The New Realism


By DR. ROBERT M. HUTCHINS, President, University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.

Convocation address delivered at the Commencement Exercises of the University of Chicago, June 15, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 601-603.

THE most distressing aspect of the world into which you are going is its indifference to the basic issues, which now, as always, are moral issues. The disscussion of the questions on which our fate turns is not even conducted in moral language. The word security, which is the great word today, has no moral significance; for the worst men can, and usually do, want it. The words peace, justice, cooperation, community, and charity have fallen out of our vocabulary. They are, in fact, regarded as signs of weakness and as showing that the one who uses them is guilty of the capital crime of modern times, lack of realism.

The rise of the new realism was bound to produce confusion in America; for the new realism is nothing but the old Realpolitik. It represents the conquest of the United States by Hitler. It suggests that the one powerful nation in the world which claimed to hate machiavellianism, and repudiated the doctrine that military superiority implies moral superiority must now embrace these theories or be accused of being "soft." A nation which fought two wars to end war must now, in the hour of victory, plan to have the greatest navy in the world; it must have perpetual conscription ; and it must get all the island bases it can lay its hands on. A nation which has pretended to the name of Christian must now abandon the attempt to deserve it.

This moral confusion is matched by intellectual disintegration. We seem not to see or not to care about thestupidity of following contradictory policies and taking contradictory attitudes. Intellectual integrity is coming to be regarded as a sign of softness, too.

So we call Japanese soldiers fanatics when they die rather than surrender, whereas American soldiers who do the same thing are heroes. We prove that all Germans are murderers and all Japanese apes, and at the same time insist that wTe are going to have one world in which all men are brothers. We say we are going to re-educate the Germans, and adopt a policy of non-fraternization. We hate slavery and propose forced labor. We want Europe rebuilt, but will have no heavy industry in Germany. We want order in Europe, but not if we have to sacrifice to prevent starvation. We are against dictatorship, but the dictatorship of the proletariat is an exception. And the new day dawns by the light of the burning homes of Tokyo and Yokohama.

The new realism is so unrealistic that it blinds us to our own interests. We are like those rugged realistic advocates of the high protective tariff who propose to export vast quantities of goods without admitting any imports to pay for them. To state the thing in its lowest terms, in terms of money and power, which the new realists claim are the only terms there are, our political and economic interests require a prosperous Germany and Japan. Our interests may, in the light of current readjustments of power in Europe and Asia, require a strong Germany and Japan. But we cannot trade with those who have nothing to exchange. And we cannot be sure that our present allies will always be our friends and that we shall not sometime need the help of our present enemies. Mr. Churchill must have regretted in a very short time the unwise words he uttered about Russia five years ago. He said: "Everyone can see how Communism rots the soul of a nation, how it makes it abject and hungry in peace, and proves it base, abominable in war."

The conquest of the United States by Hitler is revealed by our adoption of the Nazi doctrine that certain races or nations are superior and fit to rule, whereas others are vicious and fit only to be exterminated or enslaved. We are now talking about guilty races. We are saying about the Germans and the Japanese what Hitler said about the Jews, And we are saying about ourselves—or at least we are strongly hinting it—what Hitler said about the blond teutonic "Aryans." A graduate of the University of Chicago told me that he wished a dense cloud of poison gas would settle over the Japanese islands and destroy every man, woman, and child in them. He had the grace to add, "Maybe I'm not a Christian." Without debating the Christianity of declaring war on women and children, I merely point out the arrogance of the assumption that any American is fit to judge all Japanese.

Hitler's conquest of America proceeds apace as we succumb to the idea that social and political problems can be most effectively solved with the aid of a firing squad. I insist that criminals must be punished. Justice demands that none of the guilty escape. At the same time it must be clear that the characteristic of criminals is that they are individuals, not nations or races. They should be punished for what they individually did. What they did, to deserve punishment at the hands of human judges, must have been illegal at the time it was done. If the judgment is to command the respect of Americans, it must be shown that the act was one which a patriotic American would not have committed if he had been a patriotic German. Punishment for illegal acts must be meted out legally, with a fair trial and adherence to the Anglo-Saxon principle that every man is presumed innocent until he is proved guilty. We must remember the ancient doctrine that no man is a good judge in his own cause. And it would do us no harm to apply the maxim of equity that one must come into court with clean hands.

We should hesitate to punish Germans for acts which we have committed or may commit. For instance, are we prepared to stand trial ourselves for the violation of treaties and attacks on undefended places? Are we ready to say that in the face of the tommy guns of the SS we would have remained true to our ideals of democracy? Is the standard we intend to impose on the Germans the standard of heroes and saints, or that of the ordinary man, who throughout the world thinks first of the lives of his family and second about his principles? We could wish that all men were prepared to die for their principles in peace and in war. We do not expect Americans to do it except in war.

We may hesitate a little to punish Germans for crimes against Germans unless we are ready for a foreign investigation of American crimes against Americans. I should feel better about having Americans judge the anti-semitism and the concentration camps of Germany if I could forget the anti-semitism and the lynchings in the United States. Our religious and racial intolerance is unorganized, and violence is sporadic and illegal. We have not yet gone in for these things on the grand Nazi scale. But we are sufficiently vulnerable to lay ourselves open to some embarrassment if we set ourselves to pass judgment on the domestic conduct of other nations.

Of one crime the German people were certainly guilty, and that is the crime which the new realism sanctifies, the crime of indifference. The German people, all but a few million of them, were indifferent to the rights of man and indifferent to the violation of these rights by those in power. If any nation can be found which is not guilty of this crime, then it is qualified to judge the German people for their indifference to the crimes committed by Germans against Germans. As for ourselves, it is not unfair to say that the American people, except for a few million of them, are guilty of the crime of indifference in the face of race prejudice, economic exploitation, political corruption, and the degradation of oppressed minorities. This guilt does not assist our claim to judge and punish the German people for theirs.

We all believe today that what was miscalled "Reconstruction" in the South after the Civil War was a blunder, if not a crime. One of the factors that shaped public opinion in the North was the revelation of the treatment of prisoners at Andersonville in Georgia, where, out of 50,000 men, 13,000 died. The Southerners were then the guilty race. They must be kept down by military force until the end of time. They could not be permitted to rejoin the society of respectable citizens. Talk of non-fraternization, of reducing the South to a subsistence level, and the punishment of war criminals filled the air. Every Southerner was guilty of favoring slavery and rebellion, though it was known that thousands, like Robert E. Lee, had reluctantly taken up arms only because they thought it was their duty to their States.

Andersonville was an atrocity. Those responsible for it deserved punishment. We know now that Andersonville did not prove the depravity of the South. We know that by acting as though it did the North hurt itself and delayed the recovery of the entire country.

Today we are struggling to build a world community. It is impossible that 125,000,000 Germans and Japanese can be excluded from it. We are told that the development of transportation has brought us as close to Berlin as Richmond was to Washington. If this is so, then we have on , an international scale the same task today that Lincoln had in 1865. We now believe that his policy was the right, therealistic, one. We believe that if that policy had been followed the national community would have soon been restored, and years of suffering, which still leave their mark upon the nation, would have been avoided. The new realism is unrealistic, for in addition to thwarting our own interests, which it falsely pretends to serve, it ignores all the facts, the facts of history and the facts of human nature.

If the policy of Lincoln is the right, the realistic, one, and if our task is the same as his, the words of the Second Inaugural should be our guide: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,—let us strive on to finish the work we are in: to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan; to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."