Liberals in this Year of Decision
"Liberals in this Year of Decision"
The Christian Register June 1948
The role of the liberal today is a very difficult role, particularly in this country. We acquired through the fortunes of war the position of being the leading democracy of the world. We didn't like it very much; we have no particular desire to be responsible for what happens in the rest of the world. But because we were left in an economic position which no other country in the world could approximate, because we did not have to rebuild our cities, and our factories; because our civilians, at least, did not suffer as civilians suffered in most of the other countries where war had come to them, we find ourselves as the great democracy on which all other eyes are turned, and it has brought us a searching which I think probably we would far prefer to escape.
But whether we like it or not, that is the position we find ourselves in, and those of us who are liberals find that we are put in the position very often in international meetings of explaining the weaknesses of our democracy. Now you can explain them and excuse them, but you just can't say those weaknesses don't exist, because they do. It is a little trying, because we need very badly a unified country, and at the moment our country is very far from unified. We need that unity because of the position of leadership in which we find ourselves.
We are in a world where force still is the ultimate way of deciding questions. It should be law, but it still isn't law; it still is force. And yet we personally are very adverse to acknowledging that force is still such an important factor. Being less touched than other countries by the war, we wanted as quickly as possible to forget about it and get back to normal. So we reduced our forces; we did away with as many of the restrictions as possible; and we tried to feel that the rest of the world would get back to normal as easily as we would get back to normal.
I think that it has been rather a shock to all of us to find that you cannot fight a war of complete destruction in part of the world for four years, and then settle down as though nothing had happened. Now we have to face the facts, and because we have these conditions and these facts to face, the role of the liberal is twice as difficult.
We feel strongly the desire to think the best of other people—by thinking the best, to draw out the best. It doesn't always work that way. We find that in our own country fears have grown. If they have grown here they probably have grown in other countries just as much, probably more; and we keep wondering what happens from fear and what happens from real malevolence. We watch our own country and we find things happening that we would like to denounce, and, yet, we don't know quite how far to go in denouncing those things.
I'll give you an example. As a liberal, I don't like loyalty tests at all. I have a feeling that it's much more important for us to find out why we believe in democracy and really to know why we believe in it, and to put as much into it as the USSR puts into its Communism, because I have always found that you get a great deal more out of the things you can be positive about. I don't think we should have in the government people whose loyalty we really question handling documents which should be secret documents. I think that would be terrible. But, on the other hand, it doesn't seem to me quite democratic to brand people as disloyal before you give them a chance to bring witnesses and answer their accusers. And so with all the feeling I have that we must not have disloyalty, I am also torn as to whether we really are building up our democracy and doing the positive things that we ought to be doing, or whether we're just tearing our democracy down.2
The role of the liberal is hard and decisions are terribly difficult in these days. In the world picture there is no question but that the discrimination in this country hurts our position. It has been up to this time a domestic question. I felt that we could take time about it—time for white people to adjust; time for colored people to become educated, or, referring to other types of racial and religious discrimination, I felt that there was time, and that we needn't move too fast, that we could do it step by step, and gradually. I don't know whether we can now. Never, since I started to work in the United Nations, has there been a meeting where the question of our discrimination has not been brought up, and where we haven't had to answer for our country. It comes up on all kinds of things—it comes up on the question of freedom of information.
I was making what I thought was a perfectly safe speech, explaining why I thought freedom of information was valuable, and why I thought it was far better to have all kinds of opinions printed in the press and have an educated people that would make their decisions on what they read, than it was to have censorship, particularly government censorship. A gentleman whose country does have government censorship, said, "Madam, do you mean that in countries where there is a so-called free press there is no discrimination?" I had to say "touché."3 Nevertheless, I still believe in a free press because it does allow those of us who would like to fight discrimination to know where it exists, and we can get at the facts.
The very fact that we have discrimination and that we are the leading democracy, brings the whole of democracy into question. It is brought up against us in practically every meeting. I have come to feel that, as a liberal, wanting to defend democracy, we can no longer think of this question purely as a domestic question. We have to think of it in the implication of what it means to our world leadership, and that is very difficult to do at the present time.4
I think, too, that probably one of the most difficult things we face is wanting peace, as undoubtedly all the people of the world want it. We still find ourselves in the position where, having set up machinery in the United Nations to create an atmosphere in which peace can grow, the will of the peoples for peace seems to be lacking. We find ourselves increasingly having decisions to make between the USSR and ourselves.
At home, we have certain people who say "we are the only true liberals in the country" and "we will not say that communism is bad. We will work with communism when it agrees with us."5 That sounds like a good, liberal way to feel. But then your actual experience makes you doubt whether that really is the way that you can feel. I've had quite a long experience with American Communism, because I began with youth groups in '34, and it has been very interesting. My first real disillusionment came when I found they wouldn't tell me the truth, and then, later, when the youth groups, led by the communist element, were picketing the White House. Then suddenly, when Russia was invaded, they had another meeting, and they sent me a telegram saying, "Now we can work together because now we are for preparedness for war," and I had to send the word back to them, "I am sorry but you lied to me and I can't work with anyone who lies." It was one of the most useful things that I ever did, because I learned all the communist tactics.
