When President Conant makes a speech, it is usually to some committee on education, or society for the prevention of something or other, and very few undergraduates either read or particularly care what he says. But the fact is that he has, from the first declaration of war in September of 1939, been one of the most practical prophets in the country.
While the undergraduate body was scraping up the enjoyments of a war time Santa Claus and blowing an ironical horn on New Year's Eve, President Conant quietly made another of his speeches. He stated that, "The day the Nazi regime collapses . . . the United States must be ready to assume political and economic leadership of the world. . . We shall have to insist that the final international order will be based on freedom." This was the urgent warning which he couched in phrases of provocative advice.
There are dangers in this hopeful duty which President Conant's generation passes down to our generation with such single-minded surety. They tell us that the United States, one nation on the face of the earth, must take unto itself the responsibility of insisting that the post-war world is based on freedom.
Perhaps they, the generation which led our country through the First World War, are thinking of how some of them wanted to wipe the enemy off the face of the earth, some created the phrase "peace without vicotry," and how the result was an impractical mixture of both. Perhaps they are remembering that all of the allied populations firmly believed that military victory would clear the way for a form of government which they called democracy, and that this attitude was fertile ground for the nurturing of another form which they called dictatorship.
Yet out of this failure, the men and women of this older generation learned a lesson. President Conant calls this lesson "the most bitter fact that must be faced in the modern world . . . that there are only two kinds of neighbors that can be trusted to keep the peace: one is a nation with small industrial resources, the other, a society with a will to peace." If the United States is to lead an international order based on freedom, it must be guided by that lesson. But the danger is that we can pervert our leadership, making our duty to enforce freedom a club of imperialism. If the First War generation has learned anything, it is a broader understanding of "the responsibilities of the victors." If the education which they have given us is to be of any value, it must enable us to discover the proper combination of power and morality, and to apply that in our leadership.