The Intellectual Battle


By ARCHIBALD MacLEISH, Director of the Office of Facts and Figures

Delivered before the American Library Association, Milwaukee, June 26, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 665-667.

IN the three months from December of last year to February of this the American mentality changed from defensive to offensive and an ultimate victory in the war became, in consequence, a probability instead of a desperate hope. Wars are won by those who mean to win them, not by those who intend to avoid losing them, and victories are gained by those who strike, not by those who parry.

What is true of the people as a whole in the war fought for the domination of the world should be true as well of the intellectuals—the writers and the scholars and the librarians and the rest—in the war fought for the countries of the mind. It should be true but isn't. The intellectuals have learned the first lesson of such wars: the lesson the nation learned belatedly at Pearl Harbor. They have learned that their scholar's country is in real and present danger. They have not yet learned the second lesson: the lesson the nation learned in the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. They have not yet learned that their scholar's country can be saved and their world made habitable only by courageous and unrelenting attack.

The learning of the first lesson was long and difficult enough as we can all remember. Down through the thirties to the invasion of Poland a considerable number of American intellectuals preached and practised an intellectual isolationism which was at least as frivolous, and certainly as blind, as the political isolationism of their political counterparts. They not only denied that their country of books and scholarship and art and learning was the principal target of the world revolution then fomented: they denied even that that country of theirs was in any danger or could possibly be attained or touched by the world-mob gathering against the sky. Their country, they informed us, was safe beyond its literary seas, its learned waters—safe from any war or any revolution. Art, they said, and books and learning of all kinds were things remote from wars, remote from revolutions. All the scholar, or the keeper of books, or the writer, or the artist, had to do was to stay on his own side of his particular ocean and tend to his own affairs and let the wars go by. The wars had always gone by before, they said, and the art had remained, the books had remained.

Down through the thirties to the invasion of Poland they went on like that. Not all of course. There were many writers who had looked at Spain and seen what they had seen. There were others who had looked at China. There were scholars who had looked in the books for the things actually lived, the things understood. Not all the American intellectuals of the years before the invasion of Poland were isolationists of the mind, inhabiters beyond imaginary oceans. But many were. And even after Poland there were still many. Until Denmark fell. And Norway fell. And Holland fell. And Belgium fell. And France fell. Then there were none—none but a few ghosts, the shrill inaudible voices.

When you saw in country after country that it was the intellectuals, the artists, the writers, the scholars who were searched out first and shot, or sequestered first, or left to rot first, in the concentration camps—when you saw in country after country that it was the books which were banned or burned or imprisoned, the teachers who were silenced, thepublications which were stopped—when you saw all this, it was difficult to insist that the world of art and learning was a world apart from the revolution of our time. It was awkward, not to say embarrassing, to repeat over and over again that the world of books and paintings and philosophy and science was a world set off behind oceans no violence of war could ever cross successfully. It was even a little ridiculous to declare that this attack upon learning—this attack upon the whole world of the human spirit—was no affair of those who live by learning and the spirit—that their only duty was to turn their backs.

So that after the fall of France the first lesson was learned. What the bombs at Pearl Harbor did to the political isolationists, the murders of the Gestapo did to the isolationists of the spirit. It is difficult to argue that a bomb cannot fall or a man be killed in your country when the bombs have fallen and the dead men are on the beaches from Jupiter Light to Quoddy and on north. It is difficult to argue that the world of art and books and science is not endangered by a revolution which has already murdered the artists and the men of letters and the books.

