"The Meaning of Victory"


By EUGENE MEYER, Publisher of the Washington Post

Delivered at the Commencement Exercises of Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N. Y., June 6, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 592-595.

A YEAR ago it was my privilege to attend the commencement exercises here at Sarah Lawrence. I found the experience so delightful that I gladly accepted the invitation to become, this time, a participant as well as a spectator. Needless to say, I am happy to be here, to do honor to a college which has so distinguished itself both in the quality of its instruction and the character of its graduates, and to do honor as well to the students who are now going out into the world.

It has always seemed to me that college years form a segment of life with something like an entity of their own. But the four years that have passed since today's graduates entered here as freshmen, constitute a unique period, one almost without parallel in history, certainly without parallelin modern times. We stand today at one of the "Great Divides" in the affairs of men, of nations of the world.

When you of the graduating class were seniors in preparatory school, Hitler's tanks and troops marched into Austria. As you began your freshman year, Hitler took over the Sudetenland, after that conference at Munich which marked the low point in democratic diplomacy. You had not finished your first year at Sarah Lawrence when he completed his conquest of Czecho-Slovakia.

Your return to college as sophomores coincided with the completion of the conquest of Poland. You finished that year as Holland, Belgium and France fell. Your junior year coincided with that great epic of courage and fortitude which will go down in history as the Battle of Britain, withthe overrunning of Yugoslavia and Greece by the Nazis. Your vacation period was marked by the German invasion of Russia. Your senior year saw Pearl Harbor—the spread of the war to Asia and South America and the Western Atlantic. Now, with your graduation, many of you will be participating actively in your country's fight for self-preservation and its battle to maintain free institutions in the world.

This war differs from all others in that it is truly universal. The battlefield is everywhere—and everywhere at once. The struggle rages on the Eastern Front in Russia, in Libya and in China—in the island approaches to Australia—in the air over England and Germany and Occupied Europe—in the Atlantic and the Pacific and the Indian Oceans—and now on our own soil in Alaska. But the battlefields of this war also include every mind and every heart-every factory and every farm. The warriors are men and women, the old and the young. The war upon which we are engaged is a total war in every category of action and thought.

The question that dominates our thinking today, whether graduates or undergraduates, is how best we can serve our country, our cause. And in this total war there are many ways of serving. Some of you will serve best by continuing with your education so as to acquire the special skills so necessary to the life of the Nation. Some of you will continue your education outside college walls. All of you will, in one way or another join in the war effort.

I spent some weeks in England last fall and there had an opportunity to see for myself how effectively and completely a democratic country can organize itself for war and what a large part is played by women in that war effort. In the course of my stay in England, I had occasion to visit some of the arms factories and to appreciate the magnificent contribution which the women of Britain are making toward the winning of the vital Battle of Production.

While walking through a Birmingham plant, making shell casings, I noticed a woman well along in middle age performing what looked like a job requiring great physical exertion. I asked the manager if the work was not too heavy for her. He said: "We thought it was and gave her lighter work to do. She went to the foreman and protested bitterly against the change. The foreman explained the reason for the change. She answered: This is what I did in the last war—what makes you think I can't do it now?' " That is the spirit of the women of Britain. I visited a fighter station, a motor transport depot, an anti-aircraft battery, and many different types of civil defense operations. There were women busily at work in all kinds of activities.

In the three fighting services in Britain each has its women's auxiliary corps. The WRNS (or Wrens) serve the Navy—the WAAF works along with the Royal Air Force—the ATS (the Auxiliary Territorial Service) is a part of the army establishment. These organizations are completely military in their status. The women wear uniforms; they are subject to military discipline. And they perform essential military service. In the ATS, for instance, women serve as motor mechanics, truck drivers, teletype operators, chauffeurs, map readers, cooks. They operate range finders, predictors and height finders in collaboration with anti-aircraft gunners.

