We Are Still Losing This War
|We Are Still Losing This War (1942)
|United States Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, New York City, September 24, 1942. Speech delivered by Ralph Austin Bard,|
SOME months ago, after the first stunning shock of Pearl Harbor, we Americans needed a shot in the arm to restore our ego. That ego, the product of the belief that we were the peculiar children of fortune, expressed itself in the vague assumption that we could lick any of our enemies in sixty days, without skipping a full meal with dessert, or missing a Sunday drive in the country. After the unhappy realization that we had been cruelly outsmarted in the first inning of the war, in the peace and quiet of a Sunday morning, our own tradition of assuming that everything about us was the biggest and the best, furnished us with a compensatory reflex. We fell into the bumptious practice of flexing imaginary muscles, and loudly proclaimed that as soon as we had completed an intensive course at the gymnasium we would get even with our enemies. We began pointing with pride at our resources, and without a blush plunged into the amiable self-deception of using percentages. If two tanks in a 10,000-tank program rumbled out of a factory where one had before, we gloated that production was up 100 per cent.
The Japanese, diligent little fellows that they are, saw to it that we received photographs of American officers and men surrendering at Corregidor, and equally impressive photographs of seas of British faces imprisoned at Singapore. Because we had been so well schooled in the callous disregard of the tarnished spots in our armor, we were able collectively to avert our eyes from these unpleasant photographs and give out some more statistics about what we would do next month, or the next month, and most certainly in the months after that.
Optimism Then Pessimism
President Roosevelt one fine day reminded the country that it was suffering from too much complacent optimism, and then we went in for pessimism. We government officials have told you and other groups in recent months that we could lose the war. But I suspect that our native conceit has accepted this line of thought as traditional advertising technique, the kind of message which sells hair tonic and cure-alls, full of terror in the first part of the ad and reassurance in the windup—the ads which say you are most certainly damned, but our product can save you.
It seems to me that our pre-Pearl Harbor egotism had such momentum that it is with us today in distorted and dangerous form. We go around saying "We can lose the war, but"— We may as well admit it—every time one of us says we can lose the war we think of this as pure rhetoric, part of the old pep talk. The assumption is, of course, we can't lose the war, but scare 'em a little and then in the windup of the talk give 'em the build-up about our great American heritage of freedom and what not, and how our courage and our self-sacrifice will bring us to victory over the forces of evil—and then there will be a people's peace, and amity and justice will pervade the earth, forever after.
How about, for a change, just saying that we are still losing the war. And realize that we damn well mean it.
Such realism, no doubt, would be a heart-racking plunge into cold water, but it probably will give us some idea of what we are up against.
It would remind us that not since the Civil War has this nation been called upon to suffer greatly.
It might drive us to the realization that morale is the spiritual capacity of a people to endure pain and suffering, and not a campaign of bill posters, pep talks and band concerts.
It might free us of the calmness with which we read of the ordeals of the Russian Army. All honor to them.
It might, in our shaken frame of mind, drive us to the Lincoln memorial in Washington, where on the north wall we could read the Second Inaugural Address, in which President Lincoln posed the disquieting proposition that perhaps the nation was being punished in those days for having enslaved a race.
What We Might Ponder
Thus conditioned to the unpleasant task of self-examination, we might ponder whether or not we have tempted adversity and slavery by trading our fine-sounding concepts of the freedom and dignity of the individual for a mess of advertising slogans and political clinches.
This painful technique of realistic self-analysis might even remind us that freedom, like any other virtue, does not exist in a vacuum. It must be worked and practiced to exist at all. And like any other virtue, it imposes upon those who would have it the unpleasant tasks of discipline and sacrifice. A materialistic people do not learn these tasks by reading posters or listening to pep talks, any more than you can learn to play the violin by the same methods.
We have of course, under the stress of the war, had a spiritual rejuvenation of a kind.
But I rather feel that our spiritual revival is a little bit like that of the boy who said his prayers only when he had to sleep in a folding bed.
We have been wrangling for months over a tax bill for 1942, which in plain language means that we have been fighting over who is going to pay how much for this catastrophe which has engulfed us. The pressure of rival economic groups, each armed with unassailable statistics to show how that group will suffer injustice if thus and so happens, has ebbed and flowed like the tides for ten months.
I fail to detect a spirit of sacrifice in the group gyrations before Congress. Neither does it indicate that we have a spiritual grasp of our threatening fate when we sell bonds to help finance a war of survival or extermination on the promise of profitable monetary returns on the investment. I see no fundamental grasp of our predicament in anti-union employers who sabotage production committees for fear that industry will be sovietized, nor in labor union leaders who are so concerned about the competitive position of their own little groups as to examine the war with regard to how their own puny fortunes will be affected if labor unity is achieved or jurisdictional lines are eradicated.
I think our insufferable and materialistic pride has rendered us incapable of realizing fully that in German nazism we are fighting a monstrous thing that started out as a god-man complex, and now is fighting to the death whether that god-man complex still exists or not, in the desperate realization that nazism and the deluded fools who are backing nazism cannot survive if they do not win and exterminate their victims.
Prefer Death to Defeat
We would find it hard to follow through the thought that the little Japs, for whom we have always entertained a rather fond contempt, consider us foppish because we equip our aviators with parachutes. It is a degrading thought to these our enemies that there should be any alternative to defeat save violent death.
We are whistling in a graveyard to keep from facing reality. We prate about our unity of purpose. Then we retire to the woodshed with a sharp pencil and a clean shingle, to figure out whether the agricultural or the petroleum interests will grab the synthetic rubber business, and whether the British-Dutch rubber cartel will be revived after the war to threaten this new industry. We hope that we can enlist the support of the masses of Latin America and our own Negroes, without having to do too much toward solving the agrarian problems of our neighbors to the south or the economic problems of our fellow-Americans. And we hope that the Russians will whip the Nazis, but not be too unreasonable about spreading their uncomfortable doctrines outside of Russia.
And all the time we have a dusty standard in the attic around which we could all rally if we would but break it out and understand its dynamic implications.
I mean the standard of democratic idealism, which means tolerance, humility, sacrifice and understanding of the meaning of human dignity. It is a standard fashioned for us long ago, in suffering and hardship, by our forefathers. We put it away and took instead the billboards which proclaimed us the strongest, greatest and most superlative people that ever put in two and got out five. We are still flexing our imaginary muscles and shouting:
"Wait till I catch that lug who hit me when I wasn't looking!"
We had better stop for a moment and look in a flat mirror, to see if our gym trunks fit us.
At this point I should shift gears and wind up with predictions of a glorious finish of our uphill fight.
But I'm not going to do it.
We are still losing this war, period. And we should damn well understand it, period.
It will take all we've got to win—what are you going to do about it?