The Freedom That Men Die For
THE VALIDITY OF THE INDIVIDUAL
By RAYMOND GRAM SWING, Author, Journalist and Radio Commentator
Commencement Address delivered at Olivet College, June 16, 1940
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 598-601.
PRESIDENT BREWER, members of the class of 1940. A few weeks ago, Dr. Robert Ley, chief of the German Labor Front, in the course of a broadcast, gave this definition of freedom. "A man is free," he declared, "first, when he can eat, drink, dress and live as, and where he pleases, or finds necessary; second, when he can wander out into the world whenever and however he pleases, and third, when others honor and esteem his labors. That is the true meaning of freedom." I am not going to criticize this definition at length for what it says, though it is worth pointing out that it does not define the freedom in a totalitarian state, where there is a distinct limitation on earning power, so that a man has to eat, drink, dress and live according to an income set by the state, and not according to his pleasure or ability. And in the Germany of today all young men and women have to give outright of their services to the state as labor conscripts, and later in life they are subject to the state's dictated rules as to how long they work, under what conditions, and at what prices they must buy their food, clothing, lodging and travel. But this freedom, Dr. Ley may say, if it is not in practice, will be put into practice as Germany prospers. It is the German ideal. This is what they are striving for. And I want to examine it first of all as an ideal. A man is free, if I may paraphrase it, if he is economically secure, if he can travel, and if his labor is respected. This is the dogma of the state which has set itself up as modern, as entitled to world leadership, as the standard bearer of a new order which shall replace the order to which you and I, and the hundreds of millions who were living under democratic systems, belong.
The world, at this hour, is in dreadful chaos. It is in the grips of a conflict which bespeaks more than a competition for political power, more than a shift of world markets. It is the rise of a concept of life, challenging a different concept of life. And what is at stake, besides political and economic power, is the establishment of a concept of life, not for this year and next, but for many, many years to come. For this reason, since the concept of life on which our nation was founded, is the one which is being challenged, we are involved in this conflict, no matter how much we may decide to do in defense of our concept. The war of the democracies in Europe may end in their defeat, and our concept of life would be still intact. But the challenge to it will continue, and one or the other will prevail, either our concept of life, or the challenging concept of the totalitarian order.
Dr. Ley has defined freedom as Germany intends to establish it. It consists of economic security, the ability to travel, and the respect of the community. These are worthy objectives. I pay them my tribute and ask you to acknowledge their value. But you will see that they are not the American concept of freedom, not for what Dr. Ley says, but for what he omits. For in his doctrine of freedom the individual is not free to think, free to speak, free to read, free to formulate his own experience of truth, free to contribute responsibly to the community, to help shape its life and help direct its affairs. His freedom gives man an economic minimum and a sense of satisfaction in his labor, which surely is good. But it disregards his individual spiritual life, and the cooperation of his individual spiritual life to the benefit of the community and the state. To put it bluntly, he is economically free, but politically and spiritually enslaved. And there is the conflict. It is one in which you will have to take sides, as you now go out into adult life. You will choose that your individual strength will be thrown into the preservation of spiritual and political liberty, or you will be content to let these go in return for economic security.
A great many adults in this country have tried to evade facing the reality of this choice. They have told themselves that they were not involved in the struggle in Europe. They ascribed other issues to the war. They said it is a war between imperialisms, and so in a sense it is. They said it is a war brought on by a peace treaty after the last war which did injustice to Germany, and so in a sense it is. They said it was a war being fought a long way off, and so in a sense it is. But no one can deny truthfully that the outcome of the war, whatever may have contributed to its origins, will be to establish or destroy in Europe a concept of individual and political freedom. And if it is destroyed there, it already is partly destroyed in all the world. For unless all civilized countries are free, no one nation, nor even a single continent, can progress in freedom. It will be on the defensive. It will go into an era of striving to preserve a freedom which is on the wane, which has lost its appeal to modern men.
I think all of us are reluctant to admit to ourselves just how much we care about certain values in life. It is a deep process to square away to certain truths and to know that in necessity one would not flinch in defending them. Life is precious to us. Anyone who says lightheartedly he would be ready to die for anything whatever can't be either very sensitive or very honest with himself. What we do hope is that when a test comes of our courage and our loyalty, we shall not fail, but we don't go about advertising the aching conquest of ourselves. I believe that most enlightened men and women, young and old, when the emergency arises would make any sacrifice, even if life itself, to preserve a right to freedom. I believe this because it is the revelation of the ages. Many men have died to attain freedom, and to many men in the long past the necessity of freedom was the necessity of life itself.
There is a good deal of talk particularly among young people these days, about what they are not willing to die for. I must say that I can't criticize your generation for saying that you have no intention to die for the contribution made to civilization by my generation.
As I look back upon that contribution I can well understand and respect your attitude. The generation to which I belong has done some splendid things. It has mechanized life, which is not to be sneered at. For the motorcar, to take an example, has made man geographically free. It has opened the country to the city, and brought the city to the country. The generation to which I belong has reduced space. The airplanes which are dropping bombs in Europe mustn't obscure your vision of the airplanes that are making the unification of China possible, that are bringing Latin America into close neighborhood with us and its component parts, that have reduced the Atlantic ocean to one-fifth its breadth, that are making all men close to all men, as close together as relatively few men were close who lived in the same province a century ago. The modern communications systems have pulled us still closer together, so that news, music, discussion can draw every home into the vortex of art and current thought. Our newspapers and periodicals, our radios and television have annihilated the sense of separation. We all have access to everything. We have untold potentialities of participation. The world has been given integration, physical integration, which had to come before the development of the still greater powers of spiritual integration. This has been a contribution, made with initiative, resources, devotion, with an abounding energy and optimism rarely if ever duplicated by any generation.
But I admit that as I survey these achievements they are not the values for which young people who fall heir to them should be expected to feel like dying. They are resplendent, but they do not evoke the deepest sense of need and gratitude. One would not die for a newspaper, not willingly, nor for an automobile plant, nor an airplane design, nor indeed for the stark beauty of that monument of a prosperous, mechanized America, the buildings that make up Rockefeller Center in New York. Nor have the other works of beauty of my generation been inspiring and enlisting. We have our literature, our painting, our contemporary music and verse, but you know as well as I that you could, in necessity dispense with them, as some men in times past could not dispense with their scriptures and their psalms.
The generation to which I belong has also spread before your generation the riches of education, and done it lavishly, as in no time in the long history of human society. We are in the way to a national elucidation so that millions today have the equipment to understand the intricate complexities of this mechanized society. And though the town meeting is gone, the town meeting method continues, with millions taking the place of the handful of villagers who had hardly anything more than simple local affairs to attend to in the frontier days. I do not say the education has been available to all, or has been always wise, but the educational process is slow. It is the only known process by which man does finally pull himself up by his bootstraps. This contribution of education did not, of course, begin with my generation, but if you will weigh that contribution by any standards you please, you will find it substantial. In appraising the generation of your parents, know that it was not concerned wholly with mechanism. It had reverence for learning and beauty. It strove to make them accessible to all young people as their common right.
But what has weakened your possible devotion and loyalty to the world handed on to you are two tremendous factors. One of these is the World War and its consequences. The other is our own loss of our sense of personal validity. This second point I shall come back to later.
The World War should have been the last great war and it wasn't. If that war couldn't teach my generation its lesson, my generation was far too innocent and timid to deserve devotion and respect. There I should agree with you, though not too censoriously. I agree as to the fact, but not as to the degree of innocence and timidity. The very first opportunity that ever presented itself to a modern, almost integrated world to organize peace, came as the result of the World War. My generation botched the job. It botched it not only badly, but did it with sublime indifference to what it was doing, letting the strands of a golden opportunity slip through its hands, without clutching at a single thread. But it was not an experienced world. Never had the organization of peace in a democratic civilization been faced, thought through and understood. People had gone through a war, had detested it, had suffered desolation and poverty, and yet they believed that to resolve not to fight another war would be enough. They put war down as an evil in individual and national thought. They did not understand that war, whatever it may be in terms of evil, is simply the consequence of the breakdown of peace, and that peace is something that must be built, understood, daily practiced, wisely cultivated, constantly and consciously nourished. It is the fashion today to decry the Treaty of Versailles
and find in it the root of the present war. But that is superficial thinking. A treaty does not produce a war in a democratic world. There can be no great war in a democratic world in which peace is maintained with the same scrupulous opposition to lawlessness and the same devotion to justice, that is given in the domestic life of a democratic nation. Peace is an international responsibility. Its maintenance is a function of a modern society. You cannot enjoy the fruits of freedom in a world made safe for democracy unless there is social organization to dispense justice and to curb lawlessness. The failure after the World War was not the Treaty of Versailles, but the inadequacy of the organization of peace. That inadequacy was in the League of Nations, both in its constitution, and its membership. Before the League could work—and it was man's first experiment with an organized peace,—old nations, with long memories of wars, had to be assured of their security. Lloyd George and Wilson undertook to guarantee France's security, as the pre-condition to the launching of the League. But Wilson's pledge was repudiated by the United States Senate, and when it came to joining the League this country was kept from membership by a minority of the Senate. So the French entered the League determined to make it, not a new experiment in organized peace, but an instrument of security. Through the League the French nation of forty millions was to be kept as strong as the German nation of sixty-five millions. If the United States had joined the League even with the reservations which were worked out in the Senate, France would have been secure, and the League might have grown from its imperfect beginnings into a workable system of peace. And the origins of this war include the failure of the United States to understand that you can't have a democratic world unless you have organized peace in which every free nation assumes its share of the responsibility.
I think the people of this country were ready to join the League. It is a myth that they weren't. If four men in the Senate had changed their votes we should have entered, for those four men would have completed the two-thirds majority needed. I don't think the people of this country realized in the election of 1920 that they were voting on the League. Harding promised them a society of nations, and the leading Republicans of the day, among them, Root, Hughes, Hoover, gave their endorsement to the Harding pledge. Only after the election was the public told that the League had been repudiated. And having been told so it didn't stop to read the record and check the facts. Somehow membership in the League, and so organized service for peace, eluded the people of this country and they lost it.
The breakdown of peace didn't begin at once, not till 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria. If we had been in the League, this hardly would have been dared. If Japan hadn't demonstrated that peace could be broken down in safety, Mussolini would not have dared the theft of Ethiopia, Hitler would not have dared the militarization of the Rhine-land, the disarmament conferences would not have collapsed because of the growing sense of national insecurity. This world in the ruins of today would still be enjoying the blessings of peace. I say that my generation fought the war and lost the peace. And now your generation has lost the peace, and you either fight the war now, as in Europe your generation is doing, or you stand to fight it later. For there is no organization of peace today, no democratic world, no system of society where power is diffused, so that no single man or no little oligarchy can drive men into conquest. Unless the Allies win, there will be only this nation, and perhaps this continent, where peace and freedom will be on the defensive for as long as the foreseeing eye can tell. Youof your generation can scorn my generation for its failure to learn from the last war only if you have learned what we failed to learn. There now can be only two kinds of peace, the one imposed by concentrated power, the peace of tyranny, or the peace of a free society where power is vested in free individuals, and where justice and the observance of law are organized as a social function in which all bear their responsibility. If your generation has learned that, and will set out to find the peace that alone can be tolerable, peace in a free world, then scorn my generation indeed, for it failed to find it.
I said a while back there were two factors which made it hard for you to treasure your immediate heritage. The loss of the peace was one of them. The other is the loss of the sense of personal validity. I suggest that more destructive than the mechanized equipment of the modern army have been certain branches of the modern so-called sciences of psychology and economics. They have produced a revolution in man's attitude to himself, and it hasn't been like some revolutions, a constructive influence. I think it will be in time, and don't misconstrue what I am going to say as ingratitude to either of these branches of human knowledge. Fifty years ago it was a fairly easy thing for a person to think things through and reach a conclusion that rang as clearly as a bell. Those were the days of intellectual security. And they are gone. And in their place we have the overwhelming sense that nothing is what it seems to be. We distrust all outward evidences, we look in all corners for hidden motives, we know that nothing that man tells himself is quite so, nothing that he tells others is to be really trusted. We have found out that the human mind works in layers, and there are inscrutable influences that mould a man's thought of which he himself is unaware. The modern psychologist can demonstrate that his subconscious life is the product of emotional influences, of patterns out of his childhood or infancy, and so his conscious thought is a counterfeit, which he tries unsuspectingly to pass off on a suspicious world. The psychologist has destroyed man's faith in the other fellow's sincerity, and to some extent man's faith in his own sincerity, and alas, to a great extent, man's faith in any sincerity whatever.
