Minding Our Own Business


By LT. JAMES H. CASE, JR., USNR, Commanding Officer, Navy V-12 Unit, Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana

Memorial Day Address, Crawfordsville, Indiana, May 30, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 682-683.

"No man is an ilande," said John Donne, "intire to it selfe; every man is a peece of the continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as if a promontorie were, as if a mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Memorial Day 1945 touches this land more nearly than any Memorial Day in our history. War has claimed the lives of soldiers of every rank from private to commander-in-chief. The triumph of our arms in invading Europe and bringing Germany and her slave states to unconditional surrender has been paid for in pain, and death. The progress of our arms in fashioning the noose which now begins to strangle Japan is an even costlier progress, and before that triumph is complete many now living will sacrifice their lives.

Nor are these military casualties the only price which war has exacted. Today we mourn our lost soldiers and sailors and marines; we also honor as casualties of war the countless men and women who, like your great neighbor Wendell Willkie, gave such burning devotion to their wartime duties as citizens that their lives were consumed.

For nearly all of you within the sound of my voice, this day is one of personal grief or personal anxiety. You whose fathers or sons or brothers or husbands have been killed are greatly tested today and are charged with a high responsibility. The lives which they laid down were bright with promise, filled with hope, freighted with plans and ambitions. And now it rests with you to make your lives so significant that you may advance and perhaps even achieve those hopes and ambitions.

It rests with you—yes, but it rests with all of us. Is it hard now to understand those words of John Donne which I read you a moment ago? "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankinde." Oh do you see that there is more work than ever to be done now and that there are fewer of us left to do it? "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Think ahead a few years in Crawfordsville. Where will the city's leaders come from? There were many young men who would have planned boldly and well, who would have built daringly and soundly, but many of these men are dead. Will there be enough doctors to man your hospital—enough teachers to educate your children, farmers to work your land, mechanics and clerks and laborers and lawyers and druggists to do the work of this busy city? Where will the writers, the scientists, the soldiers and the ministers come from? Are there men and women enough to carry forward the work of the world, the conquest of nature, the quest of the human spirit? We can give a confident answer to these questions only if we accept in full the responsibility which the death of the young men of this city has imposed upon us who survive.

Yes, as we think of Crawfordsville it gradually becomes clear what the living must do. Just minding our own business here within the limits of one small community will tax the energy and the capacity of all of us. And as this is true of Crawfordsville so is it true of our nation.

But is this the whole story? I submit to you that it is not I spoke a moment ago of minding our own business, and I enumerated some of the daily tasks which indisputably fall within any definition of "our own business." Now, however, I want to suggest some additional tasks which also lie within any adequate definition of that phrase.

There is a myth which has been so constantly reiterated that even some perfectly sensible people have believed it That myth accuses the folk of this land of being gullible, It declares that in World War I we foolishly flung ourselves into a fight with which we had no concern. We were amiable but muddle-headed altruists—and the way purveyors of the myth like The Chicago Tribune say the word "altruists" makes it sound like the deadliest of epithets. We stuck our noses into other people's affairs, and all we got for our good intentions were war casualties, bad debts and harsh words.

Yes, we got the casualties, the bad debts and the harsh words all right, but the rest of the story is not only a myth-it is a vicious lie. The truth is that this country entered World War I because it had to, and any other assumption is false. We fought because our deepest interests—our freedom, our democracy, our very life as a great nation—were gravely threatened. That we had allies whose similar interests were similarly threatened was great good fortune; that we elected to make common cause with them was plain good sense.

For we knew from the tragic experience of our own Civil War that any man's enslavement was an assault upon our own freedom; that exploitation and persecution of men anywhere in the world slowly but inexorably undermined the foundations of our own security. German militarism threatened us, directly and indirectly, and we responded in the only way our magnificient tradition would allow us. "No man is an ilande, intire to it selfe."

