Gordon C. Thomasson (Introduction and [insertions] © 2002)
The document that follows is scanned from The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, volume XIX, The Great Adventure (New York: Scribner’s, 1926 edition only), chapter 7, “Lincoln and Free Speech”, pages 289-300. In early February of 2002, I repeatedly encountered a citation from it in a message from friends and then over the internet:
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
This text later appeared in “Doonesbury” on Sunday, February 10, 2002.
Shortly thereafter I obtained the complete text through interlibrary loan. At first I only wanted to be sure that this-too good to be true-text was accurate and being represented as it read in context. But I found that the full text is important enough that it merits reproduction in entirety. Beside these initial remarks, I have made a few comments within the text, which are clearly indicated, being enclosed in [square brackets].
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), was the 26th president of the United States. By party he was a “progressive” Republican when he completed the assassinated William McKinley’s term and one of his own (1901-1908). When four years later (1912) he tried for a second complete term of his own, he lost the Republican nomination for re-election, bolted the party and formed a third “Progressive” party. Just as Ross Perot’s party took votes from the Republican George Bush Sr., and gave Bill Clinton the 1992 election as well as the 1996 election against Bob Dole, Roosevelt drained Republican votes and gave the 1912 and 1916 elections to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.
Roosevelt’s politics were mildly reformist, attacking the worst excesses of big business. As could be anticipated by his role during the Spanish-American war in Cuba in 1898, he was an imperialist who wanted the U.S. to seize and exploit more overseas colonies, holding, for example, the Philippines and taking Panama from Columbia. As tensions arose between the expanding empires of central Europe and the already huge empires of Great Britain and France over the diminishing Lebensraum (literally “lifespace” or perhaps more loosly “elbowroom”, but more accurately reflecting the struggle for larger shares of scarce colonial lands, peoples and resources), he became rabidly anti-German. Having taken the side of the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and czarist Russia) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, the latter later replaced by the Ottoman Empire), Roosevelt never addressed the serious moral questions raised for any serious observer by the entire first World War.
During Woodrow Wilson’s first presidential term (1912-1916), Wilson supposedly opposed becoming involved with what the American public saw as a “European” conflict and wanted to avoid being dragged into(following George Washington’s counsel against entangling alliances and European wars). Roosevelt was a war “hawk” who attacked the administration for avoiding the conflict. In 1916, Roosevelt bolted his own “Progressive” party and supported the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes. After defeating the divided parties, in Wilson’s second term, after having inflamed the American public through the earlier contrived sinking (in cooperation with Winston Churchill) of the supposedly neutral passenger ship Lusitania (an event that scarred the psyche of the American public much like 9-11), Wilson entered the war. (The Lusitania had used civilian passengers as human shields. Instead of being a neutral passenger vessel, beside mounting deck cannon fed ammunition from its bunkers by special elevators, it smuggled contraband cargo: over a million rounds of ammunition, high explosives and other war materiels–all illegal for a neutral passenger ship to transport-were in its hold. Naturally it exploded and rapidly sank with enormous loss of life after being torpedoed.)
Roosevelt applauded America’s entry and participation in World War I, but never ceased to attack Wilson’s conduct of the war. To what degree Roosevelt’s attacks were sincere, and to what degree they reflected his positioning himself to be a presidential candidate in 1920, is difficult to determine. Certainly through the war years he spoke and essayed constantly, leaving a substantial body of writing in this regard in his collected works, but what weight we give to it in terms of sincerity is problematic. Nevertheless, the case Roosevelt makes for the right of opponents of an administration and president to attack the government’s policies in “Lincoln and Free Speech” is dramatic, instructive, and constitutionally correct as far as it goes.
But Roosevelt, in his essay, “wants to have his cake and eat it too.” The essay protects him in his attacks by marshalling history, logic, and the Mexican war protests of Abraham Lincoln (who as protege of Henry Clay only followed the lead of his patron), but Roosevelt does not extend this to those with whom he disagrees. The definition he provides for “sedition” (page 290) is self-serving and selective. It would make civil disobedience felonious, and the most essential aspects of political speech opposite his own position illegal rather than free.
