How Has the United States Met Its Major Challenges Since 1945?
Exactly forty years ago, in the first issue of COMMENTARY (November 1945), its founding editor, the late Elliot E. Cohen, wrote an introductory statement outlining the problems with which the new magazine would necessarily be concerned. The year 1945, Cohen said, “marks an epoch in world history.” World War II had just ended, “yet we stand troubled and hesitant before the glorious era of peace which we have awaited so long. . . .”
For one thing, there was the question of whether the “giant's strength, in production, in cooperation, in planning, in courage” which the United States had demonstrated in winning the war could be “mustered as greatly and as wisely for the arts of peaceful living. . . .” In addition, there was the “ultimate challenge” posed by the explosion only a few weeks earlier of the atomic bomb. And as if the destructive power of the bomb were not enough, there was “a force that, in the political and social scene, can wreak destruction comparable to the atomic bomb itself.” This power was embodied in “the kind of thinking and feeling” that had led to the “colossal latter-day massacre of innocents, whether Jews or other ‘minorities,’” and that (as subsequent issues of COMMENTARY would make clear) had not disappeared with the destruction of Nazism in Germany but remained alive and well in the form of Soviet totalitarianism.
To commemorate COMMENTARY's fortieth anniversary, the editors addressed these questions to a group of distinguished intellectuals:
Looking back over the last forty years, how would you assess the response of the United States to the three challenges that Elliot Cohen saw as marking the new era born in 1945?
Has the “giant's strength” of the United States been as adequately applied to the “arts of peaceful living” as it had been to the fighting of the war?
How have we managed the “ultimate challenge” of nuclear weapons?
And finally, how successfully have we met the equally dangerous threat of totalitarianism?
The responses—twenty-nine in all—follow in alphabetical order.
Lionel Abel: The editors of COMMENTARY, referring to the interesting—and approving—comment of its founding editor, the late Elliot Cohen, on the conduct of the United States during World War II, have asked some of us to judge whether American behavior, over the past forty years, can be approved as well. More precisely, what has the United States done in response to its three greatest challenges? To answer this question we have to make some judgment of our country as a whole, for it can hardly be distinguished from its most important policies.
But can one properly judge one's country? I mean, politically. One can, of course, judge a particular policy chosen by the country's decisionmakers. Thus many are critical today of President Reagan's new policy toward the Republic of South Africa. But can one totalize the policies of the country and then judge it as a whole? Now Noam Chomsky does exactly this every time he approaches a foreign-policy question (see his article on our policy in Central America in the Journal of Contemporary Studies, Spring-Summer 1985). In his piece the renowned radical announces that the American government is, and has been, opposed, or indifferent, to the promotion of democratic conditions in any part of the world outside our own borders. I take it that this is one of Chomsky's typically provocative exaggerations. But I do not want to judge the truth or falsity of this deliverance of his here, I only want to make clear what is its intent. It is nothing less than a political judgment of the country as a whole, and not just a judgment of one of its policies.
One can judge one's country morally, also aesthetically, without support from others, and without having to justify one's right to make such judgments. But can one in the same way judge one's country—once again, not just one of its policies—politically? I think not. For a judgment that is truly political cannot be made by just one person; it has to be made along with others, and anyone attempting such a judgment (one made with some others) can quite properly be asked just who those others are. If one is judging an American policy politically, one can judge it with Americans who prefer some other policy, but if one is judging America politically, and judging it unfavorably, this probably would only make sense if done along with the nationals of some other country. And in fact when America has been attacked in political terms, the attack has generally been made in support of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, or some other Third World country. The currently favored “others,” along with whom one nowadays attacks the United States politically, are the Sandinistas of Nicaragua and their allies among the guerrillas in El Salvador.
In the 18th century, it was thought—though not by Voltaire—that nationalism is the only form of selfishness that is ethically obligatory. And in the 19th century it was thought high-minded to give one's life for the fatherland. But the 20th century saw the birth of a very different political notion, namely, that one's own country can be, often has to be, regarded as one's main enemy. This idea, set forth by the Russian Bolsheviks, is political through and through and not literary, moral, or metaphysical, like the idea expressed by James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, who, when asked if he is prepared to die for his country, says “Let my country die for me.” I take it he is (if serious) asserting that it is ethically obligatory for the great writer, who was to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his country, to refuse to die for it. All the same I think the sally of Stephen Dedalus was prepared for by the war position of Lenin and his party: your country is your enemy. With what others could such a position have been taken by a subject of the Russian czar, whom even socialists like Plekhanov were ready, on patriotic grounds, to support against the Kaiser? With members of the international proletariat, of course, the final subject of history, according to the Marxist eschatology: with the international proletarians, whose selfish interests were to replace those of the nation as ethically binding on the individual.
That belief is no longer with us. There are workers and working-class groups in various countries, but there is no longer believed to be an international proletariat in the Marxist sense of the term. Hence if one is going to take a stand against one's own country, one has to postulate loyalty to some other country. And how is an American to find any larger, more progressive, or historically more to be trusted group than his fellow citizens? So if today one wants to criticize or attack the United States, not just one of its policies, one can properly be asked to say with what other country one's loyalty lies. That is, unless one is willing to say of one's politics what Paul Berman, in the New Republic (September 16, 1985), says about the actions of the “hip radicals” of the 60's, which he claims were based on “metaphysical” thinking. What he can mean by metaphysical thinking is surely not any kind of systematic thinking that I have been familiar with. But if he includes among the actions of the hip radicals the New Leftist demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, then I would say that the reason for the metaphysics in their politics was this: they could not attack America in the name of the international proletariat, and it would have been most unwise politically to announce their loyalty to North Vietnam (though in fact at the great peace rally held in Central Park in the 60's, certain New Leftists were honest enough to carry North Vietnamese flags). Yet if the peace movement were to win, then the United States had to lose, and in this sense the movement had to be in favor of victory for North Vietnam. And that is how Georg Lukács, who was opposed to metaphysics and certainly knew something about politics, celebrated in the New Left Review the Vietnamese victory over America when it came.
