191. Paper Prepared in the Office of Policy and Research, United States Information Agency1



NOTE: See “Worldwide Priority Themes,” July 30, 1968.2 This paper relates specifically to themes of Contemporary America—a Society in Transition.

In the decade and a half after the second world war, most people around the world came to think of America as a “success story” of incredible economic, scientific, technological, and social progress. Recent headlines about political assassinations, urban violence, racial strife, and student revolt in the U.S., thrown against this background, could not help but baffle our foreign audiences and leave many with the feeling that they had, somehow, been cheated into thinking this country was strong, healthy, progressive, an epitome of success. One concept which may, over time, help us deal with the apparent contradiction is that of rapid change.

While we have occasionally spoken of “permanent revolution,” we have perhaps failed to communicate the measure in which change itself is of the essence of our society—and of our time—and to prepare people abroad for the often painful spectacles that accompany such rapid and fundamental transformations in a large social organism. As we explain [Page 613] these processes, we can hope to reconcile the clashing images of America and provide a cushion against the shocks produced by episodes of violence and conflict. As we succeed in conveying something of the excitement of change and in drawing our audiences into the whole complex of our awesome problems and breathtaking opportunities, our experiments and failures, as well as successes, we can enhance their sympathetic understanding and hope that they will come to identify with us and to respect us.

The following major themes are suggested:

1. Our Strains and Stresses Reflect Change, Not Sickness.

The statistics of spectacular growth (population, GNP, educational system, agricultural and industrial technology, etc.), following patterns of geometric progression, bear witness to the continuing vitality of America. This growth has been accompanied by profound economic, social, and psychological changes. It has, at the same time, brought into focus many long-unresolved problems and has left in its wake completely new problems as well.

This, the rapid realization of the promise of the Twentieth Century and an awareness of the threat of crisis which it contains, is an experience shared by the United States with many other countries. The United States is in the vanguard, within reach of the promise and therefore perhaps most sharply aware of the threat.

Technology is transforming our economy into a new kind of structure often described as “post-industrial.” A new pattern of relationships between government, industry, organized labor, and the educational establishment is evolving. The mechanization of agriculture has accelerated the movement of farm laborers—a great many of them representing minority groups—to urban centers, while higher incomes, city congestion, auto expressways have led middle-class Americans to the suburbs. The economic gap between the skilled, eagerly sought after by ever more automated industries, and the unskilled, for whom there is less and less employment, has widened—the poor becoming relatively, and in some cases absolutely, poorer—although the percentage of the poor in the whole society has continued to diminish.

Our pursuit of economic and technological growth and progress has led us at times to neglect some other, equally important, values and purposes. It has also become evident that our social and political mechanisms and habits have adapted much more slowly than they should have in the face of accelerating population growth, urbanization, technological progress, and productivity. Mass communications, especially television, sharpen the feeling of the poor that they are being left behind. They also make the more affluent feel that the “American dream” is being violated by the existence of poverty, even hunger, in the richest society the world has ever known. The steady progress of [Page 614] black Americans, as a race, toward legal equality everywhere in the country and, as individuals, to higher positions in business and government, adds just enough expectation to their sense of bitterness to give explosive urgency to their demands for immediate and complete social and economic justice. The relatively undeveloped state of our skills in speeding the processes of social development and the loss of the individual’s feeling of participation in the ever-growing, more complex, unwieldy, and impersonal social and economic environment combine to produce a sense of isolation and insecurity on the part of the affluent and the poor alike.

All these developments have necessitated a re-examination of a whole list of ethical and practical assumptions. These had served America well in bringing into the movement of economic progress larger and larger segments of a population coming from a multitude of different cultural backgrounds. Now, however, that we are dealing with the hard core of poverty and underprivilege in a highly sophisticated technological society, we are finding that hard work without skill is no longer enough to keep a family afloat; that free public education has not been flexible enough to cope with the “subculture of poverty”; that the best public housing becomes a slum when inhabited by people without jobs, local political leverage, and social skills; that welfare is not necessarily temporary help on the way to a solution of human problems but often a dead end; that the movement for racial integration may have, in spite of apparent successes, failed to stem the trend toward “two Americas”; that honest courts do not always assure equal justice; and that clean elections do not inevitably result in effective representation of all the people.

These changes and reassessments have led many Americans, especially the young, to question vigorously, sometimes noisily, just about all the premises of Western civilization in general and present-day America in particular. Much as young people do all over the world just now, many young Americans challenge “the system,” the ideals of their elders, and their elders’ failure to live up to those ideals. They are often intemperate in their rhetoric and unduly reluctant to reject the nihilists and demagogues in their own ranks.

