June 6, 2016

1947. "America As An Island" by Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow's Commencement Address to Muhlenberg College
"Edward R. Murrow receiving an honorary degree from President Levering Tyson of Muhlenberg College" (source)
Edward R. Murrow delivered the commencement address at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania on June 2, 1947. The text is transcribed from the college's alumni magazine published that same year:


By EDWARD R. MURROW, Vice-president, Columbia Broadcasting System
It would be easy enough to tell you the traditional stories, or how I remember nothing of the Commencement address to which I listened seventeen years ago—and that would be true enough, I remember nothing at all about it, except that the speaker—like so many Commencement speakers I have heard since—informed us that the making of the future of the world was in our hands. Well, it wasn't. I remember, too, that we were addressed as a sort of collective corpse. No one talked to us. We were just there as a sounding board for oratory. Maybe there was some rhetoric in it too. But rhetoric, after all, is merely a means of conveying convictions without being impeded by logic.

Therefore, I trust you will permit me to speak directly to you, the young men who are leaving this institution with memories—memories in order that you may have roses in January. I wish that I might inflate myself in order to have merit in your eyes, and to do you credit. I wish that I might speak with the eloquence of the ancients; but that is denied me. So let me just talk to those of you who are leaving, those who are going out into what has traditionally been called the adventure of life. Permit me to tell you that the rules for that undertaking were set before you were out of the cradle. The old folks, your betters—and that almost includes me, do not give up easily. We are a stubborn lot. If you have read your history you will know that after every war the old men return and attempt to remake in the image that they knew. And in the last two years history has taken its revenge and retribution has not limped.

When I left college—that was shortly after the beginning of the depression, or if you prefer, the great recession—we were all imbued with the idea that society owed us a high standard of living. After all, we were college graduates. We were entitled to expect a higher standard of living at the expense of the society which had made possible our education. You are leaving one of the most democratic educational institutions in the world; but I beg you not to forget that no one of you paid your freight. If you propose to make personal profit at the expense of the society which made possible your education, then good luck to you. If you do that, the society of which you are a part of may soon be finished.

This nation is more than an economic plot. It is a place where personal liberty and state control are at war. Even though your elders have made the rules, you, in the end of the day, will have much to say about the outcome of that war. So, I beg you, also, not to be misled by slogans; not to reach conclusions simply because ready-made slogans fall easily from men's lips. Please understand that you are betting your lives, and those of your children, on your ability to remain sane. Try as best you can to divorce yourself from the prejudice and the slogans which make up so much of our daily life. Either you are thinking persons capable of making decisions; or you are mere human animals due to be pushed around by events.

And now—enough of these generalities. Let's talk about the world as you will meet it. In the first place it is not a world governed by ethics or by men who know history. It is a world run by old men, and they are accustomed to look over their shoulders. Most of their future is behind them. They are ill equipped by training or temperament to deal with the world in which they find themselves. Most of them fail to understand the world that is emerging from this war; but—make no mistake about it—they are running this show. Right now, they are trying to remake things in the image that they knew. And you can't do much about it, unless you are prepared to start in a small way. The best way to start is to realize and recognize what you can do and what you can't do.

This is not easy. Most of the answers elude me. Most of my friends who saw and met the problem ten years ago are now dead. They knew only that there was something in this world that was worth getting shot for. That happened in Spain, Austria, and Germany to the people of your age who decided to oppose the development of Totalitarianism. I suggest in all seriousness that it is time you began to give consideration to the same problem. This is not an idle suggestion. Many of my friends in Germany and in other countries of Middle Europe were dead before this war began. They had made their decision. And I tell you that you, too, may have to make that decision. We are now living in a time when it is fashionable—and indeed accurate—to discourse upon the possible destruction of this minor planet.

But there is still time for salvation. Through all this troubled history of mankind there has never been an invention which could not have been misused or abused. That was true of electricity, of steam, of the internal combustion engine. All of these might have been let loose without control, and civilization as we know it would have survived. But now we are confronted with a condition where humans, having discovered a method of destroying humanity, may use that power. What can you do about it? Die with dignity? Certainly, that's easy. Physical courage is a cheap commodity. But first of all you must decide what can be done short of dying. You must determine the ground upon which you stand. That is why I chose the altogether serious title, "America As An Island," for today's discourse. I desire desperately that you should understand the world into which you are going. It is not a pretty place. It demands men and women who are both earnest and anxious.

There was a time before the war when many of us suspected that the youth of this country was living on the reputation for hard work, industry, and honesty created by our grandfathers. The events and deeds of those who dared and died during the last few years have dispelled any such illusions. After all, the men and women who built this country were made of stern stuff; and those who went from here to the wars were worthy of their heritage. But those who went out to the far corners of the world to fight that it might continue to exist, undertook a task that was simple when it is compared to the one that confronts you.

