Title: Address at the Observance of the Tenth Anniversary of the Armistice under the Auspices of the American Legion
Date: November 11, 1928
Location: The Washington Auditorium, Washington D.C.
Context: Paying tribute to those who served and sacrificed for their country in a time of war and addressing the tremendous cost of war to the people and their country
We meet to give thanks for 10 more years of peace. Amid the multitude of bounties which have been bestowed upon us, we count that our supreme blessing. In all our domestic and foreign relations our chief concern is that it should be permanent. It is our belief that it is coming to be more and more realized as the natural state of mankind.
Our first thought, then, is to acknowledge the obligation which the nation owes to those who served in our forces afloat and ashore, which contributed the indispensable factor to the final victory. Although all our people became engaged in this great conflict, some in furnishing money, some in producing food and clothing, some in making munitions, some in administering our Government, the place of honor will always be accorded to the men and the women who wore the uniform of our country – the living and the dead.
When the great conflict finally broke upon us we were unprepared to meet its military responsibilities. What navy we possessed at that time, as is always the case with our navy, was ready. Admiral Sims at once carried new courage and new energy to the contest on the sea. So complete was the defense of our transports that the loss by enemy attack in sending our land forces to Europe was surprisingly small.
As we study the record of our army in France, we become more and more impressed by three outstanding features. The unity of the American forces and the integrity of the American command were always preserved. They were trained with a thoroughness becoming the tradition of McClellan, they were fought with a tenacity and skill worthy of the memory of Grant. And finally, they were undefeated. For these outstanding accomplishments, which were the chief sources of the glory of our arms, we are indebted to the genius of General Pershing.
It is unnecessary to recount with any detail our experience in the war. It was a new revelation, not only of the strength but of the unity of our people. No country ever exhibited a more magnificent spirit or demonstrated a higher degree of patriotic devotion.
The great organizing ability of our industrial leaders, the unexpected strength of our financial resources, the dedication of our entire man power under the universal-service law, the farm and the factory, the railroad and the bank, 4,000,000 men under arms and 6,000,000 men in reserve, all became one mighty engine for the prosecution of the war. All together it was the greatest power that any nation on earth had ever assembled.
When it was all over, in spite of the great strain, we were the only country that had much reserve power left. Our foodstuffs were necessary to supply urgent needs; our money was required to save from financial disaster. Our resources delivered Europe from starvation and ruin.
In the final treaty of peace, not only was the map of Europe remade, but the enormous colonial possessions of Germany were divided up among certain allied nations. Such private property of her nationals as they held was applied to the claim for reparations. We neither sought nor took any of the former German possessions. We have provided by law for returning the private property of her nationals.
Yet our own outlay had been and was to continue to be a perfectly enormous sum. It is sometimes represented that this country made a profit out of the war. Nothing could be further from the truth. Up to the present time our own net war costs, after allowing for our foreign-debt expectations, are about $36,500,000,000. To retire the balance of our public debt will require about $7,000,000,000 in interest.
Our Veterans’ Bureau and allied expenses are already running at over $500,000,000, a year in meeting the solemn duty to the disabled and dependent. With what has been paid out and what is already apparent it is probable that our final cost will run well toward $100,000,000,000, or half the entire wealth of the country when we entered the conflict.
Viewed from its economic results, war is the most destructive agency that ever afflicts the earth. Yet it is the dead here and abroad who are gone forever. While our own losses were thus very large, the losses of others required a somewhat greater proportionate outlay, but they are to be reduced by territorial acquisitions and by reparations.
While we shall receive some further credits on the accounts I have stated as our costs, our outlay will be much greater than that of any other country. Whatever may be thought or said of us, we know and every informed person should know that we reaped no selfish benefit from the war. No citizen of the United States needs to make any apology to anybody anywhere for not having done our duty in defense of the cause of world liberty.
Such benefits as came to our country from our war experience were not represented by material values, but by spiritual values. The whole standard of our existence was raised; the conscience and the faith of the nation were quickened with new life. The people awoke to the drumbeats of a new destiny.
