Sixty-one years ago, President Harry S Truman (1945-1953) gave a speech to the Attorney General’s Conference on Law Enforcement Problems concerning organised crime. H/T to I Took the Red Pill (and escaped the Matrix).
The speech is dated February 15, 1950, and the President delivered it in the Department of Justice Auditorium in Washington, DC. Although he discussed the prevalence of organised crime, you can make it relevant to the present day by thinking of the message in terms of ‘gangs’ and ‘drug dealers’.
President Truman was known for his ‘plain speaking’. He told it like it is, which is the way I like my politics, too. It should be noted that he didn’t wear his Christian faith on his sleeve, which makes the following remarks all the more distinctive. You might also find the historical aspects worthwhile.
Below are excerpts from the address, helpfully provided in full by the Truman Library. Emphases are mine. This concerned America’s youth and law enforcement officers at the time — the message still holds true today.
There has been a substantial postwar increase in crime in this country, particularly in crimes of violence. This is disturbing, but it is one of the inevitable results of war, and the dislocations that spring from war. It is one of the many reasons why we must work with other nations for a permanent peace.
I might remind you that after every war this country has ever been engaged in, we have had exactly the same problems to face. After the Revolutionary War we had almost exactly the same problems with which we are faced now, out of which came the Alien and Sedition laws, which we finally had to repeal because they did not agree with the Bill of Rights. Then, after the War Between the States, or the Civil War, we had all sorts of banditry. My State [Missouri] was famous for some of the great bandits of that time, if you recall. We had the same situation after World War I. We had a terrible time then with the increase in crimes of violence. We managed to handle the situation, and I am just as sure as I stand here that we will do it again …
It is important, therefore, that we work together in combating organized crime in all its forms. We must use our courts and our law enforcement agencies, and the moral forces of our people, to put down organized crime wherever it appears.
At the same time, we must aid and encourage gentler forces to do their work of prevention and cure. These forces include education, religion, and home training, family and child guidance, and wholesome recreation.
The most important business in this Nation–or any other nation, for that matter–is raising and training children. If those children have the proper environment at home, and educationally, very, very few of them ever turn out wrong. I don’t think we put enough stress on the necessity of implanting in the child’s mind the moral code under which we live.
The fundamental basis of this Nation’s law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days.
If we don’t have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the state…
I think every child in the Nation, regardless of his race, creed, or color, should have the right to a proper education. And when he has finished that education, he ought to have the right in industry to fair treatment in employment. If he is able and willing to do the job, he ought to be given a chance to do that job, no matter what his religious connections are, or what his color is.
I am particularly anxious that we should do everything within our power to protect the minds and hearts of our children from the moral corruption that accompanies organized crime. Our children are our greatest resource, and our greatest asset–the hope of our future, and the future of the world. We must not permit the existence of conditions which cause our children to believe that crime is inevitable and normal. We must teach idealism–honor, ethics, decency, the moral law. We must teach that we should do right because it is right, and not in the hope of any material reward. That is what our moral code is based on: do to the other fellow as you would have him do to you. If we would continue that all through our lives, we wouldn’t have organized crime–if everybody would do that…
As law enforcement officers you have great powers. At the same time you must never forget that hand in hand with those powers go great responsibilities. You must make certain that these powers are not used for personal gain, or from any personal motive. Too often organized crime is made possible by corruption of law enforcement officials.
But, far more than that, we must always remember that you are officers of the law in a great democratic nation which owes its birth to the indignation of its citizens against the encroachment of police and governmental powers against their individual freedoms.
Now there isn’t any difference, so far as I can see, in the manner in which totalitarian states treat individuals than there is in the racketeers’ handling of these lawless rackets with which we are sometimes faced. And the reason that our Government is strong, and the greatest democracy in the world, is because we have a Bill of Rights.
You should be vigilant to enforce the laws which protect our citizens from violence or intimidation in the exercise of their constitutional and legal rights. The strength of our institutions depends in large measure upon the vigorous efforts to prevent mob violence, and other forms of interference with basic rights–the right to a fair trial, the right to vote, and the right to exercise freedom of speech, assembly, and petition.
It is just as much your duty to protect the innocent as it is to prosecute the guilty. The friendless, the weak, the victims of prejudice and public excitement are entitled to the same quality of justice and fair play that the rich, the powerful, the well-connected, and the fellow with pull thinks he can get.
Moreover, the guilty as well as the innocent are entitled to due process of law. They are entitled to a fair trial. They are entitled to counsel. They are entitled to fair treatment from the police. The law enforcement officer has the same duty as the citizen-indeed, he has a higher duty–to abide by the letter and spirit of our Constitution and laws…
I believe that as President it is necessary for me to be more careful in obeying the laws than for any other person to be careful…
And every one of you has that same responsibility. You yourselves … must be intellectually honest in the enforcement of the Constitution and the laws of the United States. And if you are not, you are not a good public official.
I know that it would be easier to catch and jail criminals if we did not have a Bill of Rights in our Federal and State constitutions. But I thank God every day that it is there, that that Bill of Rights is a fundamental law. That is what distinguishes us from the totalitarian powers…
Let us pray that it may remain so. Recent elections, family breakdown and the lack of proper history teaching in schools puts the Great Republic — the United States — in grave danger.
We face the same challenge in other Western countries, where public indifference and corrupt ambition have overtaken the personal morality and public fairness which once characterised our free societies.
As we have seen, it only takes a few years for a foundation to crumble and the cracks appear in the edifice of liberty which our ancestors painstakingly built with their blood and sweat.
Proper instruction begins in the home and should continue at school. As President Truman said, a solid moral foundation and a good education turns out upstanding citizens nearly every time.
POSTSCRIPT: It’s worth noting that in 1958 crime writer James Ellroy‘s mother was brutally murdered when Ellroy was only 10 years old. A divorcée, Jean (Geneva) was thought to have had some dubious connections in her love life. Unfortunately, the case was never solved. You can find out more about it in Ellroy’s My Dark Places (1996), which I read one long weekend shortly after it was published. It is a powerful memoir of his childhood and a gripping exploration of his mother’s case. At that time, divorced women — outside of film stars and socialites — carried a social stigma. Although many had masculine street smarts, they often lived on the margins of society with low-paying jobs and little practical support. Many had children to raise, and money was hard to come by. My Dark Places recounts his early family life, state education, corrupt police and organised crime. It seems that Harry Truman might have had this type of scenario in mind when he delivered this speech.