Now I think COMMENTARY is asking for a political judgment of America's conduct over the past forty years. What I have already said should indicate why I cannot altogether oblige. I do not want to criticize the country, though I am quite ready and even want to criticize its foreign-policy decisions since 1945. And I mean to be so critical here that I cannot allow myself to consider America's responses to its other main challenges. I am afraid to dwell on other problems of the country, since I cannot but condemn its responses in foreign-policy matters. Maybe I would also condemn its efforts in the “arts of peaceful living,” and also its decisions about nuclear energy. Here is ground I, for one, fear to tread. But I will not be inhibited in discussing our response to Soviet totalitarianism, our main endeavor for the last forty years in foreign affairs.
In the days when Richard Nixon was the “people's” preferred villain, and not their chosen political guru on prime-time television, the point was made by the much-admired Anthony Lewis in his New York Times column, that when you come down to it foreign policy is not all that important. I do not recall Lewis's exact wording on this matter, but the version I have given retains the gist of it. Why bring it up now? Not just to catch Lewis out—undeniably a pleasure—but rather to point up the admission by a leading liberal “welfare statist” that foreign-policy problems are to him of minor importance. Not that he ignores them. Just think of all the columns he devoted to the Vietnam war, and more recently to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. But the interesting question is why Lewis made the admission he did.
His motive, I believe, was at the time a desire to downgrade the appeal of Henry Kissinger, whose shuttle diplomacy had been spectacular, and whose popularity Lewis evidently feared might rub off on President Nixon, already being targeted for “the people's” hatred. But I believe Lewis's admission reveals something of more moment than that on occasion even a Times journalist can be capable of candor. It is this: foreign policy cannot under any circumstance be of major importance to the “welfare statist,” for the very good reason that in an area where conflict is essential one cannot solve problems by larger and larger handouts. A socialist state might conceivably—I am not too sure of this—find its own “socialist” solution to foreign-policy problems. The welfare state cannot. And so the only thing the “welfare statist” can do is what Anthony Lewis did on the occasion I cited. He can denigrate foreign policy as such.
In trying to answer just one of the questions asked by COMMENTARY, I must here point out that the United States under Ronald Reagan is still a welfare state, and has been throughout the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter regimes, covering almost the whole period from the end of the war until today. Now a welfare state simply cannot have a “giant's strength” in foreign policy. In the middle of the 19th century, Tocqueville, in his amazingly astute study of American political institutions, noted that foreign policy would be a source of great difficulty for any American President. This was when we were not yet a welfare state, and when liberal journalists were not yet of the opinion that foreign-policy matters are not too important. I wonder what Tocqueville would have said about the difficulties in foreign policy for an American President today, after the disasters of Vietnam and Watergate, and the attacks of journalists and historians on what has been called the “Imperial Presidency.” Actually, the most “imperial” of our Presidents was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was also responsible for the legislation which gave us the welfare state, enlarged upon by his successors. And Roosevelt was personally responsible for terrible foreign-policy decisions (described in these pages only two months ago by John Colville in his article, “How the West Lost the Peace in 1945”) which gave the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe.
As the welfare state commenced under Roosevelt was extended by his successors, Democratic and Republican, so were the foreign-policy defeats and mistakes. We should not have permitted the Red Army to reach Berlin or Prague. We facilitated the Soviet occupation of these cities. Having yielded Eastern Europe to the USSR, we failed to support the rising of the East German workers in 1954, the revolts of the Hungarians and the Poles in 1956, of Czechoslovakia in 1968, of the Afghans in 1979, and the Poles in 1981. Let me add our failure to prevent Castro from coming to power in Cuba, and to sustain with funds the government of South Vietnam. Then there was our misguided policy in Iran: we could at the very least have used our influence with the French to prevent Khomeini's broadcasts into Iran from France.
Of course our defeats are well known, but I feel justified in listing them, for I would like something rather different: I would like them known well. I must add here that we did have two foreign-policy triumphs which perhaps owe something to, and are certainly in line with, our regular commitment to welfare. I have in mind the Marshall Plan and the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel; both brought success through handouts, in the one case of money and credits and in the other of money and territory.
What I want to make clear is that we should not aim first of all in foreign policy at instituting elsewhere the conditions obtaining in our own country. Often there is a contradiction between what we might think desirable elsewhere and what obtains here in the U.S. If we had not enjoyed democratic rights here, but had had a one-party state like the Soviets, having won the war we would also have won the peace. We would never have permitted the Soviets to claim title by right of conquest to German, Polish, Hungarian, or Czechoslovakian territory. We would never have allowed Stalin to absorb the Baltic states. Not as democrats, but as victors in the war, and the least exhausted power, we would have protected the self-determination of the states of Eastern Europe. They have paid the terrible price of enslavement to the Soviet Union largely because of our illusion that the example of good democratic behavior can be as effective as the force of arms.
But the Soviets do not imitate our behavior, they just laugh at it. Noam Chomsky thinks we do not want democracy outside our own borders. Others think we ought to at least represent the values of democracy and human rights everywhere. I hold that we cannot. The care for our own rights may in many an instance require us to be less careful of the rights of others; in neglecting others' rights, we will get further denunciations of our actions from Chomsky, but he is determined to denounce us whatever we do. We do not even know why we are here, but being here we shall have to defend ourselves. It would be a great mistake for us to think that we are here to save the world.
