On Factual News Reporting and a Responsible Press, Part 2

Having ventured into the ways in which the press impacts, even undermines, America’s friendly relations around the world, President Coolidge turned to the very valid reasons why America continued to be worth loyalty and admiration without compromising the press’ solemn task. He explained,

“Progress and civilization have always depended upon effort and sacrifice. We have set up our institutions, established our ideals, and adopted our social standards. We believe that they are consistent with right and truth and justice. We live under a system that guarantees the sanctity of life and liberty through public order and protects the rights of private property under the principle of due process of law. We have thrown every possible safeguard around the individual in order to protect him from any invasion of his rights even by the Government itself. It is peculiarly an American doctrine, now usually accepted in principle if not adopted in practice by all civilized countries, that these are unalienable rights, that they ought to belong to all persons everywhere, and that it is the chief function of government to provide instrumentalities by which these rights can be secured and protected. We have adopted these ideals because we believe that they are of universal application and square with the eternal principles of right. But we may as well realize that they will not continue to prevail unless we are prepared constantly to put forth great efforts and make large sacrifices for their support.”

It what could not be less timely, especially instructive with the ongoing “War on Terror,” Coolidge did not end there, but drove the point home,

“While we have not been willing to assume any general attitude of crusading toward other nations and, realizing that institutions can not be bestowed but must be adopted, have left them for the most part secure in their rights to work out their own destiny, yet we have always been willing to encourage and assist, in so far as we could in harmony with international law and custom, other people in securing for themselves the benefit of these principles and ideals. In that conflict between freedom and despotism, which is as old as humanity, and which constantly recurs on one form or another, both among ourselves and among other people, it has always been the policy of this Government to extend its sympathy and, in so far as it lawfully could, its support to the side of freedom.”

Well-established international law did not only preclude the right of America’s Government from interfering “in the purely domestic affairs of other nations in their dealings with their own citizens,” it just as strongly sustained that “certain rights over and certain duties toward our own citizens and their property” follow the American wherever one goes. The Nation bears a duty to protect both the persons and property of its citizens “wherever they may be” since “these rights go with the citizen.” This is not to say that when our people enter a foreign country, they are somehow exempt from the laws of that sovereign people. Just as our Government is obligated to uphold our own laws so are the other nations of the world, free of interjection from us. Yet, as Coolidge reminds his audience, domestic rights and duties are not mutually exclusive, they are taken together with international law recognizing rights and duties of equal potency. “There is nothing unfair, nothing imperialistic, in this principle.” Together they are accepted even between the civilized nations of our time and place because they remain, as Coolidge observed, “the only reasonable method by which enlightened humanity can safeguard friendly intercourse among the citizens of different nations.” This method, the President declared, has been forged from a belief that law must reign not upon the transient basis of borders, ethnic identity or where society is currently but upon what is universal and essential.

Discussing these great principles of law and justice in our relation to the world was supremely valuable but President Coolidge understood that placing them into practical application was just as necessary. Addressing many who knew the daunting circumstances Coolidge was about to recount, the President illustrated how the principles he had commended actually work in order for responsible media organizations, like United Press, to inform the American people with the facts. He starts by reviewing the situations in Mexico, Nicaragua and China.

At its heart, the problems in Mexico, spanning several years and involving the loss of American lives as well as the confiscation of property running into hundreds of millions of dollars, was a legal question. Mexico, adopting a constitution of its own in 1857, approved terms under which American citizens could acquire property both as individuals and as corporate owners. This remained the law until a new constitution was ratified in 1917. This newer document threatened government confiscation of those properties previously approved as lawful. Two commissioners were dispatched from the United States in 1923 who, through extensive discussion of this provision in Mexico’s constitution confirmed by signature of both President Obregon and President Coolidge that property would not be divested retroactively. Having reached so formal an understanding satisfactory to both nations “that our property rights would be respected” President Obregon’s government was grant official recognition by the United States on September 3, 1923. As efforts to overthrow the Mexican government intensified, however, in the fall of 1924, a new President claimed office who joined with the Mexican Congress to pass laws that again threatened that agreement on property ownership. The new President, Calles, refusing to recognize any prior understanding between Mexico and America, positioned to remove American citizens from their property and any right to possess it in Mexico altogether. As Coolidge summarized, “We do not question their right to take any property, provided they pay fair compensation.” Americans under the Coolidge administration sympathized with the aims of the Mexican government to return people to care of the land but at the same time recognized how the nation to our south, running too far into nationalism, was only hurting its own future. By “preventing the investment of outside capital so necessary for their development” the people of Mexico were unwittingly placing themselves at debilitating economic disadvantage, impairing “their friendly relations with other interested nations.” In effect, Mexico was telling the world it was removing itself from investment, trade and cooperation with anyone not Mexican. All the while, Mexico was also informing the rest of the civilized world that its word was not to be trusted, property could be taken without the legal safeguard of just payment and if those fundamental rights could be jettisoned, on what grounds were religious liberty, government by consent and the sanctity of life to be protected? When talk turned to arbitration, Coolidge shot it down. How could the cardinal principle that private property cannot be taken without fair compensation be up for grabs in the give and take of of the arbiter’s table? It was neither in America’s interest nor that of any other nation, to question this long-recognized right. As he would prepare to send Dwight Morrow to Mexico that summer, the President could report to this gathering of world news specialists that “the Mexican Ambassador has recently declared to me that she does not intend to confiscate our property; that she has shown diligence in capturing and punishing those who have murdered our citizens, and expressed the wish, which we so thoroughly entertain, of keeping cordial and friendly relations.”