All this makes for painful self-examination, self-criticism, search for new definitions of the national purpose, strain and conflict. It is a time similar to other periods in the past when many old problems came to a head and many people came to feel that they had reached a fork in the road of history. The uneasiness is worldwide today, but it is perhaps more intense in America than elsewhere. We are further along the road of industrial development, “ahead” of the rest of the world not only in technological achievements but in the nature of our problems as well. Our role is to pioneer in finding solutions to these [Page 615] problems, and it must be in the interest of those who in time will face comparable problems that we find our way.

2. An Atmosphere of Intense Questioning and Dissent Contains Risks, But Opportunities as Well.

A tendency to self-examination and the willingness to discard outdated premises have characterized American society from its beginnings. What Churchill called our “genius for self-criticism” has in the past finally always proved to be a source of strength rather than of decay. We have perhaps never, certainly not in a hundred years, probed as deeply or attempted to solve problems as complex as at this moment in our history. The occasion is not one for shame, nor for panic that our social fabric is being “rent apart.” We can take some pride in our courage to take it apart, our candor in confronting what is wrong with it, and our intent—though not always our success—in experimenting with new solutions. In view of America’s record in past crises, we can also show some confidence in our ability to put the fabric together again, in a pattern more in harmony with the demands of our time as well as with our firmly held principles.

One of these principles, the right to free speech and the freedom to dissent, is responsible for many misunderstandings of America abroad; but it is also a most important instrument for the society’s adaptation to rapid change. Civil disobedience, though of course never immune to legal sanctions, also has roots in the American tradition and has sometimes contributed to changing society. More often, however, the required adjustments were brought about peacefully, in orderly fashion, within the framework of our social and legal institutions. The electoral process, the courts which continuously re-interpret the fundamental laws, the ever more diverse, burgeoning educational system, the foundations, the churches (most of which have been in the vanguard of progress for many years now), civic groups, voluntary organizations, private enterprise and the trade unions—all these are, by and large, prepared to participate, or to lead, in experiments with new solutions for problems which no society has ever previously encountered, or certainly not on a comparable scale. There is, along with concern, impatience, and frustration, a new spirit of adventure in the land, characterized more by sober resolve than by easy optimism, more by growing self-knowledge than by facile self-confidence.

It may be possible to communicate some of this spirit not only by telling about it but also through the products of contemporary American writers, artists and musicians. Many of our audiences abroad have reason to be interested in our unsolved problems—some of which already face them, others of which soon will. If we place the emphasis on the search for solutions as well as on their achievement, then the failures, setbacks, and backlashes which we are bound to encounter over time will also be more comprehensible to our audiences.

[Page 616]

3. The New Generation of Americans, Raised in and for the New World of Accelerating Change, is Well Equipped to Face the New Problems.

In no group are the concern with human values, the spirit of questioning, and the predisposition to adventure more alive than among that segment of American youth which has largely been setting the tone on many university campuses. A decade ago, college professors were still complaining about the “silent generation,” apathetic, efficient, and materialistic. Today, the complaint is about hippies and extremists—the relatively few who have proved incapable of dealing constructively with their despair, frustration, or anger. These, however, represent no more than the froth on top of the waves of the much larger number of socially committed, independent and irreverent young people at our universities, radical in their analysis of facts and principles, rigorous in their idealism and their rejection of cant. They feel what young people often felt and what Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed this way: “We are to revise the whole of our social structure, the State, the school, religion, marriage, trade, science, and explore their foundations in our own nature; we are to see that the world not only fitted the former men, but fits us, and to clear ourselves of every usage which has not its roots in our own mind.”3

The new generation was raised in this period of rapid change and taught to respond to it. Trained for intellectual excellence, the most gifted members of this generation are, nevertheless, distrustful of reason untempered by feeling and moral direction. These are individualists, enemies of all violence, democrats to the point of rejecting all hierarchy, patriots in their pained sensitivity to every imperfection which they perceive in their country, and as indifferent to material gain as their secure childhood could make them. They are more likely to spend their spare time tutoring underprivileged children than going to football games; more inclined to become public servants than to seek prosperous careers in their specialties; to place higher value on their personal independence than on the accepted marks of success.

Americans, more than most others, have always looked to their children to accomplish the tasks left undone by their own generation. In this instance, having raised the young with as few constraints and preconceived ideas as possible, and given unprecedented numbers of them the opportunity for higher education, some are shocked by the radicalism of the “new breed.” As the shock wears off, the dialogue and the cooperation between the two halves of our people—those under 25 and those over—show signs of becoming more constructive. [Page 617] Both share the most fundamental ideals: equality, social justice, patriotism, and a desire for peace in the world. Only, these young people, never having experienced the kind of struggle for survival which their parents knew, feel less special pride in America’s past achievements, but rather responsibility for solving the problems of the present and the future. Having never had to fear competition for employment, their insistence on equal rights for less fortunate groups is freer of reservations. More concerned about feelings than about efficiency, they can “relate” to people of other social and cultural backgrounds than their own and communicate with them. Knowing more about the world outside their country and less about wars, which their parents deplored but, somehow, always expected, they are both more naive and less rigid in their ideas on how to achieve lasting peace.

