The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Calvin Coolidge
Address at the Dinner of the United Press at New York City
April 25, 1927

Members and Guests of the United Press:

The gathering and the distribution of news have long since ceased to be a local and individual occupation. They have become identified with great organizations have their representatives in all parts of the country and their publications in every important center. This service could only be performed by a mutual exchange of the most inclusive nature. How rapid and complete has been the growth of these organizations is exemplified by the United Press, which is now celebrating its twentieth anniversary. In that short space of time it has spread far and wide over North and South America and become an instrument of both national and international publicity.

This growth and power of the press carries with it great obligations. It is axiomatic that a free press can exist only in a free country. One of the first efforts of all kinds of absolutism is to control the press and the schools as the sources of information and education of the people. Where the press is free, as it is in our country under the guaranties of the National and State Constitutions, it has a reciprocal duty of its own to perform toward the administration of the Government, of giving true reports to the people of the actions of public officials. To do otherwise would be to establish a petty tyranny of its own. In America the general sources of information are so numerous and on the whole so correct that any publication which constantly misrepresents very soon becomes marked as unreliable and loses its influence both for good and for harm.

It is natural that the press should represent the character of the government under which it lives and of the people which it serves. I have come to have a profound regard for the American press because it represents America. In the accuracy of its reports, the intelligence of its comments, and the freedom of its actions, I know of no other country where it is surpassed. There ought to be a deeper realization of these conditions on the part of those who are responsible for the conduct of our press which should be reflected on their part in a more intense and genuine Americanism. If you lived under some jurisdictions your news would be garbled and unfair, your editorial comments would be dwarfed and prejudiced, your conduct would be cramped and limited. Because America is what it is, you are what you are. Your own independent and exalted position fully demonstrates that this country is worthy at all times of your service and your support. Whenever any section of our press turns on America and on American institutions, and assumes a foreign attitude, every informed person knows that it has fallen from the high state which is our common heritage, and becoming no longer worthy of regard is destined to defeat and failure. No American can profit by selling his own country for foreign favor.

The policy that our Nation is trying to promote throughout the world is one of peace and good will based on a better understanding through justice and fair dealing. It is perfectly apparent that there are three main elements on which we rely to advance this cause. First is the National Government as it comes into contact through its duly constituted officers with the governments and people of other countries. I doubt if the belief exists on any informed quarter that this is a belligerent Government desirous of oppression or bent on conquest. Our whole history and tradition, the moderation of our Military Establishment and the general attitude of our people, would altogether disprove any such assumption.

Another very important consideration is that of trade and commercial relations. While a certain number of foreign people come to this country to transact business without intending to make this their permanent home, their number is negligible and any difficulty arising from their presence here is almost unknown. They have practically every advantage and every protection that is afforded to our own citizens. Of their conduct on the whole we have had little to blame and much to praise. In the past foreign interests have had investments in this country running into several billions of dollars. Being made at a time when we had insufficient capital to develop our own resources, such investments were most helpful in building our railroads, opening our mines, and supporting our manufacturing. As we have come into the possession of surplus capital we have shown an increasing disposition to extend this same kind of service to other countries. Our people have gone abroad with their investments, their technical skill and commercial ability, to assist in opening up undeveloped countries.

This is the natural play of the forces of civilization. It is the result of natural and commendable enterprise which carries with it the same kind of benefits and advantages to the other people which we ourselves formerly received from abroad. It is the method by which the more prosperous and improved portions of the earth help to bring these advantages to the less fortunately circumstanced. This policy is distinctly one that is in harmony with the law of service. In principle it is the method by which stronger communities minister to weaker communities. But these operations must be carried on with justice and humanity. They must not be permitted to sink to the level of mere exploitation. They do not justify a seizure, which is virtually by force, of the natural resources of foreign countries or the failure to give fair compensation for their labor. A just attitude in these respects by Americans when they engage in enterprises abroad will do very much to determine whether our country is able to maintain the respect and friendship of foreign peoples. Unless this course is pursued, unless this attitude is maintained, all the support which our Government could give would fail to make these foreign enterprises successful. Unless they rest on justice and fair dealing they are bound to fail.

