The ICAS Lectures


Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness

James T. Laney

ICAS Annual Liberty Award Dinner 2009
December 4, 2009 6:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Kennedy Caucus Room
United States Senate
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20510

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: James T. Laney

Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness

James T. Laney

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm overwhelmed and deeply honored and moved by the extraordinary generosity of the remarks and comments that have been made tonight, and by the receipt of this very distinguished award which you have honored me with this evening. Madame President, I'm most grateful. Mr. Kim, it's a real pleasure to work with you and to be here tonight.

I must take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate the words of my former colleague, Danny Russel. And since he's still involved with the Korea situation from the perch of the White House and no longer in the Embassy in Seoul, we all wish him well and his colleagues in their attempt to deal with that very intractable situation. And also from Ron Brown whom I'm proud to say is an alumnus of Emory. He speaks well! He's a Dean of Public Health at Temple. And I also want to acknowledge the presence here tonight of several Emory alumni, who are extraordinarily thoughtful in coming out for this evening. And I want to say how proud I am of them and all those who have sent greetings and words for this occasion. It's also a great pleasure to see again my colleague and friend in Korea, General John Tilelli. If you had on your uniform, I would salute you, John. We worked together very closely for the few months we had in averting difficulties on the Korean Peninsula.

I've been given the topic of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," I think probably to divert me from speaking - giving another speech on North Korea. And I'm pleased to accommodate that! First of all I have to say that it means a lot to me to be meeting in this great room, this room that is redolent with history, the scene of some of the most important hearings in the 20th Century, named now for the Kennedys. Being in this room reminds me when I was a young man still at Yale watching the Army-McCarthy Hearings, in 1954, hearings that riveted the nation. Back then the television screens were very small. Samsung hadn't come along with the big ones. And we would all gather around. Joseph McCarthy, the Senator, used the prospect of many communists in government to flail and intimidate several branches of government. There were some communists, but nothing like the number he claimed, and he was using it for his own exploitation and aggrandizement of power. But he over-reached when he decided to take on the Army. The Army! They were soft on communism, he said. And he tried to besmirch the Eisenhower administration. Here was a man who had never served a day in the Army and the military, and he was trying to bring down the hero of the Second World War.

Those hearings took place in this room. The counsel for the defense, for the Army, was a very civil man, mild-mannered man really, by the name of Joseph Welch. And at one point when McCarthy, who had the podium and could bang the gavel and speak loudly into the microphone, always interrupting and bullying and trying to intimidate, finally crossed the line, Mr. Welch got up and interrupted the Senator and said, "Senator, until this moment I had never gauged the extent of your cruelty and your recklessness. Have you no decency, Senator? Have you none?" And with that, although the hearings went on, the game was over. McCarthy was lost because he had been shown to be what he was: a scowling, contempt-dripping bully who did not have the best interests of this country at heart, but found political purpose in trying to de-value and undermine the established institutions of government, including the Executive Branch.

The reason why I mention that is partly because we're here in this room, and because periodically the United States has to determine what kind of country it's going to be. That was a defining moment there in those hearings. From that point on, the Eisenhower Administration was established without question and McCarthy, not long after that, died of alcoholism, a broken man.

Those moments define what the country is about and what life is for - we have liberty, yes; we have freedom, but to what end? What does it mean "the pursuit of happiness"? Is it individual only? Is it a freedom simply for self-aggrandizement? What is the social compact and what do we owe in the way of commitment and dedication to something beyond ourselves? These are recurring questions and they're very pertinent today.

