The Limitations on Freedom in War



Delivered before the National Industrial Conference Board, New York City, May 20, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 487-489.

IT is a pleasure to speak before this association whose service to business, to agriculture and to labor of these many years is so established and so esteemed. The Conference Board has asked me to say something on the theory and practice of personal liberty and representative government during the war. However, when you are riding an earthquake there is a tendency to less interest in geology than the more immediate action.

We are in this war and the only road out of it is victory. There will be no personal liberty anywhere if we lose the war.

Inside America we are vibrating between two poles. We are fighting to preserve personal liberty in the world. Yet we must suspend part of them at home, in order to win. And suspension creates grave dangers because liberty rapidly atrophies from disuse. Vested interests and vested habits grow around its restrictions. It would be a vain thing to win the war and lose our own liberties. If we would have them return we must hold furiously to these ideals. We must challenge every departure from them. There are just two tests: "Is this departure necessary to win the war?" "How are we going to restore these freedoms after the war?"

And the exploration of these questions calls for a calm and philosophical disposition. But we have no right to complain. Our soldiers and sailors are deprived of all their freedoms except the right to grouse a little. But they will expect them back when they come home.

Previous Experience

Fortunately in this war we are not on strange paths. The World War of twenty-five years ago was also a total war when there was total mobilization of the civilian population. It was a struggle phenomenon in our national experience. We had to pioneer suspensions of liberty. We had to march through strange swamps of total mobilization of civilian effort. We had to find our way in unknown and ambushed forests of peace-making and through the unrevealed and precipitous mountains of economic disorganization and restoration of liberty after the war.

After the war we had to carry the burden of saving all Europe from the greatest famine in all history. No one had trod this human wilderness before. We were lost many times. We made many mistakes. The problems of organization are today more intense as we have a larger part in the war. But there is nothing in essence that differs from the last war. We then got some experience in what not to do. And we did some things successfully, including winning the war, as we will win this one.

We may first contemplate the limitations on economic freedom, for here are the maximum restrictions. To win total war President Roosevelt must have dictatorial economic powers. There must be no hesitation in giving them to him and upholding him in them. Moreover, we must expect a steady decrease in economic freedom as the war goes on.

We must start our thinking with a disagreeable, cold, hard fact. That is, the economic measures necessary to wintotal war are just plain Fascist economics. It was from the war organization developed by all nations, including the democracies, during the first total war, that the economic department of Fascism was born.

But there are two vast differences in the application of this sort of economic system at the hands of democracies or by dictators. First, in democracies we strive to keep free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury and the other personal liberties alive. And, second, we want to so design our actions that these Fascist economic measures are not frozen into American life, but shall thaw out after the war.

While economic freedom must suffer most by the war, we can, if we will, and we must, keep the other great personal freedoms and their safeguards alive. Live free speech, free radio and free press are the heat that can thaw out any frozen liberties.

That there must be restraints upon speech and the press against information to the enemy needs no discussion. But there is left ample room to free speech and free press through pep-oratory and criticism of the conduct of the war. The only limit on pep speech, so far as I can see, is endurance of the audience. Criticism is the higher art of protest. We start the practice of protest in the cradle and never let up. The vocal chords of democracy are well trained for this purpose.

Reforming During the War

My first suggestion is that we adjourn trying to reform freedom and to make America over anew socially and economically during the war. This war is dangerous enough to require one single undeviating purpose on the part of the Government. Most of our social and economic gains will have gone by the board anyway, if this is a long war. After all, the great social gains of the last century were a mixture of liberty, compassion, unlimited sugar, automobiles and washing machines. These are at least getting scarcer.

There will be plenty of time to exercise the spirit of reform after the war is over. The world is passing into different forms and shapes which no man can foresee. The things to reform will be far different from what they now appear. Just now such efforts divert the energies of the government and the people, they dislocate war effort and above all they create a thousand frictions, a thousand controversies, suspicions and disintegrating currents which destroy unity in the people.

I have, however, felt that we must be philosophical on these questions, for every generation discovers the world and its tasks as being all new and strange to the human race. And it is a good thing that they do—or we would grow too old and lose our race vitality.

But I would like again to suggest that total war is not new. I venture the further idea that we generally have a little too much of the word "new" around about. In trying to get out of the age of misery imposed by the last war we have somewhat overworked this word "new," It has become a signpost to some easy way to escape.

We have had in the last twenty-five years the New Freedom, the New Day, the New Era, the New Outlook, theNew Epoch, the New Economy, the New Dawn, the New Deal, the New Proposal and the New Liberty. I coined one of them myself, but a newer thing came along. Now we are fighting against Hitler's New Order and Tojo's New Asia. This war seems to revolve around the word "new." The New Testament being often omitted.

That word applies better to physical things than to human forces. Indeed when the sun rises in the morning we hail it as a new day. We cheer the passing of the night. But it is a false analogy in the march of civilization. Our chores for the new day were assigned the night before. Our abilities to perform them were formed not only last year but over centuries or even geologic time. If the new day has no link with yesterday there will be chaos.

