"On Your Own Heads"

By Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(Assistant Secretary of the Navy)

[Scribner's Magazine, April 1917]

"Fenced by your careful fathers, ringed by your leaden seas,
Long did ye wake in quiet and long lie down at ease;
Till ye said of Strife, 'What is it?' of the Sword, 'It is far from our ken';
Till ye made a sport of your shrunken hosts and a toy of your armed men.
* * *

"Ye stopped your ears to the warning—ye would neither look nor heed—
Ye set your leisure before their toil and your lusts above their need,
* * *

"Sons of the sheltered city—unmade, unhandled, unmeet—
Ye pushed them raw to the battle as ye picked them raw from the street.
And what did ye look they should compass? Warcraft learned in a breath,
Knowledge unto occasion at the first far view of Death?"
* * *

"Given to strong delusion, wholly believing a lie,
Ye saw that the land lay fenceless, and ye let the months go by
Waiting some easy wonder: hoping some saving sign—
Idle—openly idle—in the lee of the forespent Line.
* * *

"But ye say, 'lt will mar our comfort.' Ye say, 'It will minish our trade.'
Do ye wait for the spattered shrapnel ere ye learn how a gun is laid?
For the low, red glare to southward when the raided coast-towns burn?
(Light ye shall have on that lesson, but little time to learn.)
* * *

"No doubt but ye are the People—absolute, strong , and wise;
Whatever your heart has desired ye have not withheld from your eyes.
On your own heads , in your own hands, the sin and the saving lies!"

— From "The Islanders," Rudyard Kipling.

"Congress ought to provide us with an adequate army and navy; with all the wealth and resources of the country there is no reason why we cannot be assured of national safety, and I am perfectly willing to bear my share of the taxes."

It was the small-business man in an up-state New York town speaking, and it was the same expression heard on a hundred lips, western, southern, New England, seaboard, prairie, and mountain. He, I found, like most of the others, had a vague idea that our country is but little prepared against a great war, and that we ought to "legislate" some improvement; but, like the others, he had absolutely no comprehension of the scope of modern war, of what such a war would mean in the life of the individual American citizen. He was patriotic according to his lights, but seemed somewhat offended when I told him that even if he volunteered the day war broke out he would be of no practical help to his country inside of a year and would in fact make it necessary for some trained person to stay at home in: order to educate him to a new business.

'I have been trying of late to put my finger on causes, the causes of the Great Inertia. Is it individualism applied to national questions? Is it lack of nowledge of and interest in peoples and events beyond our own borders? Is it national snobbishness? Is it blinding prosperity? Is it a Utopian idealism?

Let me illustrate: A bank president in a Middle West city thought Hayti and Santo Domingo were in Central America, and this at a time when several thousand American marines were restoring peace and order in those two countries.

A man of national reputation said in June, 1914: "There can never be a great European war, because civilization, and humanity will prevent it.' In December, 1916, he said: "The Allies will accept the German suggestion of peace, because humanity demands it." I venture to predict that this same gentleman will, when peace does come, proclaim that the world will never see another war.

A manufacturer insisted, "With tears in his eyes, that we should avenge the wrongs of Belgium, and five minutes later hoped that under no circumstances would the President allow us to get into war, because it would hurt him financially.

We are probably all familiar with the Congressman who suggested that in case of invasion the people on the coasts could withdraw to safety behind the Alleghany and the Rocky Mountains, and we know also the citizen who looks with smug satisfaction on the "impregnable" expanse of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Then too there is the amateur type of strategist, ranging from the man who thinks he could produce a new weapon to revolutionize warfare and make us safe to the politician who would create commissions and boards to make comprehensive studies and enumerations and do nothing.

From all of this it can be seen that the causes that underlie this failure to understand our national problems of defense are many and complex. Primarily it is an inability to visualize our position in the world. It is true that as a nation we have high ideals. It is true that we do not want to subjugate foreign nations against their will, that we do not want to grab territory, that we want to live on friendly terms with our neighbors, to live and let live to the mutual advantage. We seek to develop a growing foreign trade, to build up a merchant marine, to take a very leading place in the general affairs of the world.

