When Shall America Fight


By JAMES B. CONANT, President of Harvard University

Given on a nation-wide Columbia hook-up from WEEI in Boston, May 4, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 517-519

RECENTLY I returned to this country after six weeks in England as a member of a scientific mission concerned with matters of national defense—the national defense of the United States. My official work has been completed, and I wish to make it perfectly plain that, speaking as a private citizen, I am expressing only my own personal views this afternoon.

During the year just passed I have frequently voiced my conviction that the present war is in essence a struggle forfreedom and that therefore the outcome is of vital concern to every citizen of this country. I have been one of those who have persistently advocated this nation's taking all steps necessary to secure the defeat of the Axis powers—all steps, not excluding active belligerency. I shall not this afternoon state again the reasons which led me to this stand. Nor shall I raise a question that might well disturb our souls-—the question whether we in the United States can with a good conscience proclaim this war a fight for freedom and thenlet another nation do the fighting. Rather I shall urge that considering only the best interests of a free United States the hour for action is at hand.

On returning to this country I have been amazed by one point of view which I have heard frequently expressed. Some intelligent people seem to believe that this war may be ended by a negotiated peace. That is to say that Hitler and the British may sit down at a council table and make an adjustment which will end the war. This idea to anyone who has lately been in England seems utterly fantastic.

We are living in a dark and uncertain hour of human history. Prophecy, as never before, is a risky enterprise. Nevertheless I venture one prediction. No British government that could possibly come to power will make peace with Hitler. No British government could consider a compromise peace. Because the people of Great Britain know that such a peace would mean the eventual enslavement of every man, woman and child upon their island.

I can add my testimony to that of the many other observers who have reported on the morale of the English people. In all walks of life their spirit is magnificent. To outlive night after night an indiscriminate rain of bombs affects profoundly the spirit of a free people. Mark carefully, I said a free people. For the vast majority of the population night bombing has brought a stiffened determination to fight to the end. There is no mood for compromise in Britain.

But our friends in the isolationist camp tell us that even without a negotiated peace the war will soon be over. We have only to stand aside and let England be overrun. Then the war will end. To all who hate and despise the philosophy of the totalitarian states, this is a black counsel of despair. It is strange, indeed, to contrast the calm confidence under fire of the British people with the defeatism which one hears in this country,—a country far removed from the realities of war.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not such an attitude does credit to the spirit of a free and self-respecting nation, I believe the basis of the argument to be wrong. It is founded on the assumption that we would let England fall, the British fleet surrender, and make no move. Let us imagine that after a sudden display of technical as well as numerical superiority in the air, the Germans do succeed in finally invading England. To be sure, this seems to me an extremely remote possibility. Or alternatively, let us imagine that the blockade, after another six months, has reduced Great Britain's military effectiveness to the point where invasion becomes possible. This contingency is not remote. In either case would the United States then take the view that the subsequent history of the war was no affair of ours? Would we sit idly by and see Hitler in command of the Atlantic Ocean? Would we accept the threat to our independence in this hemisphere without a struggle? Or would we finally in a last desperate effort to defend the cause of freedom join our forces to the British fleet? To ask these questions is to answer them. According to recent Gallup poll, nearly 71 per cent of the American people are prepared to have the United States become a naval belligerent rather than let the British lose. Can anyone doubt what the poll would be on the issue of sharing with the Axis powers control of the Atlantic Ocean and the two Americas?

The conclusion seems to me inevitable. Unless we are willing to yield the control of this hemisphere to the Axis powers, this country must sooner or later fight. Unless the United States is prepared to shape its philosophy to that of the totalitarian states through a pact of mutual understanding, we shall eventually be forced to defend our freedom by acts of war. The isolationists are living in a world of wishful thinking when they imagine the struggle may soon be over. If we would preserve our freedom, the question before us is not: "Shall America Fight?" The question before us is: "When Shall America Fight?"

I believe we should fight now. For while there seems little chance that the English island will be immediately overrun, there is another critical danger before us—on the Atlantic Ocean. This is the threat whose magnitude is not understood by those who still oppose the full employment of our Navy. This is the threat which calls for early and drastic action.

