To consult our hopes and not our fears

By , Dr. Commager, a distinguished historian, educator, and author, is the Simpson Professor at Amherst College.

History does not know or acknowledge decades; these are artificial divisions imposed on history by men for their own convenience. The decade of the '70s had its roots in the '40s: It is not so much the '70s with which we are concerned as the postwar era that is now coming to a somewhat disorderly end. It is, we might say, high time.

At the close of World War II, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus. It was the only nation to emerge from the war unscathed, its territory intact, its economy prosperous, its morale high. Victory perched on US banners, and leadership was accorded by default.

The US seized that leadership, and fulfilled it. "We have learned," said Franklin Roosevelt, "to be citizens of the world, members of the human community ," and for a brief time that proud statement was justified. Victorious in every quarter of the globe, we took to heart Sir Winston Churchill's proud benediction: "In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Good Will."

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

We did not punish the vanquished but helped them to revive; we created the United Nations; we launched the Marshall Plan -- "the most unsordid act in history," Sir Winston called it. At home we repulsed the forces of oppression and enlarged the arena of democracy and the scope of the welfare state. A brave new world seemed in the making.

Then the clouds spread over the bright skies. The Grand Alliance fell apart. Deeply suspicious of the West, Russia withdrew behind an Iron Curtain and, with the blockade of Berlin, the cold war was almost officially under way. Soon communism was triumphant in China, and the United States committed the flagrant folly of embracing the fantasy that the real China was in Taiwan and embarked upon a 20-year cold war with China.

Soon we plunged into the Korean war and committed ourselves to the fatuous principle that we were, somehow, an "Asian power."

Meanwhile, inspired by the exhilarating prospect of moving out of centuries of exploitation, poverty, and backwardness, the African and Asian nations of what we were to call the third world made a desperate bid for independence -- not only political but economic.

Instead of welcoming and cooperating with this greated revolution in human history -- the convulsive attempt of two-thirds of the people of the globe to emerge out of the darkness of the past into the sunlight of the new century -- the United States, blinded by fear of the spread of communism, set its face adamantly against this revolution.

Within a few years the victors of World War II were glaring at each other with undisguised hostility, and the United States, Russia, and China moved into a cold war that was to endure for a quarter of century.

It is futile now to allocate responsibility for the disasters that followed: the expansion of the cold war from Europe to Asia; the Korean war, whose heritage is still with us; the collapse of the much-touted Alliance for Progress; the entanglement of the United States in the internal affairs of Southeast Asia; and the greatest tragedy in our history since slavery, the Vietnam war, a tragedy that (unlike slavery) we deliberately embraced. These interventions set a pattern that was shortly to be reproduced in every quarter of the globe.

The United States, assuming that God and history had imposed upon it an obligation to preserve peace and freedom everywhere, intervened in Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Portugal, Greece, Iran, and perhaps a dozen other nations in Africa and Asia. Sometimes it was done overtly; for the most part, covertly.

All of this required -- or seemed to require -- departure from traditional US policies of encouragement to liberal crusades and hostility to tyranny. It led to intervention in the internal affairs of a score of nations, in direct violation of the terms and the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine and of the Charter of the United Nations.

US intervention led to a vast growth of the military; to the burgeoning of the Central Intelligence Agency in 60 countries; to the emergence, for the first time, of the principle that it cost more to be at peace than to be at war; to the militarization of the economy, of society, and of politics, of science and of learning; to the creation of what was most feared by the Founding Fathers -- the "security state."

Chickens finally came home to roost. We had created the atomic weapon and we are, so far, the only nation ever to detonate it in anger; we discovered that we had opened a Pandora's box of atomic weapons. Soon the Soviets had the atom bomb -- soon half a dozen nations had it -- and now we are threatened by its proliferation throughout the globe. We had ousted a Mossadeq from the throne in Iran and now we have an Ayatollah Khomeini to deal with.

We overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile and now are confronted with an intransigent totalitarian government that makes a mockery of our campaign for human rights; we launched a Bay of Pigs assault against Castro, and are shocked that he should turn to the Soviets for support.

We built up the largest and most expensive military establishment in history but discover that it is incapable of providing security against the threats presented by the modern world. Instead it has a ruinous impact on our economy.

We constitute 6 percent of the population of the globe but use 40 percent of its oil, and are unable to cope with an "energy" problem that is largely of our own making. We have allowed money and special interests to corrupt politics at every level, and are astonished to discover that the majority of our people have no faith in the efficacy of the political processes.

The '70s have provided us with a new watershed, one that already appears to have a character of its own. It marked something of a return to more traditional policies and practices, a disillusionment with the neoimperialism of previous decades.

It was a readiness to substitute negotiation for military confrontation, a recognition of the folly of imagining that the world was divided into two camps and that those who were not with us were against us.

There was a readiness to acknowledge the emergence of a third -- and even a fourth -- world, with its own character and its own legitimacy. The symbol of this was the rapprochement with China, a development of immense importance not only in itself, but because it made clear the folly of our earlier misconceptions and dramatized the ease with which these might at last be put aside.

For 20 years we had conducted a cold war with China as uncompromising as the one we conducted with the Soviets. For 20 years we had succumbed to paranoid fears -- the kinds of fears explicit in Dean Rusk's immortal warning that a million Chinese might land on the shores of California. Now, at last, common sense took over and we discovered that our fears were groundless and that, on the whole, a capitalist United States and a Communist China could get along quite well together.

With that gigantic example before our fascinated gaze, we may get discover that we can consult our hopes and not our fears elsewhere on the globe.

It cannot be said that we "solved" the China problem; it is rather that we discovered that it was a problem of our own making, and that we simply bade it goodbye. Whether we have learned enough from that experience to abate the cold war elsewhere remains to be seen.

Few things are more sobering than the realization of impotence, and our impotence in the face of the oil crisis and the religious fanaticism of the Muslim world may suggest that the methods of peaceful negotiation are more effective than those of either war or subversion.

What confronts us now and in the next decade or two is not new; it is rather the shock of recognition that is new.

What are the circumstances and the problems that make the latitude and the longitude of our immediate future?

First, that we have, finally, moved away from the concept of infinity of resources to a realization that our resources -- and those of the globe -- are finite.

In his First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson was able to speak of a nation "with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation"; now the land is taken up, now no one ever speaks of future generations, certainly not of thousands of generations.

How does a nation brought up on the concept of infinite resources adapt itself to resources that are not only finite, but about to disappear in one or two generations?

Second, there is a depressing decline in industrial productivity. The United States, having set the pace for the rest of the world through the 19th and much of the 20th century, now lags behind such nations as West Germany, France, and Japan in industrial efficiency. This might be put down -- as it is in Britain -- to a sullen revolt against the whole Industrial Revolution; but Americans, while they may be disillusioned with the Industrial Revolution, are not prepared to forgo its glittering contributions. If we cease to be effectively competitive, what will happen to our economy? if our economy sags, what will happen to our world position?

Third, there is the discovery that our vaunted military prowess provides no genuine security against the forces that threaten us. The arsenals are there, and growing apace. But when the great powers have a capacity to destroy each other 10 times over, older notions of security are obsolete.

And in an era when governments themselves resort to terrorism, reliance on older standards of security are all but futile. We have spent, in the past quarter-century, more than $2,000 billion on armaments, and we are less secure than when we started.

Fourth, there is the realization that the feverish search for "security" has misfired, because it has conceived of security solely in military terms. We are beginning, at long last, to realize what we should have known all along -- what Francis Bacon said over three centuries ago:

"Walled towers, stored arsenals and armouries, goodly races of horse, chariots of war, elephants, ordnance, artillery, and the like: all this is but a sheep in a lion's skin, except the breed and disposition of the people be stout and warlike."

