By Governor James H. Douglas
Thank you for that kind introduction. It is my honor to be here with you in Sendai to accept the World Bosai Award on behalf of President Calvin Coolidge and the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. I’d like to extend our deepest thanks to Professor Yuichi Ono and to the members of the International Steering Committee of the World Bosai Forum.
This August marks the 100-year anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration as President of the United States.
Calvin Coolidge was born July 4, 1872 – Independence Day in America – in the small rural village of Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Plymouth Notch is beautiful, though isolated, even today.
The winters are long and cold. Two or more feet of snow often cover the ground. Preparedness, the topic of this conference, was in the DNA of Calvin Coolidge, and indeed anyone who grew up in such an environment.
Through much persistence, Coolidge rose through the ranks of state politics, eventually serving as governor of Massachusetts before being elected Vice President in 1920 and acceding to the presidency in 1923 upon the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding.
One might say Coolidge was the most prepared president in America’s history. After all, he held more elected offices than any other president. His time as mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts and governor of Massachusetts especially gave him executive experience and a front row view of the importance of preparedness. As a former governor myself, I can attest that emergencies cannot be prevented, but when you’re prepared, the impact can be lessened considerably.
As you all well know, this fall represents another 100-year anniversary. A somber one. That of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. The devastation from that disaster was unthinkable. First the earthquake, then the tsunamis and the fires. Some 140,000 dead.
President Coolidge had been president less than a month when the disaster struck on September 1, 1923. But that didn’t stop him from stepping up in this time of crisis. He dispatched the U.S. Navy immediately. By September 5th the first U.S. naval vessels were arriving in Yokohama bringing supplies and offering assistance. In total, more than twenty U.S. Navy ships came to the aid of Japan. One U.S. serviceman displayed special courage. Ensign Thomas J. Ryan was in Yokohama on September 1, 1923. The Grand Hotel caught fire and a Japanese woman who had broken both her legs was trapped. Ensign Ryan, putting himself in considerable personal danger, rushed to carry the woman to safety. For this action he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Coolidge, America’s highest military honor.
But President Coolidge thought it important Americans provide more than just naval aid. He believed the American people should help. On September 3, 1923, he put out an appeal asking Americans to support relief efforts directly by donating to the American Red Cross:
“To the People of the United States:
An overwhelming disaster has overtaken the people of the friendly nation of Japan. […]
Such assistance as is within the means of the Executive Department of the Government will be rendered; but realizing the great suffering which now needs relief and will need relief for days to come, I am prompted to appeal urgently to the American people […] to contribute in aiding the unfortunate and in giving relief to the people of Japan. […]”
It’s important to note that Coolidge didn’t simply press for a government appropriation. Rather, he called upon the American people themselves to donate directly.
Americans responded generously. By late October the American Red Cross had received well in excess of $10 million. Ordinary Americans gave, and so too did civic organizations. Coolidge wrote personally to thank the Boy Scouts of America, for example. Coolidge took particular satisfaction in knowing that the entirety of the Red Cross aid was to be given to the Japanese people in cash assistance or supplies. Nothing was deducted for Red Cross administration, personnel or other overhead. This was direct aid from the American people to the people of Japan.
The experience of 1923 impacted President Coolidge significantly. Over the next decade, Coolidge referenced the Japanese earthquake many times.
A first example is Coolidge’s 1923 Thanksgiving Day proclamation which made prominent mention of the earthquake tragedy:
“[…] A little later [after the death of President Harding] came the unparalleled disaster to the friendly people of Japan. This called forth from the people of the United States a demonstration of deep and humane feeling. It was wrought into the substance of good works. It created new evidences of our international friendship, which is a guarantee of world peace. It replenished the charitable impulse of the country.”
A second example: the thank you letters Chris Jeter, the President’s great-grandson, mentioned in his video greeting. Presidents of course receive lots of thank you notes. But these letters were deeply meaningful to President Coolidge. In a 1926 speech to the American Red Cross, three years after the earthquake, Coolidge called the letters “Among the choicest treasures of my bookshelves.” He believed the letters represented something important: international friendship and goodwill at a time when relations between the U.S. and Japan were otherwise strained.
