How Did We Get This Way?


By ENNIS P. WHITLEY, General Sales Manager, American Seating Co., Grand Rapids, Mich.

Delivered before the Engineers' Club, Grand Rapids, Mich., August 26, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 91-93.

IN John T. Whitaker's recent book "We Cannot Escape History", he relates an incident which is a sweeping condemnation of the complacency and arrogance of the 20th century mind in an era which we have been pleased to call civilization. This author was talking to one Captain Don Gonzalo Aguilera, the Count of Alva.

The Count was one of Franco's chief press officers. The conversation took place just after the Spanish rebels, with almost unlimited aid from Germany and Italy, had beaten democratic Spain to its knees. Franco and his associates had superiority of numbers, superiority of fire power, superiority in the air, superiority of transport, and superiority of everything but character and righteous purpose. It was against this background that the Count delivered himself of this revealing observation: "You know what's wrong with Spain? Modern plumbing. In other times, you understand, plague and pestilence could be counted on to thin down the Spanish masses. Now, with modern sewage disposal and the like, they multiply too fast." Then he went on to say that it was the duty of Franco and his regime to kill and kill until a third of the Spanish proletariat had been liquidated; that, of course, the third which the Franco government was going to kill would be those who were best educated and, hence, the most troublesome; that people of this type were no better than animals, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

This conversation took place not in the dark ages, centuries ago, but in these our own times. The man who was talking was not an African head hunter, but a government leader of a nation representing an old and hitherto respected culture. Let's examine some world events which preceded and followed this conversation.

In 1927 Japan's long range plans for greater power were disclosed in detail in a document known as "Tanaka Memorial." In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the first step in the realization of her scheme for conquest and domination of the East.

What was our reaction to this violation of China's rights? You know the story. We exchanged a few memoranda with the Japanese government on the one hand, and with the governments of England and France on the other, and did nothing. No, we did worse than nothing. We continued to sell to the Japanese scrap iron, gasoline, aluminum, and all of the other vital materials of war, proceeding on a business as usual basis, and shutting our eyes to the grave implications of what Japan was initiating. We like to say that England and France failed in their duty in this crisis. There was failure, but it was principally on the part of the United States. We had a greater stake in the Pacific than any other nation.

Due to our open door policy, and because of the magnificent work which was done by our State Department, our missionaries and educators, we were becoming established in China in such a manner that it would have been one of our biggest foreign markets. China's republic was getting ready to take its place as one of the really vital factors in world democracy. The Japs recognized that this trend was going counter to their imperialistic plans. So, in violation of all international law and common decency, they, in octopus fashion, added Manchuria to their so-called co-prosperity sphere of influence. We sat by, losing face, markets, prestige and international good will. Tens of thousands of Chinese lost their lives; but we shut our eyes and continued our commerce with Japan.

Let's move on to 1935. The strutting Mussolini decided that he would rebuild the Roman Empire, a la the Caesars of the past. He literally blackmailed the democracies into shameful inaction while he accomplished his diabolic purposes. France, the other world power most vitally concerned, played an ignominious role of inaction and cowardice. England, suffering from inept, spineless Tory government, did nothing but talk about sanctions. The Hoare, Laval, Mussolini deal whereby England and France permitted this steal, is one of the most disgraceful chapters in modern history. The sequence of events which follows is fresh in the minds of all of us.

Czecho-Slovakia, a young and resolute democracy, was tossed into the greedy mouths of the dictators by shameless democratic governments in the hope that thereby their own skins might be saved. Then, there followed in-rapid succession the conquest of Poland, the invasion of Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, and the collapse of France. During this whole sequence of world-shaking events, which turned back the hands of history for hundreds of years, England, France, and, yes, the United States, did little until world civilization was actually threatened with extinction. So, in the light of the events of this decade, from 1930 to 1940, when the rights and sanctity of the average man were held as being of no value, as reflected in the Count of Alva's revealing comments, I think we may pertinently stop and ask ourselves "How Did We Get This Way"; for statesmen, business men, military leaders, the common soldier, the man in the street, and the youth of all lands are asking the question "How Did We Get This Way?"

We believe that a partial answer can be found in the fact that for long centuries, men and nations have accepted, applied and capitalized mechanical and scientific truths and inventions. At the same time, they have never fully tried the acceptance and application of moral and philosophical truths. In our brief time we can only touch on a few examples in proof of this statement.