A third factor exists which is in the long run more important than any other. A condition of understanding and good will among the people of the earth is very largely a state of the public mind. It is almost inconceivable that nations which have maintained friendly relations should all at once find themselves at war with each other. Armed conflict arises from a long series of misunderstandings and abuses which suddenly flare up on some unexpected provocation. Open hostility does not break out unannounced. It is a growth of long and assiduous cultivation. It can not be doubted that people as a whole desire peace. They can not long secure it if they are constantly harboring feelings of hostility. It is for these reasons that the public press, especially the daily newspapers and weekly periodicals, has such an enormous influence in creating a situation that brings the blessings of peace or is fraught with the perils of war.

There are two attitudes that the press may take which distinctly endanger our friendly relations. If they do not bring us to the verge of conflict, they are injurious to our trade. One is the constant criticism and misrepresentation of foreign people. Human nature provides sufficient distrust of all that is alien, so that there is no need of any artificial supply. The world is in far more danger from nations not trusting each other enough than from their trusting each other too much. A press which is given over to a narrow and bigoted nationalism, accompanied by misrepresentations of other countries, not only misinforms and misleads the people at home but produces the reaction of a ranking bitterness abroad. An almost equally harmful attitude is the other extreme. It usually consist of malicious and misleading partisan attacks on the conduct of our own Government in its efforts to defend American rights when they are threatened or invaded in foreign countries. Our Government has usually been too remiss, rather than too active, in supporting the lawful rights of its citizens abroad. That has been so long our established policy that it is rather difficult to conceive it assuming a truculent and arrogant attitude. But when it is proceeding with moderation, attempting by peaceful negotiation to adjust differences, defending the rights of its citizens, and maintaining national dignity, great care is necessary to give the public the exact facts and avoid the appearance of seeming to support the position of foreign governments. When such an attitude becomes known in the offending country, it is widely quoted there and, when all other arguments have been answered, becomes their chief reliance for maintaining their position. It not only furnishes ammunition for our adversaries, but attacks our own forces in the rear. An American press which has all the privileges which it enjoys under our institutions, and which derives its support from the progress and well-being of our people, ought to be first of all thoroughly American.

Progress and civilization have always depended upon effort and sacrifice. We have set up our institutions, established our ideals, and adopted our social standards. We believe that they are consistent with right and truth and justice. We live under a system that guarantees the sanctity of life and liberty through public order and protects the rights of private property under the principle of due process of law. We have thrown every possible safeguard around the individual in order to protect him from any invasion of his rights even by the Government itself. It is peculiarly an American doctrine, now usually accepted in principle if not adopted in practice by all civilized countries, that these are unalienable rights, that they ought to belong to all persons everywhere, and that it is the chief function of government to provide instrumentalities by which these rights can be secured and protected. We have adopted these ideals because we believe that they are of universal application and square with the eternal principles of right. But we may as well realize that they will not continue to prevail unless we are prepared constantly to put forth great efforts and make large sacrifices for their support.

While we have not been willing to assume any general attitude of crusading toward other nations and, realizing that institutions can not be bestowed but must be adopted, have left them for the most part secure in their right to work out their own destiny, yet we have always been willing to encourage and assist, in so far as we could in harmony with international law and custom, other people in securing for themselves the benefit of these principles and ideals. In that conflict between freedom and despotism, which is as old as humanity, and which constantly recurs on one form or another, both among ourselves and among other people, it has always been the policy of this Government to extend its sympathy and, in so far as it lawfully could, its support to the side of freedom.

These are some of the standards which it has been the policy of our Government to support among its people at home and in its dealings with other nations. While it is well-established international law that we have no right to interfere in the purely domestic affairs of other nations in their dealings with their own citizens, it is equally well established that our Government has certain rights over and certain duties toward our own citizens and their property, whatever they may be located. The person and property of a citizen are a part of the general domain of the Nation, even when abroad. On the other hand, there is a distinct and binding obligation on the part of self-respecting governments to afford protection to the persons and property of their citizens, wherever they may be. This is both because it has an interest in them and because it has an obligation toward them. It would seem to be perfectly obvious that if it is wrong to murder and pillage within the confines of the United States, it is equally wrong outside our borders. The fundamental laws of justice are universal in their application. These rights go with the citizen. Wherever he goes these duties of our Government must follow him.