In common with most of the great powers, we are paying the cost of that terrible tragedy. On the whole, the war has made possible a great advance in self-government in Europe, yet in some quarters society was so near disintegration that it submitted to new forms of absolutism to prevent anarchy. The whole essence of war is destruction. It is the negation and the antithesis of human progress. No good thing ever came out of war that could not better have been secured by reason and conscience.
Every dictate of humanity constantly cries aloud that we do not want any more war. We ought to take every precaution and make every honorable sacrifice, however great, to prevent it. Still, the first law of progress requires the world to face facts, and it is equally plain that reason and conscience are as yet by no means supreme in human affairs. The inherited instinct of selfishness is very far from being eliminated; the forces of evil are exceedingly powerful.
The eternal questions before the nations are how to prevent war and how to defend themselves if it comes. There are those who see no answer except military preparation. But this remedy has never proved sufficient. We do not know of any nation which has ever been able to provide arms enough so as always to be at peace.
Fifteen years ago the most thoroughly equipped people of Europe were Germany and France. We saw what happened. While Rome maintained a general peace for many generations, it was not without a running conflict on the borders which finally engulfed the empire.
But there is a wide distinction between absolute prevention and frequent recurrence, and peace is of little value if it is constantly accompanied by the threatened or the actual violation of national rights.
If the European countries had neglected their defenses, it is probable that war would have come much sooner. All human experience seems to demonstrate that a country which makes reasonable preparation for defense is less likely to be subject to a hostile attack and less likely to suffer a violation of its rights which might lead to war.
This is the prevailing attitude of the United States and one which I believe should constantly determine its actions. To be ready for defense is not to be guilty of aggression. We can have military preparation without assuming a military spirit. It is our duty to ourselves and to the cause of civilization, to the preservation of domestic tranquillity, to our orderly and lawful relations with foreign people, to maintain an adequate army and navy.
We do not need a large land force. The present size of our regular army is entirely adequate, but it should continue to be supplemented by a national guard and reserves , and especially with the equipment and organization in our industries for furnishing supplies.
When we turn to the sea the situation is different. We have not only a long coast line, distant outlying possessions, a foreign commerce unsurpassed in importance, and foreign investments unsurpassed in amount, the number of our people and value of our treasure to be protected, but we are also bound by international treaty to defend the Panama Canal.
Having few fueling stations, we require ships of large tonnage, and having scarcely any merchant vessels capable of mounting 5 or 6 inch guns, it is obvious that, based on needs, we are entitled to a larger number of warships than a nation having these advantages.
Important, however, as we have believed adequate national defense to be for preserving order and peace in the world, we have not considered it to be the only element. We have most urgently and to some degree successfully advocated the principle of the limitation of armaments. We think this should apply both to land and sea forces, but as the limitation of armies is very largely a European question we have wished the countries most interested to take the lead in deciding this among themselves.
For the purpose of naval limitation we called the Washington Conference and secured an agreement as to capital ships and airplane carriers, and also as to the maximum unit tonnage and maximum caliber of guns of cruisers. But the number of cruisers, lesser craft, and submarines have no limit.
It no doubt has some significance that foreign governments made agreements limiting that class of combat vessels in which we were superior, but refused limitation in the class in which they were superior. We made altogether the heaviest sacrifice in scrapping work which was already in existence.
That should forever remain not only a satisfaction to ourselves, but a demonstration to others of our good faith in advocating the principle of limitations. At that time we had twenty-three cruisers and ten more nearly completed. One of these has since been lost, and twenty-two are nearly obsolete. To replace these, we have started building eight .
The British have since begun and completed seven , are building eight , and have five more authorized. When their present legislation is carried out they would have sixty-eight cruisers. When ours is carried out, we would have forty. It is obvious that, eliminating all competition, world standards of defense require us to have more cruisers.
