Truman on Independence Day and War in Korea
Editor’s Note: This is one of three wartime Independence Day speeches featured today at War on the Rocks.
Mr. Chairman, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
This is a very special occasion. Here in Washington tonight, up in Philadelphia, and throughout our whole country, we are celebrating an anniversary of great importance. On this day 175 years ago the representatives of the American people declared the independence of the United States.
Our forefathers in Philadelphia not only established a new nation—they established a nation based on a new idea. They said that all men were created equal. They based the whole idea of government on this God-given equality of men. They said that the people had the right to govern themselves. They said the purpose of government was to protect the unalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
These were sensational proposals. In 1776 a nation based on such new and radical ideas did not appear to have much chance of success. In those days power centered in Europe. Monarchy was the prevailing form of government. The divine right of kings was still widely accepted.
The new Nation was small, remote, poor, and, in 1776, apparently friendless. Europe did not for a moment believe this new kind of government would work, and, to tell the truth, fully a third of our own people did not believe it would work, either.
We can hardly imagine the courage and the faith it took to issue the Declaration of Independence in those circumstances.
Today we can see that the members of the Continental Congress were right. Less than two centuries later the nation born that day, instead of being small, stretches across a whole continent. Instead of being poor, the United States is wealthier than any other nation in the world. Instead of being friendless, we have strong and steadfast allies.
The transformation during these 175 years seems to be complete; but it is not. Some things have not changed at all since 1776.
For one thing, freedom is still expensive. It still costs money. It still costs blood. It still calls for courage and endurance, not only in soldiers, but in every man and woman who is free and who is determined to remain free. Freedom must be fought for today, just as our fathers had to fight for freedom when the Nation was born.
For another thing, the ideas on which our Government is founded—the ideas of equality, of God-given rights, of self-government—are still revolutionary. Since 1776 they have spread around the world. In France in 1789, in Latin America in the early 1800s, in many parts of Europe in the mid-19th century, these ideas produced new governments and new nations. Now in the 20th century, these ideas have stirred the peoples in many countries of the Middle East and Asia to create free governments, dedicated to the welfare of the people. The ideas of the American Revolution are still on the march.
There is another way in which our situation today is much like that of the Americans in 1776. Now, once more, we are engaged in launching a new idea—one that has been talked about for centuries, but never successfully put into effect. In those earlier days we were launching a new kind of national government. This time we are creating a new kind of international organization. We have joined in setting up the United Nations to prevent war and to safeguard peace and freedom.
We believe in the United Nations. We believe it is based on the right ideas, as our own country is. We believe it can grow to be strong, and accomplish its high purposes.
But the United Nations faces stern, determined opposition. This is an old story. The Declaration of Independence was also met by determined opposition. A spokesman for the British King called the Declaration “absurd,” “visionary,” and “subversive.” The ideas of freedom and equality and self-government were first fiercely opposed in every country by the vested interests and the reactionaries. Today, the idea of an international organization to keep the peace is being attacked and undermined and fought by reactionary forces everywhere—and particularly by the forces of Soviet communism.
The United Nations will not succeed without a struggle, just as the Declaration of Independence did not succeed without a struggle. But the American people are not afraid. We have taken our stand beside other free men, because we have known for 175 years that free men must stand together. We have joined in the defense of freedom without hesitation and without fear, because we have known for 175 years that freedom must be defended.
This determined stand has cost us much in the past year. I do not intend to dwell upon the money cost on the Fourth of July, the day on which we dedicated “our fortunes” as well as “our lives and our sacred honor” to the cause of freedom. I am much more deeply concerned that our stand has cost the lives of brave men. I report it with sorrow, but with boundless pride in what they have done—for the men who have fallen in the service of the United States during the past year have died for the same cause as those who fell at Bunker Hill and Gettysburg, in the Argonne forest and on the Normandy beaches. They died in order that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” They have died in order that other men might have peace.
