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Laugh where we must, be candid where we can. --Pope, "Essay on Man"
In reacting to Russia's satellite breakthrough, America has tried hard to peddle its sour-grapes in all of the world's markets. But the soft-sell and the new label fail to obscure the bitter taste still in the salesman's mouth. He may do well to reappraise himself and not his product.
The country forced itself to laugh. Sputnik puns flourished, and even official responses attempted, at the outset, to dilute the Soviet achievement. Both the President and ex-Secretary Wilson tried to minimize the significance of the innovation, but the public found its sense of humor dampened by something that seemed like anxiety but couldn't be; America had never troubled itself over the technological advances of her rivals. Her superiority was too great, her talent too secure.
Mirth seemed inappropriate; the nation turned to anger. The Government, always an available whipping-boy, again bent over to receive the lash. Righteous indignation rose to the occasion. Scientists, soldiers, journalists, and cracker-barrel sages fired their salvos at the nearest targets. Though the smoke hasn't yet lifted, it isn't difficult to see that the army has been fighting only itself.
Between the lines of confusion, renewed determination, and unsure reassurance, one message stands out, italicized against the blur of conflicting emotions: If America can learn anything from the current denouement, it is that our adolescence is past. This country has been fortunate; its youth has grown strong and vigorous under every conceivable circumstance. But we have consistently tended to confuse luck with talent, and have been satisfied to rest on our big oars, failing to see that the sea could get rougher. The nation, swollen with pride of accomplishment, has been content to play the strapping fair-haired boy, stepping in to protect weaklings from bullies. We have sat in self-righteous judgement on the world's felons, and with our Big Stick have meted out punishment where it was necessary.
But on the nation's technological superiority and economic vigor, America has erected a presumptuous, and, for herself, dangerous pedestal. We have come magnanimously to admit the possibility of others being almost as good as ourselves, or even just as good, but none better, at least scientifically and materially. From that pedestal the country now sees another structure rising in the distance, and, in a babel of hope and fear, rushes to build her own even higher.
Undoubtedly, the spur to action can be valuable. It can prod us out of scientific complacency and give rise to a more adequate defense apparatus. But there is a greater significance to the challenge. The nation, as some already realize, must reappraise its sources of strength, must base its confidence on firm, not illusory ground, and must reconstruct its policies and tactics on this new foundation. America is still technologically the leader; her people live more luxuriously than any people in history. And the promise for the future is not eclipsed by Russia's satellites in space. But, in the interests of our allies and ourselves, we must realize that the time for chest-beating is over.
America's claim to free-world leadership is not the better mousetrap she has built. Rather, the secure and effective political and economic structure of the country, its high instinctual ideals of political freedom and economic dynamism remain exemplary goals for a world which seeks a leader. In asserting our strength, we can no longer afford to denegrate the accomplishments and efforts of our allies, or our enemies. Vanity must yield to realistic confldence, and condescension must bow to sincere cooperation.
Perhaps the Soviet breakthrough, in prompting considerable soul-searching in America, may prove a welcome catalyst to the process of national maturity. Instead of scratching its head and, in angry confusion, dubbing the situation "a puzzlement," the country may gain a new confidence and balance. The price for failing to learn this lesson now may be higher later on.
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