But the parallel between political isolationism and intellectual isolationism, though it holds in part, does not hold in full. Political isolationism in the United States was replaced by a defensive mentality, which was replaced in time by a mentality committed to attack. Intellectual isolationism was replaced by a defensive mentality only: the second transformation never followed. Scholars and writers admitted after Czechoslovakia and France and Norway that their country—the country of the mind—the country of the free man's mind—was indeed under attack and that their pretense of unviolability, of otherworldliness, was a pretense as unrealistic as it was unworthy. They admitted indeed that their country, the country they inhabited as scholars and as writers and as men of books, was the principal target of the revolution of our time—that this revolution was in fact as in word a revolution aimed against the intellect, against the mind, against the things of the mind—a revolution of ignorance and violence and superstition against the city of truth. They agreed in consequence that the city must be held, must be defended. But the second step, the second and essential step, the scholars and the men of letters have not taken even yet. They have not accepted the necessity of offensive war. They have not perceived that the defense of the country of the mind involves an affirmation, an assertion of a fighting and affirmative belief in intellectual things, a willingness not only to resist attacks upon their world and on themselves but to conceive offensives of their own and fight them through and win them.

A very large number of American writers have enlisted in one way or another in the war against fascism, some as soldiers, some as polemical writers, some as employees of the government. Scholars have put their scholarship at the service of their country and their country's cause, artists and musicians also. But it is in their capacity as citizens of the political, not of the intellectual, world that these men have acted. They have put aside their quality as writers and scholars for the duration of the war. They have said, ineffect: "Our scholar's world, our writer's world is threatened: we will defend it on the political front, the front of arms—we will defend the city of the mind by defending the actual cities of our other world, the world we know as citizens and men.

It is a courageous thing to do and a necessary thing to do. The actual cities must be held and the physical battles for their safety must be fought and won at any cost, at any sacrifice. Certainly the enlistment of the scholars in those battles is a heartening and an admirable thing, just as the failure of men of scholarship and letters to oppose the rising fascist revolution in the thirties was a shame to western scholarship and a reproach our generation will not soon forget. But courageous and necessary as these actions are they are nevertheless inadequate to the scholar's obligations. Whatever may be true of other cities, the city of the mind cannot be defended by deserting it to fight on other fronts. Above all it cannot be defended by deserting it when the ultimate objective of the forces which have made this war is precisely the destruction of that city.

To fail to understand that fact is to fail to understand the nature of the conflict in which our world is now engaged. This conflict is not a conflict which can be won by arms alone for it is not a conflict fought for things which arms alone can conquer. It is a conflict fought for men's convictions—for the things which lie beneath convictions—for ideas. The war of arms might end in victory on the Pacific and along the Channel and in the Mediterranean and in Africa and Asia, and the war might still be lost if the battles of belief are lost—above all if the battle to maintain the power and authority of truth and free intelligence were lost—if the confidence of men in learning and in reason and in truth were broken and replaced by trust in force and ignorance and superstition—if the central battle for the preservation of the ultimate authority of mind in human living shall be lost.

And that central battle can be lost. We shall deceive ourselves if we pretend that the attack upon intellectual things, the attack upon the things of art and of the spirit which has been a fundamental part of the maneuvers of our adversaries, has been unimportant in effect. On the contrary no single element of their propaganda has been more successful than the propaganda the fascists have brought against the intellectual authority. And for an excellent reason. Which is this: that fascism is in its essence a revolt of man against himself—a revolt of stunted, half-formed, darkened men against a human world beyond their reach and most of all against the human world of reason and intelligence and sense.

No propaganda was or could have been more powerful than the anti-intellectual propaganda of the fascists because no propaganda responded more precisely to the prejudices and the emotional predispositions of those to whom the fascist revolution made its principal appeal. The bankrupt merchants, the frustrated apprentices, the disappointed junior engineers, the licked, half-educated, unsuccessful clerks and journalists and discharged soldiers to whom the fascist revolution called in every country where the fascist cause made headway, were men sick of a profound, a deadly sickness—a sickness they had caught in the swarming, crowded, fetid and unlovely air of the swarming and unlovely time which bore them—a sickness of which the name was ignorance and envy. For men whom ignorance and envy bred no conceivable propaganda was more seductive than the propaganda which presented all learning, all enlightenment, all distinction of the man and mind as false and foolish.

For a generation to which the world had ceased to makeeither sense or loveliness or justice, a propaganda which belittled human intelligence and sneered at human morality was a propaganda which was believed before it was uttered. Defeated by a world which used them as tools but had no use for them as men, they turned, not on the world but on themselves—on man—on all those things in man which seemed to men before them to be admirable and of good repute but now to them seemed otherwise. The fascist propaganda which tore down the intellectual authority, the moral rule, was not, in other words, one of the devices of the fascist revolution—it was fascist revolution. For fascism is in essence nothing but the latest, saddest, most pathetic and most hopeless form of the ancient revolution of mankind against itself—the recurring and always tragic effort of mankind to kill the best it knows in order to make peace with what is not the best—but would be if the best were dead.

It would be foolish therefore—indeed it would be worse than foolish—to pretend to ourselves that the attack upon our scholar's world is not a dangerous attack—an attack which has done injury already and can still do more. But certainly we have no temptation to belittle its effect. We know what harm has been done in other countries and in this as well. We know, for example, if we read the press or watch the signs in any medium, how deep the effort to destroy the confidence of men in learning and in intellectual things has gone. There was never a time, I think, in the history of this country when learning was held cheaper than it is today—or when the men of learning and of letters had less honor. A hundred and fifty years ago in America, or a hundred years ago, or fifty, a man of learning was honored for his learning. Today to be an intellectual is to be an object of suspicion in the public mind. To be a professor is to invite attack in any public service, any public undertaking. To be an artist is to live beyond the reach of serious consideration.

There is no occasion to produce testimony or to document the obvious. The evidence is so generally familiar that it passes without comment. When an attempt was made in an ill-attended session of the House of Representatives this last spring to cut the appropriation of the Library of Congress to such a point that the national library of the United States would have been unable to buy new books beyond its regular continuations and subscriptions—an attempt which might have succeeded had not the House and Senate by common and non-partisan action reversed its initial success—when this attack was made upon a great symbol of learning, a great institution of scholarship, no public outcry was aroused. No public resentment was expressed even by those who might most readily have voiced resentment. There were two editorials, one each in the New York Times and in the Washington Star. And we—such is the humility of those these days who have the charge of learning—we were grateful for these two. And did what could be done with their support.

This angers you, my friends, to hear of now. It did not anger you then. And why? Because you never heard of it most likely. And why did you never hear of it? Because, neither to your friends, nor to your newspapers nor to your radio commentators did it seem to have significance enough to call it to your notice. And why? The answer I think is obvious: it was not news. It was not news that an attack had been made upon an institution of learning: such attacks had been made before and frequently. It was not news that the leader of the attack had unconsciously revealed a fear of books, a fear of letting information reach the people, a fearof scholarship and learning: such fears had been revealed before and not least often by the very man the Times rebuked. Nothing in the sorry spectacle was news to anyone. Fifty years ago an attack upon a great library, an attempt to deprive the people of this country of their books, would have brought down upon the politician who attempted it a storm of criticism in the public press. Today it passes almost without comment.

But no citations of the evidence are necessary. You know the record for yourselves. You know what headway the propaganda aimed against the intellectuals has made. You know where you stand in this conflict—you and everything you care for. You know therefore whether it is possible to maintain as we and others like us have maintained so long, a negative position, a defensive mind.

For myself I do not think so. The city of learning—or so it seems to me—can be defended in this war only as thecity of freedom can be defended: by attack. To realize that the world of books and learning and of art is the principal objective of those who would destroy our time, and to sit back in a humble and defensive silence awaiting whatever onslaught they wish next to make, is the role, it seems to me, not only of cowardice but of foolishness as well. Like this America we love enough to fight for overseas on every continent, our scholar's country is a country we must fight abroad to save. Not by awaiting attack but by preventing it, not by resisting but by overcoming, can the towering city of the mind be victor in this war. And unless we are ready now or very soon to bring the battle to our enemies and overcome them—to strike down ignorance where ignorance appears—to fly our flag of truth and reason higher than our enemies can cut it down—we cannot win this war within the war on which the outcome of the war itself depends.