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Calvin Coolidge: Address at Gettysburg Battlefield
Calvin
Calvin Coolidge
Address at Gettysburg Battlefield
May 30, 1928
Location:

United States
Pennsylvania
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My Fellow Americans:

This returning Decoration Day brings our entire Nation in reverence and respect to the graves of our departed soldiers. Each year their number has increased, as that long blue line which stood so valiantly for the cause of the Union has grown thinner and thinner, until to-day it has almost vanished from earthly view.

On Fame's eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.

We do not come to lament, but to give thanks. With one acclaim the people bestow upon them all that divine salutation, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

To express our devotion we have come to the field of Gettysburg. It ranks as one of the great historic battle grounds of this continent. In the magnitude of its importance it compares with the Plains of Abraham, with Saratoga, and with Yorktown. It is associated with a great battle between the Union and Confederate forces and with one of the greatest addresses ever delivered by one of the greatest men ever in the world, Abraham Lincoln.

The respect in which the United States holds its service men is indicated by something more substantial than lip service. Between $6,000,000,000 and $7,000,000,000 have gone out of the United States Treasury in pensions and gratuities to those who fought in that war which reached its crest upon this hard-fought field. These payments are still going on at the rate of about $200,000,000 each year. To the account of those who took part in the World War, for benefits and compensations in the short period of 10 years since its close already there has been set aside almost $5,000,000,000, and payments are going on at the rate of about $560,000,000 each year. Our people do something more for their service men and their dependents besides giving them a kind word while they live and placing a wreath on their last resting place when they are gone.

All the countries on earth in all their history, all put together, have not done as much for those who have fought in their behalf as our country alone had done in the past 50 years. Our appreciation and our devotion is evidenced by something more than tributes and monuments and yearly assemblages devoted to their praise.

While making these tremendous expenditures for the benefit of those who have seen military service, our country at the same time is making outlays in excess of those ever before made in time of peace for the purpose of national defense. Yet our military force is exceedingly moderate, our standing Army is small, our National Guard and Reserve represent little more than a supplementary police force, when we consider our great area at home and our obligations in our outlying possessions. Our naval force necessary for the protection of our commerce, which is world-wide and not exceeded in importance by that of any other country, while of very respectable proportions, needs to be strengthened in cruisers and other auxiliary craft. Such construction is already under way and plans are maturing for the necessary increases. Our air forces are being steadily improved and enlarged.

While we are maintaining these moderate forces, we are especially anxious for the world to know that they are purely for defensive purposes and to promote general peace and tranquility. No other nation has anything which we would think of taking by force. Our restrictive immigration law is a declaration of national policy against the acquisition of the territory of any foreign people. Though we have at this time some of our forces in Haiti, Nicaragua, and China, they are in none of these places for the purpose of making war, but for the purpose of insuring peaceful conditions under which the rights of our nationals and their property may receive that protection to which they are entitled under the terms of international law. Our further purpose in Haiti and Nicaragua is to assist the peoples and governments of those two countries in establishing stability, in maintaining orderly and peaceful institutions in harmony with civilized society. We are there at their express invitation and in accordance with explicit agreements.

The world-wide interests of the United States aside from the dictates of humanity make us view with peculiar disfavor not only any danger of being involved in war ourselves, but any danger of war among other nations. Our investments and trade relations are such that it is almost impossible to conceive of any conflict anywhere on earth which would not affect us injuriously. The one thing that we want above all else for ourselves and for other nations is a continuance of peace. Whether so intended or not, any nations engaging in war would thereby necessarily be engaged in a course prejudicial to us.

The strength of this Nation, however, is not expressed merely in terms of an Army and Navy. A yet greater power is derived from the happiness and contentment of the people. During recent years this has been our national position to a greater extent than ever experienced by any other people. A realization of the benefits derived from our political and economic institutions naturally results in patriotic devotion. The efforts made to establish a government free from tyranny, in which the fullest freedom consistent with order and justice would be granted, and where opportunity would be open and industry attended with the largest rewards, all have an important bearing on the subject of national defense.

But to the contentment and patriotism of the people there must be added the resources that are derived from prosperous industry, agriculture, and commerce. Good credit, which is derived from sound financial conditions, is the principal foundation of national defense. That country which has so ordered its finances as to be in a position to furnish the largest amount of money will always be in the best position to protect itself. Reduction of our national debt, permitting a reduction of taxes which stimulates private enterprise and increases our credit, is an important addition to our national strength. The industrial advance, the agricultural development, the financial resources, strengthened by wise policies in time of peace, are of inestimable value in time of war.

