Intellectuals on Trial
LET US BE HONEST WITH OURSELVES By ALAN VALENTINE, President of the University of Rochester
Delivered before the Fourth Annual University of Rochester Convocation, October 25, 1939
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 78-80.
ON November 11, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson hurriedly wrote in pencil a message to the American people. It began: "The armistice was signed this morning. Everything for which America fought has been accomplished."
Those words have a significance for us. The man who wrote them was an eminent historian, a former president of Princeton, on that day the most powerful man in the world, and above all, an intellectual. He wrote those words sincerely, yet to us they seem ironical. "Everything for which America fought has been accomplished." It is the irony of that confident statement, and the fallacy in President Wilson's intellectual process that have a lesson for other intellectuals today.
We—all of us here—may be counted as intellectuals. We who are assembled here may not think of ourselves as intellectuals, but that is what we are to millions of our fellow citizens. Beneficiaries of higher education, professional men, journalists, churchmen and businessmen, we are or should be numbered among intellectuals,—men and women to whom ideas are important, even if they have no direct bearing upon our livelihood. It is for us and a few million like us that books are being written, speeches made and propaganda prepared. It is appropriate, therefore, to consider our heritage, our situation and our collective future.
Intellectuals are influential out of all proportion to their numbers. They are the creators, the skilled disseminators and the trained evaluators of ideas. They are the authors of most of our printed words. They are the men and women who influence others' opinions, and since they are frequently in responsible positions, their words carry added influence.
History shows that their influence varies in strength. It is greatest in stable times, when men are secure and reasonable. It is least when war or insecurity brings alarm and the passions that overwhelm the voice of reason. Intellectuals are not popular then, and not always safe. They do not flourish, for example, in wars or revolutions, or even in depressions. Though they may help to start, they rarely survive such periods of strife. Their free expression of independent ideas is then restricted, not only by official censorship but also by the far more general weapon of social disapproval. Intolerance and emotionalism then ride rough-shod over the tolerance and reason which thinking men profess. Minority groups, whether of race, religion, or political creed, are in such times subject to bitter attack. When Senator LaFollette opposed our entry into the last war, a distinguished historian promptly announced that only Aaron Burr was "more ready to betray democracy for his own selfish ends." When the girl debaters of Radcliffe College upheld in 1919 the affirmative, "That recognition of labor unions by employers is essential to successful collective bargaining," the Vice-President of the United States cited their action as a dangerous manifestation of radicalism in women's colleges. In delivering a unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Holmes was realistic when he pronounced that: "When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no court could regard them as protected by any constitutionalright."
This is a clear implication that war and the American bill of rights are mutually contradictory; that war and ideal intellectual freedom cannot exist together. In national emergencies (and even in limited ones) leaders are prone to suggest, though not in so many words: "To preserve national unity we must all agree, and that means that all of you should agree with me."
It follows that men who wish to think freely must strive to maintain a peaceful, secure society, for without it their influence wanes. It follows too that intellectuals should oppose the emontionalism which submerges rational thinking. The price that intellectuals pay in times of war is so high that the support of war is rarely, if ever, in their interests. No matter who wins, they are the losers.
This is what has happened, and may happen again. National hysteria, whether in times of war or in other emergencies, lessens the influence of thinking men and crushes many of them who do not join in that hysteria. Intellectuals have not yet recovered from the retrogressions and the compromise of the great war. It is not my purpose to condemn our entry into the last war, or to castigate the part that any American played in it. In that catastrophe, thinking men were caughtbetween personal ideals and national necessity. When a nation goes to war, it makes war to win, and in the last analysis the people of that nation must cast aside any possible impediments to victory. The scruples of religion, the ideals of intellectuals, the liberties of democratic government must yield precedence to the grim necessities of war. All that civilization has painfully achieved must be sent into storage until that war is over. In that personal renunciation of objectives they hold dear, thinking men are torn and often lose their way.
That is why intellectuals suffer inward as well as outward turmoil in war time. They do not wish to discard their principles—yet they are citizens, subject to the emotions, the loyalties, the duties of citizens. In war time they must serve two masters: one the ideal state, the other the military state. The intellectual is not happy unless he can reconcile the demands of his ideal with the demands of his duty to a nation at war. Magnificent are the rationalizations with which he attempts this difficult reconciliation. Painful are the efforts of the intellectual to adjust the love of reason with the urge of duty. Most humans cannot long endure the trying indecision of this adjustment. They try to effect a spiritual compromise, and ultimately plunge with relief into the hot bath of emotional action. After having thought long and painfully, they find it a relief to think no more, to relapse into the mental "peacefulness of being at war." It is pleasant to join the majority enthusiasms and thus to lose in the majesty of the slate all individual responsibility. This I suspect is the process by which intelligent Germans have attained their intellectual Nirvana; they have yielded to their Führer all moral responsibility for thought and action. Having gone so far, the rest is easy. Hesitations, ironies, conscience, the lessons of history, are finally overcome by substituting labels for actualities, shibboleths for reason, emotion for intelligence. Let him who have never deceived himself blame the intellectuals who took this path, whether in Germany now or America in 1917, for there was no other way, save pacifism. But let us, now, foresee where circumstances may once more lead us, and avoid this dilemma, and this solution, if we can. Let us learn from the history of intellectuals in the last war.
