our nation, as well as the thousands of loyal guests who will be so deeply interested in our actions and deliberations. We are justified in our loyalty and devotion to a great political party, which, over a period of years almost as great as the life of our Republic itself, in victory or defeat, in power or removed from power, has, during all the decades of its existence, proclaimed its allegiance to that fundamental political maxim announced by Thomas Jefferson, equal rights to all and special privileges to none.

Pledge of the Party

That means, in essence, that our party in the ancient days as well as on this night believes in and fights for the basic and irreducible human rights of the average American citizen. We are here assembled to pledge renewed allegiance to that cherished creed, and to send forth to the people the assurance that if continued in power we shall not depart from the faith of our fathers.

Under our system of party government, it is just and equitable for the electorate to judge and to reward or punish a national party, not upon the basis of its platform promises, but strictly upon the record of its performance and accomplishments as an instrumentality of public service. It is my purpose to make that principle the straight edge and yardstick of this address.

If we do not gravely misapprehend the present temper and disposition of the American people, they are now in no moodto be moved or influenced by petty and vindictive exaggerations of issues or events that are of no vital concern to the safety and security of the United States of America as possibly the last surviving outpost of democracy upon the face of the earth. The minds of the American people are now so deeply engrossed in matters of grave and profound concern with reference to the preservation of our established order of life and institutions that they will have no tolerance for the superficial banalities of politics.

Common Major Objectives

An election must be held, but aside from some legitimate banter and the discussions of records of the two parties and of their candidates, the major objective of both parties must be unity and solidarity of purpose in preserving inviolate the structure of our government and the perpetual freedom of its people.

We all recognize that ours is a government by political parties, and that, as instrumentalities of government, they are entitled to the largest possible measure of freedom in carrying legitimately disputed issues to the people. But such issues should be fairly presented. They should be clothed in the garments of truth and tolerance and reason. Neither our party nor the opposition can, in terrible times like these, profit by a departure from this principle.

The Democratic Party has now been in absolute control of the government for seven and one-half years. In order to get back to the postulate of party responsibility to the people and in order that the people might have a fair basis of appraisal as to whether or not we have done, on the whole, a good or an evil job under that responsibility, it is just and even necessary to look back to the conditions which prevailed in our social and economic status when, under the overwhelming mandate of the American people, a Democratic Administration took over the government on March 4, 1933.

I think it is proper that it be said, in all candor, that none of us who have had part in formulating and administering the policies that have been enacted into law under thisAdministration can justly claim that no mistakes have been made.

Errors in Policy Inevitable Temporary errors in policy and in the administration of policies were inevitable in undertaking to cure and correct a situation that had attained the phase of national disaster and social and economic chaos. It is too much to hope that there will ever be infallibility in the arena of political action and the American people fully understand the fairness and justice of that statement.

No other Administration in peace times since the establishment of the Republic had ever confronted such a desperate situation as that which we inherited on March 4, 1933, nor one which called for the instant exercise of greater genius of leadership and courage. It was without precedence in its forebodings of disaster to our democratic institutions. The American people have not forgotten that period of total collapse and desperation in all branches of human endeavor.

A decent respect for your indulgence will not permit me to attempt a detailed synopsis of the outstanding legislation that the Democratic party has enacted into law to meet the staggering social and economic conditions which we had inherited.

The first heroic remedy adopted was to declare a national bank holiday which involved the temporary closing of our national and State banks which, until more adequate security for them could be obtained, was a most effective remedy against the total collapse of the entire banking system of our people, although unfortunately many thousands of them had already closed their doors, bringing heartbreak and immeasurable distress to millions of the American people.

This Administration enacted what, in my opinion, will forever be regarded as one of the major outstanding legislative achievements in our history and that is the passage of the law guaranteeing the absolute safety of deposits up to $5,000, and that constitutes 98 per cent of all deposits in all national banks and State banks which were affiliated with the Federal system. And, now, instead of the American people having constant and daily apprehensions as to the safety of their savings and deposits, they can always be assured that if any such banks, either through bad business management or corruption, closes its doors, every single dime of their money will be paid to them across the teller's cage within forty-eight hours.

Recognizing the terrible truth that millions of our people had been robbed and defrauded out of their investments by an unbridled and unregulated system of corporate manipulation which permitted crooked promoters, stock jobbers and holding company tycoons, we passed the Securities and Exchange Commission Act under the operation of which these robbers of the peoples' investments are now checked, restrained and regulated.