If the boy stays at home he may never have a fight: we know that every boy who goes to school is bound sooner or later, no matter how peaceful his nature, to come to blows with some schoolmate. A great people, a hundred million strong, has gone to school; and history teaches that the occasions for quarrel are many, that most can be prevented from coming to actual contest, but that almost inevitably, under modern conditions of international relations, the clash of interests, or the magnified insult, or the bully, or the "only thing left to do," will bring on the crisis. Should the peaceful boy know how to use his fists in such a crisis? What do you think as the father of your son? What do you think as the citizen of your country?

Nobody who has been in Washington during the past four years—or ten years, or fifty years—can say that we are or will be free from the danger of possible war. It may be a war against a little nation or war against a powerful nation, or it may be a war against a combination of nations. It may come from one direction. It may come from several directions at the same time.

If all this be true, and its truth cannot be denied by any person who is willing to look facts squarely in the face, what does it mean to the policy of the nation? Clearly one of three possibilities: we can do nothing, and publish to the world that we are in the military sense defenseless; we can adopt a half-and-half policy, maintaining enough of a permanent army and navy to give us fancied and not actual security; or we can carry out the policy advocated by the two dominant political parties, the establishment of an "adequate" defense. This adequate defense does not now exist, and only in the naval branch of it has any earnest been given that we are on the road to obtain it. What, then, is the "adequate defense," this "preparedness," that we read about? Two items enter into it, the one useless without the other. They are materials and trained men, and the important point about them both is that under modern conditions of armed conflict between nations neither one of them can be improvised on the spur of the moment after war has commenced. A navy is useless without ships, guns, ammunition, equipment, yards, bases, fuel. An army is useless without artillery, rifles, commissary, shoes, transportation. It is obvious that enough of the material element must be provided beforehand to withstand the initial stage of war until the factories can replenish and increase the supply. And it is obvious that the existence of these factories, their workers, their output, their organization also must be prepared beforehand.

So far all is fairly plain sailing. The expenditure of many millions for munitions, for ships, and the organization of the great industrial and transportation companies can be done by legislation and capable administration. My patriotic business friend ought to feel satisfied, so satisfied probably that he would assume that everything necessary had been done. He would have seen Congress apparently active in the business of voting money for preparedness and he might very possibly have contributed willing taxes to the payment. But still he would be no nearer to the readiness of himself as the individual citizen to play his part in the national defense.

One of the most astounding of untenable theories still held by Americans is that mere men, mere weight of numbers, can succeed in war. It is strange that after reading of England's training problem in the present war leading men in public life can still talk of the willing millions ready overnight or after a few weeks of training. Quite aside from the important little item that the necessary trainers do not exist, it is known as a fact proved by the experience of modern war that a year of work of .preparing the average citizen is necessary before he can be sent to the front as an effective unit. It is not merely a question of drill, of the manual of arms, of the parade-ground. Do we realize that not one American in a hundred knows how to take care of his own physical body under service conditions? Do we understand how very few of us can march twenty miles or dig a trench? Do we think we can all hit a five-foot square target at six hundred yards (leaving out all question of the bull's-eye)? Is there any reason to believe that Americans are as a whole physically better than the Germans or Russians or French? Of course, if some seer could assure us that in case of a great war we should have a year or so to prepare for it, we could continue on our happy-go-lucky course. That has not been the history of the way wars commence.

To-day we see armies of millions, we see great military operations carried on thousands of miles away from the home country. Witness the British at Salonica, the Canadians in France, the Australians in Egypt. We can no longer hold a mere ocean a barrier to that power which controls its waters. In other words, we must admit that a great campaign in the Western Hemisphere, a campaign into which millions of men could be thrown, is a military possibility to any nation or combination of nations able to drive our fleet off the seas. In such a case we must be able to meet trained men with trained men—and overmatch them at their own game.

All this seems on the face of it to relate to the problem of the soldier more than the sailor, but it has become of naval importance also. England, prior to the war, employed about 125,000 men in her navy. To-day well over 500,000 are doing naval service. If that is so in the case of England we could expect the necessity of using at least an equal number. Apart from the main fleet we should in all probability find it necessary to maintain a complete patrol of the length of our two main coasts and keep open the lines of communications with the Panama Canal, with Cuba and Porto Rico, and on the other side with Alaska, Hawaii, and the Philippines. We have to-day in round numbers 100,000 trained men in the navy, marine corps, naval militia, and reserve, counting in those availables who have formerly had naval training. Where are the additional 400,000 to come from?

