No Highway To High Purpose

No Highway To High Purpose

Albert Wohlstetter


June 1960

Copyright © 1960 Time, Inc.


This article was written by the author while on leave from RAND as a research fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc., in New York. It is one of a series published by Life magazine "On the National Purpose."

The article is published in its present form by The RAND Corporation as a convenience to the author. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Corporation.

When we ask ourselves what has happened to our national purpose, we sound vaguely as if, in a moment of absentmindedness, we had mislaid it. And, in fact, our first self-conscious impulse is to see where we may have left it. Shall we look in the Constitution? Perhaps we'll find it in something Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson said? What our Fathers have said remains important and inspiring. Still, neglect of their teachings cannot be the whole story, for in the last decade or so, while our purpose is said to have been ebbing, their teachings have been less neglected than in preceding times.

Nonetheless, if the nationwide questioning of national purpose evokes uneasy stirrings, it is for this very reason useful. It indicates that we are in trouble, that a further questioning and debate are in order. But the limitation of the questions raised so far is that they ask for very general answers, for a statement of ends without any explicit weighing of means or costs. They seem to imply, therefore, that our difficulties are not really complex, deep or particular, that they can be solved by a simple reaffirmation -- and of some one thing at that. To ask for our national purpose suggests that there is one high overriding aim waiting ready-made, if not to be found by leafing through some documents, perhaps to be revealed effortlessly as in a dream, "the American dream." Even the word "mission," frequently used in discussions of national purpose, connotes revealed truth rather than working programs to be won by hard analysis of what we want and what we can do and the efforts needed.


While we may talk about national purpose in the singular, the first thing to observe about our aims is that we have many of them. They are connected; some depend on others; many conflict. Obviously two aims may conflict when each represents the interests of a different group. But even ends which the nation as a whole can be said to share oppose other accepted national ends.

Take "the common defense" -- a purpose of nationhood recognized by the Founding Fathers and even more critical today. We all want to avoid getting killed in a missile raid. On the other hand, most of us would like to see an increase in our present enjoyments. Yet reducing the chance of our demolition is at odds with getting the utmost in production of civilian goods and services. Deciding to reduce the risk that we may have not future at all is only an extreme form of the choice between present and future enjoyments -- a choice we make in the everyday act of saving. And there is a growing recognition of a vital public interest in that choice.

There are other conflicts. We want to make the new nations more stable and help them abolish poverty by technical innovation -- but innovation means change and instability. We would like to increase democracy everywhere, but this conflicts with our desire not to interfere with the internal affairs of other nations. We hope to propagate the peaceable uses of science and technology, but in doing so we spread information about methods of destruction. We want to defend the independent non-Communist countries, but this increases the hostility of the Communist world. In all these matters our desires are complex and partially conflicting.

To make fundamental choices, we must understand specific means as well as general ends. Today we need to learn about intricate and uncertain matters, like missiles and their implications. We must contemplate some extremely unpleasant possibilities, just because we want to avoid them and achieve something better. Nobody, however, likes to think about anything unpleasant, even to avoid it. And so the crucial problem of thermonuclear war is frequently dispatched with the label "War is unthinkable' -- which, translated freely, means we don't want to think about it. But a purpose hammered out of connected and partially conflicting desires has to be the product of reflection and choice, and if the problems are profound, the choice, once made, calls for exertion. There is, unfortunately, no highway leading to high purpose.

We cannot resolve the conflict of ends by the simple device of choosing one and ignoring all the others. This is true even of such important ends as reducing the risk of annihilation. This fact underlies what is sound in the almost universal disparagement of "mere survival" as a national goal. We want much more than simply to survive. To preserve and extend democracy inside our own boundaries and in other parts of the world is not just a nice thought; it is vital. If we did not take these goals seriously, physical survival might be easy. We could reduce the danger of thermonuclear attack on the United States by giving the Communists free anything they might want to take by aggression. In fact, several eminent non-Communist Englishmen have suggested this alternative for our consideration. In rejecting it, however, we need not sound excessively disdainful about the value of keeping alive. Physical survival is necessary to achieve our other widely shared purposes, even though it is not enough.

When we have tended in the past to fix on one goal to the exclusion of others, we have in effect been evading the responsibility for taking greater pains. Since World War II our policy has been notable for both an extreme reluctance to call for national effort and a wild oscillation from one purpose to another, rather than a steady stress on some combination of goals.

