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The End of the Beginning

ISSUE:  Spring 1975

BERTRAND Russell’s “Human Society in Ethics and Politics,” published when he was eighty-three, ends with these lines: “Those who are to lead the world out of its troubles will need courage, hope, and love. Whether they will prevail, I do not know, but, beyond all reason, I am unconquerably persuaded that they will.”

You may dismiss this as the dithering of a sentimental old fool. If you do you will find yourself in the company of a great many Americans, some of them adjudged very shrewd fellows. His Lordship was a man of tremendous intellectual capacity, especially in mathematics, but also in philosophy, which does not rule out the possibility that in other phases of existence he may have spoken on the mental level of a retarded child. The point is arguable but for the purpose of this essay without significance.

What lends this statement vivid interest in this country twenty years later is the fact that an impressive number of Russell’s moral judgments that were laughed out of consideration when they were delivered subsequently proved to be based on very solid fact. Some have been absorbed into the corpus of conventional tuition, especially on the upper levels.

The point of interest today, therefore, is not the state of mind of the noble Earl, but whether there is any tenable reason to hope that this is another instance in which he was talking very uncommon sense when he seemed to be dithering. Russell acknowledged that he spoke “beyond all reason” in predicting that the people he described will in time prevail, but he certainly did not speak beyond all emotion, and no rational observer will deny that the emotional drive has frequently produced results, and sometimes desirable results, that cold reason would never have predicted.

However, there is no fruitful dialectic without a definition of terms, in this case courage, hope, and love. Lucifer unquestionably had courage, hope is the sustaining force of the gambler as well as of the saint, and we have the highest authority for it that there are those who “love the darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil.” Russell was not speaking derisively; so I think he would not have objected to having his terms defined as the courage to learn the truth, hope that a better structure of government than any now existing can be designed and constructed by our generation, and love of that ancient ideal of all mankind, freedom from fear.

With its terms so defined his statement becomes obviously true. But the evidence that contemporary Americans possess the qualities so defined is far from conclusive. The records of the police courts and the penal institutions attest that great numbers are devoid of any trace of the three, while some have courage only to inflict injury on others, some have hope that has corroded into gluttony, and some are consumed by a self-love that has become maniacal.

So much is obvious, but so it has always been, and the fact remains that within the span of recorded history human life, for a great many millions, has risen somewhat above the level of the primitive as described by Hobbes: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It is evident, therefore, that for the level of civilization to be raised appreciably it is not necessary that every living man shall be honest, industrious, and just. To establish a tolerable form of government it was not necessary in 1787, and has not become necessary in 1975, for every living American to practice all the virtues of good citizenship. John Adams said that in 1776 not more than a third of the American people favored independence. Another third preferred the familiar tyranny of the King to the unexperienced but fearsomely described “tyranny of the mob” which they were assured was the inevitable end of democracy. The remaining third favored nothing except being on the winning side. But the energy of the positive third was enough to sweep the apathetic along and so to become a majority.

The outlook at the beginning of 1975 is gloomy, and it is not merely silly to deny it, it is very dangerous, for until we face our difficulties realistically we shall do nothing intelligent toward overcoming them. Heilbroner, for instance, is perfectly logical in asserting, on one condition, that the springs shall become silent, the seas polluted, and the atmosphere heated to a degree destructive of all life as we know it. But his one condition is so improbable that it invalidates his prediction. It is that we shall continue our present insensate follies for anywhere from 150 to 300 years.

Every high school mathematician knows that in extrapolation the factor of error increases exponentially with extension. In political affairs extension through three centuries raises the factor of error to, or very near to, 100 per cent—in other words, no prediction is valid at such a distance in time. To do him justice, Heilbroner never presented his statement as oracular, but only as logical, which it certainly is.

But many less cautious savants have conceded to democracy a chance of survival so thin as to be no chance at all in any practical sense. To judge by their public utterances, the opinion of academics runs heavily against the continuance for more than a very short time of the experiment in self-government begun in 1776, and miraculously successful for nearly two hundred years.

Yet while these predictions cannot be dismissed lightly, it is an error to assume that there is nothing whatever to be set against them. In particular, there is one historical fact whose significance cannot be quantified but that certainly exists and that may be highly significant. It is the fact that we have been here before.

That is to say, there is registered in our history and therefore in the consciousness of every schoolboy the fact that once before we faced a similar problem and solved it not, indeed, perfectly but well enough to permit the nation to survive and prosper exceedingly. Consider then the core and center of our present difficulties. It is simply that the pre-existing governmental structure of Western civilization has been demolished and nothing has been erected to take its place. That structure was the Balance of Power fabricated by Castlereagh, Talleyrand, and Metternich in 1815, which crashed in 1918.It was not a good system. It was merely an equipoise of imperialisms, all rapacious and all vulnerable, which even its architects did not expect to last forever. Nevertheless it did, after a fashion, maintain itself for a hundred years before becoming such a threat to the safety of all the world that it had to be demolished, which was accomplished, with our assistance, in 1918.But nothing effective was done to replace it and in 1939 a convulsive effort to revive the menace had to be put down, again with our assistance, but at far greater cost in both blood and money.

