Annual Business Leadership Lecture
The University of Michigan Graduate School of Business
February 20, 1970
Joseph C. Wilson
I am deeply honored by this award, honored to receive favor from so distinguished a university, and honored as well to be numbered among the men who have been here before.
Thoreau once said, “It takes two to speak the truth--one to speak and another to hear.” And to that end it is not as a businessman that I wish to speak to you this evening. I would like to talk to you instead as a man whose primary credential is citizenship, like yours, and who looks at the coming decade of the 1970s with apprehension, even alarm.
Whatever else we may expect of the 1970s, they will not be years in which men will be able to stand outside their times. They will not be years in which public duty can be sacrificed for private gain. We have already learned in this past decade that there are no American enclaves in which men and women can stand aloof from the headlong course of our republic. For most surely now “no man is an island,” as John Donne put it. So if I reach this evening toward matters beyond the day-to-day concerns of business, I do so because I feel strongly that the turn of this decade should be occasion for deep introspection--occasion for all of us to reflect upon some very unsettling years.
To place the past ten years into the larger framework of our history, one turns almost instinctively, I think, to the guidance of de Tocqueville, in whose writing can always be found a prophetic view of the American experience:
What sustains them [he wrote of us to a friend in Paris] is their extraordinary capacity to overcome basic divisions among themselves in order to act in concert against hostile conditions that may afflict all. . . . They seem to have understood from the outset that national unity is not so much a goal as a habit, and, understanding that, they set to work with the most extraordinary confidence in the inevitability of their success.
De Tocqueville’s perspective is a cogent one for those of us who would seek common threads in our past. For on one important level, the history of the American republic is indeed a chronicle of what he called the “habit” of national unity.
It began, of course, in the search for a constitutional skeleton for legal and political unity: men of reason joining together not merely to compose their own differences, but to establish procedures for composing the future differences of the republic as well. It continued into the early nineteenth century as we sought to absorb a vast territory and to integrate the new economy springing from the richness of our land and the industry of our people. In the name of unity, we fought a bloody and terrible civil war, in whose shadow we still live some hundred years later.
By the turn of the twentieth century, we had faced and met still another challenge to national unity: the immigration of millions of Europeans to whom America was as strange as it was promising. Twice in this century we were called upon to gather our energies for war on the continent where many of us had our origins. So, too, the Great Depression of the 1930s tested America’s capacity to bring forth from diversity an ordered and unified response to crisis.
And now, once again, the twin issues of war and race are forcing us to confront not simply the demands of minorities among us, but to confront as well the deeper problem of how we must act as a nation, as a whole people, together. Yet, sadly, I for one cannot seem to find in the record of these past few years adequate testimony to the habit of unity. Instead, over the past decade we seem to have developed an increasing habit of polarization. Our politics have become more centrifugal, and we have witnessed fragmentation, disorder, bitter public dialogue, the alienation of many of our young, the death by assassination of some of our finest leaders.
Thus I believe we enter the 1970s bearing a heavy and dangerous disproportion of fear to reason. And what these signs suggest could be far more than our failure to meet some specific responsibilities to groups within our nation. They suggest that we may also be forfeiting some of that habit of unity, long accumulated, without which we could never have met, and survived past crises. In looking back on the recent past, it is this deeper problem which most troubles me.
Everyone, virtually everyone, realizes that the problems of our cities, of our minorities, and of our poor must be solved. All of us now know, I think, that we cannot fully deal with our domestic problems while our energies and resources are absorbed by war. All of us sense, daily, that the quality of our environment is deteriorating, that we are losing much of nature’s great gifts to America: its land, its physical beauty, its water, its air. We all know that it is unacceptable for men and women and children to suffer from malnutrition, lack of education, and hardship while we fly in space and produce consumer goods in almost gluttonous array.
