The Power of Choice

Poet, Pulitzer Prize winner, and since 1950 the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, ARCHIBALD MACLEISHis much in demand as a commencement speaker, primarily because, as a passionately loyal American, he has the gift and eloquence to call out of others the self-assurance which this country needs if we are to be reliable in our many commitments. The words that follow were spoken at the Radcliffe Commencement. but they were also written with the Atlantic in mind.


WHAT is in question in this country is the survival of the American confidence that men can choose the future.

For some weeks past we have been listening to a national argument which the American press agrees to call the Great Debate. The consensus of opinion seems to be that the press is wrong: that the Great Debate is neither great nor much of a discussion. Senator Wiley’s early demand that the highest and most responsible military officer of the Republic be required to testify to what the Senator called personal feelings and private animosities raised understandable doubts as to the elevation of the proceedings. And the effect of the whole dispute on the Congress and the country has been something less than illuminating. When the principal arguments were all in, the popular verdict apparently came to this: that General MacArthur was wholly right and that General MacArthur’sopinions were altogether wrong.

Nevertheless the press, for once, was wiser than the people. The confused and interminable altercation now going forward in Washington and in the Republic is, without any doubt whatever, a debate, and the debate deserves the adjective. Upon its issue will depend the kind of country this country is to be.

What is in debate is not merely our policy in the Far East - whether or not the Korean War should have been extended to China. What is in debate is the underlying question General MacArthur was obliged to face when his proposal was challenged on the ground that the extension of the Korean War might mean war with Russia and so a third world war. What is in debate is the view of human history, of the freedom of human choice, which we as Americans are prepared to hold.

In the past it has been our American conviction — a conviction implicit in our actions rather than explicit in our words—that history is made by men, not men by history. It is not only possible, we have thought, but a self-evident truth that a free people, if it possesses the virility and the inventiveness and the daring, can choose for itself the kind of world it wishes to live in and then create that world. A free people is capable, that is to say, of the pursuit of happiness — the pursuit of human happiness. We have not believed that men’s lives, or the forms of their societies, or the future to which they are committed are determined in advance by the patterns of the stars or the prophecies of the books or the necessities of the blood or the character of the countryside into which they are born, or even by the laws of economics. Above all, we have not believed, as older societies believed before us, that the events of human history - either disasters or triumphs — are inevitable.

The whole idea of the inevitable has been repugnant to us. Nothing, we have opined, is inevitable but death and taxes. Anything else in the world can be changed, including — including particularly— the prophecies. Anything else can be changed and, for the most part, has been: forms of government, dogmas of belief, methods of husbandry, habits of life — even the man himself: even the compulsion of the blood, the shape of the head, the length and weight of the body, and the color of the hair. We have had no respect for fate: we worshiped God, not fate. We have had no particular reverence for history: wo believed in men, not history. History was the history men made, not the veiled divinity that told them what they had to be.

Our confidence, in brief, was in the future. Which is to say that our confidence was in the power of human choice to make the future. We considered that a free people can make the future for itself: master its destiny.

That was the American position: the position made evident in our actions from the first movement west across the continent; made articulate sometimes also in our words. We had no illusions about the orthodoxy of our view. We knew perfectly well that the great majority of mankind disagreed with us and always had. The orthodox conception of man’s place in the universe, man’s relation to time and to event, had always been the very different conception that man is the victim of the inevitable, whose only escape from the ineluctable design is to accept it. The authors of that reckless and willful phrase about the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of American Independence had every reason to know how their affirmation would be received in older, wiser, and less courageous countries. We have learned since, throughout the history of our literature, how stubborn, how bitter, and how vindictive that reaction can be: how scornfully the believers in fate can speak of our precarious belief in man and in man’s future; how sneeringly the servants of determinism can dispose of our “idea of progress,” as they choose to call it; how contemptuously the worshipers of certainty can dismiss our self-confidence, our self-reliance, above all the rash impiety of our willingness to think for ourselves, and say as we think, and do as we say.

Nevertheless, and until this time, we have held to our convictions. We have nourished an inarticulate belief that there is a relation of some kind between the individual human freedom vve mean to have and the rejection of the dogma of inevitability. Freedom and inevitability, we have thought, cannot live together. No nation can be free which does not keep the future open in its people’s minds.

Now, it appears, we are no longer certain. The world has changed. The dogma of inevitability has made new converts throughout half the earth, and the menace of their fanatic faith has made still further converts, even among us. Fear has accomplished what persuasion never could. Americans — many Americans it seems — are ready to accept the doctrine of inevitability for themselves and to force it on their fellow citizens. Unless we accept the inevitable, they tell us, the inevitable will destroy us. And the country listens, ponders, doubts. And the issue is joined. The petty debate over the personality of a man becomes the great debate over the destiny of the Republic.


