Remarks on Memorial Day in Arlington, Virginia
Mr. Commander, comrades, and you, the men and women of the United States who owe your being here to what was done by the men of the great Civil War:
I greet you, and thank you for the honor done me in asking me to be present this day. It is a good custom for our country to have certain solemn holidays in commemoration of our greatest men and of the greatest crises in our history. There should be but few such holidays. To increase their number is to cheapen them. Washington and Lincoln—the man who did most to found the Union, and the man who did most to preserve it—stand head and shoulders above all our other public men, and have by common consent won the right to this preeminence. Among the holidays which commemorate the turning points in American history, Thanksgiving has a significance peculiarly its own. On July 4 we celebrate the birth of the nation; on this day, the 30th of May, we call to mind the deaths of those who died that the nation might live, who wagered all that life holds dear for the great prize of death in battle, who poured out their blood like water in order that the mighty national structure raised by the far-seeing genius of Washington, Franklin, Marshall, Hamilton, and the other great leaders of the Revolution, great framers of the Constitution, should not crumble into meaningless ruins.
You whom I address today and your comrades who wore the blue beside you in the perilous years during which strong, sad, patient Lincoln bore the crushing load of national leadership, performed the one feat the failure to perform which would have meant destruction to everything which makes the name America a symbol of hope among the nations of mankind. You did the greatest and most necessary task which has ever fallen to the lot of any men on this Western Hemisphere. Nearly three centuries have passed since the waters of our coasts were first furrowed by the keels of those whose children's children were to inherit this fair land. Over a century and a half of colonial growth followed the settlement; and now for over a century and a quarter we have been a nation.
During our four generations of national life we have had to do many tasks, and some of them of far-reaching importance; but the only really vital task was the one you did, the task of saving the Union.
There were other crises in which to have gone wrong would have meant disaster; but this was the one crisis in which to have gone wrong would have meant not merely disaster but annihilation. For failure at any other point atonement could have been made; but had you failed in the iron days the loss would have been irreparable, the defeat irretrievable. Upon your success depended all the future of the people on this continent, and much of the future of mankind as a whole.
You left us a reunited country. You left us the right of brotherhood with the men in gray, who with such courage, and such devotion for what they deemed the right, fought against you. But you left us much more even than your achievement, for you left us the memory of how it was achieved. You, who made good by your valor and patriotism the statesmanship of Lincoln and the soldiership of Grant, have set as the standards for our efforts in the future both the way you did your work in war and the way in which, when the war was over, you turned again to the work of peace. In war and in peace alike your example will stand as the wisest of lessons to us and our children and our children's children.
Just at this moment the Army of the United States, led by men who served among you in the great war, is carrying to completion a small but peculiarly trying and difficult war in which is involved not only the honor of the flag but the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism. The task has not been as difficult or as important as yours, but, oh, my comrades, the men in the uniform of the United States, who have for the last three years patiently and uncomplainingly championed the American cause in the Philippine Islands, are your younger brothers, your sons. They have shown themselves not unworthy of you, and they are entitled to the support of all men who are proud of what you did.
These younger comrades of yours have fought under terrible difficulties and have received terrible provocation from a very cruel and very treacherous enemy. Under the strain of these provocations I deeply deplore to say that some among them have so far forgotten themselves as to counsel and commit, in retaliation, acts of cruelty. The fact that for every guilty act committed by one of our troops a hundred acts of far greater atrocity have been committed by the hostile natives upon our troops, or upon the peaceable and law—abiding natives who are friendly to us, cannot be held to excuse any wrongdoers on our side. Determined and unswerving effort must be made, and has been and is being made, to find out every instance of barbarity on the part of our troops, to punish those guilty of it, and to take, if possible, even stronger measures than have already been taken to minimize or prevent the occurrence of all such acts in the future.
