Our Best National Defense


By MERLE THORPE, Editor and Publisher, Nation's Business

Before North Carolina Bankers Association, at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, July 10, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 667-668.

WE are in a dither over defending ourselves against a foreign foe. We are apt to forget that national defense does not consist solely of more battleships and more recruits. The best possible defense is a nation wholeheartedly and as a team producing to its fullest capacity the products of brain and hand. Such a course would lay up a reserve not only of material things but also, and more important, a reserve of spiritual values brought about by a nation employing all its latent powers toward one objective, a stronger America. In other words, our task is to build at home, to make America strong against any eventuality in peace or war. The best turn we can do embattled civilization is to put our own house in order and see to it that our common sense is not interned.

This is the need of the hour, to bring to bear the common-sense for which Americans have been noted. It will be difficult indeed in the emotionalism of wartime psychology. To recognize our remoteness from the European conflict does not signify indifference to the agony of Europe, as so many foolishly contend. We cannot be insensible, if we would. Our senses are assaulted with events faster than we can comprehend them. Headlines scream their tidings of victory and defeat. Radio blares its babel of comment. Rumor is rife. Mystery is in the air. Truth is hidden in blackouts. There is no moment of calm in which to think things through, but think we must. Our national security is assured only by the exercise of sanity and the persistence of clearheadedness.

It takes little patriotism to appropriate money to build more battleships and airplanes. It calls for patriotism of the highest order to interne prejudices, the selfishness of politics, to promote a tolerance, a teamwork that is real. Such national unity comprehends not only tolerance between individuals; it also includes tolerance between political groups. It calls particularly for an understanding on the part of our government officials of the points of view of business management, upon which falls the sweaty task of organizing and directing the forces of production and employment.

There is hope. Not in a decade has there been such encouragement for the country's future. This encouragement has come from the people themselves. Everywhere is manifested a facing of realities. It comes not from political leadership. That is almost always followership. It comes from the spirit of the people themselves. Aristotle recognized it. He said it was more powerful than armies or dictators. And that spirit is evident today.

For ten years our business system and business men have been under attack. Bankers were "money changers;" commercial aviation was charged as unfit to carry the mails; makers of electricity, a "power trust bleeding the people white;" manufacturers, chiselers and exploiters of labor; coal and oil, anti-social; steel and chemicals, fomenters of war; retailers, gougers; telephones and insurance, too big for public safety.

The nation has never before witnessed such a continuous muck-raking of its business life. Every hour brought its "emergency". Perpetual emotion has been the rule.

The era has been one of iconoclasm. Age-old traditions, honored customs, cherished idols, have been smashed with the ruthlessness and hilarity of a frenzied Roman holiday.

Came, then, first, the morning after, the feeling of futility coupled with shame. The promises of politics were unfulfilled. The crusade against "selfishness" and "power" simply transferred those vices to the crusaders. Politics was unable to provide jobs except to politicians and their relatives. The abundant life was nowhere in evidence except in the District of Columbia, City Hall and the far-flung Federal agencies. Shame-faced, people were about ready to admit that business processes had been unduly and spitefully penalized.

Came then fear of a foreign invader. The clear mandate of the people was to provide defense, and business leaders were whistled from the doghouse and put in charge.

What irony! If fear of physical violence, of parachutes over Omaha, brought confession that only business management can provide production and jobs, why then, why the other course in fighting the war against depression? If to regain the business activity for which we all prayed, theorists, professors and social racketeers were called to the colors, why, in the hours of physical fear, replace these "war" leaders of 1933-40 with the discredited captains of industry?

The spirit of iconoclasm marches on. It now directs a war-ax at political traditions. Old formulas are swept aside, and at a national convention the people's demand for a doer and practical planner prevailed. Business baiters have turned to baiting politicians. The people chose a man who, almost alone for seven years, has in and out of season, fought politics invading the business field. With some sixth sense they realize that the political promises of the Blums and Ramsey MacDonalds, who promised security and the abundant life by less work and more doles only brought a terrible insecurity and prospect of miserable slavery. They realize that every country which has fallen in Europe had enjoyed a "liberal" labor government.

Business management is in better repute today than it has been in a decade. This spirit is reflected in the popular parody:

Heigh Ho Heigh Ho
It's off to work we go.

This spirit will supplant the easy Marxian scarcity with a policy of plenty. It will recognize that textbooks on arithmetic contain methods of addition and multiplication as well as subtraction and division. It will abandon revolutionary reform "to make America over" and adopt recovery and the proved evolutionary social progress. It will raise again the American banner with its insignia "Work". It will remove the obstacles which are preventing workman and manager from joining hands in the good old-fashioned way, to lick the production record of yesterday.

It is late, but not too late, to give business a chance to do its old time stuff for the American people.

Today, the business of satisfying a nation's economic wants, of raising its standard of living, thus giving employment to its people, is more important than fighting for an ideology that would "make America over." Dictocracy pervades the world. It is to be found everywhere, distinguished only by the degree of its mastery over the affairs of life. Our executive bureaus and commissions should realize that repression and restriction create nothing, that, in very fact, they put a grievous charge upon enterprise at a time when enterprise is so sorely needed. Already, as the war hysteria mounts, come demands for new political controls affecting the citizen's freedom of action. They are becoming more definite in form and substance and, as usual, in the name of emergency. Whatever the logic for their acceptance and application, the people must see to it that when the emergency is over, on that day this temporary loan must be repaid; that these freedoms must be returned, and in full measure.

The business machinery by which men exchange their labor and services, going at top speed, even with a little too much "play" here and there, is the greatest protection possible against any eventuality of peace or war. Management can't speed up this machinery if we deprive it of the normal funds of free enterprise, and at the same time deprive it of freedom of action. The brakes have been set too hard. We can't expect speed and hill climbing again until the brakes are released.

Only in this way can America strengthen its national defenses.

It is time to face realities. In the matter of providing for the common defense, our assailability lies not alone in New York Harbor or San Francisco Bay. It is to be found in a domestic policy, which, even though conceived in the highest of motives, is contributing to unpreparedness. Through persistent propaganda and subsidy, this policy is becoming the accepted way of life. Our present bewilderment, our lack of unity, issue from this national program "to make America over." Here are some of the obstacles that stand in the way of an invincible America:

1. Frustrating industrial productivity through government labor policies.

2. Restricting the flow of savings into productive, enterprise.

3. Chilling the zeal of management, through baiting and punitive taxation.

4. Deliberately limiting production of foodstuffs, fuels and other necessities of life.

5. Encouraging social and racial conflicts.

6. Discouraging thrift and sacrifice and economy through public example of extravagance.

7. Destroying state and local responsibility.

If political leadership will move against this fifth column of its own creation, the free people of America will rise to any emergency.