MEANING IN THE NEW WORLD THAT EXISTS
By ARCHIBALD MACLEISH, Assistant Secretary of State
Delivered before the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges, Atlantic City, New Jersey, January 10, 1945
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 242-245.
THERE are not many occasions when a man can begin a speech in the definite and foreseeable certainty that his audience will be disappointed. You were disappointed before I opened my mouth: you had expected to hear the President of the United States and instead you are obliged to listen to an Assistant Secretary of State. You will be even more disappointed before I have finished this sentence: you had expected that an Assistant Secretary of
State would at least speak like one, whereas I propose to speak to you not as an officer of the Department at all but as a poet I feel—and some of you I think will agree with me—that mere logic requires it. If poetry is relevant to the Department of State in the minds of some who read poetry as politicians, then the Department of State must certainly have relevance to poetry in the minds of those who read it as College Presidents.
And besides, there are practical reasons. I have been trying to learn to look at the world as an Assistant Secretary of State for twenty-one days—most of that time without either an office or a desk to help me. I have been trying to learn to look at the world as a poet for thirty years. How a man ought to see the world as an Assistant Secretary of State I am not yet certain. But I am very clear in my mind how he ought to see it as a poet. He ought to see it not with the eye of custom but with the eye of surprise. He ought to see, that is to say, "what the rest of us merely look at and take for granted and therefore do not see.
It is a difficult skill to acquire—so difficult that few men in any time have mastered it. Certainly I make no claim to the possession of that true nakedness of eye. But even the effort to achieve it produces certain habits of observation which have, perhaps, their value. One learns that it is dangerous to ignore the obvious or to assume that what is said to be obvious really is. Or rather, one learns that it is precisely the obvious which, like the familiar word too long regarded, may come to look most strange. It is when familiar things look strange that a man first sees them.
The obvious thing, for example, to say about the Department of State is that it handles the foreign relations of this country. The fact is obvious. It is taken for granted. It is true. But is it really true? Where, for instance, have the relations of the United States and Great Britain been handled over the past two or three weeks? In the State Department and the Foreign Office of course. In the White House and in Ten Downing Street. But also, and with equal importance—conceivably with far greater importance—directly between the American and British peoples through the channels of the press and radio with the whole world looking on.
The relations of the American people to the British people and of the British people to the American people have been under direct and open and public discussion between the peoples themselves not only through the editorial exchanges set off by the London Economist but through the comments of other newspapers on those exchanges, and through the comments of the people on the comments of newspapers. Moreover, the relations which were under discussion were the true and basic relations of the two peoples—the foreign relations upon which all other foreign relations depend. The question the editor of the Economist proposed for debate, whether he so intended or not, was the question whether the American people and the British people wish to work together or to work apart. There is no need for me to point out that that question is the most important question bearing upon the relations of our two peoples which could possibly be raised.
The fact that it is a question to which the answer is obvious in advance detracts in no way from its significance. We learned what we thought about the British in the Battle of Britain and the British learned what they thought about us during the years when our soldiers were billeted in British towns, and during the terrible and gallant weeks when those same soldiers, with British soldiers at their side, fought and won the battles of Normandy and of France. The ill-tempered and often irresponsible criticism of the past few weeks on the two sides of the Atlantic never touched the basic reality of our mutual respect and admiration for each other, and the effort to endow those superficial exchanges with the importance of a solemn debate on the fundamental issue of our willingness to work together was, to put it mildly, ill-considered. But the fact remains that the debate did, in fact, take place and that the peoples participated in it.
And the further fact remains that the incident is not isolated or peculiar: it is merely more dramatic because more dangerous than other instances of the same sort. The peoples of the civilized world—what we are accustomed to call the civilized world—are engaged in a continuing consultation through just such public channels of just such fundamental questions of their relations to each other—their "foreign relations." Modern electrical communication has created in fact the Parliament of Man of which Tennyson dreamed. And the circumstances that it sometimes exists, in Carl Sandburg's phrase, rather as a humiliating reality than as a beautiful hope, deprives its existence of none of its meaning. It is possible to dislike the Parliament of Man: there are those certainly who do dislike it—who would like to return to the old system of foreign relations conducted exclusively through the chancelleries in the secret codes. It is not possible to ignore it. The Parliament of Man is now convened in continuing and constant session without rules of order, limitations of debate or privileges of the house and those who refuse to take account of its proceedings may wake up to find that its proceedings have taken no account of them.
