Warren G. Harding photo

Address on Memorial Day in Arlington, Virginia

May 30, 1921

Fellow Americans:

We are met on sacred soil to-day, for a solemn hour of sacrament and consecration. But the soil whence we come is itself sanctified through the sacrifices of those who lie here. Wherever our flag flies, within the boundaries of the Republic, it is over lands whose freedom and security have been wrought through these sacrifices.

It is the privilege of this company to utter our tribute of love and gratitude in this sacristy of beauty within sight of the National Capital. But others, no less devout, will assemble all over our land, and other lands, under foreign skies and among alien peoples, to pay like tribute of love and memory. There are no restricted boundaries to the reverence of this day. There is no discordant note in the hymn of gratitude. With old wounds healed, and a new generation's offering on the altars of our patriotism there is no sectionalism in our memorial. Above the murmurings of grief is the swelling concord of union, and the dominant note is our faith in the Republic.

It will be a tribute to-day spoken in many tongues, and by diverse races. Wherever men are free they are wont to give thought to our country's services in freedom's cause. Where men may but aspire to a freedom not yet achieved, their instinct turns the eye and the thought of hope this way, and they pray that their cause may gain our approbation. They know that we have never drawn the sword of oppression, that we have not sought what was not our own, nor taken all that we might have claimed. They have seen our protecting arm stretched over the outposts of liberty on every continent. For more than a century our plighted word warned tyranny from half the world; then, when the gauge was taken up by mad ambition, men felt the blow that arm could strike when freedom answered in its utmost might. Across the seas we sent our hosts of liberty's sons, commissioned "to redress the eternal scales." To-day, the sons and daughters of other lands to which they gave their all are placing with loving hands their laurels on American graves, not less reverently than we are doing here. To me, no thought comes with more of inspiration than this, that now our Memorial Day is become an international occasion; that it calls upon the fortunate free of many lands and countries, to help in its observance; and that equally to them and us it is a reminder of our common troth to civilization, humanity, and everlasting justice.

There are gathered here the ashes of a great army of those who fought in the struggle which preserved our Union and insured our high place in the community of nations. Our debt to them will never be paid, but we can come, for them and for ourselves, on this national commemoration day, to attest our veneration and undying love. They rendered a service greater than they knew, for they saved our Nation to the cause of human freedom and paved the way to that power and influence which enabled it to play its part in behalf of all mankind in the time of supreme crisis of the world. We will not overappraise their sacrifice if we say that, had they failed, their failure would have so weakened the forces of liberty and enlightenment that these would have been doomed, in the more recent world trial, to failure and defeat. A divided America would have been incapable of the effort that was demanded to hold our present-day civilization secure. The heroic dead, for whom the day was originated, preserved the ark of the covenant of union and nationality, and in that service they made possible the exalted place so recently won for our country. Our own generation will not perform a part worthy of its heritage if we do less than our very utmost to preserve that which they made possible for us to possess. Nay, more, we shall not be our most and best at home if we do not resolve for all time that the differences which brought us to civil conflict were due to ambiguities in our union and the disputes between two schools of political thought, and when we made union indissoluble and the Nation supreme, we left our people one flag, one purpose, one pride, and one destiny.

In such a view, we must see that our opportunity to be useful to mankind at large depends first on being loyal to ourselves. No ideal of generosity to all men can justify neglect first to make ourselves strong, firm, secure, in behalf of our own people. We can not hope to discharge the wider responsibilities if we have not first proved our capacity to meet the narrower ones. It is our wish to be useful in the greater realms; but if we are to do so, we must have no question of our devotion to the great principles for which these gave their lives in the struggle which saved the Union and rededicated it forever to liberty. I counsel no selfishness, no little Americanism, no mere parochialism, when I urge that our first duty is to our own, and that in the measure of its performance we will find the true gauge of our capacity to be helpful to others.

