Skip to main content

We Took Our Eye Off the Ball

ISSUE:  Autumn 1975

A sense of manifest destiny—a shared feeling that we knew where America was going and what it was supposed to mean to a watching world—held this nation together for 187 years and provided the social energy to develop a continent and to become the citadel of business enterprise, the opportunity culture, the polity of rapid and mostly peaceful change. A special sense of mission had been part of our popular morale and our political leaders’ rhetoric ever since John Winthrop observed in 1630 that, because the colony of Massachusetts would be “as a city upon a hill”, she would have to conduct herself under the scrutiny of the world, according to the highest ideals.

But beginning about a dozen years ago a succession of traumatic experiences, seeming denials of what Americans thought they meant to do and to be, has greatly weakened this sense of destiny.

The most searing and persistent of these traumas was, of course, Vietnam, our first unwinnable war. (Historians may argue that we didn’t do all that well in the War of 1812, but our ancestors evidently brushed by that disappointment without much psychic damage.) That the debacle in Vietnam was ultimately the consequence of our own restraint—the fact that the use of our most damaging weapons was never seriously considered—did not cushion the blow to U. S. self-esteem. None of our allies thought that whatever commitment we were fulfilling required us to hang in there as long as we did, but that didn’t comfort us much either. The fact remained that our can-do nation had set out to do something —and the discovery that it couldn’t be done was revealed on prime-time television over an embarrassing span of several years.

The ultimate failure in Southeast Asia by itself might have produced an orgy of national self-doubt—as the “loss of China” had done a generation before. But in the 60’s and early 70’s, Vietnam was mixed in our consciousness with three political assassinations, an unprecedented White House scandal, the quite sudden sense of being unsafe on familiar city streets, the collapse of the dollar as the world’s key currency, the visible damage of industrial growth to the environment, the new fusion of recession and inflation, sudden shortages of food and oil, and the frustrations of global politics in a disorderly world. For the first time in our history —as told by our history books, at least—it seemed that the strength and reach of American power, far from spreading our traditional values overseas, did not even ensure their protection at home.

One consequence is that Americans are apparently coming to believe that the problems are too big to be handled by ordinary mortals, which they suspect their political and executive leaders to be. That mood in some societies has produced a turn toward men on horseback-—usually updated by the use of armored cars. But in the nations such as ours, where people have gained the habit of thinking for themselves, the wide-angle frustration has some chance of producing a thoughtful introspection. Not long ago “The New York Times” interviewed a J. C. Penney executive in Titusville, Florida about his Congressman. In other times, such a man might have relieved his spleen by unloading on Congress or the President or at least a local politician. Not this year. “It’s not his fault,” said the executive. “It’s everybody’s fault. We took our eye off the ball.”

One way to get our eye back on the ball is to think hard about what government is for. One high official who resigned from a White House job, early in the first Nixon Administration, complained afterwards that he had never sat in a meeting in which the question under discussion was “Why?”

Why is the United States of America? What are we trying, through our government, to be and to do? Surely a central theme of our national experience is that incandescent phrase from the Declaration of Independence, that all men —they didn’t mean women too, but we do—are born equal, with “unalienable” and equitable rights.

And the most durable American idea about our institutions is that equity can only be assured by checks and balances that prevent any one person or group from gaining too much yardage at the expense of others.


Five kinds of social fairness are overdue for attention in our Federal system.

Equity between and among individuals has been the subject of much lip service in the courts and schools of law. Procedures in courts are supposed to reflect “equal justice under law”—and do increasingly do so now as the non white and the poor are beginning to be better represented in legal cases. We are still primitive, however, in our efforts to express in law and practice the rights of individuals to the use of what they can only own and control in common—clean air and water, safe streets, uncluttered living space, honest dealings with one another—and the right to a minimum standard of privacy in the age of bugs and computerized dossiers.

Equity between individuals and organizations has long been unbalanced; civilization has “advanced” by favoring organizations, by treating them as people—and thus relieving the real-life men and women who make the organizations’ decisions of their personal liability for their actions. The doctrine of a corporation as a person, born in an act of public incorporation which seems to have less and less to do with ensuring public responsibility, has to be high on any list of obsolescent clauses in the social contract.

Equity between private and public organizations was unbalanced for too long in favor of private organizations performing public tasks without public representation or public review. From time to time, some scandal or outrage would produce a Public Utility Holding Company Act or a Securities and Exchange Commission. But this kind of adhockery is no match for the sensitive and important issues involved, for example, in the current deadlock of environmental and energy-production interests. The balance has now been redressed somewhat by a vigorous private environmental movement and the growth of public-interest law firms. Now there is a problem of ensuring the public responsibility of private citizens who presume to speak for the public as a whole; the growing costs of openness are threatening to swallow up its benefits.

Equity between levels of government has been compromised by the tendency to ask Washington to take over any task that was not being efficiently handled by the states or cities. But I have a strong hunch that a growing proportion of the public business is now going to have to leak out of the national level of government—some of it into international institutions (of this, more in a moment) and a great deal of it into regional, state and municipal governments.

It was sad that the sound rethinking of practical federalism which produced the notion of revenue-sharing was distorted by the effort to use it as a disguise for budget-cutting in social programs—and sad, too, that the Presidential leadership required to make this good idea also popular was drowned in its own corruptive reach for power. Let’s get our eye back on that ball, too: the idea of collecting revenues at the Federal level and spending them in more decentralized ways is worth a better break in a different political climate.

Equity between the separable branches of government has been increasingly out of kilter. The claim of “national security” placed most of Congress and the courts outside the charmed circle of those who “need to know” executive secrets. And on a widening range of subject-matter, especially in foreign relations and military affairs, the “séparation of powers” has come to mean separating Congress from the power to make policy.

The new Congressional budget setup is a good first step in reversing the flow of power. Other such steps should follow in quick succession, before the lessons of Watergate are mellowed by the passage of time and the dimming of memories. For example:

  • The claim of executive privilege, buttressed as it is by a widespread system of security classification, should be defined more specifically and interpreted more narrowly.
  • The White House staff should be defined and established by statute and its members made accountable “in another place” (Capitol Hill and the courts) for their actions, as distinct from their advice to the President.
  • The Comptroller General should be put into business to act, as an agent of Congress, with the full range of necessary powers such as subpoena-supported inquiry and prosecution of executive agents in the courts.
  • The Supreme Court should be encouraged—or if necessary enabled—to interpret the law in timely fashion through advisory opinions.


Building a Federal system in which none of its parts gets too far offside would be hard enough if the United States could work out its destiny in peace and isolation. But a newly perceived need to make our Federalism work for people, and not against them, comes just when most of the major destiny decisions, affecting the life and health and future of every American, can only be arrived at by a complex process of planet-wide bargaining.

So a sixth kind of equity our Federal system has to seek involves all those other people who aren’t Americans and don’t want to be, but who also have basic needs and are increasingly insisting on being treated fairly according to their concepts of equity. The most important ball to keep in view is the biosphere.

Each of us has to face it now:

Present trends in population growth, urban in-migration, inflation, unemployment, food production and distribution, energy supply and demand, pollution of the air and of inland and oceanic waters, military technology, restrictive ideologies and inward-looking nationalisms, all taken together, are clearly adverse to the self-fulfillment of nearly all human beings, and to the survival of a very large minority of the human race. These problems are so interrelated that action on any of them requires thinking about all of them.

Even if commenced now or soon, the reversal or control of these trends will require enormous changes in attitudes and styles of living, and will also require a generation of time— say, the rest of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, shortages and the desperation and rivalries they intensify will provide acute conflicts. The arms available for use in these conflicts, which are not only conventional and exotic military weapons but also economic and monetary and psychological and biological and meteorological weapons, will no longer be available to an oligopoly of a few so-called “powers”.

Somewhere near the center of these multiple conflicts will be, as always, the ancient confrontation between rich and poor. Somewhere near the center of a strategy for survival and beyond will be planet-sized bargains that promise to define and provide basic human needs and also promise to keep advanced societies from advancing past prudent limits in using scarce resources—to protect the only biosphere we have.


