What Will the Decision Be?


By ARCHIBALD MacLEISH, Librarian, Congressional Library, Washington, D. C.

Delivered at Commencement of Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, May 28, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 613-616.

IT used to be considered appropriate at college commencements to talk about the duties of citizenship. Our great-grandfathers—those of our great-grandfathers at least who were invited to address the graduating classes—seem to have held the view that citizenship in a self-governing country was something you worked at, the way you worked at your job, but more seriously. American citizenship was not only an honor—and it was indeed an honor in their eyes—it was an occupation also.

That view, needless to say, is no longer prevalent. We learned in the years before the last great war, and in the years immediately after, what the serious business of life really is. A man practised law, or he practised farming, or be practised banking or broking, or business generally, but he did not practise citizenship. Citizenship was something that happened once a year, or once every four years, like an anniversary, or a day off—which you either took or you didn't take, as the serious business of life permitted. For the rest, twenty minutes a day with a good newspaper, if you happened to live in a town where a good newspaper was published, satisfied the calls of duty—until radio came in, when the twenty minutes were cut to five.

The duties of citizenship, like all the rest of the world's chores, were mechanized and mass-produced. We learned to govern ourselves by sitting with relaxed abdominal muscles in a comfortable chair, reading the opinion polls which told us what we thought. We learned to govern ourselves by pushing open the front screen door before breakfast and picking up the opinions of somebody else. We learned to govern ourselves eventually by switching a dial which saved us the trouble of pushing open the front screen door. Wewould no more have thought of working at citizenship as a serious occupation than we would have thought of working at the biological, agronomic, engineering and traffic problems involved in the semi-automatic delivery of the morning's milk. And for very similar reasons. Our opinions, like the milk, were delivered promptly and regularly in disposable containers with the maximum of sanitary protection and the minimum of noise.

I do not wish to exaggerate. We honored citizenship. Certainly we honored it. We were insistent that the history books our children read should speak eloquently of the duties of citizenship. We were respectful of the fact that the ancestors of some of us had worked harder at their citizenship than they worked at their Virginia plantations or their New England factories—and that some of their plantations were ruined in consequence. After all, a free man's citizenship in those days was a risky thing, and men were right to work at it, sitting late in the Virginia night in the circle of the single candle with the oaks overhead in the dark wind. Jefferson and his friends had liberty to assure, freedom to justify. Self-government was on trial before the world, and the citizenship of freedom was an arduous and even a dangerous task, like travel in those horse-drawn days—like other difficult duties long since reduced to the simplicity of ease by the inventiveness of our mechanics, plumbers, engineers, type-setters, electricians, and other instruments of progress. Today citizenship in America is a going concern, and the notion of a contemporary American taking his duties so seriously that he read at his citizenship as a man might read at the law—the notion of a contemporary American citizen taking his citizenship as a personal responsibility, is a notion no one would expect to hear advanced except in a commencement address at some serious-minded college—probably for women.

And yet the notion is not altogether fantastic even now. On the contrary, there seems to be an expectation in this country at this moment, an expectation which amounts in some quarters almost to a desperate demand, that citizenship should again be practised in America, Those, to be specific, who concern themselves, in government and out, with the problems of the peace, seem to expect of the American people, in their capacity as citizens, decisions which only the most earnest and devoted practise of the profession of the citizen could achieve.

Again and again, in public debate and in private conversation, appeal is made to the opinions, known or imagined, of the citizens of the United States. "The American people would never stand for . . ." "The American people expect . . ." "The American people are determined . . . " All of which means in essence nothing else but this: that those who are charged with responsibility for the consideration of the peace remember very well the fiasco of twenty-five years ago—remember very well not only the vanity of a Senator from Massachusetts but the state of public opinion which made it possible for that vanity to triumph over the hope of the world and thus commit our generation to a second war. They are determined that this time the people of this country shall play their proper part. Which means that they are determined that the American people as the American people—not as the constituents of their representatives in Congress but as themselves—shall take an active and a responsible part in the consideration of what is surely the most difficult, confused, and complicated of all the problems history has presented to mankind.