We broke up for all time the ruthless and unconscionable holding companies allowed to flourish in all their ugly and wanton plundering of decent citizens under former Republican Administrations. I wonder if any of you people in this section of the country recall the collapse of the $2,000,000,000 Insull Utility empire, and the devastation it brought to thousands of your hopes and homes.

Civilian Conservation Corps We provided for the organization and operation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the most popular and successful instruments of government ever devised. It has acted not only as a medium of relief for the destitute families of millions of American youth, but at the same time has been of inestimable value in conserving the natural resources ofthe country and of giving to these young men a fine system of moral and physical discipline which they would not otherwise ever have achieved.

When this Administration took over the reins of power, there were from twelve to fifteen million men and women of employable age without any opportunity whatsoever to secure jobs that would enable them to support themselves and their hungry and naked families. It would have been a heartless and cruel omission of duty to have been indifferent to their necessities. It would have shown a wanton and reckless indifference to the fundamental duties of a great democracy had we not taken adequate steps to feed and clothe and shelter these men, women and children who, without their fault, had been made the victims of the national catastrophe.

The Democratic Administration met that duty without fear and without wavering and, in addition thereto, contributed immeasurably to the permanent wealth of the nation and the permanent improvements and benefits that have resulted from its operation.

Every single community in America has been prospered and benefited by this program and the expenditure of the Federal funds required to effectuate it. These are not fugitive and evanescent benefits, but are tangible and enduring for future generations who will praise our foresight in establishing them.

This Administration conceived and set up for all time a humane and necessary program for the softening of the hardships of the aged and infirm of the rigors of illness and despair of unemployment and for the support of widows and dependent children and the blind.

Tennessee Valley Authority

We established, financed and set up on a firm and enduring foundation the great Tennessee Valley Authority which, for all time, will furnish a great vehicle for the development and conservation of the commerce and resources of that great geographical area which it served which will be a potential factor in flood control and navigation and which offers now ready assistance in our preparedness program for the manufacture of many of the essential ingredients of national defense.

As a yardstick for the control of excessive power and light rates, it has been largely instrumental in forcing the reduction of charges to consumers in the United States of $500,000,000. We have taken the position that the waters in our rivers are the God-given heritage of the people and that private utility companies have no vested right to have a monopoly on their exploitation.

Wage and Hour Law

We have guaranteed for the first time in our history by law the basic principle of giving to labor in this country the right to organize and bargain with employers for the betterment of their wages and working conditions and, through the Wage and Hour Law, have assured to every man and woman who toils in the industries of the country a decent wage scale and fair hours of labor, and I predict here and now that the great masses of labor in this country, organized and unorganized, will, when they go to the polls next November, not forget that the Democratic party has been its friend and not its oppressor.

Upon that partial record of social and economic legislative action, we propose to wage the coming battle without any spirit of time serving or apology, but, upon the contrary, with an aggressive justification of the record of this Democratic Administration.

The Republican Platform

We have now had opportunity to examine the Republican platform adopted at Philadelphia, which is supposed to represent the deliberate judgment of the best minds in the Republican party. If that be the case, it reminds me of an incident that occurred in a Southern border State during the 1896 Presidential campaign, when, as you remember, the vital issue was free silver versus the gold standard.

A certain shrewd old politician was running for re-election. He was to make a speech in a community where he was very doubtful as to the sentiment of the people on that issue. During the course of his speech, he was pressed many times by a bewhiskered spectator in the crowd to define his views on the money question, and finally, seeing that he was driven to make an answer, he replied:

My friend has asked me to state my position on the money question and I will do it with entire frankness and without equivocation and here it is. "I believe in the gold standard. I believe in the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1. I believe in a large circulation of greenback money and a right smart little sprinkling of counterfeit."

The Frank Committee and their Platform Committee were in labor a long, long time and they finally brought forth a weasel.

It is a document filled with equivocation and political subterfuge, but the most remarkable significance of that platform is the fact that despite their clamorous and bitter denunciation of the legislative program of this Administration, they did not have the confidence or courage to demand the repeal or abolition of any single one of the major laws we have passed for liberal government and a better state of life for the masses of the American people.

Credited as Compliment

No greater compliment could be paid to the wisdom and soundness of the legislative and executive program of this Administration. How can the Republican party go before the electorate in November urging the removal from power of that party whose wisdom and progressive policies they were compelled, even if by indirection, to endorse?

