At this time of danger each American must ask himself each day not what he can get from his country but what he can give to his country, and must ask himself each night: “Have I given enough?”
—William C. Bullitt, 7 January 1941
Eleven months to the day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—William C. Bullitt took to the UNC Memorial Hall rostrum. The audience filled the auditorium to capacity. Fronted by an NBC banner and flanked by two NBC microphones, National Broadcasting Company aired his speech across the nation. Soon thereafter, it traversed the world by shortwave.
William Christian Bullit Jr. isn’t a household name in households today, but it was during his time. Some readers may recognize the surname from the Brinkhous-Bullitt Building on the UNC medical campus, built in 1973 and named in 1983, in part, for James B. Bullitt, who became chair of pathology in 1913. William C. and James B. were cousins, and during his visit the former stayed at the latter’s home in Chapel Hill.
William Bullitt’s biography is much too long and complex for this blog, so please see the bibliography at the end if you want to learn more. Bullitt is the subject of three biographies held by Davis Library. Biographer Michael Cassella-Blackburn called him, “perhaps the most charming, thoughtful, and devious person in the interwar and early postwar years of Soviet–American relations.”
A member of Yale’s class of 1912, Bullit’s classmates voted him their “most brilliant.” He also won two of the student’s most valued social awards—a Phi Beta Kappa key and a membership on the Yale Daily News editorial board. He was also “tapped” for a membership in the secret society Scroll and Key. He was a member of the Mince Pie Club, a forum for wit and satire, along with his close college friend Cole Porter. (Some sources say they co-founded the club, but there was a Hasting Eating and Mince Pie Club in the 1890s, so others can resolve that distinction.) As a student Bullitt also overextended himself so widely that he suffered from exhaustion and had to delay his senior year to recuperate before graduating in 1913.
Bored and tormented while studying law at Harvard in 1914, Bullitt sailed to Europe in June with his mother after the passing of his father in March. They chose to visit Russia and were in Moscow when Serbian Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive of the Austria–Hungary, and Ferdinand’s wife in Sarajevo. As the events leading to the Great War unfolded, the Bullitts left Moscow and Europe—but not until September, witnessing the early rumblings and preparations of World War I in Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, and London. Those weeks in Europe significantly set the tone for the remainder of his life.
Returning to his hometown of Philadelphia, Bullitt soon obtained a newspaper job at The Public Ledger as a police beat reporter. Bullitt also submitted articles on the war, and their high quality gave rise to a stellar journalistic career—so much so that President Woodrow Wilson solicited his advice on several occasions. In December 1917 Bullitt became assistant secretary of state. In 1919 he was a member of Wilson’s peace conference delegation and the president sent Bullitt to Russia as a special emissary to develop a peace plan with Vladimir Lenin.
In December 1923 Bullitt married Louise Bryant. It was his second marriage, her third. If you have seen the movie Reds (1981) then you may have recognized her name, for her second husband had been journalist John Reed—the couple portrayed by Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty—who wrote on the Russian Revolution as an insider and died in Russia in 1920. During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency Bullitt became the first United States ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1933, and ambassador to France in 1936.
In late July 1940 FDR asked Bullitt to deliver a foreign policy speech in Philadelphia on August 18th, knowing Bullitt would speak on the growing threat of the European war to the United States. This would afford FDR a chance to asses the national mood.
The Bullitt quote from his call-to-action speech in Chapel Hill that begins this blog post sounds like a harbinger of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech twenty years later. In fact, it’s a refinement from Bullit’s Philadelphia address:
When are we going to say to them [the U. S. government] that we don’t want to hear any longer about what we can get from our country, but we do want to hear what we can give to our country?
FDR and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles vetted Bulliitt’s Philadelphia address, and had two million copies printed for distribution. Essentially he said, “America is in danger.” The isolationist United States Senate pillared Bullitt. The New York Times applauded. The movement to war soon escalated.
Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact on 27 September 1940—just one week after UNC freshman Hugh Morton and fellow students walked onto campus to begin their school year, and only eight days before Roosevelt defeated Wendell Willkie in the presidential election that kept him in the White House for his third term. After the election, Bullitt wrote his version of the customary pro forma, post-election letter of resignation on November 7th, to which Roosevelt replied, “Resignation not accepted.”
Sometime during the fall semester, the UNC students’ International Relations Club, led by president Manfred Rogers, invited Bullitt to speak in Chapel Hill at Memorial Hall. Originally scheduled for December 10th, the December 3rd issue of The Daily Tar Heel announced that Bullitt needed to postpone until January 7th because “of pressing duties in Washington and a physician’s order that he remain inactive for three weeks.”
Behind the scenes, however, other events offer a truer picture. Roosevelt either deliberately or accidentally placed Bullitt in a situation where he decided he had no choice but to announce his resignation as ambassador on November 13th. As Bullitt biographers Brownwel and Billings deduced, “Roosevelt chose to be devious.” Bullitt had come to learn indirectly that FDR was going to appoint Admiral William D. Leahy to the post. Bullitt called the president on November 9th: “I thought you said this afternoon that I was to remain as ambassador to France and go off on holiday until December 15. It’s [the Leahy situation] all over town now and puts me in a fine spot.” FDR replied, “Bill, believe it or not, I forgot all about it. It’s entirely my fault.” On December 28th Bullitt sent a note to Roosevelt asking that his resignation be accepted. On January 7, the day Bulitt spoke at UNC, FDR wrote, “Your letter of resignation as ambassador to France is before me. It is with great reluctance that I accept it.”
