The Challenge of Peace


By ERIC A. JOHNSTON, President, Chamber of Commerce of the United States

Delivered before Baltimore Association of Commerce, June 15, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 583-585.

AS I gaze about this room, I see not only the faces of friends—businessmen like myself who gather to discuss common problems and promote mutual objectives. I see the faces of the men and the kind of men who built America. For business built America, created the world's most powerful nation. Business dug the coal and iron ore from the mines of America, and created railroads and skyscrapers. Business placed wheels under the combustion engine and sent more than thirty million cars and trucks gliding from assembly lines to a vast network of highways, which business also built. Business developed and sold everything from bathtubs to ice cream, and gave America an opportunity to enjoy a standard of living and a way of life such as no nation in history ever even dared dream.

Even the long-haired theorists and shortsighted philosophers who predict the death of private enterprise will admit that free businessmen built America. Many of these apostles of gloom believe that private enterprise is at the end of the rope: that we've reached the end of the age of inventions and ingenuity. And even as they ring the deathknell of American progress and achievements, we of the world of business and industry are forging ahead, giving birth to miracles in our laboratories and plants.

I see the faces of men who must and will guide the forward march of our country's destiny. It has been your inspiring task to build America. It is now your patriotic privilege to produce for the protection of America. It will be your great responsibility to perpetuate American traditions and freedoms when we have won the victory.

On every hand you see the evidence of what you have accomplished. Virtually every product made by man is made better and in greater quantities by the American creator and master of mass production.

Because of the limitations of military secrecy and other considerations, your accomplishments of today are not so much in evidence. We are not engaged in a musical comedy war, with soldiers marching through the streets every day to amuse and thrill the populace. World War II is a deadly war of mechanization and the machines—the planes and tanks and guns—that businessmen are pouring over the Axis in a fiery torrent are not being used for parades.

But Cologne knows what you are doing. Thousands of miles away, across a continent and a vast ocean, a city of strange people and stranger customs—a city called Tokio— has cringed under the wrathful might of American production. In the Coral Sea and off Midway, America's courageous airmen, seamen, and soldiers have proved your power.

But Hitler and Hirohito—and yes, Mussolini, although I shouldn't bother to even mention that deflated example of small-time dictatorship—haven't seen anything yet. Our country's businessmen and industrialists are giving the dictators smashing proof of freedom's power. We of America, one nation united, are producing better weapons, planes, and guns and producing them faster than the three Axis nations combined!

Yet, despite all past and present proof of the amazing inventiveness and productiveness and technological progress of business working under freedom's flag, there are those who despair for continuance of the American enterprise system when we have won the war.

On every side you hear woeful predictions of post-war economic and social disaster. What a pretty picture is painted by these prophets of pessimism! Vast hordes of unemployed people, subsisting at taxpayer's expense on a government dole; call it by any other name, attach it to all the letters of the alphabet, it will smell no sweeter—it is still a dole. A crushing, demoralizing national debt which will most assuredly disrupt all economic processes. Excessive production and dwindling purchases. Is that the hopeless future of cultural and commercial stagnation that anyone here forecasts for this great and progressive country? It is not my future, it is not the future of the United States!

American enterprise, today's arsenal of democracy, is meeting the challenge of war. American enterprise, builder of tomorrow's world, will equally and gloriously meet the challenge of peace.

That is the answer of a free people to the dictators who preach the propaganda of democratic decay.

Yet, we of business will certainly not solve the problems of the future by merely saying that they will be solved. These questions confront us: When war production stops, what is to take the place of the artificial demand which has kept us all busy? Where will the twenty million people employed in war industries, and the seven million military who return to civilian life find employment? How will we repay a national debt which will probably be no less than 200 billion dollars?

Europeans asked themselves similar questions after the first World War. Two countries—one victor and one vanquished—found no satisfactory answers. In Germany, there were many people who said: "We can't eat liberty. Economic theories are not digestible."

A man mad with ego, a man with a Napoleonic complex much magnified, a former housepainter and unsuccessful artist named Schickelgruber, sensed that the time was ripe for the fulmination of his personal greed and crazy ambitions.

He told the German people: "I will give you food; I will give you employment; I will be your master!"

And so the Germans swapped freedom for food and regimentation. But this lunatic in his distorted but clever mind knew that he could not dominate the people indefinitely by merely providing work at bare living wages, by merely planning and constructing job-making government projects.

So what did he do?

He took advantage of a noble human trait and evilly defiled it. "In the breast of man, hope springs eternal." Realizing this, Hitler raised an army, erected munitions factories, and gave his soldiers a slogan: "Today Germany—tomorrow the world."

He replaced the principles of freedom with the principles of force. He couldn't make it; he proposed to take it.

The German soldier, severely trained to brutality from childhood, went to war eagerly. With no access to truth, he believed Hitler and the promise of Hitler.

The German soldier is fighting for the future. He is fighting for a system of degradation and slavery and tyranny which he has been taught will give him and his brothers opportunity and security and employment.

Opposing him now is the Russian, who has astonished the world by his fighting qualities. He, too, envisions a system whose golden dawn will illuminate a world of opportunity and plenty for him.

Americans! What are we fighting for? Are we fighting for a return to the breadline or the dole? Are we fighting for a reversion to bitter depression and wide-scale unemployment? No! We are fighting for a way of life. We are fighting because we believe our kind of world is infinitely better than Hitler's kind of world.

