The Act of Faith

If the inauguration of Margaret Clapp as president of Wellesley College, ARCHIBALD MACLEISH spoke the words that follow. The act of faith which he pleads for will be doubly significant this dune when our colleges and universities bring their thousands of seniors to Commencement. A man of action who is also a poet, Mr. MacLeish has the gift of calling out of as the elements which make an American.


EXCEPT for Banquo’s ghost, who is present but is not expected to talk, I can think of no role less relevant to its occasion than thal of the speaker at the inauguration of the president of an institution of learning.

It is not his place to welcome the new president to her post: the students have seen to that.

It is not his function to compliment the trustees on their good taste and sound judgment in her selection: the trustees have never questioned their possession of either quality, and besides, they have the proof before them.

It is not his privilege to remind the new incumbent of the superlative merits of her predecessor, of which she is only too anxiously aware, or to reassure her as to her own abundant qualifications to succeed that famous lady: everyone within sight of the platform is already and entirely satisfied on both points.

It is not even his duty to advise the new administration on the educational policy it should pursue— though I would not go so far as to contend that, he never offers his willing back to that enticing burden.

His sole function — if it can be called a function — is to expose to an audience concerned, and properly concerned, with something else his private thoughts — which may or may not merit or survive exposure.

My private thoughts on this occasion can be compressed into one: a lively sense of the astonishing paradox of our presence in this room, for this purpose, in this year of the Republic’s history.

Here is a great and distinctly American college, making the most emphatic affirmation of belief in the national future of which men are capable. And here, in the same country, and in the same hour, and from one end of the American Republic to the other, is something as different from that affirmation, as opposite to it, as contradictory, as the human mind could well conceive: a fear for the future, a nightmare terror of the future, a total lack of confidence in the future such as the world has not seen since the decade of the millennium, if, indeed, it saw it then.

To educate at all is to profess a faith in the future of the most explicit kind, since education, by its nature, assumes the future. To make a new beginning in education and in educational institutions a new administration is always a new beginning, for it is by this method that educational institutions, like other shell-forming organisms, achieve their growth — to make a new beginning in education is to reaffirm that profession of faith, and to reassert it in a new confidence for the years ahead. either a new president, nor her officers, nor her trustees, nor her students could commit themselves to a new administration of the college unless they believed in the future — unless they believed that there would be a future—unless they believed that there was still time.

And yet, if we may trust what we hear, and what we ourselves say, and what goes on echoing in our minds even in this room and even at this moment, the people of this country have no such confidence. If we may trust what we hear, and what we find ourselves saving, and what our newspapers and our politicians tell us morning after morning, evening after evening, it is our conviction, both as a people and as a government, that we are already engaged in an ineluctable struggle for survival, with force or the threat of force as the necessary weapons — and those weapons so implacably destructive that they may well wipe out all human life across an entire continent, not inconceivably our own.

So convinced are we of the impossibility of a peaceful settlement that talk about the negotiation of peace is discouraged as wishful thinking by the Democratic Department of State on one side, and denounced as subversive activity by certain Republican politicians and newspapers the other.

So sure are we of the inevitability of conflict that a small group of Senators and members of Congress, undistinguished and unrespected men but raucously self-assured of their political sagacity, are busily preparing even now to make the next national election a competition in patrioteering with the prize of office to go to the man or the party which can prove that it has haled Russia loudest, longest, and with the most irresponsible invective.

Confidence in ourselves, confidence in mankind, the natural, normal, decent confidence of men of courage and character, has all but vanished from the Congress of the United States. And in the prolonged and inexplicable silence of the President there are few voices raised anywhere for what we used to think of as the American cause: the cause of the human future.

These two things, the affirmation of belief in (he future, the surrender to fear for the future, do not go together. Above all, they do not go together in this room. If you are educating young men and young women for life, to live their lives— which is what liberal education is you are not educating them for a vast and terrible struggle for survival to be fought between civilian populations, first with terror, and then with scientific devices for extermination.

And if, by the same sign, you believe that you are engaged in such a struggle of competitive terrorization and eventual destruction of civilian populations, with survival, to say nothing of “victory, depending on the reactions of your people to attack, you will not offer young men and young women liberal education. You will offer instead the kind of education some of our more demoralized politicians propose even now for the production of scientists. You will produce not men and women but ColdWar Soldiers, reared in antiseptic ignorance of every doubt or hope or aspiration, indoctrinated rather than instructed, whose neuter and unasking minds, packed with creed instead of questions like so many sawdust dolls, will give to every stimulus the appropriate response. It is not only the bigger bombs and the bigger bombers of the jingo press we need. If we are really engaged in a civilian struggle for survival, our greatest need is for a civilian population disciplined for such a struggle. We need, not colleges and universities, but arsenals of human beings. And we need them now.


THESE two things, the act of confidence in the future here, the terror of the future everywhere and here as well, can simply not be reconciled. They cannot live together. And yet they do. They do, within this room. How do they?