It is a good thing to come to this consecrated place and renew the pledges of our loyalty to those whose patriotism gave us our strength and opportunity. They did not know, they could not know, for what greater things they were laying the foundations. Yet their instinct rightly led them to the judgment that their first duty was to preserve the institution of popular rule, of national solidarity. They did not enter upon the war among the States with primary purpose to end the institution of human slavery. Worthy as that might have been, their inspiration was higher. They sought first to maintain the Union, to keep it a power for the advancement of America and humanity, confident that if they won all other rightful things in due time would be achieved. They were right then; in the end slavery received its decree of banishment from this continent, and at last from the world.

But let me repeat, that great achievement for humanity was not the aim with which they entered upon our internecine struggle. They were called to prevent secession, to save the national unity. They believed that the institutions of this country were good; that they deserved to be preserved; that they were worth supreme effort, even all of life itself. In making that effort and that sacrifice, they did far more than save what had already been gained; they made possible for slavery to be ended forever.

It was the same in the more recent war of the free peoples against the autocracies of the world. In its beginnings, men fought to protect that which they already had. Their countries' lives were at stake; their rights as free men were menaced; and for these they went forth to battle. There was no thought of crusading for the freedom of a world, of emancipating distant peoples, of rendering a noble service to the enemy who had attacked them. They had no time and small disposition to indulge altruisms.

Yet, as in the case of our Civil War, they won far more than they had sought in the beginning. They won for themselves, their homes, their countries; and in doing so they destroyed well-nigh the last intrenchments of the mistaken doctrine of divine right to rule. They gained the victory for their own grateful countries, and with it they won, for those whom they defeated, the opportunity of establishing free institutions, of planting democracies where absolutism had held sway, of making the people supreme. True, they were able only to afford opportunity for this great advance. They could not force free institutions upon the crushed and broken enemy; they could not insure that those institutions would be permanent even if experimentally adopted. Freedom is not to be crowded upon those who will not have it; but the privilege of adopting, and having, and enjoying it—that privilege was opened wide to the vanquished communities which had sought to take it from others. We do not yet know certainly whether the defeated and unwilling beneficiaries will be able to grasp this boon. We can not tell whether they will pay the price required to maintain the freedom to which the door has been opened. We do know, and we take pride, that our sons and brothers afforded them the opportunity.

Thus we see that, whether in our civil struggle or in the World War, the triumph of the right inevitably implies gains that sweep far beyond the immediate issue. Those heroes of the Civil War who sleep about us here wrote that lesson in symbols of blood and fire, where all men might read. And they did yet more. They taught the lesson of a great community making its fight for freedom an exclusive business of the whole people. Never before had there been an example, on such a scale, of the entire human and industrial power of a people being cast into the common cause. Wars had largely been professional affairs, in the hands of trained people, waged by conscripts whose knowledge or concern for the cause they served was of necessity limited and doubtful. Here was found a nation which for four years gave its very all of human resource, of industrial power, of faith in its mission and its future, in order that it might maintain an ideal. It accomplished that which experts and economists decried as the impossible. It defied the edict that economic exhaustion and financial disabilities must prevent a decisive victory. It demonstrated that the wealth and resources of a nation lie not in acres and bushels, in bank balances and tonnages, in taxable wealth and going business, but rather in the sinews and souls of its inspired people. And therein the example of our fraternal struggle taught the lesson which later moved agonized civilization to reject an indecisive peace.

So much, and vastly more, we owe of debt to these who won the peace of union and liberty. It is a debt that has not yet been discharged in full; a debt on which every succeeding generation can hope only to pay its installment; for it obligates us and those after us to maintain for this people the high estate which they established. We never will yield aught of what they won for us. Forbidden by the law of life and institutions, we can not stand still. We must always move forward, along the upward paths they marked for us. No less is possible unless we would repudiate the debt they laid upon us, whose covenant they sealed in their blood.