In national conventions heretofore there has been a vast amount of pointing with pride and viewing with alarm, but at Philadelphia, while there was much viewing with alarm, there was no pointing with pride, for the obvious reason that they could remember nothing at which to point. That platform is a perfect example of the aphorism that "language was invented to conceal thoughts."

It is contended by Republican leaders that the farmers of the country will not support our party in November on the basis of the record of this Administration. I refute that assertion. I do it because those farmers are men of intelligence and with a high capacity for the appraisal of legislative action as it affects their welfare. At the end of a Hoover administration, the farmers of America had on their hands an unprecedented panic and the Hoover Farm Board. The effects of the panic were immeasurable and the results of such farm board activities were worse, as our farmers will remember. They also well remember the prices they were receiving for their products in that fateful hour.

Benefits to Farmers

Since we came into power we have progressively enacted for their benefit the Soil and Water Conservation Program, the lowest farm interest rates in our entire history, the benefits of rural electrification of their homes, marketing agreements, commodity loans, research into new uses and new markets, the stamp plan for distribution of surplus commodities, the long range farm tenant program whereby such tenants may acquire, under reasonable terms, and on long payments, the benefits of owning their own homes and the immeasurable benefits to them of the policy of parity payments.

I particularly call your attention to the attitude of the Republicans in Congress with reference to the parity payment program, and remember that this was a direct and vital issue as to whether or not the government should undertake by this means to equalize, at least in part, the prices which the farmers secured for their products as compared to the cost of their production or the things they had to buy in the open market.

On March 28, 1939, the House of Representatives, on a vote to appropriate $250,000,000 to provide for such parity payments, the Democrats voted for the proposition, 168, and Republicans voted for, 20, and against, 135. On May 9th of this year, the vote on the proposal for $212,000,000 for parity payments to farmers was for, Democrats 183, Republicans for, 22, and against, 131. You there have a concrete example of the deep and abiding interest which the Republican membership of the House took upon this most vital question for the benefit of agriculture. By their votes shall ye know them.

World Peace Program

One of the most remarkable, as well as discreditable, efforts ever made by a political party to fabricate out of the whole cloth and without a shred of evidence to support it is the charge of some Republican leaders that the Democratic party and administration are attempting slyly and covertly to lead the United States into the shambles of a foreign war.

I here and now denounce that calumny and assert that, not only is this administration opposed absolutely to a participation in any European war, but upon the contrary, both the President and our able Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, and a Democratic Congress have done everything possible within the bounds of reason, not only to preserve peace in European and in the entire world, but to so conduct our foreign relations that every precaution would be taken to keep us out of involvement in a foreign war. He has especially and consistently addressed his activities to the consolidation of that policy in this hemisphere and especially with our sister republics in Latin America.

When the President signed the first neutrality resolution on August 31, 1935, he did so with this statement:

"I have approved this joint resolution because it was intended as an expression of the fixed desire of the Government and the people of the United States to avoid any action which might involve us in war. The policy of the government is definitely committed to the maintenance of peace and the avoidance of any entanglements which would lead us into conflict."

Appeal to Peace

Just a few days ago, on Wednesday of last week, he sent a memorable message to the Congress in which he specifically and definitely gave this assurance of policy to the American people:

"That we are opposed to war is known not only to every American, but to every government in the world. We will not use our arms in the way of aggression; we will not send our men to take part in European wars."

In addition to all this, he called a special session of Congress last year after the war broke out in Europe, recommended, and the Democratic party passed, amendments to the existing Neutrality Law which prohibited the shipmentin American vessels of cargoes into the waters of the belligerent nations, which, if it had not been done, would doubtless long before this have inevitably drawn us into the conflict for the same reasons which induced America to go to war against the Central Powers in 1917.

On the vote in the House of Representatives on this most vital proposal for keeping out of the European war, on the final roll call on this conference report of the Neutrality Bill, there were Yeas, Democrats 223, Republicans 18; Nays, Democrats 29, Republicans 141.

My fellow-countrymen, we are assembled at the most fateful moment in the history of mankind. The sinister shadow of a cruel, savage and ruthless despotism hangs like a pall of doom over the homes and the lives of every citizen of democratic and liberty-loving peoples.

Already this juggernaut of physical force and brutal power has laid its blighting hand upon the freedom and sovereignty of eight small and defenseless nations.

