Vol. 5, No. 1

An Era of Greatness?

JOHN V. LINDSAY From the January 1969 edition of The Ripon Forum, the Republican Mayor of New York City discusses the tensions plaguing American society. “It is clear that we cannot permit the flourishing of violent dissent,” he declares. “But it is also clear that we will not check the growth of destructive disorder by […]

An Era of Greatness?

John Lindsay croppedJOHN V. LINDSAY

(The following article is the speech given by Mayor Lindsay at the Ripon Society’s Sixth Anniversary Dinner on December 15.)

We meet tonight to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the Ripon Society: an organization that has proven how to fuse opposition with constructive alternatives, and criticism with compassion. The Ripon Society has read its mandate broadly: it has proposed specific alternatives to federal policies in diverse fields: poverty, taxation, foreign aid, the war in Vietnam.

It has consistently sought to apply Republican principles to the most urgent national dilemmas – and has consistently fought the danger of confining our party’s base to the privileged and secure. You have contributed much to our present opportunity for leadership: a contribution which can be measured as much by the enemies you have made as by the allies you have enlisted.

This work of critical inquiry has become all the more vital because we are on the eve of a major transition from national opposition to national leadership. Now, for only the second time in 40 years, we are facing the task of shaping and applying national policy. It is tempting, in the face of electoral victory, to rest content with political power. But as Republicans and as citizens, we cannot do it.

Our triumph, to begin with, was narrow: one of the three closest elections of the 20th century. Moreover, as your organization has accurately pointed out, it was achieved within a narrow political base. The new administration carried not a single major American city, and forged few alliances with those most in need of effective national action. We clearly will not win future support – nor will we govern effectively – without broadening this base. And we will not do that without the most urgent effort to resolve our urgent dilemmas.

There is, moreover, another reason. President Eisenhower put it well when he said that “a political party without principles is nothing more than a conspiracy to seize power.” We have seen from the last four years what happens to a party free from effective, loyal criticism from within its own boundaries. We have seen what such a course can do not only to a party, but to the national spirit as well.

For 50 years our cities have been swelling with the untaught and the unskilled …  Now, with opportunity for the unskilled long since gone, cities stagger under the weight of demands unfulfilled.

With power, then, comes even more responsibility to speak and to judge and to recommend. For without that spirit, we will not provide the national leadership we require. Party loyalty – party unity – these goals cannot override the need for continuing dialogue and dissent within the Republican Party. Your task – our task – is to continue.

Let us look, then, at the nation and the world we face. We see at once why the spirit of 16 years ago – when we last prepared for national responsibility – cannot be the spirit of today.

For the world is a far different, far more dangerous place. The “Silent Generation” of the 1950’s has yielded to a new national community of youth: born into an age of self-examination and self-doubt, raised among struggles against bigotry and poverty, puzzled and repelled by a war fought with neither a sense of victory nor a sense of pride, sharply aware of the gap between the promise of our heritage and the performance of our institutions, increasingly suspicious of the most deeply-rooted structures of American life. The home, the schools, the university, the corporation, the labor union, the church, the government – democracy itself – all seem to those youthful dissidents without honesty and without honor. The pieties of another age will not answer their questions, will not end their doubts, will not still their protests.

The late 1960’s, moreover, is a time when the last half-century has finally caught up with America. For 50 years our cities have been swelling with the untaught and the unskilled, a migrant population which fled regions where survival itself was threatened, and crowded into our urban centers. Now, with opportunity for the unskilled long since gone, cities stagger under the weight of demands unfulfilled; joblessness and poverty increase – and with it comes all of the pathology of communities without resources and without purpose: indecent housing, unresponsive schools, disease, crime, and the slow death of hope itself.

For a century, each region of America has been fed by federal resources: farms with price supports, the West with incentives to railroads and settlers, the suburbs with highways and housing loans. Now inner cities find themselves unable to supply basic services: transportation, police, sanitation, clean air and water; the amenities that make life livable are ever-more difficult to supply – while the Ripon Society estimates that our cities will lack more than $260 billion in revenues before the next decade ends.

And our suburbs, too, have felt the shock of change. Only this week, we learned that a report to the President called the suburbs of America a “quietly building crisis,” with communities beset by failing essential services. There is, thus, no escape from the pressure of change.

For 30 years we have lived in a technological revolution, building without planning, changing without understanding. And today; we find ourselves almost at the mercy of a technology which alters our lives fundamentally, yet which we still only dimly understand.

