The Crisis Confronting the Nation


By DR. HARRY EMERSON FOSDICK, Clergyman, Educator, Pastor of the Riverside Church, New York City

Delivered over the Columbia Broadcasting Company's Network, August 7, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 686-687.

I SPEAK to you, my fellow citizens, tonight because I think a real crisis confronts this nation. In a time when we are not at war, and when an overwhelming majority of the American people are determined not to go to war, we are being rushed pell-mell into military conscription as a settled national policy.

There yet is time to demand of Congress that this hysterical haste be stopped, and that Congress itself and the American people who are to be conscripted be given opportunity to think this matter carefully through. Two weeks ago one would have supposed that the Conscription Bill would be passed immediately, but Congress has been hearing from the people, and the results in Washington are obvious. The people of this country whose whole structure of life it is proposed to alter in accordance with the most hated element of totalitarianism, military conscription, have a right to demand at least two things: First, adequate evidence that it is necessary, and second, decent time for careful consideration.

The pleaders for haste in passing this Conscription Bill are insisting that there is no time for careful consideration, and in order to persuade the American people of that they try to frighten us into the jitters. They picture Hitler conducting a military invasion of America this fall or next year. No competent authority that I know of agrees that our American peril consists thus in the danger of an imminent military invasion. On that point read the leading article in the August Harper's Monthly magazine, by Hanson W. Baldwin, a graduate of Annapolis and the Military Analystof the New York Times. He says: "Conscription in time of war can be justified. But at a time like the present it cannot be justified on a basis of Hemisphere defense, for no such mass of men as conscription would provide can effectively be used in this Hemisphere." That, I maintain, is a sober, well-considered judgment by a competent military man.

I ask you, then, to consider briefly three aspects of this matter.

First, we are told that conscription is the democratic way in which to meet our crisis. Of all methods of fooling the American people I can think of nothing worse than telling them that conscription is democratic. Conscription is the essence of regimented, totalitarian, militaristic autocracy. Granted, that some democratic nations in Europe have been compelled to adopt conscription, but insofar they have ceased being freely democratic, and instead, under compulsion, have copied the methods of their totalitarian neighbors. Let us be honest about this: under some circumstances conscription is necessary, but it never can rightly be called democratic.

Or if you do call it that, then be sure that if conscription of man power is the way to be democratic this nation is in no mood to stop there. If conscripting the boys out of our homes is demanded by this crisis, and if that is the democratic way to handle it, then, believe me, we will go clean through with the process and be democratic in serious earnest. Conscription of wealth, conscription of industry, conscription of factories, conscription of labor, conscription of educators—why is not that democratic also, if conscription of life is? We cannot, I think, start conscription in this nation under present circumstances, making it a constituent part of our national policy, when we are not at war and do not intend to go to war, without facing the most radical revolution in the structure of American life that this republic has ever gone through.

Second, we are constantly told that we must have conscription because voluntary enlistment is not sufficient for our needs. To this I answer that I have just been in Washington and I find plenty of wise people there who agree that voluntary methods of meeting the present crisis have not yet been adequately attempted or even explored.

One substitute plan, for example, is to open the door to one-year voluntary enlistment. At present enlistment in the military forces of the United States is for three years. But the present Conscription Bill calls for only eight months of training. If we open the door to one-year voluntary enlistment, we may very probably secure adequate man power, increase the length of training, and at the same time avoid the whole radical dislocation of American life involved in conscription.

Or there is the plan to keep part of the present Bill, its registration of American man power so as to be forehanded and know what our resources of ability are, and where to find them, and then, within that framework, to use the urgency of the crisis and the knowledge gained from the registration to press voluntary training in earnest.

The people who insist that conscription is desperately demanded in America now to supply man power for our armed forces are merely choosing, I think, what looks to them like the simplest and easiest way out. But the American people had better not underestimate what we are letting ourselves in for, if we are hurried into conscription. It is not simple and easy. You cannot, for example, take these hundreds of thousands of men away from their jobs without guaranteeing that their jobs, or the financial equivalent, will be waiting for them when they are through. Walk around what that is going to mean in industry! And that is only one minor item.

We who oppose hasty adoption of this Conscription Bill

do so on the basis of the proposition that there are alternative ways of meeting the issue that will be adequate, and in that we think we are backed up by some of the most competent opinion available. Mr. Harry H. Woodring until a few weeks ago was Secretary of War in this present administration. He ought to know. Listen to him then: "How any fair-minded member of Congress could say that we have given the voluntary system of enlistment for the United States Army a fair trial and that it has broken down, and therefore we need the compulsory service, is beyond my understanding."

Third, we who oppose this hasty action that has been urged upon the nation are constantly charged with holding the idea that democracy is a matter of rights but not of duties. That seems to me nonsense. Of course democracy is a matter of duties. Of course, every man and woman of us owes service to the nation. Of course, this world crisis is tremendously serious, and it involves us here. Of course, we are determined as loyal citizens to defend our democratic liberties and institutions.

To say, however, that that necessarily involves our cheering for this Conscription Bill is a complete illogical non sequitur. It does not follow. It is the duty of every manufacturer to serve the nation. Does that mean that his business ought to be conscripted? It is the duty of every educator to support democracy. Does that mean that he ought to be conscripted? It is the duty of every man to support democracy. Does that mean that he must be a conscript? The basic principle that we all owe patriotic allegiance to the nation is one thing; the method of regimented, totalitarian military conscription is another.

The time may come when conscription may be necessary again in this country as it was in 1917. May God forbid, but it may come! What millions of Americans are still saying is that no adequate evidence has yet been presented that that necessity exists now.

Listen to Major-General James K. Parsons speaking only a few days ago, all the more impressively because he positively wants conscription in a modified form: "If we are going to stretch (and I think it is a long stretch) the Monroe Doctrine to include Singapore and Shanghai and South America, we will need an army of millions. . . . If we are going to defend our own nation, a relatively small, but well-trained force will be more than adequate." The question there raised the American people ought to demand an answer to. What is this conscript army for? A conscript army is not needed to defend the United States or its contiguous interests. A conscript army is needed only if we are going to send an expeditionary force to conquer, let us say, Europe or Asia. The well-justified suspicion will not down that behind this hectic haste to force conscription on us is the policy of the belligerent interventionists.

Mark this: The political leaders of this nation went to the conventions in Philadelphia and Chicago and did not dare to put into the Republican and Democratic platforms a plank in favor of conscription with which to go before the people. Then Congress went straight to Washington and those in favor of conscription, under the guise of a desperate emergency pictured in terms of imminent armed invasion of this country, began insisting that we must act at once, without adequate thought, without a fair chance even for the people to realize what is going on. Well, at least, the people have spoken clearly enough so that Congress now pauses. I beg of you see to it that Congress hears from more of the people, that the wiser, cooler heads in Congress are supported in their opposition to this hasty action, so that if conscription is adopted it may be only after calm, deliberate, careful consideration.