This was the situation when I requested another conference, which the British and Japanese attended, but to which Italy and France did not come. The United States there proposed a limitation of cruiser tonnage of 250,000 to 300,000 tons. As near as we could figure out their proposal, the British asked for from 425,000 to 600,000 tons. As it appeared to us that to agree to so large a tonnage constituted not a limitation, but an extension of war fleets, no agreement was made.
Since that time no progress seems to have been made. In fact, the movements have been discouraging. During last summer France and England made a tentative offer which would limit the kind of cruisers and submarines adapted to the use of the United States, but left without limit the kind adapted to their use.
The United States of course, refused to accept this offer. Had we not done so, the French Army and the English Navy would be so near unlimited that the principle of limitations would be virtually abandoned. The nations have already accomplished much in the way of limitations and we hope may accomplish more when the preliminary conference called by the League of Nations is reconvened.
Meantime, the United States and other nations have been successfully engaged in undertaking to establish additional safeguards and securities to the peace of the world by another method. Throughout all history war has been occurring until it has come to be recognized by custom and practice as having a certain legal standing. It has been regarded as the last resort, and has too frequently been the first.
When it was proposed that this traditional attitude should be modified between the United States and France, we replied that it should be modified among all nations. As a result, representatives of fifteen powers have met in Paris and signed a treaty which condemns recourse to war, renounces it as a national policy, and pledges themselves not to seek to resolve their differences except by peaceful action.
While this leaves the questions of national defense and limitation of armaments practically where they were, as the negative supports of peace, it discards all threat of force and approaches the subject on its positive side. For the first time in the world the leading powers bind themselves to adjust disputes without recourse to force.
While recognizing to the fullest extent the duty of self-defense, and not undertaking, as no human ingenuity could undertake, an absolute guarantee against war, it is the most complete and will be the most effective instrument for peace that was ever devised.
So long as promises can be broken and treaties can be violated we can have no positive assurances, yet every one knows they are additional safeguards. We can only say that this is the best that mortal man can do. It is beside the mark to argue that we should not put faith in it. The whole scheme of human society, the whole progress of civilization, requires that we should have faith in men and in nations. There is no other positive power on which we could rely. All the values that have ever been created, all the progress that has ever been made, declare that our faith is justified.
For the cause of peace the United States is adopting the only practical principles that have even been proposed, of preparation, limitation and renunciation. The progress that the world has made in this direction in the last ten years surpasses all the progress ever before made.
Recent developments have brought to us not only a new economic but a new political relationship to the rest of the world. We have been constantly debating what our attitude ought to be toward the European nations. Much of our position is already revealed by the record. It can truthfully be characterized as one of patience, consideration, restraint, and assistance.
We have accepted settlement of obligations, not in accordance with what was due, but in accordance with the merciful principle of what our debtors could pay. We have given of our counsel when asked, and of our resources for constructive purposes, but we have carefully refrained from all intervention which was unsought or which we believed would be ineffective, and we have not wished to contribute to the support of armaments. Whatever assistance we may have given to finishing the war, we feel free from any responsibility for beginning it. We do not wish to finance preparation for a future war.
We have heard an impressive amount of discussion concerning our duty to Europe. Our own people have supplied considerable quantities of it. Europe itself has expressed very definite ideas on this subject. We do have such duties. We have acknowledged them and tried to meet them. They are not all on one side, however. They are mutual.
We have sometimes been reproached for lecturing Europe, but probably ours are not the only people who sometimes engage in gratuitous criticism and advice.
We have also been charged with pursuing a policy of isolation. We are not the only people, either, who desire to give their attention to their own affairs.
It is quite evident that both of these claims can not be true. I think no informed person at home or abroad would blame us for not intervening in affairs which are peculiarly the concern of others to adjust, or when we are asked for help for stating clearly the terms on which we are willing to respond.
