Harry S. Truman photo

Address Before the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth.

December 05, 1950

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:

As we meet here today, the serious crisis in world affairs overshadows all that we do. This country of ours, together with the other members of the United Nations, is engaged in a critical struggle to uphold the values of peace and justice and freedom.

We are struggling to preserve our own liberty as a nation. More than that, we are striving to cooperate with other free nations to uphold the basic values of freedom--of peace based on justice--which are essential for the progress of mankind.

As we engage in that struggle, we must preserve the elements of our American way of life that are the basic source of our strength. This is the purpose of this Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth. We are seeking ways to help our children and young people become mentally and morally stronger, and to make them better citizens. I think you should go right ahead with this work, because it is more important now than it has ever been.

Our thoughts and prayers are with our young men who are fighting in Korea. They are engaged in a battle against tremendous odds. The full effort of the united people of this country is behind them. All of us are aware of the grave risk of general conflict which has been deliberately caused by the Chinese Communist leaders. Their action greatly changes the immediate situation with which we are confronted. It does not change our fundamental purpose to work for the cause of a just and peaceful world.

No matter how the immediate situation may develop, we must remember that the fighting in Korea is but one part of the tremendous struggle of our time--the struggle between freedom and Communist slavery. This struggle engages all our national life, all our institutions, and all our resources. For the effort of the evil forces of communism to reach out and dominate the world confronts our Nation and our civilization with the greatest challenge in our history.

I believe the single most important thing our young people will need to meet this critical challenge in the years ahead is moral strength--and strength of character. I know that the work of this conference will be of tremendous assistance in the urgent task of helping our young people achieve the strength of character they will need.

If we are to give our children the training that will enable them to hold fast to the right course in these dangerous times, we must clearly understand the nature of the crisis. We must understand the nature of the threat created by international communism.

In the first place, it is obviously a military threat. The Communist dominated countries are maintaining large military forces-far larger than they could possibly need for peaceful purposes. And they have shown by their actions in Korea that they will not hesitate to use these forces in armed aggression whenever it suits their evil purposes.

Because of this military threat, we must strengthen our military defenses. We are now engaged in a great program of rearmament. This will change the lives of our young people. A great many of them will have to devote some part of their lives to service in our Armed Forces or other defense activities. In no other way can we insure our survival as a nation.

Our objective is not simply to build up our own Armed Forces. Our objective is to help build up the collective strength of the free nations--the nations which share the ideals and aspirations of free men everywhere.

As a matter of defense, we need the combined resources and the common determination of the free world to meet the military threat of communism.

But our problem is more than a military matter. Our problem and our objective is to build a world order based on freedom and justice. We have worked with the free nations to lay the foundations of such a world order in the United Nations. We must remain firm in our commitment to the United Nations. That is the only way out of an endless circle of force and retaliation, violence and war--which will carry the human race back to the Dark Ages if it is not stopped now. And this is a point that we must make sure our children and young people understand.

The threat of communism has other aspects than the military aspect. In some ways the moral and spiritual dangers that flow from communism are a much more serious threat to freedom than are its military power.

The ideology of communism is a challenge to all the values of our society and of our way of life. Some people are most concerned about the Communist threat to our economic system. But, serious as this is, it is only one of the many problems that communism raises.

Communism attacks our main basic values, our belief in God, our belief in the dignity of man and the value of human life, our belief in justice and freedom. It attacks the institutions that are based on these values. It attacks our churches, our guarantees of civil liberty, our courts, our democratic form of government. Communism claims that all these things are merely tools of self-interest and greed--that they are weapons used by one class to oppress another.

We who live in this country know, from our own experience, how false this attack of communism is. But there are many people in other parts of the world who have suffered injustice, who have been oppressed, or who stagger under burdens of poverty or disease, to whom the false doctrines of communism have an appeal. Every time our American institutions fail to live up to their high purposes, every time they fail in the proper administration of justice, the forces of communism are aided in their attempt to poison the minds of men everywhere against us and our institutions.

Our teachers--and all others who deal with our young people--should place uppermost the need for making our young people under, stand our free institutions and the values upon which they rest. We must fight against the moral cynicism--the materialistic view of life--on which communism feeds. We must teach the objectives that lie behind our institutions, and the duty of all our citizens to make those institutions work more perfectly. Nothing is more important than this. And nothing this conference can do will have a greater effect on the world struggle against communism than spelling out ways in which our young people can better understand our democratic institutions. We must teach them why we must fight, when necessary, to defend our democratic institutions, our belief in the rights of the individual, and our fundamental belief in God.

