When Night Prevails


By THOMAS H. BRIGGS, of Teachers College, Columbia University

Delivered Before Inter-Divisional Conference at Columbia, July 14, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 637-640.

WHEN night prevails," says the Cock in Rostand's Chanticleer, "then it is fine to think of the light." It is also wise.

It is night now all over the world. Even in the United States, blessed by nature and by the fruits of genius and labor and long protected by geographical isolation, the gloom of the past decade merges with the menacing gloom of the impending years. Our nation has been through the valley of the shadow; and just when it felt that it was again climbing into the sunshine of normal, economic and social life, a deeper and more lasting night is threatened by forces outside our borders and beyond our control.

Some feel that for the threat to our future we are not altogether without blame. After Versailles our people abandoned the active fight for democracy, apparently thinking, if they thought of it at all with the seriousness necessary, that it would take care of itself, that other nations could without help develop its principles by themselves, as we had done, and make them work effectively alongside the traditions of other types of governments and of social relations. An imposed or a partly understood democracy did not flourish on alien soil. After struggling without the active encouragement and help that might have come from the country in which it had developed and flourished, it everywhere withered and was uprooted. Turning from the first World War, we had a general feeling that we had made the world safe for democracy and that our duty was done. Busied with restoring our economic fortunes, we neither exercised ourselves to reestablish in our own country an understanding and a faith in democracy, a recurrent challenge to every generation, nor to make it work with such obvious success that its superiority to other forms of government and society was obvious to ourselves as well as to others.

Preparing for War

In the shadow of the new night that is closing down over us we are preparing again, actively and hopefully, for a military struggle that will preserve the light of civilization as we have known it and as we would have it. In a sense we are already in the military war: even though the blood of our sons is not being shed, much of our economic and industrial life is redirected to those activities that cannot possibly promote constructive prosperity and happiness.

A War of Ideals

Whether or not we become engaged actively in a military contest, we should recognize that we are already in a war of ideals, as we always have been and as we always shall be. Without a consciousness of the menace, without the mobilization of our forces, and without preparing and using our most effective weapons, democracy is enduring a continuous assault, all the more dangerous because it is not generally perceived. The threat of military defeat is occasional and the effects on the slow calendar of time are transient; but the threat to the effectiveness of democracy and even to its survival is unending, and the effects of its weakening or destruction are of long duration.

In this war of ideals democracy is on the defensive. Its enemies have decided with great definiteness exactly what they want; they have converted almost all of their people whom they have not confined, exiled, or "liquidated" to such an approval of their ideals as results in work and willing sacrifice; they have laid plans skilfully and have carried them out with ingenuity and persistence. This definitely purposeful organization, this complete preparation, this effective program to make a nation not only understand but also to be a devoted part of progress as they see it, this persistence—all set up a threat and an active offensive that democracy cannot withstand without similarly skilful, complete, and continuing efforts to promote the ideals to which we profess devotion.

Democracy, on the other hand, has been largely passive. It has not understood its danger; it has not accepted the challenge to fight for its preservation and promotion. It is not sufficient to declare that men are free; it is necessary to make them not only competent but also eager to take advantage of their freedom, to strive eternally and effectively toward the clearly seen and eagerly desired goal of a liberated richer, happier life.

The plain fact of the matter is that as a people we do not today take democracy seriously. The public at large does not know what its essential meanings are. They have repeated the slogan without an understanding of the principles of the ideal and the implications, in responsibilities as in its rights, to which it leads. With long use the edges of its meaning have lost their sharpness, so that for each generation with new conditions and new problems it needs to be reminted. Democracy has been cited as a justification for non-sensical, unsound, and outrageous proposals; it has been mouthed by demagogues for their selfish ends. But nevertheless it is the foundation of all that we hold highest and most sacred. It stands for an ideal that is the hope of the world. It is a beacon that lights the road to political, social, economic, and industrial progress. It is worth fighting for.

Strength in Defined Democracy

How can democracy defend itself against the effective war that is now being waged against it unless its people know what it is and what it implies? We know that we hate better than what we love. We hate more fiercely than we love ardently. Hate impels us more consistently and more effectively to action than love does. It is more dramatic, more blood-stirring. It is not hard to hate totalitarianism, which we personify in the figure of its leaders. But we do not personify democracy; we take it as a benign abstraction. And no one becomes enthusiastic about an abstraction or fights for it or sacrifices for it. One does not love an abstraction or die for an abstraction or, what is infinitely harder, live and work and suffer for an abstraction. But it is not enough to hate or to fight Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin; we must understand what democracy stands for, love that with a flaming passion, and fight for the privilege of sacrificing as may be required for making it a real force in our lives.

