Leadership and the Present Crisis


By O. C. CARMICHAEL, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University

Delivered at the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, November 13, 1941, in New York City

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 139-142.

IN a highly complex civilization in which greater and greater specialization in business and the professions is required, the danger is that leaders may become mere specialists, concentrating upon narrow objectives in particular fields of endeavor, leaving the guidance of society to blind chance or to the less intelligent members of it. One thing is certain, if intelligent citizens fail to assume control, those less endowed will take the helm. The most highly specialized and scientific people of Europe provides the bestexample of the tragedy of this error, a tragedy which affects not only the citizens of that nation but the world as well. What a different situation we would have today if during the past decade the leadership in Germany had insisted upon moderate and civilized methods of solving their problems.

In the early days of the American Republic when matters of public policy were of direct concern to every citizen, the weight of public opinion was readily brought to bear on political questions. As the population grew, the area of thecountry expanded, and the complexity of life increased, the tendency has been for the average citizen to take such matters less and less seriously, and the leaders to feel less and less responsibility for the solution of those problems vital to the general welfare if they do not affect directly their individual interests.

Mr. Archibald MacLeish in one of the most startling statements of this generation, entitled "The Irresponsibles" has accused his colleagues, the writers and scholars of our day, of irresponsibility, of failure to shoulder their share of the burden in the struggle against the revolution of nihilism which is going on in the world today. He has upbraided them for not taking sides and using the power of their pens and their scholarship to uphold the ideals of Western Culture and to withstand the onslaughts of the destructive forces which have already fulfilled their mission in a large part of Europe. He has pointed out that in other times and other countries men of letters have fought as effectively as men with the sword for the maintenance of the ideal of decency and human dignity. He has sounded a warning that unless the writers and men of learning in America use their energies and their power and influence to support the ideals of Western Culture and to maintain the essentials of the American way, the direst consequences may follow.

What Mr. MacLeish has said about his colleagues should be pondered by leaders in all phases of American life. Men of business and the professions, concerned with their individual problems, have taken pains to stay out of politics, to avoid controversial issues. In short, to an alarming extent, they have remained spectators in the social, economic, and political struggles, going on in society about them, refusing to enter the conflict on the grounds that those matters did not affect their business or profession.

In times of peace and prosperity such indifference may be borne without visibly affecting the progress of society, but in critical times like these, there is an imperative necessity that leaders in all walks of life—bankers, industrialists, business and professional men—throw the weight of their influence into the balance to the end that the grave problems confronting us may be solved wisely. The responsibilities of citizens and leaders cannot be shirked without running the risk of disaster.

It is with this background in mind that I have chosen as my subject tonight "Leadership and the Present Crisis." What does the subject of defense include and in what way can the leaders in civilian life make their contribution? It is to these questions that I invite your attention.

National security is unquestionably the chief consideration of the American people. The expenditures for ships, airplanes, guns, tanks, soldiers, and sailors, which have been authorized are clear proof of our deep concern about the matter. No such effort has ever before been made. Despite the economic situation and a badly unbalanced budget, the American people are practically in unanimous agreement that this is a proper step. Compulsory military conscription in peace time, undreamed of in all our long history (until 1940), is further evidence of the anxiety of our people in the present crisis.

As necessary as these preparations are, it is important to remember that the conflict in the world today will not be decided merely by the power of armaments. Material defensive and offensive weapons, however high they may be piled, can never by themselves save a nation. This fact has been clearly demonstrated in this war. Spiritual weapons are the most important part of this equipment, and these must be more than defensive armor, or protective devices. An aggressive faith is fundamental in the warfare of the spirit, and the present struggle is essentially a crusade. The fanaticism forthe State, whatever that may be, in totalitarian regimes, exhibits all the fervor and zeal and imbalance of religious bigotry. This attitude must be met by equally positive convictions, an unyielding faith, and an indomitable will. The battle line is drawn now whether America ever declares war or not. On the one side are arrayed the forces which make for autocracy and oppression; on the other those which strive for democracy and justice. By word and by deed the totalitarian has proclaimed his contempt for democracy, and all that it stands for.

What are the principles which he scorns and which Americans hold to be more precious than life? They may be summed up in the creed which declares:

(1) That man has certain God-given rights which cannot be abrogated, inalienable and irrevocable, sacred and sacrosanct, above the power of the state or of man.

(2) That among these are liberty under law, freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of religious faith, the right to trial by a jury of his peers, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

(3) That the only sound method of social control is a government of laws not of men, that arbitrariness and caprice of rulers high and low should be opposed as a factor in the social order.

(4) That the ideals of justice and mercy, goodness and truth, love and sacrifice should be cherished, fostered, and nourished as the only sound principles of the good life, and of a stable and prosperous society.

(5) That might does not make right, that the law of the jungle must be banished from the earth if civilization is to survive.

(6) That the philosophy of totalitarianism repudiates those principles and is, therefore, disruptive, destructive, and unsound, that it is the greatest enemy of order and stability, and, therefore, of free men, and that it should be opposed with all energy and at whatever sacrifice by free men everywhere.

These ideals rooted and grounded in the hearts and minds of American citizens constitute our surest national defense. To be effective they must represent a profound and unshakable conviction, an aggressive and militant spirit. They must be practiced as well as preached in all relationships. In business, in the professions, in industry, and in government, they must be the objective and the guide. They must be taught to young and old, to rich and poor, to men of high and low estate. This creed must become again the slogan, the rallying point, the basis of genuine, collective enthusiasm throughout the land as it was in the days of America's youth. It must be proclaimed by leaders of every type. It is the common basis of faith for all those who believe in the American way. Men must be willing to fight for it, and if need be to die for it, if civilization is to escape utter chaos and confusion and ultimate collapse.

Liberty and freedom are no meaningless shibboleths. They represent the labor and love, the toil and tears, the blood and sacrifice of the thousands, yea millions, who have preceded us who, through the centuries, laid the foundations of the present structure of our civilization. To forget that fact, to be indifferent to the issues that confront our modern world, to fail to respond to the challenge of the threat to these ideals, is to forsake the most precious assets and values which the past has bequeathed to the present.

Despite the fact that the goal of liberalism adopted by our forefathers in the early days of our history has not been fully realized, it has been a dominating principle, and a powerful stimulus to American development. Indeed the history of the movement antedates the discovery of America, the Magna Charta of the thirteenth century representing its first great advance. For almost a thousand years its central ideal has been the master current in western civilization which has determined the direction of all the important political, economic, and social movements of these centuries. In it have been concentrated the cardinal issues since the close of the middle ages. Is it to be abandoned in the twentieth century? Are we of this generation prepared to defend it against the most serious challenge that it has faced since the renaissance? This is the burning question of our day, the answer to which is of profound significance to the future of America, of inestimable effect on civilization itself.

The danger is not that Americans may lack courage in the presence of difficulties, not that they have too little intelligence for the solution of their problems, not that they are so selfish, as some claim, that they will not make sacrifice for the common good when the issue is clearly drawn; no, the great danger is that the average citizen may not recognize the seriousness of the present crisis, the real importance of the issues involved in it, or the full meaning of the threat to the American way of life inherent in the temper of our times.

Toward the end of his life Washington warned against the danger of forgetting what the curse of tyranny means, and of taking for granted the manifold blessings of liberty which his generation fought to establish. The peril which overshadows even that of involvement in war is that, through neglect, the ideal of liberty and freedom may grow old and die for want of the breath of life which comes from the loyal devotion and the free dedication of courageous men to all that it stands for. Youth and age must once again be enamored of the fair goddess of liberty, and be willing to place upon her altar the best they have if she is to survive in the modern world.

Intellectual and moral leadership, inspired and courageous, is as important in the defense of America as military might. Upon you and the leaders in all phases of American life rests the obligation to inspire this generation with a new sense of responsibility to preserve the American heritage. A sound economic and social structure must ever be sought. Democracy will always have its faults, inequities to be eliminated, social and economic vagaries to be uprooted, political and religious problems to be solved. In pleading for a new kind of dedication to the principles of the American system, it is not to ignore its defects but to express a living faith in the power of its ideals and to emphasize the need for a revival of such faith. It is no longer possible to take them for granted, for they are in imminent danger. Not only must they be defended against opposing ideologies, but they must be studied with renewed zeal and applied with increasing diligence in all phases of American life. To that end the energies and influence of strong leaders everywhere must be dedicated.

The time has come in American life when men must be willing to sacrifice time and effort for the common good as never before in our history. They must be able to comprehend the threat to American ideals inherent in current trends in government, in industry, and in business, and be willing to defend them at whatever cost.

