Warren G. Harding photo

Address on the International Court of Justice in St. Louis, Missouri

June 21, 1923

My Countrymen:

In an official journey from Washington to our great Territory of Alaska, our first stop halts us in your hospitable city, and affords an opportunity for renewed acquaintance and better understanding. I suppose it is a perfectly natural expectation that when the President travels he must stop and make report to the community he is seeking to serve. It has seemed to me that nearly every city and village from the Potomac to the Pacific has bestowed an invitation and a tender of hospitality. I like to say to you, because in saying it to you I am speaking to many others in this marvelous age of communication, that I very genuinely regret the impossibility of accepting all of them. Quite apart from the personal satisfaction and renewed assurance in direct contact with our people, I think there is vast benefit in bringing the Government a little closer to the people, and the people a little closer to Government and closer to those temporarily charged with official responsibility.

You view government from afar, and I am not surprised that you wonder now and then, because you receive occasional reflexes which are so erroneous that official Washington itself can not understand them. And those of us who are in Washington live in an atmosphere of officialdom which often hinders our knowledge of the thoughts around the American fireside, and the activities which daily make the essential life of the nation. These are conditions not easily to be avoided. Our Government is the biggest business in the world, and like any other business it requires the management to be more or less diligently at work.

Congress has been more or less continually in session for eight years, and under our coordinated form of government the President must be more or less "in session" at the same time. So I have welcomed this opportunity to see the great Central Valley, the Mountain West, the Pacific Coast, and our treasure land in Alaska. I am rejoiced to speak to you as your President, reporting on the state of affairs to the stockholders of this republic.

I do not come with a partisan report, though I am politically a partisan and believe in the utter necessity of political parties. One only serves his party by first serving his country well, and good service to his country ought to be the aspiration of every citizen of our land.

The present national administration came into responsibility at a very difficult time. Our country found itself in a bad way in the aftermath of World War. We had expended in heedlessness, we had inflated in madness, we had rushed into the abnormal, and found ten thousand difficulties in resuming our normal stride. There was the inevitable business slump. It follows every war. It applies to business in every line—finance, industry, agriculture. And business reflexes are felt by every citizen, no matter how humble or how great. We found in the inevitable reflux of the war tide threatened financial ability, agricultural distress, and vast unemployment. A survey of unemployment revealed four and a half to five millions of workers without jobs. I leave the appraisal of all relief efforts, legislative, executive, or administrative, to your own judgment. The thing I want to say is that this distressing situation has been wholly reversed, and to-day employment is calling for men. There is complaint about that, too, but since we can not always preserve the actual balance, I prefer a land which is seeking workmen to a country where discouraged men are hunting for jobs.

I like to believe that the recovery is based mainly on confidence in the American policy and the fundamental righteousness of our institutions.

I like to believe we have recovered because we avoid the paths of destructive experimentation, ignore mad theories, and cling tenaciously to the foundations of business and property rights and human rights, which have made ours the most rapidly and most safely developed representative democracy in all the world.

We have done more than banish unemployment; we have made our way to financial stability, without which there is little permanent employment. And we halted the extremists who caught their inspiration in European madness, and proposed to destroy our social order because of temporary ills, rather than cure the ills.

I believe America to-night is a fine example to the world, with confidence in herself, of a people capable of laying aside their arms, grappling a reconstruction problem, and digging down to hard work to effect the needed restoration, rather than to fling aside all we had wrought in a century of hopeful progress, and thereby subscribe to destruction in the name of social democracy. We gave business a chance to resume, and assured it that honest success is no crime in the United States. We assured it that the Government wasn't going into business, but that we meant to get out of it. Then to prove that we meant to have more business in government, we struck at the extravagance which grew in war's fevered activities, we pruned Government expenditures and reduced the Government personnel, not by thousands but by tens of thousands, and went a long way in reducing Government outlay.

Measures were adopted to lighten the taxation load and distribute the burdens more equitably. We sought to substitute for the exactions of war the convictions of peace. We inaugurated the budget system of Government financing, and thereby effected reductions in Government outlay amounting to billions. Of course, this enormous reduction was made possible mainly because we suspended war activities and ended war commitments, but we drove at the ordinary expenditures in the peace-time business of government, and lopped off hundreds of millions at a time, and we have proven to the world, in spite of a gigantic debt and its interest burdens, that here is a Government resolved to live within its income.

The fiscal year, now near its close, threatened a $800,000,000 deficit when its financial budget was in the making, but we cut and trimmed, and insisted upon reduced expenditures, and it will close with a $200,000,000 surplus.

These are rather dull facts, but they are interesting to the Government because they afford the proof that Government itself joined in the tremendously essential task of striking at its own cost. We were always keeping in mind the people who pay in lifting our country out of the slough of depression and despondency.

In the simplest expression possible, we were trying to get this great country of ours on the right track again. The anxiety was in behalf of no one interest, but for all interests. We were anxious alike for the great captain of industry and his working army. We had concern for him whom we sometimes call the little chap, who makes up the great industrial procession, but who is little noted because he walks in the ranks, but whose good fortune is a foremost essential to a national happiness and contentment. We safeguarded against our own destruction being effected by the world's demoralization, but we never hindered the world's honest efforts at recovery. On the whole, we contemplate fortunate conditions to-day, and I believe they are going to abide. We are the most prosperous people in the world. I do not share the belief that we have effected only temporary relief. I never did share the convictions of many men that our permanent recovery could only come after complete collapse, which we have so happily avoided.

It is too early now to safely appraise the competition of the world restored, but the world must take cognizance of the new order as well as we. War wrought an emancipation of men and changed conditions of production which the Old World must recognize before a stable order is restored to it. Our recovery is based on a prompt recognition of the new order, socially just and economically sound, and I am sure we will carry on.

It is very gratifying to contemplate our conditions at home, wrought amid many manifestations of impatience, but, in spite of discouragements, the record is made. I share your gratification, and have full confidence for the morrow.

These things, briefly related, with great satisfaction in progress made, are meant to serve as a foundation for a wholly frank statement to you of St. Louis and Missouri, and to all the United States, concerning my convictions about the attitude of this republic toward other nations of the world. The Presidents impressions concerning international relationships are necessarily founded upon official experience which can come, because of the duties of office, to none other except the Secretary of State.

The endless problems of foreign relations are relatively little revealed to the world. Most frequently they are more readily adjusted because they are not revealed, though it is fair to assure you that nothing of vital importance is unduly hidden from the people for whom the Government speaks. Week by week, day by day, often hour by hour, there are problems in our international relations which are no more to be avoided than the vital questions of our own relationships at home. The citizen who believes in aloofness is blind to inescapable obligations and insensible to the twentieth century world order and unmindful of our commercial interdependence about which the modem business fabric has come to be woven.

In his never-to-be-forgotten Farewell Address, in which the first president compressed the gospel of our mutual interests at home and our proper relations abroad, he said:

"Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct. And can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? * * * The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas, is it rendered impossible by its vices?"

This solemn admonition was addressed by George Washington to his fellow countrymen one hundred and twenty-seven years ago. That it has been heeded scrupulously we are proud to assume the world believes. That we have, indeed, observed good faith and have exalted justice above all other agencies of civilization, barring only Christianity, surely none can deny with truth.

And we have cultivated peace, not academically and passively merely, but in practical ways and by active endeavors. Even as Washington appended his signature to his most memorable and far-reaching declaration, a new principle had been written into the treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States, had been sustained by the Congress, at his resolute insistence, and was in full force and effect. That principle was arbitration, which was not only employed successfully at the time, but became from that moment an established policy of the Republic, from which, to this day, there has been no departure.

Thus, clearly, by the method already operative in substituting reason for prejudice, law for obduracy, and justice for passion, the Father of His Country bade us, no less than his contemporaries, not merely to countenance and uphold but actively to cultivate and promote peace. It is with that high purpose in mind and at heart, men, and women of America, that I advocate participation by the United States in the Permanent Court of International Justice.

