Interdependency and Interrelationship of Common Man


By ALBERT N. WILLIAMS, President, Western Union Telegraph Company

Delivered at the 117th commencement exercises at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N. Y., May 17, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 568-572.

WE are met in anxious times to perform the crowning service of these officers and faculty to you the members of the Class of 1942. For four years you have been trained, guided, counseled, educated in these friendly halls and now this college offers you to the world and to your country.

These are anxious days for you and your country. The dogs of war are unleashed, our territory has been attacked by a treacherous enemy and our fellow countrymen are being killed and wounded.

Our country is noting your entrance into your life's work today with uncommon interest. This is a day of vast industrial civilization, the directing center and force of which lies in engineers. The huge intricate mechanism of civilization which we know today could not exist without engineers to plan, improve and direct it. Under normal circumstances you would be looking forward to enter into active work in a peace time industry or research. Today you face great opportunities and which necessarily must carry vastly greater responsibilities. Our industrial machine is fast being expanded and converted to war work.

This production for war calls for conversion of plants and new construction almost beyond comprehension. The design of plants, the details of conversion and the unprecedented research necessary to find substitutes overnight for vital materials so desperately needed is a job for engineers. The successful results of this war lie largely in the hands of our engineers, both in and out of the armed services.

You must realize, of course, that your training has just started. You will now work with your hands as well as your brain, to master the practical application of those principles you have learned in these past four years. You will learnhow to work side by side with men to produce results. A successful administrator must know instinctively how men will react to new methods, new organizations, new environments, how much they can produce in varying weather and seasonal changes, the differences in the outputs of night and day shifts, which incentives are useful and which are not, how workmen feel toward their fellow employes and toward their management, what home problems these men carry with them, what their hopes, plans and purposes are—these things you must know to be successful in any line, and the joy you will have in gaining that knowledge will more than repay you for the seeming hardships and changes necessitated in doing so. Fortunate you are if you have only your health, brains, and character to recommend you for your start so that you can know the joy and thrill of achievement from humble beginnings. Your great lessons are to come and I envy you the battle. You will not realize until years have past that you have acquired anything of much value in this college training, but the time will come when this intuitive knowledge will be the most valuable thing in your business career. In view of the present emergency, many of you will move forward faster than normally, and this will make your job the more difficult. Remember that the men who will be working and competing with you have an initial advantage in that they have been learning to do practical things while you were here in college. They are therefore ahead of you now through the ability to produce. You are thrust into a world at war. This war is far different than all wars which man has known. More than ever before this is a three-way war effort calling for production, transportation and use. Your training here fits you to enter any of these three coordinated branches and to assume leadership in any of them.

One of the greatest developments of the past fifty years has been toward the development of a nation of experts. It is the usual common fault of these men to forget that they are only experts in a certain field. This specialization is all very wonderful, just so long as we recognize certain limitations and each of us watches to see that it does not extend too far. We have let little criminals develop into expert criminals; also ordinary mad men develop into expert madmen. It is normal for the ordinary man to let the expert do his thinking for him in many fields of special interest, such as in medicine, science, music, etc. In Japan all the people are following an expert madman, in Germany they are following an expert criminal. Here, in America, we began following expert confusionists, expert rabble-rousers, expert hate mongers with their blackshirts, their whiteshirts, their greenshirts, their brownshirts. We began to let them do our thinking for us, and began to lean toward a belief that some men are better than others. And when we began to believe this, we began to look around us to see if we weren't after all, a bit better than our neighbor.

To such a world, what have you,—now that you are welcomed into the company of educated men,—especially to contribute? Clearly you have been given no simple password to material success. You have not entered into any favored clique, or into a way of life easier or smoother than that of your fellow Americans. Many of you will start to work with your hands in shops, plants, or construction jobs in the field to begin your adult training. What this institution has given, you could not have acquired otherwise. True, you could learn the bald facts and formulas without coming here, but in the years now passed you have become trained men together under the subtle influences of this faculty whose life work consists largely in taking you, their rawmaterial, at its least useful point when you entered here, and moulding, guiding, training and leading you as human entities to your present mental development. They have given you not only the accumulated knowledge of the years behind you, but the interpretation of this knowledge.

