It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at one time.
The worst fault of a highly-intelligent sovereign is to impose tasks on his subjects which are beyond their forces, for his aims go far beyond what they are capable of doing and, when he is in charge of an undertaking, he thinks he can foresee its consequences. His administration is therefore fatal to the people. The Prophet himself has said, 'Pattern your step on that of the weakest among you. Too great an intellect is a burden for the people.'
Americans are the sons of Calvin. John Calvin preached that the pursuit of wealth and the preservation of property is a Christian duty. He taught that the temptations of the flesh demand a discipline as strict as that of the military profession. "He created an ideal type of man theretofore unknown to both religion and society, who was neither a humanist nor an ascetic, but a businessman living in the fear of God." (1)
Two centuries later, this new type of man came under the influence of John Wesley. (2) "We exhort all Christians to amass as much wealth as they can, and to preserve as much as they can; in other words, to enrich themselves." For President Madison, "The American political system was founded on the natural inequality of men." Correlatively, the moral philosophy of the United States is based on success.
At the end of the Eighteenth Century a Frenchman, the Chevalier de Beaujour, wrote on his return from North America, "The American loses no opportunity to acquire wealth. Gain is the subject of all his conversations, and the motive for all his actions. Thus, there is perhaps no civilized nation in the world where there is less generosity in the sentiments, less elevation of soul and of mind, less of those pleasant and glittering illusions that constitute the charm or the consolation of life. Here, everything is weighed, calculated and sacrificed to self-interest."
Another Frenchman, the Baron de Montlezun, added, "In this country, more than any other, esteem is based on wealth. Talent is trampled underfoot. How much is this man worth? they ask. Not much? He is despised. One hundred thousand crowns? The knees flex, the incense burns, and the once-bankrupt merchant is revered like a god."
The British went even farther than the French. "They are escaped convicts. His Majesty is fortunate to be rid of such rabble. Their true God is power." (3)
In an introduction to a series of articles by historian Andrew Sinclair, the Sunday Times wrote in 1967, "In the five centuries since Columbus discovered the New World, savagery has been part of American life. There has been the violence of conquest and resistance, the violence of racial difference, the violence of civil war, the violence of bandits and gangsters, the violence of lynch law, all set against the violence of the wilderness and the city."
The opinion of these Europeans is subject to question, but George Washington, speaking of the future of American civilization, commented that he would not be surprised by any disaster that might occur.
The disasters began as triumphs. The conquest of the West, the rise of the merchants, the industrial revolutions were America's great crusades, and from them were issued her Titans and her gods. Every civilization has its ideal man. an archetype that stands as a model for the average citizen. Athens chose the philosopher and the artist; for the Jews, it was the law-giving prophet; for Rome, the soldier-administrator; for China, the learned Mandarin; for England, the empire builder; for Japan and German, and professional soldier; for India, the ascetic. For the United States, it was the businessman!
While other nations might have chosen wisdom, beauty, saintliness, military glory, bravery or asceticism as their popular divinities, the United States chose the civilization of gain. The true gods and the only Titans of America were Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, Jay Cooke, Andrew Carnegie, Charles T. Yerkes, Solomon Guggenheim and Irenee Du Pont.
Some of these men, like J. Pierpont Morgan, became gay, high-living nabobs. But most, like Henry Ford, were frugal and dreary puritans. All of them, even the most devout, even the most devoted, even the most sincere, had one thing in common: where business was concerned, they were tough. The churches approved of this attitude. In his book Heroes of Progress, the Reverend McClinock wrote:
"May he long enjoy the fruits of his work and promote the reign of Christ on this earth, not only through the Christian use of the vast fortune with which God has favored him, but through the living example of his active and peaceful piety." He was referring to Daniel Drew, who cheated his associates, bribed municipal governments, and took advantage of the credulity of the people.
The first American giants -- Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, McKay, McCoy -- whether they were oilmen, shipowners, prospectors or livestock dealers, made or consolidated their fortunes by smuggling arms and supplies during the Civil War. Today's Titans are often college graduates. Some are affable and well-bred. They constitute an oligarchy of directorial bureaucrats who, while lacking the personal fortunes of the old Titans, have preserved their power and conserved their practices. For them, and it is true, profit is "the remuneration of a decision made in conditions of uncertainty." (4) But this equation has become the basis for a moral philosophy that takes neither the nation nor the individual into account.
"Men who spend every weekday making money, and every Sunday at the Temple, are not made to inspire the muse of Comedy," wrote Alexandre de Tocqueville, and he was correct. The standards of American society have been raised to untouchability. The dollar remains the criterion of worth and success. Money is the only real measure of human beings and things, and American society, while classless, is nothing more than a graph of economic levels. (5) "That which a people honors most becomes the object of its cult," wrote Plato. This is a democratic notion in so far as it offers everyone a chance, or at least appears to, but its rigidity leaves room for all kinds of excesses.