All this, of course, is obvious enough. Indeed, it is precisely because it is obvious that I take your time to talk about it. Everyone who has given ten minutes to the consideration of the facts, agrees that modern electrical communications are capable of altering the social structure of the world as modern air transport is capable of altering the geography of the world. The difficulty is that the admission of that fact is not followed by its recognition as a fact. People get used to the new and startling discovery without realizing what it is they have discovered. They do not see it though they look at it. Indeed, the more often they look at it—the more often they agree that it is there—the less they recognize it for what it is.
Air transport is an excellent example. There as Air Marshall Bishop has pointed out in his Winged Peace, the practical men, the financial experts, the business authorities, continue to treat as a theory what is already a condition. They refuse to realize that the world of four-hour Atlantic hops with all it implies is not a future world to be constructed or not constructed as we choose. It is a world which now exists in all its potentialities whether we wish it to exist or not—a world we must prepare ourselves to live in.
The same thing is true of the world of radio transmission. Instantaneous intercommunication between peoples—between peoples as peoples—is not something we can achieve or refuse to achieve as we wish. It is something which exists—which exists in all its potentialities—now. And which we will deal with now. Or fail to deal with.
We talk too much, as we look toward the future, of the new world we would like to create—the new world we propose to build. We talk too little and think too little of the new world which will exist whether we act to create it or not—the new world we have already created by an invention here, a development there, without altogether foreseeing, and certainly without intending, the total resultant consequences of our acts. I believe, for my own part, that we will have an opportunity at this war's end to build the world we want—such an opportunity as no generation has ever had before us. But I believe also that in building that newly imagined world we will have to take account of theworld already newly built—the world we say we know but have never lived in—the world we cannot escape.
It is customary to speak of this new world of instantaneous communication and rapid transport as a world shrunk and shrivelled in size, a smaller world. But surely, if we are to talk in metaphors of that character, the world of air transport and radio communication is a world greater in size, not smaller in size. It is time, not space, which has shrivelled. And in this universe,. whatever may be true of other universes, the contraction of time in this metaphoric sense means of necessity the expansion of space. To enable a man to cover four hundred miles instead of four in a single hour is to increase by a hundred times the space he can put behind him in any given period of time and to increase, therefore, in the same possible proportion the spaces of the world available to his experience.
And what is true of transport is even truer of communication. A system of communication which is capable of delivering messages around the world almost instantaneously, is a system which increases the number and the distribution of human beings capable of communicating with each other. Indeed, it is precisely this increase in numbers and in distribution which gives modern electrical communication its principal significance.
It is miraculous and sometimes important to get an answer from Rangoon in a matter of minutes. It is far more of a miracle, and infinitely more important to put people everywhere in the world into common intercommunication with each other so that men can speak back and forth across the bands of time and the hours of the day and the positions of the sun, whether overhead or underfoot or rising or setting, in such a manner that the time, to all of them, is now. When, to that miracle of a socially expanded world, is added the other and related miracle of mass communication so that messages are carried, not to a single listener or to a few correspondents, but to millions of listeners, millions of readers, then the expansion in space accomplished by the contraction in time, is obvious indeed. A speech by the President of the United States which had once an audience of a few million straggling across the days and even weeks which followed its delivery, has now an audience of hundreds of millions at the instant it is spoken or within a few hours after.
