From the Archives
To mark The Atlantic's anniversary, we have reprinted excerpts from articles and poems from some of our most celebrated contributors
From Benjamin R. Barber on "Jihad vs. McWorld" to Woodrow Wilson on American ideals...
Benjamin R. Barber
Just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures—both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanonization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe—a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food—with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald’s, pressing nations into one commercially homogenous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart and coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.
“Jihad Vs. McWorld,” March 1992
Randolph S. Bourne
America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision.
“Trans-national America,” July 1916
W. E. B. DuBois
One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.
“Strivings of the Negro People,” August 1897
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth …
“The Road Not Taken,” August 1915
Julia Ward Howe
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” February 1862
Marlon Brando was explosively dangerous without being “serious” in the sense of having ideas. There was no theory, no cant in his leadership. He didn’t care about social position or a job or respectability, and because he didn’t care he was a big man; for what is less attractive, what makes a man smaller, than his worrying about his status? Brando represented a contemporary version of the free American …
He was our angry young man—the delinquent, the tough, the rebel—who stood at the center of our common experience. When, as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he said to his brother, “Oh Charlie, oh Charlie … you don’t understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum—which is what I am,” he spoke for all our failed hopes. It was the great American lament.
“Marlon Brando: An American Hero,” March 1966
Robert D. Kaplan
No doubt there are some who see an American empire as the natural order of things for all time. That is not a wise outlook. The task ahead for the United States has an end point, and in all probability the end point lies not beyond the conceptual horizon but in the middle distance—a few decades from now. For a limited period the United States has the power to write the terms for international society, in hopes that when the country’s imperial hour has passed, new international institutions and stable regional powers will have begun to flourish, creating a kind of civil society for the world … There will be nothing approaching a true world government, but we may be able to nurture a loose set of global arrangements that have arisen organically among responsible and like-minded states.
If this era of reluctant imperium is to leave a lasting global mark, we must know what we are up to; we must have a sense that supremacy is bent toward a purpose and is not simply an end in itself. In many ways the few decades immediately ahead will be the trickiest ones that our policymakers have ever faced: they are charged with the job of running an empire that looks forward to its own obsolescence.
Winston Churchill saw in the United States a worthy successor to the British Empire, one that would carry on Britain’s liberalizing mission. We cannot rest until something emerges that is just as estimable and concrete as what Churchill saw.
“Supremacy by Stealth,” July/August 2003
I have often thought it would be a blessing if each human being were stricken blind and deaf for a few days at some time during his early adult life. Darkness would make him more appreciative of sight; silence would teach him the joys of sound.
Now and then I have tested my seeing friends to discover what they see. Recently I was visited by a very good friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods, and I asked her what she had observed. “Nothing in particular,” she replied. I might have been incredulous had I not been accustomed to such responses, for long ago I became convinced that the seeing see little.
“Three Days to See,” January 1933
George F. Kennan
I view the United States of these last years of the twentieth century as essentially a tragic country, endowed with magnificent natural resources that it is rapidly wasting and exhausting, and with an intellectual and artistic intelligentsia of great talent and originality. For this intelligentsia the dominant political forces of the country have little understanding or regard. Its voice is normally silenced or outshouted by the commercial media. It is probably condemned to remain indefinitely, like the Russian intelligentsia in the nineteenth century, a helpless spectator of the disturbing course of its nation’s life.
“The Last Wise Man,” April 1989
John F. Kennedy
The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much …
I look forward to a great future for America—a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.
I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our national environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.
I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.
And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world, not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.
And I look forward to a world which will be safe, not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
“Poetry and Power,” February 1964
Martin Luther King Jr.
I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.
“The Negro is Your Brother,” August 1963
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm, —
A cry of defiance, and not of fear, —
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.
“Paul Revere’s Ride,” January 1861
On a thousand small-town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year—
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets,
and muse through their sideburns.
“For the Union Dead,” November 1960
So far our government has done nothing effective with its forests … but is like a rich and foolish spendthrift who has inherited a magnificent estate in perfect order, and then has left his rich fields and meadows, forests and parks, to be sold and plundered and wasted at will, depending on their inexhaustible abundance.
“The American Forests,” August 1897
Our empire was developed almost overnight. At the beginning of the World War we were still in debt to the world … We wiped out our debt and put the world in our debt … in little more than a decade …
We are a business people who know nothing about the intricacies of politics, especially international politics, and in the flush of youthful pride we make no calculations of the reactions to our attitudes in the minds of others.
