Our Priceless Heritage
CHARACTER IS THE BEGINNING AND END OF ALL THINGS
By ERIC A. JOHNSTON, President, Chamber of Commerce of the United States
Delivered before the Corrections Committee of the Council of Social Agencies, Washington Criminal JusticeAssociation, Washington, D. C, March 25, 1944
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 569-571.
MR. President and Gentlemen: I was asked by your managing director, Dr. Nolan, to talk about a 15 billion dollar crime toll. I feel that to do so, I would be following in the beaten paths of beaten men who have placed a monetary value on character, moral justice and fair play.
No monetary value can be placed on these assets of American life. We must start, it seems to me, from the solid base of widespread understanding that all of our greatness and progress as a nation stems and flows from the unique qualities of American individuals.
Our program must be to realize that our greatness in the world of tomorrow will depend upon our productive capacity and esprit de corps as a nation, and neither of these are possible unless we build upon the moral, spiritual and intellectual character of our people.
For the essence of democracy, it seems to me, is in the emphasis it places upon the individual man and woman. How can any of us make the largest contribution to the community—to the common pool of human effort and achievement—unless we strive to make the most of our individual talents and skills and opportunities?
It is given to a few rare spirits to make a career of self-abnegation and martyrdom. The rest of us, the vast average, can do best for the world by doing the best for ourselves. We need have no false shame about being ambitious, because we know that the great achievements of a nation are, in the final analysis, merely the sum-total of the small achievements of its millions of citizens. We must rind our justification as members of society, our passports to nobility, in the humble virtues of honest endeavor, industrious self-advancement, and in a clean conscience.
America has prospered magnificently, beyond any other country in modem times, precisely because the urge to self-improvement has been given plenty of play. We have judged people not by the line from which they started the race, but at the line where they finished it. We have gloried in equality—not the arbitrary equality of drab sameness, butthe equality of opportunity. Beyond that, on the contrary, we have recognized the importance of unique and outstanding personal attainments. As a nation we have never regarded democracy as an artificial process of leveling down, but as a framework within which each of us can express his special individuality most effectively—for himself and for the country as a whole.
And so, it is both right and necessary that all of us should think not only of the shattering events which are today remolding the world you live in, but of your own attitudes, your own ideals, your own philosophies of life. Philosophy is something more than a course in your school curriculum, to be passed and forgotten. It is something each of us has, whether we know it or not. It is the aggregate of our enthusiasms and prejudices. It is the moral code by which we live. It is the equipment we bring to life and the response we expect from life. We owe this appraisal not only to ourselves, but to our fellowmen.
We are hearing a great deal of discussion—necessary discussion—of the global war and the global reconstruction to come. But the globe is only the sum-total of its parts. The nation is only the sum-total of its families. And every family is the sum-total of its individual members. In this sense each of you is the center of the world.
No matter what fine plans for the government of world affairs may be set up, the world will never be any better than the men and women who compose its population. The most elaborate and ingenious schemes for guaranteeing peace and spreading culture and prosperity are doomed to failure if the people who put the schemes into operation are brutalized, rotten with hates, and devoid of honor. The effort to end forever the periodic orgies of mass killing called war cannot be carried through to success by people who hold human life in contempt.
Too many people have a feverish interest in reforming the social system, but are strangely indifferent to the needs of their neighbors. Too many people get excited over plans for changing the world, but won't move a finger to improve conditions in their own home towns.
I am convinced that the real tests of human behavior are to be found in personal character—in a wholesome respect for the ordinary decencies, in a passion for such obvious and therefore neglected values as justice, fair play, compassion, truth, and garden-variety human kindness.
The devastation that has swept the world in this era of war and dictatorships is not alone physical. It cannot be measured solely by cities destroyed, countries ravaged, populations uprooted and slaughtered. No less serious has been the immense moral and spiritual devastation.
The greatest crime of the Fascist vandals who unloosed the scourge of war is that they have tried to banish goodness and pity and truth from the earth. In the creed of Hitler and other totalitarians, the torture and murder of innocent people is regarded without horror; in fact, with a perverted glow of pride. Lying not only is permissible, but is ranked above truth as an instrument of policy. Thomas Mann, in a speech back in 1937, summed up this moral degeneration when he described the kind of man in power who "without scruple . . . commits or approves crimes, provided they serve his advantages, or what he calls his advantages; he has no dread of falsehood, but reckons falsehood as high as truth, provided only that it is useful in his sense of the word."
A large portion of the globe is today under the bloody heels of men who apply oppression and terror and systematized robbery with cold scientific precision; men who have made religion of devious thinking and brutal actions; men who consider the most horrifying means as justified by the end in view.
To fight off the attack of these moral vandals, we have had to resort to war. We, too, have been obliged to look upon human beings as so many digits in a statistical equation, as "expendables" for the attainment of victory. There is unhappily no other way to fight wars. It is kill or be killed, bomb or be bombed.
But, there is this difference between ourselves and our totalitarian enemies across the Pacific and across the Atlantic they look upon war as the normal and desirable state of affairs; we looked upon it as a tragic and hateful interruption of the normal and desirable way of life. They glorify mass killing; we undertake it reluctantly and sadly as a last resort They have used war as a method of aggression; we have taken it up as a means of defense.