Is it because people like us, people of our kind, live our lives in separate compartments — because we don’t permit ourselves to know, as officers and teachers and students and friends of this college, what we know only too well, what we lie awake at night knowing, as men and women? Because we go on with our lives and our occupations out of habit and sheer inertia, repeating, now that they are meaningless, the forms and motions that once had meaning when the future was alive?

Is it because we deceive ourselves with hopes which we know only too well are deceptions— the hope that something will turn up even now, that something will happen, that Stalin will die or the Communists will change their minds or the Titoisls will overthrow the Kremlin and everything will be different: the hope that the Cold War can be won as a cold war, in spile of the fact that a cold war, by hypothesis, is a war that can never be won because it is waged, not to accomplish something, but to prevent something from happening, and is therefore only effective as long as it goes on preventing?

Is it because we delude ourselves into thinking that somehow, in some way, by some miracle, we will be spared in this holocaust—our lives will be spared, or our days, or our college or these particular beginnings we inaugurate this morning? Is it because we think, like the Princes in Li Bo’s poem, that the howling of the yellow dogs is not for us?

I, for my self, do not think so. I do not think it is for any of these reasons we are able to do what we are doing here today. I do not think we are deluding ourselves, or hiding our fears from our hopes, or carrying on out of habit, or pretending not to know what in fact we do know.

I think the truth is the opposite. I think the truth is that vve do not know what we pretend to know — what we pretend to know because we hear ourselves saying ii over and over like parrots, or because we read it over and over in the speech the hypnotized politicians are constantly making, the same speech over and over with nothing but the speaker changing.

I think we do not know— we here in this room and millions of others in millions of other rooms across this country—I think we do not know that our time is a time of ineluctable war, of inescapable struggle for survival, which weapons and warfare must decide because only weapons and warfare can decide it.

I think we do not know this because we know it is not true. And I think the reason we know it is not true is not that we are childish as a people, but precisely that we are not childish. To believe that the great crises of human history are not resolved by threats and nol resolved by arms is not childish. To believe that the fundamental choice between individual freedom and institutional authority which our world must make is not a choice which bombs can make for us, and therefore nol a choice which bombs will make for us, is not childish. The childish thing is the infantile mentality, the movie-magazine mind, which thinks a crisis like the crisis of our age can be the work of a handful of conspiratorial Communists, and can be resolved, and therefore must be resolved, by weapons.

We know very well we must arm ourselves for our own defense in a world in which Russia is armed. But we do not know, because we do not believe, that arms will be enough no matter how many, no matter how powerful. We do not believe this because we do not believe the decision can be reached by arms. We do not believe that what is in issue in our time is susceptible of armed decision.

There could be war. There could easily be war. Russian conduct over the past three years has been provocative and infuriating: a combination of calculated bluster and blundering deceit which only the gangster underworld could equal. The conduct of some Americans has been stupid and provocative also. It would be hard to equal, anywhere but in Russia itself, the irresponsibility and recklessness of certain members of the last two Congresses and certain newspapers and certain columnists. But because we could blunder into war with Russia through stupidity on either side, it does not follow that war with Russia is inevitable. And it is the inevitability of war which is the central question for this country, because it is the shadow of that fatality which freezes the creative impulses of our lives and exposes the most precious thing in America—the independence and self-respect of individual citizens

to the campaigns of dishonor and defamation which have become the political stock in trade of ambitious and unprincipled politicians.


WHAT is really in issue between the Russians and ourselves — what the evangelists of the inevitable conflict talk about day after day — is difference in belief. War is inevitable because our beliefs are different and because neither can live in a world dominated by the other. We, in the United States, must have a world in which individual liberty can thrive, for unless individual liberty can thrive throughout the world it cannot thrive here. The Russians must have a world in which authority is safe from freedom, for unless authority is safe from the aspirations of freedom everywhere it is safe from them nowhere. Therefore, the preachment goes, war must some day come, and until it comes the threat of war must be maintained.

But the evangelists of war forget two things. And it is these two things we and people like us remember, whatever words we use. They forget, first, that when they talk about the world they are not talking about the people of Russia and the United Stales alone. They are talking, as well, about 1400 million others who, as Secretary Acheson pointed out in his magnificent San Francisco address, are now stirring and moving in the long dream of their history as men have never stirred and moved before. Whether the world will be authoritarian or free, will depend on the 1400 million as well as on ourselves. It will depend on the world they make for themselves — the world they are even now in the process of making. For the great central fact before us, the fact to which the .evangelists of war have shut their eyes, is the new world — the fact that a new and wholly different world is in the process of creation in our time — the fact that it is this new world, this different world, which is the ineluctable event and for which we must prepare ourselves or perish.

That is one thing the evangelists of war forget. The other is this: that creation is not accomplished with weapons. You cannot make a world with weapons. You cannot shape a world in the image of liberty with weapons. You cannot even shape a world in the image of authority with weapons. Arms can be used to put down freedom, as they have been used again and again in human history. Arms can be used to overthrow authority, as we used them once, and as other peoples have used them both before and since. But they cannot be used to create. And the problem, both for us and for the Russians, is to create —to create in the new world the kind of life we severally believe in, the one kind or the other. It is there, on that battlefield, on the competitive battlefield of creative labor, not on the impotent battlefield of exterminating war, that the real issue will be decided. It is that struggle which is inescapable: that conflict, and not the conflict of arms, which must be faced.

To which the realists reply: Ah yes, but do the Russians know it? What will the Russians be doing while we create a world? Cutting our throats? Blasting us off the earth? No, there’s nothing the Russians understand but force: nothing they respect but facts in being. All we can do is face them with force and facts until — what? The voice drags off into silence. Until they recognize the facts and say so? And what then? Will we believe what they say? Or go on with the force and the facts in the same old impotence until we come to the one conclusion to which force and facts invariably lead — the conclusion the hardheaded men have been telling us all along we would come to — the conclusion of war?

It is one of the defects of the American educational system, and has been for generations, that it turns out a self-styled “realist” mentality which equates belief in life with gullibility’, and regards a fact as a fact only when it is ugly. No one can say, of course, what the Russians think. But every indication we have — even the sadistic and brutal “trials” and the palpably engineered “confessions” — every indication we have suggests that the Russians know very well where the struggle will be decided. Why otherwise torture their victims for confessions of guilt involving their enemies? Why not shoot them offhand and be done with it? It is not for themselves or for us these grizzly dramas are played out, but for the audience of mankind.

When the Russians announced a little while ago that they were developing atomic energy for the purposes of peace — to “tree mankind from its ancient servitude to toil” — the hardheaded realists in America shouted “propaganda.” What the Russians were really doing, they said, was building atomic bombs — hydrogen bombs maybe — anyway bombs. Perhaps it was propaganda; if it was, it was good propaganda for the 1400 million better propaganda than ours with our promise of death by incineration on a bigger and better model than Hiroshima. But perhaps also — as a writer in the Christian Science Monitor quietly pointed out perhaps it wasn’t propaganda after all. Perhaps the Russians really knew what they were doing. Perhaps they realized that a great new source of industrial power put at the disposal of their political philosophy might give them an advantage, previously enjoyed by us, in the struggle for men’s minds. Perhaps nothing would suit them better in Russia than precisely the delusive realism of our realistic men: the concentration upon bombs and weapons while the Russians went about their business of constructing the means to wage the actual struggle— the struggle for the creation of a world.

The Monitor correspondent may be right. But whatever the Russians intend or believe, the explanation of the American paradox lies in the fact that a great part of the American people feels in its bones, whatever words it may find in its mouth, that the conflict which divides our time is not a Russian-American conflict only, to be waged by facing up to the Soviets with a show of defensive force, however necessary the possession of defensive force may be. A great part of the American people believes that the real conflict, is a very different conflict, a much broader conflict—a conflict for the soul and spirit of a world now coming into being: a new world. It is this profound conviction which explains the national restlessness under the negative and defensive foreign policy of the past four years. It is this conviction which explains the failure of the Formosa party in the Senate, even with the support of powerful sections of the press, to make any impression whatever on the country. It is this conviction which supported the enormous and spontaneous enthusiasm aroused by the McMahon proposals. It is this conviction which is expressed from day to day across the country in actions like the action in this room, actions directed toward the future in confidence and faith.

There is a considerable body of Americans who, for all the talk, for all their talk, do not believe in the inevitable war, do not believe in the inescapable disaster, do not believe that the destiny of the Republic is to resist history and to oppose it, do not believe that the appearance of Communism, or the rise of Russia, or the invention of atomic bombs, has changed the role this people has to play. There is a considerable body of Americans who believe that the great decisions of history are made not by death but by life, and that we have a stake in life, and a talent for life, and that it is there, in the shaping of a new world, that that talent can be used and that stake protected and the decision made.

We are not, after all, a new and inexperienced people. We have governed ourselves for close to two centuries. We have seen something of human history on this planet and we have drawn our own conclusions from what we have seen. We know what it is to want what the peoples of Asia want and the peoples of Africa and Europe. Wo know what can happen when the great currents of life break over the banks of the old restrictions and move out toward the future. We believe, on the basis of what we have seen in this world, that men, if they can, will move toward freedom: that the desire for freedom and fulfillment is the law of the life of men as the pull of the earth is the law of the life of things. We believe, therefore, that if this new great stirring of mankind is freed of its necessities the world will move toward us. And it is there, in that labor, not in an insane and ruinous war, that we believe the struggle will be truly joined.

The paradox, then, resolves itself in that juncture. For if you believe, in spite of the squeaking ghosts, that life will go on in this earth, you prepare for life: you educate for life. Whatever your tongue may say, your heart continues to believe, and your actions are truer than your words —as this action here is truer than our words who take part in it — this action by which this college and this woman commit themselves once more to a belief in the free and creative future of mankind.