Leo Cherne

America’s Reluctant Optimist

VTR Date: March 21, 1984

Guest: Cherne, Leo


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Leo Cherne
Title: “America’s Reluctant Optimist”
VTR: 3/21/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Since the administration of John F. Kennedy selected the fist group of candidates more than 20 years ago, only about 200 persons have received from the President of the United States America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Well, my guest today has joined that distinguished cadre, and for good reason. Leo Cherne, Chairman of the international Rescue Committee and Executive Director of the Research Institute of America has for many years contributed valiantly, as the President noted, in the field of government service and humanitarianism. Indeed, when Edward Bennett Williams recently introduced Mr. Cherne for this 44th annual forecast of the year ahead, he said, “I confess to all here and present that as much as I love this wonderful man of all seasons, I sometimes slide into the deadly sin of envy, envy of his brilliant mind, his facile tongue, his mastery of the arts, and his life of dazzling accomplishment”. Well, I share that envy, and I do welcome you here, Mr. Cherne. It’s been a long time since you’ve graced this table.

CHERNE: It has been too long a time.

HEFFNER: And I wonder whether the, in that time, the optimism, the supreme optimism that always characterized your approach to the world, has stayed with you.

CHERNE: Well, the optimism which drives me is still clearly a part of my motivation, my personality. My view of the world does not justify the degree off optimism which continues to generate my energy.

HEFFNER: How are we going to make those two things jibe?

CHERNE: Well, I suppose I am quite content to have those two in some tension with each other, because if I were as pessimistic as my views sometimes are of the prospects of free society continuing, I would not have the energy to proceed to do what I can to help sustain that prospect, however slim it is.

HEFFNER: Yet you’re a realist.


HEFFNER: And you’re a man of great knowledge and great understanding and a great capacity to look back and understand what has happened. Where it is written in your estimation, that the future has to hold for us the, a continuation of an involvement with liberty, involvement with freedom, the things that you do hold dear?

CHERNE: It is written nowhere. And there are all too many moments when I have grave doubts that we will be more fortunate than other societies have been in the past.

HEFFNER: And what keeps you going?

CHERNE: The fact that there is a chance. That chance may become slimmer with the passage of time. In fact, I think it has. But I still strongly believe there is that chance. And that’s what keeps me going.

HEFFNER: But let me ask whether – and I’ve asked this question to some others on this program over the years, indeed over the 28 years that it’s been on the air – not just where is it written…


HEFFNER: But wouldn’t we be better off if we lowered our sights somewhat, became somewhat more realistic, didn’t permit that dichotomy to exist between what we really think is likely to happen and what we insist must, should, and therefore possibly can happen?

CHERNE: I can only speak for my views. I think I do not misrepresent the way I present my views of what’s likely to happen by moderating in any degree the starkness of the prospect, the slimness of our achieving the particular goals. Those I do believe I present clearly. In fact, it’s interesting that you refer to me as a pessimist – as an optimist – because it was a New Yorker profile of 1939 – I was a very young man – which was entitled “Cassandra, Incorporated”. The New Yorker saw me as a pessimist. In fact, the business community which the Research Institute of America has served over these years looks at the research institute very much as an organization that provides very unpleasant, for the most part, outlook of what’s likely to happen. The optimism I’m talking about is not an optimism of view, but an optimism of purpose. I cannot let, however slight that flame, die out that generates the urgency of my doing the things which I do, whatever the chance is that those things may be futile.

HEFFNER: You know, when I read Edward Bennett Williams’ introduction of you, when you forecast again not so long ago about what we have in store for us in 1984, you were pleased by the introduction. It was one of the funniest things that I ever read, and also was a tribute to you, as I indicated to our audience. He began by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, members and guests of the Sales Executive Club, it was just 44 years ago this very week”, and this is January 1984, “when George Orwell began work on his most famous novel, 1984. And that was the very week that Leo Cherne showed up here to do his forecast for 1940. All right. Much has been made of the fact of this year, 1984; presumably everything that Orwell wrote will come to pass in this year or will be beyond the point of no recall. How do you relate to that picture of what would become and has now become contemporary society that Orwell presented?

