Expressions of gratitude can bemost awfully trying to the ear of an audience, generally captive. But the act of gratitude nowadays is probably more often neglected than overdone.We published recently, in NATIONAL REVIEW, an essay on patriotism, in which the author made the same point rather more ornately than Edmund Burke did when he observed that a country, in order to be loved, must be lovely. Professor Thomas Pangle concluded that there is plenty in the Constitution of America that merits love of country; and, indeed, if the life we live here is not significantly different from the life they live over there, then George Kennan and Company are correct that we oughtn’t to keep nuclear weapons in our deterrent inventory.
Jonathan Schell shocked the moral-literary world two or three years ago when he counted up and advised us that the explosive energy of the combined nuclear resources of the superpowers amounts to eight hundred million times the power of the bomb that went off over Hiroshima forty years ago. I remember that when I read that figure it conjured to my mind not so much the awful destructive potential of man as the infinity by which we measure the value of what we have,over against what it is that, otherwise,we would not have. The President, speaking at a great graveyard in Germany last May, reminded us forcefully of the terminal consequences of engaging, whether willingly or by conscription, in massive, ugly efforts to take from others their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
A year before NATJONAL REVIEW was founded, I spent an evening with Whittaker Chambers, and he asked me, half provocatively, half seriously, what exactly it was that my prospective journal would seek to save. I trotted out a few platitudes, of the sort one might expect from a 27-year-old fogy, about the virtues of a free society. He wrestled with me by obtruding the dark historicism for which he became renowned. Don’t you see, he said, the West is doomed, so that any effort to save it is correspondingly doomed to failure? I drop this ink stain on the bridal whiteness of this fleeted evening only to acknowledge soberly that weare still a long way from establishing, for sure, that Whittaker Chambers was wrong. But that night, challenged byhis pessimism, I said to him that if it were so that Providence had rung up our license on liberty, stamping it as expired, the Republic deserved a journal that would argue the historical and moral case that we ought to have survived: that, weighing the alternative, the culture of liberty deserves to survive.So that even if the worst were to happen, the journal in which I hoped he would collaborate might serve, so to speak, as the diaries of Anne Frank had served, as absolute, dispositive proof that she should have survived, in place of her tormentors — who ultimately perished. In due course that argument prevailed, and Chambers joined the staff.
To do what, exactly? The current issue of NATIONAL REVIEW discusses of course the Summit conference, the war in Afghanistan, Sandinista involvement in Colombia; but speaks, also, of the attrition of order and discipline in so many of our public schools, of the constitutional improvisations of Mr.Rostenkowski, of the shortcomings of the movies Eleni and Macaroni, of the imperatives of common courtesy, of the relevance of Malthus, of prayer and the unthinkable, of the underrated legacy of Herman Kahn. Some of these subjects are greatly attenuated from the principal concerns of NATIONAL REVIEW. Attenuated yes, but not disconnected: because freedom anticipates, and contingently welcomes and profits from, what happens following the calisthenics of the free mind, always supposing that that freedom does not lead the mind to question the very value of freedom, or the authority of civil and moral virtues so to designate themselves. There are enough practitioners in this room to know that a journal concerned at once to discharge a mission and to serve its readers needs to be comprehensively concerned with the flora and fauna of cultural and political life. We have done this in NATIONAL REVIEW, and because we have done this, you are here — our tactical allies, most of you; our strategic allies, all of you.
How is our cause being handled byour guest of honor? Two or three years ago I was asked by the Philadelphia Society to speak on the theme, “Is President Reagan doing all that can be done?” It was a coincidence that my wife, Pat, and I had spent the weekend before with the President and Mrs. Reagan in Barbados, and I remembered with delight a conversation I had with my host on the presidential helicopter taking us to our villa the first evening, before the two days reserved for bacchanalian sunning and swimming on the beach in front of Claudette Colbert’s house, where we would spend the day. I leaned over and told him I had heard the rumor that the Secret Service was going to deny him permission to swim on that beach because it was insufficiently secure, and asked whether that were so.
Helicopters, even presidential helicopters, are pretty noisy, but I did hear him say, “Well, Bill, Nancy here tells me I’m the most powerful man in the Free World. If she’s right, then I will swim tomorrow with you.”
Which indeed he did. I digress to recall that during one of those swims I said to him, “Mr. President, would you like to earn the NATIONAL REVIEW Medal of Freedom?” He confessed to being curious as to how he would qualify to do this, and I said, “Well, I will proceed to almost drown, and you will rescue me.” We went through the motions, and I have conferred that medal on him, in pectore.
I told the Philadelphia Society that the most powerful man in the FreeWorld is not powerful enough to do everything that needs to be done. But I speculated on what I continue to believe is the conclusive factor in the matter of American security against ultimate Soviet aggression, which is the character of the occupant of theWhite House, the character of Ronald Reagan. The reason this is so, I argued, is that the Soviet Union, for all that from time to time it miscalculates, has never miscalculated in respect of matters apocalyptic in dimension. And the Soviet Union knows that the ambiguists with whom it so dearly loves to deal are not in power at this time. So that if ever the Soviet Union were tempted to such suicidal foolishness as to launch a strike against us, suicidal is exactly what it would prove to be.The primary obstacle to the ultimate act of Soviet imperialism is the resolute determination — to repeat my own formulation — to value what we have, over against what they do not have, sufficiently to defend it with all our resources.
Ronald Reagan, in my own judgment,animates his foreign policy by his occasional diplomatic indiscretions: because, of course, it was a diplomatic indiscretion to label the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Ce n’est que laverite qui blesse: It is only the truth that wounds. And he correctly switches gear, as required, when wearing diplomatic top hat and tails. He did not talk the language of John Wayne — or of Thomas Aquinas — while in Geneva. But how reassuring it is for us all, every now and then, to vibrate to the music of the very heartstrings of the leader of the Free World, who, to qualify as such, has, after all, to feel a substantial commitment to a free world. When the President ventures out to exercise conviviality with the leader of the Soviet Union, the scene is by its nature wonderful, piquant. It brings to mind the Russian who, on discovering that his pet parrot is missing, rushes out to the KGB office to report that the parrot’s political opinions are entirely unrelated to his own.
Mr. President, 15 years ago I was interviewed by Playboy magazine. Toward the end of the very long session I was asked the question, Had I, in middle age, discovered any novel sensual sensation? I replied that, as a matter of fact, a few months earlier I had traveled to Saigon and, on returning, had been summoned by President Nixon to the Oval Office to report my impressions. “My novel sensual sensation,” I told Playboy,” is to have the President of the United States take notes while you are speaking to him.”
You need take no notes tonight, Mr.President. What at NATIONAL REVIEW we labor to keep fresh, alive, deep, you are intuitively drawn to. As an individual you incarnate American ideals at many levels. As the final responsible authority, in any hour of great challenge, we depend on you. I was twenty years old when the bomb exploded over Hiroshima. Last week I became sixty. During the interval I have lived as a free man, in a free and sovereign country. I pray that my son, when he is sixty, and your son,when he is sixty, and the sons and daughters of our guests tonight will one day live in a world over which that awful shadow has finally dissipated. Then they will be grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong.