The Recurring Platitude
Commencement Address delivered Sunday, June 20, 1954
at Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont
President Pitkin, members of the Faculty and of the Graduating Class, Students and friends of Goddard:
A friend of mine was, like me, invited to deliver a Commencement address this month. Unlike me, he had never composed such a speech; he had not even heard one. So he looked into the problem that confronted him; he conducted a research, or — should I say? — an investigation. He reported his findings to me. “The form,” he said, “is as fixed as that of a sonnet. You tell them: ‘This is a time of crisis.’ You say: ‘Mankind stands at a crossroads of history and the issue is in your hands.’ You say: ‘There is a lightening in the east and the gale that buffets us is the wind that runs before the dawn.’ Then you sit down.”
But, my friend said, he was going to cross them up. He was going to say, in effect, “There never was a time that wasn’t critical and this much I know, that it is going to get steadily worse and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it.”
My premise is somewhat different. You are better educated this morning than you will ever be again, and I count on you to recognise today’s ceremony as of the same substance you have often encountered in your reading in, for example, The Golden Bough. We are dancing to the buffalo so that the tribal hunt will succeed, or exorcising malignities that might put a hex on the fish nets so that the catch will be abundant. Or say that my speech is a manhood ordeal which the tribe requires you to endure in order to prove that you have reached maturity. You and I are divided by the normal antagonism between the generations, on the one hand the elderly and unfit, on the other the young and untested. But I count on you to listen courteously while I perform my part of the tribal ceremony for you know that rituals must be respected, if not for their content, then because of their function and because all of us have rituals for which we demand one another’s respect.
I speak to you out of what ritual agrees to call the wisdom of my generation, which is to say that this is a highly personal discourse, overtly autobiographical in some portions, and elsewhere covertly autobiographical. I hope that you will find it heavily sown with platitudes. Indeed, I have no fear you will not, for the cornerstone of your generation’s wisdom is the awareness that mine thinks in platitudes. For four years you have been developing an admirable scorn of them. And day after tomorrow you will go out from here and begin to bridge the gap between our generations, and to create room for the coming of a generation which will progress ever upward to a fine scorn of your platitudes. And day after tomorrow you begin a process which is almost entirely unconscious, happily so for otherwise it would be even more uncomfortable than you will find it, of discovering that the most offensive attribute platitudes have is an inherent tendency to be true.
I have announced part of my text. Before I go on to the rest of it, I should look at you and murmur, “How time flies.'” I take it that you average twenty-two years old. You were seven when the Second World War began, nine when the United States entered it, thirteen when it ended. The figures are shocking to a man who served in the First War. But a happy fact for my purpose is that, statistically, you were born in 1932. You are — and in the years ahead you will find many platitudes unfolding from this fact — you are New Deal children.
I was an enthusiastic New Dealer; which is to say that my acceptance swung from fifty-one percent of the New Deal to about seventv-five percent. Never one hundred percent. In the opinion of the working New Dealers, those who accepted it one hundred percent were a conspiratorial group best described as Fifth Amendment Republicans bent on subverting our administration of the government.
It was the minus-25 portion of my beliefs that led me to dig out a news story which I wrote in 1935, when you were three. One of the New Deal agencies which together achieved a thoroughgoing but peaceful and orderly revolution, thus defeating both the left and the right, and creating in the extreme right a hatred whose effects are manifest from day to day still — one of the New Deal Agencies was the Resettlement Administration. It was established to relieve the distress of that area of the United States for which we have never developed a successful society, the Great Plains. Bankrupted by more than a decade of farm depression, the Great Plains had been further stricken by the nationwide depression which began in 1929 with its collapse of markets and of credit, by four years of the worst drought ever recorded, by dustbowls, and by the rot of rural society that follows hopelessness. In a quarter of a million square miles people were in greater distress and wretchedness than Americans have ever been anywhere else in the memory of living men. There was nothing to do but to use the resources of the federal government on their behalf in the most effective ways that could be devised. This was done with very great success, though as I have said not so successfully that a stable society has developed there even yet.
There were other depressed rural areas and in some of them, as in much of the Great Plains, people were trying to wring a living from land which it seemed unlikely could ever produce a tolerable living standard. Flushed with its success in the Great Plains, the Resettlement Administration confronted the problem of such areas. In due time it moved into New Hampshire. There was a particular town which in the judgment of the experts and scientists of the Resettlement Administration consisted almost entirely of agriculturally sub-marginal land. Farmers could never make a decent living on it and obviously the best social and economic purpose to which it could be put was to let it return to the forest from which with great labor it had once been wrenched. And with this judgment the State Land Use Board of New Hampshire entirely agreed. The residents of the town had noticed the repeated presence of a lot of strangers, but they first learned why the strangers had been coming when they were notified that the Legislature of New Hampshire, conforming to the requirements of the Resettlement Administration, had passed a bill for moving them off their farms. The farms were to be paid for at full value. Other and better farms were to be found for them and credit would be extended for the construction of modern houses and farm buildings and for the purchase of agricultural machinery. The promise of a more abundant life was opened to them. But nobody had asked them whether they wanted it or on what terms.
To be brief, with their fate already decided, the townsmen reversed the fate. So far as I know the Act of the Legislature is still on the statute books but no action to put it into effect was ever taken. They besieged the Legislature and the congressional delegation. They battered both with every device of publicity which they would make use of. They rallied the Grange, the labor unions, the church, and most of all the rural press. It had taken the state and the federal government more than a year to work out their plans. It took the town two months to kill them.
A series of letters in a little nearby weekly newspaper, signed by a woman, appeared to be one of the most effective weapons in the fight. A sentence in one of them made me determine that I would see for myself. “All this land needs,” the woman had said, “is a little more manure and a lot more loving.” I did not know whether by this passionate declaration she meant loving the fields in ways which produce tribal rituals such as are interpreted in The Golden Bough, or loving in an equally earthy but more physical sense which produces rites that we do not need The Golden Bough to explain to us. Nor did it matter.
The town, I found, was literally in the sticks. Not only did no main road go through it, there was not an inch of blacktop. There were exactly half as many horses as there were farms. There were no automobiles, no trucks, no tractors. Some hay was cut by horse-drawn-mower, some by scythe. And so on. It was subsistence farming out of the early Nineteenth Century, and perhaps the picture strikes you, when I sketch it, as that of a rural slum. So I add that no one in town was on Relief either, or at least on any form of relief other than that of borrowing from the neighbors.
The woman who had written those letters, I found, was the head of this agrarian counter-revolution. A pleasant smell of apples cooking came from the wood range when I interviewed her, and I asked if she were making apple pie. Certainly not, she said, she couldn’t afford piecrust or for that matter sugar: this was stewed apples. Well, I wrote my news story mainly about her and I have always remembered the afternoon I spent with her; I remember it poignantly these days now that there is quite a bit of blacktop in the town, automobiles, tractors, electric light — since her counter-revolutionaries, no doubt at her instigation, succeeded in using the proffered credit to set up small woodworking plants. “All they want is to get us on Relief so we can buy radios,” she said to me, and I commend the remark to the dogmatic economists among you. The project was dead, she told me. The town, she said, had licked the State of New Hampshire and it had licked the Government of the United States. “You can always lick ‘em if the fight means enough to you,” she said. And when I said that they had fought well, she said yes, and it was in this up-creek farmhouse without plumbing of any kind, whether a toilet or running water, that I heard this, “As one of them old fellers said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
What had most horrified me was the proposal to move off their land people clearly thought of not as people but as lines on a graph, though the other portion of my New Deal mind knew only too bitterly that stubborn, blind insistence on staying on land unable to provide a living is a deep and dreadful evil. l’m afraid that I wrote my story with considerable insistence on the sturdy independence of the Yankee individualist, and how the independent mind would always say to political tyranny So Far and No Farther, There was a slight phoniness in my story which I have never acknowledged before this moment, for she was not a Yankee but only married to one, she was in fact from Nebraska. And there was a slight phoniness, or perhaps I should call it literary skill, in her discourse to me. For she did not come naturally by her effectively ungrammatical idioms, and she knew very well which one of them old fellers she had quoted to ms. For she was a graduate of the University of Nebraska and a member of its Phi Beta Kappa.