A third example relates to a delegation of Japanese youth President Coolidge received at his home in Northampton in 1930. At the Coolidge Foundation we recently came upon rare video footage of this visit. Keep in mind that 1930 was the year after Coolidge left the White House. Former presidents usually want to relax and avoid attention. But Coolidge agreed to receive this delegation of Japanese girls who were bringing a greeting and expression of thanks for America’s generous relief following the 1923 earthquake. Coolidge also referenced this meeting in a newspaper column he wrote around this time. Clearly, this was an issue he cared about.
Some may think it ironic that Calvin Coolidge would be honored at a conference dedicated to disaster risk reduction. After all, when America experienced perhaps its worst natural disaster in history, the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, President Coolidge did not visit the impacted regions. Nor did he visit his own home state when later that same year Vermont was inundated by its own historic flood. In both cases, Coolidge opposed large federal aid packages and resisted subsequent federal flood control legislation. He was criticized harshly, then, and sometimes even still today.
But, I do not believe this award is ironic. I think it is very fitting. Coolidge had a clear philosophy about disaster preparedness and relief. It’s a philosophy we don’t necessarily hear often today, but nonetheless one that is important and insightful. So I’d like to spend a few minutes highlighting two of Coolidge’s important lessons for us.
First, private charity is of utmost importance. President Coolidge believed that individual charity, from one person to another, was most effective. He once said: “The Government can do much, but it can never supply the personal relationship that comes from the ministrations of a private charity…”
Coolidge also believed that people rise to the occasion when they are called upon to help others in true need. During the Mississippi River flood of 1927, Coolidge again appealed for private donations to the Red Cross. In a press conference Coolidge expressed his confidence that private charity would come through, citing specifically the success of the Red Cross appeal in 1923 for Japanese relief. “I am very certain that our people will make a corresponding response to the appeal for relief of our own people,” Coolidge told reporters. His faith was redeemed – more than $17 million was raised in 1927.
But Coolidge also recognized that if people believed the Federal government would supply all the funds, individuals themselves would be less generous. Economists call this phenomenon “crowding out.” In a press conference, Coolidge told reporters that the Red Cross “would get very little response from the public, if it was thought that the public treasury could be used.”
Second, disaster prevention is money well spent, but must be led by those with skin in the game. Coolidge is known for his reluctance to spend taxpayer money. But, at the same time he was a firm believer in the prudence of disaster prevention. The 1923 earthquake destroyed the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. When it came time to rebuild, the New York Times reports that President Coolidge gave orders for plans to be drafted for a new embassy building that was “earthquake-proof.” It was estimated that such a building might cost as much as $1 million, a serious sum. Coolidge recognized that being prepared for future disasters would likely save money in the long term, and lives.
At the same time, the experience of the 1927 floods demonstrated Coolidge’s insight that those with skin in the game are best positioned to know what’s truly needed, and to be sure money is spent prudently. Speaking about the 1927 floods, Coolidge told Congress: “It is extremely important that [affected regions] should pay enough so that those requesting improvements will be charged with some responsibility for their cost, and the neighborhood where works are constructed have a pecuniary interest in preventing waste and extravagance and securing a wise and economical expenditure of public funds.” When folks are spending their own money, they are more likely to make wise investments.
This is a conference about disaster risk reduction. Coolidge would have fit right in here in Sendai. He said: “The higher idealism, the true philanthropy, is not that which comes to the rescue after the catastrophe, but rather that which through obedience to sound economic laws creates a prosperity among the people that anticipates and prevents the need of charity.” Thank you for remembering and honoring the efforts of President Coolidge and the American people in this centenary year of the 1923 earthquake. I’m confident President Coolidge would smile upon this World Bosai Forum, and find much satisfaction in the important work being done by all of you to anticipate disaster, prevent destruction, and build international friendship.
 The New York Times, “Coolidge Praises Red Cross for Deducting Nothing for Expenses,” Oct 27, 1923.
 The New York Times, “New Embassy at Tokio: Coolidge Approves Plan for an Earthquake-Proof Building,” Dec 1, 1923.