A member of the naval committee of the House of Representatives asked me this winter why the officers and sailors in our merchant marine, our fishermen, our yachtsmen, our motor-boat men could not be considered as adequate reserves. I told him that they could and should be considered the best of raw material, but that months of training would be required to make them fit for naval duty. Last year the navy held a training-cruise for 2,000 civilians. Many of these men were practical yachtsmen, could navigate, pilot, and understand seamanship. At the end of a month the most common impression of these civilians was that it would take them months more of practice before they could be counted on as a real asset to the navy. This system of training for volunteers is to be extended this summer, but a careful estimate makes it seem doubtful if more than 10,000 civilians will take advantage of the opportunity. Ten thousand men a year—and the navy alone needs a trained reserve of 400,000!

Approach the question of national defense from any angle, examine the definition of war as it exists in 1917, enumerate world resources, count noses at home and abroad—whether looked at from the constitutional, from the democratic, or from, the economic point of view there can be only one way of meeting attack with assured success, and that way lies in the training of every individual for the service of the nation in its need. The very word "training" presupposes work done now but to be applied to a future contingency. We do not educate engineers by asking them at once to build us an important bridge—that is, if we ever hope to cross that bridge ourselves. We send our boy to a school of engineering that his future work may safely endure. So, too, if the work is to be well done there must be true co-operation by every person employed on it. In Europe to-day every individual in the warring countries is taking part in the war: the conflict is not confined to the trenches or to the men: it reaches back to the railways, to the factories, to the homes, to the old men— to the women, yes, and to many of the children. We are not ready for a national co-operation of that kind. We lack the self-discipline, we lack in fact the remotest idea of what this national service would mean to us as individuals. We do not know where we would "fit in."

Certain professional peace theorists have with crafty cunning laid emphasis on the military feature of universal training. They have called up pictures of the omnipresent uniform, of the Cossack whip of olden days, of the military dictator. They forget that in a true republic service which is universal is of necessity voluntary— it is, in other words, the desire of the majority of the people themselves. If there be shirkers, if there be any who would still place the liberty of the individual—their own little right to go their own gait—above the liberty and the need and the safety of the community and of the nation, then in their case alone can universal training be called compulsory. Few of us honestly fear that this nation will ever become militaristic—the trend of our civilization is all the other way. Switzerland and Australia are examples of progressive democracy successfully armed against attack. And yet many of our prominent men have argued with me that our great size would preclude us from following these systems. They can understand training a hundred thousand men a year; they balk at half a million. They are the kind of people who would organize a well or two to supply a city block but who would be appalled at the thought of a municipal water system.

The primary object of universal training is, it is true, to create an organization which would be used as a whole body for national protection in time of war. The country needs for army and navy alone a trained reserve of at least 2,000,000 men. This is not merely my personal conviction, but is corroborated by the investigations and reports of men who would in a crisis be responsible for our safety. There is in addition the aspect of the benefits this training would give in time of peace. If every boy of eighteen years of age were to give a year of his life to his nation, the advantage would be at least as much with him as with the country.

One has but to look at our army and navy men to know that their physical average is far above that of the community. Service means better bodies, clearer heads. And, too, it is time to consider the existence among us of differences between sections of the country and differences between elements in the same section. If the universal training of young men can be so conducted that they will meet comrades from other States and from other walks of life, much progress will have been made in strengthening the unity, the democracy, of the people of the United States. It will be a good thing for my citizenship if I, as a New Yorker, can live for a while in the same tent with the man from Tennessee, let us say; or if I, brought up on an inland farm, swing in a hammock between decks next to the son of a New York banker.

During the past year I have taken every opportunity to try to discover the real attitude of the majority of people in the country toward a form of universal service. I am thankful to say that I have found little real opposition. The enthusiasm for it, the realization of its importance, far outweigh this opposition; but there is apathy, the kind of apathy that yields to argument, to an exposition of the facts. What is needed is a greater expression of approval. The average statesman, the average representative, has his ear pretty close to the ground. He will act if you give the word.

"In your own hands...the sin and the saving lies."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury