What Has Happened to the American Dream?
Atlantic Monthly, April 1961
On January 4, 1961, the New York Herald Tribune carried on page 9, subordinated in space to a story of a castle for sale for $12 million, a news item from Russia. It described the new propaganda drive which is in line with the world Communist manifesto recently published. This manifesto declared "the United States is the bulwark of world reaction and the enemy of all the peoples on the globe."
Writers, lecturers, and agitators are being trained in special schools to spread this propaganda wherever they can. How many Americans read that news item? How many of them glanced at it and shrugged or laughed and dismissed it from their minds? How many of them were aware of the slow and relentless effect of Soviet propaganda among the uncommitted nations of the world and its effect on our standing among many peoples? I don't know, but I am sure that there were not enough. Not nearly enough. We are facing the greatest challenge our way of life has ever had to meet without any clear understanding of the facts.
There is in most people, at most times, a proneness to give more credence to pleasant news than to unpleasant, to hope that, somehow or other, things "will come out all right." But this was not the frame of mind that created the United States and made it not only a great nation but a symbol of the way of life that became the hope of the world. One can fight a danger only when one is armed with solid facts and spurred on by an unwavering faith and determination.
On my first visit to Russia I had watched the training of small babies. On my second trip, I studied the older children, their conditioning, their discipline, their docility, their complete absorption in the Communist system. Every child learns his Marxism backwards and forwards. By the time he leaves school, he is prepared to take not only his skills but his political ideas with him, wherever he may be sent, to whatever part of the world.
Wherever I went in Russia I found no personal hostility. But there was an unshaken conviction that the United States not only threatens but actually desires and seeks war. Here we are, equipped with the best communications in the world, and yet we have not learned how to use them in a way that can reach people.
Today, we are one of the oldest governments in existence; ours has been the position for leadership, for setting the pattern for behavior. And yet we are supinely putting ourselves in the position of leaving the leadership to the Russians, of following their ideas rather than our own. For instance, when the Russians set up a restriction on what visitors to the country may be allowed to see, we promptly do the same thing here, in retaliation. Whenever we behave in this manner, we are copying he methods of dictatorships and making a hollow boast of our claim that this country loves freedom for all. We owe it to ourselves and to the world, to our own dignity and self-respect, to set our own standards of behavior, regardless of what other nations do.
By practicing what we preach, putting democracy to work up to the very hilt, showing the world that our way of life has the most to offer the men and women and children of all countries, we may regain our lost leadership. Against those mindless millions we can oppose the unleashed strength of free men, for only in freedom can a man function completely.
When I visited Morocco in 1958 I had my first opportunity to see for myself the difficulties that arise in the transition stage between colonialism and independence. The troubles that Morocco was encountering were, it seemed to me, fairly typical of the basic difficulties of all young nations in transition.
As the French withdrew from Morocco, taking their nationals along, the villages found themselves stripped of teachers and doctors. Countless villages were without a single person trained to give medical assistance. The Moroccans themselves were not yet prepared to replace the doctors, the teachers, the civil service employees with their own men. It may be decades before they are ready to do so. Where, then, are the necessary people to come from? I feel that in that answer lies the key, or one of the major keys, to the future.
The great problems seem to be that, while people may be able to fight successfully for freedom, they may not yet be prepared to set up a stable and functioning independent government. The French pulled out, but the Moroccans had no one to replace them. They were totally unprepared for self-government. They were, in fact, much worse off than they had been a year before.
Today, this is happening again, in the Congo with the withdrawal of the Belgians. The time for colonization has gone forever, but some intermediate transition system is essential if chaos is not to follow.
A recent Afro-Asian resolution in the United Nations reveals the difficulty of the position by these words: "Inadequacy of political, economic, social or cultural preparedness" shall not serve as a pretext for denying independence. Now, it is certainly true that such a pretext has often been used in denying the right of self-determination. But it is equally true that without some basic qualifications, self-determination will lead to self-destruction.