Is it only in the army in the Philippines that Americans sometimes commit deeds that cause all other Americans to regret? No! From time to time there occur in our country, to the deep and lasting shame of our people, lynchings carried on under circumstances of inhuman cruelty and barbarity—cruelty infinitely worse than any that has ever been committed by our troops in the Philippines; worse to the victims, and far more brutalizing to those guilty of it. The men who fail to condemn these lynchings, and yet clamor about what has been done in the Philippines, are indeed guilty of neglecting the beam in their own eye while taunting their brother about the mote in his. Understand me. These lynchings afford us no excuse for failure to stop cruelty in the Philippines. But keep in mind that these cruelties in the Philip pines have been wholly exceptional, and have been shamelessly exaggerated. We deeply and bitterly regret that they should have been committed, no matter how rarely, no matter under what provocation, by American troops. But they afford far less ground for a general condemnation of our army than these lynchings afford for the condemnation of the communities in which they occur. In each case it is well to condemn the deed, and it is well also to refrain from including both guilty and innocent in the same sweeping condemnation.
In every community there are people who commit acts of well-nigh inconceivable horror and baseness. If we fix our eyes only upon these individuals and upon their acts, and if we forget the far more numerous citizens of upright and honest life and blind ourselves to their countless deeds of wisdom and justice and philanthropy, it is easy enough to condemn the community. There is not a city in this land which we could not thus condemn if we fixed our eyes solely upon its police record and refused to look at what it had accomplished for decency and justice and charity. Yet this is exactly the attitude which has been taken by too many men with reference to our army in the Philippines; and it is an attitude iniquitous in its absurdity and its injustice.
The rules of warfare which have been promulgated by the War Department and accepted as the basis of conduct by our troops in the field are the rules laid down by Abraham Lincoln when you, my hearers, were fighting for the Union. These rules provide, of course, for the just severity necessary in war. The most destructive of all forms of cruelty would be to show weakness where sternness is demanded by iron need. But all cruelty is forbidden, and all harshness beyond what is called for by need. Our enemies in the Philippines have not merely violated every rule of war, but have made of these violations their only method of carrying on the war. Think over that! It is not a rhetorical statement—it is a bald statement of contemporary history. They have been able to prolong the war at all only by recourse to acts each one of which put them beyond the pale of civilized warfare. We would have been justified by Abraham Lincoln's rules of war in infinitely greater severity than has been shown.
The fact really is that our warfare in the Philippines has been carried on with singular humanity. For every act of cruelty by our men there have been innumerable acts of forbearance, magnanimity, and generous kindness. These are the qualities which have characterized the war as a whole. The cruelties on our part have been wholly exceptional.
The guilty are to be punished; but in punishing them, let those who sit at ease at home, who walk delicately and live in the soft places of the earth, remember also to do them common justice. Let not the effortless and the untempted rail overmuch at strong men who with blood and sweat face years of toil and days of agony, and at need lay down their lives in remote tropic jungles to bring the light of civilization into the world's dark places. The warfare that has extended the boundaries of civilization at the expense of barbarism and savagery has been for centuries one of the most potent factors in the progress of humanity. Yet from its very nature it has always and everywhere been liable to dark abuses.
It behooves us to keep a vigilant watch to prevent these abuses and to punish those who commit them; but if because of them we flinch from finishing the task on which we have entered, we show ourselves cravens and weaklings, unworthy of the sires from whose loins we sprang. Oh, my comrades, how the men of the present tend to forget not merely what was done but what was spoken in the past! There were abuses and to spare in the Civil War; and slender enough, too, by each side against the other. Your false friends then called Grant a "butcher" and spoke of you who are listening to me as mercenaries, as "Lincoln's hirelings." Your open foes—as in the resolution passed by the Confederate Congress in October, 1862—accused you, at great length, and with much particularity, of "contemptuous disregard of the usages of civilized war;" of subjecting women and children to "banishment, imprisonment, and death;" of "murder," of "rapine," of "outrages on women," of "lawless cruelty," of "perpetrating atrocities which would be disgraceful in savages;" and Abraham Lincoln was singled out for especial attack because of his "spirit of barbarous ferocity." Verily, these men who thus foully slandered you have their heirs today in those who traduce our armies in the Philippines, who fix their eyes on individual deeds of wrong so keenly that at last they become blind to the great work of peace and freedom that has already been accomplished.