It is all right to say that when our citizens enter a foreign country they should do so with the understanding that they are to abide by the laws of that country. They should, and they do, and our Government would be the last to interfere in the just application of the law of his domicile to our citizens. But this is only a partial statement of the case. The admission of our citizens within their territory is a voluntary act of foreign governments. It is a tacit invitation. When we permit foreigners to come here, and when other countries admit our citizens, we know and they know that such aliens come and go not only under the rights and duties imposed by domestic law but also under the rights and duties imposed by international law. There is nothing unfair, nothing imperialistic, in this principle. It has been universally adopted and recognized as right and just and is the only reasonable method by which enlightened humanity can safeguard friendly intercourse among the citizens of different nations. This policy has been adopted in furtherance of the humanitarian desire for a universal reign of law.

These principles are involved in some of the difficulties that we have recently been trying to work out with foreign nations, especially with Mexico. We have had claims against that country running over a long series of years, growing out of the death of many of our citizens and the loss of their property, running into hundreds of millions of dollars. A very considerable portion of these cases has been due to revolutionary activities and other forms of public violence. Public order has never been entirely complete in that country. But lately our difficulties have been increased by the enactment of laws by the Government itself, which we feel threaten the virtual confiscation of the property of our citizens, even where their holdings are under titles which have been established for scores of years.

In 1857 Mexico adopted a constitution. In its relation to the protection of acquired property it provided ample security. Under its terms many of our people acquired holdings both through individual and corporate ownership. During the more than 30 years of President Diaz we were especially encouraged to make investments, to promote all kinds of development of the natural resources, transportation, and industries. After he was driven from office by revolution much disorder existed, with Presidents following one another in rapid succession.

In 1917 a new constitution was adopted with provisions affecting agricultural, mining, and oil lands, which we thought threatened the holdings of our nationals with confiscation. Their constitution is not self-enforcing, but requires the promulgation of laws to put it into effect. While this was in process of being brought about a government was established which we did not recognize. In 1920 General Obregon was chosen President and sought recognition. In negotiations for that purpose it was repeatedly pointed out that we feared that the new constitution, although one of its provisions expressly prohibited the enactment of retroactive laws, might be interpreted as retroactive in its effect upon the holdings of real estate which our people had secured prior to its adoption. We sought assurances from the Mexican Government that such was not the case. In order to prevent misunderstanding we sent two commissioners to Mexico City in 1923 to confer upon this subject, and also on the question of our claims, with two Mexican commissioners. Charles Beecher Warren and John Barton Payne represented our Government. They had a series of conferences and kept written records of their proceedings, in which are set out the recommendation for the appointment of two claims commissions and the understanding that the constitution of 1917 was not to be given retroactive or confiscatory application. These records were duly signed and attested by the commissioners and were submitted to the President of Mexico and the President of the United States for their mutual approval, which was given. It was solely because of our understanding secured in this formal way that our property rights would be respected that recognition of the government of President Obregon was granted on September 3, 1923.

During the winter of 1924 revolutionary activities started in Mexico which it seems probable would have succeeded in displacing President Obregon had not our Government furnished him with arms and ammunition largely on credit and given him the advantage of our moral support. Our help maintained his position. Soon after President Calles came into power he and the Mexican Congress proposed laws and regulations which we deemed threatened confiscation of American property. To prevent the appearance of acquiescence we so notified Mexico prior to the passage of such laws. Nevertheless they were passed. We have made further protest against their being put into effect, as they are contrary to our understanding of the conference as a result of which we granted recognition. In the notes which have been received the government of President Calles refuses to be bound by what we thought was the understanding arrived at with President Obregon. We closed the correspondence by notifying the Mexican Government that we stood squarely on the understanding made with President Obregon and we expected it not to take any action that would deprive American citizens of their property or their property rights.

Agricultural lands have apparently been seized from time to time for which no compensation has yet been made. While there have been threats to seize oil property, no such seizures have lately been made, and suits are now pending in Mexican courts to restrain such seizures. Former decisions of their courts are relied on to support these suits.

