The Beliefs We Fight For
A CONCEPT MORE POWERFUL THAN THOSE WHICH BOLSTER THE ENEMY EFFORT
By LIEUTENANT OREN ROOT, JR., United States Navy
At Banquet of Associated Industries of New York State, February 19, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 381-382.
ALTHOUGH I stand before you in the uniform of the United States Navy, which I am proud to wear, I speak of course as an individual only and the opinions which I shall express are exclusively my own.
We cannot see much into the future, but this we can see: When historians come to write the history of the Twentieth Century, they will record one overwhelming and transcendent fact, that in our time for the first time the peoples of the world became one people. Always before in the tens of thousands of years of human history the world had been divided into parts, each comparatively uninfluenced by the morals, the culture, the economy, the wars of the others. But in the Twentieth Century A. D. came the great transition, so that ever after the fate of every important nation of the earth was bound up with every other.
The question we face today, therefore, is whether this world is to be the kind of world we in America want or whether it is going to be another and much less pleasant kind of a world. Our enemies know very well what kind of world they want. They want a world where they will be the masters and all the remaining peoples of the world will be their slaves. Their culture knows no morality except force for the material benefit of those who wield it. They are lean, hungry, determined peoples—in their concepts not unlike the barbarians who swept over the great civilizations of the past. We must overwhelm them with forces—with tanks and guns and planes and men. But we must overwhelm them also with the kind of ideas which alone make men fight—with a concept more positive, more dynamic than theirs.
Men fight because they want something—because they believe in something. When fighting is easy they don't have to believe very much in it, but the harder the fighting gets the more ardently they must believe in order to persevere. The United Nations are facing grim and somber days. Weare no more than human, and we need a belief, a concept to fight for, a concept which will prove more powerful than those which bolster the enemy effort. It is about this concept which I wish to speak tonight, for like tanks and planes and men and guns, it is an essential of American victory.
In the first place, it must be a positive and dynamic concept.
In the second place, it must be an all-out concept. In the third place, it must be a last-ditch concept. In the fourth place, it must be a concept equally applicable to war and to subsequent peace.
In the world today the only alternative to the Axis concept of force and race superiority is the concept of the dignity of the individual—of his inalienable right to be free. Where does this concept come from? It was not held by the ancients, even by the great democracies of Greece. We do not accord it to animals, but only to human beings. What is its basis, what is its justification? It comes from the Christian teaching that man was born in the image and likeness of God— that his soul is immortal, that he is not even completely his own master, much less the master of any other human being. That is the concept which by its dynamism and power built the civilization of which the United States is the greatest example. That is the concept which we must nourish and revivify and adhere to if we are to have the moral and spiritual power to face the grim days ahead.
Often it is said that this is America's war. That is so geographically, because geographically we are in the center of it; the war is in the Atlantic and in the Pacific and we lie between the two. But it is true in the greater sense that America, more than any other nation, is the exponent of the Christian, egalitarian concept. It took form for us at the earliest instant of our existence, when in its very first sentence the Declaration of Independence said "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator
with certain inalienable rights * * *" It grew so that, for all our faults, more people of diverse origins and races and creeds live in freedom and dignity here than anywhere else now or ever before in all the sweep of history. Our beginnings, our culture, our reason for existence, our hope for victory are all founded in this concept. It is essential, demanding, transcendent.
But in an all-out war it is not enough to possess a dynamic concept unless the concept too is all-out. Ideas are not susceptible of compromise. You cannot half believe something, even in normal times, much less when that something is under attack. Believing is an absolute condition. Either you believe or you don't. That is why, for example, anti-semitism is an enemy of our war effort, It strikes at the validity of the concept which we have said is the cornerstone of victory. Or take an even more flagrant example, the attitude of some people toward the negro. We purport to be opposing the Nazi theory of the master race, we welcome the invaluable assistance of the yellow Chinese who are providing the only effective resistance to Japan. In those contrasting cases we raise high the banner of individual freedom founded on the law of God. And then we turn to the American negro, who is good enough to be drafted into our armies to die, and we tell him—at least some of us tell him—he must keep his place. We continue to penalize him economically, to segregate him socially, to withhold many of the educational opportunities which are the right of every white. Even in some quasi-defense activities, his efforts to volunteer have been looked upon askance. I am not arguing for or against intermarriage or any other specific policy. I only mean to point out this frightful, frightening—and if persisted in perhaps disastrous—chink in the armor of the basic concept of our whole war effort. Pearl Buck tells us that our attitude in this regard is measurably injuring our position in China—precept, say the Chinese, must be buttressed by example. But more than that, it goes to the roots of our whole moral position. We must begin at once to reverse it. We must have an all-out concept in an all-out war.
