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John Harvard's Journal | Commencement 2002

"Civilization Need Not Die"

July-August 2002

At the dinner for honorary-degree recipients the night before Commencement, President Summers characterized Daniel Patrick Moynihan, using one of the latter's own terms, as a "great complexifier"—denoting a kind of analysis far too often in short supply. Moynihan—former four-term United States Senator from New York, ambassador to India and to the United Nations, adviser to four presidents, and Harvard professor—exhibited that habit of mind in a chilling assessment of the present world situation. Excerpts follow. The full text is available on Harvard's commencement website.

A while back it came as something of a start to find in The New Yorker a reference to an article I had written, and I quote, "in the middle of the last century." Yet persons my age have been thinking back to those times and how, in the end, things turned out so well and so badly. Millions of us returned from the assorted services to find that the economic growth that had come with the Second World War had not ended with the peace. The Depression had not resumed....

It would be difficult indeed to summon up the optimism that came with this great surprise. My beloved colleague Nathan Glazer and the revered David Riesman wrote at the time that America was "the land of the second chance" and so indeed it seemed. We had surmounted the Depression; the war. We could realistically think of a world of stability, peace—above all, a world of law.

Looking back, it is clear we were not nearly so fortunate. Great leaders preserved—and in measure extended—democracy. But totalitarianism had not been defeated. To the contrary, by 1948 totalitarians controlled most of Eurasia. As we now learn, 11 days after Nagasaki, the Soviets established a special committee to create an equivalent weapon....Now the Cold War was on. From the summer of 1914, the world had been at war—with interludes [of peace], no more. It finally seemed to end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the changes in China.

But now we have to ask if it is once again the summer of 1914.

Small acts of terror in the Middle East, in South Asia, could lead to cataclysm, as they did at Sarajevo. And for which great powers, mindful or not, have been preparing.

The eras are overlapping....

Standing at Trinity site at Los Alamos, J. Robert Oppenheimer pondered an ancient Sanskrit text in which the Lord Shiva declares, "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds." Was he right?

At the very least we can come to terms with the limits of our capacity to foresee events....[In 1993, Weatherhead University Professor] Samuel Huntington outlined that new world order—or disorder— an article in [Foreign Affairs] entitled "The Clash of Civilizations." His subsequent book of that title is a defining text of our time. Huntington perceives a world of seven or eight major conflicting cultures—the West, Russia, China, India, and Islam. Add Japan, South America, Africa....

Moynihan receiving his honorary degree. "Democracy," he said in his afternoon address, "may not prove to be a universal norm. But decency would do."
Jim Harrison

The Cold War on balance suppressed conflict. But the end of the Cold War has brought not universal peace but widespread violence. Some of this has been merely residual proxy conflicts dating back to the earlier era. Some plain ethnic conflict. But the new horror occurs on the fault lines...between the different cultures.

For argument's sake one could propose that Marxism was the last nearly successful effort to Westernize the rest of the world.... This wasn't going to last, and of course, it hasn't.

Hence Huntington: "The central problem in the relations between the West and the rest is...the discordance between the West's—particularly America's—efforts to promote universal Western culture and its declining ability to do so."

Again, there seems to be no end of ethnic conflict within civilizations. But it is to the clash of civilizations we must look with a measure of dread. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently noted that "The crisis between India and Pakistan, touched off by a December 13 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, marks the closest two states have come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis."...

The terrorist attacks on the United States of last September were not nuclear—but they will be. Again to cite Huntington, "At some point...a few terrorists will be able to produce massive violence and massive destruction. Separately, terrorism and nuclear weapons are the weapons of the non-Western weak. If and when they are combined, the non-Western weak will be strong."

This was written in 1996. The first mass murder by terrorists came last September. Just last month the vice president informed [reporter] Tim Russert that "the prospects of a future attack...are almost certain. Not a matter of if, but when." Secretary Rumsfeld has added that the attack will be nuclear.


We are indeed at war and we must act accordingly, with equal measures of audacity and precaution.

As regards precaution, note how readily the clash of civilizations could spread to our own homeland. The Bureau of the Census lists some 68 separate ancestries in the American population.... Not since 1910 have we had so high a proportion of immigrants....