We know that none of our agonies can be ignored; and none of us really want to ignore them. Yet these terrible problems remain unsolved, many of them growing worse. And meanwhile we are generating so much bitter debate about our failure to deal with them that concerned and patriotic Americans are now reacting primarily to one another instead of acting in concert against the conditions that afflict all.
How many discussions of the war in Vietnam have ended with factions denouncing one another? Dissenters and protestors are called traitors or communists. Those who support our policies are dupes or fascists. Yet which would you say really wants the war to continue: the so-called traitor or the so-called dupe? Which--the student marcher or the helmeted policeman--would not endorse peace and the end of our involvement?
I ask you this evening to consider the possibility that as a nation we are not without clear goals, but that in the course of name-calling and cheap labeling, of shoddy slogans and false demons, those goals begin to disintegrate. The issues disappear, internal divisions grow, and--what is worse--we are that much less able to move together on any problem.
And I suggest that a cry like “America--Love It or Leave It,” is as totally mindless as its polar opposite, “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out.” It is a sickly irony that each of these slogans shares the low common denominator of denying the very characteristics to which de Tocqueville correctly attributed so much of our success, our strength, and our freedom.
Thus we must ask ourselves how it is that we have misplaced that firm habit of unified action which has served us so well in the past. It is not because the problems are any more divisive than the Civil War, the Great Depression, the sudden immigration of so many different peoples. The draft riots of 1860 were far more serious than any seen in this generation, and the street gangs of New York at the turn of the century far more violent. Surely no problems we face today can be said to be more divisive than those.
Is it possible, perhaps, that we are somehow less public-minded, more selfish or hedonistic than we once were? Quite the contrary, I should say. Our sense of civic duty and public responsibility seems to me to have grown immeasurably over the past several decades. Is it really that we don't know how to solve the problems which divide us? That question has no answer; yet the endless flow of reports--from private and public institutions alike-contain more ideas for imaginative planning, action, and progress than we have ever seen in our history.
Why is it, then, that the nation has seemed so divided in the 1960s, so preoccupied with the differences among us? In the first place, I feel, the problems we face and the failure to act against them effectively are more visible than ever before. Very few issues escape the eyes of our mass media; and very few of our citizens can operate under the illusion that America is content and at peace with herself. At the same time, it is not possible to pretend that our problems are at present beyond solution. How do you tell a nation which in ten years and on schedule has sent men to the moon that it cannot feed its hungry or clean its air?
I believe that in the 1960s we came for the first time to see our problems clearly, all of them. Further, we also came to believe--and rightly--that we have it in us to solve them. But they are not being adequately solved; and we are, through our incredible communications, all of us witnesses and in a sense participants, daily and intimately, in the failures.
Suddenly what is at stake, therefore, is our will and our determination. What is at stake is our self-confidence, the very quality that has so long been associated with the American character.
This threat to self-confidence has affected all Americans. That is important to understand. It affects the blue-collar worker, increasingly and justifiably anxious about his hard-earned rewards, even as it affects the young ghetto black to whom any reward at all seems remote. (Unfortunately, each often accuses the other of obstruction, when in fact each is held back in different ways by the same conditions.) It affects the well-to-do families of the suburbs, who wonder why material success seems not to have made life sufficiently rich and rewarding. It affects the young, who so often feel that revolution is the only answer. It affects the rural poor of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. And it affects, equally, those who oppose and those who support our policies in Southeast Asia.
Most dangerously, however, it makes good men turn upon one another. For if problems which can be met are not being met, how terribly easy it is (and what political fodder it makes) to assume that someone must be standing in the way: the white in the way of the black, the hawk in the way of the dove, the rich in the way of the poor, the old in the way of the young. And suddenly, again, we confuse our problems, identifying them with those among us who hold differing views, rather than with the conditions which afflict us all.
The unity of a nation and its self-confidence are inseparable; and it is precisely when one or the other is shattered that the very stability of the social order is jeopardized, whether the setting is Germany after World War I or France of the Fourth Republic. In fact, that very bond is what worries me as I look to the potential of the United States in the 1970s.