Our first experience of the kind involved the overthrow of a governmental structure covering not a whole civilization but that part of North America held by the British King, roughly the area between Maine and Spanish Florida and between the Atlantic ocean and the Mississippi river. It was strictly our idea, and although we had very effective assistance from the French in carrying it out, after the cessation of hostilities they left us to our own devices. What was done toward replacing the demolished political structure was done according to strictly American plans.

In the first instance, we started the war and the French saw fit to join us. In the later instances others started the war and we saw fit to join them. Thus when a new governmental structure to cover a whole civilization was to be designed we were very far from having a free hand. Indeed, in 1919 Wilson did not have even his own country solidly behind him, and although in 1945 Roosevelt had much more solid support at home, he also had a much more difficult task because our late allies were prostrate.

Most literate Americans are aware that in 1776 we asserted the Right of Revolution as defined in the Declaration of Independence, but not all Americans and almost no others understand it in full. Every Fourth of July orator is eloquent on the first half of the Right, but few Americans and almost nobody else have emphasized the fact that it is the second half that gave the American revolution a distinctive character setting it apart from the French and the Russian, the other great upheavals of the last two centuries. The American Revolution alone was finished by the same people who started it.

The French Revolution, started by the Girondins, was snatched from them by the Jacobins, from whom it was snatched by Bonaparte, who converted it into a tyranny. The Russian Revolution was started by the liberal Mensheviks, was snatched from them by the Bolsheviks, and, after Lenin’s death, snatched from the Old Bolsheviks by Stalin, who converted it into a tyranny.

But the men who signed the Constitution were in many cases men who had signed the Declaration of Independence, and the others were almost all either junior officers who had served under Washington or civilian officials who had acted under the Continental Congress, that is to say, original revolutionaries.

And why not? The Right of Revolution as defined in the Declaration of Independence consists of two parts. The first reads: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends”—i.e.the inalienable rights—”it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” The second part adds without interruption, “and to institute new Government . . .in such Form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” The duty is an inseparable part of the right, neither being valid if separated from the other.

One can read the whole story on the green side of a dollar bill. The upper part of the Great Seal of the United States’ reverse carries the motto Annuit Coeptis, “He hath smiled on our undertaking,” the reference in the original being to Jupiter, the god worshiped by Aeneas. The lower part explains the undertaking with the words Novus Ordo Seclorum, “A new order of the ages.” The old order is ignored as being merely an obstruction removed to give place to the new.

That national experience, drilled into them as schoolboys, accounts for a characteristic of Americans that has puzzled Europeans and exasperated Americans less indoctrinated with the spirit of the Revolutionaries. It is the modern American’s “of course” acceptance of Woodrow Wilson’s insistence, echoed by Franklin Roosevelt, that winning the war, either that of 1914—18 or that of 1939—45, was not an end in itself, but only a process of clearing the way to the real job, which was the establishment of a Novus ordo seclorum not for this country alone, but for the whole Western world.

By the time of the second Roosevelt Europe had been forced by ghastly experience to understand what Wilson had in mind, but for us the ordeal had not been severe enough to eliminate a sweetly stupid romanticism that still permeates the minds of a formidable number of Americans—the notion that the source of our woes is a fabulously clever Devil, not mainly our own stupidity. Stupidity we can overcome, by dint of enormous labor, no doubt, but by labor, not by spells and incantations. But who can contend with the Foul Fiend except a shaman equipped with powerful spells, incantations, charms, and fetishes unknown to the common herd, which the witch-doctor alone can handle without disaster. Yet thanks to the protagonists of fear, the tireless recounters of tales of Raw-Head and Bloody-Bones continue to flourish.

Of course, it may be that this is their time. According to Toynbee the time must come to every civilization when the challenge it meets is more powerful than any response that it can muster, which, historically, has always been the beginning of the end. But while candor compels the admission that this is possible, nothing compels the admission that it is inevitable.

Americans, on the contrary, are under a very strong obligation not to make any such admission until we have exhausted every effort to apply to the new situation what our experience with the old has taught us. The obligation is imposed by the sharply different relation to the other democracies in which we found ourselves in 1945.This relation was not of our choosing; it arose from the fact that at the end of the Second World War with the whole world in chaos, the United States and Russia were the only nations left with strength enough to do anything effective about cleaning up the mess.

