Compulsory Military Training In Peace Time


By ROBERT A. TAFT, Senator from Ohio

Delivered at Memorial Day Ceremony, Gettysburg "National Cemetery, May 30, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 554-557.

FELLOW citizens of the United States of America, I am greatly honored to be invited to come here today to the Gettysburg National Cemetery and express, inadequately I know, the obligation which we feel to those who fell on the greatest battlefield of the Civil War, and the reverence which their service to us still inspires 82 years later. I know that I cannot express that obligation and that reverence as effectively as it has been many times expressed before upon this occasion. I can only relate the sacrifices of our soldiers to the more immediate problems which we face today.

The soldiers of 1863 gave their lives to preserve the Union and make permanent the Government which had proved to the world that a Nation, founded for the purpose of securing freedom, and governed by its own people, could survive through a great war without being destroyed from within by the very forces of freedom developed in a free country. Many other American boys have fought since then to preserve our people and their freedom. Our hearts are full today with our gratitude and devotion to those who are fighting now and who have fought in this war, those who have given and those who have risked their lives that our Nation may be preserved and may preserve its freedom.

In these wars with Germany and Japan, we are now approaching the great sacrifices of the Civil Warówe have suffered a million casualties among our boys in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. About 300,000 have been killed, or missing and probably killed. That means that there are 300,000 families who mourn a beloved son, 300,000 wives and mothers to whom this war has brought tragedy and grief. Too many newspapers and too many individuals have come to accept the military attitude that American boys are only pawns in the game, that we can properly sacrifice so many impersonal lives for this goal. But every life is a boy with a father and mother, or a wife or sweetheart. We should never forget the awful catastrophe that war is, that it means the destruction of all the hopes and purposes which have formed the ideals of hundreds of thousands of American individuals and families. Let us remember today that very few purposes can justify the sacrifices which we are calling upon our boys to make. Let us remind ourselves that neither foreign conquest, nor hate, nor revenge, can justify such a loss, that the only purpose of this war that can justify its continuance is to insure the future peace and freedom of the American people. Let us not gloat because we burn or destroy the city of an enemy, and remember that such destruction can only be justified as a means of bringing this war to a quicker end. The moment that we can achieve a peace which will guarantee the prevention of future aggression on the part of Japan, it is our duty to all those whom we honor here today to see that peace is brought about, whether by arms or by negotiation.

But we have a further duty to the men who are suffering in this war when peace has been brought about. There can be little doubt now that the defeat of our enemies will prevent attacks upon this country from without for many years to come. We are all agreed that that result may be strengthened and assured by the creation of an international organization to preserve peace. We hope that such an organization can insure peace, not only in the immediate future, but for generations to come. The San Francisco Conference, under the most severe handicaps of political and economic differences will at least establish an international forum constantly working to prevent the recurrence of war.

But we must constantly remind ourselves that the only purpose of this war, the only purpose of the battle fought here at Gettysburg in 1863, the only purpose of any war in which this country has been engaged is to maintain here at home the freedom which was won in 1776, the freedom to work out here the destiny of the American Republic. American foreign policy and international organizations are only a means to that end. And so we should be equally concerned here today that we retain in Washington the policies necessary to assure that freedom. It is useless to destroy totalitarianism in Germany and Japan and then establish it in the United States.

There is real danger of just that result for the whole thought of the world has moved steadily toward the totalitarian philosophy, toward the subjection of the individual to the state instead of a government by the people. Government controls such as peacetime military conscription which would have been indignantly rejected in the nineteenth century, are given serious consideration, even in this country-Totalitarian thought has spread over the world. When Mussolini established a dictatorship in Italy, many of our citizens thought that a little benevolent despotism was a good thing for the Italian people. Hitler brought it to Germany, the military caste brought it to Japan, largely because so many people lost faith in the efficacy of democratic government. We see it also on our side, in the great Russian Soviet, in Chiang Kai-shek's China, in Brazil, in Argentina and to many other Latin-American countries. It has made progress because so many people have been persuaded that it is perhaps desirable to surrender individual freedom and let someone dictate their lives better than they themselves can arrange them. In this country many people who would indignantly deny any soft feeling for State control are advocates of measures which lead inevitably in that direction because they are dissatisfied with the necessary slow progress involved in a government where all the people are given a voice.

I believe that freedom can only be preserved if we retain government by the people all the time. I heard a United States Senator argue that we could have freedom and democracy even though Congress delegated all its powers to the President during the war and adjourned, because, he said, we could meet again and take those powers away. There are two fallacies in that view. While that form of government lasts, there is no freedom and it is not government by the people. Secondly, if it lasts too long, the powers granted by the people are never returned to them. That has been the history of popular government from the days of Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages to Germany and Japan today.