That this determination is well taken there can be, I think, no doubt. History as well as logic supports it. A self-governing people must either participate actively in the making of the decisions which determine its destiny, or its destiny will not be determined. But there can equally be no doubt, if the activities of the last few months are relevant, that the determination that the American people should participate in the peace has not been thought through to the necessary conclusions or the appropriate consequences. Gentlemen in Washington and gentlemen elsewhere—official as well as unofficial students of the peace—await the participation of the people in the decisions to be made. But what participation, neither they nor anyone has thus far said.

We receive, hundreds of thousands of us at least receive, innumerable pamphlets, leaflets, reprints, learned articles dealing with questions of world organization, of raw materials, of air transportation, of international trade, of the punishment of war criminals, of the partition of Germany. Are we, as self-governing citizens of this Republic and by virtue of our citizenship in this Republic, and in our capacity as citizens, to make up our minds on questions such as these? Are we to reach conclusions satisfactory to ourselves on the twenty-five debatable frontiers of Europe? Are we to reconsider Trieste, to settle the Polish corridor, to determine the future of Formosa? Is it our duty to resolve the problem of the Dutch-Colonial possessions?—the British? Will we be doing less than our full duty if we fail to decide what we think about gold, about war debts, about air ports? But if it is not this that is expected of us, what then is expected? And by whom is this expectation entertained? And what reciprocal duties, if any, are borne by those who expect these actions of us: who await their performance at our hands?

This, I submit, is a question of considerable relevance to the proposition, express or implied, that the American people, as the American people must participate in the making ofthe peace must express their opinion—must assert theirposition must declare their will. The American people, Iimagine, are willing enough to do all those things. Certainly they have never been reluctant in the past, and they do not appear to be reluctant now. Lecture audiences, I am told, regularly demand of their lecturer these days what they can do—what each one of them can do about it. The lecturer doubtless has his answer, but those to whom the question really is addressed have yet, so far as I know, to reply. The people's representatives, both their elected and their appointed representatives, including those who wait most articulately upon their determinations and decisions, have never yet, so far as I can now recall, informed the people what it is that they await. The consequence is the situation we are beginning to perceive—a situation bad enough as it is and rapidly becoming worse.

The consequence is, first, a sense of frustration which is largely responsible for the increasingly hopeless opinion that a real peace, a workable peace, a creative peace cannot be made; and, second, a certain paralysis of will and of determination in government itself. Government waits upon the people for decisions which the people do not make because they have not been asked to make them, and the people wait on government for indications of governmental purposes and direction which will present the kind of issue on which the people can express their views. Government, recalling the dead end of 1919, waits for the people to precede it through the hoped-for door, and the people, uncertain whether the door has now been opened, wait for the government to invite them through. The consequent bowing and scraping is doubtless a heartening sight to those who hope that nothing much will happen when the war ends beyond the silencing of the guns, but for the rest of the world which has been told, and which believes, that a decent peace can be made if we are men enough to make it, the spectacle is hardly edifying.

What is obviously required, and what is required very soon, is a common agreement between the people and their government as to their respective obligations in the making of the peace—or, more precisely, in the shaping of the national purpose which the peace is to reflect. If government is unwilling, understandably unwilling, to tell the people what their commitments are to be, and if the people are unable, practically unable, to elaborate their commitments in a convention of a hundred and thirty million voices, then a division of function would seem to be required.

But a division of function is not only conceivable: it is more or less self-evident. Certain aspects of the business dearly belong to government because government alone is physically capable of dealing with them. Other aspects belong to the people because the people, and only the people, have the right to decide them. The first are those aspects of the national purpose which have to do with feasibility, with ways and means; the second are those aspects of purpose which have to do with ultimate objectives. The citizens as citizens cannot resolve boundary disputes or frame international organizations; it is indeed because they cannot dispose of such questions directly in their capacity as citizens that they elect, or indirectly appoint, representatives to act on their behalf. But by the same sign, the government as government, whether elected or appointed, cannot experience for the nation the nation's deep and profoundly-felt desires: indeed it was precisely because governments are incapable of living for their people that governments by the people were established on this earth.

Both as a matter of history, therefore, and as a matter of practice, the theoretical division of duties is clear. It is the duty of a self-governing people to determine respon-

sibility and answerability for what they wish. It is the duty of their representatives in government to give their wishes substance. But though the theoretical division of duties is clear—is indeed so clear as to be transparent and therefore to be frequently forgotten—the implications of that theoretical division are not, apparently, so obvious. The implications are that the issues kept before the people by their leaders for discussion and debate will be the issues of principle, the moral issues, the issues of basic choice, and that a part at least of the responsibility of the people's representatives in government will be the responsibility to assure themselves that these issues have been considered by the people and that the people have declared their minds.

For the obligations of the people in this division of obligations—the duty of each citizen individually, and of a majority of the citizens collectively, to arrive at a responsible and considered and firm conclusion as to the desired end, the wished-for outcome—is, of all the duties of living men, the most difficult to perform. Compared with it the duty of officers of government to find solutions for specific problems of ways and means—even the most complicated problems of currency, problems of trade, problems of frontiers, of courts, of armies—are light indeed. There are theoretical solutions by the dozens for most of the specific problems of the peace, and quite a number of them, conceivably, would work: what still awaits solution is the problem of the kind of peace we want.

"We have learned the answers, all the answers. It is the question that we do not know."

All of us who have lived long enough to move out into the frontier regions of responsible choice know of our own knowledge how difficult it is to be clear, to be certain, to be convinced even in the most intimate, the most personal, decisions of our own lives. The more we have felt, the more we think we have learned, the more doubtful of ultimate certainty we become until we end up, some of us, in that permanent state of elevated indecision known as the objective mind. But what is true of private choice is true, with even greater force, of public choice. Except in those narrow and desperate necessities where a nation chooses between resistance and destruction—between life and death—the shaping and hardening of a common national will, a common national purpose, is the most difficult and arduous of political actions.

We have lessons enough of that in our own history, both in the earliest and in the latest days. What we mean when we speak of the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor as an Axis error of inconceivable stupidity is precisely that Pearl Harbor presented us with a narrow and necessary choice which not even the propaganda of fascism in front of us nor the propaganda of isolationism at our backs could conceal or darken. What we mean when we speak of the Declaration of Independence as one of the greatest of the political acts of men is quite simply that the Declaration's drafting, and its acceptance by the Congress, at a time when other possibilities were open, or were believed to be, was an action of affirmative and determined choice almost without precedent in any history.

The difficulty of decision has not been lessened for the people of his country in the making of the peace as it was lessened for them in the making of the war. Events have not narrowed the issue of the future as the events of Pearl Harbor narrowed the issue of the past, nor have the people's leaders yet presented to the people such a declaration of principle and such a proposal for action as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Franklin and Livingston and Sherman presented to the people of this country in July of 1776. We have before us in the making of the peace a greater probablelatitude of election than any earlier generation has ever had in such a venture. We have, and we are conscious that we have, a new world to raise upon the ruins of a world now fallen. We have, and we know that we have, the means to make that new world what we desire to make it—if we can find the power to desire. The nature of man, the nature of ourselves as men, may limit us, but nothing else—neither distances, nor lack of skill, nor poverty of knowledge or of strength,—can restrict our freedom to determine what we want.

But if events have not narrowed negatively the field of choice, and if no Jefferson, no Wythe, no Mason, has exercised in moral terms, in terms of principle, the leadership of affirmation, the basic issue for decision by the people of this country is nevertheless not doubtful. If it is obscured at all, it is obscured not by its strangeness but its familiarity. Democracy is a word so common on our tongues, so frequent in our ears, that it has lost not only its significance but its meaning. Fascism is a word of as much precision—and as little—as the words for cruelty and evil. And yet the issue for the peace, like the issue for the war, is precisely what we have said so often that it was—the issue between these two—the issue between fascism and democracy. And the real decision of principle, decision of morality, for the people of the United States to make, is whether they do, actually and in sober earnest, intend to have a democratic world—intend to have a world in which democracy can live and be itself and flourish. For if they want it, they can have it. And unless they want it—want it with their will as well as with their words—they will not only fail to have it: they will have, as certainly as night comes out of dusk, its opposite. The name of which they know.

The plain truth of the entire fog of talk is this: that we can have democracy if we really want democracy enough to have it. We can destroy fascism if we really hate fascism, sufficiently to root it out. But the choice between the two is a sober and searching choice, for it involves, so far as the people, who are the real and ultimate rulers of this country, are concerned, a searching and a sober decision. You cannot choose between fascism and democracy on the cheap and self-deluding basis of the oratorical distinctions. You cannot choose between them by saying Yes, you love freedom, or No, you hate tyranny. You can only choose between them by an act of affirmative choice which recognizes what it is it chooses.

The Nazis chose fascism on this basis. They saw, cynically if you will but realistically, notwithstanding, what it was they had elected to accomplish. We must choose democracy, if we elect to choose it, with at least an equal understanding of our choice. We must understand that if we choose democracy as against fascism we are not choosing "the world before the war." "The world before the war" was not democracy. Indeed, it was precisely because the world before the war was not democracy that the Communists and the Fascists were able to attack it. We must understand that the democracy we are electing in opposition to fascism is the democracy which is fascism's opposite, the democracy which excludes fascism—democracy itself.

We must understand, moreover, that our choice of democracy—the sober, realistic and meaningful choice of democracy—will inevitably draw with it other choices, abroad as well as here. You cannot seriously choose democracy without choosing at the same time a world in which democracy can live. President Wilson's phrase about a world safe for democracy was truer than those who used it in 1917 and discarded it in 1919 knew; truer perhaps than Wilson himself imagined. It is one of the curious characteristics of human life, public as well as private, that the principal things it hasto teach us are the things we thought we knew. We thought we knew, because we so frequently said, that the world must be made safe for democracy. We have now learned that democracy can be safe only in a world which will never, at any moment, compromise the basic principles on which democracy is founded.

But the question still remains whether our hard-won knowledge will direct our acts. Having determined that it is truly democracy we want, are we willing to push that determination to its necessary conclusion? Are we willing to say and, more than that, are we willing to mean, that the world must henceforth be a world in which conspiracies against democracy such as the Nazi-fascist conspiracy of the 1930's shall not be permitted to make head and gather power anywhere? Are we willing to decide, once and for all and finally and intending what we say, that the world must henceforth be a world in which violations of freedom, like the Nazi-fascist violation of the freedom of the people of Spain, will be resisted wherever they occur, however they disguise themselves?

For unless we are willing to say these things and meanthem, our declaration of democratic purpose will be a declaration of democratic wishful thinking and pious hope. To prefer democracy to fascism is easy enough—as easy as preferring good to evil. But to prefer democracy to fascism and to determine, with a full and sober understanding of what the determination means, that democracy shall actually be accomplished and that fascism shall truly be destroyed, is something much more serious and much more grave.

It is that grave and serious choice which is the real choice before our generation in this country. And it is that choice the people and not the government of this country must now make. The duties of citizenship become in our time the duties of decision. The young men and young women of this country who take those duties up with war around them and the hope of peace ahead will know far better than their elders what depends upon their act of will. Citizenship in this Republic was considered a great honor by those who bore it first It will be counted a great honor once again if those who bear it now will exercise its rights and duties with a solemn understanding of the meaning of the choice they are about to make.