Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram

Arthur Larson

Arthur Larson, who resigned from the Eisenhower administration after having served as Undersecretary of Labor, Head of the United States Information Agency, and Special Assistant to the president, talks to Wallace about Eisenhower, the administration's social philosophy, politics, and the American way of life.

Watch Video

Guest: Arthur Larson

WALLACE: This is Arthur Larson, former director of the United States Information Agency, former Special Assistant to and speechwriter for President Eisenhower. Known as the "Egghead of the Republican Party," Mr. Larson said recently, "I'm sick and tired of hearing Americans apologizing like a bunch of country cousins for our or way of life, our capitalism, our big society. We're still the leaders in the world and should be proud of what we stand for." We'll find out why he says that in a moment.


WALLACE: Good evening, I am Mike Wallace. The bulwarks of every society are its ideas, its social philosophy. Tonight, we will discuss America's social philosophy with one of the men who have helped to articulate it. He is Arthur Larson, who has resigned recently from the Eisenhower administration, after serving as Undersecretary of Labor, then as Head of the United States Information Agency, and as Special Assistant to President Eisenhower.

Mr. Larson, in view of your recent resignation from the Eisenhower administration the team, first let me ask you this: James Reston, of the New York Times, has written that your recent resignation reduced once more the ranks of the White House intellectuals; and then he added a frequently-heard criticism.

He said, "The atmosphere in Washington is no longer congenial to intellectual speculation and planning as it used to be, so the intellectuals," he said, "are going away... the nation is trying to lead the free world with a good many second stringers, not to mention the third and fourth stringers," unquote Mr. Reston. What about that?

LARSON: I think, in fairness to Mr. Reston, who's a neighbor and a good friend, we probably should also add that he immediately qualified this statement with quite a few reservations and exceptions until there wasn't a great deal left of it.

Now, to start with, I think one should point out that right from the beginning of this administration, which is the only one I know very much about, there was a considerable group of so-called intellectuals at every point. I remember once sitting and looking around the Cabinet Room and I counted twelve or thirteen people with university backgrounds, university work; and I think that level is pretty well maintained, some of us go, others come, but the general supply seems to be about constant.

For example, since Mr. Reston wrote his piece, it has appeared in the paper that Professor Malcolm Moos has joined the full-time White House staff. Now, Professor Moos, I probably should point out, has written at least twice as many books as I have.

WALLACE: Of course, he didn't cut the legs out... Reston did not cut the legs out completely. He did qualify some, but he said the other most prominent intellectuals in the administration have all resigned, and he names them: Arthur Burns, Dr. Gabriel Hauge, Robert Cutler, Robert Bowie, and he goes on to name many others who were momentarily in the administration or never have been invited to join the administration.

He admits also that you resigned for personal reasons but he says, Mr. Larson, that the chances are that you would not have resigned had you been able to persuade the President to carry out the speaking program that you and he had planned last year as a way of informing the public about national problems. "This idea was dropped," James Reston suggests, "and this is only one incident in many," he says, "that have chased intellectuals away from the administration."

LARSON: The actual fact is, Mr. Wallace, that I of course am going to a job which is very important to the President, very important to me, and which I would have gone to in any event because of the importance of the work to be done, that is to set up the Rule of Law Center... The International Rule of Law Center at Duke Law School, at Duke University, to try to promote the greater use of judicial machinery and legal rules and orderly... rules of law in the settlement of international controversies.

I will say this, however, that the idea of a more systematic, a more carefully planned exposition of public issues from the White House is one that has always appealed to the President, and I think the time may come when this will be worked out more completely than it is now.

WALLACE: You say the time may come. You mean that it hasn't been worked out sufficiently completely, and that the President, with all of the problems that he has, and diminishing physical vigor, still intends to carry that program out?

LARSON: I think he is still very much interested in it and the project, I think, will move forward to the extent that he possibly can carry it forward in view of all his other tremendous responsibilities.

