Address at the Dedication of the New Washington Headquarters of the American Legion.
Mr. Commander, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen:
I am happy to be here this afternoon to dedicate the new Washington headquarters of the American Legion. I wish the Legion every success in its new home.
I have been thinking back to the early days of the American Legion, right after World War I. You know, I was very active in Legion affairs in those days. I helped to establish four different Legion posts in Missouri, and I am still a member of all four of them.
We didn't start this organization just to look out for our own interests as veterans or to give us an excuse for reminiscing about what heroes we had been. We started this organization so we could work together as patriotic citizens for the good of all Americans.
That is what we have been trying to do for the last 30 years.
Not everything we have done has been perfect, but the record is one to make us proud. The American Legion has been a powerful and constructive force in American life.
The Legion has been in the forefront of the fight to establish the best system of help and care for veterans that any country ever had in the history of the world.
The Legion has done wonderful work for the welfare of children. It established a National Child Welfare Division in 1925, and since then it has carried on a full-fledged program helping to provide home care for needy children.
Another of the Legion's principal objectives has been to help in achieving a sound national defense. At the first national convention in 1919, the Legion adopted a resolution urging a policy of universal military training. It has consistently supported that policy from that day until this. I appreciate that support very much because I have recommended universal training to the Congress at least seven times.
I am glad to be able to say that we have finally made some real progress on this issue. On June 13 I signed into law the Universal Military Training and Service bill. This is a great step toward a sensible, long-range military manpower program for this country. And, do you know, that effort was started in 1790 by George Washington himself, and we just now got it done. Think of that. We work with expedition in matters of that kind!
The Legion's interest in national defense has extended far beyond universal training-it has extended to all the measures needed for the protection of our country. In recent years the organization has supported unification of the armed services. It has supported the North Atlantic Treaty and military aid for Europe and our own rearmament program.
This participation by the Legion in our national defense activities is a very healthy thing. The members of the Legion who have served their country as citizen-soldiers know how important it is to defend our country from its enemies. And they know that citizens must take an active part in these matters if we are to maintain our tradition of civilian control over the military.
It is natural for the Legion to be especially concerned with veterans' affairs and national defense. But I am glad to say that the American Legion has never considered its responsibilities to be limited to these fields. It has recognized from the beginning that its members are not only veterans; but, more important, they are also citizens of a great Republic with all of a citizen's duties and responsibilities.
In the preamble to the Legion's constitution, its members pledged themselves-among other things--to "uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States... to foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism... to safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy."
At the present time it is especially important for us to understand what these words mean and to live up to them.
The keystone of our form of government is the liberty of the individual. The Bill of Rights, which protects our individual liberties, is a fundamental part of our Constitution.
When the Legion pledged itself to uphold the Constitution, and to foster 100 percent Americanism, it pledged itself to protect the rights and liberties of all our citizens.
Real Americanism means that we will protect freedom of speech--we will defend the right of people to say what they think, regardless of how much we may disagree with them.
Real Americanism means freedom of religion. It means that we will not discriminate against a man because of his religious faith.
Real Americanism means fair opportunities for all our citizens. It means that none of our citizens should be held back by unfair discrimination and prejudice.
Real Americanism means fair play. It means that a man who is accused of a crime shall be considered innocent until he has been proved guilty. It means that people are not to be penalized and persecuted for exercising their constitutional liberties.
Real Americanism means also that liberty is not license. There is no freedom to injure others. The Constitution does not protect free speech to the extent of permitting conspiracies to overthrow the Government. Neither does the right of free speech authorize slander or character assassination. These limitations are essential to keep us working together in one great community.
Real Americanism includes all these things. And it takes all of them together to make 100 percent Americanism--the kind the Legion is pledged to support.
I'm glad the Legion has made that pledge. For true Americanism is under terrible attack today. True Americanism needs defending--here and now. It needs defending by every decent human being in this country.
Americanism is under attack by communism, at home and abroad. We are defending it against that attack. And we are protecting our country from spies and saboteurs. We are breaking up the Communist conspiracy in the United States. We are building our defenses, and making our country strong, and helping our allies to help themselves.
If we keep on doing these things--if we put our best into the job--we can protect ourselves from the attack of communism.
But Americanism is also under another kind of attack. It is being undermined by some people in this country who are loudly proclaiming that they are its chief defenders. These people claim to be against communism. But they are chipping away at our basic freedoms just as insidiously and far more effectively than the Communists have ever been able to do.
These people have attacked our basic principle of fair play that underlies our Constitution. They are trying to create fear and suspicion among us by the use of slander, unproved accusations, and just plain lies.
They are filling the air with the most irresponsible kinds of accusations against other people. They are trying to get us to believe that our Government is riddled with communism and corruption--when the fact is that we have the finest and the most loyal body of civil servants in the whole world. These slander mongers are trying to get us so hysterical that no one will stand up to them for fear of being called a Communist.
Now, this is an old Communist trick in reverse. Everybody in Russia lives in terror of being called an anti-Communist. For once that charge is made against anybody in Russia--no matter what the facts are--he is on the way out. And what I mean is, he is on the way out!
In a dictatorship everybody lives in fear and terror of being denounced and slandered. Nobody dares stand up for his rights.
We must never let such a condition come to pass in this great country of ours.
Yet this is exactly what the scaremongers and the hate mongers are trying to bring about. Character assassination is their stock in trade. Guilt by association is their motto. They have created such a wave of fear and uncertainty that their attacks upon our liberties go almost unchallenged. Many people are growing frightened--and frightened people don't protest.
Stop and think. Stop and think where this is leading us.
The growing practice of character assassination is already curbing free speech and it is threatening all our other freedoms. I daresay there are people here today who have reached the point where they are afraid to explore a new idea. How many of you are afraid to come right out in public and say what you think about a controversial issue? How many of you feel that you must "play it safe" in all things--and on all occasions?
I hope there are not many, but from all that I have seen and heard, I am afraid of what your answers might be.
For I know you have no way of telling when some unfounded accusation may be hurled at you, perhaps straight from the Halls of Congress.
Some of you have friends or neighbors who have been singled out for the pitiless publicity that follows accusations of this kind--accusations that are made without any regard for the actual guilt or innocence of the victim.
That is not fair play. That is not Americanism. It is not the American way to slur the loyalty and besmirch the character of the innocent and the guilty alike. We have always considered it just as important to protect the innocent as it is to punish the guilty.
We want to protect the country against disloyalty--of course we do. We have been punishing people for disloyal acts, and we are going to keep on punishing the guilty whenever we have a case against them. But we don't want to destroy our whole system of justice in the process. We don't want to injure innocent people. And yet the scurrilous work of the scandalmongers gravely threatens the whole idea of protection for the innocent in our country today.
Perhaps the Americans who live outside of Washington are less aware of this than you and I. If that is so, I want to warn them all. Slander, lies, character assassination--these things are a threat to every single citizen everywhere in this country. And when even one American--who has done nothing wrong--is forced by fear to shut his mind and close his mouth, then all Americans are in peril.
It is the job of all of us--of every American who loves his country and his freedom--to rise up and put a stop to this terrible business. This is one of the greatest challenges we face today. We have got to make a fight for a real 100 percent Americanism.
You legionnaires, living up to your constitution as I know you want to do, can help lead the way. You can set an example of fair play. You can raise your voices against hysteria. You can expose the rotten motives of those 'people who are trying to divide us and confuse us and tear up the Bill of Rights. No organization ever had the opportunity to do a greater service for America. No organization was ever better suited or better equipped to do the job.
I know the Legion. I know what a tremendous force for good it can be--and what
a tremendous force for good it has been. Now go to it. The job is up to you. God bless you.
Note: The President spoke at 6:15 p.m. from a stand erected in front of the new American Legion building in Washington. In his opening words he referred to Erle Cocke, Jr., National Commander of the American Legion. The address was carried on a nationwide broadcast.
Harry S. Truman, Address at the Dedication of the New Washington Headquarters of the American Legion. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/230584