You are entitled to ask for the credentials of anyone with the temerity to take up thirty minutes of your time discussing "America As An Island". I am—or at least I was—a reporter. Most of the last ten years have been spent in Europe. This is sufficient time to develop a full appreciation of one's native land—and not, I hope, long enough to become denationalized. I can claim a certain acquaintance with statesmen whose names make headlines, and I have not forgotten altogether the history learned from learned professors at American Institutions. Study and observation combine to persuade me that we are entering an era wherein America will be tested as never before—and it will be a new kind of test. I suggest that it will cause us to dig deep into our history, and to re-examine familiar premises.

For whether we like it or not, we have finally come into our full inheritance. We have had leadership thrust upon us. We created a continent. We wasted our natural resources. We were a people who turned our back upon Europe and its quarrels. Nearly thirty years ago we fought a war in Europe. It was primarily an effort to secure a Europe that wouldn't bother us. We failed. Now another bitter war had ended. Europe is exhausted. Its social, economic, and political fabric is in tatters. The old guide posts are gone. This country has become the world's banker, and the principle source of food in a world that is hungry. In Europe today, as in the dark days of 'forty and 'forty-one, the question is being asked: "What will America do?" Europeans are asking, "Can we expect leadership as well as largesse?" We can not lead with dollars alone; and we can not lead with bulldozers or supersonic guided missiles. Our technological advance is demanding new answers. Let us first state the problem and then search for a few answers.

America is fat; and the rest of the world is lean. You and other classes like you are the best-fed, best-clothed graduates of any university in the world. Most of you do not doubt the fundamentals of American democracy. But many of the youth of other lands doubt it—profoundly. There is real danger that we in America are moving in one direction and the rest of the world is moving in another. There is a real and urgent danger that we shall be isolated. That is something which we cannot afford.

There is in Europe and in Asia a demand that all shall have bread before any has cake. There is a demand that the land shall be used to produce for the people. There is a demand for economic equality and for economic security. And the price is merely the sacrifice of personal liberty. Believe me, the phrase "personal liberty" is a hollow one to people with hollow bellies. There is a demand in Europe and Asia for racial equality and for a system which offers the individual something which is out, above, and beyond personal gain and comfort. There was a time when religion was a stronger force than nationalism. Then came the time when nationalism overshadowed all else. Now, the world has reached the state where loyalties cross national boundaries; there change is welcomed—any kind of change; where most of the world is in fact "four f"—suffering from fear, famine, fatigue, and frustration. And in this chaos that follows conflict the United States is regarded with a mixture of fear and admiration. In many nations the fear outweighs the admiration. We are regarded as a giant test tube. The world knows that we can produce the weapons of war and the men to use them. But it is less certain of our ability to create here in this continent a society which men of all races and creeds can admire and imitate. Can we save our traditional liberties, and still meet the challenge of those who, now as in the past, are prepared to live dangerously? Or is our brand of democracy merely a luxury to be afforded by a country that is fat, with its industries intact, its population untired, its strength increased—a country where war did not walk down our streets. Believe me, the rest of the world—which interprets democracy differently—doubts us.

In the year since the war ended, our leadership has been erratic. We have veered from firmness to complacent indifference in international affairs. There is an armament race in progress and we have allowed our army to disintegrate. We are unrationed, while the world starves. When the war ended, we shouted, "Off with all controls." "We must go back to pre-war practices." We failed to realize that there can be no going back. The nations that were near the fire just don't want to go back, for the heat opened up too many cracks in the old order. We continue to give advice and seek to escape responsibility for implementing our advice. We are concerned about the hundreds of thousands of Jews still living in concentration camps in Germany, and we say, "Send them to Palestine", while this generous and capacious land is unwilling to welcome them. Are we really trying to bury our conscience in the sands of Palestine? It is true that we are a young nation, unaccustomed to dealing with foreign affairs. This reputation for youthfulness is one of the oldest things about us.

If we are to live, we must grow up in a hurry. We must recognize that there is no reason in history for that bit of mythology which holds that we are always out-smarted at the conference table. Other nations with less power have made greater mistakes. The importance of our position now is that if we make a mistake it may be our last. I know full well that this is not a bright picture I am painting, but believe me, the colors are sombre. We are in some considerable danger of becoming the best-hated nation on earth. We don't deserve to be. But remember that grievances are no less real because they are imagined. We are in danger of becoming a great straggling island off the coast of Kamchatka with most of the world united against us.

