Our Heritage Can Be Preserved Only by Fighting Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This speech was delivered at the annual dinner of the New England Society in the City of New York on December 22, 1941, fifteen days after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and eleven days after Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. American public opinion changed drastically after the attack from a strong current of isolationism to widespread support for World War II. The attention of the nation turned immediately to mobilizing for war, but opinion differed on how the war should be fought and what its goals should be. Some believed that the military effort should focus primarily on defense and providing materials to Allied nations, and that a negotiated peace with Germany was possible in the future. James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, believed that there was no way short of total victory and the destruction of Nazi Germany in an offensive war to ensure the preservation of democracy and the American way of life.

Summary Overview

This speech was delivered at the annual dinner of the New England Society in the City of New York on December 22, 1941, fifteen days after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and eleven days after Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. American public opinion changed drastically after the attack from a strong current of isolationism to widespread support for World War II. The attention of the nation turned immediately to mobilizing for war, but opinion differed on how the war should be fought and what its goals should be. Some believed that the military effort should focus primarily on defense and providing materials to Allied nations, and that a negotiated peace with Germany was possible in the future. James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, believed that there was no way short of total victory and the destruction of Nazi Germany in an offensive war to ensure the preservation of democracy and the American way of life.

Defining Moment

While the Axis powers pursued their aggressive expansion throughout the world in 1939 and 1940, public sentiment in the United States was strongly isolationist and antiwar. US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had declared a national state of limited emergency when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, was convinced—as were some other key government officials—that US involvement in the war was likely, even inevitable, and acted to strengthen the military as a defensive “preparedness” measure.

By September 1940, Great Britain was near collapse as Germany relentlessly bombed the country's cities and blockaded its ports. It seemed that if both Russia and Great Britain fell, the United States would have to oppose Hitler alone. As a precautionary measure, Roosevelt signed the Selective Service and Training Act on September 16, requiring all male citizens between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-five to register for military service. Though still officially neutral, the nation prepared for war.

On December 7, 1941, Americans gathered around their radios to hear the news that the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been attacked by the Japanese. The attack damaged all of the US Navy battleships, sinking four of them. Airfields were bombed simultaneously to prevent counterattack. Additionally, 188 planes were destroyed and 159 were damaged. The entire attack lasted just under two hours, but the United States lost 2,403 people, including both military personnel and civilians. War with Japan was declared the following day in a joint session of Congress.

In September 1940, Italy, Germany, and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact—an agreement that Italy and Germany would divide Europe, Japan would control Asia after the war, and all three would come to each other's aid if attacked. Though Germany was given no warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor and was under no treaty obligation to declare war, Hitler believed that it would embarrass Roosevelt if Germany declared war first, and that the United States would take a long time to mobilize. He was wrong on both counts. Germany's declaration of war perfectly suited Roosevelt's portrayal of an innocent nation roused to war against its will but determined to defend itself, and the speed of mobilization increased significantly. The first War Powers Act was signed into law less than two weeks after Pearl Harbor, dramatically increasing federal powers. It gave the president the authority to reorganize and fund government agencies, censor communications, and set up corporations during the war.

As important to the war effort as military spending and manufacturing may have been, motivating public support for an all-out war was equally important. Even after Pearl Harbor, there were those who argued that the nation should spend its time and energy preparing for a defensive war, and that the government should not rule out a negotiated peace with Hitler. Conant, like many others, believed that there was no alternative to an all-out offensive war that would destroy Nazi Germany. In the early days of the war, speeches such as this one further cemented the nation's commitment to an offensive war effort.