THE MacArthur controversy is, of course, the occasion of the Great Debate, not the cause. General MacArthur did not invent the view of human history he apparently accepts. The controversy which centers on his name has, however, posed the underlying issue in terms which no one can mistake, and has related it to a decision which the country, largely because of the controversy, can no longer avoid. That decision is a decision affecting our survival as a people and, very probably, the survival of our world.

Only on the surface is the difference between MacArthur and his critics a military difference. Actually it is a difference of belief, a difference of essential philosophy: a difference touching the freedom of the people of the United States to choose, in the greatest dilemma they have ever faced. Fundamentally what General MacArthur and General Bradley disagree about is the freedom of the people of the United States to pursue their traditional policy of peace and the defense of human liberty in the modern world. To General MacArthur the risk of Russian intervention and, so, of world war should not deter us from extending the Korean War to China and winning a “victory,” because the risk of Russian intervention has already been taken: because events, that is to say, are out of our hands. To General Bradley, the chance of Russian intervention should deter us because events are not out of our hands: because, as the General puts it, we have avoided war with Russia thus far and if we can continue to avoid it long enough we may be able to avoid it altogether.

Neither General knows or pretends to know what Russia will actually do. Both agree that Russia may attack us at any moment — that the rulers of Russia will be restrained neither by humanity nor by moral scruple: only by fear. Both are aware that the Russians themselves regard war between the Soviets and the United States as inevitable: their doctrine of economic determinism makes it so. The difference between the two men is a difference as to our freedom of action under these circumstances. To one, we can still choose between the struggle for freedom and peace on the one hand and world war on the other; to the second, we are already, in effect, at war: the millstones are turning, the grain must be ground.

This is the difference also between the two opinions which have been formed, regardless of party, behind the principal figures of the debate. Those on the one side talk in terms of what they call “realism” and “courage,” by which they mean the “realistic” acceptance of the inevitability of war, and the “courageous” adoption in China and, presumably, elsewhere of a policy based upon what they regard as the unblinking recognition of that fact. Those on the ot her continue to talk in terms of hope, contending that we have not yet lost control of the great election between peace and war: that it is still possible, if we have the courage and the patience, to avoid world war on the one hand and Communist domination of the earth on the other.

To men of the second opinion there is room for maneuver in the narrow strait between these two dangers. We can make ourselves too strong to attack and too important to the world to isolate: the party of peace and the fortress of power; the standard of effective freedom to which men, still free, can rally. We can gain allies for ourselves and arm them. We can strengthen the economy of the free world and build backfires of hope in the exploited areas where hunger and despair make tinder for the Russian torch. We can put together regional alliances — strong points of mutual confidence such as the Atlantic Pact within the structure of the United Nations and find means to give the defeated peoples of Germany and Japan a stake in the common future. We can implement the Charter of the United Nations by building out of the United Nations command which already exists in Korea a permanent United Nations police force and so enlist the universal longing for peace behind our purposes rather than the purposes of the Russians. We can turn our faces toward a free and peaceful future for the world, planning it, organizing it as we can under the Point Four program or otherwise, giving mankind a measure of hope instead of a certainty of slaughter, and so breaking the evil spell the Russians, with their alternatives of spiritual slavery or inevitable war, have woven.


TO MEN who hold the first opinion — to the “realists” — all this is folly if not actually something worse than folly. It is folly to talk of avoiding war: we are already at war. So MacArthur: so Wedemeyer. It is nonsense to concern ourselves about what our allies think: our allies have no choice, they will think as we think or go without. So MacArthur: so the McCormick-McCarthy fringe. It is ridiculous to offer relief to suffering peoples: there is no time for relief — we cannot even be sure the grain we send to the starving in India will help us. As for the United Nations and regional alliances and the Atlantic Pact — all this is legalistic trifling. In the last analysis there are only the Russians and ourselves. The chips are down. The time has come to act: to act in China—to act wherever action is necessary— to act, that is, by force.

It is this latter position which reveals the true issue of the Great Debate. If you ask the “realists" why the chips are down; why there is no time; why war with Russia and hence world war is inevitable, they will reply, many of them: Because the Russians are committed; because the Russians will allow us no time; because the Russians say war is inevitable. But this can hardly be the actual reason. No American believes, and least of all the patriotic Americans who urge this view upon the country, that the Russians possess the exclusive power to decide the future for us all: that American intentions no longer count in the great decision. Certainly no American who knows the facts of record could believe anything so humiliating to his country and so false. It has yet to be demonstrated that American determination and persistence, backed by American strength and the strength of our friends in the free world, are incapable of deterring the Russians from an action which would precipitate the most terrible of all wars — a war fought with the weapons of extermination. On the contrary, the facts of record powerfully suggest that the Russians have already been deterred and may be deterred again.