In addition to these four organizations, there is, of course, the WVS, the Women's Voluntary Service for Civil Defense in which about a million British women are banded together under the leadership of Lady Reading, to help in every category of civilian defense. Before I left England I had come to the conclusion, after observing what British women were doing, that if I happened to be an Axis parachutist loosed from the sky on the soil of England and had to take on a fight with an Englishman or an Englishwoman I would just as soon have the fight with a man—if I had the choice.

We in this country do not yet fully realize what all-out, total war means. We do not yet realize that it means the full use of the energies of the entire population, male and female. But we are learning fast. With truly remarkable speed this is becoming a nation of trained women—not just volunteers doing their bit. American women are beginning to function in all manner of ways that contribute to the war effort. Almost two million women are working in our war industries and the employment of women in this respect is only at the beginning. So is the organization of the WAAC, under Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby. But much remains to be done in the United States, much remains to be done in this as in many other categories before we shall have reached the point of total mobilization of all our energies and all our skills and all our resources to the extent that prevails in Great Britain.

There is no place in this war effort for "business as usual." There is no place in it for "thinking as usual." There is no place for "life as usual." As a result of the tremendous crisis in which we find ourselves the world has been turned upside down. It will remain in that state as long as the enemies of mankind are still at large. Nor can we safely assume that their day is done, that retribution is about to be meted out to them in the full measure they deserve, that victory for our side is won or soon about to be won. We have reason to be confident of the ultimate outcome. But our confidence must be based on the solid foundation of the will-to-win and the readiness to do everything possible to achieve that victory—not on wishful thinking or the dangerous belief that victory will come because we believe that victory is inevitable. Yet all this being so, it is not too early for us to begin thinking of what we shall have to do, sooner or later, to turn the world right-side up and what we shall have to do to keep it that way.

In 1917-1918, the United States demonstrated that, from the material point of view, it is the most powerful unit in the world. We are engaged in demonstrating this fact again. We possess tremendous natural resources. We also have the largest aggregation of skilled people, capable of operating the greatest industrial plant the world has ever seen. Strength and greatness mean power—and power carries with it the attribute of responsibility. This we recognize as axiomatic in the case of individuals. But we have never fully operated on the same theory in our international life. Our rise to greatness occurred in what, so far as we were concerned, was an international vacuum—or what we thought was an international vacuum. We came into possession of vast power without, at the same time, acquiring an adequate realization of what that power meant to us and to the world. This time-lag between our physical growth and our political education—more specifically our education in the realities of our international position and our international relations—helps explain the grim situation in which we find ourselves today.

The century of American growth was the century of American isolation. Isolation was easy, and appropriate in the decades between the end of the Napoleonic period and the beginning of the First World War. It was so easy, so wise and so profitable that it was natural to try to continue it even after the conditions that make it possible had disappeared. Who wants to leave the happy land of Shangri-la? The tragic mistake we made was that we stubbornly refused to admit that the conditions which had made American isolation possible had vanished into the past—vanished without possibility of restoration.

What were the conditions that made for American isolation? They were at least three in number.

There was, first of all, the fact that from the time of Napoleon's defeat until Germany's first bid for world power, no nation other than England, which controlled the seas, arose to challenge us, and England had no interest or desire to do so.

Secondly, the balance of power in Europe was such that no nation was strong enough to challenge Great Britain until the Kaiser's Germany became a sea as well as a land power.

And thirdly, until science and invention had annihilated space, we seemed to be and actually were remote from Europe and Asia. To no small extent we were the beneficiaries of the naval power with which Britain policed the world. Since Great Britain did not perform that function for us—but on her own behalf—we were not particularly grateful to her for serving as the mistress of the seas.

Nor was there any reason why we should have been grateful. But there was no excuse for failing to recognize what British naval power meant to us. We should have been more intelligent in recognizing the facts. Certainly our experience in the last war should have made it clear to us that it was the British Navy, primarily, which permitted us to go to war without having any army worth mentioning, and with a Navy that could do no more than support a blockade which England had established and maintained for nearly three years. In the flush of victory that occurred in the fall of 1918, Americans forgot that our contribution to the common victory was brought about without American combat planes, without American tanks, without heavy artillery that had been made in this country.

