Why are we proud?
President Eisenhower, Nov. 23, 1953
Mr. Chairman, Mr. Schultz, ladies and gentlemen:
For such an award, from such a group, I shall ever be grateful. No matter how unworthy any individual may be, no matter how much he may appreciate his own shortcomings in attaining the ideals in which he himself believes, it is still a moment of the most intense satisfaction when some organization standing as it does-as this one does--for the great human rights, chooses to present its annual emblem to that individual. So I thank you.
Ladies and gentlemen, for many years I have been served by able staffs, in war and in peace. I have a staff now of which I am intensely proud. It is composed of individuals who are capable, efficient, and they are dedicated to my welfare and to my success. They are always anxious that I do well, no matter where I appear. And tonight was no exception. I have been briefed and briefed and briefed. I have heard more lectures on civil liberties, the people who have stood for them, the dangers to them; and what I should say than you can imagine.
Now, from the beginning I was aware of one thing--possibly two, I should say. First: any man who has been served by staffs, no matter how dedicated, must learn when to say no.
And secondly: I knew that I was appearing before a body of experts, and I was not going to talk about something of which they knew a lot more than I do.
And so, with your indulgence, I want to tell you about an idea that came to me as I was sitting here this evening. When I saw an array of artists appearing on the stage, there suddenly came back to me an old Fourth of July statement--all the speeches that men used to make on the Fourth of July. Now I am not going to take up your time with the two hours that they used to spend in getting to the only punch line that they had: "I am proud to be an American!"
As you looked at that array of artists, weren't you proud that a man's ability, or a lady's ability, entitled them to appear before such a body as this?
Now, why are we proud? Are we proud because we have the richest acres in the world? I have heard that the Nile Valley is one of the richest places in the world; now it has a great nation, but do you want to give up your citizenship for that of a nation that has merely the richest ground, the richest minerals underneath its soil? I have heard that the European annual production on its acres is about double that of ours, by reason of their devoted work--hand work on their farms.
But we don't want to be citizens of Europe. We don't want to go any place, even if their buildings are older than ours, or their culture is older, or they are more sophisticated. We love America.
Why are we proud? We are proud, first of all, because from the beginning of this Nation, a man can walk upright, no matter who he is, or who she is. He can walk upright and meet his friend—or his enemy; and he does not fear that because that enemy may be in a position of great power that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice. We have the habeas corpus act, and we respect it.
I was raised in a little town of which most of you have never heard. But in the West it is a famous place. It is called Abilene, Kansas. We had as our marshal for a long time a man named Wild Bill Hickok. If you don't know anything about him, read your Westerns more. Now that town had a code, and I was raised as a boy to prize that code.
It was: meet anyone face to face with whom you disagree. You could not sneak up on him from behind, or do any damage to him, without suffering the penalty of an outraged citizenry. If you met him face to face and took the same risks he did, you could get away with almost anything, as long as the bullet was in the front.
And today, although none of you has the great fortune, I think, of being from Abilene, Kansas, you live after all by that same code in your ideals and in the respect you give to certain qualities. In this country, if someone dislikes you, or accuses you, he must come up in front. He cannot hide behind the shadow. He cannot assassinate you or your character from behind, without suffering the penalties an outraged citizenry will impose.
Now, you know, I must go back for a moment to what I said awhile ago. I picked up my own subject as I came here. The only responsibility I have is to watch some individual in front of me, who has cards after I have used up all my time. I just notice he says go ahead, it's all right.
I would not want to sit down this evening without urging one thing: if we are going to continue to be proud that we are Americans, there must be no weakening of the code by which we have lived; by the right to meet your accuser face to face, if you have one; by your right to go to the church or the synagogue or even the mosque of your own choosing; by your right to speak your mind and be protected in it.
Ladies and gentlemen, the things that make us proud to be Americans are of the soul and of the spirit. They are not the jewels we wear, or the furs we buy, the houses we live in, the standard of living, even, that we have. All these things are wonderful to the esthetic and to the physical senses.
But let us never forget that the deep things that are American are the soul and the spirit. The Statue of Liberty is not tired, and not because it is made of bronze. It is because no matter what happens, here the individual is dignified because he is created in the image of his God.
Let us not forget it.
I am not going to try to be spectacular and ask you all to rise in imitation of the Allegiance to the Flag, and repeat the old Fourth of July statements, as I once did when I was 6 years old in the McKinley campaign. A good Republican won that year. We all said, after the speaker, "I am proud to be an American."
But if I could leave with you one thought, you not only will repeat it every day of your life, but you will say, "I will do my part to make it always true for my children and my grandchildren."