Beyond the techniques of your discipline, you have here acquired a scale of values which will serve you through life. You have broadened your mental horizon and your concept of your country and the world by close contact with your fellows from all over the world. You can see through their eyes and they through yours and the atmosphere of comradeship here discovered will be carried with you always. You have unconsciously acquired the habits of orderly living. You have learned to approach a problem from an engineer's viewpoint. You have acquired the art of analytical thinking which will give you the tools to use on your problems; the value of these tools will be shown, as in all things planned and executed, by the value of the final result. You can lay your answer beside the known results of the efforts of others before you, so you can profit by their experiments and mistakes. You have acquired a desire to know more and to search throughout written and spoken words for greater light and knowledge of man and his actions. If you are indeed educated men, you now have within you a craving for new knowledge and new horizons, and that desire is quite independent of outside stimuli.

When any strain passes the point of tolerance, the structure collapses. The science of engineering is directed at new ways to bolster and support the strains and stresses so that the structure will not collapse. Democracy has tottered and shifted, and shuddered many, many times, but so far we have been good enough engineers to shore it up at the last moment—to improvise a new equilibrium.

It is not only the philosophy you take into a war but the philosophy that you take out of the war that counts. The democracies came out of the other war with a great cynicism. We could afford the luxury of cynicism then because we were rather easily victorious. It was that comparative ease that undermined us, because with all the energy left unspent, we had very few sacrifices to make in our own reconstruction. That war was too cheap for us. We began to talk nonchalantly about how it made no difference one way or another whether we had won or lost. And shortly we began to believe that rather pleasant-sounding sentiment. But it did make a great difference, as any German could have told us then, and we are just now finding that out.

And so, despite the good philosophy we took into the war, we came out with a cynicism which ripened over night into smugness. That smugness has played a very large part in making this newer and greater war possible. And worse than that, it created mental and even material shadows around events which kept us from recognizing that the structure about us was at the point of collapse. Because that smugness nourished the strangest and strongest idea that America ever had—the idea that peace comes in portions, and that the way to solve the problem of war is to pass a law against it—we not only passed a law against war, but we believed it, and called it the Neutrality Act.

That would have been fine, except for the one fact that the rest of the world did not particularly care about our law. The Germans, the Italians, the Japanese paid no more attention to it than they paid to the speed regulations here in Troy. That was just ignorance on our part, plain ordinary ignorance.

It is very late. It is going to take much more than engineering rules and formulas to prevent a full collapse this time because the stresses have been accumulating, without adequate compensation, since 1914. In many ways this is the same war that I graduated into. We stopped for a while in the middle of that race, and now we are running it again. But while we were stopping, some of the other contestants were still running.

In general, the past twenty-five years, we have been bad engineers. We did not diagnose the situation correctly. And when I say we, I do not mean my generation, and I do not mean America; I mean we, the whole family of democratic nations. That family was much larger when we came out of the war interlude in 1918 than it is now, or was in 1939. The family just drifted away from home, because the roof was leaking, the front stairs were broken and the cellar had caved in. That family of nations had a chance, in 1918, to shore up their home, but chance after chance was abused and discarded. Not from lack of materials, or lack of plan. Oh, there were many plans—good plans and bad plans—but there was no leadership. Call it leadership for history, but call it engineering here.

Yes, when we came to rebuild our house, we came with no wisdom. And it was not without cause that people gave serious thought to burning the house down altogether, along in the twenties. Serious, honest, American people began to think that the democracies were the misfits of the twentieth century. They bungled the peace, and wrangled among themselves in very undemocratic fashion, and when the time finally came two years ago, they began to bungle the war. For a quarter of a century we made a profession of living in a vacuum—we did nothing to feed, nourish and develop peace, and we did nothing to prepare for war. In short we did nothing. And the question raised itself, if democracies did nothing about preserving the peace and nothing about preparing for war, what good are they? That was the cellar of our house caving in and the roof beginning to leak.