These White House Conferences have done much, over the years, to make our people and our Government conscious of our social problems, as they affect children, and to help solve those problems. These conferences have made our democracy work better--have aided it to carry out its promise of a better life for all.

In this fifth conference of this White House series you are carrying on that great tradition. This year you are mainly concerned with the mental and moral health of our children. And that is exactly what you should be concerned with at this time.

I do not claim to be an expert in these things, and I know that I am addressing a conference of experts, but I think there are certain fundamental factors in the development of the American character that it is necessary for us to look to.

That reminds me, when I was running the county at home--Jackson County--we had a welfare department. And it occurred to me that we needed an expert in that welfare department, and I succeeded in getting a couple of fine women to come out and help us carry on that program. The director of welfare came to me one day, all out of breath, and he said, "Now Judge, I don't think this thing is going to work. I find that these experts of yours never washed a dish or pinned a diaper in their lives." It did work, however, and it was a very satisfactory outcome we had with that welfare department.

The basis of mental and moral strength for our children lies in spiritual things. It lies first of all in the home. And next, it lies in the religious and moral influences which are brought to bear on the children.

If children have a good home--a home in which they are loved and understood--and if they have good teachers in the first few grades of school, I believe they are well started on the way toward being useful and honorable citizens.

I have always considered my mother and father as my first great influence. I was lucky to have picked the right mother and father.

I have always considered that my first, second, and third grade teachers made an immense contribution to any character that I may have at the present time. And I do not think I am being old-fashioned when I say that they ought to have religious training when they are young, and that they will be happier for it and better for it the rest of their lives.

In the days ahead there will be many cases in which we will have to make special efforts to see that children get a fair chance at the right kind of start in life. For as our defense effort is increased, special problems will be created by the disruption of the lives of many families.

When the White House Conference was held in 1940, the nature of the defense problems which lay ahead was not very clear to those who participated. But in the years that followed we found that the defense program created many problems that affected our children. There were problems of migration, problems of divided families, working mothers, inadequate housing at defense centers and military camps, lack of community services and of facilities for education and child welfare.

Today we know much more about these problems, and our recent experience in trying to solve them is fresh in the minds of most of us. I know the work of this conference will give us some important guidelines as to how we can handle these matters best. Our defense effort is all-important, but we must do everything we can to see that it does not handicap the lives of children who are affected by it. The delegates to this conference can help us do a better job this time in meeting our defense problems. This is a vital part of the work of helping to make a healthier and happier life for all our children in the years ahead.

We must remember, in all that we do at this conference and afterward, that we cannot insulate our children from the uncertainties of the world in which we live or from the impact of the problems which confront us all. What we can do--and what we must do--is to equip them to meet these problems, to do their part in the total effort, and to build up those inner resources of character which are the main strength of the American people.

Individual self-reliance and independence of spirit are the greatest sources of strength in this democracy of ours. They mark the difference between free countries and dictatorships.

The great weakness of dictatorships is that they enslave the minds and the characters of the people over whom they rule. And the effects of this enslavement are most serious in the case of children.

I have been told by people who worked in Germany immediately after the last war that the young people in that country were physically among the healthiest in Europe. But they had been enslaved, mentally and morally, by the dictatorship, and when these controls were destroyed--when they were put on their own--these children just didn't know what to do. Brought up under dictatorial rule, they were unable to take care of themselves after the dictatorship had fallen. It takes time to correct this. The same weakness is characteristic of the Communist dictatorships where the children are just as much slaves of the state as they were under the Nazis.

Our form of society is strong exactly where dictatorships are weak. We believe in self-reliant individuals. That is the goal of our system of education and training--and that is the goal of this conference.

I know that this conference will make important findings concerning the ways we must adopt to meet this goal. I know that its labors will have value for years to come. The country looks to you for guidance, for help, and for inspiration. You have a great role to play in holding up the torch of freedom which this Nation has sworn to uphold, and which with God's help we shall continue to uphold.

Note: The President spoke at 10:15 a.m. at the National Guard Armory in Washington. His opening words "Mr. Chairman" referred to Oscar E. Ewing, Federal Security Administrator and chairman of the National Committee, Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth. The conference was held in Washington, December 3-7, 1950.
The address was broadcast.

Harry S. Truman, Address Before the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/230508

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