WALLACE: Of course, I think that you would agree that men of intellect frequently are the ones who are most hospitable to men of intellect. Now, yourself, as a man at home in philosophy, history, music, art, literature, the areas of the intellect... would you say that the President, your former boss, is a man of some intellectual stature?

LARSON: That's a question I am very glad you asked because there has been such a tremendous amount of misunderstanding on this. The President is a man of not only deep intelligence but very great wisdom. I think a lot of people are inclined to forget, for example, that he himself personally wrote a very large and a very detailed and a very interesting volume, called "Crusade in Europe," and I think it would be a very good thing to get that volume out and reread a good deal of it, especially the last seven or eight pages, which contain a lot of very thoughtful material that's just as valid now as was then.

From my contacts with him, I have been constantly pleased to notice his familiarity with history, with literature, with biography; he strikes me as being really quite an accomplished Lincoln scholar, for example. He reads a good deal and is very much at home in philosophy. He corrected me, for example, the other day on two different Greek philosophers who had somewhat similar names.


LARSON: That's right.

WALLACE: In his book "The Power Elite," the sociologist C. Wright Mills comments caustically that, for relaxation, President George Washington used to read Voltaire and John Locke, but that today President Eisenhower reads cowboy tales and detective stories. And the implications that he draws from this disturb Professor Mills considerably. Would you care to comment?

LARSON: Well, I don't think there's anything wrong in reading a western story now and then; I think we all like to read a mystery or detective novel or something light once in a while. But it's perfectly possible to do that and also to do a great deal of profound reading, and I think the President does some of each.

WALLACE: All right, Mr. Larson, you suggest that our administration then, generally speaking, is characterized by men of high intellectual caliber, by men who have a vital social philosophy for our time. Is that correct?


WALLACE: I am sure that that is clear to you, as a former member of the administration, and I believe you still have a desk at White House, an office at the White House. But, one is forced to wonder whether the general public is that clear on what that vital social philosophy is, as indeed are you.

As a matter of fact, in reading your forthcoming book “What We Are For,” I may even put the question to you. Do we really know what our social philosophy is? Because you ask this question, you say, "Ask the average American what are we for, and he fumbles and mumbles and can't really answer." Now, if our government has provided proper and enlightened leadership... how come?

LARSON: Well, this of course is a job not just for the government, perhaps not even primarily for the government. Certainly, I think the government has a responsibility to define and articulate what it's getting at, what it's trying to accomplish and I think it's done quite well. I think we have to remember one thing though... that this country has never accepted, or even tolerated, the idea that we should have a Department of Information or Ministry of Information to enlighten the home folks on what the government is doing.

We have a Press Secretary but we don't have an elaborate information machine. And I think that is probably the result of the fact that we have seen such things as Goebbels' Information Ministry turned to rather unhappy ends.

I think, however, that the job of defining what we are for... of understanding our own social and political, economic, and philosophical groundwork in this country... this is a job for our schools and for our universities and for our professional societies, for our clubs, our associations, and all of these many, many organizations that are part of this so-called pluralistic American society.

WALLACE: Well, if it is a job for all of these people, then why have we failed so to articulate what we are for? I remember reading about the President, towards the end of the war, in a discussion with Marshal Zhukov of Russia. The President confessed, I believe this story is correct, that in a discussion of the two separate ways of life, he was a little bit at a loss himself to explain just exactly what we are for and what the American Way of Life was.

LARSON: I think what he means by that is that the communists have all been drilled and trained in this. They've been drilled so that at the drop of a hat they can wrap up everything in a nice little solid ball and throw it at anybody's head that they want to influence. We, on the other hand, have thrived on free public discussion. We have a wide range of opinions in this country; and therefore it is not easy for us to wrap it all up and do it in this quick, easy fashion.

I think, given time and given the opportunity, we all know what we are for, but we have never taken the trouble in this country to put it in good, fresh, understandable terms, simple terms that people both at home and abroad can understand.

WALLACE: Well maybe it's possible, at least I'd like to explore this with you, that we are unable to say what we are for because we say one thing and act another way. In this regard, again in your forthcoming book What We Are For, you say that we are for what you call 'enterprise democracy,' and I'd like to spend some time developing that idea.