The best protection of freedom is to maintain continuous rule by the people. It cannot be done without constant vigilance against the turning over of power to governments and to men who are in effect beyond the reach of the people. The very size of the Republic today leads to a delegation of power. The machinery by which 135,000,000 people govern themselves is necessarily so complicated that it is hard to devise a system in which the real voice of the people is heard. Hundreds of bureaus have been created, and even here in Washington we don't know how many bureaus there are or what it is that they are doing. Each one is a little kingdom in itself. When the ordinary man comes to Washington, he has a hard enough time to find out which is the bureau which is bossing him, and an even harder time to get consideration for his views. More than a hundred Government corporations have been created, even less accountable to Congress than the bureaus. Washington is a vast rabbit warren of bureaucrats, all issuing regulations having the force and effect of law and building up a control to which the people gradually come to conform their lives.

The war has required a suspension of many freedoms, and the people have become so used to regulations that they almost forget what freedom is. The danger of totalitarian government is that the people do get used to it, as to a narcotic. The time has come to remember that many of these restrictions on freedom were only created to preserve freedom and should be abandoned when freedom is assured. The size of the Republic, the complexity of modern problems in the economic field, all lead the people to the easy course of turning over the problems to someone else, to some expert, perhaps, to solve the whole business. Instead of thinking out problems for themselves, inhabitants of a totalitarian world would accept the advice of supposedly expert columnists or radio commentators, who are also too busy to think out their problems, and who accept what is handed to them by the Government. A people unconcerned with their own liberty want every problem to be handled by a czar. They are impatient with Congress if Congress takes time to argue a case on its merits. A frame of mind in dealing with public questions which moves on waves of emotion, engulfing editors, writers, and broadcasters alike, and demands solutions today for every complex problem, is a frame of mind leading to totalitarian government.

While we talk constantly of democracy and free enterprise, I see too many of the very people who use that language advocating measures which deny it. Too many businessmen believe in controls of the NRA code variety, quotas, cartels, division of production, the fixing of minimum coal prices, and other measures to protect business from excessive competition. Labor unions, which ought to be the very core of democracy, are ruled by perpetual leaders almost without the formality of reelection.

At this very moment demands are being made that Congress give up its power to fix tariffs and to provide for the reorganization of the Government departments, on the ground that democratic processes are too slow and ineffective. Arbitrary power must be granted to carry through the currently popular theories.

Every bill proposes that Congress delegate its power to make law to some board, and the Supreme Court itself is dominated by the thought that the people themselves and their representatives are incompetent even to prescribe standards, but must give power to make law to administrative agencies. Nearly every bill introduced proposes increased Federal power, and the reduction of the power of States and local governments where the people's voice can be heard. In education, in health, and in unemployment compensation, Federal bureaus seek wide and arbitrary power to affect the lives of millions of individuals.

People who think themselves sincere believers in democratic government want everything desirable at once, and the more attractive the goal, the less they care about the method. If this frame of mind were carried to its logical conclusion, it would lead to the turning over of all power to a benevolent dictator to carry out the good things which he promises and which he presents in a sufficiently attractive package.

Of course, this general attitude makes the ground fertile for Government propaganda. A desirable end such as peace or extended foreign trade is linked with certain particular methods and panaceas proposed and highly recommended by the Government, or accompanied by a demand for broad power to solve the problem without further interference from Congress. Anyone who is opposed to this particular panacea is at once labeled as opposed to peace or foreign trade, and probably pictured as a reactionary, a Fascist, or even a Republican. All the arguments for the favored remedy are blared over the radio and broadcast in pamphlets, and no argument is admitted against it. The first Dumbarton Oaks proposal was pictured as so letter perfect, that I am still getting attacks on Senator Vandenberg's amendments by people who don't know that the State Department has accepted them. Bretton Woods and the revised reciprocal trade treaties are pictured as the only cures for all foreign-trade difficulties. The question is not the desirability of these various delegations of people's power, it is the frame of mind which seems to be willing to abandon that power without question, It is the frame of mind which avoids the discussion of the merits of a problem and accepts the voice of the state as the voice of God.

Nothing is so dangerous to democracy as a vast machine of propaganda, for it strikes at the very root of democratic government. Government by the people can only endure if it is founded on intelligent decision based on accurate knowledge.

