TO CRITICIZE one's country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing. "This," said Albert Camus in one of his Letters to a German Friend, is "what separated us from you; we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of your nation and we dreamed of giving ours her truth...
In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not its taste but its effects, not how it makes people feel at the moment, but how it inspires them to act thereafter. Criticism may embarrass the country's leaders in the short run but strengthen their hand in the long run; it may destroy a consensus on policy while expressing a consensus of values. Woodrow Wilson once said that there was "such a thing as being too proud to fight;" there is also, or ought to be, such a thing as being too confident to conform, too strong to be silent in the face of apparent error. Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.
What is the finest image of America? To me it is the image of a composite, or better still a synthesis, of diverse peoples and cultures, come together in harmony but not identity, in an open, receptive, generous, and creative society.
We are an extraordinary nation, endowed with a rich and productive land and a talented and energetic population. Surely a nation so favored is capable of extraordinary achievement, not only in the area of producing and enjoying great wealth--where our achievements have indeed been extraordinary--but also in the area of human and international relations--in which area, it seems to me, our achievements have fallen short of our capacity and promise.
The question that I find intriguing--although I have no answer to it--is whether a nation so extraordinarily endowed as the United States can overcome that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past.
The causes of the malady are a mystery but its recurrence is one of the uniformities of history: Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations--to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and it also tends to take itself for omnipotence.
Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work. The Lord, after all, surely would not choose you as His agent and then deny you the sword with which to work His will.
My question is whether America can overcome the fatal arrogance of power. My hope and my belief are that it can, that it has the human resources to accomplish what few if any great nations have ever accomplished before: to be confident but also tolerant, and rich but also generous, to be willing to teach but also willing to learn, to be powerful but also wise. I believe that America is capable of all of these things; I also believe it is falling short of them. Gradually but unmistakably we are succumbing to the arrogance of power. In so doing we are not living up to our capacity and promise; the measure of our falling short is the measure of the patriot's duty of dissent.
The discharge of that most important duty is handicapped in America by an unworthy tendency to fear serious criticism of our government. In the abstract we celebrate freedom of opinion as a vital part of our patriotic liturgy. It is only when some Americans exercise the right that other Americans are shocked. No one of course ever criticizes the right of dissent; it is always this particular instance of it or its exercise under these particular circumstances or at this particular time that throws people into a blue funk. I am reminded of Samuel Butler's observation that "People in general are equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practiced."
Intolerance of dissent is a well noted feature of the American national character. Louis Hartz attributes it to the heritage of a society which was "born free," a society which is unnerved by deep dissent because it has experienced so little of it. Alexis de Tocqueville took note of this tendency over a hundred years ago. "I know of no country," he wrote, "in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. Profound changes have occurred since democracy in America first appeared and yet it may be asked whether recognition of the right of dissent has
gained substantially in practice as well as in theory." The malady in Tocqueville's view was one of democracy itself: "... The smallest reproach irritates its sensibility and the slightest joke that has any foundation in truth renders it indignant; from the forms of its language up to the solid virtues of its character, everything must be made the subject of encomium. No writer, whatever be his eminence, can escape paying this tribute of adulation to his fellow citizens."
A few months ago I met an American poet, Ned O'Gorman, who had just returned from a visit to Latin America sponsored by the State Department. He said, and previously had written, that he was instructed by American embassy officials in the countries he visited that if he were questioned by students and intellectuals with whom he was scheduled to meet on such "difficult" questions as the Dominican Republic and Vietnam he was to reply that he was "unprepared."
Poets, as we all know, are ungovernable people and Mr. O'Gorman proved no exception. He finally rebelled at a meeting with some Brazilian students with the following result as he described it: "... the questions came, swirling, battering, bellowing from the classroom. Outside the traffic and the oily electric heat. But I loved it. I was hell bent for clarity. I knew they wanted straight answers and I gave them. I had been gorged to sickness with embassy prudence. The applause was long and loud. The embassy man [was] furious. 'You are taking money dishonestly,' he told me. 'If the government pays you to do this tour you must defend it and not damn it.' It did no good when I explained to him that if I didn't do what I was doing, then I'd be taking the money dishonestly..."
A high degree of loyalty to the President's policy is a requirement of good order within the Department of State but it escapes me totally why American diplomats should not be proud to have American poets and professors and politicians demonstrate their country's political and intellectual health by expressing themselves with freedom and candor. As O'Gorman put it, "... I spoke with equal force of the glory and the tragedy of America. And that is what terrified the Americans."
We must learn to treat our freedom as a source of strength, as an asset to be shown to the world with confidence and pride. No one challenges the value and importance of national consensus, but consensus can be understood in two ways. If it is interpreted to mean unquestioning support of existing policies, its effects can only be pernicious and undemocratic, serving to suppress differences rather than to reconcile them. If, on the other hand, consensus is understood to mean a general agreement on goals and values but not necessarily on the best means of realizing them, then and only then does it become a lasting basis of national strength. It is consensus in this sense which has made America strong in the past. Indeed, much of our national success in combining change with continuity can be attributed to the vigorous competition of men and ideas within a context of shared values and generally accepted institutions. It is only through this kind of vigorous competition of ideas that a consensus of values can sometimes be translated into a true consensus of policy.