First of all, I'd like to know why you write that; "At the root of our democracy there is an instinctive aversion to government." What do you mean and why this aversion to government?

LARSON: This, I think, is something that we all sense within ourselves. The minute somebody proposes to enlarge the powers of government, or to enlarge the scope of government, or to add a new big government activity, we all instinctively react against it.

Now, this is significant because in many other parts of the world, especially where the pure socialist mentality is found, it is just the other way around. Your pure devoted socialist, other things being equal, is always glad to see the government do something because he thinks the government intrinsically is somehow better.

Now, I think that there is a basic reason that we haven't understood too well... why we have this instinctive aversion against the accretion of more government power, and I think it's a valid one. I think it's right. And that is this: that the power of government is unlike any other power. The power of government is absolute.

Every other power... the power of a labor union, the power of a corporation, the power of a church, or a university or a club... these are all secondary. But, when the government acts, there is no further court to appeal to. The university has quite a lot of effect on your life. They can pass you; they can flunk you.

WALLACE: But you can resign from the university.

LARSON: You can resign from the university.

WALLACE: Or from a club.

LARSON: Or from a club. The union can have a profound influence on your ability to earn a living, but you can always resign from the union. You can go somewhere else. But you can't resign from being a human being living in the United States.

WALLACE: And so what...? Well, you can of course; you can go someplace else. But if you're going to stay in the United States, you cannot resign from the responsibilities as well as the privileges that go with being a citizen. And that power, that control, is handed over to the government and backed up by absolute power, which is the police, jails, if necessary execution under certain circumstances.

LARSON: That's right. That's the reason that giving economic power to the government is such a profoundly dangerous thing because any other institution, a great corporation, has a tremendous power by sheer force of economic strength. But if you give this to the government, plus the power to call out the police, to make all the rules, to decide all the cases, and finally, if necessary, to back you up to a wall with a firing squad or put you on the gallows, then you've got a combination of economic, political, military power which is so absolute that freedom of the individual simply cannot survive.

WALLACE: But even in this country, let us say that on the issue of taxes, the government can, when it comes right down to it, take as much money as it wants...

LARSON: Exactly.

WALLACE: ...because, if a man or a corporation refuses to pay those taxes, the police are always there, we believe anyway, in principle anyway, to take him away.

LARSON: Correct.

WALLACE: Well now, perhaps then we come to, at least the beginning of the nub of the issue, which I would like to talk about. You have written about America's confusion, about what we stand for. Could it be... because on the one hand we believe in what you say in principle, that we have an aversion to government, at least a good many of us do, the government's involving itself too deeply in our affairs, and yet in practice, we have seen recent Democratic administrations, and now the Republican administrations, supporting all kinds of government activities.

More and more government activity, high taxes, public works, social security, unemployment benefits, minimum wage laws. How do you justify or explain all these things on the one hand, and then on the other hand you warn against too much government activity?

LARSON: Well, this is where the real nub, the real crux, of our distinctive American contribution to political and economic science is, I believe. You can go all one way and say government is all bad and you're on one side of the political argument. You can go all the way, as the socialists do, and say that anything the government does is all to the good.

But we have struck, I think, a very ingenious formula that was uttered by Lincoln and the President has used many times, which reconciles the two. You will recall it starts something like this: that the role of government is to do for people what needs to be done but what they cannot do as well for themselves, or do at all.

Now in that, you see, are the two elements. First of all, is the affirmative positive obligation of the government to do things for people when they need to be done. On the other hand, there is also built into this formula this aversion to government, which says, "The government must never do this." The presumption is against the government, unless nobody else can do it.

WALLACE: Of course, who's to say whether government can do it any better than a private enterprise or a private person, Mr. Larson?

