For the New Year





I RECENTLY received a letter from a friend of mine down in Mississippi; and he was complaining at the outcome of the election, He said that if every county in the United States had shown the same percentage of increase for the Republican candidate his county did, ‘you would have been overwhelmingly elected. In 1936, the Republican candidate in this county received two votes. In 1940,’he said, ‘you received three.'

I am glad to be in any gathering of American fraternity men, because the fraternal spirit, after all, in America is a functioning of the democratic process. In the college fraternities of America, in the lodges of more mature life, men and boys learn how to discuss without acrimony, to reform without vindictiveness, and to live with each other in peace and accord for the accomplishment of a unified purpose.

And I care greatly about public discussion in America. The democratic process rests upon discussion. There is no other method by which it can function. And it will function satisfactorily and effectively in such a time as this only if the channels of public discussion are kept completely open. And, may I say also, not alone kept open, but kept free from personal abuse and vilification.

In the recent campaign, as in all other campaigns, men and women on both sides abandoned dispassionate discussion, and some of them engaged in pure vilification and personal abuse.

I call your attention to this at this time because, as one of the principal participants in that campaign, much interested in the outcome, and as one who has since analyzed the election results in Monday-morning quarterback activity, I am firmly and completely convinced that such lines of argument on both sides of the fence did not change any votes on either side of the fence. Their only result was to lower in stature and in the estimation of the American people those men and women — whether of high position in public life or in other forms of endeavor — who hurled the abuse.

The reason I speak of it now while it is fresh in your minds is that thereby I hope to contribute something to the constant raising of the level of public discussion in America. For if we continue the process that has been so prevalent in these United States in the past several years, of destroying by such methods those men whom democracy calls upon to lead it, we shall begin the destruction of democracy itself.

At the Thirty-second Annual Dinner of the National Interfraternity Conference, Mr. Willkie delivered an extemporaneous speech so pertinent that we take pleasure in reprinting it here as a New Year’s resolution. — THE EDITORS

Copyright 1940, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

Over and above that, the effect of such campaigning, such public discussion, — and I would warn each side alike, — will make it impossible for democracy to call to public leadership its ablest and its best men. Under such form of attack men shrink from performing their services in public life; and of all times in the history of democracy, this is the time when we should be able to say to any man, no matter how great his ability or how high his standard, ‘You must contribute to the discussion of public issues in America. We need your leadership.’

So I would destroy, if I could, those deterrents such as personal vilification that keep such men from aspiring to that leadership.

I believe that democracy now faces the most serious test in all of its long and magnificent history. It is the only system of government — and may I say a free-enterprise system of economics is inevitably connected with it — that has given a man hope, opportunity for achievement and for aspiration toward a fuller life. And that system of economics and that system of government are at the test point in the world’s history. America within the next few years must make some very fearful and some very fateful decisions. And it is my earnest hope that in arriving at the conclusions with reference to such questions the finest type of American discussion may take place, so that democracy, functioning as it should function, will arrive at conclusions that will preserve this system for us.

The question that America has to face now and the decisions that it must make are not of the ordinary type. They are decisions that will determine whether or not democracy shall survive.

If you trace the history of democracy you will find that it always collapses and disappears under bankruptcy or long-continued economic depression. And America in the next few years must determine its fiscal policy. It must determine whether or not we shall pile debt on top of debt; whether we shall increase the national indebtedness to such a point that inflation will come, or the backs of the people be broken with excessive taxation.

Now the discussion of such an important question, which does not primarily involve dollars, but involves the lives, the opportunities, and the hopes of millions of Americans, should not concern itself with the personal lives of the men who seek to lead us. I care not whether the man who leads me in the struggle for what I believe in is engaged in business, politics, or agriculture, so long as the cause he advocates is advocated with ability, knowledge, and understanding.

And likewise America faces another fateful decision. I happen to be of the school of thought which has believed and which still believes that we must continue at an ever-increasing rate to help the fighting men of Britain to preserve that rim of freedom which is gradually shrinking, and which, if we permit it to continue to shrink, will shrink to the edges of our own shores. I believe it is as necessary for America to give that aid to Britain as to build armaments for itself.

And yet I say that in a democracy where men believe otherwise, where men believe that the United States should preserve itself solely from within, such a difference of opinion presents an honest issue which must be determined by the American people after full, free discussion.

It does no good to say that the man who believes we must send help to that rim of freedom is a warmonger, or that the man who believes America should protect itself solely within these shores is a fifth-columnist or a Nazi or a Fascist, or something else. Such characterizations, such mere words do not help this great, free people in this difficult time to arrive at just, proper, and wise decisions. My faith in democracy is such that I believe the collective judgment of the people, after listening to the arguments and the discussion on both sides, may be wiser and better than the judgment of those, whoever they may be on either side of the question, who think that the wisest course of discussion is to destroy their opponent rather than to answer his arguments.

That is the same process by which adolescents, when running out of arguments, begin to make faces at each other instead of continuing the discussion.

And so I ask you to join in elevating the level of American public discussion so that America may play its true part in this historic and all-determining time in the world’s history. I ask this because America, being the one remaining great democracy, being the one country where liberty still survives, must show the world, not alone by precept but by example, that democracy is not only the most pleasant way of life, but also the most effective way of life. We must so lead the world in the next few years that peace again will come — not the peace of appeasement, but a peace in which democracy shall survive, in which the trade routes of the world shall once again be opened, because the birds of commerce carry with them the seeds of democracy, of peace, and of individual opportunity.

I thank you very much for your generous treatment here tonight, and in conclusion I should like to ask all of you to rise while we drink to the health and to the happiness of the President of the United States.