More even than being dynamic and all-out, our concept must be a last-ditch concept. Lincoln said that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. Beginning with our time, the whole world is just as much a unit as the United States was in 1860. A man can go from New York to Tokyo today in less time than he could go from New York to California in 1860. And this one world cannot be half the way we want it and half the way the Axis wants it. Nations may lose this war and survive geographically, but neither our concept nor the Axis concept can lose and survive. In other days when political leaders said "There can be no compromise," a cynic might well have taken their words with a grain of salt. But this time they state the inescapable fact, as to which neither we nor anyone else has any choice. That is why some talk one occasionally hears is so criminal. I refer to people who throw off thoughtless criticisms of our ally, England, or of some of our own military or political leaders. I do not mean to say that there should be no criticism. Quite the contrary. Those who are free to speak—as, on such subjects, a naval officer quite properly is not—should shout from the housetops their constructive suggestions for strengthening our effort—in the military, the political or the ideological sphere—just as my former chief and great friend Wendell Willkie does from time to time. But the nagging, the gossiping, the slackening of purpose—these are the ideological fifth columns which contain the seeds of disaster. The darker the news, the greater our tribulation, the more serious they are. This is a war for life or death in the literalism sense of the words.
Our concept, therefore must be just as powerful in dark days as in bright ones; it must be a last-ditch concept.
Finally, it must transcend the war and operate with equal effectiveness in the peace. If we were fighting to acquire territory, or even to protect territory, this would not necessarily be so. But we are not fighting for that. We are fighting to make sure that the world will be our kind of world. Obviously, winning the war is only the first step in this. Winning the war only gives us the opportunity to establish the kind of a world in which the United States can pursue its goals of order and decency and freedom. We had that opportunity once, in 1918, and we missed it. If we win this war, we shall have what is given to few people: a second and probably a last chance. The fact that we failed then does not mean we shall fail again. There are at least two great factors which will be operating for us this time which were lacking then. The first is the experience gained in our initial failure, the second the tremendous coincidence that the kind of a world the United States requires is the kind of a world which is wanted by the overwhelming majority of mankind.
I read the other day in an out of town paper an article to the effect that all discussions of peace aims served but to retard the war effort. To the extent that the writer referred to pink teas where silly escapists people sit and discuss fanciful Utopias, all will agree. But peace aims in the sense of the reasons for which we are fighting—the concepts and purposes for which young men are giving their lives, and women are giving their husbands and sons—these are the very fibre of our battle.
Do not make the mistake of believing that all this is the property of the philosopher, the theorist. The ideas which we have been discussing tonight apply to every person in this room, to every person in America. We have defined the kind of concept which is essential to American victory. But that concept is no more than the aggregate of the hearts and minds of every man and woman and child in the United States. Do you in your innermost heart really believe that all men—everywhere—were endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights? If you do, you are strengthening the war effort of America. Is this an all-out belief with you— applicable not alone in instances which are momentarily expedient, but applicable in principle at least in all instances, always? If so, you are strengthening the war effort of America. Are you prepared to stand by the cause both of ourselves and our allies, come what may, until victory or death? And when victory is won, are you determined to use your influence—however wearied, however spent you may be—to use your influence to the end that the United States will exert its leadership in the orderly reconstruction of the world? If so, then you are strengthening the war effort of America.
Freedom was born in the hearts and minds of men who valued it above everything material, even above life itself. We, in America, shall keep it only so long as we so value it. We must value it above our lives, above our profits, above our prejudices. We must value it as we value the God Who gave it to us, without Whom we can no more keep it that we could keep the stream if we lost the source. We must value it not alone in our high policy but in the routine doings and thoughts of our daily lives. It has been said that in the long run a people gets the kind of government it deserves. Let us who love America and the great spiritual truths she represents, let us who wish for the kind of world where America can pursue her destiny to ever ascending platforms of greatness—let us pray that there are enough of us who truly deserve to be free.