After the war, the balance of power which made victory possible in 1918, was destroyed. What happened was not obvious to us. We closed our eyes to the realities during all the critical years between 1919 and 1940. But the dictators saw what had happened and acted accordingly. In the absence of a balance of power capable of maintaining peace— in the absence of predominant opposing power—the opportunity was there for a bid for world conquest. It is doubtful if Hitler under-estimated our potential capacity, in men and material. He was convinced, however, that we could not or would not translate that potential capacity into actual results. His thesis was that we would be too late.

We have not yet disproved his thesis completely. But I have no doubt and I know you have no doubt that we shall disprove it.

Assuming, then, that the victory will be a United Nations victory and not a Hitler victory, that the peace which will follow will be a United Nations peace and not that regime of universal slavery which the Axis would like to impose on the world, what then? Shall we, once the war is over and the victory has been won, again retreat into our shell, once again seek that Shangri-la of isolation and "normalcy"? If we do, retribution will overtake us as it overtook us six months ago. In another generation, or sooner, we would again be obliged to defend our national existence, just as we are doing today. And how many such crises do you think the resources of America are capable of resolving?

It stands to reason that we cannot, in our own self-interest, seek to retrace our steps. The future, so far as our relations with the rest of the world are concerned, must be a continuation of the present—not a retreat to the past— as it was in 1919. Our course must obviously be to participate—not grudgingly, but fully—in the maintenance of a peace that, with our support, will be capable of enduring.

Certainly it is clear—it seems so to me, at least—that we, as a nation, must either play a part in world affairs that is commensurate with our wealth and strength and resources, or else cede to others the power and position that rightly belongs to us.

This was unthinkable to the men and women of a generation ago. It proved, when the test came, unthinkable to the men and women of the present generation. For the real choice, when the issue was stripped down to fundamentals, was not between the exercise of power and the non-exercise of power, but between independence and subjugation, between freedom and slavery. The choice we have made was one which Americans have always made. We chose independence and freedom. In the cause of independence and freedom we, like the generation of Washington and Jefferson, have pledged our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

But victory cannot be an end in itself. That was the mistake of 1919. Victory, in itself, does not mean peace. It can only mean the creation of a state of affairs in which peace can be achieved and maintained. And the maintenance of peace must be a continuous process. Peace must forever renew itself.

What are we fighting for? Is it merely to end the present menace that threatens our Nation and all other free nations in the world? No. Before Hitler, there was the Kaiser. Hitler may have his successors, unless, once we have achieved victory, we see to it that no future Hitlers can arise, either in Germany or elsewhere. And that means the cooperative effort of peace-loving nations, including the United States. This cooperative effort must involve a pooling of power. But it cannot stop there. This aggregation of power must have definite aims and ideals in view.

Peace is not static. Like liberty, it is an ideal that must constantly be revalued in terms of its changing relationship to human progress. The peace that will follow the present war must not be fixed and rigid. It must be a dynamic peace. Our President—Mr. Wallace, the Vice-President, Mr. Sumner Welles, the Undersecretary of State, and other high officials who have addressed themselves to this question of the world after the war, deserve credit in their emphasis on the idea that peace must be a continuous process of action not merely in the political sphere but in the economic sphere as well.

Even before we got into the war, President Roosevelt proclaimed as America's aims the achievement of what he called the "Four Freedoms"—freedom of religion—freedom of expression—freedom from fear—freedom from want. He was criticized at the time by some people because he had set his sights too high. And it must be recognized that the four freedoms declaration was merely the statement of a noble ideal. The President's critics declared that to make Mr. Roosevelt's hopes a reality, the United States would have to transform itself into a perpetual crusader. Actually the President's program is thoroughly realistic in nature. The world has become too small for any nation, no matter how powerful, to enjoy security in a world in which the great majority of nations are insecure. The world has become too small to permit one section to live in luxury and the rest in poverty. Peace and freedom are alike indivisible.

