Nancy Landon Kassebaum, U.S. Senator from Kansas
September 9, 1987
The Challenge of Change
Living for 100 years is a remarkable achievement. It is all the more remarkable when you consider that in just eight days we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution. My father's life covers half of the life of our government.
The past century has been a time of vast change, even profound upheaval, that reordered the world's political, economic, and military power. Consider a few major milestones.
In 1914 my father was 27 years old, and had recently entered the oil business here in Kansas, when the First World War broke out in Europe. In four years time, the old empires of Europe were washed away, and with the revolution of 1917, the new ideology of Marxism had attained a foothold in Russia.
I would note in passing that it was only in 1920 that women won the right to vote in the United States. Dad was 33 years old then, and I don't recall offhand what he had to say about that event.
In 1932, at the age of 45, my father was elected governor of Kansas, and four years later he was the Republican nominee for President. In those years, the Great Depression was sweeping across our country, and the effort to fight it dramatically increased the power and the presence of the federal government in our national life. In Europe those years produced the chilling spread of another ideology, Adolph Hitler's National Socialism.
My father was 54 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and forced the United States into the Second World War. That war completed the power shift that began in 1914 and produced the essential outline of the world we know today two great superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the space of a few years both superpowers were armed with a power that no one before had even imagined: nuclear weapons capable of leveling whole cities in one horrendous flash.
Without doubt, the atomic bomb is the most frightening technological achievement in the history of mankind. But, in fact, it is but one part of the enormous and bewildering advance of technology that has occurred in my father's lifetime.
Dad was 16 years old when Orville Wright shot down a wooden ramp near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and lifted his biplane into the air for a twelve second journey that began the age of flight. Shortly before my father's 82nd birthday, Neil Armstrong placed his foot on the surface of the moon.
When my father was a boy, a car trip was a great adventure, the telephone was in its infancy, and television was only a laboratory experiment. Today anyone in this room could take a jet airplane to the other side of the earth in a matter of hours, place a telephone call to Europe in seconds by satellite, or watch events as they happen nearly anywhere on the planet on live television.
In a real sense, our world has shrunk as the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, television, computers, and satellites have devoured the old meaning, and security, of distance. At the same time, time itself has accelerated. A trip that once took months now takes hours. A government action that once would not have been known to all the American people for many days now is communicated at the moment it happens. An hour is still an hour, but what can happen now in one hour is genuinely awesome.
There is a paradox in this, however. While the physical world of time and distance has shrunk dramatically, the horizons of our intellectual world have expanded by leaps and bounds, even in day-to-day concerns. A Kansas farmer, who once worried only about what the weather might do to the south 40, now can study satellite photos of weather over the Soviet grain belt and track various world markets at the same time.
It often seems that the only real limit on our inquiries is our imagination. Even that is being stretched by work in physics on the basic nature of matter and in genetics, where we are investigating the stuff of life itself.
In short, the past century the time since my father was born has brought both a drastic shrinkage of time and distance and an explosion of knowledge. I believe this combination has produced another important change. It has changed the way we think about ourselves and about our world.
In government, in business, even in our private lives, we have been forced to adapt to a world where the pace already is fast and seems to be accelerating constantly. The result increasingly is that short term demands displace long term concerns. As a society, we seem to move from crisis to crisis.
Nowhere is this more true than in Congress. At times, the Senate seems to have developed an "Issue-of-the-Month" mentality. First, a crucial problem is discovered. Then there are cries of alarm and demands for action. Finally, a gargantuan piece of legislation is drafted, crammed with ideas, programs, and money. The bill is passed, the press releases are issued, and everyone goes off to find another crucial problem.
I don't mean that to sound cynical, but in fact, this is the way we have dealt with serious problems ranging from what used to be called the energy crisis to the budget deficit to drug abuse to the homeless.
Lest anyone think that frenetic activity is a problem only in government, consider what is happening today in American industry. A few years ago, the great cry was for "diversification," and we created many large conglomerates. Today, the cry is for "restructuring," and many conglomerates are being broken up, sold off, or bought out.
Clearly, in an age of rapid change, many changes are made purely for the sake of change. The pressure to do something becomes more important than the question of what should be done. The need for general activity overrides the need for specific action.
I spoke earlier of the paradox of a physical world that has grown smaller and closer together while our intellectual world has expanded beyond all bounds. A second paradox of our time is that as our knowledge has expanded; our perspective and understanding have narrowed.
Faced with a bewildering array of actions and reactions, we frequently find it difficult, if not impossible, to discern what is truly important. Which, if any, of the many changes occurring around us are fundamental, and which are superficial?
Answering that question places new and increased demands on each of us as citizens of a democracy, which is itself but part of a wider world of many nation states. Certainly, we must each focus on the needs and demands of our own lives, but we also must work constantly to build and maintain a broader perspective on our world.