If that analysis is correct, what can we do about it? Or to put it more bluntly, what can you do about it—for I am verging upon the generation that will do all it can to prevent your doing anything about it. Above forty the familiar is the most attractive, even though the familiar may lead to a repetition of the last few terrible tragic years. I can offer—with all humility—only a few suggestions. And remember that I am of a generation which did little or nothing to prevent what has so recently happened. I hope that no one of you will stand here seventeen years from now and confess that your contemporaries have failed so miserably. If you fail there may be no ground on which to stand. Yours is the last chance. And that is why I propose to say a few things which our elders will hardly like. After all, this is no time to use phrases that have lost their cutting edge.

Firstly, do not respect those elders too much. They have made a pretty thorough going mess of things. Learn from them if you can, but remember always that they may be wrong—and that you may be, too.

Secondly, place not your faith in dollars. They are useful and pleasant to spend, but they will not buy friends either at home or abroad. Money will not buy greatness for a nation or for a man. American loans will not alter the course of the political tides that are running all over the world. We can not buy our way out of responsibility, and if the world judges us to be bankrupt, it will be because we lack the essentials of leadership and have failed to understand that the nature of power has changed. The currency that counts today is courage. There is a form of indifference, or mental and moral stagnation, that is worse than war. I suspect that the end will have come for us when we flinch and fail to be willing to resort to arms, no matter how new or terrible they may be.

Thirdly, have an opinion and don't be afraid of expressing it. I am no advocate of government by public opinion polls, but to me the most unworthy members of a democracy are those who, when queried regarding matters of great moment to the health and well being of the state, reply, "No opinion". But you may ask, "How am I to form an opinion upon matters that baffle statesmen and scholars?" "Why not leave it to the experts?" That is what the Germans did. I was there and saw it happen. It is so terribly easy. You, if you are to succeed, and indeed survive, are going to have to work harder than did men and women who built this great nation. You are going to have to make decisions that never confronted them. You require to know more than they did. If you stop learning and questioning, if your curiosity curdles, if you mistake slogans for logic, if you believe nothing and reverence nothing, then surely the pigs will inherit the earth—if there be any pigs left.

I remember standing in the ruins of my third office in London. The air was still heavy with cordite fumes. While attempting to salvage a few papers I came across the charred page of a pamphlet. It was written by an old professor of mine. The final sentence read, "The most urgent problem in the world today is education." The sirens sounded for another raid. That sentence seems to me utter nonsense, but it remained in my mind. And today I am convinced as never before that the professor was right.

You must examine anew such phrases as free enterprise. How free is it, and how enterprising? Socialism; what does the individual give up and what does he gain? Educational equality; what kind are the students in your community receiving, and what can you do about it? Racial and religious tolerance; how much do we have in fact and practice? State medical aid or private practice; which is best for the nation's health? On all of these matters you may change your minds. You probably will, but before the end of the day you must make up your minds. You are now like a bomber over enemy territory. You can weave and jink and take evasive action; but the time comes when you are in the bomb run and must fly level and straight. That is the time when your mind is made up and the objective is clear.

Fourthly, in the field of international affairs do not look to the United Nations for salvation. Ultimate failure, in the form of the veto power, is written into the charter. If we want a world organization that will work we have to pay a bigger price in terms of national sovereignty and other nations will have to likewise. There was a time in our nation's history when men who ran for office were questioned about their stand on slavery, states rights, and prohibition. Surely it would be fitting for graduates of this institution to insist that candidates who offer themselves for election should state where they stand on the matter of world government. You have the right and the duty to inquire whether they propose to pursue policies which will make America an Island.

Fifthly, be always conscious of your good fortune. Much of the world is wandering in the ashes of a civilization that was great. Many of their colleges and universities have been destroyed. There has been no education for seven long years. Professors and students of promise have been slaughtered or starved. The red-hot rake of battle has left behind it an intellectual desert. Please understand me. I am not trying to make phrases. For these things I have seen—in places like Belsen and Buchenwald—those institutions of infamy. I met men whom I had known in happier times in Prague and Warsaw and Vienna. Their minds had been better than mine—or yours. They had been custodians of the culture of centuries and when they came out of those concentration camps they were shuffling, stumbling wrecks, men who had fought each other for rotting potatoes. Most of those who survived—and they were not many—look to the west, to you and your elders. You have the strength. You are full of vitamins.

Sixthly, and finally, I would urge that you be not dismayed by the problems that press in upon us; that you "greet the unseen with a cheer"; that if you desire to reform the community of the country, you set about it with high resolve and vigor tempered with courtesy and humor. I remind you that your opportunity to serve your country in peace was purchased at a great price. You are citizens of a great nation. You are the fortunate few who have received superior intellectual training. You are about to leave Muhlenberg College. I hope that you will return often, and that you will think to thank your professors for their efforts on your behalf. And to you of the class of nineteen hundred and forty-seven, I offer congratulations, and an expression of confidence—confidence that the society which has made possible your education—up to this point will as the years unfold, receive from you steadiness, service, and if need be, sacrifice.