The Road to Peace


By MOST REV. FRANCIS J. SPELLMAN, Archbishop of New York Delivered at the National Convention of the American Legion, Boston, Mass., September 22, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 766-768

THERE is a fitness in your choice of this place for your assemblage on the first day of your national convention. You are gathered beside the Charles River, the river to which the poet Longfellow repaid with a song the help he had drawn for his spirit from its stillness:

"Thou hast taught me, Silent River,
Many a lesson deep and strong."

We who crowd the margin of this stream on this autumnal night may also learn a lesson—that calmly and without hysteria we may prepare to preserve and defend the peace of our land. This, for us whose minds yield to its spell, is theadmonition of the deep and quiet waters of this river "stealing onward like the stream of life."

We have met in the open with the sky as our roof. Looking upward on this dark night of humanity's sufferings, we seek hope in the heavens, and thence not merely a tiny ray but a whole flood of light descends upon us. On the same stars that now shine down on us looked St. Augustine centuries ago, and to his silent questioning they answered: "We are not the God whom thou seekest. He made us."

Yes, the stars proclaim in luminous, inerasable language the existence of God. These stars navigate the firmament in a certain definite way, and the plan, the progress and theorder involved in their movements presupposes an intelligence which could not come from matter or from chance.

And this intelligence vast enough to regulate the orbits of heavenly bodies we know by the name of God.

God is that same first cause who designed our bodies, masterpieces resulting from the union of a hundred other masterpieces coordinated in such a manner that despite their separately complicated natures they function with an amazing harmony of action. Every fiber of our bodies, every power of our souls proclaims the existence of God, and though other pillars upon which our lives are based may have tottered, we still have God the supreme master of order, and firm is our confidence that through Him, out of the present turmoil, will come order and peace.

Recalls World War Task

Lights lesser and nearer than the stars beam upon us. These are the lights of old Boston town, lights of hospitality and friendship and lights of freedom; for in convening in Boston we have come to an historic place where American independence was first asserted when, sped by lantern's flash, the midnight messenger of liberty raised the alarm the sound of which at critical periods still rings and is heard in our land.

This river at the point where we are gathered is close to its outlet in the sea, and the sea for you of the American Legion is of epic memory. Gathered at the rim of ocean, it is natural that your minds should go back in thoughtful retrospect to that heroic embarkation of your youth, upon the broad waters of the Atlantic so fateful for yourselves and so providential for our country. Beyond the seas was France where battle awaited you, into which you threw the strength and courage of your young manhood with such an impetus as to turn the whole tide of the war; nor did you rest until peace was returned to the world which at its announcement went delirious withjoy.

When the combatants put down their arms, historians took up the pen to expose the origins of the sanguinary struggle, and many causes of the war were listed in books that have been published in the last two decades. By these authors the World War was explained in its beginnings by the rivalry of nations for power and wealth, their quest for territorial expansion and imperial domination, their seeking of new markets and outlets for capital investment, their competition in exploiting backward people, motives, all of them, materialistic, sordid and ignoble.

If these were the underlying causes of the World War you knew nothing of them. These were not the motives which stirred your minds and inspired you with the will for victory. Yours was an unselfish crusade. You fought for pure and high ideals.

The spark that flamed you into patriotic fervor was flashed by the President of the United States, and you judged it your task, whatever the sacrifice, to bring to accomplishment the ardent hopes that our Chief Executive had formulated in matchless sentences vindicating the inviolability of small nations, the security of democracy and a world rid of the threat and actuality of war. Even though secretly mocked and later openly thwarted by foreign statesmen, these principles were sincerely proposed by President Wilson and by you as sincerely accepted.

Let historians, economists, sociologists and philosophers who explore human conduct decide among themselves the seasons for the outbreak of the World War; but for a confirmation of my recollection and my understanding of the reasons for our own involvement I shall not resort to books. I shall turn to living witnesses, to you, men of the American Legion;and to my query, why America threw its power into the contest, you will tell me, as you have told your sons, that for them and for all the children of men you braved every peril that they might inherit and possess a world that would not know the evil of war, since the causes leading to war had by your determined valor been removed.

For the disruption of peace, for the calamitous miseries that now oppress mankind, for the sorrows that we fear are yet to come, the responsibility must be placed on others. There can be no revindication against you; for you took no land that had to be reclaimed, you committed no economic wrong that had to be rectified, you suppressed no political liberties that only an uprising could restore. Your honor is forever secure. In military annals you belong to the company of the most knightly who fought without fear, without reproach and without thought of personal gain or national expansion.

Despite the failure in the realization of our aims in the World War, we still remain idealists. To be otherwise is impossible for Americans. But experience has taught us ameasure of realism. We know now that we cannot draw the boundaries of States on the map of Europe so that race will never transgress upon race. We know now that we cannot bestow our democratic institutions on peoples opposed by natural feelings and traditions to our political system.

We know now that we cannot continue to remain unarmed when other countries have not imitated our peaceful example. We know now that it is our pressing duty to defend ourselves, our lives, our liberties and our institutions. Interventionists, isolationists and those whose political thought lies between these two extremes all agree and must agree on the policy of national defense.

