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100 Years Ago: President Warren G. Harding Recreates his 1921 World War I Memorial Speech

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On May 24th, 1922, President Warren G. Harding spoke into a recording horn prepared for him at the White House.  He recreated a speech he had given a year and a day earlier at a memorial ceremony held at Pier 4 on the Hoboken, NJ waterfront, where the remains of 5,212 Americans killed in World War I had just been returned home. The recording was released by Victor in November, 1922, with all proceeds donated to the Red Cross. The text of the original speech is below, with text omitted from this recording in brackets.

Victor 35718-A: “Address at Hoboken on return for burial of 5,212 American soldiers, sailors, marines, and nurses,” May 23, 1921. Recording date: May 24, 1922. Click on the image above to hear this recording from the National Jukebox. Other images in this post are from the collection of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. Click on an image for more information or to download.

President Warren G. Harding: “There grows on me the realization of the unusual character of this occasion. Our republic has been at war before, it has asked and received the supreme sacrifices of its sons and daughters, and faith in America has been justified. Many sons and daughters made the sublime offering and went to hallowed graves as the Nation’s defenders. But we never before sent so many to battle under the flag in a foreign land, never before was there the impressive spectacle of thousands of dead returned to find eternal resting place in the beloved homeland. The incident is without parallel in history that I know.

President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence Mabel Harding, in Hoboken, New Jersey on May 23, 1921 going to a memorial service at the arrival of war dead from World War I.

“These dead know nothing of our ceremony today. They sense nothing of the sentiment or the tenderness which brings their wasted bodies to the homeland for burial close to kin and friends and cherished associations. These poor bodies are but the clay tenements once possessed of souls which flamed in patriotic devotion, lighted new hopes on the battle grounds of civilization, and in their sacrifices sped on to accuse autocracy before the court of eternal justice.

“We are not met for them, though we love and honor and speak a grateful tribute. It would be futile to speak to those who do not hear or to sorrow for those who cannot sense it or to exalt those who cannot know. But we can speak for country, we can reach those who sorrowed and sacrificed through their service, who suffered through their going, who glory with the Republic through their heroic achievements, who rejoice in the civilization, their heroism preserved. Every funeral, every memorial, every tribute is for the living–an offering in compensation of sorrow. When the light of life goes out there is a new radiance in eternity, and somehow the glow of it relieves the darkness which is left behind.

President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence Mabel Harding, in Hoboken, New Jersey on May 23, 1921 going to a memorial service at the arrival of war dead from World War I.

“Never a death but somewhere a new life; never a sacrifice but somewhere an atonement; never a service but somewhere and somehow an achievement. These had served, which is the supreme inspiration in living. They have earned everlasting gratitude, which is the supreme solace in dying.

“No one may measure the vast and varied affections and sorrows centering on this priceless cargo of bodies– once living, fighting for, and finally dying for the Republic. One’s words fail, his understanding is halted, his emotions are stirred beyond control when contemplating these thousands of beloved dead. I find a hundred thousand sorrows touching my heart, and there is ringing in my ears, like an admonition eternal, an insistent call, ‘It must not be again! It must not be again!’ God grant that it will not be, and let a practical people join in cooperation with God to the end that it shall not be.

“I would not wish a Nation for which men are not willing to fight and, if need be, to die, but I do wish for a nation where it is not necessary to ask that sacrifice. I do not pretend that millennial days have come, but I can believe in the possibility of a Nation being so righteous as never to make a war of conquest and a Nation so powerful in righteousness that none will dare invoke her wrath. I wish for us such an America. These heroes were sacrificed in the supreme conflict of all human history. They saw democracy challenged and defended it. They saw civilization threatened and rescued it. They saw America affronted and resented it. They saw our Nation’s rights imperiled and stamped those rights with a new sanctity and renewed security.”

[They gave all which men and women can give. We shall give our most and best if we make certain that they did not die in vain.] “We shall not forget, no matter whether they lie amid the sweetness and the bloom of the homeland or sleep in the soil they crimsoned. Our mindfulness, our gratitude, our reverence shall be in the preserved Republic and maintained liberties and the supreme justice for which they died.”

President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence Mabel Harding, in Hoboken, New Jersey on May 23, 1921 going to a memorial service at the arrival of war dead from World War I.


  1. It’s good to see this essay and the recollection of one of the most difficult things that a U.S. President will be called upon to do. The late and legendary news commentator Lowell Thomas recalled his acquaintance with President Harding and said that Harding was basically a good man and a good president. Thomas observed that the dealings of Harding’s dishonest friends brought him down, but History assigned the blame to Harding himself. So this essay and listening to the recording of his speech is a timely reminder that perhaps Harding’s position among U.S. Presidents might be re-evaluated.

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