Flashback: On the Brink of War 1940 – by US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull

Editor’s Note: Among my father’s papers was the full 1940 commencement address at Harvard University by then Secretary of State, Tennessean Cordell Hull. His words and passion for the American heart and soul on the brink of war still resonate today. (Excerpts)

There are at work in the world today powerful forces the significance of which no individual an don nation can ignore without jeopardy. They rose on many occasions in the past and, for varying periods and with varying intensity, held sway over human affairs. They spring today from the source from which they have always sprung in the past – from godless and souls lust for power which seeks to hold men in physical slavery and spirit degradation and to display a system of peaceful and orderly relations among nations by the anarchy of wanton violence and brute force.

Fortunately, these forces have not triumphed in every instance in which they have challenged human freedom and interrupted the advance of civilization. There are times in the lives of individuals and of national when realization of mortal peril, far from making men recoil in horror and defeat, strengthens and enables the soul, gives indomitability to will and to courage, and leads to victory through suffering and sacrifice…

Never before have these forces flung so powerful a challenge to freedom and civilized progress as they are flinging today. Never before has there been a more desperate need for men and nations who love freedom and cherish the tenets of modern civilization, to gather into an unconquerable defensive force every element of their spiritual and material resources, every ounce of their moral and physical strength.

We, Americans of today, have behind us a century and a half of national existence, to which we point, with justifiable pride, as a successful experiment in democracy and human freedom. That experiment began when a resplendent generation of Americans resolved to stake on its success their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. With unshakeable faith in their cause and an unswerving determination to make it prevail, they risked their all for the creation of a nation in which each citizen would have – as his inalienable rights – liberty under the law, equality of opportunity, freedom of thought and of conscience, These Americans believed unreservedly that in a nation founded upon these great principles, the people could enjoy individually a far great measure of well-being and happiness than is possible under any other form of political and social organization, and could achieve collectively a degree of internal strength and unity of purpose necessary to ensure for the nation itself the inalienable right to manage its own affairs solely by the will of its own people…

No more vital test has ever confronted the American people that that which confronts it today. There are difficult and dangerous times ahead. Our national independence and our cherished institutions are not immune from the challenge of the lust for power that already stalks so much of the earth’s surface. Unprecedented effort and heavy sacrifices will be required of us as the price of preserving, for ourselves and for our posterity, the kind of America that has been fostered and preserved for us by the vigilance, courage, and sacrifice of those who preceded us. We shall succeed if we retain unimpaired the most precious heritage which they bequeathed us – an unshakeable faith in the everlasting worth of freedom and honor, of truth and justice, of intellectual and spiritual integrity; and an immutable determination to give our al, if need be, for the preservation of our way of life.

Without that faith and that determination, no material means of defense will suffice. With them, we fear no enemy outside or within our borders.

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