This, I take it, is the real meaning of the Atlantic Charter and of Vice-President Wallace's recent clarion call, in which he added four duties, corresponding to the four freedoms— duties which, if carried out by the peoples of the world, should result in an elevation of the standard of living everywhere. "Those who write the peace," said Mr. Wallace, "must think of the whole world."

But idealism is not enough. There was no absence of ideals in the last war. Then, Woodrow Wilson made himself the spokesman of the masses of the world as no other individualhad ever done before. He proclaimed ends which, had they been achieved, would have prevented the ghastly developments of the past few years. The American people were back of him in favoring those ends.

But, the tragedy of Wilson, the tragedy of the American people, the world tragedy of the past generation is that we failed to recognize that ends, however noble, are valueless unless the means are created by which they can be achieved. The means were not to be found merely in the military efforts of 1917-1918, magnificent as they were. They could only come into being after the war.

But they never came into being. Wilson failed in his effort effectively to establish the means to carry out the ideal ends which had been so widely accepted by the people at home and abroad.

How is peace to be maintained? Here we must get back to the one central fact that no system of peace can have any meaning unless it has adequate force behind it. Any international organization that may be created after this war ends will fail, as the League failed, unless there is behind the organization of peace a nucleus of power capable of being mobilized and effectively employed. Under existing circumstances that means the continuous participation of the United States in the maintenance of peace. In 1919 that idea found considerable support in this country. It was, however, rejected. It was rejected because the American people saw American participation in an international organization as a venture in pure idealism, something we were being asked to do for others but which had no meaning in terms of our own needs.

We know better now. The maintenance of peace beyond 1939 would have benefited the Poles and the Danes, the Norwegians, and the Dutch, the French and the Greeks and Yugoslavs, and other peoples that have been overrun by the aggressor. But can it be said that it would not have carried its benefits to us too?

The organization of peace will, in any case, not be easy. The world convulsion that we are passing through will leave deep scars. The destruction that has taken place will take years to rebuild. Chaos will prevail over wide areas. But the magnitude of the task that will confront us once the fighting ends, will only underline the magnitude of our responsibility.

My great teacher, Professor William Graham Sumner of Yale, once wrote that "the judgment of probable consequences is the only real and sound ground of action." It is because "men have been ignorant of the probable consequences" he added, "or have disregarded them, that human history presents such a picture of the devastation and waste of human energy and of the wreck of human hopes. If there is any salvation for the human race from woe and misery, it is in knowledge, and in training to use knowledge."

After the last war we failed to envisage the probable consequences of our retreat into isolation and the consequence was the devastation and the waste that Sumner deplores and that are the inevitable historical consequences of a lack of imaginative foresight. Moreover, the defeat of our idealistic aspirations during the last war, "to make the world safe for democracy," resulted in a sordid materialism, a scepticism, and a sense of frustration that always results when human ideals are thwarted because they are not implemented with appropriate action. There is nothing more disastrous to human progress than vague sentimental idealism and its consequent failure.

That is why so many people reacted to the Atlantic Charter with a shrug of the shoulders and the mental reservation that they had heard it all before. Fine words will get us nowhere. We must be prepared to find and to employ every necessary means of achieving the great ideals we are fighting for.

You who have been prepared by the exercise of reason and the acquisition of knowledge to understand the mistakes of the past and the needs of the future—you have the power and the ability to make public opinion that will result in the practical implementation of peace. You can see to it that this time the means will be found to achieve the ends that we all have at heart and that every thoughtful American is bound to accept. You have the youth, the courage and the sympathy to visualize the possibilities of a new world. You also have the training to contribute toward its effective realization. The responsibilities may be heavy, the sacrifices entailed will be great, but the rewards will be even greater and the signs of success, the dawning hopes of a shattered world, the freedom of the enslaved peoples, the political and spiritual rebirth of multitudes, the triumph of justice, reason and decency, will encourage you to keep up the good fight and never to yield.