We have gone from supporting emergency economic aid for our allies to concentrating on their defense so exclusively that most economic aid had to be represented as "defense support." We have swung from unilateral disarmament -- and a neglect of the Communist threat -- to rearmament and even to a conception that negotiations with the Communists are futile, if not treasonable, and that liberation of the satellites should come first. In recoil from this extreme and out of sheer fatigue, many of us have staked enormous hopes on the possibility of concluding broad agreements with the Russians soon, and our resolution to defend parts of the free world against Communist aggression has become subject to doubt. Now the Ghost of Paris has displaced the Spirit of Camp David and the Spirit of Geneva, and we may fear another emotional swing.

Throughout all these swings since the war our wish for cheap answers concealed from us the depth of our problems. We adopted a technical assistance program as an inexpensive substitute for American capital to develop backward countries; a defense of our allies by nuclear threat rather than by matching the non-nuclear forces of our antagonists; collections of gadgetry that were hopefully supposed to provide nearly perfect defense of our cities at modest cost; now a stripping of our air defense and a search for a method of deterring war with a minimum of effort and a maximum of hope. For some, negotiations with the Russians were a labor- saving gadget to achieve stability at even lower defense levels. But the tremendous political and technical revolutions that rack the world today exclude any cheap or single solution. We may fear that our achievements are menaced by the need to make an effort. I think this is wrong. They are threatened by the risks involved in failing to make an effort.


We have deep troubles, crises that call for resolution and leadership. It is worth saying, however, especially since laments about the "quality of American life' have become a ritual, that there are very large areas in our plural society which do not call for leadership and common purposes.

There may indeed be a crisis in American culture, as some of the contributors to this debate believe. I am not sure. Myself, I don't care for tail fins or Elvis or advertising jingles or even Coca Cola, but I doubt that their popularity is a national danger. An immense sea of mediocrity surrounds but has not submerged poets such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, artists of the order of Alexander Calder, the choreographers Martha Graham and George Balanchine, and an abundance of excellent architects -- Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra and many others. New York concert halls offer an extraordinary range of music from ancient to modern that is unmatched in Paris, London, or Rome. The audience for the best may be limited, but so far it always has been, and I am more impressed than some with the wide accessibility of great works made possible by the long- playing record and the paperback. Perhaps, as Pablo Casals has said, when good music is easy to hear it can successfully compete with rock 'n' roll.

However, if it cannot, I doubt that anything our leaders have to say will help much. Whatever their differences on domestic and foreign policy, Mr. Truman's and Mr.. Eisenhower's comments on art are similarly unflattering and would lead us nowhere I want to go. In any case I don't think we should all be going to the same place. In the area of our private enjoyments we can generally dispense with a single voice speaking for America.

There are, however, critical points at which private aims become a public concern. For example, as individuals we decide where to live, where to work, and how to travel to and from work; but without public guidance these decisions are not likely to be compatible at all. In fact they have brought about intolerable congestion and an urban sprawl desired by no one. Again, we are being forced to recognize that even individual decisions about where to eat or whom to serve in restaurants or to transport in buses, are an urgent common concern. Clearly we must put high on our agenda a large extension of freedom and equality of opportunity to American minorities: the Negro, the Indian, the Puerto Rican, and the Asian. Such a domestic purpose is worthy in its own right, and it also bears an obvious relation to our foreign policy. Race prejudice at home is an enormous handicap to any nation aspiring to lead a non-Communist world that is largely colored.

And foreign policy plays an increasingly important role in the American political scene. Most Americans seem to agree on the need for foreign economic and military aid. The growing recognition that our national ends must be international in scope is a sign of increasing national maturity. To disperse the benefits of technology, to expand the forces of production so as to end poverty, and at the same time to extend political freedom and self-government in the world are great aspirations. As aspirations, they appear in the United Nations charter, which was signed without embarrassment by some of freedom's sworn enemies. To bring them down from the level of pious benevolence to something concrete enough to deserve the name of purpose requires the evolution of detailed and consistent policies. And we face enormous problems in assisting the non-Communist countries in their economic and political self-development, while at the same time helping them to remain free of Communist domination.

For a candid look at the "free world" suggests that the phrase, if not a euphemism, has a circumscribed meaning. It means "free from the combination of the Communist bloc," and covers nations with a tremendous variety of political forms, ranging from those few that have an effective multi-party system and a considerable popular control to a very large number of authoritarian regimes; and it encompasses totalitarian Yugoslavia, which comes under the definition in the barest sense: it is not dominated by China or Russia. Even this bare sense is of great importance. The imposition of Chinese and Russian dominion would make a great difference in the prospects for the growth of political self-dependence and self-government in the world. But the prospects in any case are long-run. The truth is that in the world today there are only a few local enclaves of representative democracy.

