Our America Tomorrow
CAN WE RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO GET SOMETHING FOR NOTHING
By KARL T. COMPTON, President, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Metropolitan Opera House Broadcast, over NBC Chain, March 15, 1941
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 361-362.
JUST to get started in our thinking about America tomorrow, suppose I begin by asking myself two very simple questions. For example, I ask where will Mr. Joshua Smithers be tomorrow? Well, if I knew anybody by that name, and knew where he is today, and knew what direction he is going, and what is his method of transportation and something about his habits, I might make a fairly reliable answer to that question. But since I know absolutely nothing about Mr. Smithers and do not even know if such a person exists, any answer which I might attempt would be worthless.
But if I asked myself the same question about my friend, Bradley Dewey, I could give a much better answer. I know that he stopped in Washington yesterday and left today by automobile for St. Louis. I also know that he is an intelligent and purposeful man and a skillful driver and feel very certain that tomorrow he will be well along his way to St. Louis. There is, of course, the chance that he may have changed his mind, or had an accident with his car, but the chance of his not being well on the way to St. Louis is very small.
In the same spirit, and with the same qualifications, I believe that an intelligent answer, and a generally correct one in high probability can be given to the question "where will our country be tomorrow?"—meaning of course, five, ten, twenty-five years from now. We first need to know where America is today. In what direction she is going, what forces are taking her along her path and what is her character.
Starting with today, we know that America is in most respects the envy of every other people on earth. Often we find fault with this or that condition in our America, but any useful judgment of America today must consider practical standards of comparison, and by comparison with any other part of the world. We have sound reason to be thankful and to have faith in the future.
Natural resources? The most varied and abundant of any nation. Comforts of life? By all physical standards—such as heated and lighted homes, silk stockings and fur coats, automobiles and refrigerators, movies and radio, medical care, and food supply; far ahead of any other people. Freedom of speech and action? Where else in the world today
can you come as near to saying what you think or acting as you please—as long as you act decently—or you can go ahead just as far as your ability and luck will take you—even granting that situations are not perfect.
So I submit that America starts today in a situation that should give us real confidence in tomorrow.
In what direction is America going? Just look for a minute at a few typical facts. The great chemical industry of our country all which vitally and beneficially affects almost every aspect of our lives . . . have practically speaking come into being during the twenty years only since the last war. Rayon, Nylon, Plastics, Safety-glass, anti-knock gasoline, dyestuffs and innumerable medicines are only a few of its products. Through successful research and wise management it continued to grow even through the recent depression. We can see no limit to further progress in this direction. The electrical industry tells a similar story which you all know.
Thirty years ago, we would have called fantastic any claim that by today we would be talking without wires from Australia to New York, that a person in Chicago could clearly see his friend in New Orleans, or that commercial flying machines would be carrying a significant part of the passengers and mail traffic of the country. Yet here we are doing these things almost as a matter of course and hundreds of other new things as well, and some millions of men and women are today earning their living by making or selling or operating all these new creations of science.
Simultaneously by enslaving coal, and steam, and water power, and machines, our human toil has been lessened to a standard of forty hours a week, the earnings and production from our toil have been multiplied, and we have been able to afford some social security. Also we have shared more wealth—not so much by taking it from the rich and spreading it around as some people think, for that would be but a drop in the bucket. The wealth that has been shared far and wide and is being shared still further, is almost entirely wealth which has actually been created by brain with the help of machines. In other words, "technological progress" is the phrase which epitomizes the direction in which America is going.
So what will our America be like tomorrow? I look tosee a race of Americans made healthier by medical progress and better living conditions. I look to see them gainfully employed in industries now undreamed or only in the embryo stage, I look to see more wealth distributed not by taking it away from someone who has a good share but by creating it, for that is the proven way of science. I look to see people living in homes of new designs, in conveniences and attractiveness, based on new structural materials and methods and located in groups planned for effective community life. I look to see great cyclotrons appearing as chemical factories instead of laboratory instruments. I may see great power plants in which the fuel under the boilers need not be replenished in one thousand years. I shall certainly expect to see rain and fog eliminated from the list of hazards to travel by sea or air. These are only a few samples of what America's future looks like to me.
Thus we can predict our American Tomorrow from our knowledge of America's position today and the direction in which she is going. But you may have noticed that I have omitted one stage in the analogy with my friend who is on his way from Washington to St. Louis. In addition to knowing his starting point and direction, I had to know something about his character, or all else would have been useless in predicting his course. Had he been weak or vacillating or thoughtless, I could not have been at all sure where he would be tomorrow, whatever else I might have known about him today.
So back of America's position in progress lies America's character, as a factor on which our American tomorrow depends. This means your character and mine and our neighbor's, all over this land. Are we willing to pull together like a well trained and disciplined crew, to carry out effectively the majority will of our people, as made known through our democratic processes of election and free speech? Are we far sighted and determined enough to make today the sacrifices necessary to safeguard America today and to plan intelligently and work hard for America tomorrow? Can the will to resist the selfish and vicious tendency to try to get something for nothing by class legislation or by wicked politicians instead of holding to the good American doctrine of fair play and a fair reward for honest work? Have we wisdom to handle our good heritage and courage to advance and improve it? I believe we have, and that is why, despite temporary and grave problems which we face today, I can feel the optimism and enthusiasm about the American tomorrow in which your children and mine will live and which you and I are trying to safeguard and improve for their sakes.