I believe the union of personal goals and ambitions, with an awareness of public needs and concerns, in other words, to be an enlightened citizen is the essential glue of democracy. I also believe that living such a life is one of my father's great personal achievements.
In the 100 years since my father was born, the world has literally remade itself. Despite all of the change he has witnessed, or perhaps because of it, he developed a knack for combining a keen awareness of current events with a deeper appreciation for the underlying flow of history.
In preparing for this lecture a few weeks ago, I reread the very first Landon Lecture, delivered by my father on December 13, 1966. I was struck not only by his specific observations, which showed remarkable foresight, but by what he saw as the flow of events. I want to briefly review some of his thoughts from more than 20 years ago.
First, he spoke of the crucial importance of "the new nationalism," as nations throughout the Third World sought independence and self determination. He predicted that this movement would create great difficulties for the superpowers because it would challenge the authority of both.
In the years since that warning was sounded America has fought and lost a major war in Southeast Asia, where nationalism proved to be an irresistible force. Dictators friendly to us have been overthrown in Iran, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, and others are being challenged in South Korea and Chile. In the cases of the Philippines and Korea, it is instructive to note that our role has been far more positive and so far more productive than it was in all the others.
Our ability to be a positive force for change in Central America now is being tested. While that issue is far from settled, I am encouraged that leaders of the region have taken the first step toward a comprehensive peace plan. I believe it is essential that we support this effort.
We should also keep in mind that the new nationalism has posed similar challenges for the Soviets. Since my father spoke here, the Soviet Union has been forced to crush a rebellion in Czechoslovakia, has seen its advisors evicted from a half dozen African nations, including Egypt, has faced serious upheaval in Poland, and is still fighting what seems to be an endless war to maintain its client regime in Afghanistan.
In his lecture, my father focused on a couple of other key issues.
He called for normalizing relations with Communist China, a step we finally took six years later.
He also sounded a note of deep alarm regarding the results of an earlier conference in Manila on the conflict in Vietnam. Here I want to quote his words: "One result of the Manila Conference was the dramatic pronouncement by our President that the United States is a major Asian power and is assuming guardianship in its name over all of Asia. This appears to be an assertion of national responsibility of appalling proportions."
Vietnam and the opening to China are, of course, now history. It is a history we must all understand and appreciate as we focus our attention on the events unfolding around us today.
With that in mind, I want to turn now to what I believe to be two of the central challenges that face our nation as we move toward the 21st century. One of those challenges is our relationship with the Soviet Union as it attempts to achieve a watershed change in its economy. The other is the challenge we face in adjusting our own economy to a rapidly changing world.
I believe one of the most important developments of our time has been the sporadic effort in the Soviet Union and China to begin internal reforms of the Marxist economic system. These efforts have their roots in the early 1960s when Khrushchev and Deng Xiaoping began to experiment with various reforms.
What was clear to both leaders then was that Marxist theory was not producing its intended results in the real world. My father referred to the importance of these tentative efforts in his lecture. What he did not foresee, and what no one today should overlook, is that both reform efforts met with intense resistance and were derailed for nearly 20 years.
Now both of these reform efforts have been revived, with even greater force, after Deng returned to power in the mid 1970s and Mikhail Gorbachev attained control in the Soviet Union. The success or failure of these renewed efforts, particularly in the Soviet Union, will have profound and far reaching effects on the United States and all of the West.
On the surface, Gorbachev and Deng are attempting to address the problems of their sluggish and inefficient economies. In the Soviet Union the campaigns for less drinking and more discipline in the workplace may produce marginal progress in solving part of the problem.
However, the real difficulty lies much deeper and is directly connected to fundamental flaws in the Marxist system. Marxism, at least as it was adopted in the Soviet Union and China, deliberately rejects the idea of diffused power. Instead, it focuses all power political, economic, military, and judicial in the hands of a small elite who direct all activity from the top down.
To achieve genuine and lasting economic progress, Gorbachev eventually must find ways to make basic changes in the Soviet system. He must provide Soviet workers and factory managers not only more economic choices but also more of the political power that necessarily accompanies such choices.
This is an enormous undertaking, and it involves severe risks for the Soviets generally and for Gorbachev personally. But doing nothing is not an option. If Gorbachev's reforms fail this time, the Soviet Union will fall further and further behind the West in the decades ahead. Its situation will become increasingly desperate and its internal tensions could become unbearable.
If, on the other hand, Gorbachev achieves more than marginal progress, he could produce a genuinely stronger and more vibrant Soviet Union that would pose a whole new kind of challenge to the West. That challenge would not only be the familiar military one but would involve economic competition, now largely absent from our relationship, and a political credibility that Marxism has lost in much of the world.
Clearly, we Americans are more than mere interested observers of this ongoing process. The key question for us is whether the Soviets now are genuinely willing to end 70 years of military and political expansionism in order to expand their internal
I have no crystal ball to answer that question, but I believe we must take the Soviets at their word and seek to build an era of active cooperation between the superpowers. In saying this, I am not suggesting that we accept Soviet statements and promises at face value.
