Not Every Battle is Armageddon: An Address

Wriston, Walter B.


Each of the various cultures of the world has something to teach us, and today I would like to borrow from part of the philosophy of Buddha and project it against our current environment. Buddha said, in effect, "Don't just do something, stand there." This reversal of the usual American advice has a certain relevancy for each of us today.

You and I are flooded with data on radio, television and in the newspapers, which, if taken at face value, would leave the human race no alternative but mass self-destruction. The communicators of the world pound home the message day after day that every problem has become critical. Every battle is Armageddon, and every crisis may be mankind's last best chance to survive.

Without in any way downgrading the problems of our time, I would like to suggest to you today that the people who tell you the world is about to stop and repeat it constantly are guilty of a kind of intellectual overkill. These proponents have either never read any history, or, if they have, failed to understand it. Recently, for example, a national columnist who writes for the , Tom Wicker, made a judgment about our country when the Senate passed the Stennis Amendment -- which in the end came to nothing. Mr. Wicker was moved to this grave assessment: "Poor old Union! Its great and generous dreams falling one by one to dusty death." He is a modern reincarnation of a British historian who studied our Constitution at the time of its birth, and solemnly opined that it was all sail and no anchor, and the ship of state would flounder.

Mr. Wicker's dark pessimism was reflected by another honored member of the journalistic profession, NBC's Chet Huntley, who in a recent speech in New York said: "I can find no record of a time when we in journalism were so assailed and ridiculed. Journalists were never intended to be the cheerleaders of a society, the conductors of applause, the sycophants. Tragically, that is their assigned role in authoritarian societies, but not here -- not yet." If Mr. Huntley could find no record of such a time, it was only because he did not look, as such times abound in history.

It seems to me that these gentlemen, and many like them, who say that Armageddon is here and that the world will stop tomorrow, completely miss the main message of American life today. The real news in American society is not that our problems are complex and have multiplied, but rather that our sensitivity to these problems is greater now than at any time in the long history of man. This is enormous progress in your life and mine, for every problem solver knows that quantifying the problem, and recognizing it for what it is, is often half the battle. One grows weary of strident voices whose owners' ignorance of the past is matched only by the extravagance of their language. Our generation, like each one before it, has made mistakes, but at least we are facing the major problems of our time with candor and energy. Our record is not that bad. Recently a historian at the University of Montana, Mr. K. Ross Toole, said that he was "tired of the tyranny of spoiled brats" and wrote: "My generation has made America the most affluent country on earth. It has tackled, head-on, a racial problem which no nation on earth in the history of mankind had dared to do. It has publicly declared war on poverty and it has gone to the moon; it has desegregated schools and abolished polio; it has presided over the beginning of what is probably the greatest social and economic revolution in man's history. It has begun these things, not finished them. It has declared itself, and committed itself, and taxed itself, and damn near run itself into the ground in the cause of social justice and reform." This is not a message of despair, but of hope and achievement. It is a record of sensitivity to our environment of a magnitude never before achieved.

The Bible, for example, tells us that "the poor are always with us," and they have always been with us. The fact that our generation does not accept this as a God-given state of affairs, but rather is putting its energy and its skill and its imagination to work to reverse this ancient state, is good news, not bad. That we Americans have not achieved in a few years what the world has been unable to do in 2,000 years is not a valid cause for despair. That we are talking about it here today is a cause for optimism. Your bank, and mine, is sensitive to its environment, and the need for us all to do something to improve its quality. Our banks are anchored in our communities -- we can't -- and don't want to -- move out of town the way a factory can. We have been and will continue to be involved in the life of our communities and now have a deeper interest in the condition of our environment. This state of affairs is both a circumstance and subject which would not even have been thought of twenty years ago. The fact that we have all become acutely aware of our mistreatment of our environment is not a cause for despair, but rather, in any kind of perspective, a source of encouragement. We have now defined the problem, which up until now has been largely undetected. We overlooked it because it was growing at such a rate that only yesterday no crisis was foreseen. Half the people in our nation have been born since the end of World War II. It is perfectly plain that twice the number of people living on the same land mass would cause a pollution problem even if we had been much more skillful than we have been. After all, what did Adam and Eve do with the apple core? Pollution is caused by people and it starts with the throwing of a beer can out the window of a student's car while he is on the way to picket an automobile company's annual meeting.

Before the poor old Union goes down to dusty death, it would be useful to remember that the economy of the Greek civilization, which many of our friends admire so much, was in fact built upon human slavery. It might be instructive to recall that George Washington was a slave owner, and that in those days, most people of his time who suffered a long and costly war for liberty, did not make the distinction between owning slaves and supporting the Declaration of Independence -- that great document, you recall, was silent on this subject. In this day of concern about voter registration, literacy tests and giving the ballot to the eighteen-year-old citizen, we overlooked the fact that the principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, believed that only a man who held real property should be entitled to the vote. Far from going down to dusty death, the American dream has sharpened its focus in the last decade, but the clamor for instant solutions to ancient problems obscures the enormous progress that we have made.

