The Background of Youth


By ALAN P. GRIMES, A. B., University of North Carolina Recipient, Bryan Prize in Political Science

Delivered at the Institute of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, July 4, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 24-25.

"THE true battleground of this war is the minds of the young men." So spoke Archibald MacLeish recently. You may talk about convoys to Britain, or embargoes on Japan, or supplies to Russia, but far more important than the battle of the Atlantic or the battle of the Pacific is the battle that has been going on here at home. It is our generation's fight for a new philosophy of life.

I would not agree with Mr. Louis Fischer when he declared in his recent speech that American youth has bad morale. Perhaps it was true a year ago, but certainly not today. For any observer would agree that the sequence of events over the last year has caused a decided change in the thinking of our youth.

Our generation is suffering a very trying period. Not in the field of action but in the field of thought, thought which leads to and directs action. We have been brought up in a period during which there has been an attempt at a new system of education. It has been a sort of renaissance of rationalism, a so-called realistic approach to life. Much of it we have been able to swallow, but comparatively little of it have we been able to synthesize and think over carefully. The present crisis came upon us, like so many others, just a little too fast. We, American youth, thinking ourselves the advance guard of liberalism, actually proved to be a few years behind the times. For instance, we were still mulling over Walter Millis's book, "The Road to War," which came out in 1935. Most of us had failed to read his "Why Europe Fights." Let us take the former book as an example. After the last war, many writers and teachers felt that they knew the answer to this problem of war in Europe and America's place. This knowledge they casually passed on to us. And our impressionable minds were only too eager to grasp these easy solutions. "The Road to War" became an assigned reading in most high school and college history courses. When this war broke out, many American youths jumped at the chance to apply their knowledge. At least they knew the answer. When this war began, it was only too easy to draw a parallel between this one and the last one. Lessons of propaganda, as taught by Mr. Millis, became the watchword of American youth.

To support this idea we had been taught in psychology the nature of emotions. Mob psychology became a fertile field for research. Above all else, we must be rational. Now, we no longer trusted the words, but even distrusted what may have been between the words. Patriotism, we thought, was a covering up of an ulterior purpose.

Senator Nye conducted his famous investigation of the munitions industries in 1934. Besides propaganda, we chalked up another term in our vocabulary: War Profiteers. Somehow or other, war profiteers created wars, not Hitlers orMussolini's. Then the U. S. retreated to a position of neutrality. But there are other factors that entered into this re-birth of rationalism, rationalism in which we found ourselves to be not so rational. Rationalism by its very nature is dependent upon a highly critical attitude. And American youth, faithfully following the footsteps of their instructors, became highly critical. Oh yes, we became the most outspoken critics of them all. In nothing, it seems to me, did we become quite so adept, as at criticising. But unfortunately, our criticising tended to be in only one direction. We attempted to find out what was wrong in politics, economics, and the social order. We failed to see what was right in the world. And so, we developed a philosophy of disbelief, of skepticism, a negative philosophy. Oh, we had a few obscure ideals such as peace, social equality, but peace itself means nothing unless you are willing to take the necessary steps to achieve that peace. We became thinkers and agitators but not very good actors in this pageant of life. Thus we heartily argued for aid to China, sanctions on Italy, aid to Spain against Franco. But where were we when the test came, how did we argue on the aid to Britain question at the beginning of this war?

I remember how so many of us jumped at the chance to call this an imperialist war. While Hitler pursued his bloody course across the continent, we were still back arguing about propaganda and war profiteers. And if anyone suggested that this was a war between Democracy and Fascism, there would always be some youth to jump up and say, "How can Britain be a democracy? Look at India and Ireland." Oh yes, we knew all the negative features. But what was said of all the innumerable democratic achievements of the British system? We ignored them; they were positive arguments with which we had little concern.

To aid us in this "rational" approach to life we were fully supplied with the realistic novels of the past two decades. We became intimately acquainted with the sordid slums, workingman's rights, civil liberties and the like. Now I do not condemn this literature as such, but a little learning is a very dangerous thing. And a philosophy built on half-truths and omissions, gives easy rise to half-baked ideas. The vociferous disciples of disillusionment nurtured our philosophy of disbelief. One by one our ideals tended to slip away. Religion was first to go. We were concerned only with materialistic values, and emotions and religion seemed too closely bound together. Pragmatism became our philosophy, our religion. Absolute values just didn't seem to fit into a changing world.

