Can Democracy Survive the War?


By EDGAR EUGENE ROBINSON, Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University

Delivered before The Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, August 7, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 750-754.

THE question is not new. "Can Democracy Survive?" America gave the answer long ago and has repeated it many times in our history. This has been necessary, because democracy has been denied—in theory and in practice—by some of the cleverest minds that have darkened the earth. Defenders have been needed every hour, every day, every year of our development as a nation. At home and abroad scoffers have been legion, and while many a battle for democracy has not been won, there are those who do not observe that never has the war for democracy been lost. There is a reason for this.

America is the product of the work of millions of men and women, and democracy has been at once their dearest possession and their ultimate objective. Much of their record has been written in blood and tears. The deathless words of Jefferson and of Lincoln and of Wilson have been proved over and over again. Amid all the claims of recent converts and of zealous defenders at home and abroad, we ought not to forget that, from our birth as a nation, to countless millions, all over the world, America has been synonymous with democracy. If we are wise in our time, we ought to judge a product—let us say, self-government, equality of peoples,justice to all, tolerance of opinion, personal liberty, even democracy itself—not by a prospectus, but by the record of the producer. American democracy has been in the public view for a very long time, and its practitioners are known to all mankind.

Consequently, if I were to modify the title of this address, it would be to suggest "Why American Democracy Should Point the Way." If we lose this war, there will be no democracy in the world, and no necessity of discussing its future. If we win this war at the cost of our way of life, there will be no necessity of discussing the survival of democracy. It will have passed from the face of the earth. It follows that the way we win this war will determine not only the nature of the peace, which concerns so many of our public men, but the character of the democracy in the years to come. It is the way our people think and feel about what they are doing—it is how they act in this war—that will determine what they can do in peace, and whether the world can be made safe for democracy. Only an undying faith can save our people in the years that follow this total war. The world—which has suffered such impoverishment in the past five years as never before known by man—will be no place in which new theories and untried practices will have chance of success. The one hope lies in our complete realization that we long ago discovered an answer to the greatest question that has ever been asked of man in his tragic days on this earth. That question is simple: How can men live together—the world around—in harmony, in dignity, and in peace? We have an answer that arises directly out of our history. Only as our people realize that this war is now their war—a continuation of the struggle that was evident at their birth as a nation—will they remain true to their impressive record and once more take an aggressive leadership abroad as well as at home.

Would it not be well to survey our own contributions with this record before us? When it is suggested that Russia and China will write the peace because they will have won the war, I do not find that in itself this will insure a continuance of American democracy. In terms of our democracy and the way it has been built, I see no democracy in China and I see no democracy in Russia. Nor in England, which I know as I do not know Russia and China directly, do I find the democracy which we would recognize as our own. Of course we are aiding these peoples and we will triumph together, but when I say "yes" to the question asked, I mean democracy here.

Have we forgotten that the four freedoms which have been so much in discussion—freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom from want, and freedom from fear— that these have been in our very lifeblood from the beginning? Have we forgotten that long time poverty and low standards in the Orient have again, and again, impressed themselves upon us? It is in this rich land that the four freedoms have been won, and where in greatest measure they exist today. Why is it so?

Let me make clear just what I mean by this approach to what must seem to many of you an old story. "Can Democracy survive?" like any other question as to the future cannot be answered with certainty. We have no means of certain forecasting. We ought to insist upon that. But we know that there are two questions we may ask which, if answered, will furnish a basis for faith and for action. One of these questions is always asked by historians—"What is the Record?" The other question is asked by social scientists—"What is the present Process?" It is not always easy and comfortable to listen to experts on either of these questions. Yet it is necessary, if we are to have a sound basis for any prophecy.

However, I surmise you do not wish to be told that the future of democracy is bright; that all is true and beautiful in our present state. You do not wish to be told—as we are hourly—how good we are, and how effective, and how wonderful. I assume that the much desired "good morale" to you does not mean that. You are anxious to know the truth. There are no easy answers in this search for the keys to the future.