Wilson’s Justice Department and the Supreme Court, in cases against people opposing the war and the draft employed essentially the same politically convenient definitions as did Roosevelt. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ supposedly cool and reasonable definition of the limits to free speech, that people cannot be allowed “to shout fire in a crowded theater”, is in fact pornographic legal dicta and not law. He wrote it in attempting to rationalize an unprecedented decision-actually judicial legislation-making it illegal to speak against the draft. For him, “fire” literally meant opposition to the draft and the war, and the “theater” was the United States. Pointing out that the draft was anti-constitutional might cause a stampede away from it. This meant that opposition to military conscription or a draft-the most anti-constitutional perversion of American law in U.S. history-was criminalized and prosecuted to the fullest. Even cartoons ridiculing the draft were suppressed and the artists who drew them went to jail. Wilson, the intellectual Ph.D., political scientist, economist and historian, wanted to crush the First Amendment and everything for which it stood. Roosevelt wanted First Amendment freedom for himself to criticize, but opposed it for those who took a completely opposite position from his on the war. But if freedom of speech, assembly, and association does not protect all positions of political conscience regarding war-as indisputably intended by the Founding Fathers-“protections” for the protest of policy implementation for only one side of the debate are meaningless. Finally, Roosevelt’s essay stands as a ringing condemnation of himself as much as it is of President Woodrow Wilson, his over-reaching Attorney General, Justice Department, and, as Roosevelt rightly recognizes, Wilson’s sycophantish partisan supporters in time of war.
Gordon C. Thomasson, Ph.D.
Broome Community College (SUNY)
The Foes of Our Own Household
Letters to His Children
By Theodore Roosevelt
Charles Scribner’s Sons 1926
RANCH LIFE AND THE HUNTING TRAIL
II. THE WILDERNESS HUNTER
OUTDOOR PASTIMES OF AN AMERICAN
III. OUTDOOR PASTIMES OF AN AMERICAN HUNTER, II
A BOOR-LOVER’S HOLIDAYS IN THE OPEN
IV. AFRICAN GAME TRAILS
V. THROUGH THE BRAZILIAN WILDERNESS
PAPERS ON NATURAL HISTORY
VI. THE NAVAL WAR OF 1812
VII. THOMAS HART BENTON
VIII. THE WINNING OF THE WEST, I
IX. THE WINNING OF THE WEST, II
X. HERO TALES FROM AMERICAN HISTORY
XI. THE ROUGH RIDERS MEN OF ACTION
XII. LITERARY ESSAYS
XIII. AMERICAN IDEALS THE STRENUOUS LIFE
XIV. CAMPAIGNS AND CONTROVERSIES
XV. STATE PAPERS AS GOVERNOR AND PRESIDENT
XVI. AMERICAN PROBLEMS
XVII. SOCIAL JUSTICE AND POPULAR RULE
XVIII. AMERICA AND THE WORLD WAR
FEAR GOD AND TAKE YOUR OWN PART
XIX. THE FOES OF OUR OWN HOUSEHOLD
THE GREAT ADVENTURE
LETTERS TO HIS CHILDREN
LINCOLN AND FREE SPEECH
PATRIOTISM means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him in so far as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth–whether about the President or about any one else–save in the rare cases where this would make known to the enemy information of military value which would otherwise be unknown to him.
Sedition, in the legal sense, means to betray the government, to give aid and comfort to the enemy, or to counsel resistance to the laws or to measures of government having the force. of law. There can be conduct morally as bad as legal sedition which yet may not be violation of law. The President–any President–can by speech or action (by advocating an improper peace. or improper submission to national wrong) give aid and comfort to the public enemy as no one else in. the land can do, and yet his conduct, however damaging to the, country, is not seditious; and although if public sentiment is sufficiently aroused he can be impeached, such course is practically impossible.