We have been told publicly by high government officials of the gravity of the situation. War materials and food must be delivered on. English shores. The blockade by the German U-boats, raiders and air force has been all too effective; more damaging perhaps than we have yet been told. Our best hope of avoiding later battle against desperate odds is to become a naval belligerent now. It is not too late. But the hour for action has clearly struck. I believe the nation is ready to join the fight for freedom now.

Every sensible man and woman in the United States wishes to see this frightful war end as soon as possible. In the opinion of the vast majority of us there is only one right way to have it end—by the defeat of Hitler and his Allies. I believe that this is not only the right way to have it end, but. the only way it can end. For as I have already explained, I do not think the British will make peace. And, in the event that the British should lose their island. I do not believe the American people will permit Hitler to control the Atlantic Ocean. Sooner or later we must enter this war as an active belligerent. A successful invasion of Great Britain in my opinion would not terminate the struggle, but rather remove the action to our shores.

In the meantime we are allowing the outposts of our liberty, the front line which defends our freedom, to be slowly weakened by an ever-tightening blockade. The British powers of resistance are being gravely endangered as long as we do not maintain unimpaired the line of supply—the bridge of boats. And as we delay, Germany is gaining additional power which must prolong the struggle. If she has an overwhelming victory in the near East, she will not have won the war. But every additional victory by the Nazi forces makes our task that much harder, the road which we must travel that much longer when our choice is made. From now on each month we delay may well mean at least four months added to the war.

But to all these arguments there is one last reply some defeatists will put forward. They say, "The case is hopeless. Even if we join forces with Great Britain tomorrow, the war cannot be won." Is this view correct? Or may we have confidence that, given time, the Axis powers may be decisively defeated? In short, can we win the war?

To discuss this question intelligently one must realize the full significance of the great air battles of last fall. Great Britain won those battles in spite of numerical inferiority because of technical superiority. This has been made plain by expert writers. But the full meaning of the victory is not everywhere understood. The advantage in speed, gunfire, pilots and control which enabled the Royal Air Force to defeat the Nazi air armadas still lies with the British flyers. There is every reason to believe this technical advantage can be maintained; and when the factories of the United States reach full production, this qualitative superiority will be combined with an overwhelming weight of numbers. There will then rest with the British control of the air, which brings with it the power of large scale daylight bombing from low altitudes. Without control of the seas, and helpless in the air, Germany will face defeat.

I am arguing for immediate action. Whatever course we take, we face bitter days ahead. Terrible and devastating as war is, slavery and national degradation are worse evils. If we fight now, we may greatly shorten the trials through which we as a nation shall have to pass. But whether we fight now or later, I am confident that the American people can endure hardships and suffering and still stay free. To assume that under the stress of war we shall destroy our form of government, or plunge our land into social chaos is to deny the virility of our birthright.

During the course of more than a hundred and fifty years we have evolved a unique form of society on this continent. It is worth preserving. As never before in human history, a whole nation has declared as its ideal a democratic republic which knows no class distinction. As never before in the history of mankind we have furnished education to all the people irrespective of hereditary privilege. Such a social order is worth defending.

We long for an opportunity peacefully to develop still further the implications of the fundamental philosophy of our nation. But can peace for a free country be maintained in the present world without a struggle? Already we can feel the withering heat from the furnace of the Nazi tyranny across the seas. Until the source of this evil fire is quenched, no free people can prosper or endure. Shall we take up arms and defend our independence in this hemisphere, the basis of our free institutions, of our way of life? Or shall we bow timidly before the onrush of a foreign power which spurns and ridicules every moral principle we hold dear? I have no question as to the final answer, nor the final outcome of the battle. Once the American people come to grips with the issue which confronts them, I have no question as to the unity of this land.

In my opinion, strategy demands we fight tomorrow, honor and self interest that we fight before the British Isles are lost. But whether we fight tomorrow or on a later day, we shall before long close our ranks and fight to win.