Two conditions may be considered indispensable:

First, that the tribunal be so constituted as to appear and to be, in theory and in practice, in form and in substance, beyond the shadow of doubt, a world court and not a league court.

Second, that the United States shall occupy a plane of perfect equality with every other Power.

There is no consequential dispute among us concerning the League of Nations. There are yet its earnest advocates, but the present administration has said, repeatedly and decisively, that the league is not for us. There admittedly is a league connection with the world court. We cannot hope to get anywhere except in the frankest understanding of facts. The authors of the court protocol, cooperating with a brilliant American leadership, turned to the league organization for the court electorate, to solve a problem in choosing judges heretofore unsolvable. Though I firmly believe we could adhere to the court protocol, with becoming reservation, and be free from every possible obligation to the league, I would frankly prefer the court's complete independence of the league.

Just as frankly let me say that I have not held it seemly, in view of oft-repeated declaration favorable to the World Court establishment, to say to the nations which have established very much what we have wished, that they must put aside their very commendable creation because we do not subscribe to its every detail, or fashion it all anew and to our liking, in every specific detail, before we offer our assistance in making it a permanent agency of improved international relationship.

Government can never successfully undertake the solution of a great problem unless it can frankly submit it to the people. It is for these reasons that I confess these objections. I recognize the constitutional requirement of Senate ratification, and I believe that the tide of public sentiment will be reflected in the Senate. I am so eager for the ultimate accomplishment that I am interested in harmonizing opposing elements, more anxious to effect our helpful commitment to the court, than I am to score a victory for executive insistence. Let us, therefore, appraise some of the determining factors which must be considered in hopefully mapping our course.

Nearly three years ago, by an overwhelming majority, the people rejected the proposal of the Administration then in power to incorporate the United States in the League of Nations. To assert that those 16,000,000 voters did not know what they were doing is to insult their intelligence, and to deny the facts. Whatever other considerations may have influenced their judgment were purely incidental. The paramount issue, boldly, defiantly advanced in unmistakable terms by the Democratic Party and espoused by the Democratic candidate for President was indorsement of the demand of the then Democratic President. I dislike the use of party names in dealing with a problem which has now passed far beyond party association, but I want the world court proposal utterly disassociated with any intention of entrance into the League, and recite the history to paint the background. Moreover, I am so earnest in my desire to have the United States give support to the court that I would gladly wipe out factional difference to effect the great accomplishment.

If the country had desired to join the League, in 1920 it had its opportunity. It most emphatically refused. It would refuse again, no less decisively to-day.

There has been no change in condition. It is the same League. Not a line in the rejected covenant has been altered, not a phrase modified, not a word omitted or added. Article X still stands as the heart of the compact. Article XI and all other stipulations objected to and condemned by the American people remain untouched, in full force in theory, however circumspectly they are being ignored in practice.

In the face of the overwhelming verdict of 1920, therefore, the issue of the League of Nations is as dead as slavery. Is it not the part of wisdom and common sense to let it rest in the deep grave to which it has been consigned, and turn our thoughts to living things?

But let there be no misunderstanding. I did not say three years ago, and I do not say now, that there is no element in the League organization which might be utilized advantageously in striving to establish helpful, practical cooperation among the nations of the earth. On the contrary, I recognized generally then, and perceive more precisely now, rudiments of good in both the League and the Hague Tribunal. Having marked the fundamental difference between a court of international justice, which I espoused, and the council set up by the League covenant, which I disapproved, as "the difference between a government of laws and a government of men," I said plainly on August 28, 1920: "I would take and combine all that is good and excise all that is bad from both organizations."

That is exactly what I am now proposing to do. The abstract principle of a world court found its genesis in the Hague Tribunal. The concrete application of that principle has been made by the league. Sound theory and admirable practice have been joined successfully. The court itself is not only firmly established but has clearly demonstrated its utility and efficiency.

It is a true judicial tribunal. Its composition is of the highest order. None better, none freer, from selfish, partisan, national, or racial prejudices or influences could be obtained. That, to the best of my information and belief, is a fact universally admitted and acclaimed. I care not whence the court came. I insist only that its integrity, its independence, its complete and continuing freedom be safeguarded absolutely.

The sole question is whether the requirements which I have enumerated as essential to adherence by the United States can be met. My answer is that where there is a unanimous will, a way can always be found. I am not wedded irrevocably to any particular method. I would not assume for a moment that the readjustment of the existing arrangement which appears to my mind as feasible is the best, much less the only, one. But, such as it is, I submit it, without excess of detail, as a basis for consideration, discussion, and judgment.

Granting the noteworthy excellence, of which I, for one, am fully convinced, of the court as now constituted, why not proceed in the belief that it may be made self-perpetuating? This could be done in one of two ways, (1) by empowering the Court itself to fill any vacancy arising from the death of a member or retirement for whatever cause, without interposition from any other body; or (2) by continuing the existing authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration to nominate and by transferring the power to elect from the council and assembly of the League to the remaining members of the court of justice.

The fixing of compensation of the judges, the supervision of expenditures, the apportionment of contributions, etc., could also be transferred from the League to either the court of arbitration or a commission designated by the member nations. Thus, incidentally, would be averted the admitted unfairness of the present system, which imposes a tax upon members of the League who are not subscribers to the court.

The exclusive privilege now held by the League to seek advisory legal guidance from the court might either be abolished, or, more wisely perhaps, be extended to any member or group of member nations. Thus all would be served alike, subject as now to determination by the court itself of the kind of questions upon which it would render judgments.

The disparity in voting as between a unit nation and an aggregated empire, which now maintains in the assembly of the League, to which many object, because of apprehensions which I do not share, would, under this plan, disappear automatically.

These observations are not to be construed as suggesting changes In the essential statute of the court, or the enlargement or diminution of its numerical strength, or modifying the proper provision that a nation having a cause before the court, which is not represented among the judges, may name one of its own nationals to sit in that particular case.

Such, in brief, is an outline of the basis upon which I shall hope, at the opening of Congress, for the consent of the Senate to initiate negotiations with the Powers which have associated themselves with the Permanent Court of International Justice.

No program could be devised that would win unanimous approval either at home or abroad. We can not hope to attain perfection or to satisfy extreme demands. The best and the most we can do is to appeal, let us hope successfully, to reasonable minds and, with sturdy faith, be true to ourselves and ready for our duties as liberty-loving, duty-realizing Americans.

There are those who openly advocate our proposed association with the court of justice as a first step toward joining the League of Nations. Their number is not large, and they can not hope to prevail. There are those who, in fear and trembling, proclaim their opinion that this mighty republic should live as a hermit nation. They, too, are few and hold to an impossible position. Both are extremists. In an endeavor to obtain actual results, both may be safely omitted from serious consideration.

But two great groups, comprising a vast majority of our people, need to be considered. And between these there lies no difference in professed desire. I am striving for fulfillment of that expressed desire. Both urge participation of the United States in a World Court of Justice, in fulfillment of our age-long aspiration and in conformity with our unbroken tradition. They agree that to achieve its fundamental purpose of substituting justice for warfare in the settlement of controversies between nations, such a tribunal must be its own master. The distinction between the two is not one of essential principle or of avowed intent, but one only of fact and opinion.

There are those who hold that the creation of the existing court under a distinct protocol, instead of directly under the covenant of the league, removes every tincture of subservience or obligation. For present purposes, granting its correctness, there can be no real objection to clarifying the fact in plain, simple terms, to the end that all doubts shall be dispelled and that all minds shall be wholly convinced by ready understanding instead of being only partially persuaded by intricate exposition. If, as we all believe, the comer stone of every judicial structure is unquestioning faith in its integrity, I am unwilling to deprive it of any particle of strength which would enhance popular respect for and confidence in its decisions. Surely no harm, but rather much good, might spring from simplification of an admitted condition.