And then, when finally they saw that the peace was irretrievably gone and that the war was in their own front yard, this family of nations began to fight with the wrong hand, the wrong guns and the wrong soldiers. It is an engaging thought, for people who like to see prophecies in the stars, that the first world war came to an end at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, because the same fateful figure is the keynote of this struggle —the eleventh hour.

And why did we wait until the eleventh hour? Was it to bargain a little longer, for just a few more dollars, just a few more dreams? And I am not speaking of any one country in particular, I am speaking of the whole family of democracies, some of which had gone to the market place and changed their names,—the children gone to the city, one by one, to the chopping block.

I can think of no reason why each member of this family should go alone. Why the price of saving their individual skin had to grow so high before they set about saving it, and why they went to the chopping block one by one when, if all had gone together, they might have put the chopper on the chopping block instead.

In 1937 Germany would have had to fight fifty million men if she had decided to fight simultaneously the countries she later fought separately. The prospect of even Germany trying to fight fifteen nations on five or six fronts would have been a very frightening prospect, but Hitler did not deal with prospects—only with realities. The reality was that each member of the family was so divided, so engulfed in a tangle of petty interests, and so blissfully sure that it,and itself alone, had a special method of doing business with Berlin that Hitler was able to pick his own good time and place to set up his chopping block disguised as a fruit stand.

Actually, it is a waste of your good time today to keep on asking questions about the members of that family, and the house they lived in, and the mistakes that not only made Hitler powerful, but made him possible in the first place. Let's forget the family cousins because most of them have gone on to that wonderful dreamland they flirted with so long—the New Order. What about the old man who stayed right back on the farm, old Uncle Samuel? He had a lot of questions to answer, questions to answer about certain figures on his books which might have looked good once, but which are slowly beginning to look like a debit.

We in the United States have had several items of expense with no return—abuse of the land, of democratic institutions, of the people themselves. Except for the fact that America was practically infinitely rich underground, we would have made a wasteland out of it a generation ago, the way we spent it. No land in the knowledge of man has known so much neglect, so much waste, so much constant drain. And those things we are now fighting to defend, these democratic institutions, time and again we have actually debated the best way to scrap them. Those we did not actually try to scrap we let fall into jeopardy as Government and Administration over-ripened into politics. But politics, even in its worst odor, is not a national crime, it is just a national laziness; it is the history of democracy that it can withstand war, hatred, dishonesty, betrayal, pestilence; only one thing ever has destroyed it—the apathy, the indifference of the people themselves. Communism is a simple square building with lots of windows to look through, but no doors. Fascism is a simple round tower with many doors at the bottom, no windows, and highly developed concealed lighting. But democracy is the most complicated precision instrument that man has ever invented, and needs the constant, understanding and attention of every man all the time.

But beyond this apathy, we cannot ignore the many instances of selfishness on the part of various groups which have sought to take all the special privileges and dispensations they can lay their hands on, regardless of the effect it would have on the whole.

And another black mark has been fear. Fear of the future, fear of the present, fear of the past. Many a man prays only for peace in his time. Keep democracy running for just one more generation, oh, Lord, just a few more years on this downhill coast, and I won't have to get out and push—out into the unknown, out of my little life, my little scheme.

That is what this democracy has been these past few years. We are not fighting to defend the democracy that is today, not its weaknesses, its frailties, we are fighting for what democracy has offered in the past, and what we think we can build of it in the future. Like a man near death who summons up a hidden ounce of strength and pulls back from inside the door of death—now he will reform, mend his ways, for he has seen the light. We are not quite so lucky, because we have not found that hidden strength yet—we are only fighting for it, knowing somehow that we will find it.