A people which gives itself over to great armaments and military display runs great danger of creating within itself a quarrelsome war spirit. But these other elements of power, although their importance is usually ignored, by contributing to the happiness and contentment of the people, are important influences for peace. Those who seek for vast military establishments, requiring enormous expenditures of money, are not necessarily contributing so much to national defense as those who would apply more of our revenue to the payment of our debt and a corresponding reduction of our taxes, which would be reflected in increased prosperity. With this method of preparedness, the more peaceful we become.

It can be said of our country that in all its history it has never made preparations to attack any other country. Whenever it has been engaged in conflict it has entered it in such a state of unpreparedness as to demonstrate that it was not sought or even expected. While others have felt that they were forced to prepare for war, our situation has been such that we have always been preparing for peace.

It is our theory that while the Army and Navy are an important and necessary part, they are by no means the only agency of national security. We know that there are time when race antagonisms and national animosities break out in the world in the most unexpected way. At other times, all nations are subjected to more or less domestic tumult. In such cases, the presence of adequate armed forces is the only practical method of protection for life and property. But the world has advanced far enough now in civilization and experience, so that a great conflict is not likely to arise so much from design as from accident. It is realized that war can not be profitable. The trend of civilization is undoubtedly toward peace.

The reason for this is not far to seek. War means the application of force. Peace means the application of reason. War is complete lawlessness. Peace is the rule of law. The principal effort of civilization, after all, is to bring the world under obedience to law. The great conflict which raged upon this battle field had for its ultimate decision the question of whether the power of the sword or the power of the Constitution was to be supreme. Under republican institutions an industrious and law-abiding people will make a peaceful nation, while a lawless and riotous people will make a warlike nation. Like many other of our problems, the solution runs back to the individual and the home. If around the Nation's fireside respect for authority, reverence for holy things, and obedience to parental discipline are taught, the surest foundation for peace will be laid. Where these home influences are lacking, the danger of conflict increases.

While the people of the United States as a whole are peaceful and law-abiding to a remarkable degree, it can not be denied that we have had sporadic outbreaks of crime, especially those of violence, which are exceedingly disturbing. Such a condition will indicate, if continued, a loosening of the moral fiber of the Nation. It is very easy to cast the blame upon the police authorities, the prosecuting officers, and the courts. But if a criminal condition continues to prevail, the blame goes beyond these officials. We live under a system of popular government. Our officers reflect to a very large degree public opinion.

If the people themselves show that they are determined to have crime stamped out, there will be no lack of vigilance on the part of the police, no lack of energetic action on the part of prosecuting attorneys, and no lack of adequate penalty on the part of the courts. If the people are careless and indifferent, if they look with complacency on crime and assume a sentimental attitude toward criminals, little reform can be hoped for. If, on the other hand, the people remember that good government only can be secured by the exercise of eternal vigilance, that it is necessary constantly to resist, evil tendencies, if they will take such action as is necessary to give adequate expression to their determination to terminate lawlessness and crime, it can be done.

For the purpose of promoting a reign of law in the world there is a special obligation resting upon all public officials. In our own country, and in most others, the government is one of limited powers. The purpose, as has been so well expressed, is to provide a government of law and not of men. The great majority of offices are those created by statute. Those who fill such places should be alert to ascertain the powers with which they have been invested and scrupulous to observe the law under which they have been appointed. But in addition to these there is a considerable body, executive, legislative, and judicial in its functions, which derive their authority directly from constitutional sources. None of these are all-powerful, but are held within strict limits. They have all come into existence because the people have decreed by their constitutions that they should be clothed with certain limited authority.

The chief temptations to go beyond the bounds which the people have set arise in legislatures. In their desire to take some action which they conceive to be in the public interest, they oftentimes manifest a disposition to exceed their constitutional authority. Such action is a larceny of power. Responsibility for it can not be evaded by the weak plea to let the law be passed and the courts can decide its constitutionality. Legislators are required to qualify upon their solemn oath. That oath is not that they will leave the courts to defend and support the Constitution, but that they themselves will defend and support it. When additional authority is required, they should apply to the people to amend the Constitution, and not attempt to evade it or strain it by subterfuge and misconception.

