Were Washington Here Today


By ROBERT C. CLOTHIER, President, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N. J.

Delivered before the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, New York City, February 22, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 343-346.

I AM honored in being invited to speak to the Sons of the Revolution in New York. The memory of George Washington constitutes one of our most priceless heritages and one of the most cherished of our American traditions is that of gathering annually to pay him tribute. For Washington is not a legendary personality in our ancient past but a living person whose nobility of purpose and grandeur of character are happily admixed with qualities of heart and even a gift for emphatic speech when the occasion called for it—which in spite of our school teachers and history books (which continue to portray him as a marble saint)—endear him to us as one of ourselves. If he could express himself today in words which we could hear I am sure that that is the way he would ask us to remember him. If he can look down on us now—and who will say that he cannot?—I feel sure that he must resent our casting him in a role so elevated and I am equally sure he must resent being cast, as a boy, in the ridiculous and impossible role of the pious paragon who could not tell a lie. We like to think that he wouldn't tell a lie but we don't want him to be stuffy about it.

Yet together with Washington's human qualities, he did have nobility of purpose and grandeur of character. And he was endowed, too, with a penetrating intelligence and

with great wisdom—even more than wisdom, with vision and foresight. His writings have left no doubt of that.

It is proper that we should regard his birthday as a day of patriotic reconsecration. With appropriate modesty, I feel that he himself would be gratified with the idea. At the same time he would not lend his birthday for thoughtless or foolish observance, for flag-waving and bombastic eloquence—especially in days like these when everything he fought for and everything he stood for are menaced by forces both from within and from without. I feel that he would want it to be a time of rededication to the high purpose for which he was born in 1732 and to which he gave his life—the establishment of a great and free nation and the maintenance of liberty. He would not want us to look back. He would want us to look ahead.

Were he with us today, he would be conscious, I know, that America, his America, has entered into a new day in human affairs and that patriotism has become a much more understanding and much more exacting virtue. If he were here he would warn us against any provincial view of America's destiny. He would adjure us to shun the old slogans—the America First type of patriotism—for with his breadth of vision and his depth of understanding, he would point out, I'm sure, that if we adopt an ideal of America First—(except as it be America first in service of mankind)—we can have no objection if our British friends adopt the ideal of Britain First and our Russian friends Russia First and our French friends France First and sixty other nations likewise. What such a type of patriotism leads to in a world as shrunk as ours by the modern magic of science, only the stupidest and blindest can fail to see.

Indeed we have entered into a new day in human affairs and the tragedy which will in the end overwhelm America—and the whole world—if we fail to grasp that truth is too dreadful even to contemplate. And the converse is equally true. If we do indeed grasp this truth and understand the nature of this new world and shape our policies accordingly, a still more glorious destiny may await us in the future. Those of us who gather on occasions like this to pay honor to George Washington may well afford to appraise these two alternatives.

George Washington, if he were living today would know that we stand at the threshold of this new day even as, in the years from 1770 to 1776, he, a wealthy landowner who had everything to gain from the preservation of the existing regime, saw that he and his contemporaries stood at the threshold of a new era—and, forsaking his traditional way of life, cast his lot with the embattled colonists. Out of that union has emerged this mighty nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Do you think it was easy for him to abandon the old way of life and endure the trials and disappointments and discouragements of eight years of war for what must have seemed to many a vague and visionary ideal? It was not easy. Similarly today it may not be easy for many of us to abandon our old ways of thinking and to face courageously the challenge of this new day which confronts us. But our duty is plain, just as his was plain to him during those fateful years before the Revolution.

If he were here today, Washington would see clearly that with the advance of science, with its handmaidens of transportation and communication, the world which once held the nations safely apart has shrunk to an inconsiderable globe on which no two spots on its face are more than sixty hours distant. He would read the lessons of recent history and see, alas, that mankind is still in that state of development—notwithstanding its thin veneer of civilization—at which it is still capable of settling its disputes by force rather than by reason. He would observe the depth of arrogance and cruelty to which modern nations can descend when they have drunk deep of vicious philosophies. He would marvel at the works of our scientists and engineers—at our battleships and carriers and submarines, at our mechanized armies with their tank and tank-destroyers and mobile units, at our fleets of thousands of flying fortresses and B29's, at the robot bombs, still in their infancy, which when matured may contain instantaneous death for whole nations—he would marvel at these things and relate them to the shrunken world and to the still surviving willingness of men to make war. He would not shrink from the conclusion forced on him any more than he shrank from the conclusion forced on him a century and three-quarters ago—the conclusion that only through cooperation among the colonies could any survive. He would see now, as clearly as he saw it then, that only through cooperation among the nations of the world, will, in the end, any survive. Further than that, he would see that through this very cooperation which necessity forces upon us, mankind will, in the end, rise to new levels of achievement and fulfillment. This is the challenge of the new day which confronts us.

It seems strange that men have to have cooperation forced upon them. It is an elixir which produces miracles, yet we are so loth to quaff it. The first World War was all but lost because each of the Allies insisted on playing the game its own way and it was not until the summer of 1918, when all seemed lost that we made Marshall Foch Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies. At the outbreak of this war, there was little coordination. France and Britain came tardily to the attempted rescue of Poland and Russia made a pact of peace with Germany. After the collapse of France, Britain stood alone and no one will ever coin a phrase to depict the glory of Britain when alone and defenseless she stood as the sole bulwark between Christian civilization and a new blackout of the dark ages.

America, faced with a struggle between the forces of aggression and those of freedom, pretended it was none of her business—except of course as the arsenal of democracy—until the bombs of Japan blew her into the war willy-nilly. Then at long last, the lesson of World War I came home to us all. The realization that only through cooperation could the free nations win was symbolized for us by the first conference between Roosevelt and Churchill on a battleship off the Newfoundland coast and the others which followed at Moscow and Cairo and Washington and Quebec and Teheran—and how at Yalta. It is our profound hope—our prayerful hope—that out of these conferences there will emerge a confederation of the nations, entered into in good faith and with a sense of common purpose, through which aggression will be halted before it starts and peace preserved by the united will of the peoples of the earth. There will be those who will smile cynically and damn the proposal with the glib phrase "idealistic" but by whatever word they damn it, they may as well make up their minds that with modern technology thrusting into our hands weapons of incredible powers of destruction, it's a choice between cooperation on the one hand and extermination on the other.

The recent meeting at Yalta gives us fresh courage. There is reason to believe that the great powers are really trying to chart a common course. It will not be perfect, any more than the confederation of our colonies was perfect. It may be far from perfect. But it is a step in the right direction, a far better step than most of us had dared to hope for. Meanwhile we must not be so foolish as to insist on perfection. The perfectionist can be as great an enemy of progress as the cynic. Rome was not built in a day. The mills of the gods grind slowly.

If Washington were living today, I'm sure he would see these great issues clearly and would warn us equally against cynicism and perfectionism. He would urge us to give Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Stettinius, Mr. Harriman and the others our best support for the issues far transcend any merely political considerations. And he would warn us too that no plan of international cooperation, however cleverly devised, will work unless it is backed by the understanding and loyal support of the peoples of the nations themselves.

At the same time I'm sure he would warn us against ill-considered plans which would leave us defenseless in a world such as this in which we are now living. Freedom is only for those who are willing to fight for it and to defend it—and in the long run only for them—and only the strong shall be free. We have hoped that out of the present holocaust there will emerge an international organization with teeth in it to restrain aggressor nations and to enforce peace. But until such organization has proved itself in operation America must remain militarily strong. For this reason, among others, there are many of us who favor the immediate consideration of a plan of compulsory military training rather than postponing it until after the war has been won and once again we shall, in all probability, bask in the illusion of a false security. We must remain strong until at last we find our security in the combined strength of all nations commonly consecrated to the maintenance of peace. I use the words "commonly consecrated" with purpose and intent. They imply a curtailment of sovereignty on the part of the nations of the world in the common interest just as you and I, as individuals, have subjected ourselves to controls and allowed ourselves to be divested of certain freedoms of action—personal sovereignty if you will—in order to be acceptable members of a society which safeguards the well-being of all. We shall have to be selfishly wise enough to realize that unrestrained national sovereignty as we have known it in the past, implemented by the destructive powers which modern science has given us, will in the end lead to the destruction of civilization—including our own. Wendell Willkie sounded a note of truth when he wrote his book "One World". But until these controls are established and proved, America must remain militarily strong.

In paying our tribute to George Washington let us remember, too, that patriotism does not begin and end with defense against possible enemies from without. It concerns itself with enemies from within as well. Anything which threatens the welfare of our America, which retards her advancement toward the fulfillment of her highest destiny, is our enemy—whether it be an enemy we can see or an invisible enemy deep within ourselves. Anything which makes for strength is our ally. Anything which makes for weakness is our enemy.

Since the last war, we have trod an uneasy path. First there was the let-down in morale, the irresponsible twenties and that period of economic arrogance which we called the boom. After it the period of psychopathic defeatism which we called the depression. Through these long weary years we failed to make our system of free enterprise work under its own steam. We failed to solve the problems of unemployment and industrial relations. We sought, worthily, to protect our unemployed against distress and we undertook, through government, to advance the social welfare. In doing so it's possible we did something to ourselves. Increasingly we displayed a lack of the ancient American virtues of initiative and courage and self-reliance and came to evince a greater and greater willingness to lean on the government to solve the problems which in an earlier era we would have solved for ourselves. A speaker I heard recently put it this way: "Since the end of the last war we have drifted away from the traditional spirit of self-reliance and free enterprise. After a little more than a century of independent development under the idea of individual freedom, the spirit of most groups in American life has at last been caught in the powerful undertow of old-world standards, ideas and aspirations created by the backwash of the last war. All have felt the drag of this spiritual undertow pulling them back toward the cultural level of the old-world way of life with its class conflicts and social rigidities, its frantic emphasis on security; its distrust of individual initiative; its faith in the omnipotence of the state—from all of which our ancestors escaped for a brief century to develop the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth. Once more we have become a cultural colony of Europe."

These are strong words. They don't sound pleasant in our ears. Yet it will do us no good to ignore the charge. If it is false, we can dismiss it, but if it is true—even partly true—it contains a challenge for us as daring as the attempt of Germany and Japan to defeat us by force of arms. The strength of a nation lies not in her size and power and wealth but in the intelligence and character of her people and only that nation will survive in the end whose people have sturdiness of will and greatness of heart and faith in themselves, who seek lives, not of ease and plenty but lives of challenge and achievement and adventure. If we who pay our tribute to George Washington tonight lay claim to the patriotic faith that the nation he fathered shall continue to be free and the hope of mankind, we had best dedicate our efforts to rekindling that spirit of self-reliance which has made her what she is. It may be a far more insidious enemy, this deterioration of our moral fibre, but in the end—unless we halt it—it can mark finis to mankind's noblest experience in freedom.

Let us search our own consciences. If this charge be groundless, we have nothing to fear. But if in our greater reliance on government to solve our problems, in our inability to lay the ghost of unemployment until the war came along to lay it for us, in our continuing surrender to pressure groups, in the utterances of many men in public life, in our taxation policies which discourage our young men from striking out in business for themselves and perhaps creating great industries giving employment to thousands—if, in such things as these, there is reason to believe that the charge is not groundless, it is time for the Sons of the Revolution and all other patriotic citizens to turn to and rededicate themselves to the task of rebuilding America from within. For what profiteth a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? What profiteth America if she grow in size and power and influence but loses at home the battle she wages abroad?

It is these considerations which move us as we are gathered here tonight to honor the memory of George Washington. He is one of the two men which stand out among their fellow-titan in American history. We honor him in our hearts and in spite of the austerity which time and foolish books have given him, there is affection for him there too. But if he were here today—if he were here with us tonight—he wouldn't be occupying a seat at the speakers' table quietly and pompously, receiving our praise with gracious bows. Instead I can see him standing beside our toastmaster reared to his full majestic height, his eyes flashing, his voice resounding: "Don't fail me, men and women of America. Our nation is in peril from enemies without and enemies

within. Let no one dare to face me who fails to do his utmost to win this war against the powers of evil. See to it that you, even as I a century and three-quarters ago, join your hands with those who are your natural allies—whatever superficial differences there may be—to insure peace among the states of the world. Keep America strong in military power and in inner spirit for only the strong shall be free. This is my charge to you".

It is arrogant presumption for anyone to assume to speak for George Washington but as we view his life and read his utterances and relate them both to the 20th Century America in which we, his successors, find ourselves living I venture to say that such would be his message for us. We have had a priceless heritage. Let us see to it that we pass it on to those who follow us undiminished in glory. Let us keep the faith.