A Challenge to Our Age


By WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS, Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court

Delivered before the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, California, September 10, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 11-14.

WE ARE living in an era of fundamental change. One age is giving way to another. The process of change was set in motion before the present war began. The war is indeed a violent chapter in its history. But this war—huge and disturbing as it is—is hardly the last chapter in the transition.

The war is a challenge. It is a challenge not only to our ability to produce guns and tanks and planes, and to use them in the field. If that were all, we would not be talking and thinking about the future as we all are doing today. But the war is more than the immediate challenge of military might which we are meeting so triumphantly. It is part of a continuing challenge to our whole way of life.

Military victory will not automatically provide a solution to those problems. Something more will be required of us. Our moral stamina as well as our fighting strength is being tested. For it is up to us to prove that our democracy can adapt itself to new circumstances, yet carry with it the values it has achieved in the past. This war is a test—a test of our wisdom, and our strength and our faith.

China, Britain, Russia—each passed the test of survival. Their successes were not lucky accidents. They were genuine victories, earned by millions of people. They demonstrated a basic principle of history. Each battle proved that national integrity is a prerequisite of national survival. The cases of China, Britain and Russia show that, in time of supreme national crisis, when a people have only their faith left to fight with, they can—if they feel they must—convert and transmute their national integrity into a decisive weapon of national defense.

We need not be concerned when the minds of the American people are in a ferment of doubt. Trial by doubt is an ordeal from which nations, like men and women, gain both wisdom and stamina. Nor should we be frightened when a world crisis provokes a mood of self-questioning among us. This doubt, this self-questioning, is not mysterious norhumiliating. On the contrary, it is a challenge which a vigorous and healthy people must always welcome. It is a challenge which should make us glad to be living at a time when so much is demanded of us, when entire nations can rise to heroic heights. In the history of mankind turbulent years are more nearly normal than placid ones. Societies either advance or they disintegrate. That is, perhaps, the first law of life.

Any era of transition or change provokes uncertainties. The old dogmas are no longer sure. The old truths seem to have been refuted. At such times—and especially when the climax of a great and bloody war is approaching—the whole basis of life is invariably altered. We cannot know what will come to take its place. But we may all be sure that the end of this war will be the signal for the beginning of a new struggle—a struggle of a different kind. It will be on the moral and social front. Upon our skill and wisdom in that endeavor will depend our chances of building successfully a new America; of shaping her to our historic ideals; of making her new stature a guarantee of freedom, of strength, and of promise to the world; of saving a new generation from the terrible necessity of having to fight another World War.

We cannot escape the test nor evade the issue by pretending that the familiar world of the past sixty or seventy years is more than a memory and a tradition. We were brought up to live by its facts and ideals. We honor our past, and we propose to live by our traditions, not blindly, but selectively and intelligently.

America has never stifled life; it has always grown. America has never worshipped any imaginary absolute of perfection. As a people we have understood that a gulf must always separate what men have from what men want. That is why we are tireless in our pursuit of the better.

America has endured, America has remained true to herself, because she has changed many times. The men whocreated this country knew that empires and eras, like people, grow old, become feeble, and die. The men who have spoken for this country in every chapter of her growth have known it, too.

In the same spirit of reverence for our dynamic past, with the most profound determination to use the great American tradition as a living guide to the world about to be created, we must admit frankly that the world into which we were born has died. We will dishonor our past if we deny the challenge of today. We, the generations now living, have a great historic chance to preserve the ideals we inherited. It is the same chance our fathers had. But it is also up to us to discover new goals, to find the new truths which the new age we are moving into will need, if the Americans of the future are to be proud of their history and traditions.

The task will not be easy. We'll have to make up our minds to live with our doubts and with our worries, with the problems to which no one today can give a simple or positive answer. While we must not underestimate the job, neither must we let its complexity—its immensity—appall us. This is not a country of men who are refugees from the past. This is not a nation of men and women who cling to the past because they do not understand the present and because they fear the future. Nor is it a country of men who are willing to sell their souls for a promise of security. This is a country of men and women who will accept the challenge of what lies ahead—all of them ready to do their part; all of them living with a sense of responsibility to their children and to the American Creed they want to hand on to their children's children.

The last great period of change and growth which America went through, some eighty years ago, was more like our own than we have been brought up to think.

The 1840's and '50's were a time of social ferment and intellectual probing. People were beginning to re-examine the values that their parents and grandparents had lived by. New religious groups sprang up just as new political ideas did in our day. And the period was climaxed by a war as bitterly fought and as fundamental in the changes it brought about as any in history.

Abraham Lincoln was not only the protagonist of his age. He was the symbol of all its inner meaning. No man could have been more tortured by doubt. No man could have felt more deeply the consequences of the action he knew he must take—action that he was sure was right . . . and yet which destroyed a way of life and meant death for thousands of young men.

Lincoln met the challenge of his own time successfully. But no one knew better than he that there would be new challenges to meet, new periods of change and doubt, new ages of transition and revaluation. Some of the problems of his age still face us. Lincoln left us no panacea, no lifeless and entire peace. He handed down to us, rather, an opportunity to preserve America in its own image, an opportunity to build anew. What he felt and thought and suffered is a barometer of all the spiritual striving and search of his era and a measure of its heritage for us.