One form of servility consists in a slavish attitude–of the kind, incompatible with self-respecting manliness–toward any person who is powerful by reason of his office or position.. Servility may be shown by a public servant toward the profiteering head of a large corporation, or toward the anti-American
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head of a big labor organization. It may also be shown in peculiarly noxious and un-American form by confounding the President or–any other official with the country and shrieking “stand by the President,” without regard to whether, by so acting, we do or do not stand by the country.
A distinguished Federal judge recently wrote me as follows:
“Last November [1917?] it seemed as if the American people were going to be converted into a hallelujah chorus, whose only function in government should be to shout ‘Hallelujah!’ ‘Hallelujah!’ for everything that the Administration did or failed to do. Any one who did not join that chorus was liable to imprisonment for treason or sedition.
“I hope that we shall soon have recovered our sense as well as our liberty.
“The authors of the first amendment to the Federal Constitution guaranteeing the right of assembly and of freedom of speech and of the press. did not thus safeguard those rights for the sake alone of persons who were to enjoy them, but even more because they knew that the Republic which they were founding could not be worked on any other basis. Since Marshall tried Burr for treason it has been clear that that crime cannot be committed by words, unless one acts as a spy, or gives advice to the enemy of military or naval operations. It cannot be committed by statements reflecting upon officers or measures of government.
“Sedition is different. Any one who directly advises or counsels resistance to measures of government is guilty of sedition. That, however, ought to be clearly distinguished from ‘discussion of the wisdom or folly of measures of government, or the honesty or competency of public officers. That is not sedition. It is within the protection of the first amendment. The electorate cannot be qualified to perform its duty in removing incompetent officers and securing the repeal of unwise laws unless those questions may be freely discussed.
“The, right to say wise things necessarily implies the right to say foolish things. The answer to foolish speech is wise
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speech and not force. The Republic is founded upon the faith that if the American people are permitted freely to hear foolish and wise speech, a majority will choose the wise. If that faith is not justified the Republic is based on sand. John Milton said it all in his defense of freedom of the press: `Let truth and error grapple. Who ever knew truth to be beaten in a fair fight?’ ”
Abraham Lincoln was in Congress while Polk was President, during the Mexican War. The following extracts from his speeches, during war-time, about the then President ought to be illuminating to those persons who do not understand that one of the highest and most patriotic duties to be performed in his country at this time is to tell the truth whenever it becomes necessary in order to force our government to speed up the war. It would, for example, be our highest duty to tell it if at any time we became convinced that only thereby could we shame our leaders out of hypocrisy and prevent the betrayal of human rights by peace talk of the kind which bewilders and deceives plain people.
These quotations can be found on pages 100 to 146 of Volume I of “Lincoln’s Complete Works,” by Nicolay and Hay.
In a speech on January 12, 1848, Lincoln justified himself for voting in favor of a resolution censuring the President for his action prior to and during the war (which was still going on). He examines the President’s official message of justification and says, “that, taking for true all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification, and that the President would have gone further with his proof if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him.” He says that part of the message “is from beginning to end the sheerest deception.” He then asks the President to answer certain questions, and says: “Let him answer fully, fairly, and candidly. Let him answer with facts and not with arguments. Let him remember that he sits where Washington sat, and so remembering, let him answer as Washington would answer. Let him attempt no evasion, no
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equivocation.” In other words, Lincoln says that he does not wish rhetoric, or fine phrases or glittering statements that contradict one another and each of which has to be explained with a separate key or adroit and subtle special pleading and constant reversal of positions previously held, but straightforward and consistent adherence to the truth. He continues that he “more than suspects” that the President “is deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels that innocent blood is crying to heaven against him”; that one of the best generals had “been driven into disfavor, if not disgrace, by the President” for insisting upon speaking unpalatable truths about the length of time the war would take (and therefore the need of full preparedness); and ends by saying that the army has done admirably, but that the President has bungled his work and “knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show there is not something about his conscience more painful than all his mental perplexity.”
