The State of the Nation


By EDMUND EZRA DAY, President, Cornell University

Commencement Address, made June 17, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 650-652.

IT IS without apology that I address myself this morning to the state of the nation. Some of you may feel that on this occasion, held on this high campus in its setting of unsurpassed natural beauty, wonderfully removed from the world's turmoil, we might well find at least temporary escape from the horrors abroad and the anxieties at home. But in these days there can be neither forgetfulness nor withdrawal. Whether we will it or not, we are all players in the present world drama. The best we can do is to choose carefully the parts we as individuals and as a people are to play. No time is to be lost, no occasion neglected, in the initiation and pursuit of a wise, adequate, far-reaching program of individual and national thought and action.

Such a program under present critical conditions may appropriately be thought of as one of national defense. In saying this I do not presuppose any particular outcome of the present war. Nor do I have in mind exclusively those forms of defense with which the War and Navy Departments are directly concerned. Our country is under attack in ways that far transcend the powers of even the tremendous armed forces of the totalitarian states. We are at present in one of the most critical periods of all history. The issues which confront us profoundly affect the prospects of human progress for generations—yes, centuries—to come. Civilization, or at any rate what we have been accustomed to call civilization, appears to hang in the balance. Under these conditions it is imperative that a comprehensive program of national defense be shaped and given effect with all the wisdom and strength we can possibly marshal.

It is quite impossible to plan any such program without first seeing clearly the nature of the forces by which we are threatened. These forces are diverse and complex. Some appear on the surface and are readily observed by all. Otherslie far below and commonly escape detection. They all need to be identified if the program of national defense is to be adequate.

The most obvious of the forces which threaten us is the armed force of the authoritarian states. For the first time we are seeing what devastating powers of destruction can be developed when a great people, completely regimented under a despotic and a ruthless government, employs the full arsenal of modern science and technology. The picture is an appalling one. Suddenly our own armed forces seem pathetically weak. We may thank God for the oceans which separate us from warring Europe and Asia, but even oceans do not appear now to give the protection they once so surely afforded. Clearly great armies, navies and air forces constitute one of the threats with which we are most seriously confronted.

The dictators have unleashed another devastating force in their systematic attack on traditional canons of national honor and honesty. No pledge, however solemnly made, needs now to be subsequently respected; no guarantee, however seriously undertaken, needs now to be afterward fulfilled. Among the dictators it would look as if expediency were the only guiding principle, as if duplicity were a sterling virtue, as if honor had lost its very meaning. No longer is there any evidence of a moral imperative save within the party ranks. Power politics alone would seem to be the proper arbiter of the destiny of nations. Under the influences loosed by these concepts and practices there has been a deterioration of international morals during the past few years that is of the greatest moment. It carries a threat to world order the seriousness of which can hardly be exaggerated.

The authoritarian debasement of truth and beauty isanother threatening force with which we must all reckon. The untrammelled pursuit of truth and beauty accounts for much of the difference between civilization and savagery. To shackle the search for new knowledge and finer art is to block the way of further human progress. Yet the dictators do just that. Under the regimes which they have established, truth has to be licensed and beauty certified. The scholar, the scientist, the artist, all function under orders. Official regulations, suitably reinforced by propaganda, tell the people what is to be believed, what admired. The inquiring mind becomes a personal liability. This systematic enslavement of the human spirit is a sinister undertaking which free people the world over must combat by every possible means.

The authoritarian negation of humanity is still another threat of tremendous implications. Assertions of racial superiority are but a phase of a fundamental philosophy. The masses are looked upon as only material for the aggrandisement of the State. Democracy with its fundamental emphasis upon the dignity and worth of the individual is said to be a sickly sentimental, weak and decadent form of society, on the way out. The great religions, and especially the Christian and Hebrew, are treated with contempt. The true sign of greatness in individual and peoples alike is found in the ruthless exercise of power in the service of the State. Once more, as in the jungle, might makes right. Could there possibly be a sharper challenge to the values for which we have struggled through the generations in free America?