The same necessity for being law-abiding at home applies to our citizens when they are abroad. Our people are granted free access on the same basis as others into all the countries of the world. As a general policy they go with the encouragement of our Government to engage in all kinds of enterprise. But when once they have set foot in foreign land, it is their duty to render obedience to the domestic and international law which is applicable to their proposed actions. Our Government necessarily has rights over its citizens and their property in whatever country they may be. While we do not and can not undertake to interfere in the application of domestic law to our nationals, unless it contravenes the rights of our Government and people under international law, nevertheless the carelessness of some of our citizens abroad in violating domestic law and in assuming an arrogant attitude toward the local inhabitants tends to bring our country into disrepute and endangers the continuance of of friendly relations.

A Government of the United States that failed in its duty to protect the lives and property of its citizens would be justly condemned at home and covered with derision abroad. But our citizens ought to remember that it is their duty so to conduct themselves in their relations with foreign interest that they are worthy of whatever protection they may need from their home Government.

Obedience to international law, however,is a reciprocal duty. It is necessary not only that we scrupulously observe it ourselves, but that it be known that we shall require such observance from others. When we make agreements with other nations we must see that they are performed. If they are ever to be abrogated, it must be only in accordance with their terms. For us to insist at all times and places on the observance of international law is to strengthen the main foundation of peace. By our influence and by our example we can do much to discourage all acts of international lawlessness.

After all, peace is a spiritual attainment. We can set up material safeguards like fortifications and armaments, which will afford us much protection against attack, but unless we cultivate and cherish sentiments of friendship and understanding they are no guaranty of peace. One method of arriving at a better state of understanding, so that friendship may be preserved, is to provide before the event for methods of negotiating and adjudicating matters in dispute. In furtherance of the plan of this Government to settle international controversies by pacific means and thereby lessen the cause of war, the United States is now negotiating new arbitration treaties and additional conciliation treaties with the principal nations of the world.

The Pan American Conference which met at Habana in January, 1928, passed a resolution calling a conference of all the American States to meet in Washington within a year to draft treaties of arbitration and conciliation. For that purpose, such a conference probably will be held in Washington the latter part of this year. The peace of the world can not, of course, be obtained by any one single act, but every treaty of arbitration and conciliation and every agreement against resorting to war adds another barrier against those conflicts which from time to time have recurred in the history of nations, and it is the hope of mankind that these repeated steps may in time establish a mode of thought and a custom of action that will do much to prevent war.

As is well known, we are also engaged in conversations with different powers for putting peace on a new basis and making it still more permanent. In June, 1927, M. Briand, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, made an historic proposal to this Government. He suggested that France and the United States sign a treaty condemning recourse to war and renouncing it as an instrument of national policy in their mutual relations. During the 11 months that have since elapsed, this suggestion has been developed into one of the most impressive peace movements that the world has ever seen. The United States has accepted the principle underlying M. Briand's suggestion and has advocated its extension so as to include within the scope of the proposed treaty not only France and the United States, but also Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Japan, and any other nations of the world that might care to join with these six powers in a common renunciation of war.

In order to facilitate discussion and to demonstrate that a treaty such as that desired by the United States could be short, simple, and straightforward, Mr. Kellogg, Secretary of State, submitted on April 13, 1928, for the consideration of the other interested powers, a preliminary draft of a treaty representing in a general way the form of treaty which he suggested we were prepared to conclude. This draft treaty has met with very favorable reception. Not only has the idea of a multilateral treaty for the renunciation of war been indorsed by public opinion here and abroad but the governments themselves have approached the matter with an interest and a sympathy which is most encouraging.

We have gathered to pay tribute to our soldier dead. This day is consecrated to their memory. It seems to me that the greatest honor that we can do to those who have died on the field of battle that this Republic might live is soberly to pledge ourselves to bend our every effort to prevent any recurrence of war. The government of the people, by the people, for the people, which Lincoln described in his immortal address, is a government of peace, not of war, and our dead will not have died in vain if, inspired by their sacrifice, we endeavor by every means within our power to prevent the shedding of human blood in the attempted settlement of international controversies. It is my earnest hope that success may crown the negotiations now in progress, and that the ideals which have inspired the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State of the United States in their joint efforts to find a solution of the problem of peace may find a practical realization in the early making of a multilateral treaty limiting future resort to war.



Citation: Calvin Coolidge: "Address at Gettysburg Battlefield," May 30, 1928. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=458.
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