Russia, still completely authoritarian despite the switch from Czarist to Communist dictatorship, repudiated any responsibility for areas not occupied or controlled by the Red Army. We drew no such line, but it was quickly drawn for us by Moscow. Such borderlands as Czechoslovakia and Poland were forbidden to accept aid under the Marshall Plan, although it was offered on the same terms given to France and Great Britain. So, also, it was offered to Russia, only to be curtly refused. This naturally swung American opinion sharply to the side of those, including Sir Winston Churchill, who had been urging us to follow Kipling’s advice:

Make ye no truce with Adam-zad—the Bear that walks like a Man.

It was certainly a part, possibly the central part, of the beginning of the Cold War.

Theoretically, of course, we should have remembered that up to the time of Peter the Great Russia had been a hermit nation as far as participating in the political development of Europe was concerned and to the time of Alexander I and Napoleon had been very slightly Europeanized. It had not undergone the bruising experience that had taught Western Europe and, through Britain, the budding American republic the lesson that, in an increasingly crowded world, possession of power imposes responsibility for keeping some kind of order so that the mutually profitable exchange of goods and services throughout the world may not be totally inhibited. If we had kept that fact in mind we might have acted more realistically and effectively.

But that is water over the dam. Lost opportunities are gone forever and the only ones open to us—and therefore worth discussing—are those presenting themselves now and hereafter. Furthermore, many of these are not really open because we are entangled in a web of old superstitions and so prevented from grasping them.

This is the reality of our difficulty. Dr. Milton Eisenhower startled Marquis Childs by using, as a chapter heading in his book, “The President Is Calling,” the words: “America has the wisdom and wealth to solve its most pressing problems; it is only sufficient will that is lacking.” Mr. Childs undoubtedly would concede that in the items of sufficiency of wealth and insufficiency of will Dr. Eisenhower is right; but can wisdom exist in the absence of wit enough to distinguish reality from fantasy? The history of the United States for the past fifty years gives an answer less than nattering to our national complacency.

The Nixon episode is the most recent and most startling case in point, but that particular danger is probably over except for assorted remnants and reminders with which we shall be dealing indefinitely. Theoretically, it may recur, but not until some aspiring dictator organizes a junta less crassly stupid than Nixon’s, which is unlikely for some years.

But the removal of that danger served only to unveil a cluster of problems vastly more complicated than any mere power grab. Some are economic, some juridical, some technological, and all with important political and social implications. The question is, are there credible reasons for believing that the American people have some special qualifications for dealing with these things? If such reasons exist it is important to reveal them now, for possession of any qualifications, or the mere belief that we possess them, would go far toward supplying Dr. Eisenhower’s missing factor, the will to grapple with our problems.

I believe that we can credibly claim three. One has been mentioned. It is the fact that we have been here before, in the sense that we have overthrown an existing government and replaced it with a sounder one. This ought to enable us to view with more equanimity than any other modern nation the possibility of having to make some radical political changes. To people convinced that it is blasphemy to lay hands on anything that is old the fact that something new would obviously work better is irrelevant, but it is not so to us, or it has not been so in the past.

A second is the fact that we have had extensive experience in adjusting to a condition that to date has affected the rest of Western civilization but slightly. It is adjustment to the difference made by modern technology in the influence of time and distance on social and political operations. In communication this difference amounts to abolition of time and space, and as regards people, animals, and ponderable objects it has worked an immense reduction in the influence of those barriers. For Mr. Kissinger, London is an overnight journey from Washington, and for an Inter-continental Ballistic Missile, Moscow is twenty minutes from Montana. This has resulted in an intimacy of contact of cultures unprecedented in history.

But more than any other nation the United States has been for two hundred years the locus of a reproduction of this process on the laboratory scale. Nowhere else have so many representatives of every known culture been forced into intimate contact with so many others. One result is that Americans have perforce become very knowledgeable about knocking off knobs and protuberances and smoothing jagged edges in order that heirs of the most widely different civilizations may live together with the minimum of abrasive contacts. This expertise, very considerably developed and refined, one hopes, should be of great value to the civilization of the twenty-first century, since the combination of the population explosion and extreme mobility has subjected the former imperial powers to the melting-pot experience of this country. If our own record of adjusting has not been too encouraging, still it seems to be the best procedure available so far.

Finally, our population includes a certain proportion of men and women, probably not a majority but an impressively large minority, perhaps approximating John Adams’ one-third who favored independence in 1776, who are imbued with what can hardly be called anything but a metaphysical faith. It is best expressed by a curious remark of Woodrow Wilson when asked to comment on some badly aimed but nobly motivated outburst of the youth of his time. He called it “the effort of nature to release the generous energies of our people.”