What is worthless needs no guards set about it. The more valuable an object the more it calls for protection. Treasure is kept in secret vaults. A city is patrolled by police. A home is locked and barred against intruders. If in this world there were no greed and envy, no violent actions to enforce illicit desires, these precautions would not be necessary.

Nations do not differ from individuals, and although we have envied none, have wronged none and have coveted nothing, although we have shared our abundance with a distressful world and have felt ourselves charged to do so before God and men, we have the fear that in many cases our charity has not been requited, our good-will has not been reciprocated; we have the additional fear that our national wealth and our national way of life may have aroused envy in others, and this envy might incite actual attempts to conquer us by force of arms, to take from us that which belongs to our people.

For who can gainsay as he envisages on the one hand the vast natural resources of our land and on the other hand the present rapacious temper that is abroad, quickened and emboldened by modern mechanical invention, that it would be worse than folly if we did not immediately proceed to build about ourselves a strong defense that will discourage any possible effort that might be made against us.

It is better to have protection and not need it than to need protection and not have it. We Americans want peace and it is now evident that we must be prepared to demand it. For other peoples have wanted peace and the peace they received was the peace of death. Our good-will and the sincerity of our desire for peace have been demonstrated to the extent of sinking our own battleships. We can no longer afford to be moles who cannot see, or ostriches who will not see, for some solemn agreements are no longer sacred, and vices have become virtues and truth a synonym of falsehood. We Americans want peace and we shall prepare for peace but not for a peace whose dilemmatic definition is slavery or death.

Valuable as are our material possessions, more precious still are our liberties. For these blessings of a higher kind no less than for our national wealth are we indebted to God. This truth was forcefully enunciated by the Catholic Bishops of the United States assembled in the Third Council of Baltimore in the year 1837: "We consider the establishment of our country's independence," the Bishops said, "the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers building better than they knew, the Almighty's Hand guiding them. We believe that our country's heroes were the instruments of the God of nations in establishing this house of freedom."

These are impressive thoughts prompting gratitude to God and a deeper appreciation of our inherited liberties. For religion, which traces the sources of all our blessings to a Divine Author, has always added its force to patriotism when our government has summoned our citizens to the country's defense so that those who have sprung up at the call have felt themselves doubly inspired and doubly armed.

Of this twofold influence of religion and patriotism have I been conscious in all the thoughts I have expressed to you on this occasion. The invitation to address you was directed to me as the Bishop of the Catholics in the Army and Navy of the United States, and in this capacity and as an American citizen have I spoken to you.

I am proud to address the men of the American Legion and I believe in you. I believe you mean a great deal to America and that America means a great deal to you. You men cannot conceive the propriety of an organization calling itself "American" that challenges the constitutionality of a bill providing that no government position in a State may be held by any one who believes in the overthrow of the government by force. And yet there is such an organization. You cannot imagine an organization which openly teaches disrespect to the American Flag and under the pretense of freedom of religion engages paid workers to go from house to house to attack the religion of others. And yet there is such an organization.

By vocation I am a man of peace. I am consecrated to Christ the Prince of Peace. Unceasingly day and night I pray and I ask my flock to pray for peace. "There is nothing to be gained by war that cannot be gained by peace," was the warning of Pope Pius XII on the eve of the outbreak of the present European conflict. I am a man of peace and I pray and hope and work for peace. Not knowingly would I injure any one.

I am a man of peace but gone is my hope of building a world safe for democracy on such foundations of the Treaty of Versailles. Vanished too is the mirage of many philanthropic optimists who cherished the vision of a world united in peace and fraternal charity beneath the aegis of science divorced from religion and around the altar of godless education. Blasted is the dream of a communistic universal brotherhood—blasted by the tell-tale rattle of machine guns and the roar of cannon over Finland.

Science, knowledge, communism, these three great hopes of men, these three great deified abstractions have wavered and failed beneath the pressure of human prejudice and selfishness and the spirit of cruelty and wickedness in high places. A great scientist, himself a refugee from the deification of race and blood, has stepped beyond his depth and suggested that mankind abandon belief in a personal God. That is just what men have done and are doing and the net result is written in the bomb-mangled bodies and the decree-shackled minds of Europe's suffering millions.

What is the answer? There is only one road to peace that I know of, the Highroad of Democracy, the road marked by the sign posts of the Ten Commandments, the road back to Christ and His teachings, in personal life, in national life and in international life.

This is the road to peace. This is the road for America to take. This is the road our forefathers took when they lived and died for our national independence. This is the road you and your comrades took when they lived and died for the national independence of other countries. This is the road that we shall travel if we are to live in peace, a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

If through indifference or negligence, if through penetration or permeation from without or corruption or disintegration from within, it shall come to pass that some day, some conqueror of democracy shall stand at the tomb of George Washington in Mount Vernon and with mock reverence and double-meaning cynicism salute our country's founder with these words: "Washington, we are here to finish your work!" God grant that I, for one, shall not be alive to know it.

May God bless the United States of America!