In much of Latin-America, almost 150 years after liberation from Spain and Portugal, dictatorships succeed one another and representative government, though symbolized in a great many constitutions, is an unrealized ideal. And colonialism in Africa and Asia has prepared its subjects no better for democratic self-rule. While the technical revolutions under way ensure tremendous changes, few nations have institutions that permit internal shifts in political power without violence, and the time when such institutions will be general seems a long way off. Even more remote is a world government ensuring that revolutionary shifts in power among nations will take place without force.


Today many influential people believe disarmament to be the shortest path to world government as well as the sole hope of avoiding world war. I believe that arms control can achieve very useful ends, but only if its limitations are understood. No arms agreement in prospect will bring us within shouting distance of world government. And while some agreed arrangements might add a little more stability to our present uneasy peace, others would make the balance more precarious.

The great and complex issues of war and peace illustrate why defining national purpose will take much hard thought and produce no panacea. We tend emotionally to associate peace and all that is good with treaties or international arrangements, just as we associate war and all that is bad with arms. But our emotions mislead us in these simple equations. The principal goal of American arms today is to avoid war by deterring aggression. And history is replete with international agreements which have actually encouraged aggression. The various "atoms-for-peace" programs have, all in the name of the peaceful uses of atomic energy, spread knowledge essential for the production of bombs. They have done more to speed the dispersal of nuclear technology in the last five years than a test ban is likely to slow it in the next.

Still it would be unfortunate if, reacting from our excessive wishfulness before the recent Summit meeting, we now considered realistic agreements neither possible nor useful. For agreements might slow the increase or dispersion of a military technology that favored aggression rather than defense. They might limit the size of various military forces, or their method and area of operation, or provide information as to their whereabouts. By such devices agreements might lower the likelihood of war being started deliberately or as the result of an "accident" or misunderstanding. They could reduce the capabilities for aggression or provide warning of an actual aggression or reassurance that no aggression is under way, and so make mutual deterrence more reliable.

Useful agreements are possible because not all our interests conflict with those of our opponents. But our mutual interests are limited, and realistic agreements will be limited too and will contain safeguards against violation. There is no magic in agreement. In every year from the end of World War I to almost the start of World War II, the United States, England and France negotiated international agreements to limit armaments. But neglected controls and penalties. And their zeal was hardly diminished by the increasing obbligato of overt violations of these agreements and aggressions by the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians. The chronicle makes instructive reading today. Only a few months after the Japanese troops opened their offensive in Manchuria, 60 nations met in a General Disarmament Conference, which, in time, drafted plans to limit warships, abolish submarines, and ultimately to eliminate military aircraft. On March 7, 1936 Germany re-occupied the Rhineland, violating the Versailles and Locarno Treaties; two weeks afterward, a treaty for the limitation of naval arms was signed at London by seven powers. On July 7, 1937 the Japanese invaded China; 10 days later the English concluded bilateral agreements with Germany and the U.S.S.R. And so it went up to the eve of war. It is not too much to say that, for the Western powers in the interval between World War I and World War II, the international treaties were little more than formal records of their decisions to cut their own national budgets. The treaties were rationalizations for unilateral disarmament.

While it is true that arms have never staved off war indefinitely, the same must be said for arms limitations agreements. An agreement cannot be taken as either good or bad without an examination of its contents. If both sides are wary, the arrangements instituted will be better for both sides than the status quo before the agreement; and, more important, living up to the agreement will be better than violating it.

The nuclear age of course is different from the era between the two world wars. The current clich[[??]]s about the nuclear age, however, scarcely characterize the difference. It is often claimed that the enormous dangers of the nuclear age make agreement easier. They may make agreement more urgent, but in crucial respects it is harder. A wishful and careless plan would be more dangerous than before the last war. Nuclear weapons offer an enormous advantage to the aggressor. They make retaliation much harder to achieve and there is therefore no automatic assurance that an aggressor will be punished. Even a partial disarmament, if one-sided, could invite the debacle. And total disarmament, in spite of its rhetorical usefulness, is really understood by both sides to be out of the question in a world of divided sovereignties. In such a world, if one side were totally disarmed, the concealment of even a few nuclear weapons by the other side could enable it to dominate. It is a hard truth that for the foreseeable future arms control arrangements can only complement national defenses.

Both sides recognize implicitly that some arms arrangements might worsen the chance of peace. The Russians fear that Western proposals for inspection will furnish the West with intelligence usable in aggression. The West on the other hand fears (correctly) that, in the absence of adequate inspection, the Russians would be free to violate agreements secretly and so obtain the means to dominate. Enthusiasts for agreement suggest, all too easily, that the parties to arms negotiation are mad, or simply lacking in common sense. But to devise agreements that reduce rather than increase the possibilities for aggression will take great inventiveness and sober study. A realistic arms control arrangement has to be founded on a mutual interest and a recognition that this mutuality if only partial. The West is quite right in saying that agreements should not be based on faith. With faith, no agreement would be necessary. It would be more nearly accurate to say that sound arms control arrangements can be based only on an explicit and precise mutual distrust.

