The Spirit of America


By IRVING LEHMAN, Chief Judge, New York Court of Appeals

Delivered at Dinner in Honor of General Eisenhower by the City of New York, June 19, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 552-553.


Today from the sidewalks of New York, from its roofs and windows, from its ball grounds and parks, millions roared their warm welcome home to you. They brought you a wordless message more eloquent than the most carefully chosen words could achieve; a message of affection for you as a man and gratitude to you as the Supreme Commander who led the armies of the Allied Nations to triumphant victory in Europe.

That message, that message I know, went straight to your great heart from the great hearts of millions of New Yorkers. And believe me, sir, that the people of New York have great hearts. Since that night in November, 1942, when our armies attacked in North Africa, we have shared your anxieties as we have shared your confidence in ultimate victory, and even when we grieved for the loved ones we have lost we bore our loses with all the fortitude that we could summon.

It has been said that there are more Italians in New York than in Rome, more Irish than in Dublin, more Jews than in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Doubtless you, sir, have heard some say that the cause of this diversity of racial and national origin, the great principles of freedom and democracy on which American institutions are soundly based are not perhaps as deeply cherished or as well understood here as let us say in Kansas, that our citizens will not make the same willing sacrifices to maintain what we call the American heritage. The names, General Eisenhower, on the daily casualty lists which we anxiously scan with heavy hearts, the names on the list of men cited for heroism and selfless devotion which we read with glowing pride, attest beyond doubt the worth of New York's immigrant sons. Those who say otherwise ignore the real spirit of America and the real spirit of New York.

Quotes Smith and Davis

I once heard that spirit dramatically expressed by Al Smith, the Happy Warrior born in New York of immigrant parents, and John W. Davis, the accomplished diplomat, statesman and acknowledged leader of the bar. It was at a small private dinner in 1933, soon after Hitler became Chancellor. A member of the German Debt Commission then iri this country tried to persuade us that night that the roots of nazism lay in Germany's economic misery and that the way to destroy nazism was to assist Germany to become a prosperous and satisfied nation.

Al Smith then spoke up in his inimitable way. He said, sir, "America can't understand that talk or accept that kind of excuse or explanation. Five years ago I ran for President, and I won't say that racial and religious prejudice was without influence in that campaign, but I got over fifteen million votes, and if the winners had attempted to put me in a prison or concentration camp more than fifteen million Americans would have marched on Washington and would have freed me. That," he said, "is America." And Davis then broke in and said: "And the Davises would have marched side by side with the Smiths."

That is the spirit of America and you, General Eisenhower, know perhaps better than any other, for you have seen Americans of British stock and of Irish stock—of Italian stock, of German stock and even of Japanese stock—Catholics and Protestants and Jews but Americana all—gallantly march shoulder to shoulder, through hell itself, that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. Last week, at your press conference in Paris, you gave expression to that knowledge when in reply to a request for a comment on the contribution made by Negro soldiers, you said: "I do not differentiate between soldiers. I do not say White soldiers or Negro soldiers." Mayor La Guardia will surely agree with me that nowhere is the spirit of America more fervent than in New York—in the hearts of those millions who greeted you so warmly today.

And that noisy greeting with its eloquent message to you of the city's warm affection and gratitude still left unsaid part of what was in their hearts. And I think the people of this city would wish me to bring you tonight a more solemn message than you heard. Last month when our victory in Europe was announced there was some unrestrained joy just as there was unrestrained rejoicing today, but almost immediately the people of the City of New York in sober mood flocked to churches and synagogues there to give thanks to the Lord whose prophet had said that "Out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. * * * And men shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations shall no longer lift up arms against nation. Neither shall there be war any more."

On that day of victory the same millions who today greeted you so joyously, Catholic, Protestant and Jews—yes, and even men who reject all creeds—worshiped the Prince of Peace who taught all the world the way to peace when in Jerusalem He proclaimed for all the world to hear that the two great commandments of the law which God had proclaimed long before on the slopes of Mount Sinai were: "Thou shalt love Thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul" and "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

That was the law which went forth from Zion. That was the word of the Lord which went forth from Jerusalem and when all the world listens to the Prince of Peace and obeys the commandments of the Lord, then will the kingdom or God be established on earth and the words of its prophet will be fulfilled, for nation will no longer lift up arms against nation. Neither shall there be war any more.

And so I say to you, General Eisenhower, that the peopleof this great city, that we who have greeted you so tumultuously today also silently love you deep in our hearts because never for a moment have you forgotten that American soldiers are not mere pawns in a game of war but are loved youths, and because you have loved them as we do, and we honor you, sir, because you—the man trained in the arts of war, commander of the embattled nations, who in righteous wrath took up their arms to defend their right to live in peace—have alongside of Franklin Roosevelt, the peace-loving leader of a peace-loving people, brought the day nearer when all men shall live in security in their own homes, fearing none and hating none.