The implications of that are staggering. It assumes, first, that there are generous energies in our people; second, that they are capable of being released; and, third, that there is a force in nature that operates toward their release. The Covenanter in Wilson of course would have identified this force as God, specifically, the Presbyterian God of the Westminster Catechism, but the modern American in him knew that this identification would be rejected by the non-Presbyterian majority of his fellow-countrymen, so he substituted “nature,” a term with no sectarian implications. Yet aside from all theological implications the gist of this utterance is its assumption of the persistence of generous energies in the American people. A good many still accept that persistence as a fact independent of sectarian dogma.

In sum, then, it is historical fact that the American people have had the experience of overthrowing one form of government and erecting a new one to replace it. It is a fact, also, that the new one has worked with spectacular success for nearly two hundred years.

It is probably a fact and it is certainly a tenable theory that Americans may have acquired some skill from their indisputable experience in dealing with the demographic jamming that technology has thrust upon the modern world. Intimate contact of diverse cultures has been part of our experience since that day in 1619 when a Dutch ship, name unknown, landed what John Rolfe described as “20.and odd Negroes” at Jamestown. Thus we should be able to realize better than any other great power how indispensable are countless adjustments to make civilized life possible under that condition.

Finally, there is evidence supporting the hypothesis that a very large number, possibly a third or more, of the American people are convinced that the highest possible achievement of statecraft is to release the generous energies of our people, this based on the faith that those energies, when actually released, are capable of achieving triumphs beyond the wildest dreams of Hammurabi, Lycurgus, Solon, or any other famed lawgiver of fact or fable.

Certainly all these are inference based on evidence that is less than conclusive. It is conceivable that from our experience in statecraft we have learned nothing, that our efforts to adjust to demographic shifts and changes have merely piled up trouble for the future, and that our theory of generous energy in Americans is doubtful, the possibility of its release more doubtful, and the assumption that if released it would go good rather than harm, preposterous.

All these doleful predictions are within the realm of the possible but the only one that reaches the level of high probability is the prediction that we are going to have plenty of trouble for the next four or five and perhaps the next twenty years. But to assume in advance that the trouble will be more than we can handle would be the equivalent of pleading nolo contendere before the case comes to trial, which may be the philosophy of Spiro Agnew but not that of Abraham Lincoln.

Fifty-five years ago Mr. Justice Holmes described our position with characteristic precision: “Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation on some prophecy based on imperfect knowledge.” That’s democracy for you, and if you can’t stand it the alternative is to go totalitarian, thereby shifting the necessity of choosing to some overlord. Whether the master you choose is fascist or Communist, the effect is the same—thereafter you will be relieved of the necessity of choosing among the possible ways of life, and the burden of choosing is intolerable to the slave mentality, for to it any tyranny is preferable to responsibility.

Toynbee—-I do not apologize for mentioning him, although I am aware that he has been demolished by some Spaniard, for Herodotus, Thucydides, Gibbon, and Mommsen have all been demolished at least once in every generation since they wrote—Toynbee presents a different hypothesis which, while doubtless flawed, as all hypotheses are at their first presentation, accounts for more of the established facts and therefore commands a livelier interest than any other of recent date. That is his theory, mentioned above, of challenge and response as the pattern of the history of civilizations.

It seems to be applicable to the history of the United States since 1945 on account of the position of leadership into which we have been thrust rather than climbed. The theory is that each nascent civilization meets successive challenges to which it makes responses whose energy exceeds that of the challenges—overcompensates, in the modern term. But eventually comes a challenge that the response cannot quite meet and that is the beginning of the end. The descent to Avernus may be steep and short, or gradual and long, but a descent it is.

The challenge facing us, that of devising a “new order of the ages” not for ourselves alone but for Western civilization, may be more than we can meet. If that is true, we are facing the beginning of the end of the experiment in self-government by free men that we launched in 1776 and that our forebears have continued with startling success for nearly two hundred years.

But consider the other half of Toynbee’s scheme. As long as a civilization meets its successive challenges with successive responses each more energetic than the challenge, that civilization proceeds from triumph to triumph along whatever road it has chosen. If, then, we can contribute largely to the erection of a stronger and finer world than the fallen Balance of Power, then this Time of Troubles means only that we have completed our apprenticeship to statecraft and are now prepared to undertake some masterwork greater than anything that we have done hitherto or that we can now imagine.

This is the choice that appeals to the mentality of the freeman. It involves labor and danger, both great, but what of that? Freedom has never been easy or safe, and democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government. But a certain number of Americans are committed to it and they have some of the qualifications necessary to preserve it. The question is, are they numerous enough and skillful enough? And the only answer to that is, God only knows.


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