Democracy Is Challenged


By FRANK KNOX, Secretary of the Navy

Delivered at the Graduation Exercises of the Fifteenth Session and Retraining Course of the FBI National Police AcademyWashington, D. C., October 5, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 34-35.

MR. HOOVER, members of the graduating class of the National Police Academy and your friends: I come to this task well equipped because I belong to a related profession. One of the responsibilities of a conscientious newspaper publisher is to lend every possible assistance to law enforcement.

I think that it may emphasize my interest in your task and something of my understanding of its difficulties when I recall to your mind that my first official act as the head of one of the great defense departments of the United States Government was to initiate a study in Europe of the fifth column activity, by two men of expert experience and skill, and the subsequent presentation of the whole problem of fifth column activities as it had affected the outcome in Europe for the edification of the newspaper readers throughout America.

I want to congratulate you men of this class on the hour of your graduation. You could not have come upon the scene, skilled and trained enforcers of law, in a more pregnant hour than the present. You have read, as I have, of a recent consummation of an international pact between three totalitarian powers in the world. They did not hesitate to say to us frankly that that open pact was aimed at the United States.

Down in Boston, where I was born, or near Boston in the little town of Lexington, there is a boulder on a common— a common where some Minute Men, one hundred seventy years ago formed their lines to contest the passage of the troops of a tyrannous king. And on that boulder are engraved words, to me as stirring a sentence as I ever read, which have particularly a significance for us right now. They are the words of the young commander of that thin line of less than one hundred men who opposed themselves to the organized troops of a foreign king, and his words were these: "Don't fire unless fired upon. If they want a war, let it begin here."

America never has tamely submitted to intimidation, and the spirit of that young Minute Man commander on that green at Lexington in 1776 still breathes and finds expression in America.

I think the Director did wisely in opening this meeting with prayer. I observe that it will be closed with prayer. I think we are wise to emphasize that this nation was born out of a love for religious and civic freedom. It will do us no harm to recall for a moment what our heritage is and how it was won and who won it.

About 300 odd years ago there grew up in some of the countries of Europe a small group of men and women with whom the overwhelming prepossession was that they might worship God after the dictates of their own conscience, and next only to that, they desired that they might be rulers of their own destinies. So was born a desire for religious freedom and a desire to create somewhere a land that would be dominated by the principle of the consent of the governed. And so these few scattered groups embarked in frail sailing vessels and started a journey across an uncharted ocean to an unknown land peopled by savages, pursuing the ideal of religious and civic freedom. I haven't time to recite their hardships, but out of that meager group who sailed for America in order to enjoy religious and civic freedom came the greatest democracy that the world has ever known.

And now that democracy is challenged. The principles those men crossed the ocean for, and for which they wrought out of the wilderness a home, where all the oppressed of the world could come and enjoy freedom with them—all those principles are under challenge. I am guilty of no exaggeration, my friends, when I say to you that we are living through today some of the most pregnant hours in all human history. We are approaching an hour of decision, a time of testing, and as we approach that test, God knows whether it will be a test on the field of battle or a test of wills.

May I emphasize that these hideous, barbarous forcesagainst which we contend, have their virtues that we might well emulate. One of the chief of these is devotion to the state. That conspicuously characterizes the men and women of these totalitarian states. They are quite capable, as they have demonstrated, of sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice of life, for their country. They have trained themselves to be hard, to endure, to suffer. Now these qualities which characterize the battalions of totalitarianism must characterize also the battalions of liberty.

And you men, out of the forefront, the advance guard of protection for these things that we love, you must in yourselves, by your devotion and by your willingness to sacrifice, and by your mode of life which hardens you to face difficulties without flinching, help us to bring America back, as we must, to the spirit that followed Israel Putnam on Bunker Hill, which followed Meade at Gettysburg, which went with Pershing into the Argonne, and which must characterize us now if we are to save these things we prize and cherish. I can't over-emphasize, as I have said, the importance of your contribution in this hour of crisis.

I don't know whether any man can correctly assess the responsibility which subversive activities should be given in the destruction of a dozen governments in Europe. But we do know this: that it has had a profound and important effect. And in a nation such as ours, made up of men of every bloodstream, the danger of that sort of activity undermining our military power is tremendous. As your Chief has wisely said, it is not to be met by hysteria. It must be met in a cool, calm and courageous way which doesn't hesitate to punish those who are guilty of acts of treachery, and which successfully isolates and puts away where they can do no harm those secret forces within our own borders that would try to destroy us.

The Army and the Navy, if challenge comes, which must be met, will meet it on the battlefield and on the high seas. Their part in our defense is critical. Those men on the high seas will depend on us here at home to see that they are supported with every possible means of successful attack. The boy who goes beneath the surface in a submarine, the youngster who is a part of the crew of the destroyer, the courageous sailor who is part of the turret crew of a battleship, all depend on us here. We have tried to provide them with the weapons to make victory possible. And upon you men, men like you all over America, the safety of that line of supply must rest. The Army will acquit itself, as it always has, bravely. The Navy will pursue its mission on the high seas with courage. It is your task, and it is equally as important as theirs, to see that no one stabs them in the back while they are thus engaged.