Remember that this is Lincoln speaking, in war-time, of the President. The general verdict of history has justified him. But it is impossible to justify him and not heartily to condemn the persons who in our time endeavor to suppress truth-telling of a far less emphatic type than Lincoln’s.
Lincoln had to deal with various critics of the “stand by the President” type. To one he answers that, “the only alternative is to tell the truth or to lie,” and that he would not “skulk” on such a question. He explains that the President’s supporters “are untiring in their efforts to make the impression that all who vote supplies or take part in the war do of necessity approve the President’s conduct,” but that he (Lincoln) and his associates sharply distinguished between the two and voted supplies and men but “denounced the President’s conduct” and “condemned the Administration.” He stated that to give the President the power demanded for him by certain people would “place the President where kings have always stood.” In touching on what we should now speak of as rhetoric, he says
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“The honest laborer digs coal at about seventy cents a day, while the President digs abstractions at about seventy dollars a day. The coal is clearly worth more than the abstractions, and yet what a monstrous inequality in the price!” He emphatically protests against permitting the President “to take the whole of legislation into his hands”–surely a statement applying exactly to the present situation. To the President’s servile party supporters he makes a distinction which also readily applies at the present day: “The distinction between the cause of the President . . . and the cause of the country . . . you cannot perceive. To you the President and the country seem to be all one. . . . We see the distinction clearly enough.”
This last statement was the crux of the matter then and is the crux of the matter now. We hold that our loyalty is due solely to the American Republic, and to all our public servants exactly in proportion as they efficiently and faithfully serve the Republic. Our opponents, in flat contradiction of Lincoln’s position, hold that our loyalty is due to the President, not the country; to one man, the servant of the people, instead of to the people themselves. In practice they adopt the fetichism [sic] of all believers in absolutism, for every man who parrots the, cry of “stand by the President” without adding the proviso “so far as he serves the Republic” takes an attitude as essentially unmanly as that of any Stuart royalist who championed the doctrine that the king could do no wrong. No self-respecting and intelligent freeman can take such an attitude.
The Wisconsin legislature has just set forth the proper American doctrine, as follows
“The people of the State of Wisconsin always have stood and always will stand squarely behind the National Government in all things which are essential to bring the present war to a successful end, and we condemn Senator Robert La Follette and all others who have failed to see the righteousness of our nation’s cause, who have failed to support our government in matters vital to the winning of the war, and
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we denounce any attitude or utterance of theirs which has tended to incite sedition among the people of our country.” [It is noteworthy that the voters of Wisconsin disregarded the state legislature’s rhetoric as well as national attempts to expel him from the U.S. Senate and try him for treason, which backfired, and returned LaFollette to the U.S. Senate in 1923.]
In view of the recent attitude of the Administration as expressed through the attorney-general and postmaster-general I commend to its attention the utterances of Abraham Lincoln in 1848 and of the Wisconsin legislature in 1918. The Administration’s warfare against German spies and American traitors has been feeble. The government has achieved far less in this direction than has been achieved by a few of our newspapers and by various private individuals. This failure is aggravated by such action as was threatened against The Metropolitan Magazine. The Metropolitan–and the present writer–have stood and will continue to stand, “squarely behind the national government in all things which are essential to bring the present war to a successful end” and to support “the righteousness of the nation’s cause.” We will stand behind the country at every point, and we will at every point either support or oppose the Administration precisely in proportion as it does or does not with efficiency and single-minded devotion serve the country.
From this position we will not be driven by any abuse of power or by any effort to make us not the loyal servants of the American people, but the cringing tools of a man who at the moment has power.
