This article and other features about the early automobile can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition: Automobiles in America!
Charles F. Kettering was head of research for General Motors from 1920 to 1947. The holder of 186 patents, he was best known for inventing the electrical starter, leaded gasoline, Freon gas (essential for air conditioning), and a system for using color paints in mass-produced cars. In this article written for the Post during the dark days of the Depression, Kettering invites readers to take the long view, reminding them that life (and the auto business) is constantly changing for the better. It was an important message from a chronic optimist.
A man said to me the other day, “I don’t see what you can do to improve the automobile. It looks like perfection to me.” I said, “I hope it isn’t, because my job is gone if it is.” And that’s a fact. Most of our jobs would be gone if the products of the industries in which we are engaged should be adjudged perfect. Because then it would just be a question of employing enough men to produce the perfect thing. In the reorganization of business on this basis, not more than 30 percent of us would have employment.
In these days, as always, the most important fact from every angle is that the world isn’t finished. This holds in every realm — in business, in matters of unemployment and economic recovery, in the organic world, the psychological, the spiritual, the personal, and all others. Growth is the essence of life, and evolution functions in business as in biology. New standards evolve, and new human needs, new products, new jobs, just the same as new living forms do. Of course my work has been limited largely to the automotive field. But that’s a big world in itself, touching many others and exemplifying many truths. If the world had ever stood still, we might still be in the age of the dinosaurs and pterodactyls. But there aren’t any of these creatures around. The principle of the thing, as Darwin showed, is that the world moves on, that Nature is never satisfied with existing forms, but is always trying for new ones. The world has moved on from the first living cell to the modern man. It is moving on toward higher living forms and better social conditions. It will continue to move on toward a higher standard of living for everybody, toward a greater degree of beauty, strength, and perfection in all things.
The Future Is Bright
We in the automobile business believe that time is no kinder to us than to anybody else. But we think we try to recognize it more. We bring out yearly models on the theory that business and social conditions progress as producers hit a constant rate of improvement. We believe that for the next 10 or 20 years at least we can bring to you an improved and a better automobile. I think I can illustrate the basis for my belief by considering the three basic materials with which we work — rubber, petroleum, and steel.
I always admired the man Dunlop, because I think that anybody that had the nerve to propose a rubber tire to run on the ground when everybody knew that steel was the only thing that would do, must have been a man of distinct nerve and bravery. He planted the idea, and the simple rubber tube that he made progressed through various stages of evolution, until, a half-dozen years or so ago, the industry turned out the balloon tire. The lifespan of a tire went from 3 and 4 thousand miles up to 15 and 20 thousand. We began to experience a new ease in riding and a new safety in driving.
We owe a great debt to the rubber people. Yet I don’t think their job is finished. And they don’t either. In the future, we can expect tremendous improvement, not merely trivial additions, but evolutionary — and I might say, revolutionary — developments in tires.
In regard to petroleum, we have always known it to be a marvelous fuel, but in the past four or five years we have begun to recognize that the possibilities of developing power from the internal combustion engine are just on the verge of development. It is a fact that our best automobiles today deliver under normal driving conditions only about 7 or 8 percent of the total energy in the fuel. There is actually enough energy in one gallon of trade gasoline to propel a small car from Chicago to Detroit, some 300 miles, instead of the 20 miles attained.
In steel, we used to believe that the elastic limit was about 80,000 pounds per square inch, which is to say that if we pulled a square inch of the best steel we used to have with 80,000 pounds’ pressure, it would go back to its original position. The place where steel fails to go back is called its elastic limit. But then we came along with better steels, and the elastic limit went up to 100,000 pounds per square inch, and finally to 125,000 pounds, and today we are using steels under pressures of 300,000 pounds per square inch and they are standing up perfectly. Nobody knows where the limit will finally be found, if indeed it is ever to be found. Ten years from now, we shall be thinking thoughts and dreaming dreams not even in our conscious thought now.
Nourishing an Idea
Ideas always do go on to a harvest. They are like corn — first the seed, then the blade, then the stalk, then the flowering, then the grain in the ear. The parallel holds in many ways. When a man travels, observes, wonders, and questions about things, that is like plowing the land, the seed bed of his mind. Then the seed must be planted. Of course the rains may come and wash out the seed, or the hogs root it up, or the sun bake and dry the kernel. If the shoot does push through, the weeds may choke it, or the high winds rip it out of the ground, or the drought kill it. But if a man keeps on planting corn he will eventually reap a harvest.
I’ve seen this work out so many times. One submits an idea to a committee. If the committee is in an unprogressive industry not used to new ideas, it will probably brush that new idea into the wastebasket; nevertheless, one will have plowed a little ground, made it ready for the planting of the idea. One goes on submitting it, and the committee keeps on pushing it off the table, and pushing it off and pushing it off, until, perhaps, after two or three or four years, somebody says, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s something in that.” Then one may be sure that the seed of the idea has sprouted, that the shoot has pushed through the ground. All one has to do then is to keep the weeds down, work the land and the crop. The seed will yield a harvest of a thousandfold or more.
