Today's Challenge to American Life


By CHARLES E. SHULMAN, Rabbi, North Shore Congregation Israel, Glencoe, Ill.

Delivered before the Illinois State Nurserymen's Association, January 14, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 274-276.

MUCH has changed in America since Pearl Harbor. Much more will have to change before we realize the tremendous implications of that single act of Japanese aggression which plunged this country into its second war in a quarter of a century. Our external world is different now. Our homes are lonelier because of the absence of our youth. Rationing has affected our habits to a considerable degree. Transportation needs have altered our accustomed means of travel and brought us closer to our hearths. And the constantly intruding inconveniences remind us daily that we are engaged in a struggle with an enemy more ruthless and cunning than ever confronted this nation. But our internal world is not much different than it was a year ago. We still follow our pursuits. We still chart a familiar pattern of life easily recognizable as that belonging to the immediate past. We still trust to a future which is not adequately conceived nor properly envisioned. And we are but dimly aware of the vastness of the conflict now engaging our world.

Americans are quite certain that we shall defeat the Axis in battle. They have good grounds for their certainty. Quite apart from the great productive capacity of our nation is the determination of free men to protect their heritage. And this is mightier than the strongest armies of dictators. But Americans are not quite so certain about what we are going to do with the victory once we gain it. One public official voices the belief that we are fighting for a bottle of milk for every baby in the world. Another person in a public address declares that he is not fighting for a bottle of milk for every Hottentot and a TVA project in the Danube valley. In between these points of view are doubt, confusion and bewilderment. It is not enough to get on withthe war. It is also necessary to consider now, while we are in the heat of battle, what kind of world can emerge from this all-enveloping conflagration. When a patient is ill there are two courses of action necessary. One involves the effort at immediate cure. The other involves the plan for the convalescence. Each is complementary to the other. Without convalescence there may be a relapse which may prove to be fatal. The world is sick now. And we are desperately striving in an all-out effort to cure the malady. We are performing an act of blood-letting. Thousands now under arms may have to give their lives before the disease of fascism is eliminated from the world body-politic. But what of the convalescence? Is it conceivable that there will be complete strength and balance in the world structure after this type of war which regiments every life as well as every purse among men? Unless we allow for a decent kind of recovery it may well be that we shall be plunged into another conflict after this one. In fact, warnings have already been sounded by such outstanding Americans as Pearl Buck concerning this very danger. Speaking at a Nobel Award dinner just recently, this noted author called attention to the dangers inherent in our lackadaisical attitude toward the post-war world. The Atlantic Charter, she said, made certain promises. Those promises are already half-forgotten. If this war is not a war for the liberation of all peoples everywhere, then we might as well face the prospect of another struggle immediately afterwards.

Pearl Buck is not the only American who has been thinking of the post-war world. Many are wondering whether we shall have better intelligence in meeting the aftermath of this struggle than we had twenty-five years ago. They are fervently hoping that we shall be able to do what wedid not do yesterday—build adequately for world security and peace. Our free people must understand clearly what we are fighting for in order that we may finally be rid of the fears and frustrations that hinder world tranquillity. We must be possessed of the true vision of a better world before we can be true to ourselves and to those who seek hungrily after the liberties from the reservoir now beyond their reach. We are fighting for a decent opportunity for every inhabitant of the earth to live out his years usefully and freely. We are fighting to establish the "century of the common man" as the Vice-President of our country has so eloquently phrased it, for a bottle of milk for every baby and more. We are also fighting for a happier environment for every child, for a dream for every youth, security for the middle-aged and tranquillity for those old in years who may end their existence on earth as a shock of corn ripe with maturity. And if we have nothing better to offer the world than the recent statement of an American manufacturer that he is not fighting for a bottle of milk for every Hottentot, nor a TVA in the Danube valley region, we are certainly expending an enormous amount of our manhood and treasure in pursuit of an empty cause. We shall not eliminate wars by such philosophy any more than we eliminated wars in the past. We shall not be saved tomorrow unless our entire world is a safe place for the children of men. We shall not know prosperity unless the poor of the present hour are enabled to increase their standards of living and we shall not know the friendship of other peoples unless and until we ourselves are disposed to be the friend they ardently desire us to be.

There are three large general factors that have to be met with wisdom and sanity before we shall be able to order our world tomorrow in security and peace. The first of these is the economic factor. Before specialists like Keynes and others can establish their theories about economic well-being there must first be an elemental understanding of the needs of world society. This general subject, like so many others, frightens the average man who is little concerned with the question of economics outside his area of livelihood. Yet there can be no hope of a kindlier, peaceful world without a comprehension of the universal need of satisfying hunger and procuring shelter and obtaining the opportunity to labor creatively and productively. It should be relatively easy for a person to put himself in another's place. But it is so hard to imagine the existence of those beyond our immediate circles of employment that it becomes a prime deficiency in any society and constitutes a great stumbling block to a better world. We in America have had evidence of this truth. Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" is more than the story of a single family tossed about in the ocean of poverty. It is also an account of the influence of the machine upon human life. It is the tale of hunger and want and helplessness in a world of relative plenty. It is an indictment of a civilization that values human life too little and property too much. And if this is so in blessed America how much more true is this in other areas of the earth which are under the guidance of the United Nations today? What shall we say of India, where one hundred million people are born and die without having sufficient for their basic needs? Or of the European lands where millions brought into the world have known only grinding poverty and toil? Is it conceivable that we can meet the challenge of tomorrow without taking into account the simple justice that should give bread to the hungry and shelter to the underprivileged?

We ought not to be awed by economists. We ought rather to treat them as the architects of world activities. And as we tell our architects what specifications we desirein building a home so ought we to instruct our experts in economics to design for us the patterns that shall fit our conceptions of a better economic order. But first we must do some thinking on the subject ourselves. We must determine what ought to be done to safeguard the general economic security for mankind. This security will most certainly not be gained by indifference to the wants of those outside our limited sphere of life. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek challenged the United Nations recently with regard to this problem. He said: "There will be neither peace nor hope, nor future for any of us unless we honestly aim at political, social and economic justice for all peoples of the world, great and small . . ." The world tomorrow will not be so tolerant to economic blindness as it has been in the past. If purchasing power will be necessary to absorb the future output of our factories and mills, the peoples of the earth will have to be given the opportunity to obtain such power. So a bottle of milk for every "Hottentot" and a TVA in the Danube valley may be something more than a starry-eyed adventure in humanity. It may be a rich economic investment that will bring prosperous returns to those who can see its implications in the changing universe. And those who will not see should be reminded of the dangers inherent in our modern communications. The world peoples have been drawn ridiculously close together by the aeroplane and the radio. It is no longer possible to speak of China or India as places too remote for our consideration. We shall either understand them as friends or face the possibility of meeting their hostility in days to come. We now have the time to choose the manner in which we shall live with them in this little world shrunken to such small dimensions.

A second factor in the challenge of tomorrow is the political structure of society. Here in our own country we are still terribly immature in our understanding of politics. The average man thinks that "politics" means the Kelly-Nash machine or some other tightly-knit oligarchy controlling the ballot for its own selfish ends. He has become accustomed to hearing the term associated with such notions as "graft," "self-interest," and the like. There is not much hope of building the kind of government that shall truly meet the ideals of our noble constitutions unless we change our attitude toward this much-abused word. Aristotle called man a "political animal" and thereby gave us the clue to the great possibilities for social organization that is suggested in the term. Man, he said, has the capacity to impose his own order upon nature. He can direct his animal herd instincts until they become manifest in the form of what the Greeks called the "polis," or city. In this organization, planned and directed, man functions by laws. A law is no more than an agreement on the part of the individual to give up certain selfish instincts for the common good. The numbers of men who can live thus determine the kind of civilization in any given age. At the present time there is no law in Axis-controlled countries. There is only the whim of members of a party or oligarchy.

Therefore there is nothing but primitivism and animal savagery manifest in those lands. When free people do not exercise their right of the ballot, when they are indifferent to their communal responsibilities, when they lack civic spirit, when they see romance in law, they degrade the term "politics" to the shoddy concept that is prevalent among so many people today. And because they understand so little of the possibilities of their own community growing by law they find it extremely difficult to imagine a league of nations controlled by international law. Yet they will have to improve their knowledge of politics if they expect to realize their hopes of international peace tomorrow.

The various suggestions and plans now offered for the society of nations should be given serious attention by every citizen of our country. If we expect to trade with nations we shall have to have better association with nations. We shall have to deliberate with them about common laws that can be accepted and respected by people the world over. We can no longer afford the luxury of splendid isolation. Twenty-five years ago we turned our backs upon the world. One hundred thousand of our youth had died in a war "to make the world safe for democracy." Billions had been expended in defeating the legions of the Kaiser. We decided to divorce ourselves from the nations. And we found to our dismay that in a shrunken universe we cannot live apart. This war is a clear answer to our attitude of yesterday.

A third factor dealing with the world of the future is religion. This is not limited to any particular church or denomination. It is not described in any particular Bible or creedal document. It is rather to be found deep in the heart of mankind. It is the ultimate capacity to see others, as we see ourselves, hoping, aspiring and meeting with disappointment. It is the recognition of the spirit in man that can make the whole world kin. As politics is concerned with the external organization of society, so religion is concerned with the internal organization of mankind—the soul of humanity, as it were. There is so much that men share that it will behoove us to look for the common properties of the world peoples. This does not mean giving up our cherished beliefs. It does mean that we must see different peoples as we see the composition of a symphony orchestra. The various instruments contribute to a great harmony. So,too can the various beliefs and attitudes be harmonized to constitute the symphony of the spheres.

It is the tragedy of our times that, possessing so many channels of information and education, we yet hug our prejudices and our bigotries so closely. We are suspicious of those not of our faith, our church, our creed. We find it difficult to believe that the word "communion" has greater implications, when viewed with godly spirit, than the narrow interpretations we place upon it. There is a story told of two negroes who were in conversation about their religion. One wished to persuade the other to join "the army of the Lord." The other insisted he was a member of this army. Asked what denomination he espoused, he replied "the Baptist group." His friend answered: "You are not in the army, you are in the navy."

The world tomorrow will not permit us to live comfortably within the smugness of our particular beliefs. It will not permit us to harbor prejudices against Jew or Protestant or Catholic or Hindu or Mohammedan. It will demand of us that we meet God's greater law, the recognition that true fatherhood of God demands brotherhood of man. Once we can rid ourselves of our narrow prejudices and our blind intolerance of the consciences of others, we shall be better able to direct our thoughts to the economic and political means of achieving that society envisaged by the prophet of old, where we shall walk in the ways of God, where each man in our universe shall dwell safely under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.