“Our enemies have often assumed that we are soft and vulnerable, that we love luxury and tolerate dissent and argument to the point that it weakens us, They are mistaken. In the Cold War we persevered for almost fifty years (1946-1991), often against strong domestic opposition. It is because our democratic institutions tolerate — no encourage — debate and dissent that we found the resolve and the will to prevail.” — Hans Mark, from An Anxious Peace: A Cold War Memoir
This quote is from a book by Hans Mark that I am reading for review. Mark is best known for his work at NASA, but he spent a good chunk of his career developing nuclear weapons. Mark dedicated his life to fighting socialism, especially that of Communism. He viewed National Socialism through the same lens, seeing it as a second head of the two-headed monster. His family fled Austria when Mark was nine after the Nazis took over that country. He came to the United States as a refugee and became a citizen seven years later. He served in the US Navy in the 1940s.
The quote struck me because it contradicts the sentiments of several conversations posted earlier. Mark cites debate and dissent — even vigorous debate and dissent as a strength, not a weakness.
I believe he is right. It was not just the Soviets (and now the Chinese) who believe the United States to be soft and vulnerable because of our wealth and willingness to encourage debate and dissent. So too, did Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. So, too, did the Kaiser’s Imperial Germany. In a sense, so too did 18th-century Great Britain in confronting its fractious colonies.
Vigorous debate and dissent is our strength. Our willingness to engage in fractious political debate tempers the United States, in the same way, that hammering on steel strengthens it. Vigorous debate and dissent reveal the strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the issues debated, and all other things being equal leads to the adoption of the stronger solution.
It is not vigorous debate and dissent that weakens us. It is suppression of vigorous debate and dissent. The United States was weakened by the Wilson Administration’s fascistic clamp-down on debate and dissent during World War I and by governmental attempts to quash debate ever since. It leads to lies being valued over truth.
Elsewhere in his book, Mark claims a key Soviet weakness was it was a society built on lies. We know what happened to the Soviets. Demographics, combined with the shackles of a command economy and intolerance of dissent threaten to send China to the same end.
What is alarming today is not the differences in opinion held by Americans today. It is the willingness to shut down debate, to shout down dissent as treason, and to declare debate on certain topics as taboo. This is not just unAmerican. It is an evil that threatens to put us on the same path as the Soviet Union and today’s China.