I wish sometimes we could change words once in a while. We might give some relief to this idea of "new" by substituting such ideas as advance, progress or recovery. They would not only connote forward movement but they would also connote that there were values in the past. They would connote stability instead of violence.

In any event, there is no need to take on the load of a new social and economic order in the middle of this dangerous stream. It does not help us to get across.

I will give you one of many instances of such burdens. In the new tax bill there is a new proposal which most seriously affects our educational institutions and our public charities. That new proposal would ultimately undermine the independence of our great universities and colleges. It will decrease the income of our hospitals and charities. In the meantime, it will make more war on the home front than it will pay for abroad.

Limitations on Criticism

But this war must be conducted right if we are to win the war. The margins between victory and defeat in our foreign campaigns are so narrow that if pressure groups are to take advantage of war to advance their interests, or if we make blunders, or keep incompetent men in office, or allow corruption, bad organization and bad strategy, they can bring about defeat. Democracy can correct mistakes only through public exposure and opposition to them.

The President has unbelievable burdens in war; he deserves every support in this task. We cannot expect him to watch and direct the host of agencies and officials that we must have to make war. The Congress and the people have to watch them.

The enemy may get mental comfort by reading these exposures and criticisms. But he will not get comfort from the remedy.

But in these exposures and criticisms, we must remember. that democracy is not created for war. It is not a war machine. It thrives only in peace. When it goes to war, it has to transform itself all over. In each of our wars the Administration has made many mistakes and had to find competent men by trial and error. The Administration must have time and a chance to create these new organizations and learn their strange duties. Nor should these incidents bring discouragement. We know that spiritual strength, intelligence and initiative inherent only in democracy finally make them irresistible in war.

Criticism of the conduct of the war may rightly lead to criticism of public officials. In a democracy even the President is not immune from rightful criticism. I ought to know something of the theory and practice of that subject. The President is not the spiritual head of the people. He is not sacrosanct like the Mikado. Patriotism is not devotion to a public servant. It is devotion to our country and its right aims.

No public servant can be free of criticism if democracy is to continue to live. But the first rule of criticism is that it must not take the form of personal detraction and abuse. We Americans have pioneered in the sadistic and higher art of abuse—that is smearing. The great officers who lead our people in war must have respect. We may not agree with them, but they are patriotic Americans, giving the utmost devotion to their tasks. The moral limitations on the liberty to smear should be increased drastically as a war measure.

Generally, there are three tests of criticism of the conduct of the war. That is, it should be decent and should be directed to those things that hinder winning this war or that undermine free men in America both now and after the war.

I could say a good deal in criticism of the conduct of this war. But having been through one total war as a member of the American War Council, I know, probably better than most people, the difficulties of organizing democracy for total war. Although I have at times wanted to cry out yet knowing the time needed to overcome difficulties I have suppressed that craving. Nor am I going to criticize the conduct of the war now, although I may be permitted to grouse just a little between some constructive suggestions.

From the region of the Past, I would like to make a constructive suggestion to both certain excesses and certain privations in free speech.

A few years ago in speaking from experience in the first World War, to the students of one of our universities, I said:

"One of the emotions from that total war was rabid intolerance. National unity was essential in the face of national danger. But impatience of some people ran to intolerances which themselves brought limitations not only on free speech but on other liberties. The democratic governments did not need or did not want such violences. Intolerance did it."

Our histories of that war teem with regrets over those attitudes and proofs that intolerance brought many material and spiritual losses. And above all that intolerance did not contribute to national unity,

I suppose it is asking too much that we would profit by this experience of the last war. But today some war intolerances at the hands of self-appointed persons and organizations has already, in five months, risen to great heights. Perhaps it is because the radio has multiplied the voices. The logic of intolerance is mostly made of name calling.

There are a number of varieties of intolerance. One cult undoubtedly believes that outside the obvious alien enemy agents and crackpots, who are in care of the Attorney General, there is a great group of Americans somewhere in some dark corner who want defeat. I have not heard of a single sane American who wants defeat. They want victory.

But the national gunning for this phantasmagoria has taken in too much ground. The high priests of this cult have concluded that all those who were opposed to war before Pearl Harbor cannot possibly be patriotic Americans ever. Or at least they are under suspicion as being appeasers, compromisers, various obnoxious bipeds, reptiles, and Cliveden sets, Nazi sympathizers and Sixth Columnists. Yet 75 per cent of the American people were opposed to war before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless this 75 per cent who are now in outer darkness are willingly sacrificing their sons, their brothers, their husbands, and they are working and paying without murmur. And no man can give a greater proof than this. Certainly he who offers his life for his country is not to be condemned as unpatriotic.

Free Speech and National Unity

But is all this name-calling the way to national unity? To have unity we need the healing of our pre-war differences, not this pouring of acid into the wounds.

However, as I have said, this war has naturally been discovered as new—so we must be philosophical at new discoveries in tolerance.

