Our Greatest Danger


By FRANK MURPHY, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court

Delivered before the Convention of the Knights of Columbus, at Atlantic City, August 20, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 717-720

THE world today is engaged in the most titanic conflict of all history. Two-thirds of mankind is in battle array and the other third is tremendously concerned with the outcome. This is a conflict which is straining not alone the spiritual and material resources, the manpower and armament, of the nations involved; far more than that, it is straining the capacity of all peoples, including our own, for clear thinking and firm decision.

We, the United States, so recently arrived at our national adulthood, find ourselves in a position of leadership in thefamily of nations. Upon us the war has placed a heavy responsibility to all civilization. It is a responsibility which we can hope to fulfill only if we are sound and realistic in charting our course along the confusing path of national interest and foreign policy.

Before the fall of France a year ago it was still possible to assume that what happened in Europe and Asia could not seriously affect or menace our national security. Our concern with the principles and practices of National Socialism was more academic than real. We might fulminate against them, but it was difficult to believe or imagine that we were face to face with a crisis in world history, the outcome of which might profoundly affect and eventually determine our own future position in the world and safety of our institutions and way of life.

Not until we became aware of the tremendous power of the German military machine and the world-wide reach of Nazi aims and political machinations did we find it necessary to think of this crisis in terms of similar crises in the past, as when the free nations of Europe were called upon to resist the on-rushing power of the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century, or oppose the grandiose ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early nineteenth century.

In the face of this new challenge to world peace and a free international order, we have been obliged to reconsider the comfortable assumptions which have previously conditioned our thinking—assumptions of hemispheric detachment and security of freedom from outside interference and safety from attack, even the basic assumption of an orderly world in which nations respect each other's integrity and conduct their national affairs according to law and morality and elementary decency.

For a nation whose thinking and foreign policy have long been conducted on the basis of such assumptions and an honest desire to live at peace with the world it has been difficult to become reoriented and think in terms of a different order of things requiring the use of economic and military sanctions for the protection of our interests. We are coming to see, nevertheless, that as things are, with powerful nations resorting to military action in support of a program which threatens to isolate us from the rest of the world and eventually challenge our position and freedom of action as a strong and independent state, we, too, must give practical consideration to military interests in the conduct of our foreign affairs and to the adoption of suitable tactics, both military and economic, to neutralize and offset the dangers that threaten us.

We are at one of the crossroads of history. In the light of what we have seen and the evidence already available, there can be little doubt that a complete German victory would mean a profound reshaping of the world. Not only Europe and Africa but South Africa as well would conceivably fall under the sway of the Nazi economic and political philosophy, directed and upheld from Berlin by a thoroughly ruthless government, supported by a military juggernaut of matchless power and skill, and dedicated to political doctrines which are the very antithesis of principles we hold sacred and fundamental to individual freedom and happiness. Large areas of the Asiatic Continent, with its teeming millions, would be exposed to a similar fate.

Whatever you or I may think as individuals, as a nation we have in effect committed ourselves to the policy of aiding those countries which are offering resistance to the aggressions of Nazi Germany and her associates. As formally expressed in the terms of the Lend-Lease Act, these are countries whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States. If we like to think of ourselves as an arsenal of the democracies, the truth of the matter is that our Governmentand our people, the great majority of them, are convinced that our position in the world and our very safety as a strong and independent nation, enjoying the freedom of intercourse with other peoples and an equal voice in world affairs, would be compromised and endangered by a complete Nazi victory. We of the present generation, as prudent and responsible men and women, having the welfare and the destiny of the Nation temporarily in our charge, cannot afford to let it happen.

At a time like the present it is of crucial importance that we keep our minds on the main issue and not allow ourselves to be diverted or confused with respect to our real interests and the fundamentals of our policy. Knowing what we do, therefore, of the methods and aims of the Nazi government, its utter disregard for the rights and aspirations of other nations, and, above all, the vast striking power of its military organization, we must not allow ourselves to be confused and misled by its latest maneuver, the attack on Russia.

In ordinary circumstances we could afford to be indifferent to such a conflict. For men and women who cherish freedom of religion and the other fundamentals of democratic rule, these is little to choose from between the communism of Soviet Russia and the nazism of Germany. We want neither in this country. But we know that nazi-ism, with its superior competence and perverted intelligence, its extraordinary energy and missionary zeal, its profound belief in racial superiority and destiny, its fanatical intolerance, and, above all, its tremendous military power and skill, is by far the greater menace to free nations and free institutions. It is at present the real menace.

