We Must Stand Behind the President
AMERICANS, WHAT IS YOUR ANSWER?
By RICHARD S. BYRD, Rear Admiral U. S. Navy
Delivered at Madison Square Garden, N. Y., August 20, 1941, at a meeting sponsored by the Council For Democracy
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 683-685
NOT very many months ago, I was in the waters of the Antarctic, near the South Pole, on the Navy's ice breaker, the Bear. We were fighting a full gale during the polar night. There were icebergs around us, and rocks and shoals uncharted on our maps. The night was black and long, and there was no lighthouse to show the way. We sailed alone, with none to rescue us should we hit the rocks.
Not a man on that ship had any thought but of the safety of all. On the bridge Captain Cruzen and his staff of navigators guided the vessel through the dangerous seas. Each member of the crew manned his station with courage and faith.
We knew that we had a common destiny that night, and in that knowledge we did not stop to quarrel about petty differences. We set no personal interests above the interests of all of us.
On a much greater scale, we as a nation today face the same kind of crisis that the crew of the Bear faced in the icy South Polar waters. We as a nation will survive this crisis, or we will perish; we will come out of it with freedom and self-respect, or we will come out of it as slaves—the outcome depends on us. And if we hit the rocks, there will be none to rescue us.
Like the crew of that ship, I have no personal axe to grind tonight. There are no strings tied to me. I speak for no group, no party, no public official. I have no political ambitions. I have not consulted with the Administration upon what I shall say. I speak under the auspices of the Council for Democracy, whose only partisanship is for democracy. I have but one interest—to tell, as an American, the truth as I see it, with neither malice nor mud-slinging.
Let us face the first truth boldly.
A War Between Two Ideas
This is a war between two ideas. This is the age-old struggle between democracy and tyranny, between freedom and slavery, between good and evil. This is everybody's war. This time the fight is to the death. And so far, as we all know, tyranny has won. Fifteen democracies have gone down like torpedoed ships and the first to be invaded by Hitler's slave-idea was Germany itself.
Adolf Hitler has declared that the world is not large enough for both nazism and democracy. He believes that the easy-going people of a free nation cannot compete with the force of a super-efficient dictatorship. He substitutes might for right, force for freedom. For God he has substituted himself and the worship of a soulless mechanical efficiency. That is the picture of one of the two worlds in conflict as we see it tonight. What of the other?
Well, we of the democracies believe in the dignity and equality of man. We believe that reason and truth and compassion can be, in the end, weapons mightier than any bombing plane. It was our peacetime efficiency that invented and developed the very machines that Hitler has turned into hideous mechanized units to destroy free men. If this nation had worked for nine years with no idea other than that of wholesale conquest of its neighbors, no one could haveequaled in destructiveness our war machines. No, there is no Nazi superiority other than a temporary capacity to destroy human beings.
That is the difference between us—the free world and the slave world.
World Has Shrunk in Size
But there is a second great truth that we must face with equal courage. In comparatively recent times the world has shrunk in size. No one realizes that better than I do. In our day there are Americans who don't realize what this highspeed transportation and communication mean. They deny that on this planet 2,000,000,000 human beings hurtle through space together. They deny that catastrophe, or disease, or war, erupting in one region, affects all other regions. They believe we can hide in our own little cabin in the wilderness and let the forest fire rage around us. They do not face the truth that the Atlantic Ocean, even with Hitler bitterly engaged, is not wide enough to isolate the Nazi fifth column from South America. Even our founding fathers realized, back in those sailing-ship days, that the Atlantic Ocean would not isolate us from Europe.
If Hitler won, those of us who still dream of security in isolation would experience a rude awakening.
Unless we recognize the dangers that lie before us, unless we move immediately to cope the dangers before they close in upon us, we face so tremendous a dislocation of the trade structure of this nation and the rest of the world that economic chaos will settle upon all humanity, and that whether we have war or not. Chaos is poisonous soil for the democracies, but the most fertile of all soils for the growth of tyranny. Therefore, no matter what may be the outcome of this war, we are headed straight for dictatorship unless we wake up before it is too late.
"We Cannot Stand Aside"
Let us review the facts that now stand out. First of all, we know that, in the world-wide war of ideas, we cannot stand aside. We may find ourselves forced into war with the whole dictator world.
Secondly, we know that America faces the grave threat of economic chaos whether we have war or whether we don't.
Thirdly, we know that complete economic chaos would inevitably result, as it did in Italy, Germany and Spain, in dictatorship for a dis-United States of America.