Whether we like it or not we will find ourselves living at the War's end in a speaking, listening net of international inter-communication so sensitive and so delicately responsive that a whisper anywhere will be heard around the earth. There is a wonderful story you have all heard of the early days of microphones and public address systems—the story of the two well-wined gentlemen on one of the great trans-Atlantic ships who sat down to tell each other raucous stories after luncheon with a small, black, unfamiliar object on the table at their elbow. The shudder that went round the deck chairs and through the cabins as that unintended broadcast howled and boomed from the loudspeakers above decks and below was a presage of a world at that time unimagined—a world that now exists.
The question, then—the principal question in the field of foreign relations in our time—is this: what will we do with that world? How will we live in it? How will we prevent war and preserve peace and attain the other basic objectives of our foreign policy in a world in which the substantial foreign relations of peoples are direct relations by direct and continuing communication with each other? How will we realize the tremendous promise of common understanding and mutual confidence which that world holds out? How will we avoid its dangers of bickering quarrels, whispered suspicions, inspired panics, fear?
There may be questions of greater importance to the future peace of the world than these. If there are I do not know them. If the direct relations of peoples to people which modern communications permit are relations of understanding and confidence, so that the men and women of the world feel each other's presence and trust each other's pur. poses and believe that the common cause of all the people everywhere is peace, then any reasonably intelligent organization of the world for peace will work. If, however, the direct relations of the peoples with each other are relations of doubt and suspicion and misunderstanding then no international organization the genius of man can contrive can possibly succeed.
Believers in the people have always felt that if the men and women of the world could reach each other across the apparatus of their government they would recognize each other, and understand each other and find their common purpose in each other. It is now technically possible, or all but technically possible, to realize that hope, at least so far as the industrialized nations of the world are concerned Is it possible to realize it politically and socially also? And if so, how?
One practical way to answer that question is, of course to deny that the hope has any basis in fact. Which is another way of denying the belief in the people on which the hope is founded. Governments like the Nazi government in Germany and the militarist government in Japan have no difficulty with the new world of international communication. They exclude it so far as their own people are concerned, and for the rest betray it. Japanese radio sets were controlled by law before the war to prevent the reception of broadcasts originating outside the Japanese islands, a the Nazi leaders made the perversion of radio communication a principal instrument for the befuddlement and deception of their own people and the beguilement and deception of their neighbors.
For the democratic nations, however, and particularly for our own nation which has made the belief in the people its deepest and most enduring earthly belief, there is no easy escape by suppression or by fraud from the question technology has posed for us. Believing in the people, we believe necessarily in the people everywhere—not the people of this country only or of any other single country but throughout the world. We believe, that is to say, in the dignity and decency and good will of men as men wherever they are free to act and think as men. We have no choice, therefore but to face the question in the terms in which it is asked and to make our answer.
If we believe in the people—in their motives and their instincts and their purposes as the people—we believe necessarily in communication between the peoples. We believe in the greatest possible freedom of such communication Freedom of communication, freedom of exchange of ideas is basic to our whole political doctrine. But at the same time we cannot help but realize that complete freedom of international communication, particularly when that communication is instantaneous and has all the emotional urgency of immediate and first-known things, can be dangerous also. We have seen skillful and dishonest demagogs pervert the instruments of international communication to their own purposes without the knowledge of their victims. And we have seen honest misunderstandings blown up into critical issues by ignorance and hysteria. We should be less than intelligent and certainly less than realistic if we did not take account of these things in deciding how we propose to live in the world we shall have to live in.
To me—and I must repeat again that I am speaking here for myself and not as an officer of a department inwhich I feel myself still strange—to me there is only one possible answer to this question from the democratic point of view—at least from the democratic point of view as we, in this country, hold it. The only possible protection against misuse of international communication, or misinterpretation of international communication, is not less communication but more.
We cannot exclude communication from this country without being false to every principle upon which this country was founded, and we cannot barricade ourselves against the interchange of ideas without implying a mistrust of the ability of this people to separate the true ideas from the false which would be unworthy of any believer in the proposition of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Let us be clear and clean and honest on that point first. No amount of metaphoric verbiage will ever obscure the fact that those who would keep the knowledge of ideas from the American people declare by that action that they do not trust the American people to know the true from the false, the decent from the vile, the pure from the impure. In a country in which the people are sovereign by basic law and the right of the people to decide for themselves has been established by constitutional guarantee, such a purpose is, in the most literal sense, subversive. Until the people decide for themselves, by constitutional procedure, to protect themselves in time of peace from the seduction of any man's words or any man's notions, it hardly lies in the mouths of others to protect them from themselves.
If that is clear—if it is clear that a democratic nation cannot protect itself from the risks of modern communication by less communication but only by more—the practical question for discussion becomes the question how and in what way communication between the democratic peoples of the world shall be increased and supplemented when it is necessary to increase. If we are to meet the danger of misunderstanding by more understanding, and of ignorance by greater knowledge, and of incompleteness by completeness, how are we to proceed?
There may be occasions when it will be necessary for some agency of government to correct false statements capable of doing mischief. It may be desirable under certain circumstances to require the propagators of ideas to identify themselves and take responsibility for their doctrines in international communication as they do in ordinary conversation. But by and large the answer to the question of more communication internationally, like the answer to the question of less communication internationally derives, for us at least, from the basic principle on which this nation was established.
Those who believe in the people must believe that if the peoples of the world know each other and understand each other they will be able to deal with the distortions and the lies themselves. What is essential, then, is not to correct each mischievous inaccuracy, each intended falsehood, each outburst of divisive propaganda. What is essential is to see to it that the peoples of the world know each other as peoples, that they understand each other as peoples. For if they know and if they understand they will fill in the gaps for themselves as they have been filling in the gaps for centuries—for countless generations. They will allow for the falsehoods as they have always allowed for them. They will trust in common human nature to set things straight.
The people are wiser over centuries and generations than those who think themselves far wiser than the people. They have the easy-going, sage, salt, human wisdom of the anonymous proverbs which no man ever signs because no man has the right to sign them. All they need, to be wise with each other is the sense of each other—the human sense of each other as human beings.
It is a curious thing—a thing which will seem curious to our successors in this nation—that the phrase we have used for this kind of added international information—this supplementary and saving information to the peoples about each other—is the phrase "cultural relations." What we mean, of course, is something quite different from the popular meaning of those words. What we wish the people of other countries to know about ourselves, and what we, for our part, wish to know about the peoples of other countries, is not the condition of culture in the popularly distorted sense of that term. What we wish to know, and what we wish them to know, is something far deeper and far wider. We want men and women in other continents to know what our life as a people is like, what we value as a people, in what we are skilled and in what not skilled—our character, our qualities, our beliefs. We want them, when they hear or read of this dramatic event or that, to think at the same time who we are, what we are like—and, therefore, how the event should be interpreted. We want them to know our habits of laughing and of not laughing so that they will hear not only the words but the tone too, and understand it. We want them to have the sense of us as men and women as we wish too to have the sense of them. Knowledge of all these things is, it is true, a knowledge of culture but it is more than that. It is a knowledge of character. It is a knowledge of men.
Any man who wishes seriously to quarrel with a phrase, however, must have a better phrase and I have none to offer. I have only the deeply held conviction that the thing this phrase intends is, of all the things a democratic government can do to make the new-built world of international communication habitable, the most important.
What is unfortunate about the current designation is its suggestion to certain minds that a program of cultural relations is a decoration, a frill, an ornament added to the serious business of the foreign relations of the United States. You gentlemen, who know that a nation's culture is a nation's character, would not so interpret it but others do. And when they do, they endanger the best hope this country now possesses of preparing the climate of understanding in which peace can breathe. The people of the five continents and the innumerable islands can only live together peacefully in the close and urgent contact of modern intercommunication, if they feel behind the jangle and vibration of the constant words the living men and women. It is our principal duty, because it is our principal opportunity, to make that sense of living men and women real. Our country, with its great institutions of education and of culture, is prepared as are few others, to undertake the work that must be done. If we will undertake it, believing in it with our hearts as well as with our heads, we can create, not only peace, but the common understanding which is the only guarantee that peace will last.