The Foundations of An Ever Greater America


By SERGEANT WILLIAM J. CALDWELL, Member, Planning Committee, American Veterans' Committee

Delivered before the New York Herald-Tribune Forum, New York City, October 16, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 55-57

ALMOST every day now, in your newspapers and magazines, from the political platforms of both parties and over your radios, you are reading about and hearing discussed a vast and somewhat nebulous problem known variously as "The Veterans, Problem," "The Rehabilitation Program" or "The Returned Soldier as a Social, Economic and Political Headache."

Now, as a veteran and returned soldier, I certainly resent being labeled as "a problem or a question." I don't like being pigeonholed and shuffled from one Washington desk to another as a memorandum. Yet I certainly appreciate all that the government and industry and labor intend to do for me. I, and every other veteran, watched with enthusiasm the drafting and passing of the G. I. bill of rights, but we have now grown a trifle skeptical about it and other such benefits, as even today, seven months later, none of them are yet in effect. However, in the Army we got used to waiting, to "sweating it out" as we called it—and perhaps that was a handy virtue to acquire. And here may I interpolate a disclaimer, a disclaimer to some men and women who may be seeking for a new straw man to tilt at, and to them I say this: ' Everything I say tonight is necessarily simply my own personal opinion, backed by some years' experience as a combat soldier. I speak for no organizationor group of veterans, and so any brickbats, mud or tomatoes that any one wishes to sling, must please be aimed only at me and not at the veterans as a whole.

Tonight I do not intend to talk about any problem or program. I want to talk about something that I consider infinitely more important. And that is individual men. About the men who are your brothers and fathers and sons and sweethearts, and who, not so long since, I had the privilege of fighting with; about the men whom you know and love so well, and who, God grant them luck, may before too long be returning to you. And believe me, to return to you, victorious, is the one thing they want more than anything else in the world right now.

Problem for Individuals

And when they return home—what then? What will they be like, how changed will they be? The answers to these questions depend entirely, of course, on the makeup of each individual, on what his natural resistance or sensitivity is and on what he has been through and what he has seen. But of this one thing I can be sure: that the principal job of his reconditioning from fighting man to peaceful citizen, from G. I. Joe to Mr. John Q. Public, cannot be done alone by government agencies, by industrial planning or the like. It must—and I am sure will—be done first by himself and then by you; by you, his womenfolk, as individual wives and sweethearts and mothers.

For at the front your men are fighting for individual things. Unlike the Japanese, they are not fighting for the holy emperor. Even the idea of G. I. Joe fighting for the holy emperor of the United States of America makes you smile. Nor is he fighting, as the Nazis are, for some fanatical political state. He is fighting for something individual, something he knows well and loves deeply. That something may be a kid sister in Brooklyn, or five acres of corn in Kansas, or a Pennsylvania miner's cottage. But it adds up to just this—G. I. Joe is fighting in a major degree for you, his womenfolk; you make up his home and his life. If you could only listen to a whispered midnight talk in any foxhole, in the tense hours before a dawn attack, what you would hear then would tell you better than any talks or letters or movies or books how much and how continuously he thinks of you.

And that is why I say the chief burden of his successful transformation from soldier to civilian will lie upon the shoulders of the women of America far more than upon any government or industrial organizations. Jobs these agencies must supply, and necessary medical care. But those alone are not enough.

Men Will Be "Homebodies"

Examine the records—or just look around your neighborhood—and you will notice two things about returned veterans. First, they want to get married; and secondly, they are surprisingly much "homebodies." Not immediately after their return perhaps; then they are too busy catching up on the parties and bright lights and gayety they have missed so long. And who can dare to tell them they shouldn't?

And the reason for this trend to marriage and home is easy to find. After the riot and loneliness of fighting, and after the terrible impermanence of life, possessions and friends in the front lines, a man seeks permanence. He seeks to find his roots again. To establish himself permanently where he really belongs. And almost every time you will find it is through a woman that he can achieve this peace and permanence he so seeks.

There will be plenty on the debit side of the ledger, too. Your men may come home severely wounded, taut with battle fatigue, irritable and frightened—yes, I said frightened—moody and violently restless. But your help can release them of this uneasiness. There cannot, of course, be any prescription of how you will be able to work this cure. This will depend on you and your man. But beware of asking questions about what it was like over there, how he felt when he killed his first man. Maybe he will tell you a lot; perhaps it will come in driblets. But never hunt it out. I can tell you, it is better forgotten.

And now for the credit side. Evil and disastrous as this war has been, good has come out of it. And you will find that good in your men. To analyze and generalize about it is difficult. But bear with me and I will try to explain to you what I mean by these hard-won and valuable "battle qualities."

First of knowledge, technical knowledge: In their service careers your men will have had the opportunity to learn and work with specialized equipment, some of it still secret from the general public which will be all-important in the postwar world. And knowledge of such equipment may well mean a good living. Such equipment includes radar, specialized types of radio, and direction finders, submarines, sound detectors, etc.; skills in aerial navigation, engine maintenance, heavy truck management and so on. It is an endless list, and each of you here with a relative in service must be well aware of the specialized training which he has acquired.

