October 23, 2017

1967. Considering the United States' Place in the World

President Lyndon Johnson on Abraham Lincoln's Legacy
President Lyndon Johnson lays a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial during a ceremony marking the 158th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, February 12, 1967 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 12, 1967

The District of Columbia originally was a ten-mile square piece of land arbitrarily drawn across the tidal reaches of the Potomac river—a plan made at the instigation and urging of George Washington.

It seems that the Continental Congress became so embroiled over where in the original thirteen colonies the capital of the republic should be located that there was concern by the first president that the struggling government might flounder on this comparatively minor question.

The Southerners feared that the big cities of the North would dominate the new federal government if the national capital was located in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. The Northerners wanted the new Union to have a government center worthy of comparison with other world capitals such as London, Paris, and Madrid.

So to solve the problem, Washington, Jefferson, and other leaders of the thirteen sovereign states drew a line—or rather four lines—that formed a box on the Potomac border between Maryland and Virginia, those two states ceding the one hundred square miles of land for what has become Washington, DC.

Ironically, the District of Columbia is the only bit of territory in these United States which still does not grant a full franchise to its citizens—an undemocratic situation affecting more than a half million Americans who gradually are breaking down congressional resistance to home rule.

The point of this story is that mankind for centuries has had a penchant for drawing lines to solve his problems—historical lines which delineated not only his geography, but also which attempted to contain his ideology.

Perhaps the most abiding and consistent foolishness of the civilizations which have made up the earth's history is the mistaken belief that an idea can be contained by a national border, or that a man's spirit can be controlled in a cage or smothered in a prison.

Since the dynasty era of the Chinese emperors, men have been drawing lines of one kind or another. The Great Wall of China still stands as a monument to this Asiatic linear folly.

In the formative days of the United States, a pair of surveyors named Mason and Dixon drew the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. As you know, the Mason-Dixon line once was supposed to be the traditional division between the North and the South. But it long has ceased to have any meaning.

In this century, Europe abounded with "lines" of one kind or another—the Maginot Line, the Mannerheim Line, the Siegfried Line—all of them as monumentally futile as the China wall.

And after World War II, history has inflicted another line on the continent—that twelve hundred mile string of minefields and barbed wire that cuts through the center of Europe known as the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall is another example of line-drawing and perhaps the most stupid of them all, since it is, so to speak, a line within a line.

Now the United States finds herself confronted with other lines in other parts of the globe. There's the 39th parallel dividing North and South Korea. And now, of course, the line of most immediate and costly importance to Americans, the so-called Demilitarized Zone along the 17th parallel which divides North and South Vietnam.

Perhaps it is a proper thing to do on this 158th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln to recall the words leading to his Civil War decision to grant freedom to the American Negro.

You know them well. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he declared. A nation "cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free."

President Johnson went to Washington's Lincoln Memorial today to underscore those words. Pointing out that the man from Illinois originally was more interested in preserving the Union than in freeing the three-to-four million slaves mostly concentrated in the South. Lincoln at first advocated separate ways for the white and black people of the country, even considering a mass exodus of the slaves to Africa or Central America.

But Lincoln changed his mind. President Johnson pointed this out today with emphasis—perhaps underlining Mr. Johnson's own break with the Southern racial prejudices and attitudes which he inherited.

The pressures of events—the demands of Negro spokesmen of both the Lincoln and Johnson eras demanded their full rights as Americans in the land they had helped to build.

In the words of Lyndon Johnson at the Memorial today, "So Lincoln began his troubled journey towards a new concept which would go beyond theories of black power or white power; beyond the ancient blinders of racism to the establishment of a multi-racial community in which a man's pride in his racial origins would be wholly consistent with his commitment to the common endeavor."

Such a concept of racial equality was ideologically and economically unfeasible to the Southern slaveholders. To them, Mr. Lincoln was preaching treason—and worse. And not only black Americans felt—and still feel—the effects of fearful ignorance and prejudice. The Civil War did not end this too brutally human phenomenon. There were the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the Poles, Hungarians, Russians, Swedes, Japanese, and Chinese and virtually every other racial minority whose strange language and customs set him apart when he arrived on these shores.

Self-appointed supermen seem to be always on hand to save the world for themselves. The irony of it is that some of the Americans who fought hardest against Adolf Hitler's National Socialist racial purists returned home to join his bloody ghost in race-baiting organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the bully-boy American Nazi movement.

Perhaps President Johnson was being overly optimistic when he asserted today that: "It has required the hard lessons of a hundred years to make us realize, as [Lincoln] realized, that emancipating the Negro was an act of liberation for the whites."

"...[N]o man can truly live in creative equality," Mr. Johnson said, "when society imposes the irrational spiritual poverty of discrimination on any man."

