Acceptance Speech for the Patriot Award

Wriston, Walter B.


One of the interesting things that is happening today is that a cottage industry has sprung up to rewrite the history of the last decade, because the realities of today do not match the revisionists' predictions of yesterday. While such endeavors are not unique in history - indeed they are fairly common - what is novel is that the revisionists are able to communicate their thoughts to millions of people through the massive electronic network which sustains the Information Age. Good news, bad news, truth and lies, all travel at the speed of light to every corner of the world. Years ago the flap over Oliver Stone's movie of JFK would never have attracted the attention it has. Today the world is so flooded with data that it is easy to forget significant events as new images crowd onto the screen. Somehow the massive triumphs of freedom in large parts of the world are repackaged into a message of despair No one in their wildest dreams would have predicted the events of the last five years. The destruction of the Berlin Wall, the revolutions of Eastern Europe, and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire itself came with a swiftness that was almost totally unanticipated. Yet despite all this, to hear the talking heads on TV, we are revisiting Jimmy Carter's diagnosis of an American malaise. And this at the very time when the ideas that have shaped America are in ascendance around the world. According to some, the power of our ideals rested not on their intrinsic value but on military power. Henry Nau put it this way: "The liberal view, which identifies freedom and markets with the dominance of U.S. power immediately after World War II, predicts the decline of liberal values and markets as the dominant power of the United States recedes. Yet just the opposite is happening in the world today. Political and economic liberalism are on the rise throughout the world community. The rush to freedom and competitive economic institutions in Eastern Europe in late 1989 left the world breathless and caught much of the intellectual community in the United States and the West, which only recently celebrated the decline of American and Western influence, without an adequate explanation for this dramatic turn of events."[1] 

It is always hard to perceive massive change in the world while we are living through it. We live day to day and perspective is hard to come by. Indeed, most ages do not even have a name, until years later historians identify the main trend of an era and tell us a certain period should be called the Middle Ages, the Iron Age, the Renaissance, or some other retroactive designation. Today the case can be made that we do not have to wait for some future historian to name the age in which we are living: it is the Information Age. This does not mean simply that computers are faster, or TV's sharper or data banks more useful - it means a change in the way we live, the way we work, and indeed how the world works. The huge difference between today and yesterday which is driven by the Information Revolution can perhaps be illustrated as follows: On January 8, 1815, Andrew Jackson fought and won the battle of New Orleans. Thousands of men died in that engagement, but what made their deaths especially poignant was that the fighting took place almost three weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was signed ending that war. News of the signing of the Treaty was brought by a sailing ship, which reached this side of the Atlantic too late to stop the battle. Things did not move much faster on land. Indeed, as Paul Valery reminds us, Napoleon could move his army no more rapidly than could Julius Caesar. In today's world it is hard to remember that it was not until 1901 that Marconi succeeded in spanning the Atlantic by radio, and it was 1926 before the first transatlantic telephone conversation took place Contrast this, if you will, with the millions of people all over the world watching the missile battles of Desert Storm in real time. The magnitude of this change cannot be overestimated. It is a well-established principle that a change of degree - if carried far enough - may eventually become a difference in kind. In biology, that is how new species are created and old ones die out. It can be argued that the speed of communication, when it reaches sufficient velocity, changes the very nature of the way the world works. While the critics of Desert Storm were still on the talk shows explaining that hundreds of thousands of Americans would die and the United States would be mired in a new Vietnam, the war was over. Nothing like that has ever happened in the world before. The carefully crafted diplomatic notes delivered by ambassadors have largely given way to direct telephone talks between heads of state.

The global electronic network that carried that war live into our living rooms resonates today with doom and gloom. Those whose ideas have been tried in the global marketplace and found wanting are fighting a rear guard action to rewrite history and spread gloom at the very time of freedom's triumph. More of this kind of pseudo analysis originates in America than from overseas. Indeed, it is an anomaly of history that the CNN television pictures that showed the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the revolutionary crowds of Eastern Europe were relayed to the people of these countries by a Russian satellite. The importance of these TV pictures on the way the world works can hardly be overestimated. By way of contrast, in July 1863, not far from here on Third Avenue hundreds were killed in the Civil War draft riots, but only the readers of the local newspapers were aware of the problem. There was no national news coverage and most of the nation never learned of this event Today, the eye of the camera is everywhere. The first protesters in Prague in 1988 knew what they were about when they chanted at the riot police: "The world sees you". And indeed it did. Imagine the effect on our country if all of our citizens had been able to hear General Washington's General Order of July 2, 1776. He said: "Let us therefore animate and encourage each other and show the whole world that a Freeman contending for liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth." But everyone heard the chanters in Prague. And all of Eastern Europe took heart that these people no longer had to live a lie - always having to say one thing for the authorities, but thinking something else privately. In his New Year's address in 1990 President Havel said: "All of us have become accustomed to the totalitarian system, accepted it as an inalterable fact and therefore kept it running...None of us is merely a victim of it, because all of us helped to create it together." But with the world watching, they took courage from each other. Timothy Garton Ash who was there wrote about the importance of breaking out of living a lie. "Everything that had to do with the word, with the press, with television, was of the first importance to these crowds. The semantic occupation was as offensive to them as military occupation; cleaning up the linguistic environment as vital as cleaning up the physical environment."[2]  Those of us lucky enough to live in this country have difficulty even understanding what it must do to the spirit to live a lie every day.

