This Noble Land: My Vision for America by James A. Michener

  2014 Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition

  Copyright © 1996 by James A. Michener

  Excerpt from Poland copyright © 1983 by James A. Michener

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

  DIAL PRESS and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC, in 1996.

  eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-5163-4




  Title Page


  ONE My Qualifications for Judging My Homeland

  TWO Defining a Noble Land

  THREE The Distribution of America’s Wealth

  FOUR Our Racial Time Bomb

  FIVE Producers versus Consumers

  SIX Our Educational System Must Be Revived

  SEVEN The Family Under Fire

  EIGHT Health Care in a Time of Triage

  NINE Our Macho Society

  TEN Art in Society

  ELEVEN The Young Colonels

  Looking Ahead



  Other Books by This Author

  About the Author

  Excerpt from Poland

  Sitting in my Texas garden as I approach my ninetieth birthday, I often reflect upon my life in the United States, enjoying what the nation offers now but shuddering at the pitfalls that threaten us in the years ahead. Since this report is an evaluation of life in my homeland, I had better begin with justifying why I consider myself qualified to brave making some judgments about America.

  Foremost is my dedication to the United States. It began in the earliest years of my life. In a Presbyterian Sunday school I was taught that God had elected our country as His favorite land and all that our leaders did was in obedience to His loving care. Devoutly I believed that we were His special charges.

  Each morning at our public school, which I attended from age six to eighteen, we opened the day with school prayer, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and, on many mornings, the bellowing of a song that we sang in unison:

  ‘O beautiful for spacious skies,

  For amber waves of grain,

  For purple mountain majesties

  Above the fruited plain!

  America! America!

  God shed His grace on thee

  And crown thy good with brotherhood

  From sea to shining sea!’

  Each time I sang these words in my usual off-key voice, I was convinced that a universal brotherhood did exist in my noble homeland.

  In those days the indoctrination of children with a love of their homeland began at age six and continued daily for the next twelve years. I have often thought back on that simpler time and concluded that it is better for a child to have some strong moral and social beliefs rather than none at all, even though his indoctrination may have been chauvinistic, muddled or even erroneous. Later he can correct error, but if he has allegiance to nothing he has nothing to work on in his later reeducation.

  At an early age I began to know our country well, for at fourteen I hitchhiked north and south, and some years later I probed far to the west. In adult life I lived for extended periods in scattered states: Pennsylvania, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii, Maryland, Florida, Texas, Maine and Alaska. I spent shorter six-month periods in Virginia and Ohio, and I made enlightening visits of some length researching in the American islands of Samoa, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam.

  From these travels I acquired an appreciation of the fact that we are a country with unique blessings. Our land territory stretches from ocean to ocean, so we did not have to worry about our neighboring nations east or west; there were only those north and south, which, by great good fortune, were friendly nations: Canada and Mexico. True, we did have skirmishes with Canada, but we quickly backed off, and we did have far more serious wars with Mexico, from whom we acquired—or perhaps stole would be a better word—an amazingly rich southern tier of states that had belonged to her: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, with extensions reaching into states like Colorado. But in general our neighbors’ amicability allowed us freedom to develop peacefully inside our spacious borders. We owe much to Canada and Mexico.

  Within our boundaries we have almost unimaginable riches: agricultural land capable of providing much of the rest of the world with wheat, corn, beef and other foods. We also have spectacular natural beauty: our vast prairies, our towering mountains, our deep canyons, our vital rivers. We are a land truly blessed, for beneath this beauty lie immense deposits of petroleum and the precious minerals gold and silver.

  I established in seven of the big states what amounted to permanent homes and participated in the social, economic and political life of the areas. Thus I became familiar with eastern seaboard traditions, the radically different patterns in the Far West, the rigid values of New England, the seductive charm of the South, the unique character of life in Texas, the allure of Hawaii and the frozen wonders of Alaska, where I spent extended time one winter in total darkness north of the Arctic Circle. And on the islands—Pacific and Caribbean—I witnessed how our nation operated as a colonial power.

  The reason I was deficient in my knowledge of the West Coast states was a somewhat complicated one. I married an American woman of Japanese descent, whose birth in the United States automatically made her an American citizen. But when we were catapulted into World War II by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, public opinion in California became so inflamed that my future wife’s family was given two days to liquidate all their holdings and was moved into an American-style concentration camp that used the stables at the Santa Anita Racetrack as living quarters. In later years my wife boasted humorously: ‘Our family occupied the stall of the great horse Equipoise.’

  Despite her ability to make light of what had happened to her, she rebelled when I attempted in the 1960s to move our headquarters to California so that I could write what I hoped would be a strong novel on that state. She said: ‘I could not sleep easily in California. Remembering how they abused my mother and me would be too painful!’ So I lost the opportunity to live in one of our mightiest states and write what might have been one of my better books.