On this day, sacred to those who established freedom in the United States, we should all pay tribute to the men who are fighting now to preserve our freedom. The troops under the command of General Ridgway, including not only our own but those of 16 other free nations, constitute, I believe, the most magnificent army on the face of the globe today. We are all familiar with the splendor of their heroic deeds.
I should like to say something to that army, something that I think is felt by free men in every country in the world: Men of the armed forces in Korea, you will go down in history as the first army to fight under the flag of a world organization in the defense of human freedom. You have fought well, and without reproach. You have enslaved no free man, you have destroyed no free nation, you are guiltless of any country’s blood. Victory may be in your hands, but you are winning a greater thing than military victory, for you are vindicating the idea of freedom under international law. This is an achievement that serves all mankind, for it has brought all men closer to their goal of peace. It is an achievement that may well prove to be a turning point in world history.
Our aims in Korea are just as clear and just as simple as the things for which we fought in the American Revolution. We did not fight that war to drive the British out of the North American Continent. We did not fight it to destroy the military power of England, or to wipe out the British Empire. We fought it for the simple, limited aim of securing the right to be free, the right to govern ourselves. We fought it to secure respect for the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
It is much the same with Korea. We are not fighting there to conquer China, or to destroy the Soviet Empire. We are fighting for a simple aim–as important to us today as the goal of independence was in 1776-the aim of securing the right of nations to be free and to live in peace.
The Charter of the United Nations says that its purpose is to “maintain international peace and security” and “to take effective collective measures…for the suppression of acts of aggression.”
We are fighting to uphold this purpose of the United Nations. That is what we have been doing in Korea.
We have made it clear that those words mean what they say. We have taken collective measures to suppress aggression, and we are suppressing it.
We have shown the world that the United Nations Charter is not just a scrap of paper—but something very real, and very powerful. To establish this is worth all the sacrifices and all the effort we have been making, because this is the way to peace.
Our constant aim in Korea has been peace, under the principles of the United Nations. Time and again, since the aggression started, we have proposed that the fighting be stopped, and that peace be restored in accordance with those principles.
Now, at last, the Communist leaders have offered to confer about an armistice. It may be that they have decided to give up their aggression in Korea. If that is true, the road to a peaceful settlement of the Korean conflict is open.
But we cannot yet be sure that the Communist rulers have any such intention. It is still too early to say what they have in mind. I do not wish to speculate on the outcome of any meetings General Ridgway may have with the commanders on the other side. I hope these meetings will be successful. If they are not, it will be because the Communists do not really want peace. Meanwhile, let us keep our heads, and be vigilant and ready for whatever may come.
We must remember that Korea is only part of a wider conflict. The attack on freedom is worldwide. And it is not simply an attack by fire and sword. It is an attack that uses all the weapons that a dictatorship can command: subversion, threats, violence, torture, imprisonment, lies, and deceit.
We cannot ignore the danger of military outbreaks in other parts of the world. The greatest threat to world peace, the tremendous armed power of the Soviet Union, will still remain, even if the Korean fighting stops. The threat of Soviet aggression still hangs heavy over many a country—including our own. We must continue, therefore, to build up our military forces at a rapid rate. And we must continue to help build up the defenses of other free nations.
And we must continue the struggle to overcome the constant efforts of the Soviet rulers to dominate the world by lies and threats and subversion.
The Soviet rulers are trying to destroy the very idea of freedom, in every part of the world. They are trying to take from us the confidence and friendship of other nations. They hate us not because we are Americans, but because we are free–because we are the greatest example of the power of freedom.
The Soviet rulers are engaged in a relentless effort, therefore, to persuade other nations that we do not, in fact, stand for freedom. They are trying to convince the people of Europe that we intend to exploit them. They are telling the people of Asia—who are for the most part ill informed about our purposes—that we mean to fasten new chains upon them. They are trying to make the rest of the world believe that we want to control them for our own profit—that the ideas of our Declaration of Independence are a sham and a fraud.