The triumph of freedom is never easy, or smooth, as Tiananmen Square proved, but it was ever thus. In the elegant phrase of Thomas Jefferson " We do not expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather bed." Here in America we had three governments in our first 15 years of existence: the first a crisis management arrangement dictated by necessity, the second two years in formation and lasting 8 years, and the third the Administration of George Washington. When Washington took over there was no precedent to guide him and some disputed the wisdom of the new Constitution Two states failed to ratify the Constitution, and others attached conditions to their approval. Washington struggled to hold a divided people together and was vilified in ways that make today's political attack commercials look like softball. Even after eight years of constitutional government, Washington in his farewell address prefaced many ideas with the ominous phrase, "if we remain one nation". It was a legitimate fear, as the Civil War later proved. As we watch the demise of communism in one country after another, and the struggles to create new governments, new economies and new leaders, we do well to be patient, remembering our own struggles.

Somehow in the electronic echo chamber the facts about what happened in the 1980s are getting lost perhaps because those whose ideas have been rejected largely control the microphones. Many who took the view that America's military buildup would dangerously escalate tension with the Soviets, or that the deployment of Pershing cruise missiles in Europe would halt any attempt at disarmament, have now come forward to say that although these things which they predicted didn't happen, it was because the Soviets were on a downhill slide anyway. The fact that these policies which they opposed worked, get overlooked. On the economic front, we have similar collective amnesia The recession through which we are now passing, is blamed not on current policies, or the inevitability of the business cycle, but is, we are told, a payment for past excesses in the 1980's. The fact that American productivity is the highest in the world - higher than Japan's - gets lost on those who want to reintroduce failed policies. Economic growth is now recognized by huge parts of the world although rarely by American TV pundits, as the only way to improve the standard of living. Forgotten, is the fact that during the Reagan years real economic growth averaged 4%, the top personal tax rate went from 90 percent to 28 percent, from 1985 on government spending as a fraction of GNP fell and so did the deficit. Indeed, during these years some 20 million new jobs were created - far more than in Europe and Japan combined. Corporate profits almost doubled, there was a tripling of manufacturing productivity, and interest rates were cut in half, while inflation steadily declined, and real family income rose. All of these facts are plain on the record, but since they flew in the face of conventional wisdom, we are now told all this was an excess, for which we must now pay. Forgotten is President Kennedy's admonition that a rising tide lifts all boats.

It is a fascinating phenomenon that when all the world is moving toward political liberty and free markets, these twin policies are being attacked at home. Part of the reason is that old ideas die hard and the bureaucracy never dies. George Shultz once told me that in every cabinet job he held, and he had four, the first day on the job the senior bureaucrat would open his bottom drawer where he kept all the old ideas that had been rejected by the last secretary and trotted them out to the new secretary in the hope they would be approved. Some of these well-intentioned civil servants have not recognized the huge changes, wrought by the information revolution. Peter Drucker, in describing the revolution now in progress, has written: "We passed out of creeds, commitments, and alignments that had shaped politics for a century or two. We are in political terra incognita with few familiar landmarks to guide us. No one except a mere handful of Stalinists believes any more in salvation by society - the faith which since the eighteenth century's Enlightenment had been the dominant force and main engine of politics".[3]  All of this means that new institutions will have to be built, new paradigms constructed, and new ways of solving problems invented.

Ronald Reagan's powerful speech on May 31, 1988, delivered at Moscow State University, unlike Washington's General Order, was literally heard around the world, He spoke of the power of freedom in a land that had seen little of it; he spoke of economic freedom to release the innovations of entrepreneurs; he spoke of the information revolution "quietly sweeping the globe, without bloodshed or conflict." Few realized at the time how this message was working on the hearts and minds of the people. The current massive shift in the world toward freedom is good news for America, not bad news. Americans have always been inventors, innovators and thus better able to handle rapid change than anyone. America's small businesses were always nimble, they had to be to survive. Today one huge corporation after another is streamlining its management structure, destroying its bureaucracy, and learning to turn on a dime. As a nation we move into tomorrow with a huge advantage - we are accustomed to and welcome change. We understand that freedom is the great liberating force, and with all our problems - and we have very real ones - our system is becoming the model for the world.

The triumph of freedom and the demise of communism is occurring before our eyes. President Kennedy never got to deliver a speech in Dallas the day he was assassinated, but the text of his remarks are as follows: "We in this country, in this generation, are - by destiny rather than choice - the watchmen on the walls of world freedom". What the watchmen have witnessed is almost unprecedented in history. In the last few years, the virus of freedom - a virus for which there is no antidote - has been carried over and through the borders which divide us by the global electronic network. As the news spreads, the people of one country after another choose freedom.,as did Washington so many years ago. Everyone who lives and works in free markets, political and economic, knows the way ahead will not be easy, that many problems remain unsolved, but I would argue that in the long history of man, this has to be a time of great hope and opportunity.


[1] Henry R Nau. The Myth of America s Decline, Oxford Univ. Press, 1990, p.1

[2] Timothy Garton Ash. The Magic Lantern. Random House, 1990, p. 138

[3] Peter Drucker. The New Realities, p. 4

  • The document was created from the speech, "Acceptance Speech for the Patriot Award," written by Walter B. Wriston for the Sons of the Revolution Patriot Award Dinner on 21 February 1992. The original speech is located in MS134.001.010.00006.
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