That is still true, though we must rephrase it to comport with modern weaponry. National security does not consist in superiority in arms, for in an age of atomic weapons there can be no such thing. But it is in the stoutness of the people -- their intelligence, their resourcefulness, their wisdom. It is secured by the devotion of the people to the commonwealth -- a devotion, alas, now eroded -- by the nurture of national resources and the cultivation of human resources: the health, wealth, happiness, and virtue of the people.

Not only this, but the '60s and the '70s have taught us that the traditional concept of security makes, in fact, for insecurity. It wastes the national wealth on unproductive activities, for armaments produce nothing and are obsolete within four or five years. It wastes natural resources of oil and uranium and a hundred other ingredients. It wastes, perhaps most important of all, brains: Almost one-half of all scientific research in the United States is now connected with the military. It contributes, by its insatiable demands, to inflation and may contribute to bankruptcy. A nation that spend a substantial portion of its material and intellectual resources on producing arms will find itself incompetent to deal with the real problems that comfront it.

Fifth, we witness now the emergence of uncontrollable irrationality and violence in international relations. War itself has always been a monument to this, but in the past, even war has at least pretended to abide by laws and rules.

What confronts us now is the emergence of anarchy: Iran is merely the most dramatic illustration of this. We should have anticipated this development. After all, we contributed to it: We violated international law in our assault upon Cuba; we resorted to limitless violence in our attack upon Vietnam and Cambodia, dumping 7 million tons of bombs on those unoffending countries.

We now are required to learn what the Old World has long known, that terrorism has the capacity to level great discrepancies in power and to make power, as it were, impotent.

Britain can destroy the Irish Republican Army, but only at the cost of Ulster; we can destroy Iran, but only at the cost of the death of the hostages, the destruction of oil fields, and the risk of antagonizing the whole of the Muslim world. What all this suggests is that in the modern world every action produces a kind of chain reaction, and that even the most powerful nation can no longer afford to risk war.

If we are to solve, or even to survive, the problems that glare upon us from every quarter of the globe, we must first take to heart, and to mind, the sagacious counsel of John Stuart Mill:

"When society requires to be rebuilt, there is no use attempting to rebuild it on the old plan. No great improvements in the lot of man are possible until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of our mode of thought."

We are attempting, in an almost haphazard fashion, to bring about a new domestic and world order, built on law, committed to the peaceful negotiation of international rivalries and conflicts; assist in the orderly emergence of a host of third-world nations; and preserve those natural resources of land, sea, and air that are the heritage of all mankind and of posterity -- all this without changing those fundamental assumptions that have been largely responsible for the problems themselves.

The first and most basic difficulty is that we are attempting to solve global problems within the framework of nationalism. Every major problem that now confronts us -- population, energy, the pollution of land, sea, and air, the control of the weather, the exhaustion of the soil and of the resources of the seas, nuclear power, and nuclear war -- is global; not one can be solved by any one nation.

Nationalism as we now practce it is as anachronistic as was States' rights when John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis proclaimed that doctrine. Yet instead of abating natonalism, our generation has exacerbated it: Some 150 nations, from mighty empires like the Soviet Union or the United States to tiny Pacific islands, now proclaim their sovereignty and act in defiance of the interests of mankind and of posterity.

The second assumption we must banish is that to which I have already referred: the notion that war is a viable instrument of international policies. That much we have, perhaps, learned from the laboratory of Vietnam; we should have learned it from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Militarism is as anachronistic today as traditional nationalism.

A third assumption that has been drained of meaning is that our political rhetoric, or dialogue, addresses itself effectively to reality. Future students who immerse themselves in the rhetoric of contemporary American politics will be as bemused by its irrelevance as students of today are at the rhetoric of the argument over States' rights in the 19th century.

What we -- and others -- need to rediscover is a political philosophy that addresses itself to the great questions of politics and morals. What is called for here is a recognition of the permanent meaning of ideas such as liberalism and conservatism, of the common interests of mankind in survival, and of our fiduciary obligation to posterity.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...