In 1951, nuclear testing continued with a 1-kiloton bomb dropped on Frenchman Flat near Las Vegas, Nevada. President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command in the Far East. Senator Estes Kefauver headed a Senate committee investigating interstate crime, and…
…on one bright and shining day in June, John Nelson Baldwin, graduating from Pelham Memorial High School in New York, delivered the commencement address.
What stood out in reading Army Major (ret.) John Baldwin’s speech were two things: the number of critical “front burner” issues that were making news; and the remarkable similarities between his observations about the lack of “moral conscience” with my own observations concerning a lack of ethical standards in the last chapter of my book, What Do You Stand For?.
“Somewhere along the line, our sense of values has deteriorated,” young Baldwin says.
“Somewhere in our search for the good life,” I wrote, “…we compromised.”
John’s address, The Crucial Years, reads like a “canary in the coal mine” reminder of just what is important and why.
“We have just seen the close of the first half of the Twentieth Century. It has just been marked by tremendous strides in the physical sciences – advances that have brought us radio and television, the airplane, new wonder drugs, a greater life expectancy and the awesome atomic energy.
“There has been an increasing wealth of knowledge in the fields of physics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine. Atomic energy, although it possesses peaceful as well as destructive potentialities, has risen like a shadow over our lives. The impossible of yesterday has become the commonplace of today.
“With these new miracles, however, have come vast problems – problems that greatly influence our everyday lives. Unfortunately, we find that physical science has progressed at a much faster rate than has growth in moral conscience, concern for our fellow man, and the democratic way of life.
“Among us, there seems to be a feeling of insecurity and helplessness, a sort of general despair, as if there were nothing we could do about the present situation. We are witnessing a widespread apathy; an apathy and indifference toward national problems and world affairs. This opinion was expressed by Kings County District Attorney Miles F. McDonald when he said, ‘Our primary enemy is not the gangster, the corrupt politician, not the Communist hordes – it is the moral apathy of our own people, the internal saboteur which will destroy us more surely and completely than an atom bomb.’
“The recent Kefauver investigations into organized crime revealed to an astonished public the network of racketeers and gangsters that now operates throughout this country. It also exposed the link between organized crime and law enforcement officials. We were against shocked to see the same influence contaminate our college athletics. Recently, Senator Fulbright brought to light the corruption and politics involved in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
“Somewhere along the line, our sense of values has deteriorated. There seems to be no right nor wrong, no black nor white, just a big gray area that covers all. Robert Ruark of the Telegram and Sun has said, ‘The average youngster might begin to wonder if honesty were the best policy, since he has seen so little of it around lately.’
“Unfortunately, the family and the church seem to be have lost much of their past influence, at a time when it is needed most.
“Yes, the situation is not hopeless. These conditions can be altered if we are willing to work together. In reality, the solution comes down to use as individuals – for it is individuals who make the nation. As citizens, we have certain clear-cut responsibilities. These responsibilities are more than merely voting, earning a living, and paying our taxes. We must assume a vital interest in local, state and national problems.
“When people are no longer concerned with their government, the power quickly falls into the hands of a dangerous machine. Our task should be to see to it that our representatives are strong and honest statesmen. We must realize that democracy cannot perpetuate itself; it must be created anew by each generation.
“We must place much greater emphasis upon the rights of individuals, and their recognition in a free society. When driving our cars in heavy traffic, we cannot disregard the rights and privileges of others, or we will come to destruction. So, it is in our society. We must have more consideration for the other person. We must return to the more simple living – real neighborliness and friendliness.
“Our interest must lie in the welfare of every neighbor, regardless of his race, color or creed. Family life, the backbone of America, must be strengthened with spiritual values occupying a high place in every home. We must discard the false gods of wealth and materialism, and rely firmly on the true God. Only through this course can we find our hopes for world peace and unity.
“The members of this graduating class have been brought up in one of the finest environments in the country, blessed with all kinds of opportunities for education and democratic living. We have been given a fine foundation upon which to build our own lives.
“It has been said that a man in essence is first the creature of his forebears, and then the creature of what men and women –both good and bad – have made him. Whatever virtues a man may have are due substantially to the friendships he has formed with men and women of high mind and heart: whatever virtues our class may have must be credited largely to the inspiration and helpfulness of our fiends, parents and teachers.
“The next fifty years belong to us. They will be crucial years for all mankind. The great scientific developments will be turned either toward the complete destruction of civilization or will open the way for still greater peaceful achievements. The great question is whether a solution will be found for the differences among nations.
“We must employ our education to find that solution. We are capable of accomplishing much toward a better world if we use well our knowledge and training. We stand to write the most eventful half-century in human history. We have been given an important trust – the responsibility of preserving our American heritage. We must not fail that trust.”
We’re in the middle of our own crucial years. The critical difference between then and now is not that we know more. It’s that we know better. If we’re ever going to live up to our highest aspirations as individuals and a country, each of us needs to remember our own responsibility to preserving our American values by striving to live up to the best of ourselves.