The other large group comprises those who, while equally earnest in advocacy of an international tribunal, regard the present court with suspicion because of its origin. This objection, for reasons which I have noted, is unimportant. Indeed, from a practical viewpoint, I consider it a matter of distinct congratulation that there is in existence a body which already has justified itself, upon its merits, by demonstration of its character and capabilities.

If American adherence could be made effective in the reconstruction of the court, with respect to its continuing operation, that would seem to dispose conclusively of all other cited apprehensions of danger from the exercise of any influence whatsoever, either open or furtive, by the League of Nations or by any other organization.

The whole question of support or opposition on the part of these two controlling groups clearly resolves into a test of sincerity. When once American citizens have comprehended that vital point, I shall have no doubt of their answer.

I have taken a very frank cognizance of the avowed objections, because we have come to this very test of sincerity. Except for the very inconsiderable minority, which is hostile to any participation in world effort toward security, which our better impulses are ever urging, there is overwhelming sentiment favorable to our support of a world court. But I want the United States to give its influence to the world court already established. Since any adherence must be attended by reservations, I am willing to give consideration to our differences at home and thereby remove every threatening obstacle worth considering, so we may go whole-heartedly to the world with an authorized tender of support.

So much for the domestic phases of this problem. But there is another. I hear the voice of the doubter: "This is all very well, but it can not be done. The forty nations which have signed the protocol will refuse to make these changes. They have formulated their plans, have arranged their procedure, have constructed their machinery, have established a going concern; they are not only themselves content, but they can see no reason why the few remaining Powers should not be equally satisfied with the result of their endeavors. They will resent the mere suggestion of such proposals by the United States as an attempt at dictation. It would be an act of discourtesy, if not indeed of unfriendliness, on the part of the American Government to approach them along these lines. They will spurn the offer. They will not brook interference from an outsider. They will not consent to upset or modify their fait accompli. The whole project will fall to the ground."

To which I reply: Primarily, at this time, it is to satisfy the acknowledged hope and to comply with the earnest wish of our sister states that we are striving to find a way to join and strengthen the one body created by them which bears promise of eliminating the need of war to regulate international relations. We wish no more of war. To submit terms which we consider essential to the preservation of our nationality is not an act of discourtesy; it is the only fair, square, and honorable thing a great, self-respecting nation can do. So far from being unfriendly, it springs from a sincere desire, through frank and intimate association, to help to restore stability, and, in the words of Washington, to "cultivate peace" throughout the world.

Manifestations of resentment at our pursuing this natural and usual course would appear far less as evidences of indignation than would attend a course of aloofness, or an utter disregard for so notable an international endeavor.

The United States is not a suppliant. Nor has it the slightest desire to become a master. It is and must be an equal, no more and no less, regardless of its relative material power or moral authority, ever conscious of its own rights, but never denying the like, in even proportion, to another.

And what is the crux of conditions which I have ventured to suggest as constituting a basis for negotiation?

The making of the World Court precisely what its name implies, and for which we have so earnestly spoken.

Can it be possible that, despite their protestations to the contrary, this is not what some of our sister states at heart desire? Must there be a test of sincerity abroad as well as at home? Then the more quickly it can be made, the better for them and the better for us. There is nothing to be accomplished in ambiguity. We want to know. And the only way to find out is to inquire.

Very recently a striking message was flashed through the air from Rome to Washington. "Tell America," said the vigorous Prime Minister, "that I like her, like her because she is strong, simple, and direct. I wish Italy to be the same and shall try to make her so." God speed him! And God grant that America shall never forfeit the high honor borne by that sentient tribute from Mussolini!

I can not doubt that you will accord, at least, the merit of simplicity and directness to what I have said. Understand dearly, I do not advocate compromise. I merely reiterate and stand squarely for every pledge I have made. I still reject as unwise, untraditional, and un-American any foreign political alliance or entanglement. I still "favor with all my heart association of free nations, animated by considerations of right and justice, instead of might and self-interest, so organized and so participated in as to make the actual attainment of peace a reasonable possibility." I strongly urge adherence to the Permanent Court of international justice as the one and only existing "agency of peace" to which we can safely subscribe without violating the basic principles of our national being.

