We Took the Easiest Way
"IN OUR KEEPING LIES THE FUTURE OF MANKIND"
By WALTER LIPPMANN, Journalist
Delivered at Commencement of University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 8, 1943
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 728-730.
THE ceremony in which we are now participating is an act of remembrance and of faith. For this is the day on which we remember that the tradition of learning comes down to us in an unbroken chain of descent from the academies of ancient Greece, through the great schools of the French and Italian Middle Ages to the English universities, who then sent their graduates to the New World. This University belongs therefore to a great company of institutions which are older than all the governments on the face of the earth.
This, too, is a day of faith in which we reaffirm our conviction that on their respect for the freedom of learning and their practice of intellectual and spiritual integrity in the realm of knowledge, the progress of all human societies depends, the good or evil of all human governments may be accurately judged.
By these exercises we acknowledge that for a brief moment we of the living generation have the honor of carrying the torch of learning. The torch was lighted long centuries before we were born. On all the battlefields of the worldthe ultimate and the deepest issue which is being decided is whether we shall pass on the torch to our descendants to burn more brightly than ever on their path. For if we cannot pass it on, then there will be darkness everywhere.
I am speaking solemnly because this is a most solemn hour in the history of the modern world. No one here today will imagine he can divert himself by forgetting it. But though the world roars and rages about us, we must make secure our own peace of mind, a quiet place of tranquillity and of order and of purpose within our own selves. For it Is doubt and uncertainty of purpose and confusion of values which unnerves men. Peace of mind comes to men only when, having faced all the issues clearly and without flinching, they have made their decisions and are resolved.
For myself I like to think these days of the words of Washington which Gouveneur Morris reported, words spoken when the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia seemed about to fail: "Washington," said Morris, "was collected within himself. His countenance had more than usual solemnity. His eye was fixed, and seemed to look into futurity." "It is" (said he) "too probable that no plan we propose will be adopted. Perhaps another dreadful conflict is to be sustained. If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The event is in the hands of God."
Upon the standard to which the wise and honest of our generation must now repair it is written: "You have lived the easy way; henceforth, you will live the hard way." It is written: "You came into a great heritage made by the insight and the sweat and the blood of inspired and devoted and courageous men; thoughtlessly and in utmost self-indulgence you have all but squandered this inheritance. Now only by the heroic virtues which made this inheritance can you restore it again." It is written: "For every right that you cherish, you have a duty which you must fulfill. For every hope that you entertain, you have a task that you must perform. For every good that you wish to preserve, you will have to sacrifice your comfort and your ease. There is nothing for nothing any longer."
For twenty years before the outbreak of this gigantic war, the free peoples of the western world took the easy way, ourselves more light-heartedly than any others. That is why we were stricken. That is why the defenses of western civilization crumbled. That is why we find ourselves today knowing that we here in America have had to make this country a stronghold of our civilization—the citadel of law and of liberty, of mercy and of charity, of justice among men and of love and of good will.
We are defending that citadel; we have made it the center of the ultimate resistance to the evil which is devastating the world. But more than that, more than the center of resistance, we mean to make it the center of the resurrection, the source of the energies by which the men who believe as we do may be liberated, and the lands that are subjugated redeemed, and the world we live in purified and pacified once more. This is the American destiny, and unless we fulfill that destiny we shall have betrayed our own past and we shall make our own future meaningless, chaotic and low.
But we shall not resist the evil that has come into the world, nor prepare the resurrection in which we believe, if we continue to take, as we have taken so persistently, the easy way in all things. Let us remind ourselves how at the critical junctures in the twenty years between the two wars we took the road of least effort and the method of the cheapest solution and of greatest self-indulgence.
In 1917-1918 we participated in a war which ended in the victory of the free peoples. It was hard to make a good andmagnanimous peace. It was easier to make a bad and unworkable peace. We took the easiest way.
Having sacrificed blood and treasure to win the war, having failed to establish quickly and at the first stroke a good and lasting peace, it was too hard, it was too much trouble to keep on trying. We gave up. We took the easy way, the way that required us to do nothing, and we passed resolutions and made pious declarations saying that there was not going to be any more war, that war was henceforth outlawed.
Thus we entered the post-war Twenties, refusing to organize the peace of the world because that was too much trouble, believing—because that was no trouble at all—that peace would last by declaring that it ought to last. So enchanted were we with our own noble but inexpensive sentiments that, though the world was disorganized and in anarchy, we decided to disarm ourselves and the other democracies. That was also the easy way. It saved money. It saved effort.
In this mood we faced the problems of reconstruction from the other war. It was too much trouble to make a workable settlement of reparations and of the war debts. It was easier to let them break down and wreck the finances of the world. We took the easier way. It was too much trouble to work out arrangements for the resumption of trade because it was too much trouble to deal with the vested interests and the lobbyists and the politicians. It was easier to let the trade of the world be strangled by tariffs, quotas, and exchange controls. And we took the easy way. It was easier to finance an inflationary boom by cheap money than it was to reestablish trade based upon the exchange of goods. We indulged ourselves in the inflationary boom and let it run (because it was too much trouble to check it) into a crash that threw about twenty-five millions, here and abroad, out of work, and destroyed the savings of a large part of the people of all countries.