No, the real reason why the advocates of this opinion believe in the inevitability of a war which has thus far been avoided — a war which no one wants and every decent man must dread for the world’s sake if not for his own the real reason why the advocates of this opinion believe in the inevitability of war is that they accept the inevitability of war as dogma. War between the United States and Soviet Russia is inevitable to them, not because we cannot continue to avoid it in the future as we have in the past, regardless of Russian desires, but because war between the United States and Soviet. Russia is inevitable. It is not that they “want” war. MacArthur’s partisans are no more the war party than Truman and Acheson and Marshall and Bradley are friends of the Communists. Both characterizations are insults to the public intelligence. MacArthur is doubtless as honest in saying that he hates war as Aeheson in demonstrating by the record of his office that he has been one of the foremost opponents of Communism. But MacArthur and his supporters, however they may hate war, accept it. They accept it as “already here.”They accept it as inescapable. They accept it as inevitable in the nature of things. They accept it for reasons beyond reason. And, accepting it, they reject as weakness, or as folly, or as what they call appeasement, the notion that the United States can continue to avoid war and still stand firm: that a free people can shape the future for itself even in a world which holds the Russians: that men can master their destiny even though destiny presents it self in the vast, impersonal terms in which it shows itself to us, and even though whole peoples make a religion of submission to it.

Whether General MacArthur’s “realists" realize it or not, it is their position and not the position of their opponents which approximates the philosophy they detest — the philosophy all decent men detest. The dogma of the inevitability of war between the United States and Russia is Communist dogma. Its origins are Marxist. Long before it was orthodox belief among MacArthur’s followers here, it was orthodox belief among the Communists in Russia. A full generation ago when the economic and political interests of the United States and the Soviet Union conflicted nowhere on earth and no American newspaper publisher — not even the most unprincipled— shouted for a Russian War, war between Russia and the United States was already official doctrine in the Soviet Union. The Commissars had consulted the oracles. The sacred viscera had been observed. The holy texts had been deciphered and the flight of birds. War was in the tarot cards and war would therefore come. Why? Because the theory said so. Because the words were written in the book.

The whole proposition was, in its origins, a product of authoritarian superstition — a superstition which reads the future of mankind in the lea leaves of the economic systems: war or peace, life or death. And it was by authoritarian propagation that it was domesticated in this country. The first to tell us that war between the Soviet Union and the United States was inevitable were former Communists: men who had left the discipline of the Communist Party but had not lost the habit of the Party’s thought. And the first to welcome the assurance were those in the United States whose inclination had always been authoritarian and who found authoritarian ideas — even the ideas of their enemies — more palatable than a traditional American liberalism they had never understood.

Indeed, even at the present moment, the propagation of the dogma of inevitable war by certain politicians and certain publishers pursues the authoritarian pattern. Those who criticize the dogma are to be silenced. An Administration policy aimed at the avoidance of war is to be discredited as motivated by Communist sympathy if not actually by subversive purpose. Advocacy of peace is to be stigmatized as treason to the United States. And the full Communist doctrine of the inevitability of war between the United States and Russia is to be forced upon the country as American doctrine until—ultimate irony — all who refuse to accept it can be denounced as Communists.

What the consequence of the Great Debate will be in terms of military policy is not, I think, in doubt. The country plainly prefers our present attempt to shape a future narrowly for ourselves between the two disasters of war and Communism to any “realistic” alternative thus far advanced. Indeed the country would welcome a determined and an idealistic effort to make that future more truly ours in place of the mere negation of Communism which we seem now to intend. We do not want war with Russia or with anyone else, and we will avoid war so long as it is in our power to do so. We are not yet convinced that we have lost that power.

But whether, in rejecting the proposal now before us, we will reject also the authoritarian philosophy on which that proposal rests, depends upon our willingness to see what the issue of the Great Debate actually is.

Those who would impose the dogma of inevitable war as the determining consideration in the great decision we have to make are so vociferous in their claims of superior patriotism that they may confuse the actual issue in the minds of many men. The actual issue is whether we still believe, in a time of totalitarian governments and authoritarian ideologies and the mechanization of human life, in the proposition which the founders of this Republic regarded as self-evident: whether we still believe that history is lived by men, not men by history; whether we still regard the future as open to our aspirations, nol foreclosed to us by our fate; whether we still think of the “arable field of events" — Keats’s great phrase — as arable by men, not frozen around them by an icy will; whether we still consider mankind to be capable of the pursuit of happiness or whether we have grown ashamed of that highhearted language and think of men now as mechanical figures helpless in the predetermined web of time.

The actual issue, that is to say, is the issue which torments our generation everywhere: the choice between the belief in ourselves and the belief in authority, in the predetermination of events. It was never, perhaps, in human history, more difficult or more dangerous for men to believe in themselves. But it was also never more necessary — never more necessary, surely, for us in the United States. For unless we can hope, unless we can keep the future open, unless we can continue to believe in our power to shape the future for ourselves, the future will be war and the war will be destruction for the world. It is, to me at least, inconceivable that in a country in which the tradition of belief in man is as vigorous as it is with us — a country shaped, indeed, by that tradition — the dogma of inevitability should take hold. And yet the seed is here. The labor is to crush it.