Yes, we knew that, but between wars we wanted so much to forget that we almost succeeded. And we did succeed in acting as though we had forgotten. The myth of our innocent stupidity confused our minds and crippled our ability to act with boldness and confidence. In 1931, when Japanese violence and theft and murder swept Manchuria, what was that to us? What the myth told us was "Every wise man (or nation) is an island, complete in itself. Only fools allow j themselves to become involved in mankind. Don't be $m sucker again, Uncle Sam." And we were so bemused that we turned our backs on Manchuria and said to each other, "This isn't our funeral."

Ask yourself today, Memorial Day 1945, for whom the bell tolled in 1931. Was it simply for the frightened and helpless people of Manchuria? No, our men who died in the Pacific area during this last year were only children in 1931. but their death was made certain in that now distant day. Even in 1931 the bell tolled for you and me and for all the dead and dying of this war. And it will continue to ton until we finish the gigantic task that could have been a very slight task—in 1931. For 1931 was only a beginning. Again and again we had our chance; Ethiopia—but no, how did those pitiful and half-civilized people affect us? Spain, China, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark,Belgium, Holland, France, Europe, the world. And still we tried to say "No man's life or death affects us. We shall not become involved in mankind. Let us remain an island."

And then at last Japan did us the good office of bombing us into wakefulness and into reality. We rightfully resent Japanese treachery in that sneak attack, but we owe them an incalculable debt, for they brought us a recognition of the truth with a clarity and force that forbade misunderstanding. And that truth is that we are not an island; we are involved in mankind. And we are affected by injustice, anywhere on earth; by brutality, anywhere on earth; and by wrong, anywhere on earth. And looking backward, we hear the tolling of the bell for the death of Manchuria, for the death of Spain, for the death of millions of men in every quarter of the globe, and we know now what Donne meant: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Once awakened, Americans are magnificent in action. We have not faltered in attending to our long-deferred business. But this time, when our war against brutality, indecency and evil is finished, let us not heed the still clamorous voices that bemused us before. Let us not hand over our own business to our enemies to attend to, as we had been led by the myth-makers to do. Let us mind our own business, but in God's name and the name of the dead we honor today, let us know what our own business is.

We can no longer believe that our concern is bounded by the fields, we plow, by the business and civic affairs of our own city, by the day-to-day intercourse with our next-door neighbors. Your own neighbor, one of the great men of the earth, proclaimed the truth in simple, moving terms. When Wendell Willkie said "This is one world" he reaffirmed a great reality. Merely hearing it has strengthened our minds and our muscles and our hearts for the fight we wage today. Recognizing it as truth has increased our stature and our power as human beings. Bearing it in our minds always will give us resolution and endurance to finish the job. This time, in spite of the Hearsts and Pattersons and McCormicks, we shall really mind our own business; we shall see that our affairs are really put in order.

What does that mean? It means first of all, finishing the war. And it means putting everything we have into the devising of an adequate concept and agency for a just and lasting peace. And most of all it means sticking to our unavoidable and unceasing job of making that agency work, of improving our notions of justice, and finally of seeing that progress toward justice and away from inhumanity is being made everywhere in the world. For it does not matter where wrong and evil are found—in the treatment of negroes in our own Southern States, of Jews in Boston, of labor in Detroit; it does not matter whether the agency of oppression and violence is the Klu Klux Klan in Indiana or the Nazi party in Germany or the fascists in Spain—wherever wrong appears, it is our unavoidable business to make common cause with all the decent people in the world to overcome it.

When President Roosevelt said a few years ago that the frontiers of this nation lay along the Rhine, he was attacked on all sides as a warmonger, an internationalist. Look at the globe today. See where our fighting men and women are stationed. See where they lie in death. I tell you the city limits of Crawfordsville have been pushed back and back and back until they enclose nothing less than the whole world.

Our business as Americans, as human beings, as sons of the God of all men everywhere is to do His work wherever we encounter it. Do not be misled by that false and crooked question: "Am I my brother's keeper?" For the answer is perfectly simple: "I am my brother's brother. As his brother, I am hurt by his hurts and made whole by his health. And as his brother, I shall, because I must, make common cause with him against evil, wrong and injustice wherever it appears."

That is the only answer free men and women dare give. And when we live by that answer, then and then only shall we really be minding our own business.