Freedom of thought and discussion gives a democracy two concrete advantages over a dictatorship in the making of foreign policy: It diminishes the danger of an irretrievable mistake and it introduces ideas and opportunities that otherwise would not come to light.
The correction of errors in a nation's foreign policy is greatly assisted by the timely raising of voices of criticism within the nation. When the British launched their disastrous attack on Egypt, the Labor Party raised a collective voice of indignation while the military operation was still under way; refusing to be deterred by calls for national unity in a crisis, Labor began the long, painful process of recovering Great Britain's good name at the very moment when the damage was still being done.
Similarly, the French intellectuals who protested France's colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria not only upheld the values of French democracy but helped pave the way for the enlightened policies of the Fifth Republic which have made France the most respected Western nation in the underdeveloped world. It was in the hope of performing a similar service for America on a very modest scale that I criticized American intervention in the Dominican Republic in a speech in the Senate last year.
The second great advantage of free discussion to democratic policymakers is its bringing to light of new ideas and the supplanting of old myths with new realities. We Americans are much in need of this benefit because we are severely, if not uniquely, afflicted with a habit of policymaking by analogy: North Vietnam's involvement in South Vietnam, for example, is equated with Hitler's invasion of Poland and a parley with the Vietcong would represent another Munich. The treatment of slight and superficial resemblances as if they were full-blooded analogies, as instances, as it were, of history "repeating itself," is a substitute for thinking and a misuse of history. The value of history is not what it seems to prohibit or prescribe but its general indications as to the kinds of policies that are likely to succeed and the kinds that are likely to fail, or, as one historian has suggested, its hints as to what is likely not to happen.
Mark Twain offers guidance on the uses of history. "We should be careful," he wrote, "to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it--and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again--and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."
There is a kind of voodoo about American foreign policy. Certain drums have to be beaten regularly to ward off evil spirits--for example, the maledictions which are regularly uttered against North Vietnamese aggression, the "wild men" in Peking, Communism in general, and President de Gaulle. Certain pledges must be repeated every day lest the whole free world go to rack and ruin--for example, we will never go back on a commitment no matter how unwise; we regard this alliance or that as absolutely "vital" to the free world; and of course we will stand stalwart in Berlin from now until Judgment Day. Certain words must never be uttered except in derision--the word "appeasement," for example, comes as near as any word can to summarizing everything that is regarded by American policymakers as stupid, wicked, and disastrous.
I do not suggest that we should heap praise on the Chinese Communists, dismantle NATO, abandon Berlin, and seize every opportunity that comes along to appease our enemies. I do suggest the desirability of an atmosphere in which unorthodox ideas would arouse interest rather than horror, reflection rather than emotion. As likely as not, new proposals, carefully examined, would be found wanting and old policies judged sound; what is wanted is not change itself but the capacity for change. Consider the idea of "appeasement:" in a free and healthy political atmosphere it would elicit neither horror nor enthusiasm but only interest in what precisely its proponent had in mind. As Winston Churchill once said: "Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to circumstances ... Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace."
In addition to its usefulness for redeeming error and introducing new ideas, free and open criticism has a third, more abstract but no less important function in a democracy. It is therapy and catharsis for those who are troubled or dismayed by something their country is doing; it helps to reassert traditional values, to clear the air when it is full of tension and mistrust. There are times in public life as in private life when one must protest, not solely or even primarily because one's protest will be politic or materially productive, but because one's sense of decency is offended, because one is fed up with political craft and public images, or simply because something goes against the grain. The catharsis thus provided may indeed be the most valuable of freedom's uses.
While not unprecedented, protests against a war in the middle of the war are a rare experience for Americans. I see it as a mark of strength and maturity that an articulate minority have raised their voices against the Vietnamese war and that the majority of Americans are enduring this dissent, not without anxiety, to be sure, but with better grace and understanding than would have been the case in any other war of the twentieth century.
It is by no means certain that the relatively healthy atmosphere in which the debate is now taking place will not give way to a new era of McCarthysm. The longer the Vietnamese war goes on without prospect of victory or negotiated peace, the war fever will rise; hopes will give way to fears and tolerance and freedom of discussion will give way to a false and strident patriotism.
Past experience provides little basis for confidence that reason can prevail in an atmosphere of mounting war fever. In a contest between a hawk and a dove the hawk has a great advantage, not because it is a better bird but because it is a bigger bird with lethal talons and a highly developed will to use them. Without illusions as to the prospect of success we must try nonetheless to bring reason and restraint into the emotionally charged atmosphere in which the Vietnamese war is now being discussed. Instead of trading epithets about the legitimacy of debate and about who is and is not giving "aid and comfort" to the enemy, we would do well to focus calmly and deliberately on the issue itself, recognizing that all of us make mistakes and that mistakes can only be corrected if they are acknowledged and discussed, and recognizing further that war is not its own justification, that it can and must be discussed unless we are prepared to sacrifice our traditional democratic processes to a false image of national unanimity.