We know these things. Why, in God's name, is this country unwilling to face them? What are we going to do about them? We are potentially the strongest nation on earth. But today we are soft, still unprepared for the tough kind of crisis we face. We have our democracy, the greatest workable idea any nation ever had. But today we still quarrel among ourselves, we are smug and lethargic, we take our freedom for granted, we suffer from the enfeebling disease of apathy.
I tell you the blunt truth because I want to awaken you.
We must bestir ourselves now, at once, before it is too late, to a spontaneous reawakening of all the people, determined on dynamic unity and sweat and sacrifice, exactly
as if we were fighting a shooting war for our national self-preservation against the dictator world.
Since we have voluntarily assumed the responsibilities of a nation at war, I for one believe that we should live up to those responsibilities.
That is, I submit, the best and only possible way to prevent a shooting war.
Battles, whether they be economic or shooting, are won by planning and preparation in time of peace. Not by a "business as usual" attitude. Let us make no mistake about this. The destiny of this nation will be decided by what we do in the next eight months. Either we become the citadel of liberty, or we lose the last hope of liberty.
If we rise today in all our might, with the single purpose of doing our utmost to save our freedom, what on the face of the earth would we need fear? We would once again prove to the world that democracy, backed by unity and sweat and sacrifice, is the most potent idea in the history of mankind.
Surely the bitterest opponents of our involvement in this war should be the strongest backers of this proposal. We may disagree on the proper strategy to defend democracy against tyranny as personified by Hitler, but we cannot disagree that democracy must be defended.
Thus, be you an interventionist or a non-interventionist; be you for peace or for war; be you of English descent or German or Italian or French or Irish; be you a Republican or Democrat; a Catholic or Jew or Protestant; or non-believer; a rich man or a poor man; whether you like Roosevelt or whether you don't; whether you are a farmer, laborer, or businessman; whether you are a white man or a Negro—you are, if you still think freedom is better than slavery, if you still believe in our way of life, an American first.
Our Common Denominator
There lies our common denominator. There lies our kinship of brotherhood that, in the face of national danger, puts aside bitterness and family quarrels. There is an idea that stands above our place of birth or ancestry, our varying creeds, the color of our skins, the amount of money we make each year—an idea that makes the United States more important than any part of it.
On this brotherhood depends our nation's potential strength and unity, a challenge to all who hate our way of life. As a democracy counts unity, we have achieved under our strong and courageous President even more unity than could ordinarily be expected. But, in a world that has changed so quickly and incredibly, our usual unity is not enough. It is under attack. The agents of Adolf Hitler are trying to divide the people of America, to set us one against the other, to foster and exploit religious and class suspicions, to set labor against capital, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against Jew, the Middle West against the East. They have used this method of "divide and conquer" because they have seen it work as a prelude to easy military victory in Europe. But it will not, it shall not, work here.
It is not enough to demand unity, sweat and sacrifice. We must know what to unite on, what work to undertake, what sacrifice to make.
I say to you very frankly that, to meet the needs of the hour, we must modify our way of life, at least for the moment. Some of us have not allowed this crisis to change our habits of unrestricted speech and action. Except for the draftees and some of the defense industrial workers and afew dollar-a-year men, we have not changed from our usualroutine.
We still work short hours, riding the turtle while Hitler lashes his subjects into a furious Blitz tempo. Labor and business quarrel between themselves as though they did not realize that both would be ruthlessly smashed under a tyrant. Five million man-hours have been lost by strikes. Every plant closed is a battle lost. Prices and rents—even in the vicinity of the Army camps—are forced up steadily; certainly that is the opposite of sacrifice. Some politicians are still playing at politics at the expense of our defense effort. The philosophy of ease and comfort and pleasure has not changed.
Can we compete with Nazism that way? Nazism, that has for years bludgeoned sacrifice and discipline out of the German people? Do we deserve freedom that way?
Let us be honest with ourselves and recognize that, to deserve liberty, we must adjust our concept of it to the realities of 1941. This means that the people of America will have to subject themselves to voluntary self-restraint in the exercise of their cherished rights. It means that we must create a new and long overdue feeling of individual and group responsibility and accept those responsibilities quickly and willingly.
If there be those who will cry that such a program involves the destruction of democracy in the effort to preserve it, I say that there is a difference between the spirit of democracy and the institutional gadgets by which it works. This democracy is elastic enough to adjust the gadgets to fit the crisis. Are we any the less democratic because we have taken realistic steps to cope with impending danger by adopting the Selective Service Law? Are we less democratic because we are ready to defend democracy?