This shrewd, this unscrupulous, this evil propaganda attack—we cannot overcome with military weapons. You cannot transfix a tie with a bayonet, or blast deceit with machine-gun fire. The only weapons against such enemies are truth and fair dealing.
The way to meet this attack is to show that it is false—to live up to our ideals—to prove that we mean them.
The world looks to us. This country is the living proof that personal liberty is consistent with strong and stable government. This country proves that men can be free.
As a result, the freedom of the American citizen means a great deal more than his individual safety and happiness. It means that men everywhere can have the freedom they hope for.
Anyone who undertakes to abridge the right of any American to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness commits three great wrongs. He wrongs the individual first, but in addition, he wrongs his country and he betrays the hopes of mankind.
It is for this reason that persecution of minorities, which is wrong anywhere, is worse in America. It is for this reason that vilifying men because they express unpopular opinions is less to be tolerated here than in any other country. It is for this reason that holding men in bondage—personal, political, or economic—is a graver scandal here than elsewhere. It is for this reason that “to promote the general welfare” is more urgently required of the American Government than any other.
We have made great strides in broadening freedom here at home. We have made real progress in eliminating oppression and injustice and in creating security and opportunities for all. I am proud of our record in doing these things.
Today, more than ever before, it is important that we continue to make progress in expanding our freedoms and improving the opportunities of our citizens. To do so is to strengthen the hopes and determination of free men everywhere.
Moreover, it is doubly important today that we set an example of sober and wise and consistent self-government. We face a long period of world tension, and great international danger. We have the hard task of increasing production and controlling inflation in order to support the strong Armed Forces we must have for years to come,
One of our most difficult tasks, because it is new to our people, is that of organizing civil defense. Because we have been spared the rough schooling which the people of Europe have had, too many Americans are still skeptical and tardy.
All these tasks challenge the ability of free people to govern themselves with both reason and resolution. There are people who say our democratic form of government cannot do these things. They say we cannot stick to a hard, tough policy of self-denial and self-control long enough to win the struggle. They say we are no match for the steady, ruthless way the Soviet rulers seek their goals.
These people, and they are not all Communists by any means, say that we can’t take it, over the long pull. They say we will either lose our heads and rush into a world war, or that we will relax and give up our efforts to maintain peace. They say that the demagogues and the special interests will tear us apart from within. These people do not believe that free men and self-government can survive in the struggle against Communist dictatorship.
I think these prophets of doom are wrong. I think the whole history of our country proves they are wrong. I believe the last few months show that we will not be stampeded into war, or broken up by distrust and fear.
But we are going through a period that will test to the utmost our self-control, our patriotism, and our faith in our institutions. The very idea of self-government is being put to the test in the world today as it has never been tested before.
If we do not succeed in this country-if we do not succeed in building up our Armed Forces, in controlling inflation, and in strengthening our friends and allies—then the cause of self-government, the cause of human freedom, is lost. If we with all that we have in our favor do not succeed, no other free government can survive–anywhere in the world–and the whole great experiment that began in 1776 will be over and done with.
I believe we will succeed.
The principles of the Declaration of Independence are the right principles. They are sound enough to guide us through this crisis as they have guided us through other crises of the past. Freedom can overcome tyranny in the 20th century as surely as it overcame the tyrants of the 18th century.
There is a text inscribed on the Liberty Bell, the bell that rang out a hundred and seventy-five years ago to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence. When the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly ordered that bell for the statehouse in Philadelphia, they directed that it should bear certain words, “well-shaped in large letters.” You remember what those words were: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
We should write these words again today. We should write them in everything we do in this country—”well-shaped in large letters”—by every deed and act, so that the whole world can read them. We have written them in the deeds of our soldiers in Korea–for the men of Asia and all the world to see. Let us write them in all that we do, at home and abroad, to the end that men everywhere may read them and take hope and courage for the victory of freedom.
Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States of America.
Source: Truman Presidential Library