Thus appraising and thus acknowledging our responsibility, we will do well to consider the particular burdens it lays upon us. We look about us on a world troubled and torn, groping for a way back to light and opportunity. We find ourselves, as a people, occupying a place of vast responsibility in that world. We stand among the leaders to whom it looks for guidance and direction. We are blessed with wealth, with the institutions of freedom, with the magnificent tradition that conies to us from those whom to-day we honor. We can not evade, if we would; for mankind is fallen on times when there is no hope for it if some communities seek isolation while others indulge unrestrained ambition for empire. Civilization must face disaster if there shall be denial either of common responsibility, or of essential equality among sovereign States and persons.

We have heard much about the danger of winning the war and losing the peace. But is there not, in the example of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, a lofty inspiration to the same singleness of purpose, the same readiness to sink individual for the sake of general good, that moved them? Though they were not trained to military forms and evolutions, yet they learned to stand together in unbroken line, to move as unities, to forget the individual for the sake of the mass. Surely there is no reason why peace may not achieve discipline, unification, directness of purpose, as war does. It requires the same submergence of selfish ends, the same relinquishment of the merely personal gratifications, the same regard for the common interest. I am not counseling surrendered independence. Our maintained freedom is the source of our might. Only the American conscience may command this Republic.

It is, indeed, a very different matter to achieve the discipline that peace demands. There is not the urge of instant danger, the rigor of authority to overcome that danger. It is needful to bring into subjugation the thoughtless mind, the indulgent disposition, the easy quest of pleasure, the lust of gains, the aspiration for power and personal satisfaction. It is required to substitute saving for thoughtless spending, thrift for waste, unceasing productive effort for the simple expedient of spending the shortest time and least energy on the job.

During the war, when we were all intent on the great business of winning, we saw this discipline established in mine, factory, and farm occupations. We worried not a little about how extravagant we were; but, on the other hand, we all turned in and worked, and we made those years of the war period marvels of productiveness despite that millions of workers were in the uniform and other millions were engaged in the special industries which war necessitated. With the return of peace this industrial discipline was thrown aside; not only in our own country but in every country that was in the war. A breakdown of morale accompanied it, and we find ourselves halting when we ought to move forward. We need a patriotism resolute in peace as well as a patriotism aflame in war.

Nowhere were men prepared to cope with the new problems of peace; nowhere were they less prepared than in this country. But if we had failed to set up the machinery for liquidation of war conditions, we nevertheless came out with our producing organization less wrenched and shaken than was that of the European countries. Our soil had not been invaded; our people had not suffered the physical privations which were visited upon great communities elsewhere. We came forth with better credit, sounder currency, and a ratio of debt far less than those of either allied or enemy States.

Though our sorrows seemed measureless, we were more lightly touched, and for griefs incurable there was compensation. We found the soul of America, we have the reborn spirit of the Republic.

I know the aching hearts. It requires nearness to measure the burden of grief. Only a few days ago I saw more than five thousand flag-draped coffins, tenanted with their heroic dead. Theirs was mute eloquence in protesting war, theirs was the supreme appeal for war's avoidance. The way to preserve honor without material waste and the costlier human sacrifice would be the surpassing memorial tribute. We may not bestow it to-day, but we may fittingly resolve that the influence and example of our America shall point the way to such lofty achievement.

In the inspirations that we may gain through to-day's contemplation of the deeds of these, our heroes of all our wars, we are called to look toward to-morrow's obligations. Our country has never failed to measure up to the demands presented to it in behalf of humanity, and it never will. When it ceases to meet these drafts, it will no longer be our country; it will be, if that time ever comes, the wretched and decaying memorial of another civilization which has crumbled, of another ideal which has failed, of another ambition for men's happiness which somehow has gone awry. We feel, aye, in our hearts we know, that ours is not to be that fate. We believe that the torch will flame more brightly in our hands, that we will hold it safe and high aloft, and that its light will help, at least, to point the way for humanity on the path of safety and in the task of building for all time.

Warren G. Harding, Address on Memorial Day in Arlington, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/359824

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