What Has Happened to The American Dream?

Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady longer than any other woman in American history, and since her retirement from the White House she has continued to work unsparingly in the public interest, first as an official member of our delegation at the United Nations, and more recently in her lectures and telecasts originating at Brandeis University. She has spoken on more than one hundred campuses in the past fifteen years, and the paper which follows reflects her interest and experience.

What can we do to prepare young people to carry the American dream to the world in the best possible way? What I would like to say is this:

Today, our government and the governments of most of the world are primarily concerned obsessed—by one idea: defense. But what is real defense, and how is it obtained? A Certain amount of military defense is necessary. But there comes a point where you must consider what can be done on an economic and cultural basis.

It seems to me that, in terms of atomic warfare, we should henceforth have a small professional army of men who have voluntarily chosen this profession as an obligation to their country. But what then? What about the hundreds of thousands of young people who leave school every year, either from high school or college? Are they, from now on, to have no participation in contributing to the welfare of their country?

Far from it. As matters stand now, we draft young men into the service, train them until they are useful, and then let them go. This seems to me monstrous waste.

It is my own personal conviction that every young person should be given some basic military training that might, eventually, be useful to his country. This could easily be handled either in school or at college. Instead of calling up all young men for compulsory military service, why should it not be possible to offer a counterproposal along these lines:

If you do not want to spend two years of compulsory military training, here is an alternative which is open to you. Whether you finish college or high school, you may decide what country you would like to spend two years in. You will be given two years of basic training, either during school hours or in the evenings. If you want to go, say, to Africa or one of the underdeveloped countries, you will, from the age of fifteen or seventeen, be taught the language, the history, the geography, the economic background of the country. You will be prepared to take with you a skill, or be trained for the most crying need in many transition nations—to fill the civil service jobs that Russia is now so rapidly filling. Or, if you are preparing for a profession, you may make use of that. New industries are needed in these countries; there are technical needs in almost all areas. The economy has to be bolstered in countless ways. New techniques are required in agriculture. And nearly all of these countries need teachers badly.

For people in young nations, which are still in a transition stage and setting up governments, such a course of action on our part could be more valuable than a large standing army or economic aid, particularly when in the new country there is no one capable of administering the aid effectively. Obviously, like anything else, this new concept cannot be carried out well without preparation and the clear thinking out of economic problems, based on comprehensive knowledge of the conditions of the country.

If we could achieve—and why not?—a cooperation between universities and government, we might be able to equip some of our young people to take up the slack in underdeveloped countries and to bring our skills and our attitudes and our principles to them as free men.

These two-year volunteers could be doctors, engineers, teachers, scientists, mechanics, and administrators. It is possible that a system of scholarships might be worked out, which would enable us to use some of our young talent and ability in helping young countries get established. In such cases, there should be some sort of guarantee, some sort of facilities put at the use of these people when they return to their own country, to enable them to get jobs at home. This service, of course, could be in lieu of military service, but, it seems to me, it would be far more valuable.

The present long period of basic military training, which removes our young men from civilian life for two years and then returns them to it, seems to me a wasteful and pointless procedure. Certainly it could be made possible for them to have much of this basic military training that is required while they are in school. But military service, in an atomic, specialized age, should, like other professions, be on a voluntary basis and become a chosen career.

I have said that the Russians have accomplished by compulsion what we must accomplish voluntarily. But there is one element of this Russian training that is of paramount importance. They have taught their young to feel that they are needed, that they are important to the welfare of their country. I think that one of the strongest qualities in every human being is a need to feel needed, to feel important. Too often, our own youngsters do not feel that they are really essential to their country, or to the scheme of things. We have not had enough imagination to show them how very much we need every one of them to make us the kind of country that we can be.

If many of our young people have lost the excitement of the early settlers, who had a country to explore and develop, it is because no one remembers to tell them that the world has never been so challenging, so exciting; the fields of adventure and new fields to conquer have never been so limitless. There is still unfinished business at home, but there is the most tremendous adventure in bringing the peoples of the world to an understanding of the American dream. In this attempt to understand and to give a new concept of the relationships of mankind, there is open to our youngsters an infinite field of exciting adventure, where the heart and the mind and the spirit can all be engaged.

Perhaps the older generation is often to blame with its cautious warning: "Take a job that will give you security, not adventure.' But I say to the young: "Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, and imaginatively; unless you can choose a challenge instead of a competence."

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