The Administration has in some of its actions on vital points shown great inefficiency (as proved by Senator Chamberlain’s committee) and on other points has been guilty of conduct toward certain peoples wholly inconsistent with its conduct toward other peoples and wholly inconsistent with its public professions as regards all international conduct. It cannot meet these accusations, for they are truthful, and to try to suppress the truth by preventing the circulation of The Metropolitan Magazine is as high-handed a defiance of liberty and justice as anything done by the Hohenzollerns or the Romanoffs. [Roosevelt uses these royal families as examples of German and Russian tyranny, respectively.] Such action is intolerable. Contrast the leniency shown by the government toward the grossest offenses against the nation
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with its eagerness to assail any one who tells unpleasant truths about the Administration. The Hearst papers play the German game when they oppose the war, assail our allies, and clamor for an inconclusive peace, and they play the German game when they assail the men who truthfully point out the shortcomings which, unless corrected, will redound to Germany’s advantage and our terrible disadvantage. But the Administration has taken no action against the Hear[s]t papers. The Metropolitan Magazine has supported the war, has championed every measure to speed up the war and to make our strength effective, and has stood against every proposal for a peace without victory. But the Administration acts against the magazine that in straightforward American fashion has championed the war. Such discrimination is not compatible with either honesty or patriotism. It means that the Administration is using the great power of the government to punish honest criticism of its shortcomings, while it accepts support of and apology for these shortcomings as an offset to action against the war and, therefore, against the nation. Conduct of this kind is a grave abuse of official power.
Whatever the Administration does, I shall continue to act in the future precisely as I have acted in the past. When a sena-
 The simple truth is that never in our history has any other Administration during a great war played politics of the narrowest personal and partisan type as President Wilson has done; and one of the features of this effort has been the careful and studied effort to mislead and misinform the public through information sedulously and copiously furnished them by government officials. An even worse feature has been the largely successful effort to break down freedom of speech and the freedom of the press by government action. Much of this action has been taken under the guise of attacking disloyalty; but it has represented action, not against those who were disloyal to the nation, but. against those who disagreed with or criticised the President for failure in the performance of duty to the nation. The action of the government against real traitors, and against German spies and agents, has been singularly weak and ineffective. The chief of the Secret Service said that there were a quarter of a million German spies in this country. Senator Overman put the number at a larger figure; but not one has been shot or hung, and relatively few have been interfered with in any way. The real vigor of the Administration has been directed against honest critics who have endeavored to force it to speed up the war and to act with prompt efficiency against Germany. –T.R.
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tor like Mr. Chamberlain in some great matter serves the country better than does the Administration, I shall support that senator; and when a senator like Mr. La Follette perseveres in the course followed by the Administration before it reversed itself in February, 1917 [urging that the U.S. stay out of World War I], I shall oppose him and to that extent support the Administration in its present position. I shall continue to support the Administration in every such action as floating the liberty loans, raising the draft army, or sending our troops abroad. I shall continue truthfully to criticise any flagrant acts of incompetency by the Administration, such as the failure in shipping matters and the breakdown of the War Department during the last fourteen months, when it appears that such truthful criticism offers the only chance of remedying the wrong. I shall support every official from the President down who does well, and shall oppose every such official who does ill. I shall not put the personal comfort of the President or of any other public servant above the welfare of the country.
In a self-governing country the people are called citizens.  Under a despotism or autocracy the people are called subjects. This is because in a free country the people are themselves sovereign, while in a despotic country the people are under a sovereign. In the United States the people are all citizens, including its President. The rest of them are fellow citizens of the President. In Germany the people are all subjects of the Kaiser. They are not his fellow citizens, they are his subjects. This is the essential difference between the United States and Germany, but the difference would vanish if we now submitted to the foolish or traitorous persons who endeavor to make it a crime to tell the truth about the Administration when the Administration is guilty of incompetence or other shortcomings. Such endeavor is itself a crime against the nation. Those who take such an attitude are guilty of moral treason of a kind both abject and dangerous.
 This paragraph and the five which follow are from two articles on the same theme in the Kansas City Star, April 6 and May 7, 1918.
