The Part of Youth

by ARCHIBALD MACLEISH

1

As OUR society is.organized no generation begins to exert a ponderable influence on public affairs until its members have reached the mathematical middle age of thirty-five, and the real balance of influence and therefore of power lies certainly on the far side of fifty. The number of controlling decisions made even in time of war by men whom a decent respect for the meaning of the English language could call young is small indeed. A cabinet member in his forties may look young to a reporter who is accustomed to interviewing cabinet members in their sixties and seventies, and a Congressman in his thirties may look like a boy to the boys in the smoke-filled rooms, but either one of them would be called Sir by the seniors in an Eastern preparatory school.

The public responsibilities of the young, therefore, under the middle-aging system of American party government are small. Short of a miracle in one of the new veterans’ organizations there is no probability whatever that the young as the young and in their capacity as the young will bear any considerable part of the responsibility for the government of the United States in the immediate future. But public responsibilities and public opportunity are very different things. Opportunities for service in the world are created by the world’s need, not by its party structure. And what the world now needs — what our part of the world now desperately needs — is something only the generation of the young can give it.

The United States has its share and more than its share of political experience, and of the cautious, well-pruned, careful fruits which political experience produces. It has its share and something more than its share of men of sound judgment and discerning competence who have learned and digested the middle-aged lessons that half a loaf is better than no bread; that the longest way round is the shortest way home; that “in the affairs of this world men are saved not by faith but by the want of it.” What the country lacks is not sagacity but conviction: not the aging skills of compromise and negotiation but the young passions of certainty and belief.

We are face to face in this country, whether we know it or not and whether we wish it or not, with a fundamental decision which will affect our future for generations to come — and the future of the world as well. It is not the decision to which our minds are most frequently directed by our public advisers. It is not the question of Russia which we are told from day to day with increasing excitement and urgency is the great American question, or the question of Germany which we are told with almost equal insistence is the great American question, or the question of Spain or China or the Mediterranean or the Pacific. It is a question which includes all these but is not any one of them alone or all of them together. It is the question of ourselves — of who we are, of what we are.

The great American question, that is to say, is America itself. Who are we now as a nation and a people? What have we become? Are we the New World, the western land, the noble experiment, the young and revolutionary people we have told ourselves we were for generations: Whitman’s America and Emerson’s; Jefferson’s well-ordered dream; Lincoln’s last great hope? Or are we something else now? Are we a great power — a great possessor and preserver and defender of land and wealth and weapons? Are we the beginning of something or the end of something? — the creators of a revolutionary future or the inheritors of a revolutionary past? — a dream in men’s minds or a dollar in their pockets?

Do we want a good world for all men to live in or do we want the rest of mankind to leave us alone to live in the world we have? Do we know what we believe and do we propose to make our belief come true, or do we merely know what we don’t believe and what we are determined shall not come true? Is liberty still our cause or have we no cause? — have we outgrown the causes? — are we established now and settled and too old for causes?

These would be searching questions at any time. Now they are fundamental questions which go to the root of our own destiny and of the destiny of the world. The character of our time is such that our conception of the role we are to play in it — which is to say our conception of the kind of people we are — has become a factor of critical significance, not only in the shaping of our own future but in the shaping of the future of mankind. If we conduct ourselves in this generation as a young, creative, and revolutionary people, capable of thinking of the world in new and changing and creative terms, our future and the world’s future will be very different from the future either can look forward to if we think of ourselves as an old established power with our eyes fixed upon the past and our own security.

The one unarguable certainty about our time is the certainty that we face a new age, an age unlike any other that has gone before, an age unprecedented both in its possibilities and in its dangers. For the next many years the labor of politics, the labor of statesmanship, the labor of government will be the labor of learning to live with other nations in a world in which no nation, no society, has lived before. The problem of our time is not the problem the political commentators talk about. It is not the problem of “making peace.” It is the problem of making a world in which peace will be possible. Or rather, it is the problem of learning to live in the new world we have already made, in such a way that peace will be possible.

Those who talk now about “making peace” seem to be thinking of peace, consciously or unconsciously, as something which has been “broken” and which can, with skill and care and expert knowledge, be repaired as a broken plate can be repaired. All that is necessary, they imply, is to solve this problem and that problem and the other — the problem of Germany and the problem of Trieste and the problem of Manchuria — fitting the several solutions together into one total solution and the result will then be peace.