Having got to that, it was too hard to liquidate the inflation. It was easier to cover up the inflation and pretend that it did not exist. So we took the easier way—we maintained the tariffs, we maintained the age costs and the overhead expenditures of the boom, and thus made it impossible to recover from the crash.
The failure of the recovery produced at the foundations of western civilization a revolutionary discontent. It was easy to be frightened by the discontent. So we were properly frightened. But it was hard to make the effort and the sacrifice to remedy the discontent. And because it was hard, we did not do it. All that we did was to accuse one another of being economic royalists on the one hand, economic lunatics on the other. It was easier to call names than it was to do anything else, and so we called names.
Then out of this discontent there was bred in the heart of Europe and on the edge of Asia an organized rebellion against the whole heritage of western civilization. It was easy to disapprove, and we disapproved. But it was hard to organize and prepare the resistance; that would have required money and effort and sacrifice and discipline and courage. We watched the rebellion grow. We heard it threaten the things we believe in. We saw it commit, year after year, savage crimes. We disliked it all. But we liked better our easy-going ways, our jobs, our profits, and our pleasures, and so we said: It is bad but it won't last; it is dangerous but it can't cross the ocean; it is evil, but if we arm ourselves, and discipline ourselves, and act with other free peoples to contain it and hold it back, we shall be giving up our ease and our comfort, we shall be taking risks, and that is more trouble than we care to take.
So we are where we are today. We are where we arebecause whenever we had a choice to make, we have chosen the alternative that required the least effort at the moment. There is organized mechanized evil loose in the world. But what has made possible its victories is the lazy, self-indulgent materialism, the amiable, lackadaisical, footless, confused complacency of the free nations of the world. They have dissipated, like wastrels and drunkards, the inheritance of freedom and order that came to them from their hardworking, thrifty, faithful, believing, and brave men. The disaster in the midst of which we are living is a disaster in the character of men. It is a catastrophe of the soul of a whole generation which had forgotten, had lost, and had renounced the imperative and indispensable virtues of laborious, heroic and honorable men.
To these virtues we shall return in the ordeal through which we are now passing, or all that still remains will be lost and all that we attempt, in order to defend it, will be in vain. We shall turn from the soft vices in which a civilization decays, we shall return to the stern virtues by which a civilization is made, we shall do this because, at long last, we know that we must, because finally we begin to see that the hard way is the only enduring way.
Finally, I would say to you, this; The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth can make us and keep us free. We are not children. We are not nervous invalids. We are not fools and cowards who cannot look the facts in the face. We are free men and women who when we know what is what and know what must be done, will do our duty without flinching and without complaining, relentlessly, resolutely, imperturbably, irresistibly and, I may add, with peace in our souls no matter how violently the storms rage about us. To seek for the truth and then to do his duty—that is the mark of a man who is no longer a mere two-legged animal yearning only to be comfortable and amused, and against men who have risen to this, the gates of hell cannot prevail.
Though each of us is a little creature in the midst of great events, we must see all things greatly or we do not see them at all. When I say see all things greatly, I mean all the things which touch us directly—first and above all, of course, the sons and the daughters, the brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and lovers who have gone away from home to camps and across the seas. In the pain of the parting from them, in the weariness of the long separation from them, in the sorrows which have come and must come to so many, we must never forget that they have in their keeping the future of this country and the fate of the world—and that therefore not pity for ourselves but pride in their glory is what we owe them.
Then we shall see all the other things greatly—all the things which we must give up, all the things we are called upon to do: the taxes, the rationing, the loss of our luxuries, the strain upon our habits of life, the uncertainty of our personal future, the inroads upon our professional privileges and rights and ordinary routines.
To see these greatly is, I submit, to realize that what really matters, and in the end all that matters, is not material possessions and not social or professional status but knowledge, acquired skill, an honest character and a brave soul.
We must see ourselves greatly. We are not little bundles of reflexes and instincts which twitch when the proper stimulus is applied. Nor are we little economic men and women who are moved by profit and loss. Nor are we the sons and daughters of rich fathers who worked hard and left us money to do nothing but enjoy our inheritance. We are in the line of the pilgrims and of the pioneers, in the line with those who founded the country and in the line with those who preserved it. We are not tenants in the house that they built and users of what they left us. We shall make history ourselves, and hand down to those who come after us the story of what men and women did in these days in which We live.
Everything we have, and everything we are, and everything we believe in, is irreparably at stake. We lose all or we win all. Let us then become conscious of the greatness of our cause. For it is more true today than when the words were first spoken by one of our greatest Presidents that, "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord."
In our keeping there lies the future of mankind on this earth. To us there has been entrusted the final defense and the ultimate vindication of the first and last things of a civilized life: of freedom under law, of law under righteousness, of righteousness with mercy, and charity, and love.
It is an awful responsibility, a responsibility which we can hope to bear only by bearing it, learning through our sorrow and our triumphs, through defeats and victories, to be equal to our responsibility. But all the centuries look down upon us. The ages to come will look back to us, and we shall live in men's memories, long after our follies and our faults and our failings are forgotten, as men and women who against the most powerful assault of organized barbarism in the whole history of men, stood triumphant in the heroic age when freedom was won.