The acceptance speech of the Republican candidate for U.S. president in 1924 would have made a dramatic improvement on President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech of 2009. The 1924 speech was given by the incumbent president who would go on to win reelection and to act on his rhetorical commitments. His name was Calvin Coolidge.
The speech has been virtually erased from memory, as has the movement that inspired the section I want to recall. The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation doesn’t list the speech on its website and cannot find it when asked. The American Presidency Project hasn’t got it. The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum is no help. The Library of Congress Coolidge Papers don’t have it. The Private Coolidge papers don’t have it. The University of North Carolina – Charlotte claims to have it but doesn’t. However, the Lewiston Evening Journal printed the speech on August 14, 1924, and you can read it on Google.
The speech is, of course, chock full of distortions, exaggerations, U.S. exceptionalism, racism, bigotry, nationalism, religion, elitism, libertarianism, sexism, and other comforting touches that will make us feel at home and remind us of our own Republican National Conventions. It would take volumes to survey the many ways in which we’ve progressed, retrogressed, and failed to budge from that speech to today. But I want to point to one section on which we’ve lost tremendous ground. There was nothing like it in John McCain’s speech in 2008 or in Obama’s of that year. There will be nothing like it this season.
“The domestic affairs of our country appear to me to be by far the chief concern,” said Coolidge. “From that source comes our strength. The home market consumes nearly all of our production. Within our own boundaries will be determined to a very large degree the economic welfare and the moral worth of the American people. These are plain facts, but there are others equally plain. America, under Providence, has come to be a nation of great responsibility. It exists as one of the family of nations. We can not be isolated. Other peoples exist all about us. Their actions affect us, and our actions affect them, whether we will or no. . . . We believe in the law of service, which teaches us that we can improve ourselves only by helping others. We know that these principles are applicable alike to our domestic and our foreign relations.”
This opening is a nice contrast with today’s Republicans who actually boo mention of the Golden Rule in connection with foreign relations, but the important part comes next:
“The foreign policy of America can best be described by one word — peace. . . . We covet no territory; we support no threatening military army; we harbor no hostile intent. We have pursued, are pursuing, and shall continue to pursue with untiring devotion the cause of peace. These ideas we have put into practical application. We have sought to promote peace not only by word, but by appropriate action. We have been unwilling to surrender our independence. We have refused to ratify the covenant of the League of Nations. [A rejection favored by a large section of the peace movement at the time.] . . . . We must necessarily proceed upon the principle of present cooperation without future entanglements.”
Now comes the president’s response to the powerful and forgotten movement to outlaw war, which at the time was not a crime. The Outlawry movement had gained the support of the Democratic, Progressive, and Socialist Parties in their platforms. The Republican Party could do no less:
“As peace means fundamentally a rein of law, we propose to become a member of the Permanent Court of International Justice. Such action would do much to indicate our determination to restrain the rule of force and solidify and sustain the rule of reason among nations. . . . I shall deem it an appropriate time to approach the great powers with a proposal for another conference for a further limitation of armaments and for devising plans for a codification of international law. I personally should favor entering into covenants for the purpose of outlawing aggressive war by any practical means. . . . Those who are working out detailed plans to present such a policy for consideration have my entire sympathy. I trust that never again will the women of this Nation be called upon to sacrifice their loved ones to the terrible scourge of war.”
Several months later, Coolidge gave an inaugural address, in which he returned to this theme:
“This Nation believes thoroughly in an honorable peace under which the rights of its citizens are to be everywhere protected. It has never found that the necessary enjoyment of such a peace could be maintained only by a great and threatening array of arms. In common with other nations, it is now more determined than ever to promote peace through friendliness and good will, through mutual understandings and mutual forbearance. We have never practiced the policy of competitive armaments.
“We have recently committed ourselves by covenants with the other great nations to a limitation of our sea power. As one result of this, our Navy ranks larger, in comparison, than it ever did before. Removing the burden of expense and jealousy, which must always accrue from a keen rivalry, is one of the most effective methods of diminishing that unreasonable hysteria and misunderstanding which are the most potent means of fomenting war.
“This policy represents a new departure in the world. It is a thought, an ideal, which has led to an entirely new line of action. It will not be easy to maintain. Some never moved from their old positions, some are constantly slipping back to the old ways of thought and the old action of seizing a musket and relying on force. America has taken the lead in this new direction, and that lead America must continue to hold. If we expect others to rely on our fairness and justice we must show that we rely on their fairness and justice.
“If we are to judge by past experience, there is much to be hoped for in international relations from frequent conferences and consultations. We have before us the beneficial results of the Washington conference and the various consultations recently held upon European affairs, some of which were in response to our suggestions and in some of which we were active participants. Even the failures can not but be accounted useful and an immeasurable advance over threatened or actual warfare. I am strongly in favor of continuation of this policy, whenever conditions are such that there is even a promise that practical and favorable results might be secured.
“In conformity with the principle that a display of reason rather than a threat of force should be the determining factor in the intercourse among nations, we have long advocated the peaceful settlement of disputes by methods of arbitration and have negotiated many treaties to secure that result. The same considerations should lead to our adherence to the Permanent Court of International Justice. Where great principles are involved, where great movements are under way which promise much for the welfare of humanity by reason of the very fact that many other nations have given such movements their actual support, we ought not to withhold our own sanction because of any small and inessential difference, but only upon the ground of the most important and compelling fundamental reasons. We can not barter away our independence or our sovereignty, but we ought to engage in no refinements of logic, no sophistries, and no subterfuges, to argue away the undoubted duty of this country by reason of the might of its numbers, the power of its resources, and its position of leadership in the world, actively and comprehensively to signify its approval and to bear its full share of the responsibility of a candid and disinterested attempt at the establishment of a tribunal for the administration of even-handed justice between nation and nation. The weight of our enormous influence must be cast upon the side of a reign not of force but of law and trial, not by battle but by reason. . . .
“Some of the best thought of mankind has long been seeking for a formula for permanent peace. Undoubtedly the clarification of the principles of international law would be helpful, and the efforts of scholars to prepare such a work for adoption by the various nations should have our sympathy and support. Much may be hoped for from the earnest studies of those who advocate the outlawing of aggressive war.”
This long-forgotten politics created the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the trials after World War II of individuals charged with the crime of war. Never since have the wealthy nations gone to war with each other. War has been maintained ever since by racist hypocrisy, as rich nations make war to exploit poor ones. That too can be ended. But don’t hold your breath to hear the abolition of war or even the possibility of joining the International Criminal Court mentioned in the 2012 RNC or DNC. We’re lucky these days if we get through a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance without hearing war praised and promoted.
UPDATE: The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation has since provided me with a copy of the acceptance speech and would like it to be known that they do have it.