The Fight for Liberty


By JAMES B. CONANT, President of Harvard University Valedictory address

Delivered to the Undergraduates of all classes in Harvard College, January 10, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 281-283.

THERE is no need for me to emphasize the unusual nature of this morning's ceremony. Not in June but now in midwinter we mark the graduation of the senior class. More significant still, we mark also the departure of many members of Harvard College whose academic course is far from finished. To be sure, there is nothing unique in what is happening here in Cambridge. Throughout the nation our colleges empty so that our armies may grow in strength. Throughout the nation able-bodied young men of eighteen and nineteen years of age are being called to join the armed forces already fighting on many fronts and on many seas. For more than a year now every day has witnessed an increasing impact of the war on academic life. You have watched a college devoted to the arts of peace being transformed into an establishment primarily concerned with the needs of war. With your departure, the conversion will be complete.

Under such circumstances you will not expect me to speak as though I were addressing only the members of a graduating class. Rather, I am sure, you wish me to think of this occasion as one on which the University salutes all who are leaving Harvard to serve the nation.

This is for the country a desperate hour of need; the call has gone forth and you respond. For the next few years your one goal will be to contribute your utmost to the winning of a complete and speedy victory. To hasten the day of peace we must prosecute the war with ever-increasing vigor. We are not, as Great Britain was in the fall of 1940, fighting with our backs against the wall, grimly holding on, merely refusing to admit the possibility of defeat yet not seeing or knowing how victory can be won. For us, today, the way through to the triumphant end now seems to be outlined. Yet no one believes it to be an easy road; and the question is—how long—how many years before the end? The kind of world in which you and your generation will spend your days depends in no small measure on the answer to this question. Every day the war continues prolongs theagony of civilization; every month adds to the chaos with which the post-war world must deal; every year increases the hazards which liberty must encounter when the war is won. Therefore, to insure victory in the shortest span of time, no sacrifice can be too great.

The hazards to liberty when the war is won,—may I take a few moments to explore this subject further? For surely next in importance to achieving a speedy victory stands the later perpetuation of the ideal for which we fight. And, I take it, you and I would agree that fundamentally this war is concerned with human freedom. This being the case, it is of the first importance that we consider how we shall preserve freedom after the war is won. I say we are agreed as to the basic issue of the war. For there can be doubts only in the minds of those who either fail to understand the full implications of the totalitarian philosophy or secretly admire it. To all others the choice is clear. It has been well illustrated in the film, "This Mortal Storm." There was depicted the choice between a society which respected individual freedom and the Nazi system which rapidly led to the degradation of the human soul, led not merely to brutality but to the corruption of all the dignity with which a free man is clothed. It is the task of the United Nations to see to it that such a system will not dominate the world. That requires a decisive victory. It requires an ever-increasing stream of supplies to our allies and an ever-increasing body of our own fighting men. It requires on your part courage, boldness, and a knowledge of the ways of war. Such requirements now stand before us.

But at some later day, as we struggle through the confusion of a post-war world, it will be your task as citizens of the United States to see to it that a totalitarian virus does not corrupt this nation. That will require clear thinking, indomitable patience, and an understanding of the ways of peace. The two assignments—of war and peace—are paradoxically the same and yet far different. As regards objectives, they are identical; as regards methods, miles

apart. Indeed, the winning of the war could engender such conditions in our minds that we would be unable to preserve liberty when the time of peace had come. And it is this dilemma which must be considered carefully by every young American, particularly every soldier. For only by recognizing the dilemma may we hope that it will be solved.

Let me illustrate by quoting from the novel, "Darkness at Noon." In a striking dialogue one of the characters sums up the fundamental choice of the twentieth century in these words:

"There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the roles of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community . . ."

At another point in the dialogue the same speaker, a supporter of the totalitarian view, inveighs against what he calls the "humanitarian fog—philosophy" in these words:

"Consider a moment what this would lead to, if we were to take it literally; if we were to stick to the precept that the individual is sacrosanct, and that we must not treat human lives according to the rules of arithmetic. That would mean that a battalion commander may not sacrifice a patrolling party to save the regiment."

But his companion objects, "Your examples are all drawn from war—that is, from abnormal circumstances." To which the totalitarian replies,

"Since the invention of the steam engine the world has been permanently in an abnormal state; the wars and revolutions are just visible expressions of this state . . . The principle that the end justifies the means is and remains the only rule of political ethics; anything else is just vague chatter and melts away between one's fingers . . ."

These few sentences strike through to the bedrock which underlies the shifting muddy ground for which liberals and conservatives alike contend. This issue between the two ethics is basic to all discussions of the future of this nation. When we fail to come to grips with it, we flounder in a sea of good intentions and pious hopes.

May I illustrate by raising the old question of why we in America should continue to believe that minorities have rights? Why is it important to safeguard these rights and render more secure the bulwarks which protect the individual from the power of those who govern? Would it not be more realistic to discard the whole concept of rights as a bit of eighteenth century rationalism and say merely that minorities have such a temporary status as the majority cares to give? So argued an ardent advocate of democracy in a conversation with me not long ago; he then proceeded to conclude that the majority was justified in revoking minority rights whenever the welfare of the state demanded. This is one of those superficially attractive doctrines, the product of so-called realistic thinking, which has found much favor in recent years. It is only a step from this position to that which sanctions the destruction of a minority whenever the majority so decides; and in practice, since plebiscites on such issues are rarely held, this means the destruction of a group when those who hold the reins of government so decide. In such a form the proposition becomes less attractive.

One need hardly point out that this is no academic argument. Repeatedly throughout the course of modern history the cry, "the state is in danger" has served the ends of revolutionaries and reactionaries alike. But the times wheninternal enemies were thus disposed of were not times when men were free. Quite the contrary. They were times of oppression, tyranny and fear.

To my mind there can be escape from the conclusion that a free society in times of peace (notice the qualification) must tolerate even those minorities which by their principles and doctrines seem to jeopardize the cause of freedom. This may seem absurd to some. Yet to conclude otherwise is to forsake the only ethics, on which a free society may hope to thrive. (I am talking, of course, about the political rights of a minority, about free speech and free assembly, not about conspiracies or assassinations looking towards armed revolt.)

It is a paradox, if you will, that a free society must protect within these limits those who oppose the fundamental premise on which this society is founded. Yet, to my mind, this paradox is a necessity which springs from the choice between the two conceptions of human ethics as opposite as the poles. It is a consequence of a belief in the sacrosanct nature of the individual and a rejection of the view which glorifies the collective aim. To argue that the rights of the individual are a purely utilitarian invention is to deprive the underlying American ideal of its cutting edge. You can build a free nation on a Christian view of human destiny. You can destroy it by substituting another.

In the illustration I have used—the question of minority rights—I have emphasized the distinction between peace and war. For in time of war, a free nation may be forced to safeguard its existence by measures which contradict the basic principles of its being. So, too, with individuals; for those who fight, the rules of arithmetic must apply to human beings. Free men must fight a war in essentially the same pattern as soldiers of a regimented nation. Hitler's generals and our own must draw their military decisions from the same essential premises. The danger lies not in our methods of waging war, but in the possibility that at some later time people may argue from war to peace.

We need not worry lest five or six years hence people justify murder because in war one fights to kill. But we may well be disturbed by the prospect that some may argue (from right or left) that dangerous minorities should be suppressed. And, if passions run high, it is even possible that others will declare that the security of the nation calls for ruthless violence.

Let us freely admit that the battlefield is no place to question the doctrine that the end justifies the means. But let us insist, and insist with all our power, that this same doctrine must be repudiated by free men in days of peace.

Let me make it clear that this issue between the rights of individuals and a collective aim is not the issue of radical or reactionary as the forces are aligned today. Modern history has shown that liberty can be crushed by an avalanche either from the right or from the left.

Furthermore, I have been discussing the development of American society, not the structure of other nations. After the war we shall have to learn how to keep the peace by cooperation with other great countries which have very different cultural patterns and different histories from our own. But we shall not promote the cause of international understanding by confusing our own internal problems with the great debt we owe to China, to Great Britain, and to Russia for their magnificent fight against our common enemies. If we are to live in a world of peace we must accept great responsibilities beyond our borders. But we must also find a solution of problems presented to us by modern technology at home. These problems we must solve in our own way. The future of this nation must spring from its past,—it must represent a continuing evolution of the American pattern.

As a nation of idealists, we have hitherto held strong views about "human rights." But we have been naturally suspicious when overexposed to any set of slogans. Particularly, we have been inclined to test the validity of proclaimed intentions by comparing them with actions. No battle-cry which can be read in two opposite senses will long rally this country. You can not long promote the welfare of the American republic with Machiavellian tactics. Totalitarian states have no such troubles. Those who adopt as their guide the rules of arithmetic applied to individual lives need never worry about the virtue of consistency. Power politics has no conscience and need stand before no moral accuser. But those who believe that human life is sacred must come into court with clean hands. The most convincing proponents of liberty are those who clearly have no personal stake in a special application of the general doctrine. Some blatant examples to the contrary were in no small measure responsible for the cynicism of a few years past.

The American people have historically taken their stand on the side of Christian humane ethics. And though there have been many black lapses in practice, we are still committed to this basic position. The abnormality of war, if recognized as an abnormality, does not invalidate our stand. Clearly, we cannot repudiate our historic view of what is right and wrong without wrecking the continuity of our national life. Indeed, such a conscious repudiation seems to me inconceivable. The danger lies in the possibility that we may fail to direct our attention to the real issue,—fail because we have lived so long in a world of war where power alone has ruled.

But even on that score we need not be too fearful. However hard-boiled the average American may be, he is unlikely to accept the idea of liquidating his political opponents without mercy. Whether he bases his philosophy consciously on religion or not, he believes that it is wrong to coerce and torture human beings (wrong, mind you, not inexpedient), wrong to have a government based on informers and intimidation. He feels it in his bones that men ought to be free. He looks forward, therefore, to having more human liberty on this continent, not less. To this end he may wish to make radical changes in the political and economic structure of America. Like Thomas Jefferson, when he abolished primogeniture, a citizen of this republic may today wish to swing an axe against the root of privilege. But he will do so only that a greater number of citizens may be free within large limits, free to carry the responsibilities as well as to enjoy the benefits of modern civilization. It is becausewe have come to realize the confusing complexities of modern industrial society that we expect drastic alterations. We realize that there can be little or no real chance for many individuals to make significant choices—the essence of freedom—if there is not first of all freedom from want and fear. Social security for us, however, is not an end in itself but a means towards freedom. It is thus, in the spirit of the American tradition that the problems of our day must be conceived.

I have spoken of the difficulties of the days of peace, of the problems you will be facing at a later time, when as returning veterans you are called on to shape the future of this nation. The experience immediately ahead is far different—it will be cast in days of War, yet this experience in the Army or the Navy may if you so choose make you more able to fight for freedom in civilian life. Once it is clear in a man's mind that the demands of war are one thing and those of a free society in peace another, the virtues which are developed on the battlefield reinforce the natural talents. And this education may prove as valuable in the postwar world as years of study in academic halls. I do not have to tell you that our troubles will not be over when victory comes. You do not expect the millennium once the fighting ceases. You know how long and difficult may be the post-war years. In this period you will need courage, endurance, patience (above all, patience) to see it through; you will need an understanding of what it means to work in close cooperation with other men. The fortitude, loyalty and steadfastness that come from hardship and danger serve the erstwhile soldier well even in civilian clothes.

Formal education for the present you leave aside, but you will grow in wisdom nonetheless. New knowledge will come to you by virtue of the sacrifices that you will be asked to make. Having been ready to run all risks for freedom, you will comprehend it as those of us at home can not. On some subsequent commencement day you will return with the understanding born of great events. On that occasion it will be said of you as of the returning Harvard soldiers of 1865:

"Today, our Reverend Mother welcomes back
Her wisest scholars, those who understood . . .
Many loved Truth, and lavished life's best oil
Amid the dust of books to find her . . .
But these, our brothers, fought for her,"

Gentlemen, with anxious pride, Harvard awaits the day of your return.