I am saying we must be willing to test the Soviets' words in ways that clearly serve our national interests as well as theirs.
I hope we soon will take a small step in this direction by signing a new arms control agreement with the Soviets to eliminate all short and medium range nuclear missiles. This will have the obvious and important benefit of reducing military tensions. It also could be the first step toward an improved and perhaps markedly different relationship.
Beyond this step, I believe we must become more creative and more thoughtful about managing our end of the superpower equation, and we must constantly seek reciprocity from the Soviets. Mikhail Gorbachev already has demonstrated that he can provide a more modern and more vigorous leadership for the Soviet Union. We must not casually dismiss the possibility that he also could produce a more modern and vigorous Soviet Union.
This possibility is all the more important in light of the second challenge I want to discuss today. That is the challenge we face in making our own internal and international economic adjustments to the changing world of the late 1980s.
Recently, we have seen a series of news stories about how we may be witnessing the end of the so called "American century." I believe such reports on our national demise are premature, but no one can deny the kernel of truth at the heart of such reports. Here are a few sobering facts.
Last year, the United States ran a trade deficit of $166 billion, and we became the world's largest debtor nation. We now owe more than $200 billion to foreign nations, banks, and individuals.
Our federal budget deficit last year was more than $220 billion, and our total national debt topped $2 trillion more than doubling in the past six years.
In short, we are borrowing billions of dollars to buy consumer items, while foreign investors are buying our bonds and our capital assets. The results assure a continuing flow of interest payments, dividends, and profits out of the United States to investors overseas for many years to come.
While the raw numbers are large, at this point they are not unmanageable. We are a very rich nation, and we have an enormous economy, so we can afford to borrow some from abroad. What we cannot afford, however, is to continue the current trends indefinitely.
Our dependence on foreign oil brought the oil shocks of the 1970s. Our dependence now on foreign credit could just as easily bring the credit shocks of the 1980s and 90s.
As with all great national dilemmas, Congress has been wrestling with this problem for months. Now the House and Senate have each produced a massive trade bill that purports to address the issue. A final compromise is expected to be reached and sent to the President this fall.
I don't want to prejudge the final result of all of this, but I am concerned that, so far, much of the legislation and nearly all of the rhetoric is distinctly protectionist. Many members of Congress seem to find it easier to blame foreigners for our borrowing and buying habits than to deal with the underlying problems in our own economy.
In part, this reflects our national frustration with the turn of events. After all, we literally rebuilt Japan and Western Europe after World War II and gave them the tools that they now use to compete against us.
While this was an act of genuine generosity, we forget that it also was based on our own enlightened self interest. We resurrected our defeated enemies in order to make them our new allies against the threat of Communism. We not only succeeded in military and political terms, but we created the longest and largest economic boom in human history, with enormous benefits for the United States over the past forty years.
This is not to say that we should not expect more from our trade partners and allies. They, like us, have engaged in unfair trade practices that must be corrected. I believe we also must expect them to carry more of the burden of mutual defense, assume more responsibility for stimulating world economic growth, and provide more of the investment necessary to open markets for the next century in Latin America and Africa.
However, all of these expectations must be cast in the context of genuine partnership. We cannot dictate terms to those we have made our equals, and it is counterproductive even to try. Instead, we must educate and persuade. As the leader of the Free World, we must demonstrate true leadership, not merely assume it as our birthright.
We can, and must, begin that task right here at home by putting our own economic house in order by dealing seriously with the enormous problem of our federal deficit.
When my father ran for President in 1936, he was known as the Great Budget Balancer. He never particularly liked the title, in part, I believe, because he thought it was misunderstood by many people.
Dad has never believed that balancing the budget was, by itself, a magic solution to all our problems. The true importance of a balanced budget is not in matching numbers on a budget sheet. It is, instead, in demonstrating the control and discipline necessary to match public commitments with public resources.
Balancing the federal budget is not a question of accounting, it is a question of politics: of having the will and the courage to make tough decisions. Our ability to muster that will and courage only once in the past twenty years should be a warning sign to us all. A continuing failure to do so will produce inevitable changes over which we will have no control.
The two challenges I have discussed U.S. Soviet relations and our own economic disorder will reach important turning points in the year ahead. An arms control agreement could be signed this fall or winter, and Congress will make decisions on the trade bill and the federal budget.
The two most important events, however, are likely to come next June, when the Soviet Communist Party convenes a national conference that could decisively affect Gorbachev's internal power to make reforms, and next November, when we elect a new President.
Whatever the coming year brings, we can have no illusions that the current state of U.S. Soviet relations either will be maintained indefinitely or improved automatically. Neither can we blithely assume that we will always be first among equals in the West and that our future is guaranteed by past success.
Just as the world of my father's boyhood has changed beyond all recognition, so the flow of events will carry us forward into the future. That is the challenge of change, a challenge my father has always been confident the American people could meet.