In other times and on other continents, these Titans would have been, if not scorned, at least gauged by their relative worth. But the Titans have become the pride of every American citizen. In no other society is the cult of the successful man so strong, and it is unwise to disregard it. "America has been built by individual effort and a recognition of individual responsibility . . . Government may guide and help its citizens, but it cannot supply talent to those who do not have it, or bestow ambition or creative ability on those who are not born with these qualities." (6)
This morality demands the tolerance or the complicity of those who hold political power: Congress and the President.
Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were accidents along the way, deviates from the American mythology. An American who enters politics for unselfish reasons is regarded with suspicion. His attitude can only conceal a lust for power or a senseless and dangerous devotion to the "public welfare." Politics and the public welfare have little in common, and the activities of a politician are not considered normal or comprehensible unless they are pursued for selfish and material gain. President Jackson was condemned in 1831 by Vincenne's Gazette in these terms: "Ambition is his crime, and it will be his undoing."
Harold Laski has written that "a strong President is a moral threat" to all those who have toiled to build an American society whose prosperity is based on initiative, energy and efficiency, but also on what Europeans call corruption, an additional arm made available to those whose sole motivation is profit. America, wrote George Washington, is a country where political offices bear no proportion to those who seek them.
America accepted Franklin D. Roosevelt only because she had no other alternative. She found herself again in Harry Truman, a solid citizen with no perverse ambitions who declared that "the combined thought and action of a people always lead in the right direction." (7) Eisenhower was the ideal President. A victorious commander, he dazzled the crowds. Inconsistent, he had no dangerous political philosophy. A petty bourgeois, he dared not oppose the Titans.
And suddenly Kennedy appeared, the first President born in this century, a millionaire, a liberal, and an intellectual. The Democratic candidate nevertheless made no attempt to conceal his aims.
"In the decade that lies ahead -- in the challenging revolutionary sixties -- the American Presidency will demand more than ringing manifestoes issued from the rear of the battle. It will demand that the President place himself in the very thick of the fight, that he care passionately about the fate of the people he leads, that he be willing to serve them at the risk of incurring their momentary displeasure."
"We stand today at the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960's -- a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils -a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats." (8)
"Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises -- it is a set of challenges. It sums up, not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their price, not their pocketbook -- it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security . . ." (9)
"The Scriptures tell of a time when there were giants on the earth, and that is what our country needs today. This is not the time for futilities. This is not the time for petty complaints and half-measures. This is the time for men of action, not men of words -- this is the time for giant hearts, not faint hearts . . ." (10)
"We have no time for complacency, timidity, or doubt. This is a time for courage and action." (11)
"The old era has ended. The old ways will not do." (12)
It was all so beautiful, so unreal, that no one believed it. They even admired his inscrutability, his ingenuity in using a metaphor borrowed from American folklore, from the myth of the West, to mask a demagogy that was all the more inoffensive because it seemed credible. Others, more cunning, grew concerned when, in West Virginia, under the low roofs of a forgotten America, the Senator from Massachusetts spoke to the abandoned miners, to the unemployed, to the families vegetating in the hills. America began to ask herself if Kennedy was speaking seriously when he bent towards the little people and the forgotten.
Kennedy's socialism aimed at enriching the poor rather than impoverishing the rich, but it was dangerous nevertheless. For one hundred million Americans, the gravest danger, after bankruptcy, is that those just behind may catch up with them. The nouveaux rich are only rich so long as no one grows richer. The have-nots live in constant fear of the down-and-outs, and the hate and fear of the little Puerto Rican for New York are really no more than the hate and fear of half of New York for the little Puerto Rican.
Millions of Americans have risen from the proletariat to the middle class with insufficient intellectual means. They or their sons want to continue to climb the ladder of society. This new American bourgeoisie, which has risen by its own toil, works less today and lives better, and pays less taxes. It claims to be descended from the Pilgrim Fathers, but its origins go back to the washing machine. The Great Society is essentially sectarian and violent. Its mottoes are "each man for himself," "it's none of their business" and "woe to the vanquished."
Today's American is at the mercy of his anxieties. The United States has grown so wealthy that she has lost touch with the rest of the world. America is neither here nor there, be it a question of power or of weakness. She no longer knows what is happening on this earth. Her universe exists in the third person.
The difference continues to widen between the American radicalism of the Thirties and the radicalism of today, whose ethical basis is possession. True, this basis can be traced far back into the American past, and finds its theme song in the ballads of the Far West, where men killed for a horse or a bottle of beer. But Jeffersonian tradition placed, or restored, human values above real estate values.
