Termites in America


By STANLEY HIGH, Lecturer, Editor, Author and Radio Commentator

Delivered before the New York Herald Tribune Forum, October 26, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 120-122

AS you know, there is a slightly scientific side to my subject this afternoon. Termites is a word of long and good standing among the entomologists. It is only recently that the social scientists—and the makers of programs like this—have appropriated it. In preparation for today, therefore, I did a little digging on the scientific side. I wanted to find out whether there was any good reason for this appropriation. I found that there is a very good reason. What the Herald Tribune Forum thinks of as a termite is exactly what entomology says a termite is. I have that on the authority of the Encyclopedia Britannica. "Termites," says the Britannica, "are of very primitive structure, being closely allied to cockroaches."

That is very helpful. It indicates that the invertebrates in question are the same animal whether they come out of the parlor wall or the kitchen sink; whether, that is, the company they keep is in the upper brackets or the lower brackets; whether what they hide behind is organized capital or organized labor, the Social Register, the government or the church. They're all of one breed. They all need the same treatment. Insecticide is as efficacious for the body politic as for the body domestic. It's good political housekeeping to know how to use it.

That's why I'm for the Dies committee. Mr. Dies, himself, may not be quite the finest bloom from the hothouse of Texas politics. But he's certainly a handy man with the Flit gun. We've got to give him credit not only for what he's uncovered. We've got to give him credit, also, for the fact that he's not been sidetracked by the ridicule of our kept intelligentsia nor browbeaten by the opposition of some of our most potent political housekeepers. Don't let the spokesmen for either group persuade you that Mr. Dies's committee hasn't got something. It's got plenty.

Last spring the committee was reorganized. A new member was appointed in the person of Mr. Jerry Vorhis. Mr. Vorhis is no Red baiter. He's one of the most authentically liberal members of the House. He was put on the committee as something of a Left Wing offset to the Right Wing Mr. Dies. He came to scoff. He has remained to pray. He's no more a Red baiter than he ever was. But six months on the inside have convinced him that there is a bona fide termite peril; that is, that there are dangerously large numbers of individuals and aggregations of individuals in the United States who, back of all sorts of fronts, are deliberately using the privileges and the institutions of America in such a way as to weaken American democracy. So the next time you hear a professional Leftist laughing off the Dies committee by ridiculing Dies—ask him about Jerry Vorhis. Vorhis can't be laughed off.

Despite the fact that there are anywhere from 300 to 800 termite organizations in the United States, I don't propose this afternoon to go into an analysis of their complicated and far-flung activities. There are some aspects of the termite problem which are more important than an enumeration and description of the termites. It's important for one thing to be acquainted with their habits. It's not the habit of the termite to use force. He sets the stage for it. The materials he uses, therefore, are not military. They are psychological. His stock in trade are ideas. For that reason he is hard to get at. If we had a fleet of alien submarines on our hands the United States Navy would know what to do about it. What we've got instead is a flock of alien ideas. They're harder to identify and they're also harder to sink Moreover, nobody loves a submarine. But ideas make friends and influence people. That's why every dictatorship holds them in mortal fear. And that's why they are the shock troops for every offensive against democracy that's under way in the world.

To that kind of attack a democracy is particularly vulnerable. It's possible to exercise some democratic control over these ideas—once they're in. It's not possible to keep them out. Dictatorships plug the radios, regiment the press and abolish the open-mindedness of its people. The only editions allowed are the expurgated ones. A democracy, however, cherishes the unexpurgated. It maintains freedom of worship, speech, assembly and the press. Those are its indispensable privileges. But they are also hand-engraved invitations to abuse. Thus, every Bolshevik speaker—whether Brown or Red—rings the changes on them, and every Fascio-Communist meeting uses them as a backdrop.

They do not represent what the termite believes in. But they are his necessary credentials. They give him a chance to labor for the things he does believe in.

Ideas being the implements of the termite and democracy being congenitally hospitable to ideas, it follows that whenever, anywhere, there's a conflict of ideas, the United States is bound to be in it. There has been some recent discussion in Washington about the exact location of our military frontiers; whether they ought to be established twelve miles at sea or three hundred miles at sea. Our ideological frontiers aren't matter of choice. There aren't any such frontiers. The ideological war was under way long before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland. We can't keep out of that war merely by our refusal to send an expeditionary force to the Rhine or the Volga. We can't keep out of it because the Rhine and the Volga have sent an expeditionary force to us.

In behalf of what those rivers symbolize, halls are hired, periodicals are published, radio time is purchased and susceptible Americans—of good and bad intentions—are seduced. On the military side, it's quite possible that we'll be able to sit, in peace, behind our God-provided oceanic barricades. But neither God nor Senator Borah has barricaded us against ideological conflicts. On that side, there's not a war anywhere that we can keep out of. In fact, there's not a warring idea loose in the world by which we've not already been invaded.

Take the matter of racial and religious hatred. There are certain governments which have built a large part of their emotional foundations upon the idea of racial and religious hatred. Specifically, they have built those foundations on anti-Semitism—hatred of the Jew. That idea is as un-American as anarchy. But we've not escaped it. On the contrary, the prophets of that idea have a large and growing American support. There are probably 150 organizations in the United States which—openly or by indirection—accept anti-Semitism as a part of their platform and preach it aggressively. They have made many converts. Not all of the converts are organized. Neither are all of them ignorant. It's amazing how frequently—at some upper-brackets dinner party—somebody, at about the end of the soup course, leans back in his chair—or, just as likely, her chair—and remarks that "of course, I don't like the way Hitler does it, but . . ." What comes after the "but" is proof of the progress that has been made with that Hitlerian idea among people who ought to know better.

The fact is, of course, that the termites are employing anti-Semitism in this country for exactly the same destructive reasons that it has been employed by termites elsewhere. The Jews aren't the issue in the United States. They aren't the issue in Germany. They're only camouflage for the issue. In the United States, as it was in pre-Nazi Germany, the first aim of the termite is to build up a following. To build up this kind of a following requires a passion-arousing idea. Whether his platform is a beer-hall table or a radio microphone, the successful termite is mob-psychologist enough to know that a destructive idea catches on faster than a constructive one. He's historian enough to know that, from time immemorial, no destructive idea has served the demagogue so well as an assault upon defensive minority.

The current offensive in support of racial and religious hatred started a long distance from the United States. But here it is. It's here because the United States, also, has its quota of individuals who are out to re-make democracy in their own alien image. First, however, they have to weaken it. The fanning of racial and religious hatred is an aid to the weakening process. And any one who, from ignorance, indifference or from the peculiar belief that the way to destroy an idea is to tolerate it, tries to be a neutral, isn't neutral at all. He's an aid and a comfort to the termites.

Now, let's look for a moment at another sector of the termite front. That sector is held by the idea of class conflict. That idea is as anti-democratic and as anti-American as racial and religious hatred. But certain governments are built on it. More than that, the missionaries of that gospel have gone to the ends of the earth. There's a considerable contingent of them in the United States. Here they have gone in, in a big way, for protective coloration. They've identified themselves with some of the most American things in America. Some of the most reputable Americans in America have given them free board, room and advertising. As a result, they've maneuvered themselves to a position where you can't condemn them without being put on the spot by some of their trained seals as an enemy of the things they are tied to.

They got into the youth movement—and you can't say even a slightly dubious word about the American Youth Congress without being pounced on as out to sell the younger generation into slavery. They got into the peace movement—and you can't voice any doubts about the American League for Peace and Democracy without being lambasted as a war monger. They've got into the consumers movement—and you can't say so without being told you're in favor of dishonest advertising and poisonous toothpaste. They've got into the labor movement—and if you raise your voice about Harry Bridges or Lee Pressman you're one of the exploiters. They got into the government of the United States—and if you say you wish they hadn't, you're cracked down on as a reactionary enemy of the New Deal.

But the record they've written isn't in terms of the good causes they espouse. Quite the contrary. They've used the causes to advance their own program of class conflict. They've been a disruptive factor in every organization and every movement that they've been able to get their hands on. Take, for example, the National Labor Relations Board. That organization came into being to implement the national labor relations act. That act was designed to protect labor in the right to organize and to bargain collectively. Most Americans, I think, will agree that labor should have such protection.