While the Army and Navy must prepare to defend against the enemies from without; civilian leadership must defend against the enemies from within, ignorance, indifference, prejudice, error, intolerance, and alien ideas which constantly threaten from within as well as from without. It must be remembered that the revolution going on in the world today is unlike any other that has preceded. It is a revolt againstthe ideals towards which Western Civilization has been striving for a thousand years, respect for human life, order and decency in human relationships, freedom of thought and action, and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The forces leading that revolt will never be content as long as there is a great Nation on earth where these ideals still remain, for such Nation will not only be a reproach to the type of life for which they stand, but at the same time an incentive to the peoples under the yoke to throw it off. There is, therefore, no compromise with these forces that free men can make without selling their birthright. They must be resisted at whatever cost not only for the sake of this generation, but also for the sake of those who will come after us. This cannot be mere negative resistance. Effective opposition will consist in a fighting faith in the ideals basic to the American way and aggressive efforts on their behalf.

Who will be the proponents of that faith and who will see to it that these ideals continue as effective guides in American life? Obviously the soldiers and sailors cannot be held responsible. Large appropriations will not solve the problem. In the last analysis the leaders in American life in business, industry, and agriculture, and in the professions, must provide the inspiration and, in order to do it, must be willing to devote much time and effort outside the scope of their private interests to the achievement of this purpose.

A part of the task is the education of people as to the place of America in the affairs of the world. As the most powerful Nation new responsibilities devolve upon us which we cannot evade. A new era in our history is emerging for which we must be prepared. A comprehensive plan for making this clear to soldiers and sailors as well as to civilians is needed at present.

During the years following the last world war there was a reaction in this country against any participation in international affairs. Our President who succeeded in persuading the leaders of Europe that a League of Nations was essential to the peace of the world, returned home to find our Congress would have no part in it. For two decades the philosophy of isolationism prevailed with the general feeling that what happened abroad was of no concern to us. The wisdom of our part in the conflict of 1914-1918 was questioned and the foreign policy which led us into it was criticized. The average citizen became convinced that America had no responsibility for what happened elsewhere and should have no part in European troubles. This was the psychology when on September 1, 1939, this Nation and the world were suddenly shocked by the realization that the dogs of war were again rampant, and that the peoples of the earth were threatened with another disaster. Even then there was little sentiment for American intervention. Indeed the neutrality laws and the regulations against American citizens and American ships entering the combat zone declared unequivocally our determination to remain a spectator, with no part in the struggle either in the East or in the West.

The tragic events since 1939 have brought a gradual realization that our vital interests are at stake, that, whether we like it or not, it is impossible to remain aloof and indifferent to the march of oppression and tyranny, that America's destiny is bound up with that of the rest of the world. Gradually it is becoming clear that a Nation's responsibility is commensurate with its place of power, and that to shirk that responsibility may lead to consequences more serious than the risk of war itself. The imagination of the people has been stirred by the possibilities of the spread of anarchy to the Western Hemisphere, and there is increasing realization of the threat to our way of life inherent in the success of those forces that are bent upon destroying democracy.

With this fuller understanding of the meaning of present trends there has been a growing sentiment in favor of a more aggressive foreign policy. The passage of the lease-lend bill, the acceptance of the President's declaration that we must become the arsenal of democracy, the action of the Government in taking over Axis ships, in freezing their funds in this country and in closing the German Consulates, and finally the repeal of the neutrality laws and the arming of merchant ships, all these moves attest the concern of the American people over the turn of events abroad, and their determination to resist the progress of aggression and tyranny. While there are those who still advocate a hands-off policy, the great majority of American citizens see clearly the impossibility of isolation in the modern world.

In short, we have finally awakened from the complacency of the '20's and the lethargy of the '30's, and are beginning to show a new understanding of the inevitable leadership which the United States must exert if western civilization is to survive. This awakening has given new hope to many small Nations in Europe and to the advocates of liberalismthroughout the world. It has likewise strengthened the morale of this country by giving a new sense of direction and purpose to our national efforts and a clearer vision of our opportunity and responsibility in international affairs. A recognition of the role of America in any stable world order and a clear understanding of the present threat to American institutions on the part of the great mass of our citizens is as important as armaments to the national defense and welfare.

However dark the outlook may be today there is no reason for a spirit of defeatism or of despair. With the full economic and industrial power of America in the balance, democracy can and will prevail, and a new day will dawn for the aspirations of man.

It is said that in the pictorial writing of the Chinese, the world "crisis" is composed of two pictures, one representing disaster, and the other opportunity. The situation in the world today is admirably characterized by this symbol. While the dangers are many, the possibilities are great of building a new order out of the travail of the present. On leaders such as you rests the responsibility of realizing these possibilities.