Democracy cannot wage a winning fight unless its people not only understand what it means and implies, but also have for it a passionate devotion. If democracy is to prevail, it must grip its people, the mature and especially the young, with the power of a religion. We must have understanding, but we must also have such a revival as three quarters of a century ago swept Lee's soldiers from the Rapidan to the Rappahannock, which enabled them to suffer when necessary with calm happiness and to fight with a fervor that won battles against impossible odds.

In preparation for a military war we have drafted many of the ablest men and women of the nation. Many others have been left in their accustomed places of work, but the genius manifested in industry and in other activities they are redirecting to the preparation of what may be needed for military combat. When our military forces are fully mobilized we shall have no fear of ultimate success in the defense of the physical assets of our country. But our physical wealth, vast as it is, cannot compare in importance with the spiritual assets that we have won through the persistent and sometimes painful exertions of our forbears. The Bill of Rights in the Constitution is more worth defending than all of our factories and all of our farms.

We can win a military war and lose our most precious possessions. We may escape an actual clash at arms, and at the same time fail to preserve the most cherished ideals which have made our civilization worth saving. Such losses are just as possible because of neglect to understand and to give devoted service to democracy as they are from the overwhelming force of foreign arms.

The Necessity of Planning

Who is thinking ahead of these essential things? Who is planning for the preservation of the rights and even of the obligations that we gladly assume in order that men's minds may be free and their personalities respected as sacred? Our government has set up boards for planning and regulating all the processes of a possible military war. But democracy is being left to shift for itself, on the assumption, perhaps, that it is generally understood, which is far from true, thatits applications to the complexities of modern life are evident, and that everybody has sufficient devotion to its principles to contribute willingly the work and the sacrifices necessary to make a unified and truly victorious nation.

But democracy cannot be left to shift for itself. Unless it is continually clarified, unless there is developed in it an impelling faith, unless it is seen to be directive of action in all phases of modern life—social, religious, political, industrial, and economic—it will be meaningless. A defeat at arms would be insignificant if we have already defeated democracy by neglect. It is incumbent on every citizen who appreciates the need to use his influence, not once only but continually, to have made and promoted a vigorous campaign of education for democracy, not only by the schools for children and youth but also by other government agencies for adults, especially those enlisted for the physical defense of the nation.

Inevitably, at some time and upon some terms, will come a military peace, when the forces of reason will replace the forces of arms. What do we want then? The objectives of peace are more important than the objectives of war. What sort of civilization do we desire after peace is consummated? What is it that we are really preparing to fight for? It is important that we know the answers to these questions now. It is important, if we are a real democracy, that our people be welded into a national unity by understanding and devotion to the peace aims. It is important, if we are a real democracy, that our soldiers and sailors and marines know what it is that they are called on to fight for—not merely the negative thing, the defeat of an enemy, but the positive thing, a civilization that is worth fighting for, sacrificing for, and, if need be, dying for. Without a unity based upon understanding and devotion the war will be fought in vain, whoever may sit at the head of the peace table.

As we have learned from the history of many wars and as we recollect from 1918, always consequent to the restoration of peace there are problems of the gravest import. Millions of men discharged from the armies will need to be rehabilitated into civil life. Other millions will be thrown out of work when plants that have been used for the manufacture of military supplies are closed down. We have hardly forgotten the sequelae of the First World War—the unemployed helpless and hopeless, the "march to Washington," the boy and girl tramps, the frenzied speculation, the financial crash, the frozen credits, the closed banks, the long depression, the generation of youth with natural appetites and aspirations and without adequate provision for assimilation into the civilization into which they were born, the shortsighted and impotent leadership. It is inconceivable that we have not profited from these and other similar experiences. And yet, with all of our boasted pride in efficiency of planning and administering we are developing no program for the situation which everyone must recognize will inevitably confront the nation at the close of the military wars with which we are threatened.

It was in just such people that Hitler found the material for revolution in Germany. He promised them not merely bread and shelter and employment, but something infinitely more potent, a great national cause with which everyone could ally himself and thus gain an individuality and a self-respect. That cause was definite; it was made dramatic, and it stirred in the bosoms of millions who were humbled, obscure, poor and hungry a hope of bettering their conditions and a pride emanating from a consciousness of national solidarity, to which each one could in his own definite way contribute. Hitler gave his people something to believe in, something that stirred them to hope, something that impelled them to devoted service.

