A Modern Tower of Babel


By Dr. A. ALLAN BATES, Manager, Chemical and Metallurgical Research,Westinghouse Laboratories, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Delivered at Commencement of Case School of Applied Science, Cleveland, Ohio, August 20, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 15-20.

TWENTY years ago another group of young men—a group of which I was a member—was sitting congregated as you now are, attending the Commencement ceremony which was to consummate and formalize their graduation from Case School, into the select body which you are about to join, the Alumni of Case. It was a beautiful day in early June. Outside of the auditorium a bright sun and brilliant blue skies reflected and confirmed the glowing promise and the warm, eager invitation which the world was holding out to us. Surrounding us in the great hall—as you are now surrounded—were our fathers, mothers, friends, and, in many cases such as my own, sweethearts who had come to share in the joy of our triumphal hour. I remember . . . only the day before I had popped the question to the most wonderful girl in the world and (as I was sure she would) she had said "Yes."

The speaker that day, who addressed us from the platform which I now occupy, was a man of eminent authority in the fields of industry and engineering.

"Men of the Graduating Class," he said, in effect "a magnificent future awaits you. This nation and its eternal allies in the cause of justice, Britain, France, Japan—have

won the most tragic conflict of history, a War to end Wars. Peace is now assured and science, international, impartial and unquestionable in its limitless promise of plenty for all mankind has inherited the earth. Fortune has elected you to membership in the great fraternity of scientists and engineers who guide our inevitable destiny. I charge you, work diligently, be true to the fine traditions of your appointed profession, practice intelligently that which your professors have taught you and, finally, study to bring some contribution of your own to the sum of human knowledge. In this way you will grow great in the service of your fellow men and attain high place in their councils."

We could have had no better advice but it was so obviously sound as to seem almost superfluous and I remember how impatient we were on that Commencement Day of twenty years ago to snatch the diploma from the President's hands and be off about the bright business of living. There were careers to be started, homes and families to be established, fame and fortune to be gathered—nowhere in the picture was there a cloud of more than apparently passing magnitude.

But something went wrong.

You have studied history so we need not dwell here on the appalling suddenness and the devastating completeness with which the future blew up in our faces and came down in a dreary heap of breadlines, doles, W.P.A.rs and "No Help Wanted" signs. Nor need we recount the ensuing years of corroding depression during which we sought bitterly to place blame for the catastrophe on every agency, domestic or foreign, which we severally found hateful—on the international bankers and the "Wall St. gang," on the perfidious, imperialistic, debt-defaulting British or the scheming Communistic Russians, on the blindly self-seeking labor unions and the New Deal, or the monopoly capitalists and the Old Guard,—and so on until the alleged culpability became as widespread as original sin. For a decade during which this poisonous atmosphere of international hatred and civil distrust grew steadily worse, the world struggled to re-erect or at least patch the economic structure. But it proved to be another attempt to build a Tower of Babel and again the result was confusion which deepened into disaster.

For, as in every similar historical epoch when hatred and distrust have made intelligent action impossible, the nations resorted to war. And it has made little difference whether the hatred and distrust were the result of ignorance or the products of deliberate campaign. Likewise, with historic inevitability, nations which pulled the trigger first were those which had the greatest number of pistols on their belts and were most prepared for war. It has always been so and so will it always be. Today ten million of our finest American men and boys, including some of every Case class from yours to mine, have been transformed into potential man-killers, trained to crawl like primitive reptiles through the slime of tropical jungles or to stalk like beasts of prey through the fields and villages of other lands—all so that they may slaughter, maim, crush, blind, blast or drown as many as possible of their fellow men before they themselves become the victims. We shall never be able to repay many of them for the sacrifices they have made. Let us see that they neither now nor ever again suffer any material or spiritual want which we have the power to allay. But let us stop pretending that there is one atom of glory in the whole business. Putting homicidal perverts like Hitler and the Japanese militarists where they can do no further harm will be a profoundly satisfying accomplishment, indeed, but it is hardly a task which can be called glorious.