It follows, I think, from what I have said that this nation badly needs to see some problems solved, not merely to have them solved, but to see them being solved. What is needed as we begin the 1970s is a restoration of self-confidence, which cannot be won simply with spectacle or rhetoric. (How many nations have sought unsuccessfully to nourish self-confidence with spectaculars?) But this self-confidence can come to us only with systematic, scheduled, measurable, rapid, and unified progress against longstanding social ills.
We must understand that our work is not solely for others and their problems. It is for ourselves.
There is, as I have tried to suggest this evening, a special urgency about the tasks we face in the 1970s, made all the more pressing by the accelerating pace of history itself. It may be true that in absolute terms the black ghetto youth is far better off than he was ten years ago; but in relative term—in the demands on him for a higher and higher degree of education and individual adjustment to cope with ever-new conditions—we are leaving him, as well as millions of our marginal poor and many of our blue-collar workers, farther behind than ever.
I deeply fear that as a consequence we are sowing the seeds for a harvest more grim, a decade more divisive, an era more destructive to our national self-confidence, than the one through which we have just passed. It is therefore time to commit ourselves far more deeply.
As a nation, we have always pitted bold action against hard realities; and, whether we realize it or not, we have always been dedicated to rapid and sometimes dizzying change. Think only of the astonishing fact that when Bertrand Russell, who died earlier this month, was already a world-famous mathematician, the United States had not yet fought its last Indian battle. How far we have come in the span of a long lifetime!
It is time for our business institutions to effect some changes in the way they define themselves. For, as Peter Drucker points out, business is now more than a way of generating dividends on an investment or of providing goods. It has become a culture and a system of values; and as such it occupies a very different position in our society, and indeed in world society. Perhaps business must begin to dedicate more of its human resources to our problems; perhaps it should assign talented people for specific periods to social service.
It is time also, I think, for some of our unions to examine their self-definition and to alter some of the protections which once served them well, but which today compound some of the national problems their heirs must struggle with.
It is certainly time for government itself to examine its functions and to put an end to the mountainous bureaucracy through which so little meaningful action seems able to bore.
For if our goals are clear, the decade of the 1960s surely taught us that the machinery to realize them is anything but effective. It is failing. And I do not believe that we can even begin the massive task of rebuilding our cities and recapturing what we have lost from our environment if we must act within the framework of present municipal, state, and federal jurisdictions. I do not believe, for example, that we can provide adequate housing in a jungle of building codes and regulations that change from mile to mile.
Yet there is no real doubt, no debate, no reservation about whether we must do these things sooner or later. What I suggest to you is that we must do them now. We must begin now to see these problems being solved, and the place to begin is to foster new institutions and a new sense of future which looks on the past more as a preparation than as an immutable precedent.
In all that I have said so far I have spoken as a citizen, not as a businessman. I stress this point neither from fear of misinterpretation, nor from false humility. I stress it because the perspective of powerful citizenship must be the governing influence for each of us in our activities over the course of the next decade.
At stake is our feeling about ourselves, that fleeting but critical sense that any nation must have about its past and its ability to guide the course of its future. I believe that if our self-confidence and our habit of unity are less certain than they have been at other times, then we should remember that it is not the first time this has happened. We have come forth from many such episodes of self-doubt to overcome enormous challenges.
There's a charming little anecdote about a chimpanzee who was taught to read. One day he escaped from the zoo and after a search was found huddled behind the public library with a copy of the Bible under one arm and a copy of Darwin’s work under the other. He was, I'm told, just sitting there quietly gazing out into space with glazed eyes and saying over and over again, “Am I my brother's keeper or am I my keeper's brother?" For us the answer to both questions is “yes."
We cannot forget that. For if we can meet together now without anger, if we can discard the rancor of our recent past and find agreement in urgent action against our common afflictions, then I believe we can look toward this new decade as one in which the habit of unity—the quality which de Tocqueville observed fifteen decades ago—will again prevail over discord and division.