Author Biography

James Bryant Conant was born in 1893 in Massachusetts. He attended Roxbury Latin School and enrolled at Harvard University in 1910, where he studied chemistry. After earning a doctorate in chemistry, Conant worked in chemical manufacturing with two other Harvard graduates, eventually joining the World War I effort in 1917. He worked on the development of poison gasses, though the war ended before these were used. He then returned to Harvard, where he taught chemistry. Elected president of Harvard University in 1933, Conant made several key reforms, including the admission of women into the student body and the abolition of guaranteed tenure. In 1940, Conant was appointed to the National Defense Research Committee, a group of scientists brought together to study and develop new technologies for warfare, including atomic and nuclear weapons; the United States was preparing for a war that many thought was inevitable. During the war, Conant served on a board that monitored the development of atomic weapons and worked to develop synthetic rubber for military vehicles.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Conant US high commissioner for Germany and, later, he was made the first ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). After returning to the United States, he wrote studies about the state of public education. He died in 1978.

Historical Document

TO respond to the toast of “Forefathers Day” before this gathering and on this traditional anniversary of the first landing of the settlers of Plymouth is a high honor, not only a high honor but a very special privilege. For here a New Englander may with a clear conscience dwell on the local history of his homeland, here unblushingly he may extol the austere virtues of the Puritan, here without danger of being branded a provincial he can view with satisfaction the panorama of American history as seen from the crest of Bunker Hill! In all seriousness, an occasion such as this would under normal circumstances be for me unique. For it would permit me as the President of Harvard University to delve into the records of the past and by recounting certain episodes in the history of our College join with you in paying homage to the wisdom, the courage and the fortitude of ten generations of New England men and women.

But tonight we are in no mood for such a localized excursion into former times. These are days of war. We are here as citizens of one united country—a united country engaged in a grim struggle against half the world. Not as New Englanders, nor as Southerners, not as Midwesterners nor dwellers on the Pacific coast did the inhabitants of this land respond to the first news of Japan's treachery at Pearl Harbor. Out first rush of hot anger came to us as Americans—as citizens of a country which had been wantonly attacked. As members of a free society which had flourished on this continent for more than a hundred and fifty years, we closed our ranks. Without thought of sectionalism, with unparalleled unanimity, we plunged into the midst of war. We now stand undivided. We are all Americans. We are pledged to outbuild, to outproduce, to outfight, and finally to overthrow the tyranny of the Axis Powers.

Therefore tonight, in your customary tribute to our forefathers it is no restricted group of Americans that we have in mind, no group set apart by accident of time or place. It is rather to the great patriots of all sections of this country, and of all former days that we turn for inspiration. And in so doing we merge ourselves in the stream of the great American tradition; we acknowledge with gratitude the debt we owe to all in each previous generation who have contributed to the flowering of the American way of life.

During the course of one hundred and fifty years we in the United States have evolved a unique form of society. Unhampered by the memories and social customs of any earlier feudal period, one nation—our own—has been able to develop a representative form of government resting on universal suffrage. From the outset this government endeavored to provide equality of opportunity for all the people. The resulting social order is different from anything the world has seen before. It holds untold promise for the future.

Such in a few words is our basic faith. Such in a few words is our simple answer to the question, what are we fighting to defend?

At times we tend to underestimate how much is at stake in the continued existence or termination of our way of life. For the distinctive qualities of our heritage are not always easy to understand. The question at issue in this war between the United States and the Axis Powers is not merely the survival of one among several systems of free government. The question at issue is the life or death of a new social order for which no equivalent has ever before existed. The American way of life is the product of both the deep-seated convictions of a religious people, and the experiences of a new nation built by generations of pioneers. It is a combination of freedoms and restraints, of opportunities and responsibilities. While we share in common with other free peoples many elements of our social framework, our system of law and government as well as the ideals which actuate us as a nation have certain special characteristics of their own. These innovations hold high promise for the human race. Their fate turns on the preservation of the independence and integrity of this free nation.