Our Commencement speaker of twenty years ago—like Commencement speakers all over the land that year—made us some very fine promises. Something went terribly wrong. There were evidently elements in the situation which we and our elders either did not understand, or did not have the courage to face frankly and unselfishly. There were both, as we now know.

Today, in the age-old tradition of Commencement speakers, I am expected, I suppose, to suggest to you what you must do to "succeed." I shall do nothing of the kind. I certainly shall give none of you an opportunity to stand on this platform twenty years from now and say in hind-sighted accusation of me: "That fellow lied to us."

But in these few minutes which are allotted me, I should like to discuss with you as frankly as possible some problems, both personal and otherwise, of the type which we failed to face twenty years ago. The discussion will not be pleasant and it may conflict with much that you have been taught elsewhere.

I have recently returned from a sojourn of some five months in South America, during which I had occasion to observe most of the countries of that continent. Far up in the high interior valleys of the Andes Mountains I saw villages of Indians living almost without social organization, other than that provided by the biological family group. Each family clothed, fed and housed itself by the effort of its own hands. For them government and private property were practically non-existent. They were consequently free from worry over wars, depressions, legal restraints, taxes and all the other responsibilities which are such constant irritants to modern organized communities. Philosophically it seemed that their simple existence had much for commendation. On the other hand, as I watched them gnawing the bones or chewing the entrails of birds and rodents, it became obvious that they were in constant state of hunger. It was equally and horribly obvious that they were covered with itching vermin and racked with disease, as well as frequently cold and wet. I am sure that not one single person in this hall would willingly undergo the physical misery of the South American Indian, in order to attain his dubious philosophic freedom.

No, if we are to have bread and milk and beefsteaks, medical services, adequate homes, comfortable clothing, bathrooms and sewers, churches, schools and books, then evidently we must also have farmers, builders, bakers, doctors, manufacturers, preachers, printers and teachers. Furthermore, each of these specialized workers must be given a reasonable responsibility for and control over the tools and materials of his trade. In the past men have generally found that the simplest and most effective way of doing this is to let the worker own his tools, to use and maintain and improve as he saw fit. More recently as science and engineering led to more effective but unfortunately more complicated methods of production, it was found that the apparently simple function of efficient tool ownership actually became one of the most difficult and complex of all jobs. Thus out of sheer force of historic necessity there came into being a distinct class of professional owners whom we came to call Capitalists and the system which they characterized was named Capitalism or Free Enterprise. It was a system of divided responsibility, dependent above all upon a spirit of cordial cooperation and complete mutual trust among men. There is not the slightest doubt that the capitalist and the scientist, working hand in hand, have brought mankind to a finer state of well-being than could have been even dreamed of in their absence. It may seem odd indeed, then, if the capitalist has been so great a benefactor, that a large percentage of men and women all over the world are now convinced that he is the major cause of all our present troubles.

Well, keep this puzzling fellow in mind and let us goback to the Indian village in the high Andes where there are no doctors, bakers, teachers, no manufacturers, or capitalists —where every family is completely independent and self-sufficient—where, in short, there is essentially no economic system. Nevertheless, here as wherever men live together in groups for sociability, protection or whatever reason, there arise problems which affect the group and which require group decision. But this is the whole reason for setting up governments and political systems. And it may surprise you to know that these primitive people of the Andes, who enjoy no economic system at all, do have the form of government or political system which we in these modern United States praise as the highest possible type—Democracy. For when they encounter a group problem all the men of the village meet and solve it by discussion and common consent—and this, except for the lack of female enfranchisement, is the purest possible democracy.

Evidently, then, at least in this simple society the economic system and the political system are not the same thing—in fact are entirely independent of each other. Note that point well for it is usually overlooked and in our vastly more complex American society the relative independence of economic supervision and political control has been a vital element in what we call the American way of life. This principle is also one of the most important heritages left to us by our English ancestors. I must insist on dwelling somewhat further upon this matter of the separation of government and economy—or, if you prefer, of government and business, because from it arises one of the most important problems which face your generation. The disposition which we make of this problem will probably have a more immediate and profound effect upon your personal lives than will any other major factor in our national situation—or for that matter in the world situation.