The greatest mechanical invention of all time was doubtless that of the wheel. Nobody knows the facts as to its origin or the condition of its first use. We do know that in 1825 the English had a speed limit of 15 miles an hour for their trains. We know that horse-drawn chariots had been in use for centuries in the time of Nero and the Caesars. A General Motors' executive has given us this whimsical story to the possible origin of the all important wheel. He places the date at approximately 8,000 years before Christ, and imagines that a man of that era, whom we shall call Jop, came up to May first, which was then as now the universal moving day. Now, Jop was quite a boy in his tribe and had gathered together a lot of loot pillaged from weaker neighbors. So, moving day in Jop's family was quite a chore. Ordinarily, Mrs. Jop and the children did all the work, and Jop's sole duty consisted of walking ahead of the caravan, dressed in a tiger skin, while he brandished a war dub to scare away designing neighbors who might want to take back some of their possessions. But on this particular day, at the beginning of the "Fourth Warm Interval" inprehistoric times, Mrs. Jop was feeling poorly. Her strength was below par; so she and the children found it impossible to pull the travois up some steep inclines. Our friend explains that a travois consisted of two wooden poles, across which were stretched the skins of animals, making a kind of litter for transport. But, at any rate, Mrs. Jop and the children could not get their impedimenta up the hill. Old Jop had to compromise his manly dignity and lend a hand. When the tugging was at its hardest, the ends of the poles fortunately encountered some round stones. Jop discovered that as a consequence of this circumstance, the load moved much easier; so he filled his pouch with stones, and whenever they got into a particularly tough spot, he would put these stones under the ends of the travois poles to help them out. My friends, Jop was a smart boy; he was one of the first engineers of his age. By next May first, when moving day came around, Jop had fashioned some round devices which were permanently attached to the ends of the poles in such a manner that the load could roll instead of being dragged. So much for your ancestor, Jop.

The invention or discovery of the wheel is generally admitted to be the most important of all mechanical inventions, and the necessary forerunner of mass production, modern transportation, modern warfare and trotting races.

A few of the other significant inventions are the steam engine, the steamboat, the gasoline engine, electricity, the air plane, the printing press, and motion pictures. These and others, taken altogether, have brought all peoples in all parts of the world into close contact. Each nation is informed about the living standards, the governments, the education and the possessions of the other. Yet, there has been no recognition of mutual obligation between these nations which make up our modern world on any scale which would insure mutual protection and any approach to decent living standards. Out of the two billion people in the world today, 80 per cent have never had enough to eat or wear. Their conditions of education, sanitation, medical care and housing are in many cases and countries unspeakably below any decent standard. Civil rights are denied to many of them. As a consequence of these circumstances, dictator and autocratic governments thrive.

Abraham Lincoln said that a nation cannot exist half slave and half free. I submit to you, gentlemen, that the nations of the world today have as great community of interest as the several states of the United States had in 1860. And just as our own nation could not exist half slave and half free, so a world cannot exist today with 80 per cent of its people expected to take it on the chin, as they have in the past. What then is the answer to the dilemma? The world can certainly produce enough goods and services to feed and clothe itself and maintain minimum decent standards of housing, health and sanitation. The problem is not one of production. The problem is one of distribution and exchange of goods and services for the mutual advantage of all.

Under the spur of war, factories right here in Grand Rapids are working round the clock to produce machines and instruments of death which are being used in all corners of the world. With proper vision and leadership why can't these manufacturing facilities be used in times of peace to produce things which will provide people in the same remote corners of the world with a richer and fuller life?

If we believe in the existence of the creator, and that there is some divine plan which shapes or should shape our destinies, there are some observations which, if made, would help in a solution of this problem. For example, we find that in the creation of the world, coal was put in the ground in certain places; oil in other places; minerals, perhaps, in ethers. The hillsides of some portions of the world are covered with forests; others are bare. There are fish in the streams and oceans; fowl in the air; and domesticated animals which can be produced without limit. The Latin American countries furnish coffee and tropical fruits; the Orient furnishes spices, oils, rare minerals and metals and other products not found elsewhere. Over all and between all are the land, the oceans and the air. With modern mechanical developments and inventions, there is easy transport whereby goods and services may be exchanged so that all men may have a fuller life. What then remains to make this dream of a better future more of a reality than the world has seen to date? We must seek, find, accept and apply moral and philosophical truths with the same zeal that we have accepted and applied mechanical and scientific truths. No longer can nations live on a selfish nationalistic basis with insurmountable tariff barriers and innumerable superficial obstacles based on greed and selfishness to prevent the exchange of goods and services which would lift the living standards of mankind.

Oh, but you say, we in America have done our part. Really, have we? May I quote Dr. Raymond Moley on that point? Let's examine the stewardship of this generation and frankly review our record for the last forty years. "America has seen two wars closer together than any two in our history during our period of trusteeship. We staged the most godless and insane boom of all times. We had the most drastic of all depressions where millions of people were hungry in the midst of plenty'." Fear seized the nation and we only narrowly avoided a complete social and economic upheaval. "While our generation inherited more wealth than any other, we have spent more, wasted more and destroyed more than any other generation here or elsewhere." Unless our course is reversed, and our facts are faced, we will leave our children staggering debts, and a chaotic world. No, we haven't done so well.

Let us see how the world has treated its philosophers and teachers.

Aristotle and Plato in the days of ancient Greece tried to promote consideration and acceptance of an ideal republic. For their pains in trying to discover moral and philosophical truths to help mankind, Aristotle was condemned to death and forced to drink the hemlock, while Plato was regarded as a current "crackpot."

The world has glorified Alexander the Great, who destroyed two glorious civilizations—those of Greece and Egypt. It has paid small homage to Demosthenes, the great philosopher, who tried to pick up the pieces of a broken world and put .them together after Alexander the Great had accommodatingly destroyed himself in a fit of melancholia because there was no more worlds to conquer.

History has glorified Caesar as the greatest emperor and conqueror of all times. We gloss over the fact that more men were slain by the double-edge forward thrusting Roman sword than have been killed in all the wars since that day. In Caesar's time there were philosophers and statesmen who believed in democracy. They were discredited then and are almost forgotten now.

Christ gave the world a new conception of the sanctity of the individual, the importance of the human soul, along with the golden rule. For his philosophy and sacrifice, he was crucified between two thieves. Since his death, most of us, like the rich young ruler, have examined the tenets of Christianity, and have gone away without accepting them. Some writer recently observed that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.

Woodrow Wilson painted to us a vision of our responsibility and duty in that society of nations, designed to prevent destructive wars between nationalistic nations competing for world commerce. The isolationist sentiment fostered by theBorahs, the Lodges, the Johnsons, and the McCormicks, prevented its adoption.

In the memory of some of us here, the Wright brothers invented the modern airplane. The world accepted and used it with such rapidity that it is well on the way to completely revolutionizing transport and warfare. Yet, historical and philosophical truths which could be just as revolutionary and far reaching, were discarded during the long and toilsome centuries of civilization.

And just why should such a discussion take place at an Engineers' club? Simply this. You and your predecessors have sold to civilization your inventions and your discoveries. There must be a balance between the mechanical and scientific, and spiritual and moral. Since the philosophers, educators and statesmen have failed to sell their theories to the world, it now becomes the compelling duty of very man to help bring about a balance which will be our guide in a changed world.

It is not proposed that we undertake impractical, senseless, half-baked plans for the curing overnight of a world that as long been sick. It will take time, clear vision and hard-headed planning. We must undertake this role, not because of altruism or unselfishness, but because of enlightened self-interest and selfishness.

We cannot survive with India's toiling masses dressed in rags, diseased in body, mind and soul, without having this condition affect us. The struggling under-privileged millions of China and Latin America, must have their chance at life or they will destroy our chance at life. At last we must overcome the idea that we are simply to defend the ideals of Christianity and Democracy. Nobody can successfully defend a vital truth. It must be expanded or it dies.

As one scholar recently observed "There are periods in history when leaders among nations, as the trustees of civilization, must rise to defend the heritage of the ages and devise new methods to insure human welfare and happiness." Such a moment has arrived in the history of our world and our nation. Such a duty confronts every man and every woman. Why should this task be ours? Europe is bankrupt financially and morally. Worn out by long wars, impoverished by nationalistic and autocratic governments, betrayed by the statesmen and leaders who should have served and saved her, she can offer no saving plan or formula now. China, like a sleeping giant, has never come to fruition as as leader among nations. The present Japanese imperialism is so insane that it must be destroyed. Contrast these conditions with ours.

Due to the accident of birth and heritage, we have lived in a land of plenty and one of relative peace. On the borders of all 23 American republics there is not a single fort, a single pill box, a single gun, or a single sentry to protect these countries from each other. The 3,000 mile border between the United States and Canada is marked by a peace bridge and a friendly handshake. The 8,000 mile border between Brazil and her neighbors is the same. The only border marker between all of these 23 republics is a statue of Christ, high in the Andes, between Chile and Argentina, dedicated to the spirit of freedom and Christianity, in a new and modern world. The star of destiny has cast its beam on this generation of Americans despite our mistakes of omission and commission of the past. I am confident that the men and women of this era, like great Americans of the past, will meet the challenge. Forces can be seen at work all around us which will ultimately liberate the human spirit and give all men everywhere an opportunity to live as sacred and sovereign beings.