Secondly, leadership: This again is another fairly obvious quality developed by war. But imagine the results of it. As a specialized instance I know a young major, highly thought of as a fine organizer, who before the war was chief usher at a New York theater. Even today he is only twenty-five and a major. Every day in the office buildings in this city alone, hundreds of former employees, now in service, drop by to say hello to their old boss. And nine times out of ten, the boss is delighted in the change and is enthusiastic to take the man back, at a better job, simply because he is a better man. For he has been exposed to new people, new types of work and a new type of life in service, and it has brought out in him new qualities.

Self-confidence and self-reliance: These are qualities valuable in any man in every business. Yet in peace time it is hard for many men to gain full confidence and reliance in themselves, perhaps through some native inferiority complex, perhaps through lack of opportunity for sufficient responsibility to give them a sense of self-confidence and reliance. But believe me, nothing in the wide world will more quickly and more permanently give a fellow this self-reliance and confidence than getting out of a tight spot where his and perhaps several other actual lives are involved. Think of a young fledgling pilot, 300 miles from home, over enemy territory with ten men aboard, and with a plane with one engine out, another failing and full of flak holes. How do you think he feels about himself if he can get that ship and those men back alive out of that tight spot? Or a corporal leading a night patrol which gets almost trapped behind enemy lines, and yet he manages to bring them back . . . or a lone soldier face to face with an equally well armed lone enemy . . . when only the best man stays alive. . . . Your men will be coming home proud, because they will come home victorious. And they will come home self-reliant, self-confident, because it will be through their own superiority they will have won that victory.

Brotherly love for one another: These are strange words to use for a quality won in war. But they are famous words from the mouth of a beloved man. You have read in books, in front-line dispatches, have heard over your radios, tales of the split-second teamwork demonstrated hundreds of times every day by our combat units, by our men in bomber crewstank crews, submarine crews, infantry patrols. But that is only half the story. Let me illustrate what I mean from the story of a very typical bomber crew—the one I was lucky enough to serve with. We ten of that bomber crew not only flew together. We also lived together, in a tiny tent, not much larger than your bathrooms. We ten men slept there; we made it our home. We ate there together and played cards together, read our mail from home together in that tiny space. We were bombed together. We fought and flew together; and if that moment should have come, we would have died together.

I want to ask you to think of that again, being duplicated thousands upon hundreds of times, in every branch of the service. Men living their whole daily lives together in the confined space of your bathroom, under very adverse conditions. Doing it seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. And before the service threw us together, we knew nothing of each other. And so it goes the world around. Rich sons, poor men, Christians, Jews, Indians; men whose parents came from Poland, Ireland, Sweden and England, almost every country on earth, yes, even including Germany and Japan. Men from every conceivable racial, religious, financial and social background—living together and making a howling success of it. How? Out there men are stripped of their veneer and protective civilian shells. What a man's background, color or creed is makes no difference. What counts is only his plain decency as a man—as a man good to live with and dependable to fight together with. Out there in a rain-soaked, dirty jungle tent, in a valley plagued with disease and malaria, infested with rats, and Japanese, the scions of the Pilgrim Fathers slept and lived and fought side by side with the son of a Balkan immigrant. And they admired and understood and liked each other. Because they found each other to be good men. That was democracy really at work, and it worked magnificently.

And what does this add up to? To my mind, it can mean the foundations of an even greater America, for these returning men are going to be impatient of such nonsense as creed and color and racial prejudice. They know better now. These men will have no fear of the Mr. Big in the home town—just because he may be rich or powerful. There is an expression often used by veterans, but by no means is it a catch phrase. You may soon hear it sometimes said by your men back from over there. . . . The phrase is simply this: "Well, he can't kill me, anyway." Men have many times tried to kill them and failed—and here at home these returned veterans will not be afraid of opposing what they believe is not right. A man will get respect from them only for his qualities as a man.

Thoughtfulness: These men of yours are thinking over there; when death is at your side day and night you think pretty straight. And, as you here at home plan for their future and the future of their country, don't forget that they, too, are going to have a say in both. They, too, have ideas about America. They are fighting for her. And they, too, have ideas about peace. It doesn't take long at a battle front for a man to find out what peace is worth. And remember these men know too well why they are out there in the hell. They know that somehow, somewhere, their elders before them had the chance for a more permanent peace—and muffed it. They do not blame them. But they do not expect to let that chance for peace be muffed again.

Yes, you will have every reason to be proud of your men when they come home, not only as magnificent soldiers but, by and large, as the finest human material this country—and that means you—has ever turned out. This brave new world will come riding in to you on a jeep and a bulldozer, come riding in high on the wings of a giant plane and a hard-won victory. And believe me, ladies and gentlemen, this new world has every promise of being magnificent and fine. You and they together are really on the threshold of a brave new world.