Let me illustrate. If by going out of that door to certain death, any one of us or all of us could save our nation or preserve democracy, who of us would not do it, and do it gladly? But we do not know that by so doing we would produce the result. That is the ever present uncertainty of action. We cannot be sure, because we cannot know the result. Try as we may, inform ourselves as we can, prepare as we do, there is always the spectre of possible failure. But it has always been so, and those who dared bravely have written the history of mankind.

It is not alone the historian who measures people by what they do and say; the people themselves see themselves in the mirror of their hopes and ideals. In self-respect the people must appear to reach their objectives, or at least to continue trying to do so. It is a rare man who openly flaunts his cynicism. It is a rare people who do not actively call upon their leaders for the best that is in them. Let a people admire a man of high ideals and constructive imagination and the man appears. Let them admire men of brute force and callous selfishness and the men appear. Nations get what they deserve. One of the great appeals of our own nation is seen in the words of Gilbert Chesterton, speaking of a truly great man—a man who makes other men feel great. A truly great nation is one that makes other nations, however small, feel potentially great!

Before giving my answer to the question "Can Democracy Survive?" in so many words, I would call your attention to three glaring misapprehensions. First, democracy is not anything and everything we happen to favor. Glib talk of democracy is highly dangerous. Democracy is often oversold; the product is depressed; abuse of the word makes for folly in action. We water the lifeblood of democracy. We poison the wells of truth. We offer hypocrisy to our enemies as a weapon of attack. The second misapprehension—we cannot dictate to the world—of course not—and be ourselves. To dictate to the world would be contrary to what we have always said of ourselves. You see, this misconception rests in the thought that democracy can be "handed around." This ignores essentials of the success of our historic democracy: constant thought on the part of great numbers of people; constant planning on the part of great numbers of people. We have to win this battle for democracy every day. A way of life is an eternal charge. When a people indulge in idle gossip, vain imagining and irresolute thinking, you may be sure that sloth and ignorance and selfishness and lack of vision have democracy on the run. And the third misapprehension (and to my mind the most important of the three)—it is assumed that quick action is desirable—as well as possible—and that it is a mistake to wait until an issue is clear-cut, as we did in 1917 and again in 1941. I would remind you that waiting is inevitable in a democracy.

As a people we believed—as before in our history—that the righteousness of our conduct, the soundness of our thought on international relations, and the growth of what we called the civilization of the western world would make it possible for us to lead in a world of peace instead of aworld of war. We were wrong. To be right, to be conscious of right, was not enough.

The three misconceptions as to the nature and availability and functioning of our democracy lead to a general view of the war which is basically false and alarmingly prevalent. This is not a war of nations—but a war of ideas. It is not strange that the United States is joined with twenty-seven other nations—including Russia and China and Great Britain—for they have come to our standard; we have not joined theirs. This conflict of ideas is our fight. We have been in revolt against dictatorship from the beginning. This is no new task—this defense of American democracy. As the American Secretary of State pointed out in his recent radio address, the four points in his program all rest in American action and thought in the Past. For there is the record— even a tradition—on which we and others can build.

We meet in a tragic hour—made more tragic the moment you apply truth to the situation. Our critics, our quickies and our fears make us apprehensive. It is not easy to redirect the energies of our people. Eight months of defeat have marked the record of American participation. We are allied with nations who were (and are) losing the battles of this war. This has done much to speed up our own record. But it is not enough. As you have been told—in the press, on the radio, and in countless addresses—we can lose this war, and, if we are not the careful, thoughtful, creative people we claim to be, we can lose the Peace that follows the War.

As I have said, Americas answer is to be found in our history. It has been long in preparation. It is the basic fact in our existence. America in coming into being—in 1776— struck at tyranny and rule by force. Its existence through a century and a half has again and again challenged that tyranny. Throughout the nineteenth century we were comparatively free. But Europe in 1917 and Asia in 1942 press in upon us. It exists today—as it never existed so vividly before—the irrepressible conflict. The roots lie deep in the human mind. Racial hatred, the superiority complex, ruthless aggression—have engulfed the world. The so-called New Order in Europe and in Asia is, as Carl Becker has pointed out, neither new, nor is it order. It is old; we rejected it at our birth and have denied it all through our history. That is why the answer we shall develop is, it seems to me, so clear, so definite, and—to countless millions of freedom-loving men throughout the world—so true. We must not fail them. This is our destiny. This conflict—we see it with increasing clarity—arises now out of divisions of the world into irreconcilable elements not of nations but of ideas. God faith versus ruthless might—continuous thought versus rigid doctrine—Democracy versus the Totalitarian State. We Americans know the difference between Evil and Good—and we do not call Evil "Good" even when it appears on our own soil and dons the raiment of patriotism. Ability to be fearless in thought is the direct product of our freedom.

But there are dangers at home that suggest we need to look even more closely at our record. Let us not be misled by every claimant to wear the mantel of democracy. I call your attention to free speech, its use and abuse. We have learned a great deal about both. In my opinion it is necessary at times to limit free speech in the interests of self-preservation. We cannot permit free speech to mean rigid indoctrination, fanatical speculation, crazy destruction. To warrant the right of free speech, a speaker should have ability to formulate a constructive program and to lead in its free discussion. Democracy has suffered in war and peace from incompetents and moral and intellectual idiots whouse free speech not to lead and build, but to hold back and destroy. A nihilist has no place in a creative society.

The dangers I see in unthinking calls for democracy at home and abroad touching on race and business and government are that they overlook the fact that in America, equality of race, freedom of private enterprise, even the strength of the government have always been "in process," not definite and final. America has not been the impractical dream of utter and complete perfectibility. There are malcontents we ought to recognize as such. There is the man who insists on pointing out inequalities and incompleteness here at home (which exist of course), and suggests that we do something about it now and completely. There is the man who points out that in the past there have been men and organizations who have been mistaken in public questions and that therefore they ought to be discredited from any future participation. And then there are the men who pin unpopular symbols and throw foreign bitterness upon leaders with whom they happen to disagree. These are not honest practitioners of effective American democracy.

Liberty, equality and fraternity—how eagerly we respond! But let us remember, even at this dark hour, that liberty has slain its thousands; equality has beggared millions; and fraternity has enthroned the incompetent. None of these causes is acceptable or desirable in America unless tempered by intelligent discrimination. Each requires the work not of a government that may free men, but the work of individuals who may teach men. Liberty within the law, equality of opportunity, fraternity as coming from the heart—when any one of these is denied, the spirit is lost. Each must be a free gift.

Let us look more closely at the American way of life. You have had economic independence and security. Would you separate them? It allows for growth in accordance with ability. You have had social equality and independence. Would you separate them? It allows for variation in talent and ability and ambition. You have political freedom and responsibility. Would you separate them? Why neglect this? Why think of government as apart and away from our duty?

Let us now put a question bluntly, and give it a direct answer. Why have we this democracy in America? America of the nineteenth century was characterized by three conditioning factors. First, the whole nation experienced the frontier. Second, the whole nation realized isolation. Third, and often forgotten, the whole nation, in growth and expansion accepted and practiced capitalistic democracy. It was the mixture of these three that gave us the American freedom that seemed to promise so much for millions of men because it is not static. It has lived—this growing democracy—and all the hopeful of all the world through that century looked longingly to America, and millions came from Europe and from the Orient, and remember, they came to live here. The crowning achievement of all the struggles of men in what we call the modern years took form in the United States of America. We ought not to forget that.

At the end of the century and a half there came upon the world and upon us fundamental changes. In fact, they were long in coming, but finally they were realized. Our frontier was gone. Our isolation was gone. Our capitalistic democracy seemed to have reached a limit of productivity. Now what happened? Most of us refused to think through to the reality of a new physical basis, and the forces of darkness arose to say we had all been vain in our hope. We had been living in a Fool's Paradise. Mankind was doomed, said they, to live in the darkness of the darkages. But what they did not see was that the inventions of our age, in widening frontiers, in destroying isolation, and in developing finance capitalism, had given us the greatest opportunity of all time. Power politics denied democracy everywhere; isolation undermined democracy everywhere; continued lack of responsibility and participation might lead to its destruction everywhere.

Consider now, not a map of the United States wherein we have lived for a century and a half—our great epic of expansion—but consider a map of the world. Upon this map, where the Axis Powers have made such gains, we might again (1) advance the frontier—the missionary, the merchant, the colonist; (2) we might help to develop hitherto untouched parts of the globe as we did our own vast expanses in time of isolation; and (3) we might give renewed scope to the capitalistic democracy of free men. If we did this task on a continent, which I would remind you is the size of all Europe, and did it under a representative government which insisted upon equality and tolerance and order and security, do you not think that with the awakened peoples of the earth we could do it again? The truth is we have forgotten the glory of our effort. We have even thought that as a people we were through—approaching a time of decline. Such a cycle is known in the history of nations. Every historian refers to it. But note here a difference, and, I think, a vital difference.

In the opening years of the twentieth century there was a shift in the political interest of our people, when there was a great expansion of economic interest in foreign lands. And there was a rebirth of a new nation, a young nation, new for the tasks of youth in a great world that lay beyond this continent. Looking out at our continental extent and looking at our integrated nationalism, we were an old nation, but looking at the vision of such leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who bade us look abroad, we were young. And we were. We had the qualities that the pioneer needed. We looked out upon a great task, as youth looks out. And for the world job we were young, and we dreamed for a while the dreams of youth.

I have lived much with young people during the past thirty years, and I think I know why they see a world to match their dreams. So did most of you—years ago. Sometimes it is well not to know so much, not to be so sure of failure, not to pause and hesitate and expect defeat. Sometimes there is soundness in a faith that expects to succeed!

In this room are men interested in politics—perhaps nine-tenths of you—but not one-tenth of you give your life to politics. Perhaps one in a hundred is actually in government. But all of you are concerned with economic democracy and its preservation, and most of you—or you would not belong to the Commonwealth Club—are interested in cooperation in democracy, that is, social democracy. You know that under our system of procedure, democracy does work, but the political forms and practices are at once the least important and the most important. Gradually we have come to realize that, as far as our own development is concerned, we cannot depend upon our government to insure our democracy. In fact, dependence saps the lifeblood. We say glibly, "Men first and government second." Quite so, but we have as citizens a two-fold task: First to insist that economic and social freedom come first; and second, to see to it that political democracy works, often in spite of the government.

Here, perhaps, is the greatest danger of all—our failure to realize that the conditions of the world, following this war, will not be conducive to democracy as we have known it here or elsewhere. At the close of this war, the nationsof hope and the nations of despair will alike be defeated and impoverished beyond any computation. This world will have a period of such harsh brutality as no memory of man will admit. This is the atmosphere in which we are told that democracy must flourish. How can it be expected?

If we may judge from our past, democracy flourishes not because government declares for freedom and opportunity, but democracy flourishes where there is soil and substance and food and work. Democratic protest, I admit, flourishes under tyranny and oppression. But democracy itself does not flourish under conditions of starvation and death imposed not by a few men in power, but imposed by the hard realities of an impoverished earth. Had we not had the richness of the American continent, there would have been no American democracy. Our democracy is rooted in economic wealth, opportunity, and free development.

I suspect that is a general rule. I do not believe that we realize that the conditions that follow this war are not the conditions that will produce a great flowering of the human spirit, that is, such as democracy. This nation and this democracy were built by men who had very little of the world's goods and who faced every privation and danger. But they built and lived in this fact: There was a great economic opportunity, and it was theirs. When some of them starved, they built no democracy. When some of them saw for a time no hope, they built no democracy. Economic structures and rules produced not democracy, but revolt, sometimes rebellion.

Today in our land, as yet not impoverished, as yet not faced with continued and dismal failure, as yet where livelihood is possible, and millions look forward to more and more opportunity, there is not only work and play and freedom and liberty, but here is a functioning of the democracy that we know. The conditions are favorable. But my question at the beginning—What of the period after the war? It depends on the length of the war; it depends upon the depth to which we sink into the abyss. For no political structure, however flexible in times of plenty, no social atmosphere, no matter how fluid in times of free growth, can possibly save us and our democratic way of life, unless with limited resources, a tremendous debt, a lower standard of living— we are still able to provide food and clothing and shelter to millions of our people.

And yet no form of society other than the democratic form which I have been describing gives opportunity to direct economic conflicts into channels of order and arbitration and adjustment by the law of compromise. No form of society that provides for ruling power by birth or class or might—can be a society that provides for social growth and economic development—in a word, that has a future. Democracy is the only method that history brings to us of surviving social change without revolution.

You see, now, why the American way of life cannot disappear; why America cannot be defeated! And what is asked of America now and what are the answers?

(1) Man power. But not only in terms of millions, but also in terms of individual capacity. We have it. Our experience as a frontier people put a premium on man power and individual courage. Our own social structure demands it every day.

(2) Machines. Not only in terms of mass capacity but also in ingenuity, in inventiveness and in continuous growth, we look upon the miraculous expansion of industry in this country in the past fifty years. We were preparing—as we constructed—a new world for men. We did not know that we would use this great power for destruction. But we are doing so.

(3) Self-government. We have had it—and we developed a colonial system as we marched across the continent. No outlaying frontier must remain a colony. It rises to man's estate and enters the Union of States on a basis of equality. That principle of conduct embodied in a great document— the Northwest Ordinance—made it possible to promise the Philippines self-government and have it mean just that. And look at the results!

(4) Aid to the oppressed, the needy, the starving. For more than a century we have built a fine program of philanthropy. We beckoned the world, and the refugees came. We went abroad to feed the starving. Can you doubt that this history is remembered by those in dire need today? This weapon, that is, our record, our opponents do not possess. We can say—and be believed—"Follow us; this way lies your freedom."

(5) Equality of treatment. Closely related to a haven of refuge is America's early insistence upon the declaration that the doors of opportunity should be open to all—regardless of race, creed and previous condition of misfortune.

(6) Code of international conduct. Result of our growth as a people. A continent made up of "diverse interests" and resulting in sections has found a means of inter-sectional conduct that furnished us a code of international conduct. The Atlantic Charter is not enough. We need a declaration for the common people of all lands; all of the people who are going our way.

Here are six answers—but with them are two more that rise out of these and may transcend all other factors in Americas will to win. These are:

(A) Our tremendous reservoir of informed personnel in technical, professional and governmental fields. That may prove to give the leadership we need.

(B) Our vast electorate of informed citizens, who may prove that the education of the people is the final guarantee of the perpetuation of freedom.

But shall we return once more to the question: Can Democracy survive?

Yes, if we assume our responsibilities and use our power to maintain order, security and freedom.

Yes, if we maintain the three principles of our success—economic freedom, social cooperation, and political adaptation.

Yes, if we can find expanding frontiers, insist upon flexibility in living standards, and maintain a constant vigilance in political experimentation.

Yes, if we restrain our perfectionists, curb our fundamentalists, and control the ignorant and the incompetent.

Yes, if we maintain the fundamental directions of our own history, and in accordance with our own glorious tradition exert the will power of a vigorous, hopeful people.

In a word:

Let us know our own history, not the shams and misinterpretations that parade about us.

Let us know our democracy for what it has actually been.

Let us know that if we win the war, we must win it as a democracy.

Let us know that in winning, we are dedicated to feeding and policing the world.

In our own America we have achieved—never more so than in these days of intense national effort—a living unity. We are a free people. As Americans, we know that disagreements arise and conflict continues as long as man lives. A nation built of peoples from the ends of the earth knows that if unity is to be found in action, it must rest in freedom of thought. Our democracy, in war and in peace, must remain our democracy. That is the lesson of our history and our gift to the world.

Do you ask for a declaration of faith? A democratic people—conscious of the eternal values of their own history, dedicated to the advancement of all mankind, resolved to build a structure within which men can live in security and dignity and peace—will survive.