In the Near East one finds the fluctuating and uncertain position of young countries which are in transition from the ways of the past to those of the future, with no certain path to tread and with the ultimate goal still obscure. That is becoming the situation of an increasing number of infant nations as they shake off the fetters of colonialism, of the ancient laws and customs, and grope for their own place in the sun. And what that goal is to be, what kind of place they are to occupy, what political philosophy they will choose in the long run will depend in great part on how we, in this country, prepare to meet the challenge.
Is what we are doing good enough? Have the changes that have revealed themselves in recent years, particularly in Africa and the Near East and the Latin American countries, shown overwhelming evidence that we are doing an intelligent job, an adequate job? I am afraid not. Genuinely afraid.
To me, the democratic system represents man's best and brightest hope of self-fulfillment, of a life rich in promise and free from fear; the one hope, perhaps, for the complete development of the whole man. But I know, and learn more clearly every day, that we cannot keep our system strong and free by neglect, by taking it for granted, by giving it our second-best attention. We must be prepared, like the suitor in The Merchant of Venice-and, I might point out, the successful suitor-to give and hazard all we have.
Man cannot live without hope. If it is not engendered by his own convictions and desires, it can easily be fired from without, and by the most meretricious and empty of promises. What I learned on these trips around the world has been much on my mind. Why, I wondered, were we not more successful in helping the young nations and those in transition to become established along democratic lines? Why was it that the Russians were doing so much better? The answer can be oversimplified, and an oversimplification is false and misleading. But part of the answer, and I think a major part, is that Russia has trained its young people to go out into the world, to carry their services and skills to backward and underdeveloped countries, to replace the missing doctors and teachers, the scientists and technicians; above all, to fill the vacant civil service jobs, prepared not only by training for the job itself, but by learning the language, by a complete briefing in the customs, habits, traditions and trend of thought of the people, to understand them and deal with them. Where the young Russians go, of course, they take with them their Marxist training, thinking, and system.
And our young Americans? Are they being prepared to take their faith in democracy to the world along with their skills? Are they learning the language and the customs and the history of these new peoples? Do they understand how to deal with them, not according to their own ideas but according to the ideas of the people they must learn to know if they are to reach them at all? Have they acquired an ability to live and work among peoples of different religion and race and color, without arrogance and without prejudice?
Here, I believe, we have fallen down badly. In the last few years I have grasped at every opportunity to meet with the young, to talk with college students, to bring home as strongly as I can to even young children in the lower grades our responsibility for each other, our need to understand and respect each other. The future will be determined by the young, and there is no more essential task today, it seems to me, than to bring before them once more, in all its brightness, in all its splendor and beauty, the American dream, lest we let it fade, too concerned with the ways of earning a living or impressing our neighbors or getting ahead or finding bigger and more potent ways of destroying the world and all that is in it.
No single individual, of course, and no single group has an exclusive claim to the American dream. But we have all, I think, a single vision of what it is, not merely as a hope and an aspiration, but as a way of life, which we can come ever closer to attaining in its ideal form if we keep shining and unsullied our purpose and our belief in its essential value.
That we have sometimes given our friends and our enemies abroad a shoddy impression of the dream cannot be denied, much as we would like to deny it. The Ugly American, impressive as it was, struck me as being exaggerated. True, one of the first American ambassadors I ever met in an Eastern country was appallingly like a character in the novel. There are doubtless many others, too many others; men who accept-and seek-the position of representative of their government abroad, with no real interest or respect for the country they go to, and no real interest or respect for the image of their own country which they present to other people.
Such men buy their positions by gifts of money to their party or seek them because of the glamorous social life they may lead in exotic places.
"Oh, you must go there. You'll have a wonderful time. And the polo is topnotch."
They often do not know the language of the country; they are not familiar with its government or its officials; they are not interested in its customs, or its point of view.