CHERNE: Interestingly enough, it would be hard to tell, from especially watching the television’s coverage of Orwell in this year, 1984, that Orwell was moved by his vision of the Soviet Union. He was quite explicit about that as the terror which animated his two, the books we know best, 1984 and Animal Farm. We look at ourselves, interestingly enough, and I’ve seen very little on television which has examined the Soviet Union in terms of 1984. But we have looked at the fact that we have so much of our personal records on computers, that the government and some private credit agencies have all of the data of our lives, in an urgent effort to try to find that we have moved closer to that vision of 1984. Now, interestingly enough, if I have to justify optimism, I would have to say that using 1984, written 44 years ago, as a measure of what might have occurred here, we are remarkably durable.

HEFFNER: But wasn’t Orwell saying basically if in Animal Farm there was a description of Soviet society – “description” may be a poor word – that 1984 was an expression of concern, that we might, not through communist society, but basically through socialist society develop in our own midst the kinds of patterns of control over the minds of men that existed in the Soviet Union?

CHERNE: …trying to say in his collected papers. He says quite clearly that his great concern about the west was that we would not perceive and never have been ready to perceive the dangers we confronted and continue to confront outside our societies, that we, with our – as a matter of fact, “optimism” is not inappropriate in this connection – with our optimism look at the totalitarian societies and see a mirror image of ourselves.

HEFFNER: Do you think he was right?

CHERNE: Yes, I think he was right. Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: You think a substantial portion of our own community has not recognized what the controls are over the minds of men ion the Soviet Union?

CHERNE: Definitely, but to the extent that they recognize that in the Soviet Union, they do not, we are so unwilling – we were, incidentally, with the Nazis before – we are so unwilling to see these societies as not alterable if we’re just generous enough in our treatment of them.

HEFFNER: That’s an interesting parallel that you make, that we felt that way about the Nazis before us.

CHERNE: Oh yes, we did. One of the best-selling books in 1939, as I recall, was a book, You Can do Business with Hitler. And indeed, we could have done business with Hitler.

HEFFNER: Now, you referred before to the Research Institute of America’s service to the business community.


HEFFNER: Hasn’t a large segment of the business community in this country been very much involved in doing business with the Soviet Union?

CHERNE: Yes, and with Nazi Germany before, and with Japan during that period as well.

HEFFNER: Then misunderstanding or misconceptions or mistakes…


HEFFNER: …are not the property alone of the liberal intellectuals in this country.

CHERNE: Oh, no, they’re not. The businessman who does business with the Soviet Union, and his predecessors who did business with the fascist states were not, however, animated by any romantic vision of those societies.

HEFFNER: What were they animated about?

CHERNE: They were animated by the corporate purpose of doing as much business as possible for profit.

HEFFNER: Well, when Richard Viguerie has sat at this table in that chair, he has commented on that again and again, a great concern that we are being sold down the river – I don’t know whether he would accept that characterization, but I suspect that he would – both by liberal intellectuals who refuse to see realistically what is happening outside of our borders, and by a business community that, as you suggest, cares more for the almighty dollar than for fostering our own ultimate best interests.

CHERNE: In one respect, however, they are different.

HEFFNER: What’s that?

CHERNE: The business community does not in the process corrupt a vision of the world. Its own actions are without morality. The liberal community shapes a view of the world which very much affects our posture, our policy, the actions of our government.

HEFFNER: Not a distinction?

CHERNE: Now let me say, I’m not making the most dramatic distinction in the world, but there is a distinction.

HEFFNER: I was thinking perhaps a distinction without a difference?

CHERNE: No, I will insist there is a difference.

HEFFNER: Practically speaking?

CHERNE: Saul Bellow put it well in – and I cannot quote his exact words – in his last novel, The Dean of December, when he observed that all society is not likely to die because of the failure of our institutions. It is in mortal jeopardy because of the failure of America’s elite to perceive that dangers we face and to take appropriate actions to beat them.

HEFFNER: And how do you explain that?

CHERNE: The romantic and utopian perennial character of the liberal in western society.

HEFFNER: Something to be destroyed? Not embraced?

CHERNE: I do not embrace that particular quality.

HEFFNER: But hasn’t that been part and parcel of what has been good and great about this country?

CHERNE: That’s why I said I do not embrace that quality.

HEFFNER: All right. What about it would you embrace? What do you find positive in it?

CHERNE: I find positive in it the attributes in the liberal community which do enrich our culture, enrich our sense of what’s desireable, if not possible. The undiscriminating liberal will often confuse desireable and possible. That I do not embrace. And the liberal has been the repository of our arts and literature, for the most part. And that’s a knife which cuts both ways.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

CHERNE: In the process that art and culture have often been in the service of myopia.

HEFFNER: You want to explain that?