We do not need to assume an America at war to experience their quandary. Even in times of nominal peace, nations indulge in those emotional orgies from which reasonable people shrink. The past decade has not been free from them, and American society seems to move daily nearer to intolerance, recrimination, and emotional decisions. Not one of us will remain wholly free from those influences, but let us escape them as much as we can. If thinking men cannot maintain some balance in times of stress, who will stop us from going the way of Germany?
Let us bring the picture closer home. Colleges and universities are the strongholds of intellectuals; in them reason is cultivated, in them wisdom is the goal. Do their ideals flourish when national passions rise high? We know what happened in 1917; colleges became more like training camps than homes of liberal culture. Colleges offered compulsory courses in War Aims, in which critical analysis was hardly the major objective. Academic freedom did not flower, and students as well as professors learned the practical wisdom of conformity. Thus were the colleges, in the popular terminology of that day, "geared to war service," and to "the support of our national ideals." This was natural, perhaps inevitable, certainly logical, in a nation at war. But from the point of view of higher education (the objectives of which are perhaps as desirable as those of any war), our colleges in 1917 were hardly moving toward their avowed goal. Will this happen again? As reasonable beings we detestthe prospect. For we know that intellectuals will once again be on trial. First, they will be on outward trial by public opinion—not before a judge and jury of their peers, but before the bar of an excited and unsympathetic national emotionalism, from whose unbalanced judgment there will be no appeal.
There is little we can do to defend ourselves when that time comes, but much we can do now to prevent its coming. If we must be summoned before such a court, I hope that this time those who are called intellectuals will maintain in unison their creed of reason in liberty, and in liberty, and in unison suffer if they must the penalties of their insistence upon truth and tolerance.
Second, they will also go on trial before the bar of their own ideals. Can the followers of truth and reason still follow truth and reason even while they meet their obligations as citizens of a nation at war? Can they also make their fellow citizens recognize truth and reason? This is the real test that faces intellectuals. If they fail it, what claim have they upon the future support of a society which, in its heart of hearts, expects its educated men to lead it to higher levels? We will be on trial before ourselves—before the standards of our own making, and if we find ourselves guilty the greatest penalty will be the loss of our own self-respect.
Earlier intellectuals in earlier wars did not find it easy to follow truth and reason. Our own minds will formulate many subtle devices to lead us from them. The art of thinking subtly is often accompanied by the art of thinking wishfully. Skilled thinkers can always find good reasons to follow where their emotions lead. They will be tempted to abandon the trying task of realizing democracy at home, for the more exciting adventure of urging it upon someone else. They will be tempted by the enticing offer of a leading part on the world stage; they will find it hard to resist the itch to share in a great experience which the rest of the world is having. Intellectuals can find, if they will, cogent reasons, clothed in nobility, for making war and for sharing its dangers. Perhaps those reasons will be valid, too. They seemed valid in 1917, and when the armistice came, Mr. Wilson was not alone in believing we have gained our objectives. Before the intellectuals of 1939 approve and share a similar creed, I hope they will remember how logical seemed their case, how certain seemed their gain, how honest seemed their soul-searchings to the intellectuals of 1917.
For as we look back, with the knowledge of today, at the intellectuals of the last war, we find in their story ample warning. In 1914 American intellectuals recoiled from the doctrines of Bernhardi and Nietzsche, just as we react from the doctrines of Hitler today. But by 1917 they too had found noble and logical reasons for turning this nation into a war machine worthy of Bernhardi's finest dream. In 1914 American intellectuals saw no good in war, but by 1917 some of them thought they had found in military life the compensations of a sterner moral fibre and a spiritual regeneration. In 1914 American intellectuals were shocked by the celerity with which German intellectuals accepted Germany's military program. They might also have been shocked by the intellectuals of England, who not only accepted but promulgated the atrocity stories we now know were propaganda. But by 1917 many American intellectuals were marching shoulder to shoulder down that same road.
Whether those intellectuals were right or wrong in 1917, there is irony in the story of their intellectual volte-face. Perhaps in our intellectual history, 1941 will be to 1939 what 1917 was to 1914. But the cost of their decision was heavy then, and worth our consideration now. The war they approved for democracy retarded the improvement of our own democracy for twenty years at least; the intellectualswho approved that war strengthened the hands of those very elements in American life of which intellectuals had been most critical. Perhaps the gain was worth the cost, but in that cost must be included the Ku Klux Klan, the Red hunts of Mitchell Palmer, and the disillusioned cynicism that tolerated bootlegging and the Tea Pot Dome.
But these are merely items which today's thinking people will place in the asset or debit columns if they have to strike a trial balance for or against another war. Perhaps they will find that the gain of another war will outweigh the loss. We shall then have, once again, intellectuals in armor, and they will see to it that the armor they wear is bright with idealism.