Some of these forces which are so dramatically evident these days in Europe already operate in one form or another in America. Happily they are not yet in the ascendency. We must recognize, however, that they are amplified these days by the economic distress to which we have been subject now for more than a decade. Millions of our people find no employment. Huge supplies of credit accumulate in idleness in our banks. Business enterprise and capital investment show recurrent lethargy. Government strives to energize the system through huge public expenditures only to find the effects on the system as a whole inadequate and temporary. Discouragement and disillusionment are widespread. This seemingly chronic illness of our economic system involves dangers of a most formidable sort. The further disruptions of world trade which are almost certainly ahead of us will but add to the dangers which are already evident. An adequate program of national defense must restore the efficient functioning of our national economy.

The threatening forces which I have enumerated would not be so formidable if contemporary society had not been in serious difficulties for some time past. Peoples are perplexed and discouraged. Morale is low. For a host of people, life seems just too complicated and difficult. At the moment, what many most desire is not individual freedom, but an ordered activity in a company to which they can feel they belong. The authoritarian states provide what great masses of people really want—an escape from the problems of individual responsibility. There is undoubted mass appeal in the ideology of the dictatorships. There is a kind of low persuasiveness about the unity and efficiency with which they manipulate their regimented followings. Small wonder that people find a lure in the system they have developed: life is so much simpler when it ceases to be free. There is a sharp challenge to America in the doctrines and the regimes which the dictators seek to spread.

In planning a program of national defense we need to know not only the nature of the forces that threaten but also the probable methods of attack. These, like the forces themselves, are varied and complex. All need to be fully identified lest we leave ourselves at some point unguarded.

On the side of armed forces we face the possibility of the "blitzkrieg". Its suddenness and devastating power are now known to all. It is warfare, fully modernized, completely mechanized, streamlined in every detail of organization and equipment. On land its power is such that it has yet to be stopped. Thanks to the European developments of the last nine months, the blitzkrieg will not take us by surprise: we can now tell of what this type of attack consists.

The "fifth column" form of attack is by nature more difficult to recognize. That it has been widely used seemed to be established. In essence it is carefully devised treachery, organized and manned in the enemy's country, in advance of the outbreak of hostilities. On a prearranged signal, the "fifth column" attacks from within, subjecting the defense to the demoralization which quickly spreads when disloyalty and betrayal suddenly become evident "inside the ranks". It may be entirely quixotic to think these days of more respectable and less respectable ways of conducting warfare among nations, but it is difficult not to think of the fifth column as one of the more despicable forms of combat. Nevertheless apparently it has come and has come to stay. Certainly it has to be recognized as one of the types of attack for which we must be prepared.

Attack by propaganda is, of course, one of the most highly elaborated forms of offense of the authoritarian states. For years now it has been aimed at the neighboring European democracies. In the event of a German victory, the full force of authoritarian propaganda will doubtless be turned toward the Western Hemisphere and especially toward our free American institutions. Applied to disillusioned and discouraged people, it is a type of attack likely to prove seriously effective.

Encouraged by this stream of foreign propaganda, various organization, pretending to support our American institutions but in fact undermining the faith of the American people in their cultural heritage, will doubtless become active. Some of these organizations, like the Bund, will openly announce the source of their allegiance; others will masquerade under patriotic symbols and do what they can to disguise their un-American activities. Whatever their names and whatever their nominal purposes, these Alien Legions will constitute still another type of attack against which it will not be easy to erect effective defenses.

The most serious attacks of all will be of a more insidious sort. They will come from no one source; they will be directed toward no one weakness. Some will be ingeniously organized; others will be almost inadvertent. Their general effect will be to break our national unity. They will play upon our prejudices, our fears, our dislikes, our hates. They will trade upon our loyalties, and our unthinking patriotism. They will seek to exploit our discontent and failure; the disillusionment and frustration we have suffered. Suspicion and mistrust will be fomented. Self-appointed G-men will become active in every community. Liberals will be called communists, and "queer people"—especially those with foreign names or foreign accents,—will be charged with being members of the "fifth column". Colleges and universities will be said to be centers of "red" activity. If this sort of attack succeeds it will leave us a "house divided against itself"—an easy prey to the alien legions if not to the invading armies. It is this type of attack which the dictators have used so successfully against their neighboring states in Europe. It is this type of attack which more seriously threatens us than any other. It is this type of attack against which it isgoing to be most difficult to defend. Divisiveness is a fatal social disease; national unity a social necessity. Let us not forget that the most insidious dangers of these next years will be those which threaten our solidarity as Americans.

