‘…a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective…’

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Harvey Shulman – a man I’d never met, never spoken to and never corresponded with – sent me a 40-year-old book. I called to ask him why.

“I had finally reached the point that I was fed up,” he told me by phone from his summer home in Greenwich, Conn. “Fed up with the war in Iraq, with the violations of civil rights. And in my frustration and increasing anger about what was happening to my party and my country, I remembered this book. I found it on a shelf and pulled down my dog-eared, underlined and scribbled copy.”

The book was “The Arrogance of Power,” copyright 1966, written by then-Sen. J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The broad subject of the book was American foreign policy, but it was specifically aimed at what Fulbright recognized, even in 1965-1966, as the flawed thinking on which rested the disastrous Vietnam War policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson, also a Democrat.

Shulman, an 84-year-old World War II Navy veteran who describes himself as a lifelong Republican, argues that Fulbright might just as well have been writing about the United States today:

“Having done so much and succeeded so well,” Fulbright wrote, “America is now at that historical point at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within its realm of power and what is beyond it…We are not God’s chosen saviour of mankind but only one of mankind’s more successful and fortunate branches.”

“If America has a service to perform in the world – and I believe she has – it is in large part the service of her own example. In our excessive involvement in the affairs of other countries, we are not only living off our assets and denying our own people the proper enjoyment of their resources, we are also denying the world the example of a free society enjoying its freedom to the fullest.”

“Gradually but unmistakably America is showing signs of that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past. In so doing we are not living up to our capacity and promise as a civilized example for the world.”

Shulman said he felt it was important that others read and consider Fulbright’s insights and analyses. “Maybe I could get a few minds to think about things, get a few more voices to speak up,” he said.

But the book was out of print. “So I traced down the original imprint. It’s now owned by Random House. I ordered a reprint of 150 copies,” he said, most of which he sent by overnight delivery to the chairmen and ranking minority members of key House and Senate committees and to a smattering of opinion journalists.

The total cost of the effort, he said, including the printing and shipping of the books and some secretarial help, was about $3,500. “More important,” he noted, “was the time I spent getting it all done. What that’s worth, at my stage of life, is an inconceivable expense.”

It wasn’t the first time Shulman’s frustration and anguish had boiled over. The week before the November 2006 midterm elections, Shulman spent about $50,000, he said, for strongly worded ads in the national editions of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The ads called on Americans, especially his fellow Republicans, to restore balance to the two-party system and bring accountability to an “incompetent, crony-laden administration” by voting only for genuine independents and Democrats in House and Senate races.

“The calling of public men to account,” Fulbright wrote, “unquestionably adds to their burdens, but the convenience of policy-makers is not sufficient reason for the shutting down of public discussion….The Congress has a traditional responsibility…to serve as a forum of diverse opinions and as a channel of communication between the American people and their government.”

“The Congress, inspired by patriotism, importuned by Presidents, and deterred by lack of information, has tended to fall in line behind the Executive…The problem is…finding a way to restore the constitutional balance, of finding ways by which the Senate can discharge its duty of advice and consent in an era of permanent crisis.”

Convenient stereotypes might cast Harvey Shulman as an unlikely political activist. He spent some 40 years as the hands-on second-generation owner of family businesses – Stanwood Mills, Ramsay Fabrics, Select Ribbons – turned the operations over to a son, retired and then taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business for 10 years.

He acknowledges having made a lot of money in the process, enough to provide for a family that now includes his wife of 61 years, three children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He has an apartment on the East Side of Manhattan not far from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a home in Greenwich near Long Island Sound.

Having served his country in war, having worked hard and achieved success in business and then in academia and being financially secure, Shulman hardly could be faulted for settling down to enjoy the fruits of his considerable labors. But that’s not how he sees it.

“I paid my dues,” he granted. “But so what? When are you done paying your dues?”

Shulman talked about playing golf at his private club with “my Bushie friends” and enjoying the company “until the 19th hole.” But he seemed more concerned about friends who share his views about the dangerous path the country is on. “We’re really talking to the choir unless we do something about it. But some of my friends say you have to do that by being part of an organization, that an individual doesn’t have any clout. I understand that, but I really needed to do something personally.”

Why, I asked?

“I tell my friends that I will not go quietly into the night. I think every generation has a responsibility to the next generations. I have a responsibility to that great-granddaughter of mine. It’s important not to leave the world in worse shape than it was when we arrived,” he said.

“I went to war willingly. I felt it was my battle. It’s still my battle. It’s my country, not theirs,” Shulman said.

“The inconstancy of America foreign policy,” Fulbright wrote, “is not an accident but an expression of two distinct sides of the American character. Both are characterized by a kind of moralism, but one is the morality of decent instincts tempered by the knowledge of human imperfection and the other is the morality of absolute self-assurance fired by the crusading spirit…”

“I think the word has endured about all it can of the crusades of high-minded men bent on the regeneration of the human race. Since the beginning of history men have been set upon by zealots and crusaders, who, far from wishing them harm, have wanted sincerely and fervently to raise them from benightedness to blessedness…”

“The result has been a great deal of bloodshed and violence commited not in malice but for the purest of motives…Who are the self-appointed emissaries of God who have wrought so much violence in the world? They are men with doctrines, men of faith and idealism, men who confuse power with virtue, men who believe in some cause without doubt and practice their beliefs without scruple…”

“Are we to regard ourselves as a friend, counselor, and example for those around the world who seek freedom and who also want our help, or are we to play the role of God’s avenging angel? The kind of foreign policy I have been talking about is, in the true sense of the term, a conservative policy…I think that man is qualified to contemplate metaphysics but not to practice it.”

“The practice of metaphysics is God’s work.”

Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. E-mail him at emink@post-dispatch.com.

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