William Barrett: Forty years, and a very large chunk of history! The advent of the atomic bomb, the end of World War II, a bad peace, and the continuing stalemate between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. For some of us, it was the period of maturity when, after the war, we were free to take up our own private lives at last. If our private expectations have not always turned out as well as we projected them in that first rosy flush after V-J Day, neither have affairs in the big world. But best leave all these personal matters in the background, and turn directly to the business of COMMENTARY's three questions, which I shall deal with, for reasons that will become apparent, in a slightly different order: 1, 3, and 2.
The first question may harbor a misunderstanding. A society at peace cannot take the same degree of management and central direction as that same society at war—not if it doesn't want to go totalitarian. A free society requires a free economy; and capitalism performs better without too many central controls. And on the whole, our American capitalism has performed pretty well in these last forty years: there are more affluence, more jobs, and more productivity than ever before.
Yet at the same time the bureaucratic structure of the state has also been expanding, despite recent rhetorical flurries about cutting back or dismantling some of this structure. The nation-state, both in the democratic and the totalitarian countries, looms as the dominating institution of this historical period. People seem to desire its entitlements and require, though sometimes with grumbling, its controls. This is a direction of history that we shall have to watch carefully.
If the “arts of peaceful living” means the whole domain of culture, then our report must be somewhat negative. In high culture there have been some notable works in the period, but we have fallen into the habit of taking second-raters much too seriously. Anything like a proper evaluation, however, would require an examination of works within each field, and that I am not equipped to do. What can be done? A genuine renaissance happens, it cannot be managed into existence by some national administration and directed like a war effort.
As for popular culture, that seems, to my tender hearing at least, to have fallen on hard times. Technology now provides the young with the most ingenious devices for reproducing, amplifying, and dispersing sound to blast our ears. And so the thud of rock music goes on everywhere and at all moments. Let there be sound!—our culture seems to be possessed by a fearful dread of silence. What might help? Perhaps if our whole educational system were reformed so that genuine literacy prevailed, the young might once again become readers and have less time for television and tapes.
How successfully have we met the dangerous threat of totalitarianism? Not very successfully, I am afraid. And here we need not reproduce a long catalogue of our various retreats and bunglings since World War II; it is sufficient merely to point to the fact that the power and influence of the Soviet Union have spread throughout the world during this period. Not all of this spreading power has been due to our mistakes; the fact is that Marxist ideology and slogans continue to have a surprising appeal to various peoples and groups, and sometimes in the most amazing places. One should not be surprised that these slogans appeal to some peasants in Central America, who have neither the time nor the information to reflect on what Marxism has shown itself to be in the actual history of the Soviet Union. But we are surprised to find entrenched pockets of Marxism in the faculties of our universities. The “Will to Believe” is very potent; and, failing a genuine religion, some of our campus intellectuals seek a substitute in the secular religion of Marxism, which after all professes to give the scheme and meaning of human history. What to do? Alas, only time and repeated intellectual criticism may lead this lamentable faith to wither away.
Meanwhile the Soviet Union persists, and its political apparatus seems stable. Indeed, the stability of the Soviet Union throughout this whole period we are talking of seems to me a central fact of our time. But perhaps something of my own history leads me to place such emphasis upon this surprising stability.
At the beginning of this period I was a Marxist, a socialist, with something of Trotskyist leanings. Given this orientation, it was natural to believe that since the Soviet Union was a socialist country that had been temporarily captured by the Stalinist dictatorship, in due time the benign impulses of socialism would go to work and there would be a genuine liberalization of the regime. Needless to say, none of these things happened, and these general beliefs of mine have long since gone into the scrapheap. Then too, there was the vague expectation that conflicts among the ruling Soviet bureaucrats might lead to a palace revolution, as a consequence of which there might be some general popular upheaval. But again, nothing like this has happened; the bureaucracy seems to have mastered its own political machinery, particularly the smooth transmission of power. The economy may creak and stumble along, but the regime goes on so long as its political machinery remains intact and functioning. A refutation, incidentally, of the Marxist doctrine that the economic sphere is prior to the political.
Why should I emphasize this fact of Soviet stability so much? Because it gives the Soviets one more powerful tactic to rely on in their contest with America and the democracies. The Soviets need only hold firm, and sit and wait for the democracies to crack. If the possibility of America's giving up seems unimaginable to us, that may be because we think of it with the dramatic flourish of Lee surrendering at Appomatox. In fact, the yielding could take place piecemeal, bit by bit, and hardly be noticed along the way until at last it became clear that we had sunk to a secondary place. As the burdens of standing up to the challenge increase, the ordinary citizens of the democracies may grow restive. There may come moments when the harried taxpayer may wonder: IRS or KGB, what difference? Then the lure of the peace movements will become more attractive, the awesome specter of atomic war in the background will seem more threatening, and the resolve of the West will be further weakened.
So I come to question 2; I changed the order of my answers because I do not believe the nuclear challenge can be handled apart from a consideration of our relations with the Soviet Union.
How, then, have we managed the “ultimate challenge” of nuclear weapons? Well, in the last forty years there has been no nuclear war. That may not be much, but it is something. There is no easy recipe for dealing with the nuclear question. Our disarmament would be equivalent to surrender, and it is questionable whether that would bring a genuine peace. At the present, it seems to me, there is no other course for us to follow but to maintain all our strength, and to remain prudent in its exercise. The presence of a potent but prudent power on the world scene might, who knows, serve to bring about a real international order, in which genuine disarmament, with controls, might become possible. As yet, however, it seems to me we are very far from that.
In looking back at my answers, I detect a somewhat somber tone. I am sorry, but we do live in an awesome period when the future of human liberty may be decided for a long time to come.