  However, in our later years she became forgiving: ‘True, we were thrown into concentration camps, mine was in Colorado, but they must not be compared with Hitler’s terrible death camps. None of us was killed or tortured, and last year the government did compensate us for our losses—if only ten cents on the dollar—as a kind of apology for what they had done.’ Then she laughed: ‘By sending us to strange areas they forced us to leave what might later have developed into a Japanese ghetto in California. We scattered to places like New England, Utah, Oklahoma and, in my case, to a good life in Chicago, where I met you.’

  I too would experience how difficult and sometimes cruel life in America can be, for I was born a foundling, reared in genteel poverty, and was occasionally brought to the local poorhouse when family funds diminished. My life till age fourteen was a struggle with deprivation, and when I had worked my way out of poverty—I was constantly employed from age eleven—I was faced by the Great Depression and the ravages of World War I.

  I watched the brutal way in which American capitalism waged battle against labor unions and the tricks by which blacks were deprived of their rights in the South. I also came out strongly against the death pe
nalty, for I saw that it was imposed primarily upon the unfortunates in our society, seldom against the well-to-do, whose high-priced lawyers could be trusted to find a compassionate judge and a jury of middle-class conservatives to set them free.

  But despite this early indoctrination into the uglier aspects of our political world, I was never attracted by the Communism then rampant. I was sensible enough to see that whereas some of its social principles were identical with some of mine, its economic proposals and its dictatorship had minimal chances of being adopted in the United States. My early conclusions on such matters never wavered and my rejection of state Communism became total.

  As I matured I would write a series of comprehensive novels about my country, and in doing so, I had to immerse myself in research regarding Hawaii, Colorado, the Chesapeake lands, the American space program, Texas, Alaska and the Pennsylvania Dutch country. And when one has an in-depth understanding of the history of those varied areas, one almost automatically gains insight into what motivates our nation. I also wrote a protracted analysis of the sports world in America, as well as a little book, a kind of novel, that investigated the principles of our Constitution. During some of those years I also taught American history at various levels and made myself reasonably conversant with constitutional law.

  From such experiences I gained a solid understanding of American history, economic development and social values. But I acquired even more instruction in the realities of American life during the five times in which I campaigned for one public office or another: electoral delegate for both Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie; member of the U.S. House of Representatives—an unsuccessful but edifying bid; official of the Democratic Party; and, most important of all, delegate to and secretary for the splendid constitutional convention that rewrote the laws for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I fought vigorously for various improvements in our state government: reduction of the ridiculous size of the legislature; merit appointment of judges; taxation on church property not used specifically for religious functions; and the elimination of superfluous row-office elective jobs like coroner and prothonotary. I lost every one of these battles, but when the convention ended, delegates from both parties appointed me to spend another six months helping to install the new governmental systems. I learned much about the United States from these excursions into the political realities. Specifically, I learned to admire the hardworking professional politicians in each party who labored diligently to make their party, their state and their nation a better place.

  And finally, from these varied experiences I had just cause for believing that my land was indeed noble, a conviction from which I have never retreated. Consider how it treated me. After a bleak early period I was spotted as a lad able to learn and was encouraged to attend nine universities and centers of learning, including the incomparable Swarthmore and Harvard, and always at public expense. When I finished, I was eligible not only to pursue an enviable private career as a writer, but also to serve our nation as a naval officer (very junior grade) and as a member of some half-dozen government committees supervising the arts, the postal service, the space agency and the agencies both in Washington and Munich that were combating the Communism of the Soviet Union, a task in which I was engaged for many years.

  I ended these adventures as a middle-class American who I think understood the problems of both the rich upper classes and those impoverished at the bottom. It is from such a background that I view my homeland as—I hope—a responsible and knowledgeable critic.

  When President Nixon wanted to appoint me to a board requiring a full-field loyalty check, the FBI reported that whereas I seemed to be a normal American citizen with no blemishes in my record, I had worked and lived abroad in a staggering number of foreign countries. The figure was somewhere in the seventies, and when I volunteered the names of other lesser locations they had understandably missed, the number came to a hundred and two. I had lived for substantial periods in Italy, Korea, Japan, Hungary, Austria, Afghanistan, Israel, Spain, South Africa, Poland, Canada, Mexico and the island groups in the South Pacific and the Caribbean.