That is Nature, and one may be sure of the harvest, though if it is a big idea he is planting, much time may be required. The idea of the automobile was simple enough, but it took a long time for it to grow into its present magnitude. The world seldom sees that harvest until it starts to materialize, because it’s a new thing that the world has never heard of and doesn’t believe in. But when people do begin to see the harvest, they rally round and get all enthused and start making the thing a whole lot bigger than it really is. With one voice they all say, “How blind we were not to see this thing in the first place.” They start out to make a hero of the man who promulgated the idea, and build monuments to him after it is too late to do him any good.
The Nature of Work
In business, as in all things, we must swing back to the old position of being guided by Nature. Because life is just that way: That is all. As ideas are like seed corn, so wealth itself is like the harvested ears. One has to work to produce wealth. You can’t wave a wand and take it out of a hat. In order really to prosper, you have to study your land, perhaps fertilize it, then plow it, plant it, scratch the crust, work the crop, keep the weeds down and guard against insects, blight, and marauders. After the sun has warmed and rains watered, there is the labor of harvest. The man who follows this life and knows that it’s his job, is happy in it.
Of course, here’s where the business of living really begins to come in. You know the story of the old mule that used to pull the slag oar out at the ironworks. The company became prosperous, and decided that they ought to have a little steam locomotive to pull the slag car. They turned the mule out to pasture. The first day he seemed to enjoy it; the second day he hung around the gate; when the man came to work on the third day, they found the old mule leaning up against the slag car. Maybe the mule didn’t exactly enjoy pulling the slag car, but it was his job and he was lost without it. Most men, like the mule, like to do what is in them to do. The farmer has to have his hands on the plow handles; the sailor must live around the sea; the painter must paint; the mechanic work with his monkey wrench; the racing driver work to win the Indianapolis races.
What is more, there is a certain natural rhythm in work, as one can see by watching a blacksmith at his anvil, or a sower flinging the seed with a motion nicely tuned to his stride, or several hoe hands working in the field in natural unison of movement. It is only when one gets out of this natural way of life, and gets all excited about the possibility of adding up figures in the monetary realm, that a man runs into trouble.
—“The World Isn’t Finished,”
The Saturday Evening Post, April 23, 1932
This feature is included in Pearl Harbor: 75th Anniversary Special, a print publication highlighting articles, picture galleries, and editorials that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post before, during, and after December 7, 1941. This special edition is available for sale at shoptthepost.com.
The views presented in the Post reflected, and frequently guided, American opinion. As war was declared in Europe in 1939, the Post was ambivalent about intervention. But that perspective began to evolve over the next two years in the face of Japanese and German aggression.
Must America Be the World’s Policeman?
Destiny has an errand here and we are about to keep an appointment with her. We do not know for sure what the business is. We do know it is important and that it behooves us now to steady our minds and think for ourselves.
The event of incomparable human significance, one to which war itself is subordinate, is that the star of world supremacy has passed from the old to the new world. The thought of world supremacy passing from Europe to America was one the European mind could not entertain. It happened and was not believed. American power determined the outcome of the World War, which England and her allies had otherwise lost. Still it was not believed.
Now the World War has been resumed. Again we shall have to decide what to do with our power. The decision we make may alter the history of the world for a thousand years. Twenty-two years ago we were saying to ourselves, and believing, that we had engaged in a war to end war. It sounds ironic now. Nevertheless, it is one of the romantic facts to be written down in history that we had no other purpose. We were defeated. We were defeated because it was not our war. It was Europe’s war, and the peace that was written was a European peace, laying down the lines for the next war.
Neither is the present war our war. We had no spoon in the caldron. Yet what are we saying about it? We hope we shall not be drawn into it. But we should not now be saying of the European war either that we hope to stay out of it or that we are fearful of being drawn into it. Instead, we should know beforehand, and with certainty, under what conditions we would go to war at all. It would have to be our own war, not Europe’s. It would have to be one wherein we were sure who at the end should write the peace, that it might be the American peace, unlike any peace that had been made before.
—“America,” Editorial, October 7, 1939
At What Point Do We Go to War?
How should a great nation go to war, if it goes? The answer is unhesitating. A great nation should go to war in a proud, forthright manner, saying what it does and why it does it, keeping faith at the same time with both its own laws and the laws of the world.
What have the American people and the American government been saying in their moral indictment of the aggressor? They have been saying that the aggressor makes war without declaring war, that he breaks the faith of treaties, that he tramples down the inconvenient law of the world — and this, of course, is intolerable.