President Coolidge had devoted a portion of his Annual Message the previous December to the problems in Nicaragua but would reiterate the key points at issue. Approached years before by the government of Nicaragua to dispatch a force of our Marines to that country, the United States had helped restore peaceful conditions for some twelve years. Nearly as soon as withdrawing the Marines, however, Coolidge saw revolution break out again. In the midst of violent upheaval, the Nicaraguan Congress confirmed a a National Executive and the U.S. joined by Nicaragua’s Central American neighbor-nations recognized the new President as having “constitutional title” to the office. As time elapsed, it quickly became evident that the new government was not protecting “American lives and property” so Coolidge sent in the Marines a second time. In the process of fighting for peace, a misinformation war was simultaneously underway. President Coolidge was disappointed to see cartoonists depicting the conflict as a squabble over oil even despite the verifiable fact that Nicaragua had no oil to develop let alone over which to fight.

Deviating from his point briefly, Coolidge sought to correct this irrational prejudice against oil consumption as an inherent evil. He said, “Our country consumes vast quantities of oil and gasoline in its use of automobiles, gas engines, and oil-burning furnaces. If these products are to be kept within a reasonable price, which is very important to a great body of our citizens, our people who go abroad to develop new fields and to increase the supply ought to have the encouragement and support of our Government.”

Returning to a discussion of the facts on Nicaragua, the President retorted, “We are not making war on Nicaragua any more than a policeman on the street is making war on passers-by. We are there to protect our citizens and their property from being destroyed by war and to lend every encouragement we can to the restoration of peace. While the destruction of life and property has been serious enough had it not been for the presence of our forces it would undoubtedly have been much worse.” The President noted the irony of those who had eagerly insisted there was ample mandate for American involvement in “far-off countries in Asia, where we have no interest that does not attach to all humanity” while our involvement, principally employing “the peaceful method of elections” in Central and South America, found those same people shrinking back with hesitation and criticism. When it came to the unique moral responsibility the United States had for those countries to our south, those same people found fault with “attempting to encourage the maintenance of order, the continuity of duly established government, and the protection of lives and property of our own citizens under a general reign of law in these countries…near at hand…where we have large and peculiar interests.”

Finally, the President moved to the volatile set of issues surrounding China. Undergoing revolution, the country had been segmented into numerous parts, “each claiming to represent a government, none of which we have recognized,” Coolidge affirmed. “Our main difficulty here is the protection of the life and property of our citizens.” Most of these lives and properties were missionaries, a few commercial enterprises and their possessions. America was not holding Chinese property. During the Coolidge administration, the mission of our Navy and Marines was one of concentrating our citizens in the port cities where they could be protected and transported to safety. We were not there to impose seize land or impose our ways on others. It was during these tenuous efforts to protect American citizens and their possessions that one of them was murdered, another was wounded and our consulate ransacked at Nanking. Coolidge explained what happened next, when “the house in which our people had taken refuge was surrounded and they were actually under fire it became necessary for one of our ships…to lay down a barrage” in order to drive away the soldiers and mob so that our citizens could reach “a place of safety on our ships in the river.” President Coolidge outlined why the United States deployed forces again when, just weeks prior to this address, the warring elements in China refused to grant America’s request to avoid fighting in the designated foreign sections of Shanghai. Having the most genuine sympathy for a restoration of freedom, unity and even the voluntary establishment of republican government to China, Coolidge realized that the internal upheaval can “be let loose temporarily beyond their power to control” which is why the United States continues a presence there to uphold the duty of protecting American nationals. America was not there to display aggression but “to prevent aggression against our people by any of their disorderly elements.” Coolidge retained an optimism for China’s eventual reclamation of its obligations. “Ultimately the turmoil will quiet down and some form of authority will emerge, which will no doubt be prepared to make adequate settlement for any wrongs we have suffered. We shall of course maintain the dignity of our Government and insist upon proper respect being extended to our authority. But our actions will at all times be those of a friend solicitous for the well-being of the Chinese people.”

America had inescapably stepped into the position of a world power. Attendant with that immense moral authority is the unavoidable criticisms which must be borne. While others have marched across the globe, using their leadership for conquest and subjugation, it will be assumed (falsely) that America will follow suit. “Such, however,” Coolidge emphasized, “is not the spirit of the American people.” We should expect that baseless accusations of imperialistic motives will be thrown against us, even when legitimately engaged in the support of international law, upholding our national interests and protecting the rights of our citizens. Holding ourselves “up to high standards of justice and equity…[w]e should be slow to take offense and quick to grant redress.” Civilization moves forward by the “acceptance and general observance of definite rules of human conduct.” The press functions in the indispensable role of both an advocate and expositor of America’s dutiful positions and “unwavering faith in those principles” not only to those at home but to the rest of the world. While America’s attitude to every nation remained one of “friendship and good will,” those who cast aside the rule of law “can not hope for our approbation.” America does not reward the lawless and violent. Those who struggle to rise in the pursuit of what Coolidge calls “a larger liberty,” America has abundant forbearance. America is to stand by the requirements of what is right and just but also ready to show generous mercy and compassion. To accomplish these obligations, however, America must be united and constantly prepared to serve. A free and responsible press helps furnish, through reliable reporting of the facts, a renewing commitment to America’s ideals by a truly informed citizenry.

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