But labor hasn't been protected—to the satisfaction of the employer. It hasn't been protected to the satisfaction of labor. In fact, condemnation of the N. L. R. B. appears to be about the only thing that the A. F. of L. and the C. I. O. in their just concluded conventions agreed on. That's not because there are no able, honest administrators on the labor board. There are. The most prominent of them is right now under fire from the extreme left because he's too able and too honest. But too much of the directive work of the N. L. R. B. has been under the supervision of individuals who—if they weren't card-carrying Communists—were, to say the least, devout fellow travelers. As a result of their manhandling of a law designed to help labor, labor has been injured; labor-employer relations, instead of being improved, have, in many places, been embittered; and, in consequence, a movement is gaining headway to repeal the act altogether.

The idea of class conflict is not a part of the American faith. But here it is. It's here because the United States has its quota of individuals whose faith does include that idea. To prepare the way for it, they, too, have to weaken American democracy. Their first move, in that direction, is to get aboard every authentic American bandwagon. I, for one, don't believe it's good sense to move over and make room for them. I don't believe it's good sense, even though their credentials are all in order and they are accompanied by some of our nicest people. Somebody once said he was willing to travel with any one who was going in his direction. That'stoo indiscriminate. On such a basis you'd have to welcome a train robber. In the matter of the company they travel in, I think it's time that the American people began to be choosey.

I'm inclined to think that we will. The recent Nazi-Soviet pact is likely to he a big help in that direction. That pact brought about one of the greatest unscramblings in history. It made it clear, beyond all doubt, that—red or brown—the Nazis and Communists are brothers under the skin. I'll admit that Stalin left some of the red brothers—full or foster —out on an awfully long limb. But the eventual results are bound to be salutary. You see the termites had done a pretty thorough job of it. They'd at least half persuaded a lot of Americans that we could improve our democracy by mongrelizing it. They wouldn't want a Nazi regime in the United States—but there were some Nazi modifications to the American system that we might profitably install. They weren't for an American Soviet—but, after all, the great Russian experiment offered a good many things that we might profitably take over. In other words, they weren't sure but that a mongrel democracy was better than the real thing.

I trust that the Nazi-Soviet pact, the war in Poland, and the Russian assaults on freedom in the Baltic have finally released these people from that inclination. I hope that they will be as forthright as the American Labor Party in New York has been. We ought to know, by now, that a Fascist can be trusted—only to advance Fascism; that a Communist can be trusted—only to advance Communism; and that neither Fascists nor Communists have a thing to offer to America that America can't do better without their aid. If we've reached that conclusion, it's going to follow, inevitably, that the termites will have a tougher time of it; and it's going to follow, also, that a lot of people who've wasted their energies in termite company are going to be freed to devote themselves, fulltime, to an American solution of our problems. I have, in concluding, two measures to propose. Both of

them are aseptic measures. The first has to do with aliens resident in the United States. They are political and economic parasites. Their loyalties are not American. The trouble they brew for the country is out of all proportion to their numbers. No other nation on earth would tolerate them. I don't think that we should. We'd help to solve the termite problem if we fixed a six month's deadline and after that deported every alien resident who was not on his way to citizenship.

The second suggestion concerns the German-American Bund and the Communist Party of the United States. Both of them, in my opinion, should be legally abolished. I know the answer to that one. It will be to the effect that that would be a violation of the civil liberties of the parties involved. But the question is: how much civil liberty should those particular parties have? The problem they raise isn't the problem of free speech or free assemblage. If that were the whole story, I wouldn't advance such a suggestion. But a good deal more is involved here than those basic rights. The Dies Committee has established beyond the shadow of any doubt that the German-American Bund and the Communist Party of the United States are not American organizations. They are the official agencies of foreign powers. Not America, but of foreign powers. Their officers in the United States are the official agents of foreign powers. Not America, but those powers demand—and get—their first devotion. I'm for their abolition, not because I want to curtail the freedom of any individual American or any American organization. I'm for their abolition because these particular individuals and their organizations are not American.

That probably won't end our termite problem. But it may help some if we cut down on the imported delicacies with which we've been feeding them. And food, says the Britannica, is an important item in the control of termites— or of cockroaches.