But for all its power of moral judgment, how, in fact, does this great, proud nation of ours get into the European war against Hitler? How ready we are to see what is taking place in the world. A moral debacle of frightful proportions. All law between nations breaking down. No treaty worth the paper that has helplessly received the writing except there is on both sides of it equal gun power.
—“On Going to War,” Editorial, October 19, 1940
It would be wonderful if we could defend our own world, save Great Britain, overcome the principle of evil in Europe, rescue China from the Asiatic aggressor, and be at the same time achieving for ourselves a more abundant life. In good American humor we should then erect a monument to Hitler for having obliged us to do it. But we think we are more likely to arrive soon at the peak of our self-limited exertions and come awake on the hard bed of reality with a terrific shock.
—“The Escape Phantasy,” Editorial, January 11, 1941
Are We Dreaming?
By an evolution of American foreign policy, national defense has come to mean defense of democracy and freedom “everywhere in the world.” Thus we find ourselves running two defense programs at once — one of our own and one for all the other people who resist the aggressor. We undertake to be freedom’s arsenal. But to suppose that in a world aflame on both sides of us we can protect our own house and put out the fire — that we can make America the inexhaustible arsenal of democracy, save ourselves, save freedom everywhere in the world, destroy the principle of aggression, and at the same time raise the American way of life to new levels of comfort and well-being, is dream stuff.
—“Dream Power,” Editorial, February 8, 1941
What’s in It for Us?
It is time to realize that this country has assumed an unlimited responsibility for the outcome of the war. We have arrived at that responsibility with no material condition, no bargain, no stipulation beforehand — at least none that the American people are aware of — and, so far as we are informed, with no realistic political forethought.
Is it permitted to ask what America will get back? Do you suppose the liberated democracies of Europe in their gratitude will buy the American agricultural surplus instead of South American grain and meat and cotton at lower prices? Or can you imagine that Europe would say that the rich American people, by providing the only weapons — if that were all — had tried to buy the right to dominate the peace? What if Europe should resent our moral imperialism? And if Europe did that, what could we do about it? Demand our weapons back? Or ask to be paid for them in cash?
We are being neither realistic nor rational. No other people in the world would behave in this manner, or could survive if they did. The world we now undertake to save is one we have imagined. It does not really exist. But for all we have said, and beyond any reason, the spirit of crusade is a noble possession.
—“The New Apocalypse,” Editorial, March 22, 1941
No ‘Splendid Isolation’
Looking back is to say farewell. Misgivings are forbidden, but let us not on that account be mistaken about what has happened. It is not a new chapter of American history that now opens. It is a new book with a new theme. The story that began with the Declaration of Independence is finished.
We have broken with our past. We have thrown away our New World, our splendid isolation, our geographical advantage of three to one against all aggressors, our separate political religion. There is no longer a New World, nor an Old World, but now one world in which the American people have been cast for a part they will have to learn as they go along.
There is no longer a Monroe Doctrine. In place of it there is an American Internationalism. We do not yet know what that means.
From now on there is for us no foreign war. Any war anywhere in the world is our war, provided only there is an aggressor to be destroyed, a democracy to be saved, or an area of freedom to be defended.
We are suddenly staring at the fact that we had assumed ultimate and unlimited liability — moral, physical, and financial — for the outcome of war on three continents, for the survival of the British Empire, and for the utter destruction of Hitler. Anything less or else would be the first American defeat.
—“Toward the Unknown,” Editorial, March 29, 1941
Forward at Any Cost
We have received a great many letters asking us why we gave up the fight to keep the country out of the war.
Our answer is to say to them that a time comes when every American must somehow resolve one simple question: If for anything you could do about it, your country nevertheless becomes involved in war, where are you going to stand?
Many keep saying that time has not come. The clock has not struck. The fatal words have not been uttered in the form of a resolution by Congress. But the American government has proclaimed that Hitler must be destroyed. It has solemnly pledged itself before the world to employ its total resources to bring that result to pass. It has proclaimed that there can be and shall be no peace with Hitler. It has announced that a negotiated peace would be a defeat for democracy and freedom and the American way of life. It has proclaimed that the American way of life cannot exist in the same planet with the German thing. One or the other must die. Trying, therefore, to maintain the fiction that this country is not in the war against Hitler is like running from an earthquake.
We shall have to make up our minds to go on and on at any cost, to reconquer Europe and destroy Hitler there, even with American manpower — or turn back; and if we turn back we shall be remembered forever as the Falstaff nation of the world, boasting of a power it did really possess, boasting of how it would put it forth against the aggressor, and then changing its mind when the night came.
But the peril we speak of does not lie in making the wrong choice. It is there whatever we choose to do. We cannot now escape.
Everyone must be aware of what it will mean to go on. Do we see what it will mean to go back? The peril in that case is no less, may be even greater.