A critical attitude demands a certain degree of skepticism. But skepticism loses its entire constructive value when it degenerates into cynicism. Our training made it only tooeasy for us to lose a healthy skeptical attitude and to become bogged in the morass of cynicism. And the curse of cynicism is inaction. But there were many events that assisted us in the formation of this attitude. First, our background of literature—Remarque, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner, and others, had given us a blind passion for peace. The peace at any price idea became only too prevalent in this country a few years ago. Then there was the sequence of minor wars, trial balloons so to speak. When the first Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1931, many high school and college papers demanded sanctions or some such step to stop the aggressor. I think, for the most part, youth was quite outspoken in the Chinese cause. But so little was actually done by the large powers that the episode fostered the growing spirit of disillusionment among American youth. Even the American public seemed completely unconcerned with the problem of war in Asia. The unemployment rate rose while The Saturday Evening Post continued to "view with alarm" government interference with the workingman's right to work. And youth reacted by becoming increasingly cynical about this capitalistic democracy. Mussolini gave the battle-cry and Italians flowed into Ethiopia, while American oil flowed into Italy. At home, disillusionment increased.

By the time World War Two came, the attitude among American youth had been quite firmly established. Of course, I am using youth in a very limited sense. I am thinking only of those who were somehow out of gear with the rest of the nation, whether as isolationists, pacifists, appeasers, or those just indifferent to the whole crisis. This attitude may be briefly summarized as consisting of the following points:

1. Loss of faith, lack of ideals, a completely materialistic philosophy.

2. Cynicism. Youth was fearful of propaganda, emotions, war profiteers.

3. A vague sense of humanitarianism. For example, aid to China, aid to labor unions, etc. I say a vague sense of humanitarianism because when the actual test came, when the conflict came close at hand, youth balked, and paused to think it over.

4. Fear of making a mistake. There was a widespread feeling at the beginning of this war that we shouldn't move too quickly for we might be making a serious mistake.

5. A misunderstanding of the word peace. Many youths, reasoning in the negative manner, felt peace was a mereabsence of war, of open conflict. Few thought then of the positive nature of peace. The love of peace meant only peace in the negative sense.

6. An economic interpretation of history. Not in the strictly Marxist sense, but in a fashion which places a premium on economic motives, to which all other motives are subordinate.

Fortunately there has been a considerable change of opinion among American youth. The change has been slow, much too slow. But it is very difficult to discard at a word ideas which have developed throughout the most impressionable period of your life. Before we were able to start learning, there was a great deal of unlearning to be done. And I can assure you, it was not an easy task for most of us. We have been accused of being a soft generation, of being conspicuous by our self-concern and lack of moral fiber. But remember, we did not grow up in a world devoid of ideas. Nor did we initiate these ideas previously mentioned. We merely adopted them, thinking them valid. Our generation may have been the pupils, but which generation were the teachers? In all fairness, I think you must admit that our generation has shown a greater degree of intellectual honesty than some of our more outspoken national figures. We have faced the issue squarely, and are rapidly reconstructing our philosophy.

We are only too aware of what Mr. MacLeish says when he states that the battleground of this war is the minds of the young men. For many years the propaganda if nihilism has found a foothold in our minds. Before fighting nihilism from without, we must first be masters of our minds.

I cannot close without a comment upon our morale. Mr. Louis Fischer charged the other night that, "The attitude of our young people towards the war is one of bored resignation. Dull, pained acceptance of the government's policy is more characteristic of the young American generation than the passionate support or an eager desire to fulfill a mission." Yes, perhaps it was true a year ago. But I think it is a most unfair generalization to make today. I believe that the morale of the large majority of our youth is considerably stronger than most people realize. It is not manifested in blind patriotism, but it is strong, very strong because we have a fervent desire to do for the next generation what was not done for us. It is our hope to hand down to our children a far better world, and with it a far better philosophy of life than was handed down to us. This is our mission, as well as our challenge.