On America’s Active Remedy in the World and Why Statism Will Always Fail

The President and party aboard a whistle stop tour through Minnesota, 1925.

The President and party aboard a whistle stop tour through Minnesota, 1925.

“We meet here to-day as the inheritors of those principles which preserved our Nation and extended its constitutional guarantees to all its citizens. We come not as partisans but as patriots. We come to pledge anew our faith in all that America means and to declare our firm determination to defend her within and without from every foe. Above that we come to pay our tribute of wonder and admiration at the great achievements of our Nation and at the glory which they are shedding around her…”

In contrast, Coolidge could remind his contemporaries of a very different example, an illustration that is not so far removed from repetition in our time, one that had shaken the world of that day over the course of four, short years. It was “the German military despotism” which had sought “the pillage and enslavement of the earth. To accomplish this, the German despotism began at home. By a systematic training the whole German people were perverted. A false idea of their greatness was added to their contempt and hate of other nations, who, they were taught, were bent on their destruction. The military class were exalted and all else degraded. Thus was laid the foundation for the atrocities which have marked their conduct of the war…

“We had seen Germany going from infamy to infamy. We did not know of the violated treaty of Belgium, of the piracy, the murder of women and children, the destruction of the property and lives of our neutral citizens, and finally the plain declaration of the German Imperial Government that it would wantonly and purposely destroy the property and lives of any American citizen who exercised his undoubted legal right to sail certain portions of the sea. This attempt to declare law for America by an edict from Potsdam we resisted by the sword. We see at last not only the hideous wickedness which perpetrated the war, we see that it is a world war, that Germany struck not only at Belgium, she struck at us, she struck at our whole system of civilization. A wicked purpose, which a vain attempt to realize has involved its authors in more and more wickedness. We hear that even among the civil population…crime is rampant.”

Coolidge was among the foremost to demonstrate a just distinction between law-abiding, patriotic individuals versus those who were personally responsible for warfare against civilization. Coolidge remained so even at the height of anti-German propaganda during the war. This was no tirade against the Hun. Cal was striking at something more fundamental in human nature, a dangerous desire that can find fertile soil in any individual’s heart and mind. Its symptoms do not know a single time or place. It is ultimately a hatred of life, a hostility toward any degree of freedom of thought or private conscience, and an enmity for liberty under law, despite these heavenly gifts being eternal cornerstones that together make civilization civilized. The very existence of the individual, in possession of sacred rights which not even the most powerful human agency can rightly deprive at whim, is repugnant to this hateful disposition. This animus, however, can take root in any person or nation. It was no more unique to Germany than it is exclusive to certain individuals or states, even Islamic ones, today. Having described the problem, Coolidge turns to focus upon the remedy with a wise precaution against the same attitude that misled Germany lest it also lead us astray here at home.

“Looking now at this condition of Germany and her Allies, it is time to inquire what America and her Allies have to offer as a remedy, and what effect the application of such remedy has had upon ourselves. We have drawn the sword, but it is only to ‘Be blood for blood, for treason treachery?’ Are we seeking merely to match infamy with infamy, merely to pillage and destroy those who threatened to pillage and destroy us? No; we have taken more than the sword, lest we perish by the sword; we have summoned the moral power of the Nation. We have recognized that evil is only to be overcome by good. We have marshaled the righteousness of America to overwhelm the wickedness of Germany. A new spirit has come over the nation the like of which was never seen before…

“We entered the war a people of many nationalities. We are united now; every one if first an American. We were beset with jealousies, and envy, and class prejudice. Service in the camp has taught each soldier to respect the other, whatever his source, and a mutual sympathy at home has brought all into a common citizenship. The service flag is a great leveler…Labor has taken on a new dignity and nobility. When the idle see the necessity of work, when we begin to recognize industry as essential, the working man begins to have paid him the honor which is his due…The call for man power has given a new idea of the importance of the individual, so that there has been brought to the humblest the knowledge that he was not only important but his importance was realized. And with this has come the discovery of new powers, not only in the slouch whom military drill has transformed into a man, but to labor that has found a new joy, satisfaction and efficiency in its work. The entire activities of the Nation are tuned up…

“The great work before us is to keep this new spirit in the right path…The sacrifice necessary for national defence must hereafter never be neglected. The virtues of war must be carried into peace. But this must not be done at the expense of the freedom of the individual. It must be the expression of self-government and not the despotism of a German military caste or a Russian Bolshevik state. We are in this war to preserve the institutions that have made us great. The war has revealed to us their true greatness. All argument about the efficiency of despotism and the incompetence of republics was answered at the Marne and will be hereafter answered at the Rhine. We are not going to overcome the Kaiser by becoming like him, nor aid Russia by becoming like her. We see now that Prussian despotism was the natural ally of the Russian Bolshevik and the I. W. W. here. Both exist to pervert and enslave the people; both seek to break down the national spirit of the world for their own wicked ends. Both are doomed to failure. By taking our place in the world, America is to become more American, as by doing his duty the individual develops his own manhood. We see now that when the individual fails, whether it be from a despotism or the dead level of a socialistic state, all has failed.”

This prediction, years before the Second World War, barely after the Russian Revolution and long before the Cold War, forecasts the internal failure of the statist ideal. It was an idea doomed to collapse because it defies the power of the individual and his or her fitness for self-government. It sets itself against civilization and will thus lose, whatever form it takes in the future, be it communism, fascism, or socialism. Evil cannot withstand the might of good. Reagan saw it coming, but before that, so did Coolidge.

“A new vision has come to the Nation, a vision that must never be obscured. It is for us to heed it, to follow it. It is a revelation, but a revelation not of our weakness but of our strength, not of new principles, but of the power that lies in the application of old doctrines. May that vision never fade, may America inspired by a great purpose ever be able to say, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord'” — Governor Calvin Coolidge to the Essex County Club in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, September 14, 1918.

President Coolidge accepting induction into the Smoki tribe, October 22, 1924.

President Coolidge accepting induction into the Smoki tribe, October 22, 1924.

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