Peter L. Berger: One can well understand why Elliot Cohen, writing in 1945, would use the language he did. The United States had just triumphed in the most titanic war not only in its own history but in all human history, the evil nightmare of Nazism had been banished decisively, and it must indeed have seemed as if the enormous resources and energies that had accomplished the victory would now be released for the tasks of the “glorious era of peace . . . awaited so long.” It is not disrespectful of Elliot Cohen to observe that there was an error implied in this expectation. The error is simple but far-reaching. It is to think that the strengths usable in war can be applied in times of peace. This is, very probably, never the case. War summons up whatever virtues of dedication, self-sacrifice, and heroism men are capable of. These virtues are of little relevance to the mundane demands of civilian life. If wartime strengths are not readily carried over into times of peace in any society, such carryover is particularly unlikely in a society shaped by the twin institutions of capitalism and democracy. Both are, by their very nature, contractual, pragmatic, prosaic, unheroic—in a word, civilian to the core. This, of course, is why societies cultivating the martial virtues have looked down on the “grubby commercialism” of democratic capitalism (as both the Nazis and the Japanese militarists looked down on America). World War II demonstrated how peoples as determinedly civilian as the Americans and the British can be mobilized for military exploits worthy indeed of a “giant's strength.” But even then it should have been clear that a similar mobilization for peacetime tasks was not in the offing. At least under democratic capitalism there can never be a “moral equivalent of war”—a fact for which one can be grateful.
All the same, if one looks at the three great challenges spelled out by Elliot Cohen forty years ago, one may well conclude that America has survived them reasonably well. The first two—those of nuclear weapons and of totalitarianism—are precisely challenges that call for virtues of a quasi-martial sort. To maintain the nuclear balance requires, in principle, the willingness to reckon with the possibility of nuclear war—a truly “unthinkable” matter for people devoted to the “pursuit of happiness.” To keep totalitarianism in check, in an ongoing worldwide contest, similarly requires a state of mind that Americans almost instinctively shy away from—not out of cowardice but because, rightly so, they have better things to think about. Yet despite these moral handicaps, one cannot say that America has been defeated by either challenge—not yet, in any case. The forty years have passed without a single nuclear exchange. Totalitarianism has not been rolled back within the boundaries of the Soviet empire and has been instituted beyond these boundaries, but it has been precarious in those places where Soviet armed power was not immediately at hand. What is more, democracy has been maintained (and, in Greece and the Iberian peninsula, reestablished) throughout Western Europe, instituted in two theoretically most unlikely countries of prime importance outside the West (India and Japan), and currently seems to be sweeping Latin America. This is not to deny that the totalitarian threat, in its military form, continues to be very powerful indeed, but it would be premature to say that it has won the global contest.
Not surprisingly, it is in the “arts of peaceful living” that America has been most dramatically successful in these decades. The period since 1945 has seen the continuous unfolding of the economic and social miracle of democratic capitalism, both in the United States and in many countries of the world system of which the United States is the center (notably in Western Europe and Eastern Asia). If one is to speak here of a challenge, one would have to say that America has met it very successfully indeed.
The living standards of Americans have more than doubled in the generation since World War II. No matter what indicator of material well-being one looks at, from life expectancy to the availability of household machinery, the overwhelming majority of Americans live better (and longer) lives today than when Elliot Cohen wrote. Not only have the living standards of the population as a whole improved, but the chances of the individual to improve his own or his children's life through social mobility remain high. America continues to be an open society, egalitarian in its ethos (class lines have not hardened), with the opportunity for upward movement widely available. It should be said that in these characteristics, America is not much different from the other societies of advanced industrial capitalism, but it has developed them despite the great heterogeneity of its population and the complexity of a society spanning an entire continent.
During the same period American society has made gigantic political efforts to ensure that no group within it is excluded from the cornucopia of industrial capitalism. Perhaps it is necessary to go outside the country and look back on it through the eyes of other societies to grasp the scope of the revolution brought about by the civil-rights legislation of the 1960's. The entire system of legally instituted or legally tolerated racial discrimination was abolished in the span of a few years—thoroughly, with finality, and (most astonishing of all) peacefully. Not only was this revolution accomplished within the system, but it was only this system of democratic capitalism that could accommodate such a dramatic transformation without falling apart in the process. During the same period the American welfare state came into maturity. Like the welfare state in its European countries of origin, this has not been an unmitigated blessing. There are legitimate doubts about some of the policies and institutions created in the movement from the New Deal to the Great Society. In the United States as in the other advanced democracies, Right-of-Center and Left-of-Center parties disagree about the scope and the nature of the welfare state. This, however, should not blind us to the radically humane intention embodied in this phenomenon: that no member of the society should be excluded from the good life made possible by its enormously productive economy. If there is one challenge as yet unmet in this area, it is the challenge of constructing a specifically American version of the modern welfare state, different from the European prototype in being more pluralistic, less bureaucratized, and more amenable to private initiatives.
Finally, there is the continuing strength of a vital if at times chaotic culture. Again, America is seen more clearly from the vantage point of other societies. Whatever one may say about American culture, it is less boring than any other in the world today. To be sure, it is often vulgar, sometimes anarchic, occasionally downright pathological—but it is never dull. And this vitality of American culture, high as well as popular, has been noted throughout the world. Whatever have been the fortunes or misfortunes of American political power in the years since 1945, this has been the age in which American culture became global in its outreach. It appears to be unstoppable, even by the censors of totalitarianism. Some conservative critics of contemporary America view it as decadent, and there are good arguments to be made for American decadence, especially in high culture. It is worth recalling, however, that America is viewed in most of the world as the promised land of the young. And it is young people, from Manila to Managua, who read American books, dance to American music, discuss ideas made in America—and, if given the chance, move to America physically.
No achievements in history come cost-free. Every one of these American achievements in the “arts of peaceful living” has a darker underside. With higher living standards have come ever-higher expectations and, consequently, nagging frustrations among people who, in a comparative perspective, are the most fortunate on earth. Material well-being has been accompanied by decreasing productivity, which may eventually reduce the standard of living. The wide availability of opportunities has made failure, for whatever reasons, less tolerable. The language of rights has given birth to a psychology of entitlements which, if left to run its course, would make both capitalism and democracy impossible. Americans today are much more tolerant than the generation that fought World War II. At the same time, they are more prone to sudden eruptions of irrational rage. This has been the period in which one movement after another arose on waves of volcanic anger, spouting “non-negotiable demands,” and vowing to realize them “by whatever means necessary.” Americans today are much better educated than in Elliot Cohen's generation, yet they also appear more likely to give assent to inanities that would have been laughed out of court then. And given the state of the world today, the highest cost may be the above-mentioned fact that a society so successful in the arts of peace may lose all capacity to defend itself against violent and determined antagonists. If COMMENTARY survives to the year 2025, another symposium will be able to explore how America succeeded in surviving this built-in handicap.
Walter Berns: In his recent biography of Winston Churchill, the American William Manchester speaks of the privileges and amenities enjoyed by the not-yet-impoverished English nobility and its immediate descendants. Churchill himself, for instance, a mere grandson of a duke, was always dressed and undressed by someone else, and—whether schoolboy, soldier, public minister, or private citizen—never once in his long life had to draw his own bath. His cousin, the ninth Duke of Marlborough, was accustomed to even closer attendance. On only one occasion, apparently, was he required to travel without his valet and make do without the services the valet customarily provided; he didn't do well. An overnight visitor at the country home of friends, and like a Bertie Wooster without Jeeves, he emerged puzzled from the lavatory holding his toothbrush and complaining that it didn't “froth properly.” Manchester reports that “he had to be told gently that toothpaste had to be applied to the brush before it would foam.”
This story suggests that in certain respects England had apparently not changed all that much since the 1830's when Tocqueville, who knew it well, could refer to it as the country where both “enjoyment” and “power” were monopolized by the rich. Now, even in the 20th century, there was still an aristocracy that expected to be served and, much to the despair of socialists like R.H. Tawney, still a class of Englishmen willing not only to serve them but, with a tip of the cap or a tug of the forelock, ready to defer to them.
Things were different in America and always had been. Our aristocrats, our Tories, were dispatched in 1776, at the beginning, at the time we became Americans. They went back to England or fled to Canada where a few of their descendants even today congregate under the banner of United Empire Loyalists. Unlike England or Tocqueville's France, this country has never experienced or had reason to fear an attempt to restore the monarchy; there have been no American Bourbons or, more to the point, American Jacobites or “Georgians.” In this respect, we were lucky; we were, as Tocqueville said, “born equal instead of becoming so.”
In saying this, Tocqueville was of course ignoring the condition of black Americans. They constituted about 20 percent of the population in 1780—and about 15 percent at the time he was writing—and, as he knew very well, they could certainly not be said to have been born equal or to be living as equals. With few exceptions, they were slaves, not citizens; strictly speaking, not even Americans (“What Country have I?” asked the young Frederick Douglass in 1847). Americans became a people in 1776 with an appeal to the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God according to which all men are created equal and endowed with certain rights, chiefly the right not to be governed except with their consent. How could a slave be an American? Better, how could an American be a slave? As a group, blacks did not become Americans until they became citizens with the Fourteenth Amendment, and they could not have become citizens without having first been freed by the Thirteenth.
Unfortunately, their condition did not much improve—and in certain respects it became worse—with freedom and citizenship. Nominally, at least, they were now to be governed only with their consent, which the adult males among them were to give at the polls along with other voters. Any state that denied them this right to vote was to be deprived of its representation in the House of Representatives just so much, or, in the language of the Amendment, “in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.” But blacks were not permitted to vote, not in any numbers, not after the whites regained political control in the Southern states; and, despite its new authority, Congress made no attempt to enforce this provision by imposing the sanction. Nor, when once asked, did the Supreme Court agree to order Congress to do so. America remained a racially divided, unequal society. Blacks were citizens, but in the South especially, where most of them continued to live, they were denied the privileges and immunities of citizens. In North and South alike, however, they were expected to perform the duties attending citizenship. In particular, along with other eligible persons, they were expected to fight for their country.
And fight they did, and in large numbers in World War II. But (to speak of the service I know best) they were not permitted to fight as boatswains or gunner's mates; as quartermasters, signalmen, radar technicians, engineers, and the like; such enlisted men's ratings, to say nothing of the officers' ranks, were closed to them. Along with the few Filipinos and Guamanians, black sailors were steward's mates or, less formally, “messboys.” Like everyone else, they were assigned to battle stations, typically at the guns, but when not engaged in handling ammunition, they waited on officers; that was their job. Alone among native Americans, they were servants. They were not expected to prepare our toothbrushes or draw our baths—we had no bathtubs and, therefore, no baths to draw—but they made our beds, cleaned our rooms, shined our shoes, and, in the wardroom, served our meals. The unequal treatment to which they were accustomed outside did not by any means cease in the military, certainly not in the Navy. Segregated at home, they were also segregated wherever and whenever possible on each of the ships on which I served during my four years of war. Securing the rights to which they were entitled, as men and as Americans, was “the great task remaining before us.” That was true when Lincoln first said it at Gettysburg and it was doubly true at the end of World War II.