Out of the confusion and disorder of that day came one of the most vigorous and lusty periods the world has ever seen. The age of crude growth and ruthless strength is not one that we want to repeat. But the vitality and the promise of our post-Civil War life were as real as its crudeness. There is no reason for us to think that America cannot experience such growth again. Out of our own experience can come a spirit as powerful but wiser, a purpose equally determined but even better fitted to the world of tomorrow.

The decision of the Civil War that all labor in America would be free labor ushered in the greatest, most dynamicof all industrial revolutions. To some, looking back today, it is a Golden Age of enlightened self-interest and free enterprise. To others, it is the dark story of the marauding barons of high finance . . . of exploitation . . . and nothing more.

Neither of these views tell the story, which is far more dramatic than any special pleading can make it. The last 80 years saw us grow from a sprawling adolescent, importing economy to an industrial power greater in many ways than all the rest of the world put together. Our wilderness became farm land, our frontiers were transformed by blast furnaces and machine shops and factories of every kind. We were needlessly wasteful of our resources, and we left problems and evils in our path. But we made more things than any nation had ever made before and we gave more of them to more people. We were America. We were the trail blazer of the world. We pictured abundance to succeed scarcity. And we groped toward that goal.

But what we gave to our people—what our people made and took for themselves—was not just wealth and material things. We also fashioned new liberties. No nation has ever been free as we have been free. Nor did any nation ever dare dream of growing as free as we did. The immigrants from Europe who came to our shores had heard stories—incredible stories—of gold in the streets, and shoes for everyone. But it was the other stories they heard, the stories that had the word liberty in them, that also brought them across what was then the wide Atlantic. It was the news that you could say what you wanted, and think what you wanted in America; that you could worship your God or argue about Him as your conscience told you to; that you could become a citizen and vote for the people who governed you; that you did not have to cringe before officers in uniform, that your children could go to school, free school, and learn to read and write and grow up to be somebody. They learned that civil liberties meant not only their right to say what they liked and the other fellow's right to say what he liked. They learned that the true meaning of those liberties was the right of the other fellow to say what they did not like.

Because of those things they learned to live together with other people whose fathers their fathers had always fought in the Old World. They and their children became Americans. They came, and they worked, and they fought as they are fighting now. They learned how to speak their minds and make their needs and desires felt while accepting the equal right of people of different views to do the same. They made themselves a place alongside the descendants of the older waves of immigrants. Because they could do this, because it was the freest land in the world, America became the richest.

That is a primary lesson we can learn from the earlier era of American development. Our people won new liberties. They did not reach Utopia. No one ever will. But within the wide framework of those new liberties we were able to produce the good things of life more abundantly than any other nation. Our wealth and our power have been a direct outgrowth of our freedom.

In that connection let us not forget that in the last century we offered the common man something few other nations did—opportunity. He was not bound by inherited class distinctions. He could make money, win professional distinctions, acquire political power within the framework of a republic, or simply pursue his own idea of happiness as he wanted within the bounds of a reasonable penal code.

Those are the ideals of freedom and liberty that have made us the inspiration of the world.

Those are the ideals of liberty and freedom for the individual which we must never lose.

Now that our position in the world—our very existence as a nation—is being challenged, all Americans are considering what our policy toward the rest of the world should be when the war is won.

Some say the rest of the world is no concern of ours, that we ought to let it stew in its own juice while we devote ourselves to solving our own problems. Others feel that our problems are merely a part of international issues and that we must take on the responsibility for solving those international problems before we can expect to get anywhere with domestic questions.

Each group is convinced that only the attitude it advocates will protect our liberties, and that to follow the rival course would ruin democracy in America.

If we look at the influence on the world that this country has had in the past, we may get a clue to how we ought to behave in the future. It is perfectly true that our domestic problems are part of a larger picture. All that we do to solve our problems at home is immediately radiated out to the rest of the world.

At the same time, we should not forget that every other nation knows more about its own troubles and problems than we do or ever can. No matter how high our ideals or motives, we can hardly qualify as managers of the affairs of other nations. What may be good for them may be anathema to us or vice versa. The history, the traditions of people vary throughout the world. Each must work out its own destiny. We should let others have the same free choice which we reserve for ourselves.

Even if we wanted to, we could not assume sole responsibility for solving international problems.

Moreover, we must not disparage and underestimate other peoples' ability to help themselves.

But there is a great deal we can do. We cannot force other countries to act as we wish or to emulate our way of life. But if America continues to be a country worth following, she will be followed. If our standard of life and our respect for the individual and his freedom, are still vital and inspiring, they will inevitably awaken similar desires in other lands.

But other peoples must feel that our attitude toward them is friendly. We must show them that we are more than a great tutor; that we can learn as well as teach.

Above all, our word must be good.

The world is going to need—and it will welcome—as much competition as the people of America have always insisted on at home.

Liberties cannot be forced upon people. But we can kindle the imagination of the citizens of other continents with the idea that they would do well to achieve such liberties for themselves. After all, nothing succeeds like success.

We cannot expect our prestige throughout the world to rise above the level of our own accomplishment at home. Our world problem, far from conflicting with our domestic job, should stimulate us to do it better. If we want the security of friendship with like-minded neighbors, we will show the world that our democracy can outperform any other system. No counter-propaganda can stand against that.

In the era now ending we have been the inspiration of the world, the symbol of progress to even the most progressive countries. To keep the American tradition alive, we must continue as the trail blazer of the world in the age now dawning.

During the crisis of Lincoln's day, the political party in power in England was ready to enter our Civil War against the North. It was the common people of Britain who stopped the move. The war meant hardship to the textile workers of Manchester, thrown out of employment because theNorthern blockade was cutting off supplies of cotton. But although the British Navy might have broken the blockade and put them back to work, although gentlemen across the sea who were supposed to be so wise were for war, the textile workers protested. America was not just the country that sent them their raw material. America was a dream in their hearts. They would not fight her. They would not let their rulers make war upon her.

Those people are allies worth having. They are the ones who said in England four years ago, "We will have no more appeasement. We will honor our obligation to Poland." They are the ones who three years ago stood up when hell rained on London and Coventry, on Bristol and Portsmouth.

They are the Chinese farmers who turn soldier by night, who keep Japanese rifles hidden in their huts and blow up bridges with home-made hand grenades and risk torture that China may live.

They are the Russian people who held at Stalingrad and today roll back the Nazi hordes towards Berlin.

Those silent millions are our real neighbors in the world now being born. They are taking the place of the decadent and irresponsible castes that traditionally controlled old-world politics. They have moved closer and closer to the council tables where power politics has always flourished.

Those silent millions—the common people of the world—are paying for the war—as they have paid for all wars—with their blood and their suffering. They insist that the world of tomorrow offer more to youth than the creed of cynicism. They insist that the world of tomorrow not make a mockery of those killed and sacrificed in this war.

We failed in 1918. We must be wiser this time. We must attain new maturity if we are to make our victory in this war a fitting end to the struggle that achieved it. Our chances of success increase with the ascendency of these silent millions to a greater position of power.

To fight in the manner of the Allies, a nation must have more than a fine army and good equipment. There has to be an idea in the hearts of the people, soldiers and civilians, that will give them something to balance against the supreme sacrifices of war.

The fighters and the working men and women of the Allied nations are not waging war on the basis of lies and deceptions and false promises. They have ideas about what they expect their world to be at the end of the war and how they want to improve it. Those ideas are largely private and unexpressed, but they are there. You might call them individual war aims. But they are private and personal only on the surface. Underneath they are so widespread and universally held that they point to fundamental change in the shape of the world, to more freedom and better material conditions for all.

That combination, that determination to gain new liberties and higher standards of living at the same time, is very American. If the fiery hope for freedom is the heart of the dream, the material gains are its outward symbol. Today that American dream is burning all over Europe and Asia. It burns brightly in the lands successfully closing in toward victory. It burns sullenly and obstinately in the hearts of the conquered who await a new day. It has now been kindled anew in Italy. With the end of the war, it will shape itself into a drive of such force that it can be ignored by none.

On the material plane, we see first of all irresistible pressure for a universal rise in living standards. There will be a demand for material necessities and luxuries of life even from the most backward economies. To meet that demand new industrial areas will appear and old ones will grow larger. What happened in America 60 and 70 years agowill begin to happen in other nations throughout the world.

That new industrialization need not be a threat to us. The increased productivity of one nation can profit all its sisters. A higher standard of living in Europe and Asia and Latin America will mean enormously increased markets for our goods.

Nothing could be more fallacious than the ancient theory that backward peoples can be exploited as outlets for industrially produced goods. Even if backward peoples want such goods, they do not have the money to pay for them. Profitable trade can exist only between countries on a fairly equal footing economically.

We should not be disturbed if the other nations of the earth begin to grow more like our own. In fact, America can expect to profit from the economic gains other continents are sure to make in much the same way as our industrial East is bound to gain from our development of new productivity here in the West.

With more and more things in common with other nations we can come closer and closer toward a real and functioning community of nations. And we must not forget that any real community of nations can exist only among equals. Our own history proves that.

Some think our period of leadership in the world is ended. Some say we shall have to yield our position of trail blaze, to some other more dynamic power. But I cannot agree. I believe that we will go on to realize a way of life better than has ever existed before. America is not decadent. It has never been so strong. Its truly great achievements lie ahead of it.

The future will be strange to us. Its problems will new. They will be more difficult than any we have had. None of us knows what new things we shall make together here in America during the years of trial and struggle ahead.

But of one thing I am sure. What we make will not be a denial of our past. America will reverence freedom as it always has. We shall not surrender or compromise our ideals of liberty and freedom for the individual. We shall not lost the basic civil liberties guaranteed at the birth of our country in the Bill of Rights and supplemented during the years of our growth by Congress and the courts. Those rights are the touchstone of what we must demand from the future As long as our citizens are free to think, to write, to speak, to vote as they please, we can never be untrue to ourselves and our past—and we can never fear to compete with any nation for a position of moral leadership in the world.