One thing is certain about the global politics of the future : the United States of America will be there. The drama of world politics keeps changing—Korea, Vietnam, Sinai; oil, food, money—but the United States of America is on stage in each act. In the political bazaar where the planetary bargains are struck, Americans will be found bargaining in every boutique. Moreover, there is a new condition of international order—not just faraway negotiators but whole populations are part of the scene. The collective behavior of individual Americans may indeed largely determine whether the environment’s “outer limits” are irreversibly breached and whether “minimum human needs” are met worldwide.

No one who sat in line at a filling station in the winter of 1974 can doubt the intimate interconnection between faraway causes and highly personal effects. What is in doubt is the willingness of Americans to adjust their personal habits for faraway reasons—we have done so on a national scale only in wartime.

We can tell that our willingness is in doubt because so many American political leaders still calculate that we are not prepared to do what they say in speeches needs to be done. They don’t think we are yet willing to conserve fuel, limit our appetities, revise our economic expectations, or care enough about starving foreigners to rescue them. (Other nations’ leaders similarity doubt their people’s capacity to cope: the government of India is still reluctant to concede that food supply and population growth are disastrously out of balance. )

Coping with interdependence begins with wide public understanding of the need for adjustments in practices and policies we Americans have long regarded as essentially private, personal decisions—how much to buy, what to eat, how fast and far to drive, how many children to have, whether to pollute, what to produce and sell, how hard to work, what to aspire to.

Our capacity to rise to the occasion is partly a function of education—what we learn about the realities of interdependence in school and college, from the media and from each other. It is also partly a function of leadership: Americans were vaguely aware in 1947 that things were dangerously awry in postwar Europe, but it took a stunning act of leadership, the Marshall Plan, to convert that general knowledge into a 1948 plan to do something decisive about European recovery.

Today the prospects for mankind cannot be transformed merely by the efforts and enactments of political leaders. The complexity of our predicament is such that no person or small group can be effectively in charge, so all of us find ourselves partly in charge. The new requirement is for whole populations to develop the personal sense of direction, the world outlook, the feeling of individual responsibility for the collective outcome, which only a few leaders, educated in elite institutions, used to need.

Is it unrealistic to suppose that millions of Americans can change their minds about growth, about diet, about energy use, about family size, about productivity, about the very purpose of life and work?

Of course it isn’t. Consider the rapidity with which we are all becoming aware of the new limits—an “upper limit” to warfare which the weapons of frightfulness have brought about, an “outer limit” to the physical capacity of our globe to sustain human life and a potential “time limit” on the very existence of the human race : we are the first generation which knows that it is literally possible for our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren not to be there at all.

We can change our collective minds in a hurry, it seems, when we know we need to. Who would have thought, in the 1950’s, that attitudes toward population growth would bring the United States below replacement fertility rates by the mid-70’s? Who would have predicted the charisma of the environmental movement? Who would have believed that a war could be stopped by a decision, starting at the grassroots, that it just didn’t any longer make sense?

Yet these rapid changes in personal philosophy and social action have come about in a decade or two, often under pressure from the young, without much help from our major public and private institutions—national or local governments, corporations, trade unions, professional societies, churches, schools, and colleges. American higher education, for example, has only recently been discovering the relevance to general education of family planning, the assessment of environmental impacts, the systematic analysis of conflict. How much faster could we adjust if colleges and universities and other “leading institutions” were leading, rather than following, their students in responding to the imperative of interdependence ?

So the capacity to cope with interdependence is there, in our impressively adaptable human nature. But it has to be energized—in the United States and in other nations—by a new kind of leadership. The best of the leaders that emerge among us in the next few years will be those who understand that narrow nationalism can be popular at the same time that it is inoperative, that the humanistic management of interdependence is to the next phase of American foreign policy.

Charlie Brown’s dictum applies: “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” And the United States of America still has the world’s greatest potential—if we keep our eye on the ball.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading