A National Will


By GEORGE T. HUNT, Head of the History Department, Cleveland College of Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

Delivered at a University Convocation, December 7, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 211-214.

IT has been much in my mind in the last three years—and I do not doubt that it has occurred often to many of you, that men in time of crisis are, or appear to be, somewhat hesitant, doubtful and confused. It may also have occurred to you that men in crisis are never so doubtful and hesitant as they may appear to be. The man or the nation that appears to halt, irresolute before a choice, has usually made the choice, and is waiting only for the proper moment to make it known. Anyone who has advised undergraduates knows how seldom they really don't know what they want, and how often they want information on how to get it. With equal truth, anyone who has observed the way of nations, has observed that in great or perilous moments there is observable a national will. And he has observed that this "national will" rides through, with or without argument or even in spite of it.

There are those who call this phenomenon emotional, and are satisfied with that. Others remark that while it may be emotional, in the sense that it is not calculated at the moment, the power that drives the man or the nation forward is its history; that no man or nation can possibly escape its past; that none ever has escaped its past, and that the choice made by Britain in June of 1940, the choice made by the United States in 1914 and again in 1939—and I say that we really chose in those years—the choice made by de Gaulle, and the French fleet—all those choices were inevitable, granted a choice at all, for they were made generations ago. It isn't asking too much of the imagination—or placing too great a strain upon credulity, to reflect that the choice of the United States in this war was decided when Crispus Attucks fell in the streets of Boston, for it simply was not in our history to make any other choice.

Men and nations, no less than children, want simple answers. Tormented by the responsibility of possessing an intellect a man knows in his heart that no truthful answer is simple. He knows that the aims of a nation are infinitely complex and somewhat hazy. He knows that in a haze, as at night, all cats are gray, but he wishes terribly that all catswent either black or white, and he proposes, for the sake of simplicity, to assume that they are. More than that, he knows that so far as he is concerned, there can be little modification of the aims of a two-ton bomb, and that a bayonet has very few "qualifying factors." His opinions must, for the duration of the crisis, be as much to the point as his weapons; as much to the point as his government that has had done with "qualifying factors" and he is interested only in least common denominators. A man in crisis is supremely interested in least common denominators—in common factors that tie all his people and their allies together. Out of that need for a realization of common factors are born the general concepts of a war.

One great historian remarked that the fundamental cause of the American Revolution was a difference of opinion as to the nature of the British Empire—one group holding that it was and ought to be a federation, with sovereign power residing in its parts—the other group holding that it was and ought to be a union, with sovereign power only in the crown.

In somewhat the same manner it might be said that the fundamental issue of this war is a difference of opinion as to the nature of mankind—one group holding that men are creatures in God's image—the other group holding that men are literate and articulate swine. Our enemies seem dedicated to the proposition that men would rather live on their knees than die erect, and that no price is too great to pay for life.

There is great doubt that our enemies have the same ultimate confidence in their belief that we have, or that they could maintain it very long if they did win. When one maintains that men are fundamentally beasts interested only in food and life—self-respect itself must die by that concept, and the concept of the "master race" cannot be enough to maintain it. We are perfectly confident that men would ultimately reject totally every particular of Nazi philosophy, but "ultimately" is still too long. We will not give forty generations to prove that that is true; if we do not know that now, everything in our history is false, and if it is, we do not particularly wish to live. Therefore we fight; and while we formally entered the war one year ago today, it was our war even before the death of Crispus Attucks; it may have been our war as long ago as Plymouth, or Jamestown, or Runnymede-we don't know—but all of these conclusions must have been in the mind of the Rev. Fr. Gannon, S. J., when he addressed the students of Fordham University last September with the simple phrase, which in seven words expresses almost all the thoughts that I have expressed to you—"It was our war all the time."

On this anniversary, it probably isn't possible to see just where we are in relation to this war, for we are still too far down the slope, and for our leadership to release to us accurate information as to just how far we have come would of course be aiding the enemy. We can't even judge with any accuracy the importance of the events of the last six weeks. What we know now to have been the decisive battle of the American Revolution was fought during the first part of the war, and probably no one could tell then that it was decisive.