Throughout our national history we have had before us the two ideals of freedom and equality. To be sure, the realization has fallen short of the dream. But for more than a century we have never relaxed our ambitions, we have never ceased our efforts to approach our goal. Under the disappointments of the last decade skepticism and discouragement have been rife. Our failures have been underlined, the distance between our hopes and our realities magnified. Almost at times we have seemed to be on the point of jettisoning our faith. During the last eighteen months the object lesson of Europe under tyranny aroused us slowly. Now the wanton attack of the Axis Powers has suddenly inflamed our fighting fury. But more than that, it has awakened us to the true meaning of our destiny. Once again we sense the importance of what has been accomplished on this continent through the efforts of free men. Once again we are anxious to reaffirm the significance of our history. Once again we pledge allegiance to our American heritage, and in so doing acclaim:

“The mighty deeds

Which God performed of old,

Which, in our younger years, we saw

And which our fathers told.”

The “mighty deeds” of the heroic period of the American Revolution by necessity dominate any story of the United States. Yet, that unique heritage which is ours today is not the product of any single era. Our American way of life has developed through the untiring efforts of many generations. Nor was it won by force of arms alone. Ours has been no martial history. Not by armed conquest, but by the sweat and toil of peaceful labor has this nation become great and prospered. But now the time of war has come. The dictators of the iron age have presented us with an unmistakable challenge. It is their way of life or ours. Our heritage can be preserved only by fighting. And having answered the attackers' bombs with a roar of guns, we are determined that the firing shall not cease until victory has been won.

Victory, not defense, is now the slogan of the country. But in our new-found unanimity of belligerent emotion let us not attempt to hide the difficulties of the task which lie ahead. We must learn to think offensively, not defensively, if we will win this struggle. Let us be prepared for the inevitable swings in public sentiment which are the products of a long and gruelling war. The first surge of patriotic feeling that sweeps a nation at the outbreak of hostilities is soon followed by a more critical frame of mind. As the history of the first and second World Wars amply demonstrates, more than an initial burst of war fever is demanded. Powers of resilience against the shocks of military reverses will be needed. Self-restraint will one day be important to avoid over-confidence after successful operations. Patience, determination and steadiness to endure long periods of inaction will be required.

If the angry passions of an entire people were sufficient to win a war, then the reaction of this country to Japan's treacherous attack at Pearl Harbor would guarantee the outcome of the present struggle. But there is every reason to believe that long months of hardship and suffering are in store. Periods will come, as they have come in all long wars, in which silent doubts will begin to creep into the minds of many loyal men. Others who have no real loyalty to our American way of life will become openly disaffected. Fortunately they are few in number and for the moment are silenced by the overwhelming indignation of their fellow citizens at the dastardly attack of the Japanese. But at some time in the future, at some time when they see an opportunity of stirring doubts among the weary and disheartened, these internal enemies of democracy will reappear. Sincere men, troubled by trials and suffering, setting peace above all other aims, may weaken in their determination. And we may feel certain that Hitler's agents will be prepared to foster dissension in every way within their power. Rumors will circulate and questions will be raised as to why further toil and bloodshed are required, why the war was started and how it may quickly end. Against the trying and uncertain days which are the lot of an embattled people we must consider now, at the outset of this struggle, what victory requires.

I do not pretend to know what the strategists in command of our military and naval operations will decide as to the actual steps to be undertaken in securing a complete victory. A layman is not equipped, nor is it fitting for him, to urge any particular course of military action. But in the last analysis, in a free country, the strategists can only accomplish what the will of the people demand must be accomplished. If popular opinion is always hanging back, suggesting that we do only this, restricting our operations to certain aims and certain areas, in short, fighting a half-out and not an all-out war, there can be little hope for a speedy victory. To insure the defeat of the Axis Powers there must be no limitation on our commitments.

We have not yet emerged entirely from the shadow of the arsenal psychology which has dominated us for a year or more. Let us face squarely the risks of this position. The products of the arsenal are essential to carrying on a war, more so today than ever in the past. But weapons alone, unsupported by a positive, aggressive will to victory, cannot gain the end we have set for ourselves. We are now a full fledged combatant sharing with our fighting partners all responsibilities and all risks. We are no longer merely the suppliers of weapons to others. Let us remember that the Maginot line psychology was fatal to the French. Let us permit no similar inadequacies of the spirit to detract from our effort here.