There are those who believe that we will win the war and lose the peace; who believe that the American enterprise system is outmoded, incapable of meeting the complex social and economic needs of this machine age; who believe that the American people would welcome a regimented society so long as it promised jobs and security. These theorists are radically wrong. If they are right, we might as well call the war off. If they are right, we would be fighting a war of futility and asininity.

You know and I know that the great majority of Americans will accept a regimented society only as a last, despairing alternative. Only if millions were jobless. We want more than just security. We want opportunity and progress, the opportunity to go places and do things. We want to run our country as the majority of the people believes it should be run. We want to read real news in newspapers. We want to listen to the radio programs of our choice; not those programs thought "best" for us by a group of officious officials. We want to worship and work as we see fit, to start or stop a business when and where we choose. In a nutshell, we want to run our government; we don't want our government to run us, although we will all admit that certain restrictions and controls in wartime are necessary.

The responsibility for continuation of the American enterprise system and all that the American enterprise system implies—freedom of the individual as well as freedom of enterprise—rests largely with us. Simply summed up, it is a matter of private enterprise taking cognizance of social as well as economic needs. It is a matter of business realizing that in developing mass production methods and a society founded on machines rather than farms, we have undertaken social responsibilities. In the last analysis, it is a matter of business providing employment for a majority of the workers of this nation of nearly 140 million Americans when the war is over.

Otherwise, government will do it. And like the people of Germany the people of the United States will give up some of their fundamental liberties to the state. And progress as we have come to define progress will become static.

Two weeks or so ago it was my privilege to act as spokesman for American business on a nation-wide broadcast which was short-waved to all the fighting fronts of the world. I had a message for our soldiers and sailors and airmen, fighting in Australia and China and other remote places. I told them that business would not allow, would not permit another period of economic stagnation such as followed on the heels of the first World War. I told them that hope and opportunity would be more than words in this land of hope and opportunity, and that private enterprise would have jobs for them when they brought home the victory.

In reaction to that broadcast, I have received a number of letters from many parts of the United States. Many were from businessmen who agreed with my point of view and who were kind enough to congratulate me on my remarks. Many were from the prophets of pessimism. They cried that it couldn't be done; that it was foolish to make such a promise.

It can be done; it must be done; it will be done.

I base my convictions on five logical precepts.

After this war, we will have the greatest plant capacity in history; we will have a greater source of raw materials, both natural and synthetic, than we have ever had; we will have the greatest number of skilled mechanics and technicians ever available to any nation; we will have the greatest backlog of accumulated demands for all sorts of commodities; the people will have accumulated savings with which to buy this back-log of accumulated demands.

To use this vast store of machine-power and manpower, we must have a new order of cooperation between government, management, labor and agriculture. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean that we should tolerate the continued imposition of extreme government controls and restrictions when the war is ended. To the contrary, I foresee a time when many restrictions will be lifted. But this era will not come to pass without a new perception by management of the problems of government and a new understanding by government of the problems of management. With all my heart and soul, I am working with government and labor and agriculture in Washington now to find a mutualmeeting ground. It is too early to give you a specific account of my progress toward this mutuality of viewpoint, which will insure jobs and better living for everyone, whether he be in the ranks of labor, management or agriculture. But I can tell you there are indications that I am not working in vain.

I came to the nation's capital and the presidency of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States with an open mind. It is true that my head was filled with the stories of the Machiavellian manipulators who sat on the thrones of Washington officialdom, scheming to thrust the neck of American enterprise under the guillotine of the managerial or socialistic state. But I wanted to see and hear for myself if these stories were true. I talked with men in high places, in government and in labor. I found that, in almost every instance, our basic objective was the same. We all wanted freedom. We all wanted prosperity. We all wanted happiness.

What, then, since we were in agreement on first principles, where the factors standing in the way of a more solidified national unity, and of more harmonious relations between management, labor, government, and agriculture? Mainly, I think it is a suspicion born of depression and a new state of technological development, when all elements were struggling to survive. This conflict—and I think a measure of conflict is a good thing, because it promotes alertness and aggressiveness—this conflict fostered an era of name-calling and hair-pulling which tended to widen the rift between the elements of our national life.

We are all going to have to row together if we're going to shoot the rapids of post-war conversion and maintain our freedoms. We're going to have to stop calling names and engaging in backstairs gossip like disgruntled old housewives. We're going to have to have statesmen in the true sense of the word in business and in labor and in agriculture and in government, statesmen who will sit down with other statesmen and in a calm and sensible manner work out a solution to common problems.

Perhaps I am too much of a born optimist. Perhaps I will be accused of over-enthusiasm. But from where I stand in Washington it seems to me that I can sense a new feeling, a more invigorating atmosphere, an awakening up of those charged with the responsibility of leadership. It seems to me that confidence in the American enterprise system to function and progress in peacetime as well as in wartime is gaining sure and steady strength. It is like an electric current which is flowing from person to person, charging them with new zeal and overriding pessimistic outlooks.

Ours may be the tragic privilege of living in the greatest military crisis since Napoleon; the greatest economic crisis since Adam Smith; the greatest social crisis since the fall of the Roman Empire. But if ours is the tragic privilege, it is also the magnificent opportunity—the opportunity to mold and form and direct this society, which will lead to greater happiness, greater enjoyment of life—a society which can lead to a permanent peace.