Role of Public Opinion
The restraints are simple. They must not be enforced by law. That would be dictatorship. Therefore they must be enforced by public opinion. Let us agree that free speech shall not be exploited by those who prefer other political systems in which all our civil liberties would be destroyed.
That effort is the will of the majority. If we must criticize a course decided upon by the majority, let us agree to do so with fairness and moderation. Democracy guarantees debate, yes, but after the debate comes the decision by the will of the majority—and, as such, it should be respected and immediately acted upon.
Nor does this mean that we must stifle the honest debate and loyal constructive criticism that springs from the rights of freedom. No man, whether he be President of the United States, member of Congress or private citizen, is ever infallible, any more than unity is a one-way street. That mistakes must be made in every department of our activities is in the very nature of human affairs.
I do not merely affirm this fact. I urge you to do your part in criticizing, suggesting, expressing your opinion to our legislators and executives. That is the way of free people. Honest debate of many minds arrives in the end at more accurate judgment than is possible for one mind. Therein lies the superiority of democracies over the Nazi idea.
As an American, I affirm the right of any man to say that he does not want to see this country go to war. But we must never again point our finger at one patriotic group and say "Warmonger" or at another sincere group and say "Traitor." When our neighbor's home is threatened, we will defend it whether he be Jew or Christian, Democrat or Republican, worker or businessman, isolationist or interventionist. That was the principle on which we worked that night on the ice-breaker Bear. Because the principle is sound I am alive to speak to you now.
And, incidentally, Captain Cruzen of the Bear is of German descent, and his second in command, Lieutenant Niemo, is of Italian descent, both good Americans. There are millions of Cruzens and Niemos in this country who, like Wendell Willkie, are anxious to do their part to help preserve American democracy if they are given the chance. Because this is true, we must guard against the injustice of distrust in fellow-Americans simply because their names have a foreign quality, or because they speak with a foreign accent, or their customs are different from ours.
Danger of Indecision
American democracy has always met dangers with leadership. At such moments quick, decisive action must be taken by the Commander-in-Chief on matters that ordinarily would be decided through slower processes. Our danger does not lie in action, but in indecision.
And as I discuss leadership from this platform I find myself again back in spirit near the South Pole standing on the bridge of that Polar ship in the darkness and the storm with the rocks around us.
Without a leader this republic would be like that ship without the captain on the bridge. Just as the captain on that ship must be able to act quickly to avoid the rocks, our Commander-in-Chief often must act quickly to steer our Ship of State safely through the storm that has hit the world.
I believe that history will say that President Roosevelt has had to contend with graver responsibilities than ever before faced a Chief Executive of this nation. Lincoln was faced with the threat of losing a dozen States from the Union. Roosevelt is faced with the threat of losing all forty-eight. Lincoln had the task of abolishing the enslavement of 5 per cent of the population. This Administration has the task of preventing the enslavement of all the people.
It is the solemn duty of every loyal American to share that burden with our President and the rest of the government.
The President has been accused of trying to get this nation into war. I can give you my personal word that Roosevelt, the man, has a deep hatred for war—deeper perhaps than many who have made this criticism. Roosevelt, the President, has the task of carrying American democracy forward under God against any resistance, and it is his duty to do that above all things. If he can do it without war he will do it. But there are things infinitely worse than war, and the worst of these is slavery.
I have tried to tell you our duty in hard-boiled realistic terms. I rest my case on those terms. But there is something in this crisis which transcends hard-boiled realism. I am thinking of the "terrible silence of the gagged millions of Europe." Isn't there a moral issue here, an issue that I cannot help but believe means something to most of us? It is the issue between human decency, common kindness and sympathy, on the one side, and inhuman brutality on the other.
We know that the lust for world conquest, the brutal persecution of innocent human beings, the degradation of the human spirit, we know that these things are wrong. We know that we stand on trial today before the eyes of our Maker and before the generations of the years ahead.
Here at Madison Square Garden tonight we are enjoying the four freedoms of our Bill of Rights. There is your free press. Here on this platform is your free speech. You who listen to me worship as you please. And here, in this meeting-place, is your free assembly.
What are we going to do to repay democracy for these freedoms? Are we going to sit back and enjoy them as though no one had ever fought and died for them?—or are we going to make our personal sacrifices every day so that our defense effort may be furthered? Are we going to divide our national house against itself through dissension—or are we going to stand united behind the President as if at war with an unconquerable morale? Americans, what is your answer?