We are fighting to make the most of all our chances, in fact of our last economic chance. Whether we are economists, or philosophers, moralists or historians, we all know that we are fighting for the simple reason that we have no other choice in the matter. We are fighting because the undertow of the past, the backwash with all the jetsam anddebris of man's countless mistakes threatens to engulf us. This turgid, stagnant, odorous, poisonous backwash actually has been called the wave of the future. This abortive wave carried with it ugly but unmistakable truths which made decisions for us—decisions that so many of us were unable to make.

We are fighting because we dare not be defeated. We are fighting something that is more than a man, more than Hitler, the paperhanger; more than Mussolini, the dictator; more than Tojo, the honorable gentleman from Japan. We are fighting an evil that is sweeping the world, an evil that is greater, more brutal, more deadly than the worst plague that ever visited the earth. And we are fighting this evil because finally, almost at the very last, we found the God-given common sense to realize that you just can't pass a law against evil, now or ever, any more than you can pass a law against disease. It has to be found, fought, torn out, and destroyed. The only alternative is death.

When we couldn't make up our minds 25 years ago, we let the power of decision out of our hands. Now we are fighting to get that power back in our hands. You are going out to the Celebes, to India, and elsewhere to fight for your rights, your right to make mistakes, which is every man's privilege, your right to correct your mistakes, which is the exclusive privilege of free men. You are fighting for your right not only to think, but to the time to think, and even more, your right to the experiences to mature you into the power to think. But most important of all, you, we, all of us, are fighting for a chance to come back to our senses and believe in ourselves. An honest respect for and belief in ourselves, has been very much out of fashion for a long, long time, and now that we want it back, like virtue, it can be got only by rebirth.

We are fighting to have a chance to fight. We are fighting because we want a chance to reform and mend those weaknesses. They are not the natural weaknesses of a democracy, they are the natural weaknesses of men. We are no longer fighting with the idea that we will have the automatic reward of a perfect democracy if we win. We used to think it didn't matter whether or not we won in 1918. Now we know, as we know no other thing, that it did matter, and we've gone back there to make sure that we do win.

The strangest thing about us is that, although each one of us is "a common man," we so bitterly and consistently deny that this common man has any rights, privileges, or even reason. The history of man is largely the history of various efforts to guide, direct, patronize and help the common man. This common man has variously been the object of scorn, of pity, of heavy-handed charity and good works, of suspicion when he talked himself, of pogroms when he was one other king's common man, and usually complete confusion to himself. The only thing that has ever been constant has been that this common man has always been the object.

The argument used to be whether or not kings and nobility were possessed with divine right. If that were true, the common man would naturally come somewhere between hippopotami, which feed while they sleep, and kings. But finally, after the French Revolution, and the American Revolution, and the Civil War, it was pretty well agreed, if not by the philosophers and the intellectual elite, by the multitude of common men who did the actual fighting and dying, that those so-called self-evident truths about all men being free and equal were actually true. At last there was a firm and workable belief in the common man, held by the common men themselves, our fathers and our grandfathers, who plowed the ground, laid the rails, built thebridges and surveyed the roads. They believed in themselves and being able to feed and clothe themselves and own their land, did not particularly care what the philosophers said about the common man's ability to care for himself in the world of men.

But lately we have been getting back into that old rut again. Your common man had been getting rather uncommon. He was getting to be an expert, and in being an expert in one particular line, he forgot that he was common in all others. And with this expert feeling about him, he began to feel that everybody who wasn't just as expert as he was needed help.

At long last it is beginning to dawn on us that this carefully built house of cards about who's better than who, each one being better than the next, clear around the world, is a lie, so we are fighting to cut that never-ending spiral back down to a circle. We are fighting to level the whole lopsided topsy-turvy mess, and start over again. We are fighting because we know we are all common men, the world over and that common men cannot live in a world with tyrants and dictators, no more than hot and cold can exist in the same space, or as we have learned to our sorrow, can peace come in portions. Now we know that we are all common men, a human family, and that this human family is greater than any of its self-appointed tribes, and that the world has progressed further than we realize— that now, in 1942, we are all actually interdependent on one another.