The best reason for any specific arms agreement is to reduce the risk of war. For us, the most trivial, almost frivolous, motive for agreement is to reduce our budget -- that is, the level of our effort. But there is no evidence that a mutually useful agreement would permit less effort. Besides the large cost of an adequate control system, any realistic agreement for reduction in one area is likely to call for increased effort in others. For example, nuclear disengagement in Europe might increase the stability of the peace, but it would require the reversal of our NATO military policy and a new emphasis on non-nuclear forces. Proposals to make aid for economic development in the less advanced countries depend on arms agreements and a reduction in our national defense effort betray a lack of seriousness about both economic development and arms control.


On no subject has discussion been more confused and inconsistent than the level of American effort. On the one hand we are told that Americans are fat, self-indulgent, undisciplined and at the highest peak of material prosperity. On the other, we hear the customary references to the "crushing economic burden of the arms race." As fortresses are invariably "impregnable," risks "calculated," and disarmament "moral," so the burden of the arms race is always "crushing." There have been direful predictions since the end of World War II that an attempt to defend ourselves will turn America into a garrison state. Meanwhile our defense budget has varied from 40% to 4% to 15% and down again to 9% of our gross national product, and our experience offers little confirmation for such fears. The notion, repeated by Lord Russell, that present defense policies will "before very long...reduce the population to subsistence levels" is simply nonsense. Whether or not Americans and Western Europeans are self-indulgent, they were never richer, and they consume more each year. Secretary Anderson anticipates that our gross national product will increase from $500 billion to $750 billion in the next decade.

The most important implication of our great prosperity and rate of increase in productive power is that we can afford larger efforts for economic development, for reducing the risks of thermonuclear war, and for protecting the political independence and self-development of the non-Communist world. Furthermore we may be able to do it with only a modest sacrifice. In fact, I know of no responsible proposals for meeting these goals that have called for a reduction in our peak level of spending for immediate enjoyment. The widely discussed defense program recommended by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, for example, could easily be accommodated by the growth in gross national product predicted by the Secretary of the Treasury -- with no decrease in consumer spending but only a temporary slowing in its rate of growth.

Would the American public make this mild a "sacrifice?" That seems to me to depend on what they think the sacrifice is for. Rather too much has been made of the frivolity and self-indulgence of the fat American public. An analysis of consumer expenditures hardly sustains the claim. Consumers have increased their spending for such sober purposes as medical care and education much faster than their incomes and faster than their spending for recreation or for the iniquitous tail fins. None of this seems foolish. In particular there is no reason to believe that Americans would not make a greater effort for the major purposes which they share, if they understood that the risks of not making such an effort were large and the rewards for effort great. But I doubt that the public of this country was ever less informed on matters directly affecting its life and death. On the contrary at each great crisis the public has been reassured that no further effort is required.

Leaders of opinion have a large responsibility here to widen and inform public discussion. The great issues of war and peace deserve to be treated candidly and objectively, without wishfulness or hysteria. It is not only the politicians who have been deficient in these respects. In my view, the scientists also have performed poorly. They have been bitterly divided and both extremes have tended to use the authority of science rather than its method -- to be wishful and impassioned rather than objective. What is needed is sober thought about the concrete problems of extending democracy inside our own country, of helping the economic and political self-development of other countries, and of negotiating without illusion to settle differences with our antagonists while maintaining the military strength to discourage their use of force.

These are tall orders. They cannot be filled quickly, or finally, or by means of some semiautomatic gadget, or in one heroic burst of energy. Nor will the answer come to us in a dream. "Are we," asks one contributor, "simply too thick through the middle to dream?" I suspect that in the wide range of activities we must undertake, dreaming will require the least discipline and attention to diet. Our problem is more like staying thin after 30 -- and training for some long steep, rocky climbs. If, as we are told, America is no longer a youth, we may yet hope to exploit the advantages of maturity: strength, endurance, judgment, responsibility, freedom from the extremes of optimism and pessimism -- and steadiness of purpose.

A purpose is not the same thing as a wish. Or a dream. Or even a mission. But one fundamental purpose of a democracy is the exercise of reasoned choice, the conscious shaping of events. Even setbacks would be more meaningful if -- to use Hamilton's phrase -- instead of being ruled by "accident," we could govern ourselves "by reflection and choice." If the hard problems of our time stir us to more reflective choice, then they will have helped us fulfill one important purpose of a democratic society.

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