The majority of voting Americans have come to regard capitalism as the best economic system and democracy as the best political system. We have come to these conclusions almost entirely because we believed that this democratic-capitalistic combination afforded the greatest number of us the highest possible standard of living and the most extensive individual freedom. Note carefully, however, that capitalism and democracy are not necessarily inseparable. Capitalism has flourished quite as well under monarchy as under democracy. And democracy has done very well without concomitant capitalism—as for example, in ancient Athens or among the Indians of the Andes today. But note also that relative to the great nations of the modern era, the benefits of democracy have been carried most effectively to the greatest number of people in precisely those nations where capitalism has reached its highest development, namely in Britain and the United States. And the reason for this is perfectly clear: Democracy is based fundamentally upon the free and effective expression of opinion of an informed and literate people; but a literate populace is the product of an appallingly expensive system of public schools and higher educational institutions, and, up to the present day, only a capitalist system has been able to produce the wealth to support such a system of schools and educational institutions.

Now some of you may say "Hold on there! Germany had a capitalistic economy and an intensive educational system but they certainly did not result in democracy." True enough, but again the reason for the exception—and Japan is an exactly similar exception—is quite clear. Germany and Japan each suffered from a long-established and all-pervasive nationalistic militarism which succeeded in perverting every good influence to an evil end. And therein lies a profound lesson to which we shall return in a few minutes.

I repeat then, that although capitalism and democracy do not necessarily go hand in hand, they have nevertheless in the past hundred years become so closely associated in the actual experience of advanced great nations that most of us have generally come to think of them as front and back of the same coin.

How extraordinarily strange it is then that in this war to which we are straining every effort and to which most of you are formally prepared to sacrifice your lives if necessary, we proclaim to each other countless times daily that we fight to preserve democracy—but under no circumstances do we even whisper that we would also fight to preserve capitalism. Nor is this reticence confined to the working classes. The Wall Street Journal itself would never dream of calling this a War to Make the World Safe for Capitalism, although it could actually make out a very creditable argument in favor of such a title. The very universality of the implied stigma suggests that for all the vast and proven benefits of capitalism, the capitalists as a group have succeeded in working up the reputation for themselves of being almost anti-social. To some degree this has resulted from the fact that the banker who handles our life's savings must, like Caesar's wife, be above suspicion. A bishop may break all the Ten Commandments with less damage to his calling than is wrought by a banker caught in a single swindle— even a very little swindle involving only a few of the customary widows and orphans.

But there is really much more than mere sentiment in back of the shady reputation which the capitalist system now bears. The plain, startling and tragic fact of the matter is that, after some two centuries of incredible success, the system has failed. The failure is not yet total and it is probably not beyond partial repair.

Although the failure is beyond question, it might be described as a highly compounded fracture, the character of which is a subject of heated dispute among the many diagnosticians who have studied it. One who has promised a full dinner to a starving man and then only comes through with a ham sandwich, a glass of milk and a piece of apple pie may be charged in a certain sense, I suppose, with failure. The failure of capitalism is to some degree like that. But in a more serious and far more definite sense capitalism has prematurely failed as the inexorable result of a limiting characteristic to which it is inherently and inescapably subject. This characteristic may be stated most simply thus: a capitalistic system must expand or collapse. In other words a capitalistic society must continually produce goods in greater and greater volume. This point can be proved with mathematical rigor and is so important that we must take a moment to elaborate it. Capitalism may be compared to a tree; it must grow or it must die. Furthermore, as with a tree, each successive increment of growth must be of larger absolute extent than the preceding one. Only in this way can the increased demand for sustenance of the previously enlarged organism be satisfied. This latter argument is not a simple one but it is also subject to mathematical proof. As an analogy consider a group of young, blue spruce trees which are growing in my front yard. Each spring season every tree expands its conically symetrical form with remarkable uniformity in all directions by laying a thick, even, new mantle of soft blue-green foliage. Each season the total volume of new foliage produced is, and must be, greater than was put forth during the previous season. Of course the tree may struggle through a few bad seasons (or depressions) but it cannot endure too many of them in succession. The analogy with capitalism is amazingly exact.

Now, this requirement of constant expansion may besatisfied in the capitalist economic system, either by internal growth, that is, increase of home market, or by external growth, which we call expansion of foreign trade, or by both. The decaying slums of our northern cities, the beastly squalor of our hordes of southern share croppers, the human dry-rot of our dust bowls and the seething, starving, stinking millions of China, India, and Africa all bear witness that capitalism has not failed because it lacked either domestic or foreign space in which to grow. It is not difficult to foresee that such space may, and probably must, some day come to an end—but that day should still be generations off in the future.

Why, then, when it stood before open gates leading to incomparable promised lands did capitalism grow faint? Why when bold adventure was called for did the lusty, economic giant, whose very nature demanded expansion of body and spirit turn to the political system with cringing demands for security? Demands for government subsidies, for state guarantees and national doles in a thousand unnecessary, cowardly and selfish forms? Why did an economic system of such glowing promise and such superb performance, a system the very foundation of which lay in freedom from political domination—why did free enterprise seek protection from the one agency whose protection could only result in paralysis of that human freedom which was its finest product?

I do not believe that the ultimate true answer is to be found in an examination of political parties, of gigantic financial interests, or of foreign influences. I believe the answer is to be found in the minds and hearts of such as we who are gathered in this hall. It is to be found in the narrow prejudice, the empty arrogance and the grinding selfishness of men and women in high places and low. We deplore the stock market machinations of a Jay Gould, a Richard Whitney, or a Samuel Insull, men who in their lust for power, prestige and vast wealth could, without a quiver of emotion, rob hundreds of thousands of their fellow men. But these were no worse in principle and were less viciously disintegrating in cumulative social effect than are the infinitude of petty depredations which we commit daily against each other. The grafting ward politician, the workman who loafs when he knows the boss is not looking, the merchant who short-changes and substitutes shoddy goods, the farmer who slips rotten apples into the bottom of the basket, the racketeering labor union organizer, the scientist who withholds credit for accomplishment from a fellow-worker, the student who regularly cheats and the professor who habitually bluffs—all these differ only in degree from the Whitneys and the Insulls.

The bitterest fruit of this dismal jungle of deception and thievery is the distrust which it breeds in every one of us for all of our fellow men and women. There was a day when each man's world was so small that he could know intimately all who came into it. For our Indian friend of the Andes uplands there exists only a narrow, green valley and its encircling cliffs. For him there is no Guadalcanal, no Tokyo, no Normandy, no Moscow, Berlin, or Chungking. Within his tiny community serious deception and thievery are almost impossible. There is no more misleading statement than that to the effect that the world is growing smaller. For you who may soon be cruising the Skagerrack or facing the salt spray of the China Seas this is an immense world—larger than any other generation of American boys has ever known. For me, who in recent months has crossed eight national frontiers in ten hours and eighteen in ten days, one massive, imperiously compelling conclusion stands out and must be recognized: it is this, that your generation and mine and those which follow us must rise above the hateful distrust of our fellow men which has so deeply and tragically determined the history of all past nations. Otherwise civilization inevitably must end. And make no mistake, we must discard our hatred for the people of Japan and Germany, as well as for those of Russia, England, and Italy. On my Commencement Day of twenty years ago, our newspapers were calling Russia "the treacherous, black beast of civilization" and Japan "our oriental ally in the maintenance of peace." But we may no longer assume and discard deep national hatreds as we might try on new coats at a haberdashery. Science and engineering have presented us with the overriding paradox of a personal world which has grown vastly larger while it simultaneously became more intimately propinquent. We have no choice, individually or nationally, but to grow in studiously tolerant vision as the world has grown in magnitude and to increase in friendly understanding as it has increased in intimacy.

It is probably too late for my generation and that of your fathers and mothers to improve much in either tolerance or understanding. It may not be too late for you. I earnestly hope that we do not do irreparable damage before you take over. But I am not too optimistic. Already our leaders are talking of the necessity of setting up permanent and universal military conscription in our country so that we may forever have on hand a huge standing army. This is a demand for the utter and final defeat of all that was best in the American way of life. This is the old, tired, hateful European world overwhelming us. This is the ultimate in defeatism, bloody inverted pacifism and isolation of spirit. I have lived in probably twenty countries which maintain standing armies and in not one single instance out of the twenty has history shown that those armies contributed one iota of peace and security to their respective countries. All history is utterly to the contrary.