This was the lesson that former schoolteacher Lyndon Johnson was trying to teach out at the Lincoln Memorial today—that he who would enslave his brother, becomes his brother's slave.

Most historians agree that the most startling and revolutionary political development since the Magna Carta was the creation and founding of the government of the United States of America. Not only did the framers of the Constitution proclaim that all men, in the eyes of the law of this new government, were created equal; they defined the goals of the infant democracy to be dedicated to the lives of its citizens, to their pursuit of happiness, and most important of all, to their individual liberty.

This concept of government is still capturing the imagination of peoples around the world. The American Revolution started something which is still going on, because justice and democracy is the unfinished business of the modern world.

Consequently, here in Washington since the founding of the capital there has been going on a philosophical debate among American leaders and thinkers concerning the United States' political responsibility to the rest of the world. In the early decades of the nation and up to the early years of this twentieth century, it was a question to be discussed over wine and cigars with a Jefferson or a Franklin; with a Daniel Webster or Elihu Root.

But World War I broke once and for all the American democracy's isolation from the world. And the development of US power to leadership of the Free World during World War II has taken the old debate out of the realm of philosophy into twentieth century reality.

Although some members of Congress still today are questioning the nation's worldwide commitments, the United States now has mutual security treaties with more than forty countries scattered throughout the globe. Others speak of "over-commitment" and the impossibility of playing "policeman to the world."

Foreign aid has become a dirty epithet in some areas of Capitol Hill. Disillusionment with the progress of the Vietnam War seems to be generating an incipient kind of neo-isolationism at a time when worldwide communications are being opened up by space satellites presenting immense opportunities for Americans to establish an electronic dialogue with all other peoples of the globe.

This advancement of scientific miracles in space, the shrinking of the world by increasingly rapid transportation, the easy availability of communications and international projects such as the World Weather Watch, all lead to a rather obvious conclusion.

The "One World" which the late Wendell Willkie liked to talk about will soon be shrunk by science and technology to the shape, size, and character of one nation. It's not a new idea. The men who founded the League of Nations and the United Nations foresaw the inevitable and made a start, at least, on trying to tackle the problem.

The Communists don't like it much—either in Moscow or Peking. Unlike the American Revolution, the Marxist revolution was supposed to have bypassed all the messy evolutionary phases of national adjustment and establish their own little old world government to be known as "the dictatorship of the proletariat."

However, man's scientific ingenuity and advancement has brought him to the point where his nuclear weapons can destroy his civilization. And the time has now arrived, many here in Washington believe, where the world's governments must become good neighbors together on this nation-earth or inevitably annihilate each other.

The obstacles to such a world are enormous. President Johnson mentioned only a few of them today.

"For untold centuries men of different colors, and religions, and castes, and ethnic backgrounds have despised each other, have fought each other, have enslaved and killed each other in the name of these false idols.

"And at what a terrible cost in crippled souls—in human creativity wasted on hate, in lost opportunities for growth and learning and common prosperity."

Mr. Johnson pointed out that "racial suspicions, racial hatreds, and racial violence plague men in almost every part of the earth...

"It is man's ancient curse and man's present shame."

So once again this Lincoln's Day anniversary revives the historic Washington debate growing out of the American revolutionary ideal.

In his "House Divided" speech made in Springfield, Illinois in 1858, Mr. Lincoln said that the United States "cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free."

The question in this last half of the twentieth century would seem to be, "Can the modern world endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free?"

Certainly the United States cannot sit anymore behind the two oceans—or between the Isthmus of Panama and the North Polar cap—and remain secure.

The United States already has reached out her hand into space, where mankind's destiny may or may not lie. Someone will find out. But the American destiny also lies in the rice fields and highlands of Vietnam, and in the security of Europe, and in bringing education and self-government to Africa and Latin America.

In another part of his "House Divided" speech almost 109 years ago, Abraham Lincoln made a prediction.

"I do not expect the house to fall," Lincoln declared in hoping the Union would be preserved. Then he went on, "but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing"—meaning slave-holding—"or all the other"—meaning free.

Projecting Lincoln's words to these difficult times and applying them to the modern nation-world now shrinking around us, it becomes clear that the United States has an important role to play on this globe which is half-slave and half-free.

President Johnson praised the Great Emancipator today as one of the "true liberators of mankind," who "have always been those who showed men another way to live—than by hating their brothers."

In the age of the nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile, no nation can afford such hatred. Nor to allow it to become dominant.

Because it seems to be becoming more and more obvious that our world is rapidly reaching that stage when this half-free and half-slave earth will become all of one—or all of the other.

This is Bill Downs for ABC News in Washington.