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Memorial Day Address at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

May 30, 1931

We are upon the eve of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. It is, therefore, appropriate that our observance of Memorial Day should this year be at this place, so intimately associated with the moral grandeur of the Father of our Country.

This national shrine needs no description; the events enacted here require no recounting to the American people. The very name, Valley Forge, swells within us a pride of nationality. These peaceful fields hold a glory peculiarly their own. The sufferings of Washington's army in that dreadful winter of privation have made this place famous among all men.

It was not the glory of battle for which these fields are remembered. No great battle was fought here. It was not the pomp of victory, for no martial triumph was won here. It was not the scene where peace was signed by which independence of a great nation was won. It was not the tombs of courageous men who, facing the enemy, gave the supreme sacrifice for their country to which we bow in reverence. A thousand other fields mark the courage, the glory, the valor, the skill, the martial triumph of our race. Yet the instinct and the judgment of our people after the abrasion of the years has appraised this place as a foremost shrine in the War of Independence and in our Nation. It is a shrine to the things of the spirit and of the soul.

It was the transcendent fortitude and steadfastness of these men who in adversity and in suffering through the darkest hour of our history held faithful to an ideal. Here men endured that a nation might live.

George Washington and his men at any moment could have accepted the counsels of an easy path to an easy end of their privations. They could have surrendered their ideals to the widespread spirit of despair and discouragement. They could have abandoned their claims to freedom. They could have deserted their hopes and forsaken their faith. Instead, they chose the harder way of steadfast fortitude and for many of death.

Here Washington and his little band of hungry and almost naked patriots kept alive the spark of liberty in the lowest hours of the Revolution. They met the crisis with steadfast fortitude; they conserved their strength; they husbanded their resources; they seized the opportunity, which, with the turn and the tide of war, led on to victory. It was a triumph of character and idealism and high intelligence over the counsels of despair, of prudence, and material comfort. This was one of those moral victories that are the glory of the race. Without such victories the life of man would descend to a sheer materialism for "where there is no vision the people perish." Lacking these high inspirations mankind could claim no distinction higher than the beasts of the field, that sing no songs, dream no dreams, inspire no hope, and grasp no faith.

It is this high spirit that we commemorate when we pay our yearly tribute of reverence to those who in all wars have stood steadfast and those who have died in the service of our country. Our citizens in every war have flocked to arms at the call of country. They have responded willingly, because in every emergency they have had up before them an ideal of liberty and the freedom of their country. Some wars in history have been instigated by old and cynical men for cruel or selfish reasons. Some wars have been fought for power and possessions. The ends of some wars could have been more nobly won and more wisely won by patience and negotiation. But war for liberty has endowed the race not alone with the most precious possessions of freedom but has inspired every succeeding generation with that idealism which is the outpouring of man's spiritual nature.

An ideal is an unselfish aspiration. Its purpose is the general welfare not only of this but of future generations. It is a thing of the spirit. It is a generous and humane desire that all men may share equally in a common good. Our ideals are the cement which binds human society. They provide the mainspring of progress. Idealism was forged into the souls of the American people by the fires of the Revolution. It is this quality of spirit which has made possible the success of our great democratic experiment. It has tempered our acquisitiveness, has strengthened our sense of civic responsibility, and has made service to fellow man a part of our national character.

This peculiar significance of Valley Forge in our American annals should strike us all with especial force in this particular moment of our national life. The American people are going through another Valley Forge at this time. To each and every one of us it is an hour of unusual stress and trial. You have each one your special cause of anxiety. So, too, have I. The whole Nation is beset with difficulties incident to a worldwide depression. These temporary reverses in the march of progress have been in part the penalty of excesses of greed, of failure of crops, and the malign inheritances of the Great War and a storm of. other world forces beyond our control. Their far-reaching effects have fallen heavily upon many who were in no wise concerned with their causes. Many have lost the savings of a lifetime, many are unemployed, all know the misgivings of doubt and grave concern for the future.

No one who reviews the past and realizes the vast strength of our people can doubt that this, like a score of similar experiences in our history, is a passing trial. From it will come a greater knowledge of the weaknesses of our system, and from this knowledge must come the courage and wisdom to improve and strengthen us for the future. Numerous are the temptations under the distress of the day to turn aside from our true national purposes and from wise national policies and fundamental ideals of the men who builded our Republic. Never was the lure of the rosy path to every panacea and of easy ways to imagined security more tempting.