The superficiality of that kind of thinking will be apparent to anyone who will consider what the broken plate of peace actually was and how it was held together and whether or not the force that held it is capable of restoration. That force was one form or another of the balance of power. The balance of power was a plausible formula, if not for peace at least for armistice, in a world in which power could be balanced — a world in which there was time for the action and reaction which gave the redressing device its limited effectiveness. Under the old conditions of warfare in which planes and guns and ships and divisions on one side equaled planes and guns and ships and divisions on the other, aggressive action might be held in check by the fear of equally aggressive reaction.

Under present conditions of warfare there is no time for action and reaction. There is only time for action. The first atomic attack of a new war may well be the last military action of that war. Weapons on one side, therefore, do not equal and cannot balance weapons on the other and, far from exercising a repressing and deterring influence, any attempt to balance weapons will merely increase the likelihood of attack. It is precisely the fear that one possessor of the atomic weapon will use it without warning which is most likely to persuade another possessor to use it without warning — and to use it first. The formula of the balance of power becomes, in other words, a formula not for peace but for disaster. Anything in an age of weapons such as ours which increases tension between peoples increases the likelihood of war. And the formula of the balance of power is nothing but a formula of tension — truce through tension, but tension notwithstanding.

The plain fact is that peace — or what passed for peace before it was broken — cannot be mended, cannot be repaired, cannot be restored. Peace as the mere absence of war enforced by the fear of war and policed by the power of others to make war in retribution is not only broken; it is altogether and totally destroyed both as an existing state and as a future possibility. Those who talk of reestablishing it by force of arms — those who talk of what they call “the realities of power” — are deluding themselves and misleading their countrymen. Peace can only be made now by creating it whole and new: by so shaping the new world of our time that it will become peace. And only a young, daring, and creative people — a people unafraid of change — a people which knows its mind and follows its convictions — such a people in short as we have thought ourselves for seven generations to be, is capable of the work that must be done.

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WHETHER we are in truth such a people becomes, therefore, a question of the first importance not to ourselves alone but to the world. But it is precisely the answer to that question which is most in doubt. Disinterested and honest observers in other countries, examining the record both of our official conduct and our private speech, may well be left in some bewilderment. The great declarations of the beginning of the war aside, we have not conducted ourselves, with the one exception of our role in the creation of the United Nations, as the last great hope of earth, the nation committed to the cause of human liberty, the new people for whom Whitman spoke: “Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.” More and more we have seemed to play the part of the champions not of a New World, but of an old world — not of what could be done, but of what has been done. More and more our policy has seemed to be shaped not by what we hope but by what we fear — not by belief in our own cause but by dread of another cause.

In the clamoring, quarreling confusion of little voices which makes up the frog-pond piping of our time, no American voice has spoken since the one American voice was stilled. No American voice has shouted a great uncompromising Yes to silence the shrill chorus of unceasing Noes. Little by little, step by step, we have withdrawn from the great declarations of the first charter and the second. Little by little we have let our fears, our apprehensions— what we call our new-learned realism — force us back. We no longer say to the world: this is what we believe; this is our cause. We say instead: no one can tell us what to think; no one can push us around. We no longer say to the world: this is the freeman’s Proposition; measure it alongside yours; see which is better. We say instead: the world is threatened by alien and subversive ideologies, by new notions which should be suppressed.

It is not altogether strange, therefore, that we seem to others in other countries to stand at one pole of world opinion — and not the pole at which we stood a hundred and fifty years ago. And what is true of our official policy and practice is true also of our private talk —or part of it. One of the most widely circulated of American magazines published recently a series of articles, typical of many others, in which it was seriously proposed that American foreign policy should now be derived, not from an analysis of American belief and American practice, but from an analysis of Russian belief and Russian practice. The proposal of the author apparently was that we should face up to the “facts” about Russia, that we should determine their meaning to us, and that we should then permit that determination, by the mirror images of fear, to dictate the policy this Republic should pursue.

A more embarrassing confession of intellectual and moral bankruptcy has never, I think, been published in the United States. But it was published — and not only published but propagandized in full-page advertisements carried in the principal newspapers of the country. It represents, therefore, or must be assumed to represent, the opinion of some portion of our people. There are apparently Americans, influential enough to make use of the principal instruments of communication, numerous enough to make the use of those instruments profitable, who are ready to accept for themselves, and to urge upon others, the doctrine that the American people and the American republic have lost the political and social initiative they once possessed and are now remitted to the role of political and social reaction to the initiative of others.

