Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
Asia wants revolution; Asia needs revolution. The only Asian nation to which this truth does not apply is Japan, whose society was transformed in the nineteenth century.
Once all of Asia was in a state of equilibrium, with its agrarian societies relying for survival on a delicate balance between land and population. Land suitable for rice-growing was limited and rice-eating populations struggled for subsistence; they had neither the time, ability nor energy to think of governing themselves or even of participating in government. The task of governing was left to the few, a small, specialized class of scholar-officials. To labor and obey was left to the many. Thus the centralized state came into being, strong enough to protect these precarious balances from ever-threatening natural or artificial forces, skilled enough to undertake the control of the flow of water, the life- blood of the staple production.
In the centers of Asian culture, in India, Java, Cambodia, Japan and most especially in China, there was strong central government and a statically arranged society. In China, it was a pyramid, the peasants at the bottom, the land-owning gentry above them, still higher the scholar-administrators and at the summit the emperor, the divine maintainer of the equilibrium between land and population, man and nature, heaven and earth.
Confucius gave this stability a philosophic base which sanctified harmony and reverence for authority. But if the balance were disturbed, if the emperor could not control the avarice of landlords, the corruption of officials, the looting by invading barbarians, and if therefore the masses starved, the sacred work-cycle stopped and there was chaos, there yet was a remedy: the ruler ceased to be divine. Rebellion was permitted, nay called for, and the successful rebel was by his victory ipso facto vested with divine power. A new dynasty was born and the balance was restored. The Chinese formula was adopted, with modifications, throughout East Asia.
This kind of equilibrium was to last four thousand years, until one day Western man arrived with ideas more explosive than the powder the Chinese had invented for firecrackers at the harvest festival (and which the Westerner would later push into the mouths of cannon). Among these new ideas were Christianity, proclaiming human rights superior to those of the state; science, substituting immutable laws for the capricious will of the gods; parliamentary government, making the governor responsible to the governed; and new techniques for mass production and the control of disease.
Asian society was shaken to its roots. European governors replaced indigenous rulers, and the land once tilled only for the subsistence of the population was now made to produce raw materials for the colonial power.
When the Manchus fell in China, there was no other dynasty to take their place. The cluster of Western ideas, which the Europeans had never bothered to knit together into one harmonious whole to replace the old Asian equilibrium, fell on Asian ground as separate elements, breeding hope and despair in expectations that could not soon be fulfilled. Mass populations grew, unchecked by the old natural levellers, plague and epidemic; plantation economies stagnated because they were geared to export crops whose markets had faded away with the departure of the colonials.
Asia is left today with more ambition and less fulfillment, more people and less food. The equilibrium is gone. And no new rebel can assume the divine mantle and restore the harmony. The Asian, converted to the ideas of the West, now wants to control his government and his destiny. Though he may still be at the base of the old pyramid he wants dignity for himself-not just for the emperor, the potentate or the scholar-official, and not just for the native aristocrat or the comprador.
This now is the question: Is America ready to face the necessity of revolution? Many Americans would probably find the question impertinent. Are they not the first revolutionaries of the modern age? Is not their Declaration of Independence a ringing revolutionary document for men of all time to invoke in the cause of justice and equality?
They are, indeed, entitled to be proud. But recalling one's own revolution is perhaps not enough, or at least is a different thing from understanding another's hunger for revolutionary change. It becomes even less adequate when America's original revolution and its ideological underpinnings no longer seem relevant to the deep current of human events where men now need revolution most-among the masses of the developing world.
In another era, one of limited population and pure libertarian motives, the American Revolution was surely relevant. When America snatched independence from the first Philippine Republic at the turn of the century, William Jennings Bryan replied to the imperialists' justification of "educating the Filipinos": "The educated Filipinos are now in revolt against us, and the most ignorant ones have made the least resistance to our domination. If we are to govern them without their consent and give them no voice in determining the taxes which they must pay, we dare not educate them, lest they learn to read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States and mock us for our inconsistency."