LARSON: Well, that's a judgment you have to make on each case as it comes up but many times, in many of our most supposedly controversial issues, the issue is quite clear. Now you take, for example, Social Security. A lot of people like to say, used to say at least, that Social Security was socialism, and that it was an unwarranted incursion of government into the realms of free enterprise. But if you apply this formula, it holds up perfectly because you ask yourself could any private enterprise firm, any insurance company, any combination of insurance companies, any state government or local government, could it administer Social Security?

Of course it couldn't. Social Security covers hundreds of millions of people going all over the earth, it's got a reserve fund now that's been built up to 23 billion dollars, and by the time its reserve fund reaches its possible maximum, it will approximate perhaps the value of all the shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

WALLACE: All right, let's say we go along on Social Security. Let me ask you about education. Education is predominantly a federal and state activity in this country. Who's to say that private people couldn't educate themselves better than the government?

LARSON: I think the start of the matter, in the case of education, is, of course, we've got to have universal free public education for the poor and the less-poor alike; and that being so, obviously it's got to be a tax-supported governmental institution.

WALLACE: Well, approximately 5 million Roman Catholics in this country are educated in private schools, financed privately and voluntarily, so a substantial number of these people, rich and poor, mind you, can educate themselves privately. Well, how does this square with your theory that government should educate because the people are unable to educate themselves?

LARSON: Well, that accounts for perhaps 5 million and then of course private schools account for quite a few more. But still the basic job of the millions and millions of people that have to receive both an elementary and a high school education, and, if possible, as much higher education as they can get, this is a job that simply wouldn't get done on the strength of what we know from experience, if the government didn't do it and finance it.

WALLACE: It's being done by that one group. It is conceivable that other groups could get together and do perhaps even a better job than is being done currently because we all of us agree that not a very good job is being done in many areas in the education of American youngsters today.

LARSON: Well, it's conceivable but of course you can't dispose of great, crucial public issues by what could conceivably be done, you have to look at what is probably going to get done and frame your policies accordingly.

WALLACE: All right, let me ask this, then. Suppose an American said, "I think public education is pretty bad. I think the teachers are misfits, a good many of them, in my own particular town" -- not mine, but his own particular town -- "...teachers are misfits, and I think public education, if I let it go on for my youngsters, might ruin my child. Therefore I want to send him to a private school, and I don't want to pay any taxes to educate anybody else's children." Should he not have the privilege to say that?

LARSON: Well, he certainly has the privilege to send his children to a private school and to pay for them there, but if he says, "This relieves me of my obligation to pay my taxes to educate other people," he misses the point, which is that the existence of the public education system is not merely for him and his children but it's to maintain a kind of society and a level of culture all around him that permits again the kind of political freedoms that he's got.

And all of this he couldn't have. You could ask exactly the same question about a childless couple that had never had any children at all. Why shouldn't they be exempt from the school tax? But they too benefit because if you didn't have education, we wouldn't have the kind of democracy and freedom that we have.

WALLACE: Then we have to give up certain freedoms in order to share in bigger freedoms?

LARSON: That's right. That's one of the paradoxes of freedom.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this. Could you make a case under your Lincolnian theory for the government monopoly of the Post Office?

LARSON: As far as the Post Office is concerned, of course a case was made... was very clearly made at the time it was first put in the hands of the government because at that time it was such an enormous undertaking that no known private group could possibly have handled it. If we had it all to do now afresh, just today, I think it could be an interesting argument whether it couldn't be handled privately. When you consider, for instance, the enormous scope of the activities of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company; it's at least conceivable that even the handling of the mails could be done theoretically as a private enterprise affair.

WALLACE: One of the major factors in whatever direction our society takes is our Supreme Court. Now, you're a man who constantly writes about the sanctity of private property and free private enterprise. What was your reaction when the Supreme Court not too long ago ruled that the Dupont Company had to dispose of its nearly 3 billion dollars' worth of stock in General Motors, stock that it had bought legally and that had appreciated in value over the years?

LARSON: This, of course... I don't know the exact situation or merits of that particular case, but this general kind of case is one of the really classical illustrations of the principle that I mentioned a minute ago, the paradox that to have true freedom, you've got to have restraints on freedom: the antitrust acts, the restraint on monopoly, is a perfect example of this.