In fact the protesters against the Vietnamese war are in good historical company. On January 12, 1848, Abraham Lincoln rose in the United States House of Representatives and made a speech about the Mexican War worthy of Senator Morse. Lincoln's speech was an explanation of a vote he had recently cast in support of a resolution declaring that the war had been unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by President Polk. "I admit," he said, "that such a vote should not be given, in mere party wantonness, and that the one given, is justly censurable, if it have no other, or better foundation. I am one of those who joined in that vote; and I did so under my best impression of the truth of the case."
That is exactly what the students and professors and politicians who oppose the Vietnamese war have been doing: They have been acting on their "best impression of the truth of the case." Some of our super-patriots assume that any war the United States fights is a just war, if not indeed a holy crusade, but history does not sustain their view. No reputable historian would deny that the United States has fought some wars which were unjust, unnecessary or both--I would suggest the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War as examples. In an historical frame of reference it seems to me logical and proper to question the wisdom of our present military involvement in Asia.
The wisdom and productivity of the protest movement of students, professors, clergy, and others may well be questioned, but their courage, decency, and patriotism cannot be doubted. At the very least the student protest movement of the Sixties is a moral and intellectual improvement on the panty raids of the Fifties. In fact it is a great deal more: It is an expression of the national conscience and a manifestation of traditional American idealism.
Protesters against the Vietnamese war have been held up to scorn on the ground that they wish to "select their wars," by which it is apparently meant that it is hypocritical to object to this particular war while not objecting to war in general. I fail to understand what is reprehensible about trying to make moral distinctions between one war and another, between, for example, resistance to Hitler and intervention in Vietnam. From the time of Grotius to the drafting of the United Nations Charter international lawyers have tried to distinguish between "just wars" and "unjust wars." It is a difficult problem of law and an even more difficult problem of morality, but it is certainly a valid problem and, far from warranting contempt, those who try to solve it deserve our sympathy and respect.
There can be no solution to a problem until it is first acknowledged that there is a problem. When Mr. Moyers reported with respect to the Vietnam protests the President's "surprise that any one citizen would feel toward his country in a way that is not consistent with the national interest," he was deflying the existence of a problem as to where in fact the national interest lies. The answer, one must concede, is elusive, but there is indeed a question and it is a sign of the good health of this nation that the question is being widely and clearly posed.
With due respect for the honesty and patriotism of the student demonstrations, I would offer a word of caution to the young people who have organized and participated in them. As most politicians discover sooner or later, the most dramatic expression of grievances is not necessarily the most effective. That would seem to be especially true in the United States, a country which, as I have pointed out, is easily and excessively alarmed by expressions of dissent. We are, for better or worse, an essentially conservative society; in such a society soft words are likely to carry more weight than harsh words and the most effective dissent is dissent that is expressed in an orderly, which is to say, a conservative, manner.
For these reasons direct action such as the burning of draft cards probably does more to retard than to advance the views of those who take such action. The burning of a draft card is a symbolic act, really a form of expression rather than of action, and it is stupid and vindictive to punish it as a crime. But it is also a very unwise act, unwise because it is shocking rather than persuasive to most Americans and because it exposes the individual to personal risk without political reward.
The student, like the politician, must consider not only how to say what he means but also how to say it persuasively. The answer, I think, is that to speak persuasively one must speak in the idiom of the society in which one lives. The form of protest that might be rewarding in Paris or Rome, to say nothing of Saigon or Santo Domingo, would be absolutely disastrous in Washington. Frustrating though it may be to some Americans, it is nonetheless a fact that in America the messages that get through are those that are sent through channels, through the slow, cumbersome institutional channels devised by the founding fathers in 1787.
The good order and democracy of our society therefore depend on the keeping open of these channels. As long as every tendency of opinion among our people can get a full and respectful hearing from the elected representatives o the people, the teach-ins and the draft card burnings and the demonstrations are unlikely to become the principal forms of dissent in America. It is only when the Congress fails to challenge the executive, when the opposition fails to oppose, when politicians join in a spurious consensus behind controversial policies, that the campuses and streets and public squares of America are likely to become the forums of a direct and disorderly democracy.
In conclusion, I reiterate the theme on which I opened: that, as a nation extraordinarily endowed with human and material resources, as a nation which is a synthesis of many nations, America has the possibility of escaping that fatal arrogance which so often in the past has been the legacy of great power; that it has the possibility, instead of seeking to remake the world in its own image, of helping to bring about some reconciliation, perhaps even some synthesis, of the rival ideologies of our time.
None of us--student, professor, politician, or private citizen--can advance this aim by uncritical support of the policies of the moment. All of us have the responsibility to act upon a higher patriotism, which is to love our country less for what it is than for what we would like it to be.
J. W. FULBRIGHT, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently delivered the Christian A. Herter Lectures at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. This article is adapted from the first of the lectures.