The Russians, and I say it with shame, do much better. They are trained in the language, history, customs, and ways of life of a country before they go to it. They do not confine themselves to official entertaining but make a point of meeting and knowing and establishing friendly relations with people of all sorts, in every class of society, in every part of the country.
When we look at the picture of Russian greed in swallowing one satellite nation after another and contrast it with the picture of American generosity in giving food, clothing, supplies, technical and financial assistance, without the ulterior motive of acquiring new territory, it is stupid and tragic waste that the use of incompetent representatives should undo so much useful work, so great an expense, so much in the way of materials of every kind.
Of course, what the Russians have accomplished in training their young people for important posts in the underdeveloped countries-which, I must repeat, may affect the future course of these countries-has been done by compulsion. That's the rub. For what we must do is to achieve the same results on a voluntary basis. We do not say to our young people: "You must go here and take such a job." But we can show them that where we fail, the Russians will win, by default. We can show them the importance of acquiring the kind of training that will make them useful and honorable representatives of their country wherever they may go abroad.
Perhaps the new frontier today is something more than the new revolution in textiles and methods and speed and goods. It is the frontier of men's minds. But we cannot cast an enduring light on other men's minds unless the light in our own minds burns with a hard, unquenchable flame.
One form of communication we have failed in abjectly: that is in the teaching of languages. Most school children have several years of inadequate teaching in one language or another. I say inadequate because the study of a language, after all, is inadequate if one cannot learn to read and write it, to speak and to understand it. During the last war, the government found a simplified and most effective method of teaching such difficult languages as Japanese and Chinese to American GIs. In a matter of weeks they had mastered more of the language than formerly they would have acquired in the same number of years. And yet in our schools the old cumbersome, unproductive methods are still used.
It seems to me so obvious that it should not need to be said that we must increase and improve the teaching of languages to our young people, who will otherwise find themselves crippled and sorely handicapped in dealing with people of foreign races and different cultures.
These are things our children should be told. These are the conditions they are going to have to meet. They ought to be made to understand exactly what competition they will encounter, why they must meet it, how they can meet it best. Yet I rarely find, in talking with them, that they have been given the slightest inkling of the meaning of the Soviet infiltration of other countries, or that the future the Soviets are helping to build is the one with which they will have to contend. I rarely find that anyone has suggested that our own young people should have any preparation whatsoever to cope with the problems that are impending.
That is why, in the course of the past several years, I have fitted into my schedule, whenever I could, occasions to talk with the young. Sometimes they come up to Hyde Park by the busload to ask questions or to discuss problems. Sometimes I talk at their schools or colleges.
The other night, three boys from Harvard, one of them my grandson, came to see me. The head of the temporary government of Tanganyika had requested that some American students be sent there to teach English to their students, so that when the latter came to America to study they would be able to understand and communicate without difficulty. The young American students were also to participate in work projects and live in the native villages, where they could study conditions.
Thirty Americans, as a pilot project, were needed, and the cost for each was estimated at $1500. There was, I am happy to say, no problem in getting recruits. The difficulty came in raising money. The big foundations turned them down, whether because the project seemed unimportant, whether because of the youth of the people involved, or whether because they had failed to draw up a sufficiently complete, telling, and comprehensive prospectus of their plans, I do not know.
I was greatly interested, for it is out of such undertakings that bridges of understanding are built. I urged them to draw up the clearest possible statement of their plan and then to ask for scholarships. Certainly there must be thirty people willing to finance one scholarship each, in order to establish bonds of friendship and cooperation with a young nation.
Of course, there are great numbers of American college students with little information about and even less interest in the world in which they live. They are absorbed in their own concerns, in the social activities and the sports of their colleges, or in planning for their future careers. All this is natural enough. The trouble is that, on the whole, college students in some other countries start much earlier to relate themselves to their world and to become informed about the conditions which they must learn to meet in life. What can we do to prepare young people to carry the American dream to the world in the best possible way? What I would like to say is this:
Today, our government and the governments of most of the world are primarily concerned-obsessed-by one idea: defense. But what is real defense, and how is it obtained? A certain amount of military defense is necessary. But there comes a point where you must consider what can be done on an economic and cultural basis.