I neither advance nor retreat from the position which I assumed in my recent message to the Senate. My sole purpose to-night has been to amplify the constructive suggestion which, at what appeared to be a proper time, I placed before the country for consideration and judgment. Broadly, and yet I trust with sufficient particularity, I have indicated ways and means for realization of our common aspiration.

Further than that I shall not go. I shall not attempt to coerce the Senate of the United States. I shall make no demand upon the people.

I shall not try to impose my will upon any body or anybody. I shall embark upon no crusade. Hereafter, from time to time, as to-night, acting strictly within, but to the full limit of, my constitutional authority,

I shall make further exposition of my matured views and maturing proposals, to the end that we not only "remind the world anew" by our words, but convince the world by our deeds, that we do, in fact, stand "ready to perform our part in furthering peace," and in regaining the common prosperity which can come only through the restoration of stability in all affairs.

But I shall not restrict my appeal to your reason. I shall call upon your patriotism. I shall beseech your humanity. I shall invoke your Christianity. I shall reach to the very depths of your love for your fellow men of whatever race or creed throughout the world. I shall speak, as I speak now, with all the earnestness and power of the sincerity that is in me and in perfect faith that God will keep clear and receptive your understanding.

I could not do otherwise. My soul yearns for peace. My heart is anguished by the sufferings of war. My spirit is eager to serve. My passion is for justice over force. My hope is in the great court. My mind is made up. My resolution is fixed.

I pass from Washington to Lincoln. "With malice toward none, with charity for all," accurately depicts our attitude toward other nations.

All in equal measure hold our sympathy in their distress and our hope for the quick coming of better days. We would make no invidious comparisons.

It is but natural, nevertheless, that we should feel, and it is proper that we should express due appreciation of conduct which conforms notably to our own conceptions of what honor, integrity, sagacity, and gratitude require of self-respecting nations. I consider it eminently fitting at this time to voice the keen admiration and enhanced regard of this country for Great Britain as an immediate consequence of her frank acknowledgment and sturdy assumption of a financial obligation which, though incurred for the preservation of her very existence, added materially to her already heavy burdens.

Nor can I withhold from the German Democracy just recognition of its new Government's clear manifestation of faith in our consciousness of fairness as the chief requisite of a peace settlement between her Government and ours, and of our disinterestedness in all matters pertaining to the adjustment of European affairs.

It has ever been an irresistible impulse of our liberty-loving people to welcome a triumph of democracy over autocracy and a substitution of popular government for monarchical domination. Hence our earnest hope that a just, settlement, terms of which we do not pretend to indicate, will be made in Europe, satisfying the just dues of democratic and heroic France, so that Germany may make good in her promises of reparations, and therein German Democracy may establish a national honor which the monarchy had not conceived, and then take her place in support of the Permanent Court of International Justice.

Our neighbor to the south, for whom we have only good will and good hope, will soon, I trust, be in a position to make practicable resumption of fraternal relations with this country, and, following that happy consummation, what more natural than that Mexico, too, along with Germany and, let us hope, Turkey, should accompany the United States, upon terms equally essential to her welfare, into the great tribunal; then it will become indeed a true world court.

Thus, briefly, my friends, I have revealed the hopeful anticipations of my mind, and the trustful longing of my heart. I feel that the time for America to take the first, long stride in restoration of a desolate and despairing world has come, and that the way stretches clear, though far, before our eyes. May our vision never be clouded by spectres of disaster or shadows of dismay! If, in our search for everlasting peace, we but let lead, and follow humbly but dauntlessly, the "Kindly Light" of divine inspiration to all human brotherhood, gleaming like a star in the heavens, from the most beautiful hymn ever written, God will not let us fail.

Warren G. Harding, Address on the International Court of Justice in St. Louis, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/329284

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