"Be reasonable!" you may cry. "Be realistic! In this violent world we too must be armed."

Good! Let's be realistic by all means. Look to the steel and aluminum wings which slash the clouds over every corner of the world today and then let me ask you—Could any organization be better named than your "standing army"? Standing indeed! Standing in its tracks while the sky rains death and desolation. Standing in helpless, hopeless futility until it is blasted to unrecognizable bloody pulp. Why not go the whole way if we are to have a standing conscript army? Let us provide each soldier with a long, sharply pointed spear and a shield—a shield of stainless steel, of course, for we must be up-to-date. Should we not also give him a fine white horse to ride and a pennant to wave? Let's do even better—let's build a Maginot Line at every state border and erect a platform and a loudspeaker on each bastion of that line so that a politician may stand there in statuesque eminence and command the soldier's vote. It might be very useful—it might make any possible future enemy who looked down upon the scene so rock with laughter that he would miss his aim entirely. In any case, there is one point of which you may be very sure: Your standing army will become the most oppressive and powerful instrument you have ever placed in the hands of the political racketeers. It has been so almost without exception in all countries which have habitually maintained such armies. There is no reason to believe it would not be so here. If you wish to Germanize or Japanize the United States your first and most necessary step will be the establishment of a standing conscript army.

Now let's be realistic in all seriousness. If you are determined that we must become the most formidable force inthe world, you need only set up a dozen research and engineering laboratories, staffed with a few thousand well chosen scientists, engineers, and mechanics, furnished with "unlimited funds," the use of which actually would be modest compared to the cost of a standing army, and, finally, dedicate all buildings, workers and equipment to the destruction of civilization. In this way, I promise you, we shall be the most powerful and most hated of all earthly forces—unless someone else sets up a bigger and better system of laboratories for the same purpose.

The standing army "of soldiers, like the standing army of bureaucrats, is only another thong in the harness of servitude which we must bear when we exchange our priceless heritage of individual freedom for the dull security which we may have as wards of an all-powerful government. The objection is frequently made that the great mass of workers had precious little individual freedom under the capitalistic factory system. There is an unfortunate degree of validity to the objection but in an attempt to give a partial answer to it, I shall invite you to go back once more with me to South America. There, except for the few remaining isolated tribes of mountain or jungle Indians, you will find a large percentage of our Latin-American neighbors living under a local variant of an ancient economy based upon agriculture and home craft products. It is essentially a feudal system inherited from the 15th century Spain and dependent upon the soil which belongs almost entirely to a little group of wealthy landowners. Each landowner is lord over a vast domain within which workers and cattle are equally dependent upon him for sustenance. It is a community organized for the luxurious existence of one man, the landlord, and for the barest subsistence of all others. It may almost be said that in these communities cattle and workers enjoy equal rights—except that the cattle in most cases are apt to be the more highly prized and therefore the better cared for. This was the age-old feudal system which capitalism had replaced in advanced nations and I assure you that however heavy the restraints which is placed on the common man, capitalism nevertheless elevated him to a higher standard of living and a finer state of freedom than he has known since the dawn of history.

Here we must make our final and most serious indictment of capitalism. While it improved the common man's material existence and gave him much increased individual freedom, it foolishly and blindly shrugged off as irrelevant the task of teaching him what to do with his enlarged freedom and leisure. Capitalism made no serious, certainly no adequate, attempt to provide the common man with finer ideals and ethics, with a deeper appreciation of beauty, with higher cultural aspirations, with a more exalted philosophy or a nobler sense of justice and human responsibility. In brief, capitalism stuffed the common man's belly, but left his mind an ethical and cultural blank to be filled with such cheap trivialities and brutish caprices as it might accidentally acquire by daily contact with other common men whose minds were similarly blank.