The Yearning to Belong

Lawrence Dennis wrote six years ago: "What people cannot endure is not belonging. The tragedy of capitalism——unemployment—does not inhere in the phenomena of want and privation, but in the spiritual disintegration of large numbers of people from the group culture. Hitler can feed millions of his people acorns, and yet, if he integrates them in a spiritual union with their community, they will be happier than they were while receiving generous doles from a regime which gave them no such spiritual integration with the herd." The experiments of the Western Electric Company with its personnel have given ample support to this emphasis on the effectiveness of integration. Our people need to identify themselves with the great cause of democracy. They can do that only through understanding and devotion.

People, especially youth, yearn for something to believe in, something to live for, something to work for, something to sacrifice for, something big and noble with which they may ally themselves. Dorothy Thompson recently reported an illuminating conversation with four young men, recent graduates from college, who were despondent and wandering because they felt that their education had for the most part tended to such critical aloofness from life that it had broken down their belief in any positive values and had weakened their faith in their country. "It had put them into intellectual and psychological confusion and into an inner despair out of which they had sought refuge in various ways at various times," on of them through casting his lot temporarily with the Young Communists, because, as he said, "they alone seemed to be perfectly clear in their own minds where they were going." Another had fallen into complete scepticism; a third into "the modern liberalism, resolution-signing, peace-parade sort of thing," and the fourth into "the only thing that seemed solid—my own egotism and self-interest."

Finally, in the conversation, one of them said, "When I went to college I was full of enthusiasm, particularly interested in history and philosophy. I wanted to find out what made wheels go round in this world. I wanted to prepare myself to do something—not just make money—not just to be a 'success,' but to achieve something, for myself, for my country, for my times. Damn it," he cried in an explosive outburst of candor, "I wanted to love something—something bigger than I am. I wanted to be a part of something." Another one said, "I observed in reading history that the people who moved this world were animated by a passion for something. I could see that you couldn't write off faith as one of the prime molders of history, and that when there wasn't any faith, pure gangsterism and piracy broke loose. I could see that if I and my generation were going to mean anything in this world and not be just dots and specks pushed around by forces we couldn't control, we had to find out what our convictions were." Democracy will furnish that basis of faith and that force of integration that all desire.

What the detailed program for our civilization after the return of peace should be no one can say with certainty. But we can be certain of two things: one is that we shall need a program already prepared in its major outlines by the deliberations of the best minds of the nation; and the other is that this program must be based on the foundation principles of democracy. Without such a program that emanates from a widespread and devoted faith in such principles we shall grope in despondency, perhaps a majority of our people ready to follow a demagogue who promises what no one can deliver or a dictator who will set civilization back so far that our children's children will never see its recovery. We cannot afford to wait until the emergency is upon us,any more than we can afford to defer military armament until an enemy is debarking upon our shores or darkening our skies with hostile aircraft. It is plan now or perish later.

The Good Old Days Are Gone

There are those who still think in their innocence that after peace we shall return to "the good old days." But however defined and however regretted, the good old days are probably gone forever. Like the rest of the world, our country is already in revolution, as anyone can see who looks back over the past decade or two. Radical changes are taking place in our economic, industrial, political, religious and social life. War or no war, changes are inevitable here as elsewhere. Mercifully our revolution has thus far proceeded peacefully, without riot and bloodshed, which is explained partly by the tradition of our people and partly by the weakness of the opposition. Our friends across the water find comfort in chanting "There will always be an England," but never again will there be the England that was, and never again will our own civilization be what it was a short generation ago.

In aiding England we have been assuming that in the future we shall cooperate with the best of the old England that was. There is no assurance that it will survive even if Germany is utterly defeated. Ernest Bevin has already given warning that his government can expect continued support only if it is prepared to promise far-reaching social reforms when the war is over, if not before. And certainly, whoever is victor in the military struggle, there will be changes in both government and society of every country. We shall be in no position to consider cooperation with any nation until we have determined exactly what our ideals are and in consequence what our interests demand.

The Inevitable Revolution

Revolution, violent or mild, being inevitable, the questions that we have to face are what kind of civilization do we want, and are we wise enough to plan so as to direct it? The people who plan the best revolution will win the war.

There is abundant reason to believe that our people are ready, receptive and eager for leadership in preparing for a new social order that is based on the democracy in which they still have a devoted but insufficiently defined faith. "The hungry sheep look up and are not fed." Without leadership they will not only "rot inwardly and foul contagion spread," but they will be ready victims of "that two-handed engine at the door" which "stands ready to smite once and smite no more." That engine is the opposition to democracy.

The American Way of Life

Though what we call the American way of life is still evolving, still struggling toward ideals that steadily move upward with man's enlightened progress, it is in its essence very simple. So far as the popular mind can be interpreted, democracy seems to base on three faiths.