Stripped of all technicalities and involved legal discussion, this is the main difference which our Government has with the Mexican Government. We do not question their right to take any property, provided they pay fair compensation. With their efforts to secure a division of great estates, so that more of their people may be landowners, we have every sympathy. We have even agreed that our Government would accept the bonds of the Mexican Government in payment for damages awarded by the commission for land taken for this purpose. Of course, we do not want any controversy with Mexico. We feel every sympathy with her people in their distress and have every desire to assist them. That they welcome conditions under which life and property are secure is shown by the hundreds of thousands of them who are coming to the United States, where, through their industry, they thrive and prosper. Under these conditions small land holdings would develop in Mexico as they have developed here. Those of her citizens who preferred to seek employment in industry, like many of our own people, would have an abundant opportunity in their own country. Instead of desiring to pursue any aggression or to take part in any oppression, we are endeavoring through the most friendly offices to demonstrate to their Government that their attitude in relation to property will not only result in the economic disadvantage of their own people, by preventing the investment of outside capital so necessary for their development, but will greatly impair their friendly relations with other interested nations.

It is a cardinal principle of law that private property should not be taken without fair compensation. This principle is declared in our National Constitution and in those of all our States. I know of no written constitution that does not contain a similar provision. Under the constitution of 1917, and by-laws and regulations for carrying it into effect, we feel that Mexico is threatening to disregard his great elementary principle by undertaking a retroactive application of their constitution to property of our citizens acquired long before their constitution was adopted.

The Senate recently passed a resolution supporting the protection of American life and property and suggesting resort to arbitration. We have at present two commissions of arbitration with Mexico, and the principle of arbitration has always been strongly advocated by our Government. Everybody favors arbitration when the question at issue is arbitrable. Under the present circumstances I can see grave difficulties in formulating a question which the two Governments would agree to submit to such a tribunal. The principle that property is not to be confiscated and the duty of our Government to protect it are so well established that it is doubtful if they should be permitted to be questioned. Very likely Mexico would feel that the right to make a constitution and pass laws is a privilege of her sovereignty which she could not permit to be brought into question. It has therefore seemed that we are more likely to secure an adjustment through negotiation. I am glad to report that the Mexican Ambassador has recently declared to me that she does not intend to confiscate our property; that she has shown diligence in capturing and punishing those who have murdered our citizens, and expressed the wish, which we so thoroughly entertain, of keeping cordial and friendly relations. With a strong sentiment of this nature, which, I am convinced, animates the people of both countries, it will surely be possible to reach an amicable adjustment. Our two people ought so to conduct themselves that there will never be any interference with our ancient ties of friendship.

Our relationship to Nicaragua I have set out in detail in a message to the Congress. For a dozen years we kept a force of marines in that country at the earnest solicitation of its Government. During this time the people were peaceful, orderly, and prosperous, and their national debt was greatly reduced. Almost at once after I withdrew the marines revolution was started. Finally a President was designated by the Congress which appeared to us and to other Central American countries to have a constitutional title and we therefore recognized him. As the disorders continued, on his representation that he was unable to protect American lives and property, I sent a force of marines for that purpose. Their presence has undoubtedly prevented the larger towns from being pillaged and confined the fighting for the most part to uninhabited areas. We have sold arms and ammunition, as we did in the case of Mexico, to the Nicaraguan Government. The revolutionary forces appear to have received arms and ammunition from some source in Mexico. With a hope that we might be furnished with information which would better enable us to deal with the situation, I have sent Henry L. Stimson, former Secretary of War, to that country. Meantime, it is reported that the Government forces have been apparently successful in driving the revolutionists from the field.

In addition to the private property of our citizens, which is employed in lumber and agricultural operations, our Government has secured the right to construct a canal and establish a naval base, for which it paid $3,000,000. Contrary to the general impression, there are no oil properties in this country. Nevertheless, I have seen cartoons that pictured it as filled with oil derricks. Our country consumes vast quantities of oil and gasoline in its use of automobiles, gas engines, and oil-burning furnaces. If these products are to be kept within a reasonable price, which is very important to a great body of our citizens, our people who go abroad to develop new fields and to increase the supply ought to have the encouragement and support of our Government. We are not making war on Nicaragua any more than a policeman on the street is making war on passers-by. We are there to protect our citizens and their property from being destroyed by war and to lend every encouragement we can to the restoration of peace. While the destruction of life and property has been serious enough had it not been for the presence of our forces it would undoubtedly have been much worse.