  In several of these countries I rented my residences, but I never acquired any real estate, although I was often tempted. I continued to pay my taxes in Pennsylvania and voted from there, even though in those years a writer, artist or actor could avoid taxes by taking residence abroad, especially in Ireland or Switzerland. I noticed, however, that the young men of my acquaintance who did so became severely disadvantaged. The writers and artists fell out of the mainstream of America; the actors were forced to accept mediocre parts in mediocre films shot on inadequate budgets in Italy and Spain. The émigrés saved a little money but paid a devastating penalty: the decline of their professional careers. I learned early that it was far more profitable to stay home, pay my taxes and march ahead with my contemporaries.

  Nevertheless, I loved travel and went literally to all corners of the world, missing only a few choice places like Tibet, the South Pole and Machu Picchu in Peru. When I was eighty-five I finally made it to Antarctica and saw a world of wonders about which I had only dreamed, including vast icebergs, some as big as small villages. Through it all, I kept my emotional footing in the United States.

  As I explored one country after another, I found myself saying repeatedly: ‘I could live here very happily!’ and I would sometimes go so far as to identify specific spots that I would enjoy and in which I was sure I could do good work: a Swiss valley surrounded by the Alps, a ranch in Spain’s Andalusia surrounded by gnarled olive trees, a fishing village on the Japanese seacoast, a remote lakefront in Canada, a woodland in Brazil, or a colorful English village south of London and convenient to the theaters and museums of my favorite city in the world.

  But always I resisted the allurements, for I had developed a conviction that I needed to be home and was needed back there. I could never go into exile. Today I regret each heavenly spot I missed, but only as a sensible man feels about those dream girls he might have won had he tried.

  While jumping from one major locale to another and seeing the very best of every country in which I worked—the most interesting villages, the most romantic natural settings and the most instructive people—I began formulating the following questions for evaluating the worth of a nation, and I continue to use them in my analyses and judgments of the nations of the world today. In the succeeding chapters I will evaluate our noble land in light of several of these questions, ones that concern what I believe are the most important services a nation should provide its citizens. Does the nation provide an equitable distribution of wealth? Equal treatment for all minorities? Good educational services? Adequate health care? Good performance in these criteria is an indication of a nation’s ability to perform nobly.

  Here are the questions I ask when assessing nations:

  1. Has the nation been able to create a stable society?

  I don’t like police states, but I do want my society to be firmly rooted and devoted to the great traditions of the region. I want it to sponsor a climate in which the individual citizen can go to bed at night with reasonable assurance that when he rises the next morning his world will still be there, and next year, and forty years down the line when his children can take over with the same expectation of stability. Fundamental to every judgment I make is my strong desire to enjoy, improve and pass along a stable society. I would sacrifice much to ensure this.

  I reached my conclusion on the importance of stability in society early in my studies of American history, for although I had the deepest respect for Thomas Jefferson and would surely have been one of his strongest supporters at the close of the eighteenth century, as the new century began I’m sure I would have equally appreciated the strong, no-nonsense conservatism in fiscal and governmental matters that Alexander Hamilton espoused. Even then I would have cherished the stability that he provided and without which no society can properly flourish. I have worked in a score of emerging nations in which life would have be
en so much better in most respects if there had been a local Alexander Hamilton.

  A vital factor in the stability of a nation’s society is the stability and strength of the society’s basic unit, the family. I shall devote an entire chapter to a discussion of how the current deterioration in the traditional structure and strength of the American family is weakening the solidity of the entire nation.

  2. Does the nation provide a reliable money system?

  This is essential to the orderly progress of a nation. Individuals should have the right to expect that the money they save today will be of comparable value ten years later. Businesses can be strangled by wild fluctuations in currency.

  But I am not so sure that the nation as a whole suffers too much from these fluctuations. I have watched explosive inflation in Germany and Brazil, and in a more limited sense in Japan, where I used to get 640 yen to one dollar, while now the rate is less than 100 to one. Nations, which coin and distribute their own money, can absorb such fluctuations, and I have begun to think that a sovereign nation cannot go bankrupt. The land is still there, so also are the people and the industries, and Japan and Germany have proved to the world that a nation can suffer brutal inflation and come roaring back much stronger than it was before. It is quite possible that the same might happen in America within twenty or thirty years.

  But, of course, when such inflation strikes, it is the middle class of the population that suffers the most, and the lower and upper classes seem to survive with minimal damage. Since I am a member of the middle class, I shy away from those nations that cannot guarantee the stability of their currency.

  3. Does the nation have a political system that ensures peaceful transitions of power from liberal to conservative and vice versa?

  One of the glories of American and British government is the orderly way in which such transfers of power occur. In the United States we have an election on a Tuesday and by eleven o’clock that night the entire nation knows and accepts the fact that a new political power is now in charge. In nations like Italy and Israel, with their proliferation of fragmented political parties, sometimes no one knows who won an election for the two or three weeks required to sort out the electoral mess.

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