Mark these two words well, interdependency and interrelationship. They are formulas, scientific formulas for building a house that will not fall. Those two words are the two formulas, the two equations that the engineers forgot 25 years ago when they tried to shore up this house of democracy. If those words are ignored in the future, we will deprive ourselves not only of the logical rewards of victory, if God so chooses, but of any hope that we can ever again control either the machinery of peace or of war. Those two words, those two formulas, if recognized and intelligently applied, can be blueprints for a new and durable structure that the world has been planning, hesitantly and with many mistakes, for all its history.

There is only one situation where man is not completely correlated with and dependent on every other man and woman on earth, and that is in the graveyard. We tried to bury America this last time, but we found that man goes on, seed unto seed, and we found we could not bury America— only ourselves. The only territory left now in 1942 that could possibly be contained inside a wall is the earth itself. We are now truly United Nations, as true a chemical compound as was ever developed in a laboratory, and if the molecules of this compound are ever separated, chaos and nothing but chaos will result. If only from the standpoint of economics, neither America nor any other country could long survive an isolated peace.

It is simple to talk about the rich possibilities in this vast land, potentialities that could be enjoyed in lonely splendor, but in reality no house can have only one wall. It must have four walls, a roof and a foundation. We are the foundation. We are the factory of this fight, millions of us working night and day building, building, armaments in astronomical amounts. Could this factory, running with its tremendous momentum, be stopped overnight? Not unless America itself wants to stop running. That is what an isolated peace would make of us—paupers on relief—a whole nation on relief, at the mercy and charity of a world that would not care very much what happened to us.

Let us pass for the moment the pressing problems of theimmediate future, and look ahead to the time when peace will again prevail in our land and the world. The physical destruction of this war is on a vaster scale than any known before. The nations on whose soil fighting has taken place will be faced with the task of rebuilding the destroyed tools of commerce and industry. This will require coordination of capital, labor and management on a vast scale. Replacements and the demands for goods from new formulas will be tremendous. Housing, which is one of our serious lacks, will have to be stepped up on a large scale. One of the most vital problems will be conversion of war plants to peace time production and the re-orientation of our industrial life will call for the highest skill of our people. Jobs then will be jobs for engineers, but the undertaking will challenge the brains and ingenuity of our whole people.

But beyond and above all these material things is the absolute necessity for a rebirth of our spiritual values. We cannot, we must not, let the materialism of this war blind us or dull our sensibilities. Our material progress has outrun our spiritual progress and has led us to this present war and to the brink of chaos. We must maintain a balance between the material and the spiritual values, or any victory would be useless. The curtain of knowledge has been lifted for all of us, to see the natural laws and forces required to

transform raw materials not solely into products for the uplift and benefit of man, but we diverted this knowledge to the making of instruments of destruction, and these instruments will destroy us as sure as we stand here, unless we can see and know that above and beyond this material existence is a spiritual realm where the laws governing men are far more important and effective than the so-called material laws. Unless we can tune in with the infinite and synchronize ourselves with the spiritual forces available to all of us, no progress, no victory, no future will be worth a farthing, and we will continue to destroy ourselves until we realize this and avail ourselves of this power which is so lacking today.

If man could point to as many conquests inside himself as he can in the world that surrounds him, what a race of supermen we might all be—wealthy, strong, educated, happy, healthy. But no, we are using the inventions of the twentieth century to fight an eighteenth century war—a war to enslave, to rob, to steal, to murder for the sake of murder. Let this be our vow—if God gives us victory, we shall turn from exploring the world for the use of man—we will explore man, explore ourselves, for no man can build a thing greater than himself and master it, unless he build himself and all men in that same pattern of greatness.