CHERNE: Sure. The liberal has found it extremely difficult, if not impossible…Incidentally, I cringe at labeling a community of people “liberal”. And of course there are many liberals of whom what I’m about to say is simply not true. That has to be said. I’d like to think I include myself in that company. The liberal has no difficulty perceiving the dangers of right-wing totalitarianism. But there is a chronic tendency on the part of some liberals, terribly influential ones, to equate political movements on the left somehow or other with progressive movements which represent the hope of man. He simply cannot equate fascism with communism.

HEFFNER: It’s tough to do that, isn’t it? It’s tough, in a sense, to reject the lessons of your early years. And we’re talking basically, I would suspect that you’re talking basically about a slightly older generation. No?

CHERNE: It’s not true. But it is, there’s no doubt that the animating force of this is in the older generation you are referring to. No doubt about it.

HEFFNER: Claire Sterling sat there not too many weeks ago and we talked about this. Talked about that odyssey of hers from left wing to, she would consider it centrist position. And I’m sure that you consider your own position centrist.


HEFFNER: And indeed, I remember – we talked about it just before we went on the air, started this program – I remember watching you 30 years ago doing debate with such people as Joe McCarthy. There you were defending the liberal tradition.

CHERNE: That was one of the proudest periods of my life, to this day.

HEFFNER: But now you find that that same segment of our society that you defended and that you spoke for has, I gather, undercut much of our nation and its capacity to deal realistically with totalitarianism of the left. Is that a fair statement?

CHERNE: It’s a partially fair statement. But it also misstates one of the reasons why I very early latched onto the danger that Joe McCarthy represented. My attention to him was attracted during the summer and fall of 1946 when he was out to defeat Robert McFarland in a primary for the Republican Senate candidacy. He did in fact defeat McFarland, one of our greatest liberal senators in the history of the Senate. Incidentally, in order to do so, he perfectly agreeably, openly accepted the support of the Wisconsin State Communist Party and the Wisconsin State CIO, which then was Communist Party dominated. Incidentally, the willingness to use these phrases, “communist dominated”, comes very hard, and would be an impossibility for the liberal of whom I’m speaking. Regrettably, Joe McCarthy did contribute mightily to that fact. He made it so difficult for people to oppose him and oppose communism – and that was my motivation – there were not many liberals who were willing to do that at the time.

HEFFNER: So you had that dichotomization…

CHERNE: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: …which we’re still experiencing today?

CHERNE: Yes. If anything, it is less today.

HEFFNER: You know, in reading the speech that you delivered when Edward Bennett Williams introduced you, you entitled it, “Have We Got it in Us?” The Perennial question.


HEFFNER: I asked you at the beginning what explains the optimism, and you indicated that that isn’t unalloyed optimism. Do you really think we have it in us to preserve the right side – I don’t mean as between right and left – but the proper side of the American experience to survive the challenges that we have?

CHERNE: Yes. I really believe we have it in us, though I must say that conviction is much harder to hold onto now than would have been the case 50 years ago.

HEFFNER: Do you think technology is going to permit jus to hold onto an optimistic approach to the survival of those older, individualistic traditions of this country?

CHERNE: It will make it more difficult to do so.

HEFFNER: Why are you reluctant to say, perhaps impossible, therefore, let’s develop a new ideology?

CHERNE: Dick, for a very simple reason: because I don’t believe it, I do not believe it impossible. I believe it’s a long shot, but it’s not impossible. Also, there is a chronic failing in the American people which curiously enough gives me a great deal of encouragement. We have always been incapable of meeting a challenge when you would think a dummy would perceive it. We are always too late, always too little. But when the challenge is unmistakable, it is perfectly extraordinary how we turn around. And at least in the past, have somehow or other succeeded, prevailed.

HEFFNER: But you know, this business of shooting craps with our destiny, or saying, “Maybe it will. I want it to. I’m going to say, ‘Every day in every way we’re getting better and better’ just in the hope that we do or we meet this challenge”.

CHERNE: That’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying every day we’re getting better and better. On the contrary. In that very speech you referred to, I think I made a terribly strong and gloomy case for the five fundamental challenges that are bedeviling us and which we will meet with the greatest of difficulty. Then I came to the final question: Do we have it in us to do this? I said, the odds are heavy. We have a long distance to go, but I still think we have it in us. But I did nothing to mitigate the challenge.

HEFFNER: But if in this crapshoot, this giant gamble that we’re taking…

CHERNE: May I interrupt…


CHERNE: …and ask, what alternative do we have to the crapshoot?