The danger that we must guard against is that the enemies' moral corruption may touch our blood stream. Even where we are forced to use their methods, we must not allow their attitudes to pollute our philosophy of life. Victory will avail us nothing if in the process of attaining it we lose our perspective and permit the contagion of totalitarian amoralism to infect our own hearts and minds.
The two decades between the two World Wars have been a period of cynicism and little faith. In the enslaved and dictated countries cynicism has found its fullest and ugliest expression.
But these things have not been confined within the frontiers of the totalitarian countries. In some degree they have affected the whole world. Even among us in America there have been alarming symptoms of moral decline.
During these decades it became "smart" to question moral values, to "debunk" everything, to rationalize brutality, to make excuses for horrors at home and abroad. We have heard men sneer at freedom and make light of democracy. A lot of us forgot that our code of morals, our respect for truth and fair dealing, are not arbitrary laws imposed from the outside. They are the products of thousands of years of human experience—the quintessence of the wisdom of the ages. To violate this code brings disaster as surely as violation of the physical laws of nature brings disease and death.
To the extent that we have yielded to the wave of cynicism we have contributed to the great crisis of this epoch, now culminated in the most destructive war of all time. The fact is that it has been not merely a political or economic crisis. It has been a crisis in morals. An evil wind has blown through the world and the havoc it has wrought is now all around us.
The foundation of the brave new world for which we are all hoping after this catastrophe is not in paper plans alone, as necessary as these may be. There are in the United States more than 200 organizations working on plans for the maintenance of peace after the coming victory. One of these organizations has received as many as 1,200 separate proposals for the peace and a reorganized world. The total number under consideration in America and other countries must be truly staggering.
Behind this feverish searching is the illusion that once we have found a perfect plan, the rest will be easy and operate automatically. The search, alas, is as futile as the dream of perpetual motion or the lure of a fountain of youth. No plan to regulate world relationships is any better than the people who use it. The results must depend upon us; upon our robust sense of right and wrong; our respect for individual human beings; upon our new dedication to the simple virtues of everyday life. Salvation, like charity, begins at home. We cannot all participate in the re-construction of a devastated world. But we can take direct part in better government in our own communities. We cannot all take part in clearing the globe of moral debris left by Fascist and other totalitarian propaganda. Still, we can clear its corruption from our souls through a new appreciation of democracy and public affairs and decent behavior in our private lives.
There are among us men who preach hatred of this or that minority, who would foment trouble between groups and classes. That, too, is a symptom of the crisis in morals. There is no room for complacency in such things. These axe danger signals, showing that the moral health of the nation is not what it should be, just as physical symptoms are danger signals of impaired bodily health. Because of the crisis in morals we must cultivate tolerance-for everything except intolerance.
We need dedication to higher standards of conduct in public life. The word "statesman" must replace the word "politician". Men of the best type must come to feel that participation in the labors of governing the nation is worthy of their dignity and their talents. When that is accomplished, democracy will have come of age.
We need, no less, dedication to higher standards of conduct in business. Only those of short memory or long delusions will deny that the cynicism of unlimited self-interest prevailed in certain circles of business leadership in the lush years of prosperity. It has taken years of economic troubles and the sobering influence of government interference to teach those few leaders that the public interest must come first.
Labor, too, has had its full quota of cynicism at the top. There have been men in leadership who reached out greedily for power and profit, with little concern for the well-being of the rank and file of their membership and no thought at all for the interest of the community as a whole.
Both management and labor must recognize that there can be no power without duties, no privileges without obligations; that neither can be healthy or prosperous unless the community as a whole is healthy and prosperous. The advantages of wholesome competition can be safeguarded only if we learn to find the point at which competition must give way to cooperation. Our free economic society, which is the basis of free political society, can survive only if we deliberately seek and find ways for spreading its blessings to the largest number.
The same holds true in political life and in government For a full decade, the power of centralized government has been expanding. In this immense growth of political power, there also has come a certain cynicism in its use. Individual officials have forgotten that America has become the greatest power on earth only because it was politically and economically free and because the authority rested with the people.
If our democracy is to survive, and survive it will, there can be no cynicism in public life.
I believe in the inexhaustible genius of the American spirit. Yet, the resources which made us the richest and the most technologically advanced country must be applied with the same energy to means of preventing unemployment and to the advancing of security to the masses of our citizens. Here again, we should improve the lot of the populace, not merely because we MUST do so, but because we desire to do so.
The human factor remains the decisive factor. Wherever we apply the test, in political or economic affairs at home, the first place must be held by the individual and his sense of honesty, justice and fair play. Character is the beginning and the end of all things. Without it, we have only the ashes of a people's failure; with it, the rainbow of civilization's desires.
Even during the war we must not lose awareness of the sacredness of the human being. When a city is to be bombed or invaded, it makes every effort to protect its most valuable works of art by moving them into places of safety.
We must do likewise with the valuable moral and cultural ideals of the individual in this hour of worldwide destruction and organized brutality. We must find a way to protect these values. They represent our priceless heritage—the heritage for which countless millions through the ages have toiled and fought and died. Their voices are now demanding:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders Fields.