As you perceive, with the low journalistic cunning which literary people disapprove, I have not only stated my text in full and in several different ways, I have also made considerable headway with the sermon I am preaching on it. The anecdote contains a large cluster of platitudes, though I have left unphrased the most important one. Having established that base, I forgo whereas for a moment and baldly list some of the therefores which my generation has had platitudinously and most painfully beaten into its thick skulls, on the way from being the juveniles who listen to Commencement speeches to becoming the patriarchs who deliver them,
One knows by instinct, I suppose, that when a nation finds itself engaged in a war, then it had better win that war. But one has to be taught, and against his resolute will not to learn, that sometimes war is inescapable. Hard as that platitude is to learn, however, it is easy compared to learning that some wars are necessary and their goals righteous. Hardest and most disquieting to all assumptions and beliefs is the teaching that a war does not end as the same war it was when it began. Now the tuition fee charged for instruction in such therefores is exactly whatever chances to be asked of the individual learner. It cannot be fixed or discounted in advance. It may be the destruction of his expectation or hope, the shattering of his family affection or of the ideas with which he was prepared to appraise the world. It may be the death of friends or family. It may be the sacrifice of his career or of his limbs. It may be a tuition fee that will be paid only by his heirs.
An oddity must have forced itself on your attention. Statistically, you are twenty-two. If you had attained that statistic twelve years ago, not only would the platitudes I have listed had an exigency for you that I cannot give them now, but also you would have found the mechanisms of society so set that you would be treated as incomparably the most important people in the country. It happened to your older brothers, sisters, and cousins, perhaps to the parents of some of you. The social mechanisms are not geared so now. In wartime the bedrock value of a graduating class is that its members are at the level of greatest usefulness in the war. After the war is over the struggle between the generations is resumed, and the tribe insists on treating its newly matured members as apprentices. If this seems to you a vast injustice and a greater stupidity, you are entirely free to deal with it according to the means you have at hand. Bear in mind, however, that those who graduate next year will be classing you with me.
Ideas are indestructible. I doubt if any that mankind has ever held has died, been killed, or disappeared. In some avatar all are among us still, however feebly existing, and any of them may wax and spread again at almost any time. Yet they may decline of themselves, or they may be reduced in power or importance by the experience of mankind or by unceasing opposition. A moment ago I offered one of my generation’s platitudes to the economists among you; let me now offer one to the philosophers. During the last two weeks, at such ceremonies as this, speakers have discussed various key significances of the times we live in — with, as you remember my friend’s oration was not to say, with mankind at the crossroads of history and the future in your hands. Some have spoken of the end of colonialism, some of Asia on the march, some of the incurable disease of atomic fission. I am not qualified to talk about such things, but I mention a couple of ideas whose force has been waning throughout my generation.
I remind you that the generation has lived through two world wars, a world depression, the rise and defeat of fascism and nazism, the steady increase in the power of the Russian absolutism. You are acquainted with many of its failures, weaknesses, and absurdities. Presumably, strenuous argument would be required to convince you that it has had any successes or achievement at all — except that of begetting you. Well, the tragedy of parents is that they cannot bequeath an intellectual estate. By hard labor and good fortune, they may perhaps amass a little real estate, or a few bonds and stocks, which they can leave to their children. And they know that this is one good thing they can do for them. An estate composed of dependable experience and negotiable ideas would be far more valuable, but intellectual real estate has a way of being destroyed by fire or flood and, bonds and stocks of proving worthless.