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Our loyalty is due entirely to the United States. It is due to the President only and exactly to the degree in which he efficiently serves the United States. It is our duty to support him when he serves the United States well. It is our duty to oppose him when he serves it badly. This is true about Mr. Wilson now and it has been true about all our Presidents in the past. It is our duty at all times to tell the truth about the President and about every one else, save in the cases where to tell the truth at the moment would benefit the public enemy. Since this war began, the suppression of the truth by and about the Administration has been habitual. In rare cases this has been disadvantageous the enemy. In the vast majority of cases it has been advantageous to the enemy, detrimental to the American people, and useful to the Administration only from the political, not the patriotic, standpoint.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has just recommended the passage of a law in which, among many excellent propositions to put down disloyalty, there has been adroitly inserted a provision that any one who uses “contemptuous or slurring language about the President” shall be punished by imprisonment for a long term of years and by a fine of many thousand dollars. This proposed law is sheer treason to the United States. Under its terms Abraham Lincoln would have been sent to prison for what he repeatedly said of Presidents Polk, Pierce, and Buchanan. Under its terms President Wilson would be free to speak of Senator-elect Lenroot as he has spoken, but Senator Lenroot would not be free truthfully to answer President Wilson. It is a proposal to make Americans subjects instead of citizens. It is a proposal to put the President in the position of the Hohenzollerns and Romanoffs. Government by the people means that the people have the right to do their own thinking and to do their own speaking about their public servants. They must speak truthfully and they must not be disloyal to the country, and it is their highest duty by truthful criticism to make and keep the public servants loyal to the country.
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Any truthful criticism could and would be held by partisanship to be slurring or contemptuous. The Delaware House of Representatives has just shown this. It came within one vote of passing a resolution demanding that the Department of Justice proceed against me because, in my recent speeches in Maine, I “severely criticised the conduct of our national government.” I defy any human being to point out a statement in that speech which was not true and which was not patriotic, and yet the decent and patriotic members of the Delaware legislature were only able to secure a majority of one against the base and servile partisanship of those who upheld the resolution. [It would be ironic that Roosevelt does not here recognize the parallel between himself and LaFollette, were it not for the fact that LaFollette also was a possible Progressive candidate for the presidency, which nomination Teddy hoped to obtain for himself.]
I believe the proposed law is unconstitutional. If it is passed, I shall certainly give the government the opportunity to test its constitutionality. For whenever the need arises ‘I shall in the future speak truthfully of the President in praise or in blame, exactly as I have done in the past. When the President in the past uttered his statements about being too proud to fight and wishing peace without victory, and considering that we had no special grievance against Germany, I spoke of him as it was my high duty to speak. Therefore, I spoke of him truthfully and severely, and I cared nothing whether or not timid and unpatriotic and short-sighted men said that I spoke slurringly or contemptuously. In as far as the President in the future endeavors to wage this war efficiently and to secure the peace of overwhelming victory, I shall heartily support him. But if he wages it inefficiently or if he should now champion a peace without victory, or say that we had no grievance against Germany, I would speak in criticism of him precisely as I have spoken in the past. I am an American and a free man. My loyalty is due to the United States, and therefore it is due to the President, the senators, the congressmen, and all other public servants only and to the degree in which they loyally and efficiently serve the United States.
Free speech, exercised both individually and through a free
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press, is a necessity in any country where the people are themselves free. Our government is the servant, of the people, whereas in Germany it is the master of the people. This is because the American people are free and the German are not free. The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.
I contemptuously refuse to recognize any American adaptation of the German doctrine of lese-majesty. I am concerned only with the welfare of my beloved country and with the effort to beat down the German horror in the interest of the orderly freedom of all the nations of mankind. If the Administration does the work of war with all possible speed and efficiency, and stands for preparedness as a permanent policy, and heartily supports our allies to the end, and insists upon complete victory as a basis for peace, I shall heartily support it. If the Administration moves in the direction of an improper peace, of the peace of defeat and of cowardice, or if it wages war feebly and timidly, I shall oppose it and shall endeavor to wake the American people to their danger. I hold that only in this way can I act as patriotism bids me
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act. I hold that only in this way can I serve in even the slightest degree the cause of America, of the Allies, and of liberty; and that only thus can I aid in thwarting Germany’s effort to establish a world tyranny.