In thus defining our attitude toward war between communism and nazism, it is not a question of allying ourselves with the philosophy of communism. We know that with only negligible exceptions the American people are unequivocally and unalterably opposed to communism. We reject it for its denial and contradiction of elemental human wants. We reject it for its desertion of religion and its suppression of religious bodies. We reject and oppose the communism of Soviet Russia for its opportunism in resorting to the aggression which in others it has so stringently condemned. We know from the records of our courts of law that its agents have sought with premeditation to undermine our democratic form of government.

On this point there can be no doubt. We stand against communism as a thing that is completely out of accord with our freely chosen way of life. But we should not permit this to blind us to our own interest and to the major fact that the great and immediate threat to our position and standing as a great nation, commanding the respect of the world and dealing with other nations on terms of peace and equality, is Nazi Germany with its inordinate ambitions, its hated philosophy, and its superb military organization.

With a fire raging in the neighborhood which threatens to take your house, or with a dangerous animal loose in the streets, you aren't too concerned about the religion or politics of those who join in the effort to put it down. In present circumstances any nation resisting the might and aggression of Nazi Germany is, whether intentionally or not, advancing our interest as well as its own.

In launching the attack on Russia the Nazi leaders piously proclaimed that they were fighting the battle of westernChristian civilization against the godlessness of Soviet Russia. In doing this it was doubtless their hope to divide and confuse opinion in this country, especially among the people of the Catholic faith, who are notoriously abhorrent of the tenets and practices of communism. But a glance at the record will remove any doubt about the hypocrisy of this claim.

In that singular prophetic volume, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote as follows of the Christian faith: "The individual may realize with pain that with the appearance of Christianity there came into the much freer world of the ancients the first instance of spiritual terrorism. He cannot, however, dispute the fact that thenceforth the world was oppressed and dominated by this force; force can only be broken by force and terrorism by terrorism. Only by these methods can a new condition of affairs be brought about."

Very evidently at the time of the writing of these observations the Nazi leadership did not regard itself as a defender of "western Christian civilization." On the contrary, the implication is clear that it considered itself obliged to bring about, by force and terrorism, a new condition of affairs. But this was in the early years.

What has been the Nazi Party's view in more recent times when it has wielded the power of government? One answer is provided by the words of Reichsbishop Mueller, speaking with reference to a German Christian meeting in 1934. "The time will come," said Bishop Mueller, "when only Nazis will conduct services and when only Nazi will occupy the pews. We want one people, one state, and one church."

Two years later, at a party congress in Nuremburg, the philosopher of the party, Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, reaffirmed this policy in more specific terms: "That the Catholic Church, and with it the Protestant Church in its present form, must disappear from the life of our people is clearly evident to me and, I believe I can assert, also to our Fuehrer."

In 1936 the Voelkischer Beobachter, personal journalistic organ of Herr Hitler, served notice that "we are armed and prepared to continue the battle against Catholicism until the final frightful decision, until the point of total annihilation."

But let us not judge by words alone, however damning they may be. Let us consider deeds. On the 8th day of July 1933 a concordat was solemnly entered into between the Vatican and the German Reich. It was signed for the church by Cardinal Pacelli, now Pope Pius XII, and for Germany by Ambassador Franz von Papen. In this treaty Chancellor Hitler pledged freedom of worship for the Catholics of Germany, and the respective function of the church and state were carefully described. As to the manner in which the agreement was carried out, I shall quote from the encyclical letter issued by Pope Pius XII on March 14, 1939:

"In the difficult and eventful years which followed the concordat, every word and every action of ours was ruled by loyalty to the terms of the agreement; the unwritten law of the other party has been arbitrary misinterpretation of agreements, evasion of agreements, evacuation of the meaning of agreements, and, finally, more or less open violation of agreements. In the furrows in which we labored to sow the seeds of true peace others * * * sowed the tares of suspicion, discord, hatred, calumny, of secret and open fundamental hostility to Christ and His church, fed from a thousand different sources and making use of every available means.

"On them, and on them alone, and on their silent and vocal protectors, rests the responsibility that now on the horizon of Germany there is to be seen not the rainbow of peace but the threatening storm clouds of destructive religious wars."

Enough of the facts have emerged to provide a clean-cut picture of the conditions referred to in the Pope's late encyclical. It is a picture of a systematic and sustained endeavor to drive a wedge between the Catholics of Germany and their traditional faith. It is a picture of the closing of churches, monasteries, convents and schools on invented accusations and flimsy pretexts; of the regimentation of Catholic youth and the abolition of their youth organizations; of the elimination of Catholic action societies and publishing houses, the surveillance and supervision of priests, and the destruction of business establishments through boycotts and blacklists. It is a picture of stealthy and demoralizing persecution.