This, as ever, has had bounteous rewards....The problem comes when immigrants and their descendants bring with them...the clashes they left behind. Nothing new, but newly ominous. Last month in Washington an enormous march filled Pennsylvania Avenue on the way to the Capitol grounds. The marchers, in the main, were there to support the Palestinian cause. Fair enough. But every five feet or so there would be a sign proclaiming "Zionism equals Racism" or a placard with a swastika alongside a Star of David. Which is anything but fair, which is poisonous and has no place in our discourse....

It is a testament to our First Amendment freedoms that we permit such displays, however obnoxious to our fundamental ideals. But in the wake of 9/11, we confront the fear that such heinous speech can be a precursor to violence... that threatens our existence.

To be sure, we must do what is necessary to meet the threat. We need to better understand what the dangers are. We need to explore how better to organize the agencies of government to detect and prevent calamitous action.

But at the same time, we need [to] take care that whatever we do is consistent with our basic constitutional design. What we do must be commensurate with the threat in ways that do not needlessly undermine the very liberties we seek to protect.

The concern is suspicion and fear within....In Washington, agencies compete in techniques of intrusion and exclusion: identity cards and x-ray machines and all the clutter, plus a new life for secrecy....Secrecy, as George Will writes, "renders societies susceptible to epidemics of suspicion."

We are witnessing such an outbreak in Washington just now. Great clamor as to what the different agencies knew in advance of the 9/11 attack; when the president was briefed; what was he told. These are legitimate questions, but there is a prior issue, which is the disposition of closed systems not to share information.... [T]here is police work to be done. But so many forms of secrecy are self-defeating. In 1988, the CIA formally estimated the gross domestic product of East Germany to be higher than West Germany's. We should calculate the risks of depending on such...arrangements.

The "what-ifs" are intriguing. What if the United States had recognized Soviet weakness earlier and, accordingly, kept its own budget in order, so that upon the breakup of the Soviet Union a momentous economic-aid program could have been commenced? What if we had better calculated the forces of the future so that we could have avoided going directly from the "end" of the Cold War to a new Balkan war...leaving little attention and far fewer resources for the shattered Soviet empire?

Because we have that second chance Riesman and Glazer wrote about. A chance to define our principles and stay true to them. All the more then, to keep our system open as much as possible, with our purposes plain and accessible, so long as we continue to understand what the twentieth century has surely taught, which is that open societies have enemies, too. Indeed, [open societies] are the greatest threat to closed societies, and, accordingly, the first object of their enmity.

We are committed, as the Constitution says, to "the Law of Nations," but [to] that law as properly understood. Many have come to think that international law prohibits the use of force. To the contrary, like domestic law, it legitimates the use of force to uphold law in a manner that is itself proportional and lawful.

Democracy may not prove to be a universal norm. But decency would do. Our present conflict, as the president says over and over again, is not with Islam, but with a malignant growth within Islam defying the teaching of the Qu'ran that the struggle to the path of God forbids the deliberate killing of noncombatants. Just how and when Islam will rid itself of current heresies is something no one can say. But not soon.... Other clashes will follow.

Certainly we must not let ourselves be seen as rushing around the world looking for arguments....Nor should we let ourselves be seen as ignoring allies, disillusioning friends, thinking only of ourselves in the most narrow terms. That is not how we survived the twentieth century.

Nor will it serve in the twenty-first.

Last February, some 60 academics of the widest range of political persuasion and religious belief, a number of them here at Harvard, including Huntington, published a manifesto: "What We're Fighting For: A Letter from America." [See May-June, page 62.]....We affirmed "five fundamental truths that pertain to all people without distinction," beginning "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." We allow for our own shortcomings as a nation: sins, arrogance, failings. But we assert we are no less bound by moral obligation. And finally, "reason and careful moral reflection also teach us that there are times when the first and most important reply to evil is to stop it."

But there is more.... Fifty-five years ago, on this occasion, General George C. Marshall summoned our nation to restore the countries whose mad regimes had brought the world such horror. It was an act of statesmanship and vision without equal in history. History summons us once more in different ways, but with even greater urgency. Civilization need not die. But at this moment, only the United States can save it. Thank you.


For complete texts of the Commencement speeches, visit