Remarkably free of prejudices, rich in energy and idealism, competent in the new arts of the Twentieth Century, with its new and more complex ways, these young people are equipped to contribute to America’s progress and to play a constructive role in the world.


Paper Prepared in the Office of Policy and Research, United States Information Agency4


Note: These categories, selected almost at random, are merely illustrations of rapid growth in a few areas of national life. While the figures are based on authoritative sources, they may differ in some measure from other, perhaps equally authoritative, statistical data found elsewhere.

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1950 1960 1968 (Est.) Projection (Year 2000 Unless Otherwise Indicated)
POPULATION5 150 180 200 340
Urban 96 125 140 280+
Rural (Farm) 23 13.5 11
Total (Including Armed Forces) 63.9 72.1 82.6 92.2 (1975)
Manufacturing, Mining, Construction 18.5 20.4 23.5 24.5 (1975)
Services, Transportation, Commerce 20.7 25.5 32.2 37.4 (1975)
Agriculture 7.2 5.5 3.9 3.7 (1975)
Government (State & Local) 4.1 6.1 9.5 11.4 (1975)
Government (Federal) 1.9 2.3 2.7 2.7 (1975)
Other: Military, Etc. 11.5 12.3 10.8 12.5 (1975)
GNP (1958$) $355 billion $487 billion $700 billion $1,500–4,000 billion
Per Capita GNP (1958$) $2,342 $2,700 $3,500 $15,000
Family Income (1965$)
Over $10,000 p.a. 7% 18% 27.7% (1966)
$7–10,000 p.a. 13% 21% 24.5% (1966)
$5–7,000 p.a. 20% 22% 18.4% (1966)
$3–5,000 p.a. 30% 19% 14.5% (1966)
Under $3,000 p.a. 30% 20% 14.8% (1966)
[Page 619]
1950 1960 1968 (Est.) Projection (Year 2000 Unless Otherwise Indicated)
People Involved:7
Teachers 1.2 1.8 2.6 2.9 (1975)
University Students 2.3 3.6 6.3 9.1 (1975)
Secondary 6.5 9.6 13.7 16.6 (1975)
Elementary 22.2 32.4 37 35.5 (1975)
Negro Students in Universities 124,000 233,000 283,000
Total Education Expenditure as % of GNP 3.4% 5.4% 6.9%
R & D Expenditure, Public and Private8 $2,800 $13,700 $25,000
R & D Expenditure as % of GNP 1% 2.7% 3%
USG Funds for R & D9 $973 $7,546 $16,733
Basic No 610 2,331
Applied breakdown 1,331 4,059
Development available 5,605 10,343
Number Of:
Colleges 1,851 2,008 2,374 (1968 rate of increase: 1 a week)
Museums & Art Galleries 3,700 4,000 5,600 (1968 rate of increase: 1 every 3 days)
Symphony Orchestras 839 1,226 1,436
Regional Theaters 3 9 40
Computers 5 5,400 50,000 110,000 (1975)
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, Subject Files 1955–1971: Acc. #74–0044, Entry UD WW 102, Box 2, INF: “America—1968, The Excitement and the Ordeal of Rapid Change.” No classification marking. Ryan sent the paper to all USIA Head Elements under a December 9 covering memorandum, in which he noted that this “theme paper” supplemented a July 30 World Wide Priority Themes paper and that the theme papers are “designed primarily to guide worldwide media output.” USIA sent a copy of the paper to all USIS posts in circular airgram CA–4294, December 10. (National Archives, RG 306, General Subject Files; 1949–1970, Entry UD WW 264, Box 313, Master Copies, 1968) In August, the IOP’s CAO Arthur Bardos circulated a draft copy of the paper for comment within the USIA. On August 14 he received replies. IAN’s Deputy Assistant Director David Nalle thought the following theme alluded to in the paper could “more strongly” be emphasized: “That we are engaged in a new kind of ball-game with new and more complex rules, and which demands new orders of skill.” IAS Assistant Direct Wallace Littell stressed to Bardos: “You have addressed yourself to one of the most difficult problem areas that the Agency faces in seeking to achieve its mission of explaining the U.S. as a nation.” (National Archives, RG 306, Subject Files 1955–1971: Acc. #74–0044, Entry UD WW 102, Box 2, INF 1 “America—1968. The Excitement and the Ordeal of Rapid Change”)
  2. Not found.
  3. Reference is to the 19th century American essayist and poet. The quotation is from Emerson’s “Man the Reformer” speech delivered before the Mechanic’s Apprentices’ Library Association in Boston on January 25, 1841.
  4. No classification marking.
  5. In Millions. [Footnote is in the original.]
  6. In Millions. [Footnote is in the original.]
  7. In Millions. [Footnote is in the original.]
  8. In Millions. [Footnote is in the original.]
  9. In Millions. [Footnote is in the original.]