As biographer’s Brownell and Billings wrote, “Once Bullitt was cut loose from the government, he spoke out loudly and often, starting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”
On Saturday, January 4th, 1941 in the DTH‘s first issue following winter break, one of three top-of-the-page headlines announced, “IRC Makes Extensive Plans For Bullitt Address Tuesday.” In the accompanying article, the IRC disclosed that many prominent North Carolinians would attend, including North Carolina Governor Clyde Hoey; Ambassador to Mexico Josephus Daniels; Henri Haye, French Ambassador to the United States; Jonathan Daniels, editor of The News and Observer, Governor-elect J. M. Broughton; Julian Price, president of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance; [UNC Professor] Archibald Henderson, head of the William Allen White Committee for the Southeast [i.e., southeast chapter of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies]; and South Carolina Governor Burnet R. Maybank. Rogers reported that “a majority of 750 invitations mailed to city mayors and chamber of commerce officials over the state had been accepted.” Rogers anticipated a capacity crowd and urged students to arrive early to get good seats, and he expressed their good fortune because Bullitt had selected UNC from among 250 requests from other schools and organizations. A $1.25-a-plate banquet at the Carolina Inn at 7:00 p.m. would precede Bullit’s speech with faculty and a select group of students receiving special invitations. Other students who wanted to attend could contact Rogers. The women’s dormitories house mothers even granted a curfew extension until 11:00 “so that coeds could hear the speech” scheduled to begin at 9:30 (pushed to 10:00 two days later). Rogers said Bullitt’s speech would be so important that photographers from magazines Life and Time and the Associated Press, “together with state photographers, had made plans to take pictures.” (I reviewed issues of Life and Time published shortly after the speech and uncovered no coverage, written or photographic.)
Sunday’s DTH also had a front-page article on the upcoming speech. Rogers stated “that recent reports from Washington” indicated that Bullitt’s talk would compliment FDR’s now-famous “Arsenal of Democracy” fireside chat on national security of December 29th. On the morning of Bullitt’s visit, however, DTH readers learned the topic of the speech would be “America and the War.” Bullitt was “expected to sound out specific administrative aims instead of delivering a Roosevelt-supplementary address” because the night before the president delivered his “Annual Message” to the United States Congress—known today as FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech. The IRC moved the starting time to 10:00 so that NBC “could air the entire speech,” and dignitaries would now begin their remarks at 9:30. Ironically, state radio stations would not carry the address, but Raleigh’s WPTF would broadcast a transcription later in the evening.
Daily Tar Heel Staff Photographer Jack Mitchell got the news assignment, which took him to the airport to capture Bullitt’s arrival with the UNC welcoming committee—and two front-page photographs for the next day’s DTH. Morton, it seems, covered Bullitt’s visit as Photography Editor for Yackety Yack, the UNC student yearbook. Four surviving Morton negatives document the dinner and the speech, one of each event appear in the IRC yearbook section. The DTH reported that Bullitt met with students in the Institute of Government building at 5:30, but no surviving photographs of that event have surfaced in the Morton collection.
What effect did Bullitt’s speech have on UNC students? Here are two perspectives you might want to pursue if this question interests you. The first can be found in the DTH on the Sunday previous to Bullit’s speech. The DTH editorial board, writing under the initials “S. R.” (likely Simons Roof) espoused non-intervention in an editorial titled, “The Shift Toward War”:
As the new year and new quarter begins at Carolina, war threatens to disrupt our scholastic life. Around us begins the great chorus of parrot-tongues — the men who derive their catch-words from such people as William Allen White. . . . But there is another campaign we might make. We might deny that a group of pro-war politicians have the democratic right to say you and I must torture and murder—and be tortured and murdered—in a war where we run the risk of losing everything America has gained. . . You and I are being subjected to the most dangerous war propaganda ever conceived. . . .
The second viewpoint is that of DTH Associate Editor Bill Snider, writing two days after Bullitt’s speech, under the “Light on the Hill” column:
In less than half an hour and in exciting, poetic words Mr. Bullitt began where any ordinary citizen must begin and traced the situation through to its logical conclusion. There was nothing to obstruct, nothing to confuse. Everywhere the statement was cryptic, dynamic, thought-provoking. . . . There had been nothing very startling in all the vibrant words. . . With clarity and imagination they helped explain the rapidly consolidating vanguard of American public opinion. Most importantly, however, though these words advanced the procession little, they bluntly told America where she stands now, and at this moment this is certainly what America wants to know more than anything else. For these qualities, then, William C. Bullitt’s address in Chapel Hill at the dawn of 1941 should be remembered.
Billings, Richard N. and Will Brownell. So Close to Greatness: the First Biography of William C. Bullitt. New York : Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan, 1987.
Bullitt, Orville H., editor. For the President, Personal and Secret: Correspondence Between Franklin D. Roosevelt and William C. Bullitt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.
“Bullitt Admits America Does Not Want War,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 8 January 1941, page 7, column 3.
Bullitt, William C. America and the War : an address delivered in Chapel Hill on the Occasion of the Third Anniversary of the International Relations Club at the University of North Carolina, an NBC Broadcast. Chapel Hill: Y. M. C. A., .
Cassella-Blackburn, Michael. The Donkey, The Carrot, and the Club: William C. Bullitt and Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1942. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. According to Cassella-Blackburn, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum has a copy of Bullitt’s entire speech at UNC in the John C. Wiley Papers (Box 6, General Correspondence, Bullitt, William C.).
Farnsworth, Beatrice. William C. Bullitt and the Soviet Union. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press .
William C. Bullitt papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.
Over a ten-year period, he and his friend Sigmund Freud wrote Woodrow Wilson: a Psychological Study (1966).