Now France lies in the agony and ashes of the totalitarian destruction; and only Great Britain alone stands against the hurricane of the blitzkrieg. And now Hitler and Mussolini have sworn her total annihilation. They have furthermore sworn enmity against all so-called decadent democracies, and that includes us.

I do not know what attitude this convention may take on that subject, but I feel in my heart that it is the attitude of the American people that we will resist to the death any compromise of our democratic principles with those malignant disturbers of the peace of the world; that we do not propose to appease those aggressors whose doctrines wage war upon every principle of liberty for a free people that our Declaration of Independence proclaimed and our Federal Constitution preserved.

Issue of National Defense

I now propose to expose another flagrant piece of Republican propaganda by which they are endeavoring during this campaign, as they have already done, to make the American people believe that this Administration has been indifferent to and neglectful of the necessary steps to prepare and make instantly available an adequate system of national defense at sea, on land and in the air. National defense is a sacred trust.

When a matter involving the safety of our beloved country is at stake, we should all be united both Democrats and Republicans, because we are all Americans. In critical times such as these we should be thinking less of the political differences that divide us and more of the national interests that unite us. Until the invasion just two months ago of Norway, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, how many of us realized the full portent of events overseas?

Prior to that invasion, I heard no Republicans urging a national defense program such as we have now launched. During the twelve years of Republican administration the national defense record was one of continual retrogression. During the eleven-year period between 1922, the year of the Washington arms conference, and 1934, the year following Democratic charge of government, they laid down a total of only thirty-five combatant ships. During the last three years of the Hoover administration not one single vessel of war was laid down by our government.

During this administration there has been laid down up to June, 1940, eight new battleships, twelve new cruisers, two new aircraft carriers, sixty-five new destroyers and thirty-six new submarines, a grand total of 153 new units in seven years, as contrasted with thirty-five new units under the twelve-year Republican regime.

This Congress has, in addition, authorized 276 ships of war to give us a two-ocean Navy, a sea force of such magnitude and power, including its air force, as will make reasonably certain our continued dominance of this hemisphere and the perpetuation of our cherished institutions.

When we came into power the authorized strength of our standing Army had been reduced to 118,000 men. During this Administration it has been constantly increased until the present authorized enlisted strength of the Army is 375,000 men and the National Guard 251,000.

Our Air Force has been increased in like proportion, with an ultimate objective, if necessary, of 50,000 planes, manned by the most efficient flyers on the face of the earth. That is the record. Let the opposition make the most of it.

There has been presented a summary of our program for a tremendous increase in our defense against an enemy from overseas. But such danger is not the only menace to our national security. There is abundant proof that lurking within the shadows of our government's edifice, laying their mischievous plans at the opportune time to sap and mine it, or to put the red torch of revolution and disunion against our democratic form of government, are those forces of evil, now commonly called "The Fifth Column."

No one knows how great are their numbers, but evidence already produced shows that they run into tens of thousands, all of them sworn enemies of our form of government. However great or small may be their number, there is no place in the United States for a single one of them to abide in freedom. Congressional legislation has already been enacted and approved by the President providing every possible restraint upon and punishment of these enemies of our institutions that could be devised within the limits of our Constitution.

At the conclusion of his speech to the Republican Convention at Philadelphia, former President Hoover posed this question: "Republicans, are you ready to fight?" No such question will be propounded to the Democrats of this convention or those of the country. We began to fight in the election of 1932; we carried on the battle in 1936 to a magnificent victory, and we are already enlisted for the duration of the coming conflict to preserve to the people the advances we have made in liberal government for the benefit and protection of the average man. Fighting by our side will again be millions of Republicans and independent voters who have forever foresworn allegiance to the forces of reaction.

Spiritual Rededication

Let me conclude, my friends, on a little more solemn note. Sentiments and emotions and alarms of profound significance are stirring the minds and hearts of the American people as a result of the welter and destruction of the foreign wars, and they are in deep apprehension of the dangers to our processes of liberty. We can all somehow sense and feel a new consecration to the priceless patrimony bequeathed to us by Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and their associates "in a time remote."

It is an indefinable patriotic incursion that is touching the souls of men here in our country. While this is no time or place for one to invoke the prerogatives of an ecclesiastic, I venture far enough to assert that there is no armament so potent and enduring as the observance of the moral, spiritual and religious obligations for a great people. Without that sanctuary, there can be no perpetuation of the decencies and securities of any type of civilization.

With that Great Comforter as a handmaiden, our wealth, our power, our preparedness, our love of liberty will forever make America unconquered and unconquerable.