Against this formidable array of threatening forces, with their variant forms of attack, what defenses must we raise? This question we Americans must answer, and answer promptly, with all the wisdom and courage and far-sightedness we can command.

That an adequate program of national defense must add greatly to our armed forces is perfectly evident. The requisite program of training and supply should be initiated at once and prosecuted with the utmost energy. The air force in particular should be greatly augmented. In this line we should be prepared to hold our own against all comers. Our industrial plants, our means of transport, our food and raw material supplies, all should be geared into our armed defenses so as to assure efficient operation of the entire system in time of need. No corners should be cut in making sure that we are adequately manned and equipped to meet whatever armed attacks may come. However regrettable it may be to devote our national resources to such a program, we have no option under present conditions.

The program of armament will probably aid in the effective initiation of another essential defense measure, namely the better operation of our economic system. We have taken about all the economic punishment we can stand without revolutionary changes in our government, if not in our society. The persistent unemployment of millions of workers must in some way be overcome. The enforced idleness of millions of young people cannot be longer tolerated. Some way must be found, and found soon, to restore the full momentum of our national economy. If this means somewhat larger opportunities for private profit-taking than have been available during the past few years, these opportunities should be created. The alternative is a frank switch to state socialism—a system for which as a people we are not likely now to display either taste or capacity. No, for the present at least we had better stick to our traditional system of regulated private enterprise. But if that is the answer, the system must be made to work. For the present this is our foremost problem of national defense, and no absorption in the course of events abroad should be allowed to obscure that fact. If we fail to put our economic house in order, America is headed for revolutionary changes whether or not there is attack from without.

This is certainly so if we lose ground seriously to the divisive influences which are bound to play upon our national life during the next few years. The first defense against these influences should be a reaffirmation of our faith in democracy. We still believe that "government should exist for the benefit of free and equal citizens, politically united in a common purpose, the happiness of each and all". Westill believe with Lord Russell that the true signs of civilization "are thought for the poor and suffering, chivalrous regard and respect for women, the frank recognition of human brotherhood irrespective of race or color or nation or religion, the narrowing of the domain of mere force as a governing factor in the world, the love of ordered freedom, abhorrence of what is mean and cruel and vile, ceaseless devotion to the claims of justice". Contrast these words of Lord Russell with the words of Mussolini: "Words are beautiful things. Machine guns, ships, aeroplanes are still more beautiful." "War alone brings to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility on the people who have courage to lead it." "Believe, obey, fight." Such is the doctrine of those who glorify war. If in contrast you believe that the great religious leaders are nearer the truth than the great dictators, if you believe in the progressive liberation of the human spirit, if you believe in freedom rather than enslavement, let your lives evidence your conviction. When faith weakens, the defenses fail.

But it is not enough to have faith. It is in the humble actions of our daily living that some of our most important defenses must be built. We must have courage. We must keep our heads. We must seek out the facts—if possible find the truth. We must combat fraud and greed and sheer selfishness. We must strive to act fairly and justly. We must not entertain suspicions without supporting evidence. We must be quick to respond to the needs of our fellows. We must live with good-will. We must be tolerant of honest differences of opinion if they be not seditious. We must seek the common good. We must avoid the passionate and violent. We must resist with all our might those forces which would divide us among ourselves, and so weaken us as to make us an easy prey for our enemies. In short, a comprehensive program of national defense for these days of crisis and for the years that lie ahead calls for a full commitment of every one of us to humane and rational living.

These are days when there are ample grounds for pessimism; the days ahead look difficult, to say the least. But I, for one, do not share the view that the only reasonable attitude at this time is one of despondency. We may be challenged, but we have the means to meet the challenge in full. Life may look insecure, but could it possibly look more vital and significant. Given health and one's senses, cannot life still be full of enjoyment. These times may try men's souls, but, thank God, men have souls to be tried. Given the will, you men and women of the Class of 1940 can make your lives count as has been rarely possible. See if you cannot bring to them the spirit of adventure. Courageous devotion of our individual selves to the progressive liberation of mankind—that is what makes life a truly great adventure; that is what, most of all, makes life worth the living.