Immediately following the war we went to the rescue of friend and foe alike in Europe on the grounds of humanity. Later our experts joined with their experts in making a temporary adjustment of German reparations and securing the evacuation of the Ruhr. Our people lent $110,000,000 to Germany to put that plan into immediate effect. Since 1924 Germany has paid on reparations about $1,300,000,000, and our people have lent to national, State, and municipal governments and to corporations in Germany a little over $1,100,000,000. It could not be claimed that this money is the entire source from which reparations have been directly paid, but it must have been a large factor in rendering Germany able to pay. We also lent large sums to the governments and corporations in other countries to aid in their financial rehabilitation.
I have several times stated that such ought to be our policy. But there is little reason for sending capital abroad while rates for money in London and Paris are at 4 or 5 per cent, while ours are much higher. England is placing very considerable loans abroad; France has had large credits abroad, some of which have been called home. Both are making very large outlays for military purposes.
Europe on the whole has arrived at a state of financial stability and prosperity where it can not be said we are called on to help or act much beyond a strict business basis. The needs of our own people require that any further advances by us must have most careful consideration.
For the United States not to wish Europe to prosper would be not only a selfish, but an entirely unenlightened view. We want the investment of life and money which we have made there to be to their benefit. We should like to have our Government debts all settled, although it is probable that we could better afford to lose them than our debtors could afford not to pay them. Divergent standards of living among nations involve many difficult problems.
We intend to preserve our high standards of living and we should like to see all other countries on the same level. With a whole-hearted acceptance of republican institutions, with the opening of opportunity to individual initiative, they are certain to make much progress in that direction.
It is always plain that Europe and the United States are lacking in mutual understanding. We are prone to think they can do as we can do. We are not interested in their age-old animosities, we have not suffered from centuries of violent hostilities. We do not see how difficult it is for them to displace distrust in each other with faith in each other.
On the other hand, they appear to think that we are going to do exactly what they would do if they had our chance. If they would give a little more attention to our history and judge us a little more closely by our own record, and especially find out in what directions we believe our real interests to lie, much which they now appear to find obscure would be quite apparent.
We want peace not only for the same reason that every other nation wants it, because we believe it to be right, but because war would interfere with our progress. Our interests all over the earth are such that a conflict anywhere would be enormously to our disadvantage.
If we had not been in the World War, in spite of some profit we made in exports, whichever side had won, in the end our losses would have been very great. We are against aggression and imperialism not only because we believe in local self-government, but because we do not want more territory inhabited by foreign people. Our exclusion of immigration should make that plain.
Our outlying possessions, with the exception of the Panama Canal Zone, are not a help to us, but a hindrance. We hold them, not as a profit, but as a duty.
We want limitation of armaments for the welfare of humanity. We are not merely seeking our own advantage in this, as we do not need it, or attempting to avoid expense, as we can bear it better than anyone else.
If we could secure a more complete reciprocity in good will, the final liquidation of the balance of our foreign debts, and such further limitation of armaments as would be commensurate with the treaty renouncing war, our confidence in the effectiveness of any additional efforts on our part to assist in further progress of Europe would be greatly increased.
As we contemplate the past ten years, there is every reason to be encouraged. It has been a period in which human freedom has been greatly extended, in which the right of self-government has come to be more widely recognized. Strong foundations have been laid for the support of these principles.
We should by no means be discouraged because practice lags behind principle. We make progress slowly and over a course which can tolerate no open spaces. It is a long distance from a world that walks by force to a world that walks by faith. The United States has been so placed that it could advance with little interruption along the road of freedom and faith.
It is befitting that we should pursue our course without exultation, with due humility, and with due gratitude for the important contributions of the more ancient nations which have helped to make possible our present progress and our future hope. The gravest responsibilities that can come to a people in this world have come to us. We must not fail to meet them in accordance with the requirements of conscience and righteousness.
Citation: Special to The New York Times. Times Wide World Photo. “Text of President Coolidge’s Armistice Day Speech: THE PRESIDENT AT THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 12, 1928, https://search.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/text-president-coolidges-armistice-day-speech/docview/104409121/se-2?accountid=170107.
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Robert Manchester who prepared this document for digital publication.