Hemingway's Americans saw the Spanish Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of spiritual as opposed to material values: the power of the Church, the domination of the Army, and the wealth of the big landowners. They were in sympathy with the other Spain, although to all appearances it was Red. But today, when a majority of Americans are landowners, what other insurgents scattered throughout the earth still have the sympathy, or at least the comprehension, of a sufficient number of Americans, of the men who nevertheless trace their origins back to the revolutionaries of the Thirteen States of the Union? And let no man be mistaken about the struggle for civil rights. The Negroes too want to become landowners.
America is no longer a young nation. There is New York, of course, superlatively demanding, offering, in the absurd and the sordid, the crude atmosphere of youth and folly of a town in search of its identity. Its culture is centered on the Jew and the Negro. It is a young city, but it is not an American city. It rejects the provincialism, the racism, the folklore, the religion, and the superpatriotism of the ordinary small town, whose preoccupations are diametrically opposed to the policies of any progressive and imaginative government.
Imagination itself has become "un-American." It is accepted, but with fear and distrust, when it embellishes a concrete experience, the story of how a fortune was made or a victory won. But where it exists solely for itself, when it becomes a culture or a dialectic, it is no longer tolerated." Americans are insensitive to philosophical ideas. They need something tangible, something concrete, something that has been acted on the stage. Acted, that is, seen and felt. What is said is not important. We are not impressed by explanations, and verbal play leaves us indifferent. What we want is action." (13)
It was to men without imagination that Kennedy addressed these words:
"Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need -- not as a call to battle, though embattled are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle . . ."
The message got through, but there was something suspicious about the style. Culture is a major threat to modern American society. A society fears its deserters more than its enemies, and in its mind intelligence is too often equated with leftism. Kennedy said, "Our nation cannot allow itself to be economically rich and intellectually poor." And Steinbeck added, "What a joy that literacy is no longer prima facie evidence of treason."
But a portion of American society instinctively understood that Kennedy was declaring war on its own. "High society," like the middle classes, felt only suspicion or dislike for his university professors. The American upper crust tries in so far as possible to preserve itself in a superb state of ignorance. For these people, brilliant men like Theodore C. Sorensen or Adlai E. Stevenson, the kind of men who are too poor to leave big tips and too proud to accept them, are intruders in a society that places no value on pure intellect, or accepts it only when it occurs in one of its sons.
These well-to-do, these profiteers, these weaklings, and these simple people had one thing in common: their fear of everything that Kennedy represented. His principal fault was that he was not like them. He did not share their desires and their complacency, their weaknesses and their intolerance. These citizens of the Twentieth Century had no conception of the responsibilities of a President whose role, in reality, is that of viceroy of the universe.
The United States has never faced the irreparable. She has never even experienced a catastrophe. She has known no Roman domination, no barbarian invasion, no feudal wars, no massive bloodbaths. In consequence, she finds it difficult to accept a dominant leader. On the contrary, she wants a President who is subject to the will of his constituents, and even of his adversaries.
The chances of becoming President of the United States are extremely slight, even for a man in the forefront of public life, and such opportunism is needed that the way is left open for a mediocre but crafty politician who knows how to please. With Eisenhower, the United States was content to spend eight years in an armchair. The intellectual emancipation and the agitation of the new generation succeeded at the beginning of the Sixties in defeating, by a narrow margin, the advocates of a placid administrator of a complacent nation devoted to the welfare of the majority -- in other words, corrupt. It was the strength of his electoral organization that carried Kennedy to victory, with the help, perhaps, of the seasonal favor of an actual minority that suddenly tired of mediocrity or, like a woman, was momentarily seduced.
But, once he was President, Kennedy set out immediately to give the nation a sense of responsibility and of pathos. This was all the more disturbing in that it was abstract, and therefore unfamiliar. How many of the 185 million Americans in 1960 sensed that this man would betray their heritage, the American way of life, the established order?
Often primitive, readily stubborn, and capable of sudden violence, the American character contains dangerous elements with which men like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt have had to contend. If, as Machiavelli wrote, men find it easier to forget the loss of their father than that of their patrimony, then "there is nothing more difficult, more dangerous, than to try to change the order of things."
Back to the topNOTES
Back to main Farewell America menu
Back to JFK literature menu
Back to JFK menu
1. Herbert J. Muller.
2. Founder of the Methodists.
3. Oliver Sharpin, The American Rebels, 1804.
4. Professor B. S. Keirstead.
5. "An American citizen is now worth $200,000" (Dallas Morning News).
6. David Lawrence, US News and World Report, January 18, 1965.
7. Harry Truman, Mister President.
8. In Washington, January 14, 1960.
9. At Los Angeles, July 15, 1960.
10. At Anchorage, September 3, 1960.
11. At Detroit, September 5, 1960.
12. At Seattle, September 6, 1960.
13. Arthur Miller.
Back to main Farewell America menu
Back to JFK literature menu
Back to JFK menu