Our Duty is Clear


By HENRY L. STIMSON, Secretary of War

Before the House Military Affairs Committee, in support of the Burke-Wadsworth Bill, July 31, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 647-648.

YOU, gentlemen, are the trustees of the security of the United States. One of the main purposes of our Constitution is to provide for the common defense. Under that Constitution the power to raise and support armies was specifically given to the Congress.

You, gentlemen, are the members of the committee which was created to guide the House of Representatives in the performance of its duties in that matter of raising and supporting armies. Thus in that matter you are, in very special sense, the trustees for the people of the United States.

Now what are the rules which in ordinary life guide a trustee in the performance of his duties?

First and foremost it is his duty to follow the lessons of experience. It is his duty to use methods which have been proved to be effective. It is his duty to avoid methods which have been shown to be ineffective and futile; which have not only been futile but have been breeders of evils and dangers. It is his duty, in other words, to play safe with the great trust which has been confided to him.

When we apply these simple and well-known fiduciary rules to the problem of this bill which is before you now, it seems to me that there can be no doubt or question as to the method you should follow. If there is any lesson which has been thoroughly proved by history throughout the life of our nation, it is that the only safe and effective way to meet a great war emergency is by the timely creation of a selective compulsory system for raising our armies.

The other system, the system of volunteering, has been tried again and again, and in every serious war, as well as in some wars which were not serious, it has proved a costly failure. Our government tried it in the Revolution. Within two years the great States of Virginia and Massachusetts were forced to resort to the draft and even then the total number of men serving under arms in the American armies declined from 79,000 men in 1776 to less than 30,000 men in 1781.

In the Civil War both sides began with volunteers and both sides eventually were compelled to resort to the draft. We tried it in the Spanish War and although the number of men required was extremely small in comparison to our population, even that small number was never fully enlisted.

Finally, in the Great War, our government began with a carefully devised selective and compulsory system, and the largest armies ever used in our history were raised with an enthusiasm which was magnificent and with a minimum of disturbance to our national and industrial life. The experience of Great Britain has been similar to ours. She had the same prejudice as we did against conscription and in favor of the voluntary system. In both the Great War and on the approach of the present war, she delayed in instituting a compulsory system, with the result, in both cases, that there was caused enormous loss and confusion, and now possibly eventual disaster. In all the other nations of Europe, from peace-loving Switzerland to the totalitarian States, the compulsory system is recognized as the only effective method by which a nation can organize its military strength.

Thus, from the standpoint of the lessons of human experience, there can be no question between the two methods; there can be no question that one has regularly proved acostly failure while the other is now universally recognized as the only system which is effective.

In the next place, from the standpoint of principle, the selective compulsory system is the only one which is fair; the only system which distributes the primary duty of national defense upon every citizen and which distributes that duty so that each man may serve in the capacity where he will be most effective.

It is also the only system which is appropriate to a democracy; which recognizes that in a country where all citizens have the right to participate in choosing their own government, they are also obligated to serve and defend that government in case of the peril of war.

It would be just as unfair to leave to the whim of the individual the question of whether or not he will render service to his government in time of war as it would be to leave to the whim of the individual the question of whether or not he would pay taxes for the support of that government.

Thirdly, the selective compulsory system is the only efficient system in the great task of avoiding, so far as possible, the disruption of the nation's normal life. The voluntary system is not only inadequate to raise modern armies but it is disruptive of industry and of agriculture and of all the sciences and specialties upon which a nation must depend in time of war. All those activities, under a voluntary system, are liable to be disrupted by the rush of patriotic citizens to enlist and fight, when they might be more useful elsewhere.

On the other hand, the compulsory system, when carefully administered, as it was during the Great War, by local boards which take into account not only the battle needs of the country but also its needs of supplies and armaments, will carry the country through the strain of war with the minimum of dislocation. It will not only do that but it will carry it through with the minimum of injustice to the individual, because those boards take into account the situation of each man in respect to his occupation, his family duties and his health.

In all these ways the Selective Compulsory System is the closest approximation to both efficiency and justice which the experience of this country has yet evolved.

But some of the opponents of compulsory service say that it is a war measure and therefore that we should not adopt it until war has actually arrived. That is exactly what people in Great Britain said to Winston Churchill for four years, when he was steadily preaching that war was coming and that Britain should immediately prepare herself for it.

When we look at Great Britain today, are we inclined to take the risk of a similar delay? The successive experiences of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France and Britain teach the lesson of the danger of not preparing before war actually arrives.

We don't have to look abroad for an answer to this question. We only have to contrast the position in which we ourselves stand today with the position in which we stood in 1917 when we adopted the Selective Act of 1917. I ask you in all fairness, are we not today confronting a far greater peril than we did in June, 1917?

In 1917 we were protected by the unbroken line of the Allies in France and by the unshaken control of the sea by those Allies. Today there is no line in France and the control of the sea by the British fleet is in jeopardy. Today we are face to face with a potential enemy which not only has been conscripting and training its own forces for the past six years but which today is putting conscription into effect upon its victims in Poland and France, and in Norway, Denmark and Holland, in order that its own war supplies may be more ample.

We have been accustomed to think of our navy and the seas which surround our country as constituting a line of defense so strong that a powerful army was unnecessary. But today the great shipbuilding industries of Norway and Holland have passed into German hands. The fleet of Italy and her shipbuilding capacity are subject to German disposition.

A prudent trustee must take into consideration the possibility that in another thirty days Great Britain herself may be conquered and her shipyards pass under German control. Many of the war vessels of France have already come under the control of Germany, and the same thing may occur in regard to the great fleet of Great Britain.

In the Pacific Ocean the powerful fleet of Japan is ownedby a power acting in close sympathy with Germany and Italy. Under these circumstances it seems to me very clear that we must revise our former conception of the strength of our first line of defense. If all of those contingencies which now confront us should be resolved in Germany's favor she would at once control a naval power which would outrank us in all classes of fighting craft.

What is worse, she would outrank us in shipbuilding capacity in a ratio at least six to one. In the prospect of such a possibility I suggest to you in all earnestness that it is your duty as trustees to take at once those measures for the security of the United States which have behind them those reasons of experience, of efficiency, of justice and of fairness which I have just recited.

The Congress has already wisely recognized what a long time it takes to secure a modern armament and has already made large appropriations for that purpose. It would be well to recognize also that it takes a long time to secure and train the men to use such arms and that the arms are of little use without the men.