And yet this generation of your elders’ experiences has in one way emancipated and enfranchised you. It has beaten down for you two of the ideas which for two centuries, or if you will for twenty-five centuries, have been among the principal sources of human despair. Stated simply, these were the delusions that mankind and society could be made perfect, and that evil could be eradicated as a force in men’s souls and their societies. We had no intent or commitment to chain these nightmare dragons but history will say that our experiences brought a long arc of history as near to an end as history’s arcs ever come. The sick romanticism which had man evolving divinity and his society evolving Utopia, the neurotic fantasy which cleaned evil from them both — ever since these ideas were loosed in the world, in the experience of everyone the realities have struck through them. There was apt to follow the collapse of courage whose name is despair and which paralyzes action. And there was apt to follow the impatience which held that we have been too long about these matters and it is best to accelerate the evolution of man and society by means of a machine gun. But to a very considerable degree we have restored a world in which man is a mixed being and you had therefore better be vigilant, but can therefore be of confident courage too. A world in which you know that dynamic and indestructible evil is present at every moment, and so you will not be stampeded when it strikes. To at least some degree we have given you a sense of reality we did not inherit. But if that is true, then we have given you leave and justification to hope, And as the story about the baseball player goes, God will take you through the streets in safety to the ball park and will stand by protectively while vou put on your uniform, but when you start out on the field God will touch vou on the shoulder and say, “All right, son, you take it from here.”
This leads straight to my last set of platitudes, which may well be a single platitude. I do not know which particular incantation President Pitkin, speaking for the tribe, will use in tomorrow’s ceremony. At my own college the President declares that by virtue of the authority vested in him he admits the graduate to the society of educated men. There vibrates unheard in the air an echo from another ritual, “And may God have mercy on your soul.”
In the spring of your senior year, in a time of confusion and division and violence and fear, with the Republic beset by external dangers as great as any it has ever faced, torn also by internal dissensions of far greater danger, created and used by the vilest of motives for the most repulsive reasons, with a hesitant government finding in cravenness no resolution of turbulence and no guaranty of safety — in this whirling time you have seen the United States pass judgment, through its official agencies, on one of the greatest of its citizens. The nature of that judgment, the means by which it was reached, the inferences that must be drawn from it, the implications of the future it contains — all these may appall and frighten you, as they do me. But there is another judgment too, the one which we must all pass on this great man’s education. As a scientist he was a man not only of genius but of humility too, but, though he did not know it, his education had also made him an intolerably arrogant intelligence. He tolls us that he was not given to reading newspapers or magazines of affairs, He did not know about the financial collapse of 1929 till an allusion in something he chanced to read called it to his attention months later. He was not, he tells us, he was not interested in politics.
I have left my earlier platitudes for you to put into words, but I will spell this one out. It goes without saying, we hope, that you will dedicate yourselves to your chosen way of life, your profession, art, trade, beliefs. But you cannot be permitted such other-worldliness as Dr. Oppenheimer’s. This tragedy is not innocence, it is not naïveté, it is not purity of mind or soul — it is what the founders of this state called the deadly sin of pride, it is intellectual arrogance, it is a paralyzing poison. You are not superior to politics. Politics are your first business; everything else comes afterward. Otherwise you need not even step out on the field.
Thus your senior year dramatized for you one danger to which your admission to the society of educated men exposes you. Throughout your college course, you have watched the serial dramatization of another one. I can identify it by quoting a single sentence from a lecture to the Anti-Subversive Seminar of the American Legion of Massachusetts, delivered by Dr. Bella Dodd, one of the barnstorming professional ex-Communists who tour the circuit of investigating bodies and alarmist groups. Last March she said in Boston, “The only thing we have to fear in this country is the educated man.” One of the consultants of the Jenner Committee it more generally. “People who read a lot,” he said “are a natural set-up for Communism.”
