Remarks at the Laying of the Cornerstone of the War College in Washington, DC

February 21, 1903

Ladies and gentlemen:

It should be a matter of pride and congratulation to every American citizen interested in the welfare of his country that today we lay the foundation stone of a building the erection of which signalizes a long stride forward in securing the efficiency of the United States Army a step less important than that marked by the enactment of the law to create a general staff, but a step supplementing the passage of the act, rounding it out and rendering it of a far wider and far deeper usefulness.

One word first to the nation, and then another word to the army.

To the nation first: It has well been said that the surest way to invite national disaster is for a nation to be opulent, aggressive and unarmed. The nation that is rich, that is so high-spirited as to be somewhat careless of giving offense, and that yet refrains from that preparedness which is absolutely necessary if efficiency in war is ever to be shown—such a nation is laying deep the foundation for humiliation and disaster. As a people, whether we will or not, we have reached the stage when we must play a great part in the world. It is not open to us to decide whether or not we shall play it. All we have to decide is whether we shall play it well or ill. The part is before us. We have to play it. All that rests for us to do is to say that we will play it well. This nation has, by the mere trend of events, been forced into a position of world power during the last few years.

It has responsibilities resting upon it here in the Occident, and in the Orient as well. It cannot bear these responsibilities aright unless its voice is potent for peace and justice, and its voice can be potent for peace and justice only on condition of its being thoroughly under stood that we ask peace not in the spirit of the weakling and the craven, but with the assured self-confidence of the just man armed.

So much for the lesson to be learned by our people from the movement in which the erection of this building is a part.

Now a word to the officers and enlisted men of the army. The last two or three years have witnessed a notable awakening in our people to the well being of the army. Our people are understanding as never before the fact that the army, like the navy, will do well in war mainly in proportion as it has been prepared well in peace; that after the war is begun it is too late for us to prepare for the victory. Defeat will come inevitably and surely if the preparation is put off until the war begins, and victory will come if it has been prepared for in time of peace, and on no other terms.

During the session of Congress that is now closing we have seen the first stride taken in putting the National Guard, the militia of the country, on a footing of efficiency—the first long stride taken on the lines marked out by Washington himself, the first successful effort made to put into effect Washington's plea which for one hundred and ten years was disregarded by our people. And, again, the first long stride has been taken toward the modernization, toward increasing the efficiency of the army in accordance with modern methods as devised by General Sherman over a quarter of a century ago. It takes time and thought and care to work out necessary reforms. They don't come in a jump. All kinds of obstructions of deliberate purpose, obstructions of mere inertia, obstructions of carelessness, have to be met with and overcome, but at last they are overcome if only a sufficient intensity of purpose lies behind those backing the reform. And now these great steps have been taken. Methods have been provided for securing the increased efficiency of the army, and it rests with the army itself to profit by what has been done. More and more it has become evident in modem war that the efficiency of the unit of the individual officer and the individual enlisted man is going to be the prime factor in deciding the fate of fought fields. The exercises of the barracks and the parade ground do not make five per cent of the soldier's real work, and do not count for five per cent in his real efficiency. They are very spectacular, serve a good purpose and must be well done, but they count for but the smallest part in the qualities the sum of which makes the army effective or ineffective in actual service. Officer and man alike must be trained to the highest point in the theory and in the practice of the profession. The forces of mere truism say that if they are trained in the theory without the crowning of practice they will amount to nothing, but they must have the training and the theory too. They must have that training, or they can never reach the highest standard of perfection in their art. The army of the United States is, and it is not desirable that it should be other than, a small army relatively to the population of the country, but we have a right to expect that that small army shall represent for its size the very highest point of efficiency of any army in the civilized world, and I have the most absolute faith that to that degree of efficiency it will attain, and that it will attain it in no small part because of the wise and zealous use it will make of the opportunities afforded by the erection of this very building.

Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Laying of the Cornerstone of the War College in Washington, DC Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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