Since World War II, we have built a foreign policy based on a sense of worldwide mission. Today we find ourselves still embroiled in an endless, debilitating war, with 30;000 dead and $30 billion lost – and we face new dangers abroad with every insurgency that explodes across an uncertain, tumultuous globe.

All of these tensions, all of these difficulties, have fed a growing sense of doubt among our people, old and young, white and black, affluent and middle-class and poor: that is the sense that we can no longer control our destinies, that events have run away from us, that a free people and a government of consent cannot cope with the strains of modern existence. We cry for history to stop, and it only speeds faster toward an uncertain future.

It is clear, then, that there will be no rest for the Nixon Administration, no profit in seeking to turn back to another time, another era. These are our times, like it or not: turbulent, critical, demanding. The question, then, is how? How do we approach these dilemmas? What do we do?

The first necessity is to be honest with ourselves, to admit past failures and mistakes, to recognize where the mainstream itself has not performed adequately. We have heard in recent months growing condemnation of youthful dissidents. Most of us – myself included – have deplored the resort to obscenity, personal abuse and outbursts of violence. This condemnation is just. For these tactics are the tactics of suppression. They are no part of any movement which calls itself moral. Yet let us be frank about it. On issue after issue it has been the dissidents – the ~’radicals” if you will – who have touched basic, urgent issues. And history, if it will not vindicate their methods, has vindicated much of their judgment.

It was not a benevolent federal government that first turned America’s conscience to the terror and the injustice among black Americans in the South – it was young men and women, white and black, who put their bodies on the line to redeem the promises of the Constitution. Their battle has since been joined, by government and by decent citizens. But they were there first. It was not a responsive public and private effort that first discovered the depth of deprivation in our cities. It was groups like the Northern Student Movement, the Community Union Projects, the tutorial campaigns among deprived school children. These activists argued that good intentions were not enough; that a failure to act effectively could perpetuate suffering. Studies, investigations, the Commission on Civil Disorders – all have validated this judgment that urgent action was and is necessary. But they were there first.

It is clear that we cannot permit the flourishing of violent dissent. But it is also clear that we will not check the growth of destructive disorder by words.

The dissenters first argued – with words, then with protests, now with upheaval – that universities were becoming less and less the guardians of humanism, more and more a part of the corporate society. Now, with disorder becoming more a part of academic life, the Cox Commission has substantiated that judgment, and called for drastic change on the campus. But they were there first.

And the war in Vietnam – spawned, escalated, fought without effective criticism by any established institution – was challenged in the beginning by those young people who could not square rhetoric with reality – who could not find in burning hamlets and homeless villagers the spirit of America. That war has already been branded a disaster. There is a national consensus that we must have “no more Vietnams.” But they were there first.

It is clear that we cannot permit the flourishing of violent dissent. But it is also clear that we will not check the growth of destructive disorder by words. We will do it only if we can change the way our government works, only if we are wise enough to respond to the truths about us, and take those urgent, necessary steps to build a better life for our people.

This duty, it seems to me, defines a second necessity: it is to face the need for a basic re-allocation of resources within the federal government. We, Republicans have long insisted that the public resources are not unlimited – that we cannot support every national demand with our public treasury.

That is a fact – and it is also a fact that this government must choose among priorities, and must use its funds where the crises are.

We have spent since World War II more than a trillion dollars on defense, and even now – with a $70 billion a year defense budget – there is talk of moving toward more and more costly expenditures, toward a $100 billion a year defense figure, toward the building of an anti-ballistic system, at a cost of $40 billion, toward a constant increase on the $20 billion spent each year on military research and development funds.

It seems to me the time has come to take a long, hard look at this enormous drain on our revenues. Three years ago – before the major Vietnam escalation – the President’s Council of Economic Advisors warned us that “the real cost of allocating productive resources to defense is that these resources are unavailable for (civilian) purposes. Thus … we must forgo $50 billion of nondefense goods and services.” And, they noted, whatever productive benefits have resulted could have been gained “at substantially lower costs and with more certainty if comparable . . . resources had been devoted to civilian purposes.”

It is time to act on that warning. It is time, for example, to ask our defense and aerospace firms to devote their thinking not just to keeping us secure from outside attack, but to help secure us from the dangers of domestic collapse. Transportation, education, housing, municipal services – here is where technical skills are urgently needed. Here is where federal resources must be directed. We cannot afford to support a defense establishment by neglecting the desperate need for action in our cities and suburbs. That is what we have done in the past. And it must change.