In Texas a text-book cannot be used unless the author, or the publisher on his behalf if he is dead, has filed an affidavit with the Commissioner of Education swearing that he has never been a Communist, a Communist sympathizer, or a member of a subversive group. Alabama has gone farther. There every textbook must carry a sworn and printed statement by the author that he is none of these things and that he cites no book in his text or notes by anyone who is anyone of them. Congressman Velde has gone farther still. He introduced into Congress a bill which would have required the Librarian of Congress to consult with the Attorney General, loyalty boards, state agencies, and private agencies — and a private agency can be anything from three Veterans of Foreign Wars of Norwalk, Connecticut, to the loyalty committee of the state insane asylum — and after consulting with them, to go through the nine million books in his library and label “subversive” every passage which he, with such guidance, finds to be subversive. He would also be required to affix to the cover of every such book a label saying that it contained subversive passages and another label giving the subversive elements of the author’s biography.
Vermont has long been reputed to be the state most obstinate to assert the rights of the individual mind to go its own way as it may see fit to, without let or hindrance. Within the year a woman in the town of Shaftsbury demanded that there be thrown out of the schools one book because it was “by one of the Lattimore gang” and another one because it was “liberal”. In Indiana a woman who is a member of the state textbook commission demanded the proscription of an anthology containing the story of Robin Hood because, as our folksong says Jesse James did, Robin Hood took from the rich and gave to the poor, and this is propaganda for Communism. Also a book with Alfred Noyes’s “Highwayman” in it must go from the Indiana schools, for crime plays into the hands of the Communists, and so must Tom Sawyer, for Tom plays hooky from school and so will make defenseless children take their first step in the life of crime.
I need not list the hundreds of similar incidents during the last few years, the scores of laws .hat have been passed, the dozens of national organizations that try to proscribe books and inquiries and ideas, the hundreds of local groups that work to the same end, the thousands of books actually proscribed. I need not remind you that by now “subversive” book or idea means any book or idea that anyone docs not like, that anyone disagrees with, that disturbs anyone. Or any book written or any idea held by anyone whom anyone cares to call subversive, whether he say so out of ignorance, fear, fanaticism, jealousy, malice, gossip, personal or business rivalry, or .hope of profit or publicity. Whether the person who calls it subversive is a competitor or enemy of the author, a drunk, an idiot or a psychopath. I do not need to remind you that if a book “by one of the Lattimore gang” can be proscribed today, any other book can be tomorrow. If any idea can be penalized today, any other, and most pointedly yours, can be by Tuesday. And if I remind you of the Gathings Committee, it is for the one purpose only. This select committee of the House of Representatives, formed to investigate the threat to our society which consists of paperbound books that sell for twenty-five cents, reported to the House that those who wrote the Constitution erred grievously when they put into the Bill of Rights a guarantee of freedom of publication and of the press. Democracy was in so great a danger in this fearful period, the Committee report said, that it can no longer tolerate that error, and the freedoms of which democracy consists must be abridged so that it can be saved.
I remind you of this because throughout your college years you have seen a progressive erosion of the Bill of Rights: the substitution of ordeal by committee for trial by jury, the official acceptance of occupation as proof of guilt, official denial to an accused person of the right to confront his accusers and cross-examine witnesses and present witnesses in his behalf, the progressive narrowing of the people’s right to be secure in their houses and papers and effects, the widespread revival of multiple jeopardy and the star chamber and lettres de cachet.
This you have seen while preparing yourselves to be admitted to the society of educated men As you enter it, you know that American democracy has no specific content, no body of dogma to which its miscellaneous and variegated citizenry have been committed for a century and three-quarters. Its essence is not dogmas, theorems or doctrines, it is procedures and mechanisms and processes, and political prohibitions and immunities. These are what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights embody, and these are what have preserved us as a free people and have made us a powerful one. And you have seen these being circumscribed and limited and eroded.