That this program of suppression has continued to this day there seems little doubt. On July 6, 1941—2 weeks after the start of the alleged German "holy war" against communism—the archbishops and bishops of greater Germany protested bitterly against the actions of the Government in a joint pastoral letter. Specifically, they charged that all diocesan publications have been completely suppressed; that numerous convents had been closed without reason; that all Catholic schools have been suppressed; and that all religious instruction has been stopped in other schools.

From Poland the news has been vastly more shocking. In a report published under the authorization of the Vatican, Cardinal Hlond last year told of the murder of hundreds of priests, the imprisonment and brutal persecution of thousands of others—clergy and laymen alike—and the defilement and destruction of hundreds of churches and other homes of religion.

The people of Poland are tragically aware that it is no champion of the cross who occupies their land. That knowledge is shared by the people of Norway, of Holland, of Austria, and, above all, by the Christian people of Germany itself. They know that the Nazi regime is a Christian regime only when it is good military strategy.

In citing evidences of Nazi opposition to the Catholic Church and its communicants, I do not wish to imply that people of other faiths have not also suffered persecution. The sad plight of the unfortunate members of the Jewish faith under Nazi rule is only too well known. Fresh in our minds also is the recent declaration of the Lutheran bishops of Norway, crying out against the systematic rule of terror by the Nazi storm troopers and continued interference in the affairs of the church. And the prayers of the whole Christian world go out to that brave and gallant figure of German Protestantism, Pastor Niemoeller, who has been subjected to the privation and terrors of the concentration camp for opposing publicly the politics of the Nazi Government. I am addressing this appeal to members of every religious faith not to be confused or deceived by the recent turn of events in Europe.

Such, in part, is the record of those who now ask us to accept them as crusaders for Christianity against the godlessness of communism. It is a record which shows beyond doubt the futility of looking to the Nazi leaders of Germany as allies in the defense of the Christian faith. Not only have they proved by word and deed their hatred of Christianity, but they have shown the folly of placing trust in their pledged word.

From this record and from other evidence it should be abundantly clear to anyone that under Nazi rule no religion would remain free. Any concessions thus far made to religious bodies have been made solely for reasons of convenience and opportunism. The only religion acceptable to the Nazi party would be under the direction and control of the Nazi state.

While the Communist philosophy remains a danger tothe Christian religion, it is not today the greatest danger. The overshadowing menace and—the one from which we must not let ourselves be distracted—is the philosophy of nazism embodied in the present German military regime. In that philosophy and that regime we face not merely godlessness but godlessness which even now is in grave danger of carrying out its ruthless program—a program for which history may have no adequate parallel since the days of Nero and his successor tyrants on the throne of ancient Rome.

We shall not therefore be deceived by this sham crusade in behalf of Christianity and Western civilization. Our hope and our safety lie not in a triumph of Nazi arms and the Nazi creed. We want no part of this or any other form of totalitarian doctrine. Our hope lies in the triumph of democracy. Our democracy will not fail us if we are willing to act together as one nation with a single policy, determined to preserve and safeguard the heritage that has been bequeathed to us by our fathers.

Today, no less than in the beginning of our national life, the religious faith of our people is the chief source and pattern of our morality. Wisely did the framers of our fundamental laws provide against any interference with the free exercise of religion. This is a right which has been jealously safeguarded by the courts, but in the exercise too much neglected, I fear, by many of our citizens. Let us hope that in the stress and strain of the unhappy period through which the world is now passing the people of this Nation will remember what they owe to their religious inheritance and bewilling to make whatever sacrifice may be needed for its preservation.

It is from the simple precepts imparted to us by Holy Writ, impressed upon us from day to day and week to week by our religious exercises, that we as a people have derived the qualities of sobriety and honest and moral integrity that make democracy possible. Under the benign protection of the great document of government which defines and safeguards our basic liberties, religion has been free to grow and flourish throughout the land. It ministers to our needs in many forms whether in the sacrifice of the mass or the sacred books of Jew and Mormon. It finds noble expression in the hymns and prayers of the great Protestant communions and provides spiritual manna in the simple devotions of the Quaker.

In that historic meeting at Philadelphia which produced our charter of government, no statesman or delegate of that day thought it necessary or meet to propose the adoption of an ersatz religion under the control of the state as a means of insuring national unity among the several elements of the new Republic. Their concern was that religion should be free and untrammeled. For whether we hearken to the great prophets of Israel or follow the Star of Bethlehem, whether we turn for spiritual guidance to other creeds and symbols, let us never forget that we are members of a common brotherhood searching and striving for the ideal of peace on earth, with charity and justice for all men. God speed the day.