From a philosophical viewpoint, I would like to see the sixth columnists given a little more liberty. They are defined as the ones who discuss the war or speculate or even criticize in private conversation.

To a person who is reminiscent of American life, it would seem that particular restraint is too drastic. The American people have always been a debating society. They get immense satisfaction out of gossip. They always have views. They always speculate about events. They are profoundly anxious over the fate of their loved ones and the welfare of their country. And all this cannot be stamped out of them by a hob-nailed heel. They will debate and speculate on this war around every corner grocery store, every logging camp, every machine shop, every family table, at every party, whether it serves beer or tea, lemonade or cocktails. Even if it is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, it is part of Americans' inalienable right. All this is the stuff that makes free men. This is the way democracy resolves its problems. It is not sedition. It comes from concern to win the war, and they ought to be allowed to grouse and gossip a little without being sixth columnists. The excommunication of that category of evildoers puts too great a weight on our national safety valve.

Nor does this create unity. Unity is not to be confused with uniformity. When uniformity comes we will have ceased to be free men. Those who would reduce us to a collection of parrots do not know the meaning of America. It is from our diversity that we sharpen our wits, gain in initiative and strength over regimented peoples. That is the whole distance between the spirit of America and the spirit of totalitarianism. We have unity on the only issue that counts now.

After all, what counts in war is—are the people willing to fight and die for their country? Are they willing to suffer the greatest griefs that can come to people in the loss of loved ones? Are they willing to work and work and work to pay and pay until they are exhausted? The American people today are willing and doing just that.

Artificial Lifting of Morale

And I would like a ticket to grouse a little over one other use of free speech. Just for mental comfort we could use a little less quantity of free speech in some particulars. Some of us are getting a little sensitive over having our morale artificially lifted. Especially more often than once a week. Our people can take defeat after defeat and keep at this job. Our people are not complacent or apathetic about this war; they are getting pretty mad at being told that they are unconcerned and that "this is war" as if they do not know it with aching hearts at every fireside.

We folks at home and our boys in the camps can take anything that comes in this war—and take it standing up—except being told our morale is too low.

We have these major tasks before the nation. We must win this war if we would preserve liberty. We must secure recovery after the war of our suspended liberties. We must secure lasting peace if liberty is to live. We must again be prepared to meet famine after the war is over if life is to be saved and peace preserved. I have four more suggestions to these ends.

First, to win the war we need develop the most effective organization of it. Before the last war ended there came out of the swamps of the war organization of all principal nations the same formation—the establishment of a National War Council. Every nation came to it—American, British, French, Italian and German.

In this present war the British, the Germans, the Russians, the Italians, and I expect the Japanese, have such councils. I believe the time has come when America should have a more definite war council embracing in its members the civilian heads of the great war agencies. It should sit directly with the President as many times a week as is necessary. Within such a body a vast amount of coordination, overlap and conflicting policies, which are the inevitable consequence of war, could be planned out. Perhaps also it could detour a little of these reforms in liberty until after the war.

Preparedness for Reconstruction

Second. In the last war we made little advance preparation to cross the precipitous mountains of after-war disorganization or of methods to recover the lost freedoms. We were then ignorant of what lay ahead. We know about it this time. We must think out the recovery of freedom. And that preparedness can come only from organized objective research and public debate. It must come from many sources and many places and not from the government alone. It is a safe area for vigorous speech.

Third. The last time we did not prepare for peace-making.

We were told: "Destroy the Kaiser first. Discuss peace afterwards." Today again, it is "Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo must be first destroyed; we cannot discuss peace until that is done."

We went to the Peace Conference in 1919 animated by the loftiest and most disinterested ideals, but we were totally unprepared for the specific problems and the ambushes that had to be met at the peace table. We did not secure much peace.

There must be just as much preparedness for peace making as there is for war. And in many ways it is a more difficult job.

Nor is this alone the job of the several government departments now engaged upon it. If we are to make a better job of the peace this time than last it will be because intelligent public discussion develops more ideas and better ideas and because a public understanding of the problems is prepared to accept the solutions made.

Fourth. Unless we are to see again the aftermath of the thirty years' war, when one-third of the people of Europe fell before the horsemen of famine and pestilence we must have preparedness, not alone in America, but in every surplus-food-producing country. And unless there be food there will be no foundation for peace.

And finally during the last war I ventured a paragraph which attained considerable circulation, and I may be pardoned for repeating it, although it does belong to a bygone age and no longer has the stamp of "new." It was apropos of some folks who wanted more mortification of the flesh than even the war itself necessitates. And they become more depressing to cheer and mirth when they get time on the radio. I said then, "Go back to simple food, simple clothes, simple pleasures. Pray hard, work hard, sleep hard and play hard. Do it all courageously and cheerfully. We have a victory to win."

Today again we have a victory to win in war, in making peace and in restoration of freedom. And again as before it must be won by our united effort, by the heroism of our men in the field, and by the eternal vigilance of a free people.