For if you let free enterprise in some cases, in the case of growing businesses, get bigger and bigger and bigger until they have reached monopoly proportions, then you have the paradox that freedom is in danger of destroying itself because then the monopoly can turn around and proceed to destroy the freedoms of smaller people, raise prices again where they used to cut prices to get their monopoly and undo all the things and do the exact opposite of all the things that led to their creation.

Andre Gide used, I think, a very nice illustration, he once said, talking about art being the result of restraint, he once said, "Take a kite and put a string on it so that you restrain it. It will soar. Cut the string... cut the restraint... the kite falls to earth." And I think so it is with a great many of our freedoms... that if they don't have that little restraint, they don't soar.

WALLACE: Of course. It was this same Gide who railed against restraints of virtually any kind by government, by family, by religion, and so forth.

LARSON: Yes, except I think he would probably apply this same idea: That you can never have complete freedom, you've got to have some restraint or your freedom is going to defeat itself.

WALLACE: Mr. Larson, our guest last week, the philosopher Mortimer Adler, noted that, in 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels proposed ways of gradually socializing a capitalist state. Among the measures proposed by Karl Marx were a heavy progressive or graduated income tax, free public education, government-controlled agriculture programs, government control over inheritances. These sound fairly familiar...

LARSON: It's a very interesting thing, you know. Marx in that list, I think, he had ten or eleven gradual items and I think six, or seven possibly, have come to pass or pretty nearly come to pass. I don't think this proves anything in particular about communism; it isn't the communist revolution that Marx also favored, it's a kind of a moderate gradualistic kind of socialism. Actually, the full revolutionary socialism or communism that Marx proposed is further from realization now than it ever was. In fact in Russia today we seem to see the very opposite of the true classless society, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need"...and all these other ideas of the pure communism that Marx preached.

WALLACE: I bring this up in the context of a speech that you made in Honolulu about a year ago. You said, in that speech, "Through the New and Fair Deal this country was in the grip of a somewhat alien philosophy, imported from Europe." Now, alien or not, do you think that you could convince most of the country that the Eisenhower administration has really reversed the social trend started by the Democrats, or that we can look for a real reversal in coming years?

LARSON: Yes, this alien philosophy referred to here, of course, was not socialism or communism as some people tried to make out later, but it was the general tendency, which went on all around the world about that time. It was going on during the 30s, to a considerable extent during the 4Os, of increased power of the centralized government, increased power of the executive within the centralized government, and a number of other concomitants that many people thought were the wave of the future, were the inevitable development of government and the economy throughout the world.

You see what's happened is that for a good many years now, there's been a tendency, up I would say to the end of World War II, of people to assume that England and the Continent and France and other countries were taking the lead in political and economic development, and that we'd come along about 20 years afterwards, sort of stumbling along and that anything that England does in 1946 we're apt to do in 1966; and this was the way we used to think, and it seems to me that we've turned a corner in this respect. It seems to me that starting with the end of World War II, or at least a few years thereafter, we began to take the lead.

The rest of the world began to follow us and we began to reassert many of the basic virtues and incentives and drives of private enterprise with the right admixture of governmental regulation and governmental involvement, still relying essentially on the inherent incentives and motivations of the private economy. Now this represents to me a distinct turning because of the new emphasis and the presumption being in favor again of a private way of doing things. The presumption being in favor of the even balance of powers between the different parts of the central government. The presumption being against additions to federal power, if there were any other way of getting the job done.

WALLACE: Arthur Larson, I surely thank you for coming and spending this half-hour with us. And incidentally, I know that the American public will be looking forward to your book, when it is published, the book called “What We Are For.” This has been the last program in our Survival and Freedom Series. Over the weeks we have discussed the nature of our society, its problems, and its aims. As tonight's guest, Arthur Larson has said, "Before we can tell the world who we are, and before we can act for the future, we ourselves must know who we are, what we stand for, and what we mean by freedom." Mike Wallace, Good night.

Closing credits

Digitization credits