The task was, of course, “great,” and by 1945 it had become urgent; but it was not so difficult of accomplishment as it would have been elsewhere. Black Americans were segregated, frequently abused, deprived of their rights, but not, like the Jews of Europe, “Slaughtered like cattle, subjected to every physical indignity—processed.” (The words are Elliot Cohen's, from the same manifesto on which this symposium is based.) A nation constituted by the Declaration of Independence and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal cannot in good conscience treat human beings as if they were cattle. True, on one infamous occasion we officially referred to blacks as an “inferior order of beings” who had no rights other than those “the government might choose to grant them”; but the case in which this pronouncement was made—Dred Scott v. Sandford—was a contributing cause of the Civil War and was repudiated by that war. Again, a nation that holds it to be self-evidently true that all men are equally endowed with certain unalienable rights cannot in good conscience deprive anyone of his rights.
The point might be disputed, but I would argue that most Americans, and especially most American politicians, always knew—even if they were not always willing publicly to acknowledge—that slavery and its vestiges were violations of what the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called the American creed. Even slaveholders knew this. (“Is it not amazing,” wrote Patrick Henry to a friend, “at a time when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision [that I should be] a Master of Slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them, I will not, I cannot justify it.”) As one might expect, Myrdal was sharply critical of the racial practices he encountered here in 1944, but by entitling his book An American Dilemma he paid us a compliment of sorts. For if hypocrisy is the respect paid to virtue by vice, then a dilemma is the respect paid to principle by practice or practitioners. Which is to say, and Myrdal knew this, no creed or principle, no dilemma; and the vitality of the principle that all men are created equal has made a difference in this country. It certainly made a difference in the years following World War II; it made possible a civil-rights revolution. It provided this country with the “giant's strength” required to address (and to hope to solve) the most serious of its domestic problems.
Beginning with an executive order issued in 1948 by President Harry Truman, the armed forces were in due course desegregated; by another executive order, this one issued on December 5, 1946, Truman established the President's Committee on Civil Rights which, the following year, issued its celebrated report, To Secure These Rights, stating the nature of the problem and delineating the elements of a program to solve it. In 1948, Hubert Humphrey fought and won the platform battle at the Democratic national convention, thereby committing that party (if not all that party's members) to the cause of securing those rights. This followed by one year Branch Rickey's decision (of perhaps equal consequence) to bring second baseman Jackie Robinson up from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers, thereby breaking the color line in major-league baseball. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its famous decision in Brown v. Board of Education and followed this up a year later with its decree that public-school desegregation proceed “with all deliberate speed.” When, in 1957, a similar federal court order was disobeyed in Little Rock, Arkansas, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by sending in the troops. Ten years after Brown, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbidding discrimination in employment, education, public accommodations, and in federally-funded programs. The next year, 1965, saw the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, and 1968 of a law that, among other things, forbade discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, public or private.
It is not remarkable, especially after a war fighting Nazism and fascism, that these laws and legal decrees were at long last enacted or issued, or that laws and decrees alike were enforced by the executive. By securing the rights of black Americans, the country was merely fulfilling a promise made if not at the beginning then, at least, after the Civil War when the Constitution was amended.
In his 1945 manifesto, Elliot Cohen called upon us to “reaffirm and restore the sense of sanctity of the human person and the rights of man”; only by doing this, he said, could we meet the great challenges bequeathed us by the war. Here, as I suggested, we Americans had an advantage over other peoples; we had only to repudiate some of our practices, not our principles. Contrast this with the Germans who would have to repudiate the greatest of their poets, Goethe. Goethe was the least provincial of Germans—in fact, as Leo Strauss pointed out, he was “the greatest among the cosmopolitan Germans”—yet he could write a novel in which his Wilhelm Meister builds a new society from which Jews are explicitly excluded. “We do not tolerate any Jew among us,” explains Goethe's hero, “for how could we grant him a share in the highest culture, the origin and traditions of which he denies?”
Or contrast our situation with that of the Soviets. To affirm a sense of the sanctity of the human person and the rights of man, they would have to repudiate Karl Marx who was contemptuous of the very idea of the rights of man. He repeatedly referred to them as “the so-called rights of man,” a statement made more ominous because it appears in his essay, “On the Jewish Question.” Not only had we Americans never been divided into aristocrat and peasant, or bourgeoisie and proletariat, but we were constituted a people by solemnly dedicating ourselves to the proposition that all men are created equal: not equally strong, intelligent, handsome, or beautiful; not equally white or Anglo-Saxon; not equally Protestant or even Christian; but equally human—and in the thought that inspired and guided the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the essence of being human, or the quality that defines a human and political being, is the possession of rights. We Americans did not have to introduce or even restore a “sense of the sanctity of the human person and the rights of man”; we had only to reaffirm what we had been saying since our beginning as a people. Unfortunately, the egalitarians of our day are not satisfied with an equality of rights; they want an equality of station.
At about the time his cousin the Duke of Marlborough was learning about the properties of toothbrushes, Winston Churchill was addressing an audience at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and predicting that the future would be “more equal” but—and here a note of regret crept into his analysis—more simple as well. It would be, he said, “a wider if a simpler culture.” Presumably, something desirable would be lacking in it, or would have to be sacrificed in the course of building it. Not merely the valets who prepare the toothbrushes or draw the baths; that, surely, was not what Churchill had in mind or would regret having to forgo. Not the amenities of aristocracy, although he surely enjoyed them; not its privileges as such; not, in itself, its most characteristic privilege, the leisure it makes possible for a few; what he feared was the loss of a culture made possible by that leisure. What we have to fear is not the loss of an aristocratic culture, but, under pressure from today's egalitarians, the loss of respect for those quasi-arisocratic forms that make constitutional democracy possible.