There is nothing new in this wave of fear, suspicion, and unreason that you have seen constantly rising higher and spreading farther. It has risen many times in history and has destroyed a number of societies — in my time both royal Italy and imperial Germany, for instance. It has risen, as any historian can tell you, a good many times in our own history. It has not destroyed us because the mechanisms and procedures and immunities and prohibitions which it designs to overthrow have so far stood fast, and they have stood fast because so far the defense has proved strong enough. It has repeatedly risen because in American society, as in all others, there is a paramount reservoir of fear, suspicion, and unreason, which circumstances and crises periodically increase and arm. Fear and suspicion of the society of educated men, and of the traditions and values what that society represents. Fear and suspicion of inquiry, questioning, criticism, appraisal, and doubt. Of independence of mind and non-conformity of opinion. If people who pursue them and books which embody them. Of reason as such and ideas as such, and of the discomfort and dangers to which people who pursue them unquestionably expose everyone.
The power of this angry, resentful, frightened, mole-like portion of our people fluctuates. It is exercised on many levels and in many ways but it is at bottom political power. No one can be certain how large a portion of the American people it consists of. Some estimates run as high as thirty percent of our population, some as low as five percent. Five percent would be enough to make it a balance of power which could be decisive if it were polarized at the right time, in circumstances of sufficient exterior danger or interior division or weakness, and captured by sufficiently strong and ruthless men. But it does not need to hold the balance of power, it needs at any time only sufficient weakness or indifference in the opposition; to make serious inroads on the sanctions and immunities of free men.
I am willing to use the cliché which has become standard, anti-intellectualism, to describe this attack on freedom which originates in fear of freedom. You have seen a wave of it rise toward a crest. It is wise to recognize what you have seen as a species of war; the war that is as old as ignorance and obscurantism and terrorism. Not many have been killed, for this is a form that attacks the mind and not the body. And you have seen the casualties in the form of blasted lives, shattered careers, ruined reputations, the end of hope and the closure of opportunity. The indirect casualties are mere costly: the survival value put on conformity, mediocrity, submissiveness. They affect all levels of the national life: the government and the civil service, and the foreign service, the business and industrial system, the schools and colleges.
There is a striking thing. This is a kind of war in which the forces of darkness cannot win except by default. If they are opposed, then they are ultimately defeated — for it is a kind of war, too, in which containment is victory. We need only fight in order to win. Since it is a war, and that it is war is a platitude which you had better recognize and stand on — since it is, the costs and casualties are unavoidable and may be high. Those who fight in it arc called upon to risk loss, damage, and ruin precisely as those who fight in military wars risk death. The risks are there but the alternative, as in military war, is defeat.
I had better stress the possibility of defeat. Granted sufficient timidity, cravenness, or indifference, we can lose. The habits of democratic association go deep and their forms and mechanisms are strong. But nothing in the organization of the world promises us that they are immortal, or that they will persist of their own will. God takes the American people in safety through the streets to the ball park, but when they step out on the playing field they are on their own. I could point to persuasive evidence which suggests that in the current chapter of this war we have passed the turning point and are on the mend. I am not going to. It is true that whereas fifteen months ago the attack on books seemed everywhere irresistible, we have lost no ground at all in the last twelve months. We have, indeed, won back much if not most of what we had lost. In that year every fight made against proscription has been won. It is an illustration of the principle that the fight needs only to be made in order to be won. Primarily this success rests on the decision of two essentially weak bodies, the American Library Association and the Publishers Council, that henceforth they let no attempt at proscription go unchallenged. They have challenged every one since then and no proscription has succeeded. Clearly, too, the colleges are in a much better position than they were a year ago. The Jenner Committee and the Velde Committee were then preparing an attack on them that seemed incomparably more dangerous than by now it has proved to be. It declined in power and has become almost a nonentity because, irresolutely and piecemeal and one by one at first, but with increasing resolution and cooperation the colleges turned and fought back. It accomplishes nothing to ask why they did not turn and fight a year or two year or five years earlier. The important questions are how much they will get back of what they have lost, and whether they have lost so much that the damage will be permanent.
Extend the questions from the colleges to the nation at large, and it is clear why no one can say that we have passed the turning point. Which is where you come in, for it is obvious that to the passing generation the outcome of the war will matter less and less as time goes on, whereas it will matter more and more to you. No generation ever asked to be precipitated into a war, you did not ask to be enlisted in this one, but the war is here and you are in it. You will win or lose it and, a few years from now, to my generation it will not matter which. You will make the fight or you won’t. All right, son, you take it from here.
