Is the World Heading for Collapse?


By DR. NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President of Columbia University

Delivered at Dinner in Honor of Maria Moors Cabot Medalists, Hotel Waldorf-Astoria, New York, N. Y.November 6, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VII, pp. 107-108

MR. CHAIRMAN, Dr. Cabot, our distinguished guests who are to receive the Cabot prizes tomorrow, and this company assembled to greet them: Believe me, this is a most significant occasion. It means more at this hour in the world's history than would be possible at any other time which has preceded it. It is evidence of our determination as Americans to turn the good neighbor policy from a declaration of words into deeds and policies of understanding and cooperation.

We have arrived at a point where the responsibility of the Americas is far greater than it has ever been and where the demands upon its capacity, and capacity for ideals and our high intelligence will be literally enormous.

It is only about 200 years since Bishop Berkley wrote the oft quoted words: "Westward the course of empire takes its way," and now we see the course of empire taking its way westward because of conditions and happenings which no one would have ventured to predict as possible even a generation ago.

One of my most moving memories is to have stood on the spot where Christopher Columbus landed when he reached this continent and then to have been taken by the Archbishop of Santo Domingo to stand in the presence of his remains. You may imagine how an American with any imagination and any historic sense was moved by thosehappenings. From that day to this it has been my lot and my habit to think more and more about the significance of what Columbus did and of the long time it has taken us to see the possibilities which lie before us and to enter upon the task of their accomplishment.

We have dealt wisely enough upon economic relations and economic interdependence of the American peoples. But that economic interdependence will move with twice its rapidity if it rests upon a basis of intellectual interdependence and understanding.

If our great organs of opinion, if the leaders and exponents of the intellectual life in letters, in science, in law, in medicine, in engineering, in theology, if they understand each other, know each what the others are doing, and are determined each to strengthen the hands of the others in making America as a part of the world, bearing its full share of responsibility, not only for producing the great achievements of western civilization but of strengthening them, developing them, and carrying them forward and showing to older peoples than ours who are foreign victims to a radicalism the like of which the world has never seen, what they might still achieve, or that to turn their eyes westward and see from the principles of the bill of rights and the Federal Constitution accepted as the basic public document of all the American people defended, illustrated andpracticed by each and all that liberty may not perish from this earth.

If we are to accomplish any such undertaking, even in modest degree, the very first agency of which we wish to make use is that of journalism. Not only the gathering, the printing and the circulating of the news, but also its judicious and wise and fair interpretation by correspondents and editorial writers of highest ability and insight.

We need the cooperation of our universities. We need the cooperation of our men of letters. We need the cooperation of our men of science. We need a larger understanding of our two languages, or three languages, but, in addition to all that, we need the conviction that we are proceeding in all these to a high intellectual and moral end, and an almost infinite need for the civilization of this world.

Anyone who will take the pains to go back over the great periods of development of western civilization will see that at intervals, long intervals, hundreds sometimes thousands of years, all that had been accomplished collapsed. Imagine what the great buildings in upper Egypt must have looked like before they were destroyed, covered with the sands of the desert. Imagine what Ninevah and Babylon must have looked like with their buildings, designed exactly as the Empire State Building was designed, having a height of two hundred, 300, 400 feet, standing in the midst of a great community given over to the life and ideals of that period, things that had civilization. Today we are diggingthem up from the sands that have covered them for centuries and are astounded at the evidence of what those people have done.

Civilization can be destroyed. Its physical evidence can be made invisible. Its intellectual achievements can be forgotten only to be exhumed in part after many generations and studied and interpreted by the scholars of the distant tomorrow.

Is the world heading for another collapse like that? If so, the Americas must busy themselves quickly and with complete understanding to do their part in holding up those ideals and principles and practicing them which will assure us of the continuance of all that is best in western civilization and strengthening and applying it to the hopes and needs of man. I like to put that stress upon the gathering tonight. I like to look beneath the surface and see great movements of thought, of opinion and of hope that are under way and then to look across the Atlantic and offer every form of sympathy which we have for those who are fighting our battle there.

We are at the edge of a great world emergency and the Americas are powerful enough, large enough, diversified enough in their economic resources and natural products to become the cornerstone of a rebuilt civilization that will not destroy but strengthen those great movements for liberty and freedom and prosperity and peace which we know as the highest achievements of civilized man.