For the energies of private initiative, of independence, and a high degree of individual freedom of our American system we are offered an alluring substitute in the specious claim that everybody collectively owes each of us individually a living rather than an opportunity to earn a living, and the equally specious claim that hired representatives of a hundred million people can do better than the people themselves, in thinking and planning their daily life.

The Revolution, of which Valley Forge was the darkest but perhaps the most glorious moment, was fought not alone for national independence but to retain our freedom to continue unhampered the most promising social experiment in all human history. Our American ideals had already been in process of development for a century when the War for Independence began. Our Government was an experiment in securing to a people the maximum of individual freedom. Amazing success has proved it is no longer an experiment. Under it has grown a social and economic system new in the world and distinctly our own. Human initiative has been inspired, human energies released, local cooperation has solidly knit together communities into self-governing democracies, and the human spirit has blossomed in an atmosphere of a new independence and self-respect. It brought America to a greatness unparalleled in the history of the world.

We must ever continue that fight. Amid the scene of vastly growing complexity of our economic life we must preserve the independence of the individual from the deadening restraints of government, yet by the strong arm of government equally protect his individual freedom, assure his fair chance, his equality of opportunity from the encroachtaunts of special privileges and greed or domination by any group or class.

We are still fighting this war of independence. We must not be misled by the claim that the source of all wisdom is in the Government. We know that the source of wisdom is in the people; that the people can win anew the victory. But that wisdom is not innate. Rather is it born out of experience, and most of all out of precisely such experience as is brought to us by the darkest moments--the Valley Forges--of our individual and national careers. It is in the meeting of such moments that are born new insights, new sympathies, new powers, new skills. That is precisely why the wisdom of the few instead of the many fails to build an enduring government or an enduring people. Such battles as we are in the midst of today can not be won by any single stroke, by any one strategy sprung from the mind of any single genius. The necessary multitude of individuals and group adjustments to new conditions is altogether too vast and too complex for that. Rather must we pin our faith upon the inventiveness, the resourcefulness, the initiative of every one of us. That cannot fail us if only we keep the faith in ourselves and our future, and in the constant growth of our intelligence and ability to cooperate with one another.

Sirens still sing the song of the easy way for the moment of difficulty, but the common sense of the common man, the inherited tradition of an independent and self-reliant race, the historical memory of Americans who glory in Valley Forge even as they glory in Yorktown--all these tell us the truth for which our ancestors fought and suffered, the truth which echoes upward from this soil of blood and tears, that the way to the Nation's greatness is the path of self-reliance, independence, and steadfastness in times of trial and stress.

Valley Forge met such a challenge to steadfastness in times and terms of war. Our test is to meet this challenge in times and terms of peace. It is the same challenge. It is the same test of steadfastness of will, of clarity of thought, of resolution of character, of fixity of purpose, of loyalty to ideals and of unshaken conviction that they will prevail. We are enduring sufferings and we are assailed by temptations. We, too, are writing a new chapter in American history. If we weaken, as Washington did not, we shall be writing the introduction to the decline of American character and the fall of American institutions. If we are firm and farsighted, as were Washington and his men, we shall be writing the introduction to a yet more glorious epoch in our Nation's progress. We have seen many precious fruits of the sturdy pioneering virtues that have made our country first free and then strong and now proudly in the forefront of the world. If, by the grace of God, we stand steadfast in our great traditions through this time of stress, we shall insure that we and our sons and daughters shall see these fruits increased many fold.

Valley Forge has come indeed to be a symbol in American life. It is more than the name for a place, more than the scene of a military episode, more than just a critical event in history. Freedom was won here by fortitude not by the flash of the sword. Valley Forge is our American synonym for the trial of human character through privation and suffering, and it is the symbol of the triumph of the American soul. If those few thousand men endured that long winter of privation and suffering, humiliated by the despair of their countrymen, and deprived of support save their own indomitable will, yet held their countrymen to the faith, and by that holding held fast the freedom of America, what right have we to be of little faith ? God grant that we may prove worthy of George Washington and his men of Valley Forge.

Note: The President spoke at 10:45 a.m. to an estimated 20,000 people assembled at Valley Forge Park. The National Broadcasting Company and the Columbia Broadcasting System carried the address to the Nation.

Herbert Hoover, Memorial Day Address at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/210966

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