But the reasoning of John Locke and the precepts of Isaac Newton, which were the wellsprings of the principles of the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence, seem to have little bearing on questions like the pressures of population, the closing of the breach between rich and poor, the rapid demolition of the barriers of race and creed.
Equality is good, but in the newly emerging nations there is now too much equality in destitution. Dignity would be better. But where in the "rockets' red glare" of the American Revolution can we see how this dignity may be won by the multiplying millions of this age? In a world searching for an ideology that will bestow this dignity, where even the youth of America seeks a "national purpose," America's only answer seems to be pragmatic improvisation, meeting crises on a "case-to-case" basis.
And all the while, Americans are unpragmatically espousing or rejecting ideas because of associations that are either imprecise or no longer applicable. The idea of capitalism is a primary example. America is a monument to the genius of free enterprise, and American propagandists abroad would like to credit her unabated economic growth to completely free initiative, almost to classic laissez-faire.
This is what the young Filipino entrepreneur, inspired by the American example, schooled in the American tradition and seeking to build his enterprise in the American image, is told when he seeks assistance from the Philippine government in order to compete with the giant American firms operating freely within the uncontrolled Philippine economy. No mention is made of American government controls and subsidies that enable the "free- enterprise" economy to accommodate the concern for the national welfare.
Americans are proud to be known as alert opponents of socialism, yet poll- takers report that millions of Western Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans think of themselves as "socialists," and that this "socialism" is much akin to what the Americans themselves believe in.[i] Americans are proud of their crusading anti-Communism. Yet to many in the uncertain world, Communism is opposed to capitalism, not to democracy.
Even America's allies and non-Communist friends are beginning to tire of negative anti-Communism. As early as 1963, Don Van Sung, the Vietnamese patriot, warned: "By emphasizing anti-Communism rather than positive revolutionary goals and from lack of a better adaptation to the local situation, the United States has reduced its anti-Communist efforts in Viet Nam to the maintenance of an administrative machine and of an army."[ii] To Eduardo Frei, the Christian Democratic President of Chile, "the anti- Communisms of fear, of preservation of 'order,' and of forces manifested in military coups are doomed to failure and are constantly in rout. They have nothing to say to youth or the people."[iii]
But, it will be asked, what need is there of ideology? Did not pragmatism cure the ills of America? We may largely agree. The histories of other nations are always divided into periods, of rise and decay, of benevolent kings and lecherous kings, of the ascendancy of reason and the rise of faith, of progress and reaction. American history is singularly lacking in these periods and in this respect it is monotonous. But it is the unique, consistent and gloriously monotonous American condition which accounts for the fact that every minute an American is born free, free in every sense, to develop himself and his country according to his own will and initiative.
There will never be one single man known as the builder of America. And this just might be America's guarantee for greatness without end, for escaping the cycle of rise and fall which some historians predict for great civilizations. What shall we call this guarantee? Capitalism? Free enterprise? We might more aptly use the word which a hard-headed monk of the thirteenth century once associated with freedom. Thomas Aquinas said that "freedom is the spontaneous obedience to law." Spontaneity may be the key. And as America built itself spontaneously, so also could we build Asia.
But Asia is not ready for spontaneity. There is at present little enthusiasm in Asia for the American example; for it is apparent that patchwork democracy requires conditions which do not exist in the developing world. One such condition is the challenge of the open frontier- the response to which was the beginning of the American miracle. There are no such frontiers to challenge Asians. The Asian peasant must respond not to the heartening call of the rich wild but to the demoralizing prospect of having to make productive two hectares of unowned land, his tenancy having emanated from some unwritten ancestral contract or royal decree which his ancestor could not read.