It is entirely possible that the events of the past six weeks have been decisive in this war. It is even more than remotely possible that they have been the most important six weeks in the history of the world since the battle of Adrianople, which opened Rome to the barbarians more than fifteen centuries ago (for there were barbarians north of the Danube even in those days). But it is also possible that they may have been comparatively meaningless. Historians of the future may say that the decision in this war was reached in the skies over Britain, or before Stalingrad, or even in some spot we can't as yet identify. We are still too close to theforest to see anything much but trees, so far as the general picture of the war is concerned.

But there are some things that we do know, and there are some things that we may venture to measure, and it would seem that this anniversary day is a most appropriate time to look back over a year, or even over three years, to see what progress we have made that we can discern and estimate. It is probably not only appropriate, but desirable that we do this, for if we don't we are likely to be unaware of what we have done. We are likely to be like a man dropping with a parachute, or floating in a boat in a swift stream, traveling pretty fast, but unaware of any sense of motion.

Three years ago, it is probably an understatement to say that we were unaware. Unaware, not because we were either unintelligent or uninformed or so very badly led, but unaware as sane men are, most of the time, of criminal and insane perversion, even though it is present in every significant community. For that matter, neither was anyone else aware enough to be of much effect.

While sane men found themselves unable to believe either the assurances or signatures of Germany and Japan, they found it equally impossible to believe their avowed intentions of evil even when those intentions were ardently proclaimed. Men who could believe those things without seeing them would necessarily be most unhappy men.

We viewed the beginning of the war with a confusion that seems almost incredible today, and with a lack of preparation that makes us shudder now when we realize what might have happened. Our military and naval men tell us now, in their report on Pearl Harbor, that had the Japanese tried, their capture of the Hawaiian Islands would have been a certainty, and that with that capture could have gone the greater portion of the Pacific fleet.

It makes one a little solemn to speculate on what might have been had Japan struck our west coast in 1939 as hard as they struck the Pacific in 1941; or what would have happened to us with our standing army of 174,000 men.

"Fenced by our careful fathers, ringed by our quiet seas, Long did we wake in comfort, and long lie down at ease, Till we said of strife—what is it? Of the sword—it is far from our ken,

And we made a sport of our shrunken hosts, and a mock of our armed men."

Probably our confusion was in part humiliation; an instant realization that this was our war and that we couldn't avoid battle even if we wished, and a sense of insufficiency at being unable to do anything about it. I don't need to remind you of our divided councils of two years ago; of how we were told that Britain must go down and should go down; that we not only couldn't win if we entered, but were unable to get into condition to win; that to fight meant disaster; that we could do business with Hitler and ought to; that we ought to and would have to accept conquest by Germany under the tile of "The Wave of the future."

You'll remember, of course, how we began to build an army (the first peace-time draft in the history of this nation) and how our young men grumbled at having to use flour-sacks for bombs, and shout "bang" in a not very convincing imitation of the sounds of battle.

We of the University will remember for a long time how politicians who had made careers out of crippling our armed services, along with "cosmic columnists" who must have palatable explanations for everything, turned upon the colleges as having been the cause of all this. We had educated a generation of cynics, we were told—young men who had no love of country and only scorn for the profession of arms, little physique and small courage, if any.

If we had not failed, we of the colleges, we were told, young soldiers might prefer sacks of flour to live bombs, and might enjoy shouting "bang." It is out of that swamp of misery that we have risen since the 7th of last December.

We should not forget the depths of that misery today, for it is one of the criterions by which we can measure how far we have come—but equally—we might realize that that confusion and humiliation and doubt of a year and one day past, seemed worse at the time and seem worse now than they really were.

We might remember that through all that we were making head with considerable speed. There had never been much confusion in the executive department as to the issues in this war or our place in it. While our Lindberghs and our Nyes and our Wheelers had been screaming, we had passed our Lend-Lease Act, we had scrapped our Neutrality policy, we were raising and equipping an army with incredible speed, and the young men who grumbled—well, they grumbled but they stuck, and the screaming of the critics was at things we kept right on doing anyway.