There are other areas, too. We have spent $60 billion in a dozen years on highways – while our rail systems and urban transit networks decline, while city streets are jammed with autos and while air pollution increases. Here, too, is a key opportunity to redirect the transportation policy of our government, permitting states and cities to plan new transit systems with highway funds. Senators and Congressmen of both parties have urged this change for years. It should be done – this session – by the new Administration.

Reallocation, however, is only one step. We must also begin to change the direction of federal funds in the urban field. The New Deal policies – proliferation of programs, a cure by simple spending – this is not enough. We have, despite overall neglect, spent great sums on housing, welfare, and now schools. Yet funds alone cannot work, unless they are spent sensibly, and unless they give people the chance to help design programs that are supposed to be helping them.

We ought to begin, I think, by understanding that poverty funds have to be directed at the root of poverty – lack of jobs and lack of services. If there is work to be done and people who need work, we ought to fuse those needs by providing communities with the funds to build housing and create industry. The concept of the Community Development Corporation – a new kind of grouping using public and private monies to improve neighborhoods at a neighborhood level – is one way of accomplishing this. So this is the idea – already begun in New York City – of a work incentive program to change welfare from a permanent dole into an aid for a constructive, useful field of work. So is the expansion of small business loans to aid entrepreneurs in deprived neighborhoods.

We ought to begin, I think, by understanding that poverty funds have to be directed at the root of poverty – lack of jobs and lack of services.

Of course such programs need money. But just as important, they need a change of thinking – an end to the assumption that we can from Washington, or state capitols or even City Hall, plan for what citizens need. We Republicans have always expressed a belief in autonomy. Here is the chance to put that belief into practice by bringing government closer to home, by decentralizing distant, bureaucratic control, by freeing resources from endless chains of command to enable people to build better lives.

This domestic work is necessary, urgent, critical. It will be difficult enough to accomplish alone. It will be impossible if our foreign policy traps us again in a quagmire of a future Vietnam. Our Vietnam experience will, even if it ends by next year, cost us more than $100 billion. Our domestic needs cannot afford another foreign blunder. And neither can our national conscience.

Looking at a world torn by uprisings – dozens stirring even in the mountains and jungles of countless foreign lands – it is tempting to believe that the overwhelming weight of American military might can somehow put down internal discord wherever it arises. But it is true, now as it was in the days of Edmund Burke, “force is not a remedy.” It is no more true to believe in the panacea of military might abroad than it is to believe that we can combat crime by reverting to repression. Beyond all of the danger, all of the risks to peace, is the blunt fact that it will not work.

We therefore must do what the previous Administration did not. We must scrutinize where new foreign commitments and excursions may lead. We must be wary , of appeals couched in generalities or rhetoric. We must make it unmistakably clear that American military and economic assistance is not available to nations whose leaders cannot or will not answer popular demands for 50, social and political reform.

This is an immediate need in Thailand and Zanzibar, in Guatemala and Bolivia, around the world where there are potential Vietnams.

Based on our position in Thailand – with more American troops there now then were in South Vietnam in 1964 – it is not at all clear that the outgoing Administration has learned to avoid these traps.

Thus, it is our responsibility to ask whether our vital national interest is truly threatened by the new insurgencies that will surely take place. It is our responsibility to ask how open-ended a new commitment is, how far we are prepared to go in support of it, whether we fully understand the dimensions of new interventions. if we fail, if we are again trapped, if new domestic needs go unmet, if new generations turn away from their government and their society, the responsibility will be on our shoulders.

I have stressed tonight the dangers of leadership, the crises that President Nixon will face. But I do not wish to close without noting as well the great promise we have.

We have the chance to begin making opportunity a reality.

We have the chance to prove that compassion does not mean control, and that assistance does not mean waste.

We have the chance to prove that free men can still master their fate, and can make the future what they will.

We have the chance to preserve our cities from collapse, our suburbs from crisis, and our environment from ruin.

That chance, that opportunity, makes all the dangers worthwhile. That chance makes all the peril of leadership worth it. But that chance also requires us to use all the wisdom and the energy we have to make these possibilities real. These will be challenging, difficult years. But if we succeed, they will mark the beginning of an Era of Greatness.

John V. Lindsay serves as the Mayor of New York City.