The first and essential faith is that the maximum happiness of every individual is the purpose of all human association. From beginnings in infant selfishness, one grows through experiences with his family and later with larger groups to appreciation of the fact that the extent and substantiality of his own happiness is determined by that of the entire social group with whom he is associated.

The second essential faith is that every human personality is worthy of respect. Only as it is respected, by itself as well as by others, can it grow and make its maximum contribution to the welfare and happiness of others. Because of this faith society, through organized government, is providing food, clothing, and decent shelter for the unfortunate and the needy, not as charity but as an expedient to enable thesepeople to retain or regain their own self-respect and thus to contribute their best to the making of happiness for all. Because of this faith we seek to free all men from the chains of ignorance, of superstition, of fear, and of abasement that each one may develop his unique powers and stand shoulder to shoulder in the forces of cooperative welfare.

The third essential faith is that the wisest decisions concerning broad social policies result from the pooling of opinions from the wisdom of all who are concerned. To deny this faith is to assume that those with superior wisdom can surely be found and will be selected, that they can be trusted to exercise their wisdom consistently for the general good, that the wisest in one matter are also the wisest in all matters, and that being intrusted with power for one occasion they will relinquish it when it is no longer justified. Since such assumptions have never failed in the history of mankind to be false, there is only one conclusion to which intelligent and public-spirited men can come—and that is to have faith in the superior wisdom of the general social mind. Moreover, it is only by exercising the right to share in making decisions that citizens grow in the power to do so unselfishly and wisely.

Beginning with some such interpretation of democracy, we need to stir the entire nation, adults as well as youth, to such a consideration of fundamental social ideals that conviction and devotion will result. Only after there is clarification of mind by all who will take the trouble really to think about the matter shall we have laid a foundation upon which to erect the structure of the new revolution. Without this foundation in the popular mind we shall have uncertainty, disunion, groping, and inevitable disaster.

Education for Democracy

The schools have already increased their emphasis on the teaching of democracy, and undoubtedly they not only are its best exemplification but also are the most effective agency that society has for perpetuating its ideals and for promoting its plans for the future. But the schools are handicapped by the fact that teachers by and large have done little more than the general public in the clarification of their own conception of democracy. They are handicapped also by the fact that when they are most effective in teaching the American way of life, especially in specific applications, they are estopped by citizens whose definite selfish interests overwhelm their concern for the general good. These obstacles will continue until the people are led to clarify their understanding of the meaning of democracy and to come to general agreement on it.

Teaching democracy in the schools is essential, but it is not enough. Leadership must stimulate the concern and the thinking of adults as well. For the most part we must rely on voluntary leaders who will use the press, the radio, forums, and organizations of various kinds. Inevitably in discussions there will be wide and occasionally violent disagreements; but gradually there will emerge the foundational faiths, perhaps those already enumerated, on which the structure of the new civilization may be soundly built.

At the present time society has an inviting and challenging opportunity for stimulating a consideration of the meanings of democracy leading to a clarification of understanding and to a deepening of devotion to them. That opportunity is afforded by the enrollment of hundreds of thousands of young men in the army, the navy, and the marines, and of the youth in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps and under the National Youth Administration. A peculiar opportunity, which will not conflict with the requirements of the army and the navy, is afforded in men between the time when they are called by the draft and when they are inducted into military service. Any community, without waiting for government leadership, aid, or direction, could perform a service of patriotism by offering suitable courses of instruction or forums for discussion. Can anyone doubt that it is more important in the long run to educate these youths and men in the meanings of democracy and to develop in them a devoted faith to it that it is to train them in the military and vocational curricula that have been prepared?

When the dislocation consequent on demobilization comes democracy will need just these young men to be clear in their heads and devoted in their hearts. Without a great nucleus of a democratic society such as they may be led to become, the social, industrial, and economic reconstruction may be a revolution indeed in the violent sense of the word.

Planning for Peace

Preparation for peace should be begun now by our government using as able men and women as are already directing our preparation for military war. It should concern itself with private and public enterprise, with the relations of capital and labor, with planned production, with exports and imports, with the financial structure of the nation, for individuals as well as for the government, with higher standards of living, with health, with a wise use of leisure time, with education—with everything, in fact, that makes for the prosperity and happiness of our people. But planning such as this is dependent on decision as to the kind of civilization we want, and that kind of civilization will be determined by our concept of democracy and on our faith in it.

There is an old saying "In time of peace prepare for war." We should be far wiser if we accept and act now on the reverse, "In time of war prepare for peace."