In going on we face the possibility of defeat, whether we can imagine it or not. But to go back is to face the possibility of national death. That is the reality as we see it; that is the reality we accept. The alternative had been to create here on this hemisphere the impregnable asylum of freedom and let tyranny in Europe destroy itself, as tyranny always has done and is bound to do again.
—“The Peril,” Editorial, May 24, 1941
For the past century, the United States has frequently gone to war in the interests of freedom and democracy–often with the unstated (but not necessarily secondary) purpose of protecting our sources of oil or for access to populations who would buy our goods or services.
But the costs lately have become overwhelming, whether measured in cold, hard cash or in lives lost. America has lost its appetite to serve as policeman in the earth’s most horrific trouble spots. We just want to be left alone.
March 2014 marked the first month in more than a decade without a single American combat casualty anywhere in the world. For the vast mass of the American people, getting out of military entanglements is now the expectation rather than some vague hope. After two wars stretching back 13 years, American sentiment has once again tilted toward the isolationism that marked the end of the First World War. “[That conflict] was followed in the ’20s and ’30s by something that…was in fact a rejection of a certain role in the world,” says Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and a foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. “It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s have a little time out here.’ It was, ‘We are not going to be doing that.’”
In fact, it would take a challenge to our very way of life–in the form of Hitler, Mussolini, and that dastardly backdoor attack on Pearl Harbor–to draw us into World War II. And we never really emerged. The Korean War followed just a few years afterward, then it was on into Vietnam, and almost before we all realized what happened, we were on to the Balkans and Sarajevo; the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan; and now there’s Syria and Crimea and Ukraine.
And each such adventure has its own price tag. Iraq, a country from which we have already technically departed, is still costing us $3 billion per year. The overall Department of Defense budget totals some $496 billion, or 13.6 percent of the total federal budget today–and that’s with a rapidly shrinking military.
Compare these numbers to those of the Korean War, which cost us $30 billion ($262 billion in today’s dollars) or less than one-third of the cost of the post-9/11 war on terror that includes Iraq and Afghanistan, which the non-partisan Congressional Research Service puts at $859 billion.
With 20/20 hindsight, it’s beginning to look increasingly like our all but universally accepted role as the world’s policeman really peaked sometime during the Korean War. Then began a long, slow descent, largely perceptible only to the most astute observers positioned outside the Beltway. When John F. Kennedy sent us swaggering into the Indochina Wars at the very moment a far more nimble Charles de Gaulle was already extricating France, we were still operating under the assumption that America somehow had a higher calling we needed to fulfill. It seemed only America had the might, and the moral will, to prevent the rapid spread of that evil virus called communism across Indochina, into Thailand, down the Malay Peninsula and across Southeast Asia.
As it happens, I was present as a journalist to witness the final days of America’s foray into Southeast Asia. The final days and weeks of the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge were not amusing. Seeing the conflict at this late stage, one forgot the original point of the American mission, to serve in a police capacity in this region.
But was that even an appropriate use of American power and influence? Neither in Korea nor in Vietnam nor in any other police action since–certainly not in Afghanistan or Iraq–has America had the kind of influence over the outcome envisioned at the start of our engagement. Our role was always presented to the public as a limited exercise: Act the role of the good cop, oust the bad guys, clap them in jail, then get the heck out of Dodge.
Of course, it’s never quite worked that way, and we have never learned our lesson. The failure derives not from a lack of good faith, but rather from a lack of vision. When we entered each of these rabbit holes, we never had a real understanding of how we’d emerge. As is clear now, the end game is in most respects far more significant than the entry point.
But if the American people have come full circle in the past century, arriving today at a reluctance for combat that mirrors post-World War I isolationism, many nations still look to the U.S. to play the role of global cop–if only because no other nation has the might or the will to play such a role. “I fear that what is going on now is that Americans are quite understandably not only tired of the burden, but they no longer understand the reasons why we even took on this burden in the first place,” Kagan says.
About those reasons: Sixty years ago, The Saturday Evening Post article “Can We Remake the World Without Going Broke?” observed that the nation’s Mutual Security Program, newly signed into law by Truman with bipartisan support in Congress, was staking the future of the American economy upon “the hope of revolutionizing the non-Soviet world.”
The piece continued: “This program pushes American military frontiers far out into Europe, Asia, and Africa. It consolidates an American pattern for reorganization of the entire non-Soviet world through combined military, economic, financial, and social measures.…It appeals to those who believe that ‘sharing our wealth’ is speeding up some form of world government.…On the other side, it appalls those Americans who are chiefly concerned with the radical changes which ‘mutual security’ means for the American traditional system: indefinite conscription of our young men, Federal expenditures greatly in excess of revenues, unparalleled taxes which are certain to increase, the overhanging threat of monetary inflation which already has reduced the purchasing power of the dollar by more than half.” (For more selections from the Post archive, see page 37.)