It seems to me that, in terms of atomic warfare, we should henceforth have a small professional army of men who have voluntarily chosen this profession as an obligation to their country. But what then? What about the hundreds of thousands of young people who leave school every year, either from high school or college? Are they, from now on, to have no participation in contributing to the welfare of their country?
Far from it. As matters stand now, we draft young men into service, train them until they are useful, and then let them go. This seems to me monstrous waste.
It is my own personal conviction that every young person should be given some basic military training that might, eventually, be useful to his country. This could easily be handled either in school or at college. Instead of calling up all young men for compulsory military service, why should it not be possible to offer a counterproposal along these lines:
If you do not want to spend two years of compulsory military training, here is an alternative which is open to you. Whether you finish college or high school, you may decide what country you would like to spend two years in. You will be given two years of basic training, either during school hours or in the evenings. If you want to go, say, to Africa or one of the underdeveloped countries, you will, from the age of fifteen or seventeen, be taught the language, the history, the geography, the economic background of the country. You will be prepared to take with you a skill, or be trained for the most crying need in many transition nations-to fill the civil service jobs that Russia is now so rapidly filling. Or, if you are preparing for a profession, you may make use of that. New industries are needed in these countries; there are technical needs in almost all areas. The economy has to be bolstered in countless ways. New techniques are required in agriculture. And nearly all of these countries need teachers badly.
For people in young nations, which are still in a transition stage and setting up governments, such a course of action on our part could be more valuable than a large standing army or economic aid, particularly when in the new country there is no one capable of administering the aid effectively. Obviously, like anything else, this new concept cannot be carried out well without preparation and the clear thinking out of economic problems, based on comprehensive knowledge of the conditions of the country.
If we could achieve-and why not?-a cooperation between universities and government, we might be able to equip some of our young people to take up the slack in underdeveloped countries and to bring our skills and our attitudes and our principles to them as free men.
These two-year volunteers could be doctors, engineers, teachers, scientists, mechanics, and administrators. It is possible that a system of scholarships might be worked out, which would enable us to use some of our young talent and ability in helping young countries get established. In such cases, there should be some sort of guarantee, some sort of facilities put at the use of these people when they return to their own country, to enable them to get jobs at home. This service, of course, could be in lieu of military service, but, it seems to me, it would be far more valuable.
The present long period of basic military training, which removes our young men from civilian life for two years and then returns them to it, seems to me a wasteful and pointless procedure. Certainly it could be made possible for them to have much of this basic military training that is required while they are in school. But military service, in an atomic, specialized age, should, like other professions, be on a voluntary basis and become a chosen career.
I have said that the Russians have accomplished by compulsion what we must accomplish voluntarily. But there is one element of this Russian training that is of paramount importance. They have taught their young to feel that they are needed, that they are important to the welfare of their country. I think that one of the strongest qualities in every human being is a need to feel needed, to feel important. Too often, our own youngsters do not feel that they are really essential to their country, or to the scheme of things. We have not had enough imagination to show them how very much we need every one of them to make us the kind of country that we can be.
If many of our young people have lost the excitement of the early settlers, who had a country to explore and develop, it is because no one remembers to tell them that the world has never been so challenging, so exciting; the fields of adventure and new fields to conquer have never been so limitless. There is still unfinished business at home, but there is the most tremendous adventure in bringing the peoples of the world to an understanding of the American dream. In this attempt to understand and to give a new concept of the relationships of mankind, there is open to our youngsters an infinite field of exciting adventure, where the heart and the mind and the spirit can all be engaged.
Perhaps the older generation is often to blame with its cautious warning: "Take a job that will give you security, not adventure." But I say to the young: "Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, and imaginatively; unless you can choose a challenge instead of a competence."