By forms, I mean what Tocqueville meant when he declared them to be essential to democracies: formal procedures or arrangements for the doing of something—for example, the selecting of lawmakers or the passing of a law. The Constitution is itself a compendium of forms, and, appropriately enough, it was both written and adopted in a very formal manner. Forms are not efficient; they are inhibiting, frequently delaying and sometimes preventing achievement of the end desired. They can be annoying, especially to the “committed” politician who has his eye fixed on that end and, to reach it, is inclined to take shortcuts. At a minimum he finds forms to be inconvenient. But this is precisely why Tocqueville found them so useful in democratic times. “It is this inconvenience,” he wrote, “which men of democracies find in forms, that makes them so useful to liberty, their principal merit being to serve as a barrier between the strong and the weak, the government and the governed.” A merit system, for example, stands between the civil servant and the Andrew Jacksons with their principle, “to the victor belongs the spoils.” Election laws embodied in a constitution, for a time at least, stand between Joshua Nkomo (and what remains of his followers) and the Zimbabwe government headed by Robert Mugabe. The elements of due process have protected many an indigent black defendant from zealous (and especially Southern) prosecutors. Government limited in these various ways is what is meant by constitutionalism.
We Americans are about to celebrate the Constitution's bicentennial, and for this reason especially one might think that what Tocqueville said about democratic men in general—that they feel an “instinctive contempt” for forms—could not rightly be said of American democrats in particular. Unfortunately, in our zeal to extend civil rights, we have proved to be as contemptuous of formal restrictions as any other nation. We, too, have had our eye fixed on the result only. A right to vote becomes an entitlement to a certain proportion of representatives when merely guaranteeing the right fails to produce that result. An equal-employment-opportunity right becomes an entitlement to a job when merely guaranteeing the right fails to produce the quota of jobs. The right to take a civil-service examination becomes a right to pass the examination and, thereby, an entitlement to a civil-service job.
To achieve these results, and always in the name of civil rights, statutes have been deliberately misread or unenforced by the federal courts,1 the constitutional rights of others ignored or abridged,2 merit rules discarded by court order, and a variety of so-called affirmative-action programs—goals, timetables, quotas—imposed in the private and public sectors alike, programs that, almost without exception, originated not in statutes but in executive (or lesser administrators') orders. (How many of those subject to them have heard of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, or could come within a country mile of describing them and where they came from?) And when it was discovered—thanks to a leak to the Washington Post—that the Reagan administration was considering abolishing these programs, the outcry (from members of Congress, the national press, as well as from the civil-rights organizations) was sufficient to cause the White House to beat a hasty retreat. Constitutionalism is not held in high regard today, not in the nation's capital at least. There the Constitution is praised not for its formal structure but for its infinite flexibility, a flexibility that allows it to be adapted to the purposes of today's majority—and, we would do well to remember, also tomorrow's.
Midge Decter: Looking back on 1945 from here, one reminds oneself with astonishment that many, many very intelligent people in those days took it quite for granted that we were facing an imminent depression. True, the system had performed miracles in wartime, but that was just the point, said these people: it was the mobilization for war that had saved the economy; peacetime would find it riven once more by its internal capitalist contradictions. Some indeed have never given up this expectation, though they have learned to disguise it, perhaps even from themselves, with a number of clever and innovative “theories.” Each time the economy dips or slows down or responds badly to some abuse imposed upon it by a greedy and ungrateful polity, they rush to the fore, declaring triumphantly, “We told you so. This time the system is really going under!”
To answer the question of how well the “giant's strength” has been applied to the “arts of peaceful living,” it is instructive—as it is for so many of the issues that seem to puzzle us—to remember the 50's. The children born during those years, of course, know nothing about them. For they were a generation raised and educated precisely to believe that the earth was created at the moment of their appearance on it. Thus the 50's have been entered in the annals of history as an age of gross materialism, an age, in the terminology of the period's most hastily anxious critic, David Riesman, of “abundance.” In what did this famous and, in the view of Mr. Riesman and his epigones, spiritually threatening abundance consist? In the widespread acquisition, especially by the country's returning veterans, of educations, jobs, cars, and houses. In these houses were such enervatingly corrupting luxuries as washing machines, refrigerators with food-freezing compartments, and, inevitably, television sets. The 50's also brought a vast new system of great highways, and with them among other things even more cars, which made possible the unbelievable luxury of being able to live in some newly-minted “community” a considerable distance away from one's place of work.
In short, the material “abundance” of the 50's was for the 60's a barely adequate starting point. And so it has gone, upward and ever upward without let-up, to the present.
Are there people who have been permitted to enjoy a great deal more of all this abundance than others? Of course there are. On the other hand, are there people who have had no share in it at all? The answer is a resounding no. We are positively randy for suffering and deprivation—we have set them to music and sing them daily—but go into the home of the most put-upon and feckless welfare mother in the worst of slums and compare her standard of living with that of her grandmother. Why then do we hear so endlessly from so many people of the terrible failure, or imminent failure, of the system? Because the “giant's strength” that inheres in this peculiarly productive political economy has cost us something to sustain. It does not come for free. It is, for one thing, psychically hard, particularly on those who cannot for one reason or another keep up. It is also spiritually hard, requiring the sacrifice of certain of our inner comforts. And it is—no doubt about it—anxiety-making, having confronted us all so suddenly with conditions, albeit benign ones, for which we were not prepared. Perhaps in our postwar juvenescence we had simply failed to reckon on the cost. Whatever the reason, we have not only mastered the “arts of peaceful living,” we have carried them to the point where it sometimes seems that we are about to be overwhelmed by them.
As for the challenge of nuclear weapons, here, too, we have accepted the comfort and caviled at the cost. The challenge of these weapons, after all, was how to put them at the service of averting another world war. This they have so far done. But managing this challenge must be a continuous, who knows, perhaps even an eternal, process. And such a process we have not in these forty years even faintly begun to resign ourselves to. Instead we have wasted our time in a grand and utterly bootless debate about whether nuclear weapons should exist at all, or about how to “outlaw” them, or about how to reach, with a sworn and implacable enemy, some sort of treaty to do away with them. Whereas wisdom would dictate the recognition that they do exist—and will not, moreover, for all the treaties in the world, go away. Nor can they be outlawed: to criminals—and we do happen to live in a world where the number of criminal nations is not small—the law means nothing. That is why they are criminals. With them, only force majeure counts for anything. Wisdom would also by now dictate the recognition that treaties are mere redundancies: where there is genuine agreement, they are merely ritual confirmations, and where there is no genuine agreement, they are not worth the paper, etc. We profess outrage that the Soviets have violated agreements with us. Why should we be outraged? These “agreements” were not based on real agreement, only on momentary political expediency, and we had every reason to understand that. We are outraged at the Soviets, then, for dashing hopes we were not entitled to entertain in the first place.
For forty years we have sought, because they have interfered with other more pleasant pursuits, to evade the real alternatives presented to us by nuclear weapons. Which are, that we must either have so many more of them than the rest of the world that no one dare dream of challenging us, or that the weapons we have, including defensive ones, must be so vastly superior that no one dare dream of challenging us. Or we can surrender. In a struggle between two parties where each side wishes to prevail, the idea of “parity”—at any level of force, high, low, or in-between—is a chimera. In other words, nuclear weapons may be unimaginably, even fatally, destructive, but no more than the longbow or the M-l rifle do they exist in a vacuum. As weapons, they are, and remain, instruments of politics. And politics, as Mr. Dooley said, “ain't beanbag.”
To be sure, we can, as I said, surrender. Surrender is in fact the unadmitted prescription of many of the critics of our strategic posture. But since these critics cannot justify, even to themselves, the voluntary collapse of the richest and most powerful country on earth for no other reason than that it has a brutal and determined, though seriously impoverished, enemy, they surround the real implications of their position with the fog of their good intentions.
If weapons, even nuclear weapons, are no more than the instruments of politics, what shall we say of the politics themselves? Here our evasions have been positively staggering. The United States approached the end of World War II with the view that there were two major threats in the world. There was Nazism (or, to make the statement more inclusive, fascism) and there was, believe it or not, European imperialism. The first of these threats was about to be destroyed; thus it was to the second that we would now be able to turn our attention. Hard to remember, isn't it, that when Harry Truman ascended to the Presidency, he believed that the outstanding danger to that great new world order promised by and embodied in the United Nations was . . . the British empire!
One might smile indulgently at such innocence. The accusation of innocence is one that Americans have always been somewhat smugly willing to take upon themselves. The problem is that it was not innocence at all, but something else, and among other things it cost the freedom and sovereignty of Central and Eastern Europe. In the September COMMENTARY one reads John Colville's account of Roosevelt at Yalta, winking at Stalin and patronizing—there is no other word for it—Churchill, and even at this late date one feels the gripping fear of the audience at a melodrama when it knows who the villain is but the hero doesn't. No, it was not innocence that doomed half of Europe at Yalta, nor was it simply ignorance. It was a rare and seemingly incurable political disease, a disease whose major symptom is that it blinds the sufferer to the presence before him of two stark alternatives. It impels him to believe that he can always find some other way, some third way, out. Sitting at a table with Churchill on one side and Stalin on the other, Roosevelt chose the United Nations. This has been a model for American policy vis-à-vis the Soviets ever since.
This judgment against U.S. policy is a harsh one I know. There was, after only a few short years, the Truman Doctrine, which saved Greece and Turkey from the fate of Hungary, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, et al. There was the Marshall Plan; what other power but the United States would have undertaken it? There was the successful conversion of our former enemies, Germany (or half of it) and Japan, into prosperous democracies; what other power but the United States can even be imagined undertaking it? There was Point Four, which, whatever else can be said about it, probably did help to cushion the otherwise dangerous trauma of the rapid dissolution of the European empires. Moreover, American policy vis-à-vis Communism has not been uniform. We have spent blood and treasure trying to contain Communist power. We have tried, to state the matter in rather caricatured form, to corrupt it with détente. We have also tried, sporadically, half-heartedly, and ineffectively, but tried nevertheless, to undermine it.
What we have not done, however, is face up to the fact that Communism is an either/or proposition. Which is to say, that Communism is in its nature a revolutionary principle. Which is to say further that in the long run, either Communism in some variant or Western-style democracy in some variant must prevail. It is a case of “them or us.” The Soviets see the world this way; it is the source of their renowned patience. They have a policy—they seek to do us in—which is why they can advance, retreat, get tough, act friendly, shift alliances, or whatever else seems to serve their ultimate ends at any particular moment. They are certainly not, as the saying goes, ten feet tall, nor are they gifted with some special political genius. On the contrary. But they are clear about what they are after. And they are not afraid to confront alternatives.
In this sense of the term, we do not have a policy and never have had. We have always pretended to ourselves that there is a third way—some complex tangle of deals and arrangements and settlements—between our seeing eventually to the Soviets' disappearance or their seeing to ours. Faced with a clear Soviet threat, in Central America, in the Middle East, in Southern Africa, we can be counted on to become a debating society, occupied with discussions about the root causes of social unrest in those troublesome places. We treat ourselves not as a party to the conflict, though it happens to be aimed directly at us, but rather a
1 See my article, “Let Me Call You Quota, Sweetheart,” COMMENTARY, May 1981.
2 See my article, “Voting Rights and Wrongs,” COMMENTARY, March 1982.
3 “How to Think About Nuclear War,” August 1982.
4 “What the Fundamentalists Want,” May 1985.
5 F. R. Bridge and Roger Bullen, The Great Powers and the European States System, 1815-1914 (Longman, 1980), p. 2.