Look about you in America today and see the streets and roads lined with hot dog stands, reeking beer joints, and screaming billboards; step up to any newsstand, that temple of modern literature, and observe the endless rows of pulp-stock murder mysteries, sex thrillers and so-called funny papers, listen to the ubiquitous juke box blaring its strident cacophony of hot numbers, consider swoon-crooning Hollywood and its endlessly ground out tales of how the pin-up cutie gets her man or vice versa. These are the measure of the ideals and aspirations of the common man in America today.

Please understand I do not say that there is anything intrinsically wrong with hot dogs and beer, sex, jazz or the movies—I enjoy them all myself on occasion. But the common man who is taking over the control of the nation and to whom they are life itself will not find in them the inspiration he will need in order to govern wisely.

Nor do I complain that common man is an undesirable or predatory creature. That he can, as an individual, rise to sublime heights has been proved by Abraham Lincoln and many others. I only fear that, in the mass, he has risen to social power before he was sufficiently tutored in the rigorous discipline necessary to the control of society. Accustomed by tradition to being restrained by laws and not to making laws, the mass man is most apt to take refuge in the only law he knows instinctively, the law of brute force. He will do this by exalting militant nationalism and vesting in the supreme State complete power over every social and individual action. He has already done this in Russia and Germany. He is proceeding rapidly to the same goal in Britain and here in America. In this way is being destroyed for us the individual freedom which our fathers held as dear as life itself. So too, by this same exaltation of militant nationalism and the supreme State with its inevitable political cultivation of organized distrust of and opposition to other States, mass man is assuring the continuation of world wars until civilization comes to an end.

It was the capitalistic system of economy which raised the common man from the mud and showed him freedom. But capitalism, distrustful of common man and foolish in its selfish disregard for him, must take most of the blame for having given him a restless, aggressive sense of his own massive strength before it provided him with the morality and the ethically trained intelligence which would permit the safe exercise of that strength.

Men of the Graduating Class, you and I and all the others in this hall are the common man, the mass man of America, for in our country there are only common men without aristocratic tradition. We and our fathers may well be proud of the civilization which we had built and were building in this new world. But we worked under incomparably favorable conditions provided by a rich new land and by freedom from the confusion of tongues, the class divisions, the oppression of hereditary rulers, and the selfish hatreds of the old world. Today science and engineering have made us a part of that old world. We have lost our independence and are caught up in the First World Revolution, the "Revolt of the Masses." This war in which we are engaged is only an element of that Revolution and not even a decisive element. For generations the World Revolution has been smoldering and bursting fitfully into local flame as it did on the western shores of the Atlantic in 1776 and in France in 1789.

Now, during the generation which lived between the first two World Wars it has suddenly blown into a raging global conflagration. It was bound to have done so eventually. It is the greatest misfortune of our era that it did so too soon.

Here in America we are still in a position to save much that was fine and noble in the American way of life which we enjoyed before we lost our independence. We may even be able to transfuse some of the spirit and benefit of that nobility into other peoples. This must be your task.

I cannot tell you what you must do to acquire prestige or to lay up riches. And he who presumes to tell you these things today is a liar, a fool or a charlatan.

Remember you are common men. Do not be proud of it. Strive to become uncommon; uncommon in your appreciation of good books, great music, and fine art, uncommon in your determination to give unselfishly of the best that is in you and to ask in return only a just and reasonable reward, uncommon in your wide tolerance for your fellow men however stupid, weak, quarrelsome, or selfish they may be. This will not be easy, for most of us, particularly those who make the greatest pretense to be your betters are pretty childish, morally undeveloped, intellectually aimless and spiritually bedraggled specimens. Finally, be uncommon in your determination to do your share toward overcoming hatred among men. This will be most difficult of all, for you, like most of the young men of your age all over the world, have been taught to hate and you will be urged by most of those about you to increase rather than diminish your ardor in this regard.

None of this advice which I am giving you will be easy to follow. None of you will be able to follow it in more than desultory fashion until you have undergone years of self discipline. No human being could ever follow it with entire constancy because it demands too much.

But I do promise you that if you do your best toward these ends you will have done your share in the task of bringing peace and good will among men. And if a day shall come when you may want to make a summing up you will be able to say—"I did well. I'm satisfied."