Let us be honest with ourselves. Probably not one of us in this theatre really wants to go to war. Few if any want our nation ever to be at war again. We detest the idea of war, though the speculation of the past few months has made our participation in war seem a little less unthinkable than it did two years ago. In our dislike of war we are as one. But we are less unanimous in agreeing upon the exact point, if any, at which America should resort to arms. Hating war, only four considerations would induce us to join it: a conception of national interest, a sense of righteousness or moral obligation, a dislike of certain ideologies, or a friendship with certain other nations. The determination of each of these possible forces is an intellectual process. Our interests, our obligations, our ideals in each of them cannot be defined by the man in the street, they can and will be defined by intellectuals, whose collective judgment and propaganda the man in the street will follow. American intellectuals, collectively, can bring America into war; American intellectuals, collectively, can keep America out of war. This is a grave responsibility; too grave to justify intellectuals in indulging themselves in playful conversational cerebrations; too grave to justify them in making public their thoughts without searching every sentence for evidence of inaccuracy, prejudice or emotional thinking.
But since we are reasonable and tolerant people, let us do our best to retain as much reason and tolerance as we can, even under the demands of war, if war comes. And by all means let us not, while peace still lasts, anticipate the unreason and intolerance that war brings. I present some reports of American intellectuals in a previous crisis. These are gleaned from a single issue of the New York Times of April 2, 1917, when America had not yet declared war, and when the democratic principles of free speech, open discussion and tolerance were still the law and tradition of the land.
First, the intellectuals of society. On that date, the Times published a statement from the Women's Preparedness Committee of the National Federation. It was signed by many women whose names were and are well known and esteemed in this Commonwealth. That statement ended: "Just as there is the physical defective and the moral defective . . . we find now the patriotic defective, for such is the pacifist. The road from pacifism to disloyalty and pro-Germanism is a short one. At one end lies cowardice and at the other treason. A call of the pacifist to resist resistance is a call to betray our country to the Teutonic enemy."
Second, the intellectuals of religion. The Times of the same day carries this news report:
"Bitter condemnation of pacifists, vigorous attacks on advocates of unpreparedness and stern denunciation of 'those who want to make war gently' characterized many of the sermons in New York's churches yesterday."
Not all leaders of religious thought took this position. The Rev. Dr. John Haynes Holmes announced his opposition to America's entry into the war, and a movement to force hisresignation promptly began. A trustee of his church, defended the cause of free speech in these significant words (I quote the Times): "We will not ask his resignation, we will just let him hold his ideals. We will need them after the war!"
Third, the intellectuals of higher education. The Times of the same day reports at some length the breaking up of a peace meeting in Baltimore by a fight in which several citizens were severely injured. Dr. David Starr Jordan, distinguished scientist and then Chancellor-emeritus of Leland Stanford University, was speaking in an orderly meeting, advocating America's abstention from war. A crowd (I quote the Times) "composed of businessmen, professors of schools and colleges in the city, and students from the same, made a sally through a cordon of police," and broke up the meeting. The Times further reports: "In the front ranks (of the attackers)
were Professor Robert W. ------, and Professor JohnH.------, of Johns Hopkins University and other members of the faculties of Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland, Baltimore City College, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and Mt. St. Joseph's College."
Remember that these things were said and done in peace time, when war was not yet a national policy, and while Congress and the people were openly debating the question of war. I do not cite them as an argument for pacifism or a defense of pacifists. I am speaking of intellectuals on trial, for these things were all said and done by intellectuals. From them you will draw your own conclusions; I will say only that the spirit and tone of these intellectuals in a democracy seems to me something short of the ideal.
How can intellectuals of 1940 avoid the pitfalls of 1917? No individual can answer that question for any other. I do not try to answer it for you. But certainly we can escape the quandaries of the intellectual in a world of unreason by helping to prevent our nation from sharing that unreason. Intellectuals can do much to prevent the hysteria and intolerance that come with war and come even with the fear of war. We can remember, for example, that no modern war is a holy crusade unless intellectuals make it one. We can remember that in peace as in war the traditional enemy of intellectuals is war itself, and the unreason that war creates. There is an affirmative program, too. Intellectuals, whether in universities or not, can study and clarify the ideals and aspirations of American democracy, and show more clearly how those ideals may be realized. They can illuminate the root causes of American poverty and unemployment, and help to remove them, thereby making our nation stronger whether for peace or for war. They can analyze and disclose the old mystical ideas and emotions that clog our thinking, and they can attack more vigorously the problem of how America can set her own spiritual home in order. Still more immediately, they can determine whether our nation cannot apply its vast neutral power both to end this war and to remove its causes, without the use of the malevolent and degrading techniques of war.
Perhaps we can turn our hatred of brutality and our aversion of war into a heightened energy and enthusiasm in support of those ideals that make for life amid a world of death. Education with its interpretation of human life is one of those ideals. Those who hate war can be busy making the case against war still stronger. As they see old ideals crumble, they will be busy forging new ones. As they see other minds harden, they will beware mental atrophy in themselves. They will try to see that this era is not, like the one before it, spiritually futile. If these things can be done, or even gloriously attempted, intellectuals can justify their faith and themselves. If these things are not attempted, society may rightly question the right of intellectuals, and of their universities, to survive. In these terms are intellectuals on trial.