Until the Japanese settled the matter for us, we were of two minds as to whether it would require fighting on our part to win this war. And even in the great battle of production of which we talked so loudly, there was much that remained to be accomplished. Now we must develop quickly in all sections of the country a feeling of the desperate urgency for speedy victory. We must consciously develop the psychology of attack. Public opinion must be loud in demanding that we take the offense whenever and wherever possible, that we increase our production of munitions no matter what sacrifices may be required, that we raise as fast as possible an overwhelming army, air power, mechanized striking forces and vast reserves. For every man, woman and child first things must come first. And the first and foremost requirement now is the winning of this war. Let there be no talk of holding back supplies from our fighting partners: this is all one war and the strategists must decide where each ounce of energy can be best applied. Aid to Russia and aid to England are now part and parcel of our own war effort.

Let there be no panic about air raids in our cities. Military experts, unhampered by political and civilian pressure, must decide what defensive measures will suffice. If more guns and planes are required at Manila and Singapore, we should be willing to strip the defenses of non-military objectives in San Francisco, Boston and New York. Far better, if occasional bombing comes, that we in our cities “take it” than deprive men on the fighting fronts of what they need. Public discussion must be resolute,—must be concerned with the defeat of the enemy, not with the defense of our own shores. Congress has declared the intent of a united people. With all the powers at our command we must prosecute this war until victory is ours.

Let us consider the alternative. Imagine that at some period perhaps not so far in the future, Hitler starts his long-delayed “peace offensive.” Conceivably it might follow a period of bad news; bad, that is, from our point of view. Or it might follow a long drawn out period when weariness had disheartened certain sections of the American people. Let us imagine that Hitler suggests a peace. He proposes to give up a portion of his territorial gains but will keep intact his armies, his industry, his political power. Japan on her side will relinquish her claims on expansion in China, but will hold her naval and military forces. Or perhaps by some sleight of hand in Europe Hitler himself might disappear from the scene, his agents carrying on, and we should be invited to accept an accord with the same Nazi Germany which has ruthlessly trampled on the independence of ten nations—the same Germany with a different Fuehrer. The offer might be tempting; let us recognize that it may come and be prepared. Unless we consider it, we shall not have formulated the first principle of our “war aims.” A decision as to the conditions under which we will make peace takes precedence over all questions of how we shall reorder the world when peace has come.

What risks would we run if we accept such an offer as I have just described? In advance the details cannot be given, but in broad outlines the dangers are apparent. A negotiated peace means a compact entered into between the warring nations. A negotiated peace means a compact between the United States and the present German government; between this country and Hitler or his followers. A compact is of value only if there is some assurance that it will be fulfilled. What assurances could we conceivably have that the German government dominated by the Nazi philosophy would carry out the provisions of any treaty? Clearly not the pledged word of Hitler or his satellites. That point does not need to be argued.

But some may say, as advocates of a negotiated peace have said for a year and a half, could not sufficient guarantees be given—guarantees that the conditions of such a treaty would be fulfilled? This question goes to the heart of the war aims of the United States. Let us assume the most favorable offer we can imagine the Nazi regime might make: withdrawal of their army within the 1939 boundaries of Germany; Japan to evacuate China but keep her air arm and fleet. Not that I believe so favorable a proposition within the range of possibility, but a consideration of a specific offer brings out the fundamental issue. Following such a peace, would England and Russia and the United States cease the production of war materials, demobilize their armies, reduce their navies? If they did, what would prevent Japan and Germany, after a brief period of recuperation, from once again striking back?

Having in mind the lessons of the last few years, I cannot imagine that we or those fighting on our side would consider a program of disarmament under these conditions. This would not be peace; it would be merely a respite in the fighting. Our internal economy would be almost as disrupted as though we were still at war. Out state of mind would be one of continuous apprehension, of nervous anticipation of the inevitable day when the holocaust would once more begin.

