The High Value of Tradition


By ADMIRAL ERNEST J. KING, United States Navy

Delivered at the Massing of the Colors, Washington Cathedral, Washington, D. C., May 21, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 519-520.

WE have gathered here at a most appropriate moment in history to honor the dead, to pay our respects to the flag, and to seek Divine guidance for the days of decision that still lie ahead. This beautiful amphitheater is a fitting place for us to pause for a few moments in order to take stock of our past blessings and to muster strength for the tests and trials of the coming months.

You will recall that in the years before the war, some actors had claimed that our greatness as a natron was behind us; that the days of "iron men" were gone. Our enemies had said, again and again, that we were "decadent" and "soft." The war we are now fighting has brought to this generation a challenge to prove itself worthy of the past, and determined to build the greatness of our future. It was in this spirit that our forces fought back from the verge of disaster in the early days of the war, and have fought on to take the offensive on every front throughout the world. It has disproved our enemies, vindicated our heritage, and insured our future. Patriotic demonstrations, such as this, serve the valued purpose of heartening our fighting forces abroad by fortifying; us at home in our determination that we shall not let them down.

The massing of the colors here today is indeed a stirring spectacle. Many of the more than 100 civic, fraternal, andmilitary organizations participating in this ceremony have their roots in other great moments in American history. Some of these organizations were born in the Revolutionary days; others trace their lineage to the war of 1812, the War between the States, the Indian Wars, and the War with Spain. The last World War produced still others. Similar organizations will spring from this war. These organizations are all dedicated to the perpetuation of our great American traditions.

This war has taught us the high value of tradition. Tradition is the summation of the virtues and the successes of our ancestors. We revere our traditions, to be sure, but that is not enough. Before we can rightfully claim them as our own, intangible as they may be, we must prove ourselves worthy of them. We should regard them as inspirations to go and do likewise. Today the American people are making traditions of their own during another crisis of history. As we create traditions for ourselves and our children, we prove ourselves the more worthy to inherit the traditions of our fathers.

Fortress Europe will soon be assaulted in what promises to be the most formidable military undertaking in history. In the Pacific, other great operations are pending, for despite recent advances, we are still far from the citadel of Japan which must be breached before the war is won.

We of the armed services have pondered these great problems; we have calculated the risks; we know the obstacles. But we also know our own strength. We now have the men, the ships, the planes, the weapons, the plans and the teamwork. I can assure you that when the zero hour arrives—we shall not fail.

In the recesses of this National Cathedral lies the body of Admiral Dewey. The coolness and confidence he displayed before the battle of Manila Bay are summed up in his now famous remark: "You may fire when ready, Gridley. Today we find ourselves in an analogous situation. We too are ready to "fire." We too are cool; we too are confident. Our only misgiving is that some of us at home may minimize the size of the tasks ahead. There is a tendency abroad in the land to believe that the end of the war is close at hand, both in the Atlantic and in the Pacific. I must remind you that there is little justification for such wishful thinking. If we become over-confident now, we do an injustice to those who are about to go into battle, for it is they who will suffer if we fail.

In two and a half years of war, over 46,000 Americans have already given their lives. Every branch of the service Bias contributed to the roll of honored dead—the Army, 27,000; the Navy, 19,000, of which 4,000 were Marines.

These men have died in the service of their country, and inthe words of the Presidential Scroll Accolade sent to the next of kin, "stand in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings." Freedom shall live, and through it, these heroes will live. In honoring these men it is appropriate that we name the late and great Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox. No man has done more for the cause which brings us here today. No man will be longer revered and remembered by the Navy. Before hostilities cease, the names of many thousands more will be added to the roll of honored dead. I could wish that it were otherwise, but the price of victory and of freedom is high.

Nor must we forget those who have been wounded—many will never completely recover; nor the missing—many will never return. They also have won the nation's gratitude.

Furthermore, we must realize that casualties alone do not reflect the total suffering of the war. The grief of those near and dear cannot be measured in numbers. No words of consolation can wholly dispel the emptiness that engulfs them. Mothers, fathers, wives and children have known suffering, worry, separation and death. They also have played the role of patriots. Their forbearance and resignation are worthy of all esteem. They can take comfort from the words of Isaiah: "He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces."

We cannot wage war without loss of life. But we can see to it that our fathers and sons, our husbands and brothers, do not die in vain. To this end we should plan and strive to keep our country strong and ready, in a world so ordered that the strength of all nations shall be on the side of peace. Let us spare our children's children the death and suffering and hardships that we are experiencing.

Let us remember that precept of Washington, who in his first annual address to the Congress, said: "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."