Toward the governments of countries which we have recognized this side of the Panama Canal we feel a moral responsibility that does not attach to other nations. We wish them to feel that our recognition is of real value to them and that they can count on such support as we can lawfully give when they are beset with difficulties. We have undertaken to discourage revolutions within that area and to encourage settlement of political differences by the peaceful method of elections. This policy is bound to meet with some discouragements, but it is our hope and belief that ultimately it will prevail. This territory is rich in natural resources and under orderly governments is capable of a development that will give to its inhabitants all the advantages of modern civilization. It is a curious circumstance that some of those who have been willing to have us take mandates over far-off countries in Asia, where we have no interest that does not attach to all humanity, are most critical when we are attempting to encourage the maintenance of order, the continuity of duly established government, and the protection of lives and property of our own citizens under a general reign of law in these countries that are near at hand and where we have large and peculiar interests.

Another important problem in our foreign intercourse relates to China. That country is undergoing a revolutionary convulsion. It is broken up into several separate parts, each claiming to represent a government, none of which we have recognized. Our main difficulty here is the protection of the life and property of our citizens. We have many missionaries there and some commercial establishments. We have nothing in the way of concessions. We have never occupied any territory. Our citizens are being concentrated in ports where we can protect them and remove them. It is solely for this purpose that our warships and marines are in that territory.

While this process was going on the unfortunate incident arose at Nanking. One of our citizens was murdered, another was wounded, our consulate was violated, and when the house in which our people had taken refuge was surrounded and they were actually under fire it became necessary for one of our ships, and one of the British ships in the harbor, to lay down a barrage, to drive away the soldiers and the mob who were making the attack and to enable our citizens to reach a place of safety on our ships in the river. We presented with the other powers who had suffered like attacks identic notes of protest, to which a reply has been made, which although conciliatory in tone and to a certain degree responsive, leaves the final disposition of the issue a matter or further consideration by our Government.

Weeks ago we saw this situation developing and sent a suggestion to the contending factions that they exclude the foreign quarters of the city of Shanghai from the area of military operations. This they failed to do, making the dispatch of our forces necessary. In a public statement issued by our Secretary of State on the 27th of January we indicated that we were ready to negotiate a treaty giving China complete tariff autonomy and to negotiate the release of extraterritorial rights as soon as China is prepared to give protection to American citizens and their property. The friendship of America for China has become proverbial. We feel for her the deepest sympathy in these times of her distress. We have no disposition to do otherwise than to assist and encourage very legitimate aspiration for freedom, for unity, for the cultivation of a national spirit, and the realization of a republican form of government. In the turmoil and strife of the present time we realize fully that forces may be let loose temporarily beyond their power to control, which may do injury to American nationals. It is to guard against that eventuality that our forces are in Chinese waters and to do what China itself would do if peace prevailed. We do not wish to pursue any course of aggression against the Chinese people. We are there to prevent aggression against our people by any of their disorderly elements. Ultimately the turmoil will quiet down and some form of authority will emerge, which will no doubt be prepared to make adequate settlement for any wrongs we have suffered. We shall of course maintain the dignity of our Government and insist upon proper respect being extended to our authority. But our actions will at all times be those of a friend solicitous for the well-being of the Chinese people.

The recent period has brought America into a new position in the world. We shall have to bear the inevitable criticisms and try to discharge the inevitable obligations which arise from this condition. Because some others have pursued that course, it may be feared that we shall embark upon a program of military aggrandizement. Such, however, is not the spirit of the American people. If, even where our national interests and the protection of the rights of our citizens are involved, we attempt to assist in composing difficulties and supporting international law, we must expect to be charged with imperialistic motives. In our international intercourse we must hold ourselves up to high standards of justice and equity. We should be slow to take offense and quick to grant redress. The world knows that the whole genius of America always calls it to the support of the universal rights of humanity.

The civilization of the world has been accomplished by the acceptance and general observance of definite rules of human conduct. Our duty demands that it be clearly understood at home and abroad that we are unwavering in our faith in those principles. Those who violate them can not hope for our approbation. Our attitude toward all nations is one of friendship and good will. Toward those who are yet struggling to improve the conditions of their people and achieve a larger liberty, it is especially one of forbearance. We support the demands of right and justice, but we are equally solicitous to observe the requirements of mercy and compassion. In the attempt of your Government to meet these great obligations by which alone an enlightened civilized society can be maintained, a united America must constantly respond with service and sacrifice.

Citation: Calvin Coolidge: "Address at the Dinner of the United Press at New York City", April 25, 1927. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=419.
 
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