Or supposing even that a treaty could be drawn to provide for an immediate radical disarmament of both Germany and Japan. What guarantees of fulfillment could be given if the German army is intact and undefeated and the present regime in power, if Japan's navy and air force remain effective? Can anyone suppose that a thousand ways would not be found to circumvent the provisions of the treaty? The past record speaks eloquently on this for all who can recall the events of the last decade. Can there be any escape from the conclusion that a peace treaty with a Germany in control of the Nazi regime would be the prelude not to peace but to an armistice to be followed by a renewal of war? A nation with its industrial power undamaged, with millions of fanatic Nazis under arms, with its internal affairs still rigidly controlled by Gestapo agents can be no partner in a peaceful ordering of the world.

This war is in many ways a race of scientific developments and devices. How much so only those close to the inner secrets of the Army and Navy can really know. But even to the man on the street it is common knowledge that without the new radiolocator as a defensive weapon, Great Britain would probably have lost the great battles in the air of September and October, 1940. And with the loss of those battles would have come invasion and probably the conquest of the British Isles. New weapons, new devices are not confined to defense only. Poison gas and tanks in the first World War, if they had been used in sufficient quantities at the outset, might have played a decisive part. No one can predict what the future has to offer. But this much is certain—enormous changes in airplanes and aerial warfare are certainly in the cards. In a state ruled by a dictator, covered by a Gestapo, new weapons can be devised, developed and manufactured with utmost secrecy. During a period armistice it might well happen that such radical developments would occur as to make a complete victory possible in a few months once the fighting was resumed.

The most bitter fact that must be faced in the modern world is that there are only two kinds of neighbors that can be trusted to keep the peace: one is a nation with small industrial resources, the other, a society with a will to peace. Until we are absolutely certain that Germany and Japan have been transformed by hard circumstances into the one or the other, there can be no hope either of eventual disarmament of other countries, or of an enduring peace. Grim necessity requires that unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers be the first war aim of the United States.

The second of our war aims should modify the first. An unconditional surrender does not require a Carthaginian peace. The Axis Powers must surrender at discretion, to use an ancient military phrase. But we in the free countries, and particularly in the United States, must be ready both to formulate plans to carry out the responsibilities of the victors and to shoulder our share of the load of a difficult and thankless task.

The day the Nazi regime collapses will be the beginning of a new era—the era of reconstruction. When the Gestapo agents are on the run, the destruction of the Nazi tyranny will have been accomplished; another assignment will then await us. At that moment the United States must be ready to assume political and economic leadership of the world.

A few days ago it might have seemed bold to argue that the United States should take an active part in international collaboration. Today the case needs no documentation. Indeed, when the fighting ceases, I believe it will be taken for granted that this country must assume leadership in establishing peace and order. Isolationism will be as extinct as the volcanoes on the moon. For we in our time have seen the world contract before our eyes. The threat of Japan's air forces has taught us an enduring lesson. The flight from reality of the 1920's will not again be repeated while any of the present generation are still alive.

We are now fighting to defend our American way of life. When the fighting ceases we must be equally vigilant in preserving this way of life. We shall have to steer a careful course laid out with a true understanding of both ourselves and the other peoples of the world. On the one hand, the errors of the isolationists of 1919 are to be avoided. We cannot bury our heads in our own internal problems. On the other hand, we must avoid the dangerous assumption that we can impose our way of life on other countries.

We must be prepared at the outset to have the process of reconstruction proceed slowly, very slowly. There can be no magical restoration of freedom, peace and happiness for all. But in our willingness to make haste slowly and to be tolerant in our understanding of the development of other types of social structures, there can be no compromise on one fundamental issue. We shall have to insist that the final international order will be based on freedom. For in the modern world of contracted distances and complex industrial interactions, tyranny and freedom cannot live in peace. The will to peace of free democratic countries has been proved during the last three years beyond doubt or question. A free people will not readily engage in a modern war. This much seems certain. Hence, if freedom is to be protected, once the Axis powers are beaten, aggressors must be too weak to strike. An armed alliance of free societies must stand ready, once this war is over, to serve together if need be, not for the purpose of imposing their form of government on other people, but protectively against the growth of other challenges to their freedom.

We have before us as a nation a twofold task: the winning of this war and the preservation of the American way of life. We cannot preserve our way of life unless we win this war. But if we win the war and lose our freedom in the process, we shall have fought in vain. It was only yesterday that certain defeatists declared that a democracy could not fight a war and still stay free. We must accept this challenge. By our words, our thoughts, our actions, we shall prove that this nation can pass through the flames of war and emerge both victorious and free.


extol: to praise highly; laud

sectionalism: excessive regard for sectional or local interests; regional or local spirit, prejudice, etc.

rife: of common of frequent occurrence; prevalence

jettison: to throw off something as an obstacle or burden; discard

dastardly: cowardly; meanly base; sneaking

radiolocator: a device for determining the presence and location of an object; radar

Document Analysis

Conant gave this speech at an event for the New England Society in the City of New York, a venerable social and charitable organization founded in 1805. He begins with an acknowledgement that if it were any other time, he would be using his position as the president of a New England academic institution to pay homage to generations of New Englanders. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the advent of war has erased these regional distinctions, however. He declares, “Without thought of sectionalism, with unparalleled unanimity, we plunged into the midst of war. We now stand undivided.” Because of this unity, Conant broadens his remarks to include a discussion of the American, not just the New England, character.

This character, Conant believes, is unique in the world, and the state of Europe under dictatorship serves to emphasize the importance of maintaining the freedom and equality that are American ideals. When the United States was attacked, it not only aroused anger, it also highlighted the importance of what had been accomplished by free men throughout the country's history, he states. The dictators of the world had made it clear, he claims, that “It is their way of life or ours. Our heritage can be preserved only by fighting.”

Now that the American way of life was threatened, Conant is clear that a defensive position is not sufficient. “Victory, not defense, is now the slogan of the country.” In the days after Pearl Harbor, when the country experiences the “unanimity of belligerent emotion,” he urges Americans not to forget that public sentiment will fluctuate throughout the tribulations of war. Conant understands that the public will tire of war, and there will be those who will argue that it should be brought to a conclusion short of victory.

Any wavering in the pursuit of victory will damage the war effort, however, so “there must be no limitation on our commitments,” Conant states. The focus on defensive, rather than offensive, war is also dangerous. The French were quickly overrun by the German army, in part because of their flawed belief that their defenses along the Maginot line were impregnable. The attention of the military must be turned outward.

Previously, the United States had been dominated by an “arsenal psychology,” the idea that the war could be won by supplying weapons to allies without actually sending soldiers to fight abroad. Conant emphasizes that this approach alone will not lead to victory.

Conant also looks ahead to a time when Hitler might offer the war-weary nation some sort of negotiated peace and cautions against readily accepting it. There is no way to trust this, he argues. A democratic nation would not be able to work with a dictatorship to reorder the world in peacetime. The United States needs not only to win the war but also to be prepared to safeguard freedom after the war.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this speech is the need for the United States to defend its democratic way of life by pursuing total victory. In the years before Pearl Harbor, the United States had continued to claim official neutrality, despite significant military aid to those opposing Germany. Public opinion changed after Pearl Harbor, but in the days after the attack, it was not clear what kind of war would be waged and for how long. Conant and others like him believed that it was crucial to keep the focus of the American people on an offensive victory, rather than a defensive war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gillon, Steven M. Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.
  • Klein, Maury. A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
  • “Overview of the Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941.” Naval History & Heritage Command. US Navy, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
  • Piehler, G. Kurt. United States in World War II: A Documentary Reader. Malden: Wiley, 2013. Print.
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