HEFFNER: The formulation…


HEFFNER: …of new ideas that pay their respect, and more than just lip service, to some of the older ideology, while still integrating that older ideology into thoughts that give respect to where we are now and what we are becoming. Why hang on to an ideology that may not – now, let’s just put it in “may not”, and the odds aren’t that great – may not work because there’s so far that we’re going to have to fall and there’ll be so little to hang onto? If our older ideas were the function of the expansion of the western world, of individualism, of the seventeenth and eighteenth and maybe the nineteenth centuries, why as we go into the twenty-first century, do we hang onto them for dear life and not prepare ourselves for something else?

CHERNE: I’m not sure this will be altogether satisfactory an answer to you, but I do not think we are hanging on quite as tenaciously as we did. And part of the reason for my pessimism incidentally is that we are in fact not hanging on.

HEFFNER: You mean the slippery slope?

CHERNE: Yes. It’s gradual. It’s not dramatic. It’s an astonishing thing to know that deTocqueville more than a hundred years ago in his classic work, Democracy in America, noted one remarkable thing about the American people as he observed them then. Abbreviating what he had to say, they have no staying power. They cannot stay with a conception with a resolution and meet the problems they perceive for more than brief bursts of energy and time.

HEFFNER: And that good or bad?

CHERNE: That’s very bad. Very bad.

HEFFNER: And you think Tocqueville was prescient in his observations?

CHERNE: I think he was condescending. I think he overstated. Incidentally, his conception of democracy in America was a very condescending conception. I think he was prescient. I think he was an elitist, not altogether happy with this easygoing democracy that he perceived. But it didn’t matter in terms of the values you and I have that that was the case of America then. We were a young society. We were an isolated society. There were very few risks involved in our inability, especially – I think he observed – especially in foreign affairs. Our inability to pay attention for more than brief periods of time, that did not matter much then. Once can say it hardly mattered at all. It matters greatly today.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you a question. I’m getting the signal that we have just few minutes left.


HEFFNER: Let me ask you the question about your being selected by the President of the United States for this great honor. Are there things about the man and the administration that will so honor you that you feel fit in, in perhaps not such a positive way, to the formulations that you’ve offered here? I don’t mean that you’ll ever be ungracious. But I ask the question anyway.

CHERNE: No. We have only one President of the United States at a time. The office of the presidency in the United States is an office I revere. Were it not for the fact, I would not have served seven presidents. It was not by my choice, history’s choice, that three of those presidents were Democrats, four of those presidents have been Republican. And president who confers that honor on an American citizen is conferring an honor for which the citizen must be grateful.

HEFFNER: Do thou think that they system that produced these seven men…


HEFFNER: …is adequate to the needs that you see in the future? A two-term president, or a one-term president, four years practically running form the moment he is inaugurated?

CHERNE: No, I think it’s a very difficult…It’s a flawed system. It’s a system which is…

HEFFNER: What structural change would you make?


HEFFNER: What structural change would you make?

CHERNE: Well, I know the arguments against it, but I for one, am increasingly tempted to embrace the idea of a one-term, six-year presidency.

HEFFNER: Why do you come to that somewhat reluctantly?

CHERNE: Well, I come to it reluctantly because a president pays a price for telling those around him, and especially telling those in the Congress, that they can oppose him without risking a cost, and that cost always is the reality of the illusion of the second term. A second-term presidency is very different for precisely that reason. And what in fact we’re doing in a six-year term is making him into a second term of six years, because from the very first moment he takes that office he is a six-year lame duck. And I’m using “lame duck” very loosely in that context. That’s one of the reasons.

HEFFNER: But all in all…


HEFFNER: …you feel that we would meet some of the crying needs by that change?

CHERNE: Oh, yes. Yes. I also, and if anything, am even more critical of a two-year congressional term.

HEFFNER: You would extend it?

CHERNE: Oh, I clearly would extend it. I think it is now becoming impossible for a Congress to confront the kinds of complex questions it can, and a man has two years in which to confront those questions, and very possibly be out of a job at the end of two years? He’s going to start campaigning the day he’s elected.

HEFFNER: So what you’re saying is that the basic problem with our political structure is that campaigns go on at all times. And the next time you come to this chair and this table – and I hope it will be soon – that’s what I’d like to talk with you about…

CHERNE: I’d like to.

HEFFNER: …the political structure and the changes in it.

CHERNE: I’d enjoy it.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Leo Cherne, for joining me today.

CHERNE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too will join us here again one other time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.