How these people would answer the great American question is obvious enough. We are no longer, they would say, a young and revolutionary and creative people capable of conceiving and asserting our own vision of a world made new and whole for peace: we are a great power, a mature and settled nation, too rich for visions and too sensible to talk of new worlds or of whole ones. Our course now is to lock up what we have and to defend ourselves against ideas which threaten our security even if the walls and fences we erect for our protection split the earth and make another and more dreadful war inevitable.

But because there are men who hold these views and are in a position to declare them it does not follow that the people of the United States are ready to accept this picture of themselves. They are angered without doubt by the stories they hear from one source or another of a Russian purpose to dominate the world, reducing the nations to precincts of a vast police state directed from Moscow. But if they are angered they are skeptical also, and certainly they are not afraid.

They have just issued from a great war in which they demonstrated to the world and to themselves that the sinews and muscles of their society are stronger and younger and capable of greater and more protracted effort than those of any other nation or, perhaps, of all other nations together. In that war there was demonstrated also the power and vitality of the conception of human life to which the American people are committed. As between those who believed in absolute and disciplined subservience to the state and those who believed in freedom, the believers in freedom, though unprepared and taken at disadvantage, proved in the outcome a greater determination and a more enduring strength.

Finally, the victory in that war was won in the name of the principles on which the American republic was founded. Whatever meaning may have been given privately by others to the words liberty, democracy, and freedom, it was in these names and under these banners that the war was fought, and in these names and under these banners that the greater part of humanity enlisted in our cause.

3

IT IS inconceivable, therefore, that the American people would choose to think of themselves now, if they had the choice, as a people put on the defensive by the superior physical or intellectual or moral vitality of any nation or group of nations; or would agree that they ought to give up the great dream of a world made one for peace and human dignity and freedom because of fear that, if the world were one, another and slavish conception would dominate its life.

On the contrary, the American people believe, or are ready to believe, that the future of the world belongs to the ideas for which they have lived and struggled as it has never belonged to those ideas before: that the revolution which created America, and not some other and backward revolution into tyranny and death, is the dominating and creative force of the time we live in; and that the need now is for trust and confidence and action, not for hate and fear.

They believe, or they are ready to believe, that we in this nation, working candidly and openly and generously with men in other nations of whatever doctrine, have it in our hands, by courage and by confidence and by conviction, to make peace as peace must now be made — as peace can only now be made — within the structure of a world which now is whole and single however fear and caution may deny it.

They believe, or they are ready to believe, that we alone can take the initiative in this labor of peace since we alone possess at once the physical means which are necessary to its realization and the faith in man, the belief in the dignity and worth of all men everywhere, which is the one sure, common ground on which the structure can be raised.

But it is one thing for a people to be ready for belief and another thing altogether for belief to reach the urgency of action. It is there, at that point in its approach to its destiny, that the passion and conviction of the generation of the young becomes, or may become, a moving force upon the nation’s history. The temper of a people at a given time is made not by the words its leaders speak on its behalf but by the things it feels; and what a people feels is what the young feel far more than the old. If the generation of young men who fought this war, and the still younger generation which will be called on to bear arms in consequence of this war, were clear and sure in their conception of the part the people of the United States ought to play in the great labor of peace, we would play that part.

The responsibility does not belong to them. The responsibility belongs to those who have the power and the duty of decision. But the opportunity is theirs notwithstanding. There was never a time in the history of the United States when the convictions of the young could play a greater part in shaping the destiny of the nation, for there was never a time when the young had a greater right to be heard or when the old had greater need to listen to them.

The young have fought one war. They will fight another if there is another soon. Whether there is war or not, as long as there is fear of war they will be asked to give up time which, next to their lives, is the dearest thing they have. What this nation does or does not do to make a world at peace is a matter, therefore, of immediate and personal concern to them. But what they think of what their nation does is a matter of even greater and more urgent concern to the nation as a whole and to its people. There are counselors enough to advise us to act upon the fear of the worst we can foresee. There are few to urge us to act in confidence in the best we know. That has been from the beginning the great part of youth. It is the part of the young men still; and this country needs it.