This afternoon I wish to speak particularly about one step now proposed, supported by Government propaganda, which seems to me to strike at the very basis of freedom, for which our boys are fighting. It is the proposal that we establish at once compulsory conscription for military training in time of peace. The proposal is that we establish in this country a continuous 12 months' military training for every boy, the same military set-up which we have gone to war to abolish in Germany and Japan. Whether we become a militaristic and totalitarian country depends more on this measure than any other. It does not relate to any limited class or group. It reaches every family and every boy. It subjects them completely to the domination of the Government for a year during their most formative period. It keeps them under constant supervision as reserves for years thereafter. The power to take a boy from his home and subject him to complete Government discipline is the most serious limitation on freedom that can be imagined. Many who have accepted the idea favor a similar Government-controlled training for all girls.

There is no doubt that the Government, and particularly the War and Navy Departments, are straining every nerve to secure the enactment of this legislation before the war ends. Secret meetings are being held in the Pentagon Building and elsewhere. On April 26 the chief executive officers of some 40 or more women's organizations were invited there, and it is said they were addressed by the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, the Under Secretary of State, General Marshall, Admiral King, and other high-ranking officers. The ladies were requested not to disclose the substance of the speeches made or identify the War Department or its officials with the sponsorship of the plan. One newspaper stated that the ministers of various churches were invited to a similar meeting and attended, and that Negro organizations have been approached. Invitations went out from a citizens committee in New York to hear Secretary Forrestal, Under Secretary Grew, and General Weible at an off-the-record luncheon on May 25. Government propaganda is bad enough when it is open, but it is inexcusable when secret. We may expect a flood of open propaganda after the ground has been prepared, and everyone who is opposed to the plan will be pictured as for war and for unpreparedness.

We have fought this war to preserve our institutions, not to change them. We have fought it to permit us to work out our problems here at home on a peaceful foundation, not on a foundation dominated by military preparations for another war. The question of the best form of military organization should not be an emotional problem. It should be dealt with by argument and not by propaganda. But the methods being used threaten the freedom of this country, for if they are successful they can be used to fasten upon us every kind of regulation, price control for business, wage control for labor, production control for farmers.

If we approach this problem logically and not emotionally, the first question should be how large an Army we need to insure our freedom. Why not discuss what the right size is so that we can determine the best method of providing it? How can we tell how large an Army we do need until the peace is made and the organization of the world effected? It seems to me impossible to pass intelligently on the need for conscription at this time. Must we not see first what kind of a world is established at San Francisco and at the peace table?

There are approximately 1,250,000 American boys in every age group. Is it necessary to train them all for a full year at a cost of at least two and a half billion dollars a year? This would provide reserves of about twelve and a half million men between the ages of 18 to 27. Is any such reserve necessary? Certainly, it is not needed in a hurry, for the armies we now have will be the best possible reserve for the next 3 or 4 years. The Selective Service Act expressly provides that all drafted men at the end of the war shall be transferred to the reserve and remain there for 10 years. Apparently, the argument for doing this job now is that the people might not be willing to do it later. That is certainly a typical totalitarian argument. It is an attempt to base a great permanent national policy on war emotion, because the proponents are afraid of government by the people when they have time to think it over.

It seems improbable to me that the training of a million and a quarter boys a year would ever be necessary. The vast reserve provided could only be needed for a great overseas expedition like that in which we are now engaged. For such an expedition, it would take several years to organize ships, planes, and munitions, just as it did in this war. We would surely have to have new modern equipment in many fields, and it would take longer to build it than it would to train the men, as we found in this war. It would seem that for sudden attack, or for attack from the air or from attack by rockets the great mass of millions of reserves would be of little value. I should think we rather need an expert Army with the most modern weapons. In the event of a sudden attack, our main reliance would have to be a Regular Army of highly trained and technically trained men, and during such an attack they would not be much aided by 10,000,000 reserves. The argument that we can save in the size of a professional army by having many millions of reserves bears all the earmarks of a propaganda argument instead of one based on common sense.

Having determined that we need an Army of a certain size, with certain reserves, we could then decide whether we could get it by voluntary means in the American tradition. Suppose we need a million men in the armed forces. We expect to have at least 50,000,000 people working at civilian jobs in this country. Surely we can make the Army sufficiently attractive as an occupation for 2 percent of these to be willing to volunteer. With good pay, reasonable treatment for men and their families, and provision for retraining and retirement when a man is too old to stay in the Army, I don't see why Army life cannot be made just as attractive as working daily on a machine, mining coal, or engaging in hundreds of other occupations. Many jobs in the Army should give highly technical training with interesting knowledge which makes the trainees capable of advancement in other activities in life.

