This afternoon I wish to speak particularly about one step now proposed and supported by Government propaganda, which seems to me to strike at the very basis of freedom, for which our boys are fighting. It is the proposal that we establish at once compulsory conscription for military training in time of peace. The proposal is that we establish in this country a twelve months' continuous military training for every boy, the same military set-up which we have gone to war to abolish in Germany and Japan. Whether we become a militaristic and totalitarian country depends more on this measure than any other. It does not relate to any limited class or group. It reaches every family and every boy. It subjects boys completely to the domination of the Government for a year during their most formative period. It keeps them under constant supervision as reserves for years thereafter. The power to take a boy from his home and subject him to complete Government discipline is the most serious limitation on freedom that can be imagined. Many who have accepted the idea favor a similar Government-controlled training for all girls.
There is no doubt that the Government, and particularly the War and Navy Departments, are straining every nerve to secure the enactment of this legislation before the war ends. Secret meetings are being held in the Pentagon Building and elsewhere. On April 26 the chief executive officers of some forty or more women's organizations were invited there, and it is said they were addressed by the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, the Under Secretary of State, General Marshall, Admiral King, and other high-ranking officers. The ladies were requested not to disclose the substance of the speeches made or to identify the War Department or its officials with the sponsorship plan. . . .
We have fought this war to preserve our institutions, not to change them. We have fought it to permit us to work out our problems here at home on a peaceful foundation, not on a foundation dominated by military preparations for another war. The question of the best form of military organization should not be loaded with emotion. It should be dealt with by argument and not by propaganda. But the methods being used threaten the freedom of this country, for if they are successful they can be used to fasten upon us every kind of regulation, price control for business, wage control for labor, production control for farmers. . . .
The other arguments for conscription seem to me almost too trivial to discuss. It is said it will teach the boys discipline and that they need it. My own opinion is that we need more initiative and original thinking and less discipline rather than more. Our present Army is not the most disciplined Army in the world, but there isn't any better Army for the simple reason that the boys do some thinking for themselves. . . .
The argument that it would improve the morals of our boys has almost been dropped because of its foolishness. If there is one place where morals will not be improved, it is in the vicinity of Army camps.
It is true that there are some boys who are benefited by Army control, but to improve the few, let us not change the whole character of the American life which I believe has been the cause of success in this war. . . .
By handing boys over for twelve months to the arbitrary and complete domination of the Government, we put it in the power of the Government to indoctrinate them with the political doctrines then popular with the Government. It has all the dangers of Federal education and none of its advantages. Attempts along this line have been made with the present Army, and a large amount of propaganda sent out to be taught to the soldiers. In wartime it is bad enough; in peace-time, it would be intolerable. . . .
Military conscription is essentially totalitarian. It has been established for the most part in totalitarian countries and their dictators led by Napoleon and Bismarck. It has heretofore been established by aggressor countries. It is said it would insure peace by emphasizing the tremendous military potential of this country. Surely we have emphasized that enough in this war. No one can doubt it. On the contrary, if we establish conscription every other nation in the world will feel obliged to do the same. It would set up militarism on a high pedestal throughout the world as the goal of all the world. Militarism has always led to war and not peace. Conscription was no insurance of victory in France, in Germany, or in Italy. The countries with military conscription found that it was only an incident and not the determining factor in defense or in victory. . . .
Military conscription will be more the test of our whole philosophy than any other policy. Some say it is unconstitutional. It makes very little difference whether it actually violates the terms of the Constitution. It is against the fundamental policy of America and the American Nation. If adopted, it will color our whole future. We shall have fought to abolish totalitarianism in the world, only to set it up in the United States.
And here is Robert Taft on what "liberty" meant to him. These excerpts are from his speech to the American Medical Association on December 5, 1951:
What do I mean by liberty?
I don't like the term "free enterprise" because it seems to mean only the liberty of business, which is a small element. Liberty means your right and the right of every man to live your own life and think your own thoughts; to have those thoughts taught by others if you can find men who believe in them. Liberty is your right to spend the proceeds of your labor in such a way as you want to spend them with only a reasonable deduction for the necessary costs of Government.
It means the liberty of local self-government: the right of every community to decide on its local institutions, how its children shall be educated, what local services shall be rendered and how, the form of local Governments, all without direction by some Federal bureau in Washington; the rights of States to run their own affairs. . . .
The results of liberty in the United States, where it has had a longer sway than in any other nation, has been a constant improvement in ideas and research and methods in every field of intellectual activity, in science, in welfare, and in knowledge. It has trained people to think for themselves and cultivate self-reliance. . . . The American system, by offering incentive and reward and liberty, has steadily increased the productivity of the American workman and the American farmer, and, because of more goods produced per person, the more there is to divide, thus raising his standards of living – your standards of living.
It is not so much that you and I are free and enjoy being free. It is that millions of Americans are free, and the competition of their ideas causes the best ideas to rise to the surface and finally prevail.
These excerpts are reprinted from Robert Taft's speeches in A Man of Courage: Robert A. Taft, by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, published by Wilcox and Follett Company (Chicago), 1952.