This absence of Asian frontiers has moved practical theologians like Ceylonese Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya to urge that the developed white countries abounding in virgin land, such as Canada, Australia and the United States, voluntarily give way to the demands of "macro-justice" and open their frontiers to the land-hungry millions of Asia. "If I were born of white parents," he laments, "almost the entire under-inhabited world would be open to me to settle down and reproduce my kind-Australia, Canada, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, etc. . . . Yet these same countries generously give non-whites arms to fight the Communists to make the world safe for political democracy and 'Christian civilization.' And they blame us when we are not enthusiastic. The present policy of 'increase and multiply and stay where you are, for we have filled the earth' cannot, humanly speaking, last."[iv] This may sound extreme to some, but it helps explain why most Asians will not find inspiration in the squirrel-capped figure of Daniel Boone.
A second condition nowhere prevalent in Asia is the American tradition of dissent. The very act of crossing the Atlantic by the original American settlers was one of dissent-dissent from oppression, from tyranny, simple dissent from opposing opinion. No such tradition motivates the Asian. The waves of Malays and Proto-Malays that landed on the shores of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, the early Filipinos (who drove the Negritos and the Igorots away from the lowlands and into the mountain fastnesses just as the early Americans were later to drive the indigenous population eventually onto reservations)-these men were no fugitives from tyranny. They came in groups of families, in barangays, and their tradition was conformism- conformism to the will of the chief, the datu and further up the Sultan. Soon it would be conformism to the will of the white colonial governor. But whether the supreme will was native or foreign, nonconformism would never be a right, and the penalty for it would invariably be heavy.
There is yet a third condition-the richness of the land. The pioneers found in the American continent a prodigious wealth of resources. Indeed there are pockets of great natural wealth in parts of Asia, not excluding the Philippines. But most Asians work barren land and must overcome supersition before putting to use the fertilizer that will fatten the soil.
No wonder, then, that Asia is not yet ready to understand spontaneity. No wonder that Asians, having almost always been servants, have developed the habits of the servant, a resistance to change, a willingness to obey only the gods of superstition that survive even in Christian societies like the Philippines, deified in the same way they were in Latin America in the syncretizing process of Latin evangelism. No wonder that when the Asian is told, "Go and be free, develop yourself, face and overcome each problem as it comes with your own genius," he does not understand.
It is quite possible that something akin to American spontaneity can come from other antecedents. The Filipino writer, Nick Joaquin, reported after a recent visit to Red China that "responsiveness to challenges is the spirit that is Americanizing the Chinese." He says that the party line this year in New China sounds like Babbitt at a salesmens' pep talk: "Go all out, aim high, get results! Think big! Act big!" What could be more Damn Yankee?" he asks. "If you bumped into it in the dark, could you guess this was Chinese, not Rotarian; that this was Slave State, not Rugged Individualism?"[v]
Responsiveness without freedom. Is this paradox really possible? If it is, it is the result of an upheaval the premises of which have been easier for Asians to understand: the simple dichotomy of the rich and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed, the few and the many. The rich are the few, the poor are the many. Let the many rise in revolution and redistribute the fruits of the earth-this is something Asians may understand, a revolution an Asian may indeed find easy to join, because he knows the poverty, the inequality, the oppression and all the rest. It is certainly easier to join than that complicated revolt against stultifying tradition, that rebellion against self through which he would have to go before he could enjoy the privilege of "pragmatic" spontaneity.
This is not to say that Americans are incapable of magnificent responses to challenges that excite other men and other nations. The whole history of America is a sequence of such performances-much like the improvisations of a jazz band, with each instrumentalist going his own individual way and still contributing to a totality that is a smashing success. But for Asians, what chance has such a performance, however brilliant, against the sustained, persistent, unequivocal panorama of revolution projected from other capitals? America is perfectly capable of lighting torches, and men will at times follow, but as Jacques Maritain has put it, "for lack of adequate ideology, her lights cannot be seen. I think," he adds, "it is too much modesty."[vi]
Call it modesty, call it indifference, call it overconfidence; whatever it may be, I do not suggest that America stop lighting torches, for even though they may not last, they will always be useful in the dark. But America could also light a beacon, project a permanent beam steadily proclaiming what she stands for and informing the peoples of the world what it is they might gain from her leadership in the elevation of each human life.