To provide the necessary Reserves, it could be made worth the while of many boys to take the necessary training. Many alternative plans have been suggested to a year's conscription. For instance, adequate reserves might be provided by training 200,000 boys in each age group. It should be possible to obtain volunteers in that number for a 3-month course and basic training during one summer, courses in school and a later 3-month summer course in the field. The boys could be paid a sum which would assist them in their regular education during the winter. Additional courses could be provided for those who wish to become Reserve officers. What I have suggested is only one idea and there may be many others. The Army will immediately criticize any plan, because they are determined to have conscription. They want the boys for 12 months consecutively because they want to change their habits of thought, to make them soldiers, if you please, for the rest of their lives. Nothing less will do. We are indeed bankrupt of ideas if we cannot provide a method by which necessary military forces and Reserves are provided by an American voluntary system.

The other arguments for conscription seem to me almost too trivial to discuss. It is said it will teach the boys discipline and that they need it. My own opinion is that we need more initiative and original thinking and less discipline rather than more. Our present Army is not the most disciplined Army in the world, but there isn't any better Army for the simple reason that the boys do some thinking for themselves.

It is said the Army will improve their health, and that they need it because so many failed to pass the strict health requirements of the Army. As a matter of fact, the great bulk of defects were those relating to teeth, eyes, mental, nerves, and heart conditions, all of which had arisen long before the age of conscription. There is nothing to show that the Armywould conscript any of these boys. To improve their health, we must reach them at a much younger age.

The argument that it would improve the morals of our boys has almost been dropped because of its foolishness. If there is one place where morals will not be improved, it is in the vicinity of Army camps.

It is true that there are some boys who are benefited by Army control, but to improve a few, let us not change the whole character of the American life which I believe has been the cause of success in this war.

It is said that we are going to teach the boys citizenship in the camps. This argument makes clear a real danger in the whole system. By handing boys over for 12 months to the arbitrary and complete domination of the Government, we put it in the power of the Government to indoctrinate them with the political doctrines then popular with the Government. It has all the dangers of Federal education and none of its advantages. Attempts along this line have been made with the present Army, and a large amount of propaganda sent out to be taught to the soldiers. In wartime it is bad enough; in peacetime, it would be intolerable.

Some have supported this project on the ground that the training is only to be part military and a considerable amount of it is to be character training along other lines. We have already a complete school system in this country. If it isn't adequate and does not give education in citizenship, we can well spend our time and money in trying to improve that system. As a matter of fact, it is already the finest system of education the world has ever seen.

Military conscription is essentially totalitarian. It has been established for the most part in totalitarian countries and their dictators led by Napoleon and Bismark. It has heretofore been established by aggressor countries. It is said it would insure peace by emphasizing the tremendous military potential of this country. Surely we have emphasized that enough in this war. No one can doubt it. On the contrary, if we establish conscription every other nation in the world will feel obliged to do the same. It would set up militarism on a high pedestal throughout the world as the goal of all the world. Militarism has always led to war and not peace. Conscription was no insurance of victory in France, in Germany, or in Italy. The countries with military conscription found that it was only an incident and not the determining factor in defense or in victory.

Military training by conscription means the complete regimentation of the individual at his most formative period for a period of 12 months. If we admit that in peacetime we can deprive a man of all liberty and voice and freedom of action, if we can take him from his family and his home, then we can do the same with labor, we can order the farmer to produce and we can take over any business. If we can draft men, it is difficult to find an argument against drafting capital. Those who enthusiastically orate of returning to free enterprise and at the same time advocate peacetime conscription are blind to the implications of this policy. They are utterly inconsistent in their position. Because of its psychological effect on every citizen, because it is the most extreme form of compulsion, military conscription will be more the test of our whole philosophy than any other policy. Some say it is unconstitutional. It makes very little difference whether it actually violates the terms of the Constitution. It is against the fundamental policy of America and the American Nation. If adopted, it will color our whole future. We shall have fought to abolish totalitarianism in the world, only to set it up in the United States.

Government by the people can only exist if the people are individuals who think. It can only exist if the individual is free to rule the state and if he is not ruled by the state. We must be constantly vigilant to keep alive the thinking of freemen, and there is no such threat to that thinking as the course which would impose on the Nation compulsory military training. We have no greater obligation to the men who fought at Gettysburg, we have no greater obligation to the men who fought in Europe and who are fighting in the Pacific, than to preserve here in America a state in which the individual shall be free to think and be master of his own soul, and where the people shall be free to govern their own Government.