Joe McCarthy’s true name is Legion and he has a residence in every town. Which is to say that the people who count are those you will always find immediately at hand. The misguided and the misinformed and the misled and the fanatical and the frightened — these, whom you will meet everywhere, are your first concern They are a greater danger than the clowns and yahoos in Congress, for the powers of the clowns and yahoos derives from them. Half of it does; the other half derives from the supineness of those who should be enlightening them, reasoning with them, opposing them, fighting them.
I trust you have noticed that I have been chary of using the words “free” and “freedom”. There is no reason to avoid them any longer. Freedom begins in the local community, the local group, the corner of High and Main, the bull session. So does the loss of freedom.
Today I deal only in platitudes. I tell you that you must make scenes. You must let nothing go unchallenged, whether it is a companion’s remark that Joe’s heart is in the right place though his methods may be extreme, a hostess’s admiration of the Minute Women of the United States, a selectman’s discovery of Communism in Geoffrey Chaucer, an employer’s question whether you have ever read Lenin, or a candidate’s campaign to replace someone who has dared to raise a voice for individual liberty. This much has been done for you: the means of challenge, opposition, scrutiny, counterattack have been put in your hands. No regressive step, no proposal of proscription, no whittling away must ever go unopposed. It must be opposed at the dinner table, in the bar room, at the cigar store, and from there on up. The structure of freedom rests on those who are immediately at hand.
The honest but misguided citizen of your own home town — he is your first and constant objective. He must be reasoned with, when the need comes he must be opposed, and from there on to whatever extremity if may take. The light must be turned on and kept on. When repressive organizations are formed, they must be organized against. The law is on your side: you must use the law. The hope is that amiability can be preserved, but the edge of social action is always rough and bloody and when ugliness arises you will have to accept it. In fact, what you need fully as much as resolution is anger. When a wave of anger at the demagogues who have set up against one another runs across the United States, the wave of whipped-up fear will abruptly subside, and then the turning-point will indeed have been reached and passed.
No one promises that the war in which you did not ask to be enlisted will be easy. No war is. Indecency, injustice, humiliation, thwarted careers, ruined reputations, blasted lives — you will see a lot of them, they may befall any of you. There is no help for that. Remind a man of my age that he has seen two military wars on a global scale, has indeed been enlisted in both of them though he asked for neither, and he can tell you of the friends, companions, and relatives who did not survive them as he did. The little flags fly over their beautifully landscaped graves now and many people, exalted by the grief and reminiscence which the sight of them inspires, may say what a great and pitiful waste those deaths were, the deaths of hundreds of thousands who counted as much in their own eyes and in God’s as you or I. But the generation which fought the two wars will not tell you they were wasted. God knows it is not much of a world we preserved by means of them, but ask what it would have been if those graves did not exist.
A platitude is a truth which, I have said, beats you over the head until you recognize that it is a truth. So it is time to tell you my wish for you and the one item of advice I have for you. The advice is simple and yet the future of democratic government in the United States and the fate of the inquiring mind depend on how applicable your generation will believe it to be. It is this: when someone tries to shove you around, shove back, as hard as may be necessary. The wish is that your generation need not be beaten over the head too hard or too long to realize that the battle for freedom is unending and that, though the terms of the battle may change from generation to generation, every generation must fight it in whatever terms are presented. That, though the terms are different now from those of thirteen years ago and those of forty years ago, it is the same battle and equally inescapable. That it can be lost, as all battles can be, but that resolution, courage, doggedness, the refusal to be intimidated, the refusal to be stopped, all of which are very simple things, are sure to win in the end. That the price of freedom is whatever may be asked. That freedom is there to be used. That if it is not used it vanishes, but that in order to preserve it you have only to insist on using it. That, for you too, as one of them old fellers said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.