Wherever there was an opportunity to see how the people felt, the people were together.

When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, they brought maturity to all the resolutions we had been making for two years, and they brought an end to any lingering doubts that we might have had about our place in this war and our relation to each other. In less than sixty seconds they produced a nationalism and a unity they should have been at great pains to avoid. They silenced obstructionists, they identified traitors as traitors and identified leaders as leaders indeed. And perhaps more important for our future, they ended the illusion two decades old that peace was divisible, that any nation could ultimately profit through the miseries of others, and that international villainies are matters that properly concern only the immediate victims.

After six months of nothing but defeat and retreat, during which time it sometimes seemed that nothing was being accomplished or ever would be accomplished in time, we come to the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor with the realization—almost astonishing—that we really have done very well; better than either our enemies, or our allies or we ourselves believed we could do.

It is too early for boasting (it will always be too early for that) but it is late enough for us to see what we have accomplished in a year, and it is a delightful sight.

On the military and naval side alone—

We have put into uniform and armed somewhere near the total number of men enlisted in the first German war—and sent near to a million of them overseas. We have had a major share in planning, preparing and carrying out the conquest of a vital territory with a speed and precision unsurpassed by nations that called themselves military—a name we never gave ourselves.

On the naval side—

We don't know yet the full score, but after the initial defeats at Pearl Harbor and in the Java sea, it is entirely possible that in the Coral Sea, at Midway Island and in the fighting off Guadalcanal, we have with half a navy, fought the greatest naval war in history. We haven't won it yet, but it is doubtful if in tonnage of ships sunk and enemy dead, there is any six months in naval history that will compare with our great sea-war in the Pacific—with half a navy.

We might remember, too, that this was our maiden effort in modern times. We had never faced a genuinely first-rate naval power. We weren't at Jutland, and our sea-victory of 1917 and 1918 was fought with a powerful ally against submarines. We were confident, of course, that we had a great navy. We remembered that the only sea-fight Japan ever won (the battle of Tsushima Straits against Russia) was won with Yankee gunners. But we couldn't know until our navy had met the enemy gun to gun and ship to ship—and on this anniversary we are not only proud and confident, but a little stunned with that pride—at the daring, skill and deadliness of our navy.

Neither do we have the score on our aircraft, but if the Japanese Zero is a better pursuit plane than our P-40, and if the figures released give any indication of what the score probably is—we wonder what manner of men they are who are flying those P-40's. Our flyers seem to have stripped the Japanese fleet of its carriers, among others; our allies testify that our Fortresses bomb with "fantastic accuracy" without fighter protection, and they have called our Consolidated B-24 the best all-purpose bomber in the world.

Our department of State, which a year ago was under extremely heavy attack by men who should have known better has piled triumph on triumph in the past year. That department won and held the confidence of Latin America. That department furnished to the War and Navy departments accurate information of the intentions of the Japanese government and almost timed that treacherous attack. Ridiculed for its policy of "appeasement" it has proved itself as tough-minded, as resolute and as realistic as the Wilhelmstrasse and contributed perhaps the major share of our North African victory. We are proud that our department of State could hold its peace under attack—a thing sometimes more difficult than to plan victories.

We aren't permitted to know very much about the successes of our secret services, but we see that sabotage—while fighting an enemy that specialized in sabotage—is an insignificant item in our production record. We have the word of the Russians, publicly given, that of all the Americans in Russia—consular and diplomatic agents, correspondents, attaches and travelers—not one was a spy. If that is not true, it is a very good record, for the Russians are not unsophisticated about things like that. But if it is true, it is still singular that the FBI is able to report the time of night and the weather in which a Nazi agent sailed from France aboard a submarine, and apparently gets a transcript of the credentials earned by graduates of the German school of espionage and sabotage.

