Senator Warren G Harding – Return to Normalcy Speech
May 14, 1920
There isn’t anything the matter with the world’s civilization except that humanity is viewing it through a vision impaired in a cataclysmal war. Poise has been disturbed and nerves have been racked, and fever has rendered men irrational; sometimes there have been draughts upon the dangerous cup of barbarity and men have wandered far from safe paths, but the human procession still marches in the right direction.
Here, in the United States, we feel the reflex, rather than the hurting wound, but we still think straight, and we mean to act straight, and mean to hold firmly to all that was ours when war involved us, and seek the higher attainments which are the only compensations that so supreme a tragedy may give mankind.
America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. It is one thing to battle successfully against world domination by military autocracy, because the infinite God never intended such a program, but it is quite another thing to revise human nature and suspend the fundamental laws of life and all of life’s acquirements.
The world called for peace, and has its precarious variety. American demands peace, formal as well as actual, and means to have it, regardless of political exigencies and campaign issues. If it must be a campaign issue, we shall have peace and discuss it afterward, because the actuality is imperative, and the theory is only illusive. Then we may set our own house in order. We challenged the proposal that an armed autocrat should dominate the world; it ill becomes us to assume that a rhetorical autocrat shall direct all humanity.
This republic has its ample tasks. If we put an end to false economics which lure humanity to utter chaos, ours will be the commanding example of world leadership today. If we can prove a representative popular government under which a citizenship seeks what it may do for the government rather than what the government may do for individuals, we shall do more to make democracy safe for the world than all armed conflict ever recorded. The world needs to be reminded that all human ills are not curable by legislation, and that quantity of statutory enactment and excess of government offer no substitute for quality of citizenship.
The problems of maintained civilization are not to be solved by a transfer of responsibility from citizenship to government, and no eminent page in history was ever drafted by the standards of mediocrity. More, no government is worthy of the name which is directed by influence on the one hand, or moved by intimidation on the other.
Nothing is more vital to this republic to-day than clear and intelligent understanding. Men must understand one another, and government and men must understand each other. For emergence from the wreckage of war, for the clarification of fevered minds, we must all give and take, we must both sympathize and inspire, but must learn griefs and aspirations, we must seek the common grounds of mutuality.
There can be no disguising everlasting truths. Speak it plainly, no people ever recovered from the distressing waste of war except through work and denial. There is no other way. We shall make no recovery in seeking how little men can do, our restoration lies in doing the most which is reasonably possible for individuals to do. Under production and hateful profiteering are both morally criminal, and must be combated. America can not be content with minimums of production to-day, the crying need is maximums. If we may have maximums of production we shall have minimums of cost, and profiteering will be speeded to its deserved punishment. Money values are not destroyed, they are temporarily distorted. War wasted hundreds of billions, and depleted world store-houses, and cultivated new demands, and it hardened selfishness and gave awakening touch to elemental greed. Humanity needs renewed consecrations to what we call fellow citizenship.
Out of the supreme tragedy must come a new order and a higher order, and I gladly acclaim it. But war has not abolished work, has not established the processes of seizure or the rule of physical might. Nor has it provided a governmental panacea for human ills, or the magic touch that makes failure a success. Indeed, it has revealed no new reward for idleness, no substitute for the sweat of a man’s face in the contest for subsistence and acquirement.
There is no new appraisal for the supremacy of law. That is a thing surpassing and eternal. A contempt for international law wrought the supreme tragedy, contempt for our national and state laws will rend the glory of the republic, and failure to abide the proven laws of to-day’s civilization will lead to temporary chaos.
No one need doubt the ultimate result, because immutable laws have challenged the madness of all experiment. But we are living to-day, and it is ours to save ourselves from colossal blunder and its excessive penalty.
My best judgment of America’s needs is to steady down, to get squarely on our feet, to make sure of the right path. Let’s get out of the fevered delirium of war, with the hallucination that all the money in the world is to be made in the madness of war and the wildness of its aftermath. Let us stop to consider that tranquility at home is more precious than peace abroad, and that both our good fortune and our eminence are dependent on the normal forward stride of all the American people.
Nothing is so imperative to-day as efficient production and efficient transportation, to adjust the balances in our own transactions and to hold our place in the activities of the world. The relation of real values is little altered by the varying coins of exchange, and that American is blind to actualities who thinks we can add to cost of production without impairing our hold in world markets. Our part is more than to hold, we must add to what we have.
It is utter folly to talk about reducing the cost of living without restored and increased efficiency or production on the one hand and more prudent consumption on the other. No law will work the miracle. Only the American people themselves can solve the situation. There must be the conscience of capital in omitting profiteering, there must be the conscience of labor in efficiently producing, there must be a public conscience in restricting outlay and promoting thrift.
Sober capital must make appeal to intoxicated wealth, and thoughtful labor must appeal to the radical who has no thought of the morrow, to effect the needed understanding. Exacted profits, because the golden stream is flooding, and pyramided wages to meet a mounting cost that must be halted, will speed us to disaster just as sure as the morrow comes, and we ought to think soberly and avoid it. We ought to dwell in the heights of good fortune for a generation to come, and I pray that we will, but we need a benediction of wholesome common sense to give us that assurance.
I pray for sober thinking in behalf of the future of America. No worth-while republic ever went the tragic way to destruction, which did not begin the downward course through luxury of life and extravagance of living. More, the simple living and thrifty people will be the first to recover from a war’s waste and all its burdens, and our people ought to be the first recovered. Herein is greater opportunity than lies in alliance, compact or supergovernment. It is America’s chance to lead in example and prove to the world the reign of reason in representative popular government where people think who assume to rule.
No overall fad will quicken our thoughtfulness. We might try repairs on the old clothes and simplicity for the new. I know the tendency to wish the thing denied, I know the human hunger for a new thrill, but denial enhances the ultimate satisfaction, and stabilizes our indulgence. A blasé people is the unhappiest in all the world.
It seems to me singularly appropriate to address this membership an additional word about production. I believe most cordially in the home market first for the American product. There is no other way to assure our prosperity. I rejoice in our normal capacity to consume our rational, healthful consumption.
We have protected our home market with war’s barrage. But the barrage has lifted with the passing of the war. The American people will not heed to-day, because world competition is not yet restored, but the morrow will soon come when the world will seek our markets and our trade balances, and we must think of America first or surrender our eminence.
The thought is not selfish. We want to share with the world in seeking becoming restoration. But peoples will trade and seek wealth in their exchanges, and every conflict in the adjustment of peace was founded on the hope of promoting trade conditions. I heard expressed, before the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, the aspirations of nationality and the hope of commerce to develop and expand aspiring peoples. Knowing that those two thoughts are inspiring all humanity, as they have since civilization began, I can only marvel at the American who consents to surrender either. There may be conscience, humanity and justice in both, and without them the glory of the republic is done. I want to go on, secure and unafraid, holding fast to the American inheritance and confident of the supreme American fulfillment.
Harding, Warren G., “Back to Normal: Address Before Home Market Club,” Boston, Massachusetts, May 14, 1920. From Schortemeier, Frederick E., ed. Rededicating America: Life and Recent Speeches of Warren G. Harding. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill), 1920, pp. 223-229.