Americans are almost organically averse to traditional ideology. This aversion may have been fitting to the early American, but how proper is it to the modern American-the American with a global commitment to leadership? Unless it is his desire to withdraw into isolation, he must collect his bundle of brilliant improvisations and distill from them an ideology relevant to the problems of this age and the lives of those millions who are touched by his commitment.
It is up to the Americans to draw the ideological possibilities out of their pragmatic experience, but an Asian is perhaps entitled to a few expressions of hope. He hopes that the beacon will show the way to a sustained social revolution that will lift men to a level where they may begin to enjoy the freedom and the privilege to be spontaneous. He also hopes this ideology will enable Americans to give better reasons than they have so far given for needed changes. Land must be redistributed because "it is the absolute right of the proletariat," says Das Kapital; "because of the social character of property," says Quadragesimo Anno. "Because without land reform American aid is wasted," says the American. Will Americans always limit themselves so?
Should we wonder that a man like President Senghor of Senegal, rejecting the scientific socialism of Marx, now turns not to Thomas Jefferson and "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his humanistic, optimistic, Christ-centered synthesis of all races evolving irresistibly toward a transcendent God as the hope for négritude, for Africa and for mankind? If Africans now turn to Teilhard instead of Jefferson, it is not because the Jeffersonian declaration was not valid. Perhaps because it was so valid and so successful in America, the young and vibrant civilization that it engendered never bothered to review its relevance to the world.
An Englishman has said: "The trouble with Americans is that they want to be on top of the world and still expect to be loved. It simply can't be done, you know."
Is this true, or not? When America has shown the world how she can leap over her barriers of race, of creed, of poverty-not "case-to-case" but by the propulsion of ideas so universal, so understandable that they reach the hearts of all men-who knows? Americans may yet manage to be on top of the world and be loved. But that is not the important thing. Even without reward for the work of world leadership, there is enough return in the urgency and value of flinging in the teeth of those who would create an anonymous and faceless society the idea of a world of men endowed with individual dignity.
The first false god to be toppled in the Asian revolution is paternalism. The family of young nations wants no more of the father image. Max Lerner has pointed out that in the days when American nationalism was taking shape, the Americans first had to slay the European father so that they could then without inhibition use the European heritage in their own drive to greatness. The Indians had to slay the British father to work out their own destiny through British constitutional traditions. The young Filipino entrepreneur must either slay the American father image or at least cut it down to brotherly size so that he can collaborate or compete on equal terms- using the techniques of the Harvard Business School. The Filipino leader must also slay the image so that he can lead his country without self- consciousness to its own version of American constitutional democracy, and negotiate treaties with America on the basis of mutual respect.
We are told we need not worry that the Americans will resist the slaying of an image which so ill befits them. A leader among equals, yes, but not a paternalist-not the American with his passion for brotherhood, his sporting blood that will preclude his taking advantage.
So let there be social revolution. Let it fight injustice, give hope. Let it produce wealth, but also close the gap between those who enjoy the wealth and those who do not. Let it not surrender to the simplistic idea that the only problem in Asia is productivity, "the enlarging of the pie," and that the exploitation of man by man will resolve itself with this enlargement. Let it persevere until the millions of Asia are released from the bonds of tradition, feudal tenancy and centralized power. Let America help to fire it, but do not make it an American revolution. Let it be so universal in meaning, so pregnant with hope for all races, that each nation will take it for its own.
[i] Cf. Ralph K. White, " 'Socialism' and 'Capitalism': An International Misunderstanding," Foreign Affairs, January 1966.
[ii] Quoted by Maj.-Gen. Edward G. Lansdale in "Viet Nam: Do We Understand Revolution?" Foreign Affairs, October 1964, p. 82.
[iii] "Religion, Revolution and Reform," ed. D'Antonio and Pike. New York: Praeger, 1964, p. 36.
[iv] "World Apartheid," Commonweal, December 24, 1965, p. 364.
[v] Philippines Free Press, April 11, 1966, p. 3.
[vi] "Reflections on America." New York: Scribner, 1958, p. 118.