National Self-Preservation


By HARRY WOODBURN CHASE, Chancellor N. Y. University

Delivered at the Dinner Meeting of the Economic Club of New York, February 10, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 299-300

I HAVE been asked tonight to undertake the rather difficult task of trying to put into words what might be called the position of the average man on the vital issues which are under consideration. It is a position not without its dangers. I am reminded forcibly of the young and untried preacher who found himself unexpectedly in charge of a large and fashionable congregation. It was the Lenten season and he realized that he must discuss with them the welfare of their souls. He waxed very eloquent on the subject and climaxed the sermon by the stern admonition: "You must repent in a measure or you will be damned to a certain extent."

The average man, I take it, finds himself rather bewildered as he seeks to solve the equations with which he is confronted. On the one hand he wants to give the fullest possible aid to Britain but he very definitely wants to keep out of war. Again he wants aid for Britain to be so implemented as to be effective but he does not want to see the processes of democratic government curtailed more than is absolutely necessary in the situation.

I believe that I speak the minds of great numbers of Americans when I say that leaving aside all questions of admiration for British courage, all that is sentimental and emotional, we find the really fundamental argument for aid to Britain one of purely enlightened self-interest. It is possible to discount very heavily the predictions of those whose fears run away with their judgment when they consider vague possibilities of immediate armed invasion of the United States by a victorious Germany. It is possible to do that. I say and yet be convinced as so many of us are convinced, that a German victory would be deeply disastrous to the future of these United States. We would inevitably become an armed camp with great proportions of our national income expended permanently for military purposes. Our standards of living would drop, our economy would be brought into competition with the economy of the totalitarian states. Even though military invasion of the United States never came we should have to be constantly on our guard against unfriendly powers holding both oceans, against what might happen to our neighbors to the South whom we are pledged to defend. In short we would face a situation totally without parallel in our entire history. Of that I believe most of us are now fully aware.

I do not think we should be under any delusions as to the magnitude and stubbornness of our desire to stay out of war.

Wholly aside from other considerations, for us to go to war would be a stupid thing. It would over night impede the very results we are trying to attain—aid to Britain. Does anyone seriously suppose for a moment, that, to take but one example, public opinion on the West coast, would permit airplane shipments to Britain once we were at war and the threat of Japan loomed across the Pacific? I say that going into this war seems to me the most stupid thing we could do. I realize fully that the decision may not be ours to make and yet I think the problem is partly a psychological one. There is an ominous parallelism between utterances that one is beginning to hear now and those one heard in the months preceding our entrance into the World War. It seems to me that whether it is conscious or not there is a real and growing tendency to fatalistic acceptance of the high probability of war in more and more quarters. Some of it I am certain is wholly sincere, part of it I have sometimes felt was in part at least an attempt to frighten the American people into procedures that they would not otherwise adopt. In any event more and more does it become apparent that if we are not careful, if we do not keep our balance, we are on the verge of developing a public opinion which is highly emotional and increasingly intolerant. I believe the American people are fully aware that any course that it pursues at the moment has danger associated with it. But there is a vast difference between the correct realization of that fact and a hopelessly defeatist attitude toward the necessity of sooner or later becoming involved in war. It is this defeatism to which I object. I admit my own deep personal prejudices. No man who saw one college generation of young men going to war ever wants to see it happen again. Our psychology must be a psychology of maintaining peace, not of drifting helplessly into war.

How far shall we aid Britain? There again is an equation with a large X. Who can tell? How do we know what the next few months may bring? It was this very unpredictability of the situation which I suppose accounted for the very broad and general terms of the Lend-Lease Bill. And yet its very broadness and its vagueness have brought constructive public criticism of a high order. We have been forcibly reminded once again of the importance of our own democratic institutions. We who are one of the last democratic strongholds on earth struggling to defend and upbuild the ideals of democracy, we must make those ideals work. And, so far as this particular bill is concerned, we are having ademonstration that they do work. It is no small matter that in an hour like this, legislative committees should hold hearings by those whose range of opinion is as wide apart as the poles. It is no small matter that an evident desire for unity like this important measure, pervades the minds of so many people. In the treatment of this bill we are setting an example of the very thing we are trying to defend. There should be, obviously, definite limitations circumscribing whatever legislative powers are delegated to the Executive. There should be restrictions as to time, restrictions as to amounts, restrictions as to decisive steps, like convoys, restrictions as to consultation and information regarding large and decisive questions of policy. The bill in some form will be passed in the end. It should not be passed without proper curbs and restrictions. Where its language is so vague as to permit misinterpretations it should be corrected. There should most certainly be a limit in time and money to the delegated authorities. There should be provision for consultation with Congressional committees. We are not ready to forget in considering such things that we are a democracy and that we are not at war. It is, I believe, the fundamental opinion of the American people that it wants to see as little curtailment as possible of the usual processes by which it is governed. It is willing to see delegation of power when it is convinced that it is for the sake of efficiency. It wants to see that principle kept in mind throughout. As to the details of what such limitations may best be it has not made up its mind with great definiteness. But I believe that I am reflecting the opinion of a large section of our population when I say that realizing the necessity of some such bill we nevertheless are not convinced of the necessity of the extreme and unchecked delegation of powers contained in its original form.

I have tried, if you please, to reflect in what I have said, a mood, or an attitude, rather than any detailed series of propositions, and I should like to end what I have to say with a plea for cool-headedness and for tolerance. Twenty-five years ago we saw what happened when a people was swept off its feet by a wave of emotionalism. Most of us were so much a part of that wave that we scarcely realized what was happening to our own minds. We all remember the propaganda, the slogans, the mounting hysteria, the sentimentalism. And now we are again confronted as a people with a critical situation. As I have said before there are to me distressing indications that we are preparing to follow the same path once more. I should like to make a plea tonight that we do not follow it, that we do what we can to combat fear and intolerance and emotionalism and that we set out in the clear bright light of day to do the jobs that lie ahead of us—the job of aiding Britain, the job of keeping out of war, the job of interfering only so far as may be altogether necessary and compatible with the normal functions of our own institutions and ideals of democracy.