The Illusion of Disengagement

Dean Acheson sworn into office as Secretary of State by Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, January 21, 1949.

THE other day I was re-reading Clarence Day's wise and delightful book, "This Simian World," and came across the paragraph remarking on what unpromising entrants in the struggle for supremacy on this planet the lemurs might have seemed many millions of years ago. "Those frowzy, unlovely hordes of apes and monkeys," he wrote, "were so completely lacking in signs of kingship; they were so flighty, too, in their ways, and had so little purpose, and so much love for absurd and idle chatter, that they would have struck us . . . as unlikely material. Such traits, we should have reminded ourselves, persist. They are not easily left behind, even after long stages; and they form a terrible obstacle to all high advancement."

It does seem to be true that, in our day, only in a sort of cyclical way do free societies retain an understanding of their own experience, and hold to the purposes which it has inspired. Is this because some echo of those early traits still persists, or because the inevitable hardening of the arteries of each generation brings on some failure of memory, or for still other reasons?

Certainly moods change as memories, once fearful, become dimmed, as new anxieties arise, and as present exertions become increasingly distasteful. The bitter teachings of 1914-1918, and the determination they fired, had quite disappeared by 1938, to be replaced by ideas of neutralism, withdrawal from conflict, "America First." After these, in turn, were swept away by the devastation of another world war and by a display of world leadership entailing vast national effort, another 20 years has ended by bringing back the old yearnings and errors under a new name. "Disengagement," it is called now; but it is the same futile--and lethal--attempt to crawl back into the cocoon of history. For us there is only one disengagement possible--the final one, the disengagement from life, which is death.

Soon after we had awakened from the daze of the Second World War, it became clear to us

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