In industrial production—during our one year of war our whole economy has been ripped from its foundations and rebuilt on the design of total war. Our people, turning from peace to war, have experienced a complete upheaval, and while much has been said about confusion—you don't produce 49,000 aircraft, 32,000 tanks, 9,000,000 tons of shipping while in the process of complete re-organization—while you are utterly confused. There is a pattern in that confusion, and when the tumult and the shouting seems the loudest, we can remember the cold facts of what we have done in one year, and realize that American industrial genius that was once the world's wonder is still the world's wonder. Our enemies, in spite of their avowed passion for order, and self-confessed genius for organization and years or generations of preparation, have never come close to doing in one year what we have done in the year just past.

Perhaps our greatest satisfaction has been in our personnel. These young men who grumbled, but stuck, were very grim at reveille on the morning of December 8, 1941. We've been telling a lot of them goodbye since then and seeing them on their furloughs before going overseas, and they all have the same thing to tell—their training is good; their weapons are good; their officers are good; and they want to fight. They say that already, war is the reality and thatcivilian life seems a little strange. Yes, they wanted their furloughs badly—but they want to get back to the war. They are perfectly certain that no troops in the world can beat them, and they want to be about their business.

This, I think, is significant. The men of my age, who once went out to another war, are very quick to say that this is a better army than ours was, even comparatively, and we are likely to be rather severe critics. Somehow, it seems that this generation has not been ruined, in the colleges or anywhere else, and perhaps that—speaking as a nation, as a community or as an institution, is our greatest pride.

It is true that the American college is changed greatly from what it was one year ago. If there is such a thing as a typical college it probably looks something like this— Its enrollment is down from 10 to 20 per cent. Its graduate school and its law school, if any, are down one half or more.

Its freshman class is unusually large, but the deans are wondering what the draft will do to that class. There are many more men in uniform on the campus. About 10 per cent of the faculty have left for war service. The curriculum is beginning to look a little bare of what used to be called "luxury" courses, and research scholars are teaching basic work for the first time in years.

The technical courses are crowded and entrance requirements are down.

New courses have been instituted and forums and extension centers have been organized, with the community and the college each being much more sharply aware of the other.

The administrations are hopeful that the usefulness of the college as a pre-induction center will be so extended that it will become the center of a total training for total war.

There is more apparent a purposefulness and a restlessness in both faculty and students due to the uncertainty of both status and tenure, and the college hopes that when the final blue-print of its war functions is complete, it will be a long-range blue-print which will consider civilian as well as military needs.

But what is perhaps most important to students and staff is that we have discovered in this year of war that we were not on the wrong track; that free men can beat herd-men at their own game; that free men need not accept any "wave of the future" spawned in human slavery; that free men are the wave of the future; that the things we thought were true are still true, and that even though all is not right with the world, "God is still in his heaven."

No disaster is wholly disaster, and no trial, no matter how great, is without its compensations. War, like depression, calls the turn on a great deal of shoddy thinking and careless doing, and it burns out and away a great deal of waste tissue that was unhealthy and encumbering.

In this one year, we have seen American enterprise in a dozen different forms re-justify and re-establish itself in American faith. Industrial enterprise has put into the hands of our young men weapons that are possibly the best known in war in formidable and increasing quantity beside supplying our allies. Personal enterprise has used those weapons well. We have done it the hard way and we are still doing it the hard way, but in the doing, we will not only have justified our institutions to all mankind, but we will have recaptured within ourselves anything we may have lost in the years of peace.

We are sure, moreover, that when we win we shall never be drunk with power or with the assumption of our superiority as men, for we have not only gone to war against those concepts—we recognize, on this anniversary that our opportunity to win was given to us, in Russia and China, by the uncomplaining sacrifice of millions of patient, anonymous lives, and that our British allies, who have, like ourselves, suffered grievous defeats, have performed one of the greatest military—as well as spiritual—miracles in the history of human conflict.

May I suggest that out of all the things we have learned and done in this past year, and they are many and great, the greatest is that the things we thought were true about us and our country—were really true, and in the future, God helping us, we shall never forget that.