Many times in our United Nations meetings I have found that if there is a subject up that the USSR wants to get a certain vote on, you won't be able to get a vote easily, and you wonder why the delay. You go on and on until everybody is very tired and they drift out as groups do in these meetings, and if you don't watch, the move will be made for a vote and they will have won the vote while everyone was drifting out. I learned that a long while ago in one of our meetings. Everyone went scurrying to get the people back because the vote was going to be taken and we would have lost.
You learn that dealing with the Russians is not at all a question of "sweetness and light and sense." It is a question of strength. I don't happen to believe that it is a question only of economic and military strength, though I have come to believe that those two are controlling factors. But it's also a question of the strength of individuals and their convictions. You've got to believe in what you stand for just as strongly as they do. Otherwise you're going to be defeated. And that's one of the places where we're not quite as strong as we should be. In a democracy, we allow such latitude for argument on slight differences of opinion, that to get a feeling of a unified backing for certain big things is quite a problem. The lack of such latitude is, of course, the strength of a totalitarian dictatorship.
There isn't a single representative on any of the committees from the USSR, or from any of the satellite states who doesn't know how he's going to vote right straight down the line when he comes into that meeting. Everyone is going to vote just exactly as he was told to vote. He is going to attack just as he was told to attack—and nothing you say is going to make any dent, then. Six months from now, after it has gone back to the Kremlin, to the Politburo, the attitude may be changed. But it's awfully trying, and annoying, and enraging to find yourself answering first, the USSR. Then perhaps the Byelorussians say something and make the same attack and you have to answer them, too. During this last Assembly at one of the committees, I didn't answer the second time. I thought, "Well, I answered it once; I don't have to answer it each time," and the next day the delegate from the USSR got up and said, "Mrs. Roosevelt didn't answer this yesterday, so of course it must have been true!" So I discovered that each time I would have to get up. We had four attacks, exactly the same, and every time I had to say the same thing all over again. That's very enraging, and you wonder why grown people should want to do anything as time-consuming and as stupid. But that's the way it is and you just have to learn.
And, for the liberal, who wants to believe that people are all more or less the same, that they have the same motivations, and that they respond to fair and decent treatment, it is really a very disillusioning thing to work in that fashion with the USSR because you are tempted to come to the conclusion that it isn't important to do what you feel is right. You may have been brought up to believe that if you say you are going to do something, it's important that you do it for your own self-satisfaction. But you wake up to find that you are going to get cooperation only because you are stronger than they are. Now that's a rather awful thing for a liberal to have to face in this world of today, and I think a good many people probably now feel that I am not a liberal in my attitude towards the USSR.
I believe very strongly that while we have to be strong, we also have to be friendly; and that's one of the most difficult things in the world because they are so irritating. However, if you can remember the fact that they are not acting as individuals; that they are acting as government representatives, and they talk as government representatives, then you cannot dislike them as individuals. You keep your sense of liking them as people, even if you dislike their attitude and dislike what they stand for.
I think we might do some things that we haven't done so far. I think our attitude at times has been highly stupid. We do not recognize very often the fact of how sensitive they are because of inse-curity. Many times and in many little ways we do not realize their insecurity and we do things that bring about bitterness, very often in little ways that are not important but have important results.
I have discovered often in working with them on committees that they respect the fact that you are not tired, that you can stand up to them, that you will put them through what you had intended to have them do. The Russians respect this. We as liberals need to make our country understand clearly that we feel our sense of security, that we are sure our democracy can be what we want it to be, and that we are going to work to make it what we want it to be. I think that is as important as the economic and military strength.
There is no doubt that we have to have the economic strength. The economic strength is the point from which we should work with Russia because it is the point where she has a tremendous respect for us. But to get that respect depends upon the liberals in this country, those among us whose convictions can make them believe that democracy is going to bring to the greatest number of people the greatest possible opportunity—those who really know that we want justice and opportunity for all the peoples. I think the liberals must accept the fact that force is still here in the world, and yet be strong enough to watch their own country so that force doesn't go to its head, which is always a danger. At the same time we must work to improve what we have and feel about it as the Communists do. They really have a crusading spirit. They really feel. And when you talk to them you understand why they feel the way they do.
In twenty-five years they have taken a people that was ninety per cent illiterate and made it ninety per cent literate. They haven't been able to become experts in a lot of things, and that is the cause of one of their greatest feelings of inferiority. They have been unable to join a lot of the organizations like UNESCO, for instance. They say that they won't join UNESCO because it is too expensive to join all those specialized agencies. But the truth is they haven't got the people to put there. Moreover, they always have two representatives instead of one, because no USSR representative goes alone. And, of course, when you have to have two, always, instead of one, that doubles your expense. You very soon know when you are working with people that are not at all qualified in many fields—they are not prepared for the work they have to do. In twenty-five years you don't create experts in every field. In making their nation literate they have accomplished a lot.