Our own industry is illustrative of this problem. There are some members in Congress who would have the world believe that bankers are somewhat less than honorable men. One of them said that bankers are "motivated by raw greed ...predators ...unconscionable," and compared us to the Mafia. The miracle of modern communication spreads this falsehood far and wide, while more moderate, objective voices are lost in the electronic wind.

No one knows better than you gentlemen that money and banking is a complicated business, and that it gets more so every day. The simplistic approach of extremists gains currency only when the value of our money is eroded as fast as it has been over the last five years. Peter Drucker put this fact into perspective when he wrote, "Every time we have had an inflation in history, it has bred community paranoia and the search for a conspiracy, and for the wicked interests that take it out of my pocket."

He went on to point out that "every banker I know understands what his role is. And most of them probably do it better than most of the rest of us carry out our assignments, because, despite regulation, banking is probably the most competitive industry in the world."

This propensity of Americans to overstate and overkill is not new. The only difference today is that the technical scope and reach of our communications are much wider than ever before in history. One man saying everything is wrong can command coast-to-coast attention in living color, a power not given to an absolute monarch a few years ago.

One of the great optimists of America was Walt Whitman who usually sang of the joys and promises of America. In 1870, however, he wrote that "Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present. Genuine belief seems to have left us... We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout ...The depravity of the business classes of the country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America ... are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration." These views published in a pamphlet attracted limited attention in those days. Despite Whitman's name and fame, only a tiny fraction of the population was even aware of his momentary despair.

One reason for the deep pessimism of our generation's communicators is that somehow they got it into their minds that prior to the 1960's America was largely a happy and serene country. They brush under the rug the violent upsets of the 1919-1920 years when wholesale violations of our civil liberties were carried out. These freedoms must be won by every generation. They apparently forget the Whiskey Rebellion when the Appalachian farmers protested against debt and tax collection. They overlooked the urban riots between newly arrived immigrants and so-called native Americans which took place in the mid 1800's. Somehow the racial and labor disturbances throughout the late 1930's have faded in their memories, if indeed they ever knew about them.

It would be interesting to speculate about what some of the noisy undertakers of American democracy would say if they took the time to read anything about our country's history and stumbled across the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and '18. These two bills provided a $10,000 fine and a twenty-year prison sentence for such felonies as interfering with the draft, encouraging disloyalty, obstructing the sale of United States Treasury Bonds or "using disloyal or abusive language" about the Government, the Constitution, the flag or the uniform. Some 2,700 people were convicted, including a man who ran for President of the United States and polled more than one million votes. Quite naturally these statutes were tested in the courts, and their constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court.

During the height of the so-called red scare in 1919, a duly constituted jury in Hammond, Indiana, took less than five minutes to acquit an assassin of an alien who yelled "to hell with the United States." Early the following year a salesman in a clothing store in Connecticut was sentenced to six months in jail for having remarked to a customer that Lenin was one of the brainiest of the world's political leaders.

When the Attorney General made a public statement that the work of private espionage and vigilante groups was unnecessary and unwanted, the complained that the Attorney General "has perhaps been a little hasty in telling the patriotic and defensive societies that their help in guarding the Republic is neither needed nor welcomed."

With respect to all concerned, this is a long, long way from the trial of the Chicago 7.

An imperfect past does not excuse an imperfect present, but a knowledge of past realities and past mistakes is critical if we are to avoid the same mistakes twice.

Recently Saul Bellow, the novelist, made this point when he wrote, "Maybe civilization is coming to an end, but it still exists, and meanwhile we have our choice: We can either rain more blows on it, or try to redeem it." It is my view that we Americans are trying with some success to redeem it. We have not solved all of our problems, but we have faced them squarely. We sometimes are assaulted so much by our failures that we overlook the progress which has been made. We hear too much of what John Gardner has called "the currently fashionable mixture of passion and incompetence." Against that background, I would ask that we consider the advice of an eminent American historian who, from the vantage point of eighty years, wrote about the American scene: "It is unwise to call every battle Armageddon. Extravagance in the interpretation of current events destroys perspective and contributes nothing to poise and stability. It plays into the hands of the extremists at both ends of the political spectrum."

Perhaps, from time to time, it would be useful to restore our perspective and to rejoice about our sensitivity to human problems, which is, in fact, unmatched in the history of this or any other country.

Nothing which is good comes easily, so it is impossible to leave you with a pat formula for solving the world's problems. But I would like to leave you with the reminder that there is an inscription on the wall of one of the Congressional hearing rooms in Washington. It says, "Due to the shortage of experienced trumpet players, doomsday will be postponed for three weeks."

Thank you very much -- I have enjoyed being with you.

  • The document was created from the speech, "Not Every Battle is Armageddon: An Address," written by Walter B. Wriston for the Texas Bankers Association, Annual Convention on 5 May 1970. The original speech is located in MS134.001.002.00009.
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