Peace and freedom—are there two better objects for which a soldier can fight? Well, these are precisely the objects for which our soldiers are fighting in the Philippines. When there is talk of the cruelties committed in the Philippines, remember always that by far the greater proportion of these cruelties have been committed by the insurgents against their own people—as well as against our soldiers—and that not only the surest but the only effectual way of stopping them is by the progress of the American arms. The victories of the American Army have been the really effective means of putting a stop to cruelty in the Philippines. Wherever these victories have been complete and such is now the case throughout the greater part of the islands all cruelties have ceased, and the native is secure in his life, his liberty, and his pursuit of happiness. Where the insurrection still smoulders there is always a chance for cruelty to show itself.
Our soldiers conquer, and what is the object for which they conquer? To establish a military government? No. The laws we are now endeavoring to enact for the government of the Philippines are to increase the power and domain of the civil at the expense of the military authorities, and to render even more difficult than in the past the chance of oppression. The military power is used to secure peace, in order that it may itself be supplanted by the civil power. The progress of the American arms means the abolition of cruelty, the bringing of peace, and the rule of law and order under the civil government. Other nations have conquered to create irresponsible military rule. We conquer to bring just and responsible civil government to the conquered
But our armies do more than bring peace, do more than bring order. They bring freedom. Remember always that the independence of a tribe or a community may, and often does, have nothing whatever to do with the freedom of the individual in that tribe or community. There are now in Asia and Africa scores of despotic monarchies, each of which is independent, and in no one of which is there, the slightest vestige of freedom for the individual man. Scant indeed is the gain to mankind from the "independence" of a blood-stained tyrant who rules over abject and brutalized slaves. But great is the gain to humanity which follows the steady though slow introduction of the orderly liberty, the law-abiding freedom of the individual, which is the only sure foundation upon which national independence can be built. Wherever in the Philippines the insurrection has been definitely and finally put down, there the individual Filipino already enjoys such freedom, such personal liberty under our rule, as he could never even have dreamed of under the rule of an "independent" Aguinaldian oligarchy.
The slowly—learned and difficult art of self-government, an art which our people have taught themselves by the labor of a thousand years, cannot be grasped in a day by a people only just emerging from conditions of life which our ancestors left behind them in the dim years before history dawned. We believe that we can rapidly teach the people of the Philippine Islands not only how to enjoy but how to make good use of their freedom; and with their growing knowledge their growth in self-government shall keep steady pace. When they have thus shown their capacity for real freedom by their power of self-government, then, and not till then, will it be possible to decide whether they are to exist independently of us or be knit to us by ties of common friendship and interest. When that day will come it is not in human wisdom now to foretell. All that we can say with certainty is that it would be put back an immeasurable distance if we should yield to the counsels of unmanly weakness and turn loose the islands,. to see our victorious foes butcher with revolting cruelty our betrayed friends, and shed the blood of the most humane, the most enlightened, the most peaceful, the wisest and the best of their own number—for these are the classes who have already learned to welcome our rule.
Nor, while fully acknowledging our duties to others, need we wholly forget our duty to ourselves. The Pacific seaboard is as much to us as the Atlantic; as we grow in power and prosperity so our interests will grow in that furthest west which is the immemorial east. The shadow of our destiny has already reached to the shores of Asia. The might of our people already looms large against the world horizon; and it will loom ever larger as the years go by. No statesman has a right to neglect the interests of our people in the Pacific; interests which are important to all our people, but of most importance to those of our people who have built populous and thriving States to the west of the great watershed of this continent.
This should no more be a party question than the war for the Union should have been a party question. At this moment the man in highest office in the Philippine Islands is the Vice-Governor, General Luke Wright, of Tennessee, who gallantly wore the gray in the Civil War and who is now working hand in hand with the head of our army in the Philippines, Adna Chaffee, who in the Civil War gallantly wore the blue. Those two, and the men under them, from the North and from the South, in civil life and in military life, as teachers, as administrators, as soldiers, are laboring mightily for us, who live at home. Here and there black sheep are to be found among them; but taken as a whole they represent as high a standard of public service as this country has ever seen. They are doing a great work for civilization, a great work for the honor and the interest of this nation, and above all for the welfare of the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands. All honor to them; and shame, thrice shame, to us if we fail to uphold their hands!
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks on Memorial Day in Arlington, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343493