The branch of economics in which the term economic determinism was developed has done for social thinking what psychology has done for individual thinking. We are told that society never does what it does for the reasons it gives itself. History is just the record of economic motives which men have not recognized, and history has had to be what it has been, not because of these and those individual actions, but because vast impersonal forces were playing upon men and expending them. Thus there can be no national policies, there are only sinister conspiracies working beneath the surface, against which the educated person can only defend himself by utter skepticism and indefatigable suspicion. Now I think that this heritage has finished off everything else in what has been handed on to your generation by mine. Why should you come into such a world, revere its values, acknowledge to your depths the dignity and beauty of individual life, and be grateful to it, if need be to the point of sublime sacrifice? But here again, you have no right to scorn the confusion of my generation unless you are keen and talented in rediscovering the validity of the individual. Have you learned to trust, if not all outer semblances, the processes of establishing truth, which can be demonstrated in the research laboratory, and in the recesses of your own souls? Trial and error, the humility to be wrong and the greatness to learn from being wrong, the faith in there being truth? Do you know that the truth lies within yourselves, or itdoes not exist for you? That there is no other truth to you save that of your own experience? And can you have faith in the process in your own lives, by which you steadily become more free as you become more wise? And can you have faith in the process which makes society free, the democratic process, the process of social trial and error, in which all individuals share in the trials and errors and the accruing social insight?
To come back to Dr. Robert Ley and his definition of freedom in a totalitarian state. You will remember it omitted the freedom to think and speak and to participate in the process of government. Only individuals who have lost faith in themselves and in their individual validity would accept such a disguised enslavement. If you don't believe in the godhood which is in you, you are going to believe there is godhood in the dictator. If you are confused and suspicious, if you can't trust the processes of experience, if you can't rely on your own judgments, in humility, but always in fervent faith, you are going to give up yourself, abandon yourself as a worthwhile possession, sweep yourself aside and give yourself by default to a national leader. Not having cared for responsibility, which is the other meaning of freedom, you will have thrown all the responsibility on the leader. And you will be secure, you will have no responsibility, and you will not be free. That is what it means to be a young man or woman in a totalitarian state. It is police state. You either believe what you are told to believe or you are purged.
Now, in conclusion I ask you not to form your judgment of your times by looking too closely to what has been givento you by the preceding generation. It is true this generation has not added much to your freedom and it has prepared you poorly to have faith in yourselves. But you have a longer heritage. And the freedom that you possess and exercise with all the unconsciousness of good health, came to you, not with the wind and rainfall, but out of human effort and anguish, out of great striving, great believing and great sacrifice. Man was not always free. He did not always have the right to say, think, read, what he pleased, or to have a responsible part in making and enforcing the laws to which he was subject. Men died for these things. And you will be greatly mistaken if you think that the soldiers of George Washington, who went through the winter of Valley Forge, liked the idea of dying, just as dying, any more than you do. They, and the men who founded this Republic, prized some things more than life itself. To them, you and I alike owe gratitude and reverence. We are their heirs, they have no other heirs but ourselves. And if you can't be proud to be the heirs of your immediate parents, you can look farther back along the line of human endeavor and find cause to be grateful that you are free and that there were those willing to pay for that freedom. The ancestry is long, and men strove to be free, died to be free, long before Karl Marx impersonalized history with his partly-true aphorisms about economic determinism, and long before Sigmund Freud made us aware of the complexities of thought processes. No label that can be glued over the freedom for which men have died can hide the reality of it. It is freedom. And it is individual freedom. They cared for it and unless you care for it you are going to lose it.