They are still 200 years behind us in many things. But they are a strong and a very young nation. They haven't much more than they ever had before, and when you compare it with what we have, they are awfully afraid of the comparison. I think they were terribly worried about their soldiers who had to go into decadent democracies and see that life was so much easier than they had it at home. I think that worried them very much. On the other hand, they feel they have gained a great deal and in some ways the government has given them a great deal. Far more people, for instance, go to the opera in Russia, probably, than ever go here. Certainly more people go to plays and sit through Shakespeare from beginning to end, uncut. The government has done that with the idea of taking them out of the misery in which most of them still lived. Nonetheless we are dealing with people who are ruthless at times, and we are dealing with people who are hard and who do believe in force—and, yet, who have given their people a sense of crusading. With all our years of civilization in back of us, I think we have got to face the situation as it is and we've got to know that this requires moral and spiritual leadership. It requires a friendly spirit. But it also requires the facing of realities and the knowledge that anything which can be used against us will be used against us. They believe in their way of life and if we believe in ours we've got to fight for it. We've taken it pretty much for granted up to this time.
We liberals, being liberals, are divided. We all like to go off on our own little tangents and just work on the things we are particularly interested in. There is no question in my mind but the things we do at home in a year which is a decisive year are probably very decisive in the international picture, too. There isn't anyone, I think, today—particularly among the young people, who is not really worried whether we are going to be at war in a short time or not. There is no question but what we have people in the government, and certain people outside, who feel that it would probably be much simpler to drop a few bombs on Russia right now than to wait until she is stronger. I have a lot of people say to me, "Really and honestly, now, don't you think it would be a lot better if we wiped up Russia right now?" The trouble with that, from my point of view, is that we would not really settle anything. We could destroy her cities—but she is a whale of a country. And, having once used atom bombs none of us would sleep very peacefully from then on, because somebody someday is going to have atom bombs just as we have them, and if we get into the habit of using them sooner or later we are going to be destroyed. Nobody wins a modern war.
I think that it is the major job of a liberal, if he can get together sufficiently with other liberals to do a job, really to see to it that his community does think through problems, knows what they really are, has a plan and elects people in Congress and then keeps in touch with them. Of course, that is a difficult thing to do. We've taken our rights too loosely, and we haven't thought so much about the fact that we have to preserve them, and now we are facing the need to preserve them. They are at stake. I am much more interested in seeing the liberals achieve a positive program than seeing them just on the defensive. Just being on the defensive is not going to win a peace; I think the other people of the world must feel very strongly about this, too. It's a question of letting government get out of hand.
Now it's very true that the Russians can't control their government, but if we don't control ours it will be because those of us who are liberals don't do the job. Yes, the role of the liberal in this decisive year is a hard one. We've got to do our job at home as we've never done it before in many long years. And we've got to be willing to subordinate these differences among us in order to be able to do it. We've got to be willing to sacrifice. And probably the only thanks we will get is that many people will say that we are not doing the right thing, that we are making many mistakes. They can say so many things. But I think perhaps we had better forget about what people are going to say and try as hard as we are able in the way we think is right to keep the world at peace, to keep ourselves strong in every possible way, and not to be fooled. That is as important as anything else. We can be fooled. I think Henry Wallace is being fooled. I have always been very fond of Henry Wallace, but he never has had to work with the Russians, and I have. And I don't feel that just "sweetness and light" by itself is going to win a just peace. I think we need clear facing of facts and holding on to our own ideals, and trying to bring the world to a sense of our strength in all ways. Without it I don't see any reason why we should win against the other great power that stands out against us today.
PMag NAWSAP, DLC
1. The Christian Register 127, no. 6 (June 1948): 26-8, 33. See header Document 339 for Alice Balassa's reaction to this speech.
2. For more on Truman's loyalty program, see n6 Document 271.
3. This particular exchange occurred at the February 10, 1947, meeting of the Human Rights Commission. When Valentin T. Tepliakov of the USSR asked ER if she believed that "in a country where there is freedom of information and the press, as exists now, there is no violation of human rights," ER retorted, "Certainly not, but at least you know whether there is or not which is a great difference from not knowing" ("U.N. Aims Defined on Human Rights," NYT, 11 February 1947, 13; HRC, First Session, Twenty-First Meeting, Summary Record, 10 February 1947 [E/CN.4/SR.21], UNOR ECOSOC, MWelC). For more examples of ER arguing that freedom of information is fundamental to the protection of human rights, see Document 91 or C. Brooks Peters, "Free Information Held Liberty Basis," NYT, 29 May 1946, 15.
4. ER often made this point. For example, see Document 307 and Document 308.
5. ER references Wallace's remarks at the founding of the PCA see Document 355.