Our lack of imagination is increased by the fact that we have come into our position of authority too suddenly to adjust ourselves to its responsibilities and that we are geographically too isolated from the world to come into intimate contact with the thought of others. It was only yesterday that we were a youthful nation, conscious of making an adventure in democratic government which the older nations did not quite approve, and we still imagine that it is our virtue rather than our power which the older nations envy …
“Awkward Imperialists,” May 1930
Charles Eliot Norton
No magazine could have had a more brilliant and prosperous start, or one which gave better promise for continued success. At the outset [The Atlantic] depended largely for its cordial reception by the public upon the contributions of writers already eminent, the great writers of the middle of the century. As one by one these lights were extinguished, their places were not supplied by any of equal lustre. But while the higher ranks of literature, especially poetry, were thus depleted, there was a rapid increase of capable writers of abundant knowledge … A democracy was substituting itself for the older aristocracy and with the usual result: the general level was raised, while but few conspicuous elevations lifted themselves above its surface … The difference between 1857 and 1907 seems like that between ancient and modern times … To-day, the writing about material things and of the daily affairs of men … far outweighs, in quality no less than in quantity, the literature of sentiment and the imagination. The whole spiritual nature of man is finding but little, and for the most part only feeble and unsatisfactory, expression … But this shall not be forever … Great harpers shall fill again the seats once occupied by Orpheus and Orion, and the later days of the Atlantic Monthly, in that perhaps still distant time, may be no less worthy of fame than when Emerson and Longfellow and Lowell and Whittier and Holmes were its regular contributors.
“The Launching of the Magazine,” November 1907
Part of our peculiar claim to greatness as a nation rests on the fact that we have done without many elements that might be thought of as the marks of a great people, among them a myth of origin. Americans have been suckled by no wolf, sired by no Trojan fleeing Troy; they are not descended from the sun or from dragon’s teeth sown in the earth, not chosen by a god or descended from Olympian trysts with mortal maidens, not descended from any totem animal or enchanted soil or ancient race. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, passionately determined that the young American nation develop a distinct culture for its people, wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” in a conscious effort to supply such a myth— and with some success: I can testify that many Americans, including Senator Edward Kennedy, have much of the poem by heart.
“Poetry and American Memory,” October 1999
The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil. U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about “never again,” many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen.
“Bystanders to Genocide,” September 2001
No single individual, of course, and no single group has an exclusive claim to the American dream. But we have all, I think, a single vision of what it is, not merely as a hope and an aspiration, but as a way of life, which we can come ever closer to attaining in its ideal form if we keep shining and unsullied our purpose and our belief in its essential value …
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 … 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.”
“What Has Happened to the American Dream?” April 1961
Captain [Alfred Thayer] Mahan has written distinctively the best and most important, and also by far the most interesting, book on naval history which has been produced on either side of the water for many a long year …
Captain Mahan’s effort is to show the tremendous effect which sea power has had upon the development of certain of the great nations of the world, especially at momentous crises of their history … He never for a moment loses sight of the relations which the struggles by sea bore to the history of the time; and, for the period which he covers, he shows, as no other writer has done, the exact points and the wonderful extent of the influence of the sea power of the various contending nations upon their ultimate triumph or failure, and upon the features of the mighty races to which they belonged …
We need a large navy, composed not merely of cruisers, but containing also a full proportion of powerful battle-ships, able to meet those of any other nation. It is not economy— it is niggardly and foolish short-sightedness—to cramp our naval expenditures, while squandering money right and left on everything else, from pensions to public buildings.
“The Influence of Sea Power upon History,” October 1890
Arthur M. Schlesinger
The contributions of America to civilization … have aimed to release men from political and religious disabilities, from ignorance and poverty, from backbreaking toil. They have struck at the fetters which from time immemorial the Old World had fastened on human beings. They have opened the doors of opportunity for the many while still assuring them to the few, in the belief that everyone should have an equal chance to be as unequal as he can without denying the same right to others.
In brief, they have sought to substitute fluidity for rigid class distinctions as the vital principle of social well-being. And the consequence has been a general leveling of society upward instead of downward.
But what of the future? … If we can only preserve our free institutions and our faith in the untrammeled human spirit, we shall triumphantly meet the challenge now before us.
“Our Ten Contributions to Civilization,” March 1959
Henry David Thoreau
An English traveller … tells us that “… The heavens of America appear infinitely higher, the sky is bluer, the air is fresher, the cold is intenser, the moon looks larger, the stars are brighter, the thunder is louder, the lightning is vivider, the wind is stronger, the rain is heavier, the mountains are higher, the rivers longer, the forests bigger, the plains broader.”…
If the moon looks larger here than in Europe, probably the sun looks larger also. If the heavens of America appear infinitely higher, and the stars brighter, I trust that these facts are symbolical of the height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar … For I believe that climate does thus react on man—as there is something in the mountain-air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences? … I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas. Perchance there will appear to the traveller something, he knows not what, of læta and glabra, of joyous and serene, in our very faces. Else to what end does the world go on, and why was America discovered? …
In Wildness is the preservation of the world.
“Walking,” June 1862
Frederick Jackson Turner
For nearly three centuries the dominant fact in American life has been expansion. With the settlement of the Pacific coast and the occupation of the free lands, this movement has come to a check ...
The free lands are gone, the continent is crossed, and all this push and energy is turning into channels of agitation …
This, then, is the real situation: a people composed of heterogeneous materials, with diverse and conflicting ideals and social interests, having passed from the task of filling up the vacant spaces of the continent, is now thrown back upon itself, and is seeking an equilibrium. The diverse elements are being fused into national unity.
“The Problem of the West,” September 1896
In our stroke for independence we struck a blow for all the world. Some men saw it then; all men see it now … Let us ponder our duties like men of conscience and temper our ambitions like men who seek to serve, not to subdue, the world; let us lift our thoughts to the level of the great tasks that await us, and bring a great age in with the coming of our day of strength.
“The Ideals of America,” December 1902