Over a century ago, an English political economist named Walter Bagehot, who's mostly known to us today because his name is on a page of commentary in the weekly magazine "Economist." Bagehot was influential not only in Britain but in the United States, and one of the things he was most concerned about was - what is it that holds a nation together? What makes them one people, even though they may be of various cultures and races and religions? What is it that holds them together? And his answer, and it's one worth pondering, is: The model of character that the people honor, that if they could, they would emulate, they would aspire to; the qualities that go beyond the individual and make them worthy of respect. The things that would give certain individuals the capacity to lead, not simply because they have power but because in an ineffable way, their lives hold forth a kind of moral authority that others acknowledge; not an authority that is built upon taking away from others, but enabling them to become who they should be and can be. As a minister, as an educator, as a sometime diplomat, I have pondered this issue about the model of character and the nature of our country for many decades. I'm 82 years old. And you'll forgive me if I reminisce because we need to think afresh about what it means to be an American in this time of great diversity and heterogeneity. How can we be one people? What is the bond of unity among us? Are we simply a collocation of individuals who have the liberty to pursue our own interests alone without regard to anything else as long as it benefits only us?

The way in which we have looked at Adam Smith in the last few decades would seem to indicate that, people pursuing their own private interests, so the saying goes, "invoke an invisible hand which redounds to the good of the whole." That's a poor reading of Adam Smith. First of all, the interests of the individual in those times were of a shopkeeper or somebody like that, who had to serve the public or they wouldn't keep coming back. Their interest was in fact satisfying the people, not milking them. But secondly, because Adam Smith also, in addition to the "Wealth of Nations," wrote a book called "A Treatise of Moral Affections," in which he talked about the social bonds and the kind of cohesion that is required in a society in which individuals pursue their interests and makes the whole thing come together in, if not harmony, at least without flying asunder. I've thought about the kind of character, the thing that I would emulate. Who would you emulate if you think about it? Who are you becoming? Why? Where is your life heading? And for what purpose?

When I was young I had a very conventional idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a success, like most of us. I wanted to make my mark, like most of us. And that meant, you know, doing the best I could in school and graduating the best I could, and going to good schools and getting a good job, and making money. That sounded pretty good to a boy that was brought up in Eastern Arkansas in a little town. To go to Wall Street. That sounded pretty good. So when I was at Yale I majored in economics and investment banking, and I had my eye set on Wall Street. This was before it became so fashionable. I was going to be ahead of the curve.

After two years in college - this was in 1946 and the draft for World War II was still on - I was caught up in that draft. They still needed soldiers to go to Europe and to Japan and Korea and I was caught up in it, taken out of school, given a couple of weeks of training - maybe six or eight; not very many - and sent to Korea. That was my introduction to Korea - 1947 January 3, I arrived at Inchon, Korea, and it was cold! We traveled on a train that took eight hours to go from Inchon to Yung Dong Po, and it had no windows, and it was about 10░ F.

I was put in the CIC, counter-intelligence, and I was a special agent. I was not an officer, but I wore officers' uniforms without any rank, whatever that meant. And I thought I was very important. Nineteen years old! I've often thought - I had more untrammeled power as a CIC Special Agent in 1947 in Korea than I've ever had in my life. But the important thing about this is that I saw a country that was in privation, desperate poverty because of 40 years of occupation by the colonial Japanese. I saw a young nascent democracy trying to find its way and establish some sort of political system that would endure. I saw the tragedy of the divided north and south. We discovered an underground army - communist army - that was trying to cause subversion and sedition in the south. But the thing that was so striking was - the people were undaunted. There was an irresistible, irrepressible zest. I was so impressed. They were not depressed or dour! It was tough for the people. Some of you may have remembered those times. But their spirit was undaunted. And here was this small-town boy with a patina of sophistication from Yale, but very conventional, in Korea in a different culture, different language. And I found a common human bond. I did not speak the language then, but I found a common human bond and I loved to work with my Korean colleagues.

I came back to Yale after I got out of the Army and graduated in economics. I was always glad I had economics because then I could keep books and read balance sheets. That's pretty important in a university and it's not bad in an Embassy. But I realized that my world had changed. I could not just go back to the same old studies with the same old goals, with the same old ambitions, with the same old ideas.

So when the end of my undergraduate career came around, I realized I was going to go to Divinity School. I was going to re-think my life. I was going to try to do something worthwhile. Worthwhile in some vague, ill-defined way. After I finished Divinity School, I was approached to go back to Korea. Now married with a small family, they asked me if I'd go back and work on a college campus, Yonsei University, which is the premiere private university in Korea, and work with students. The student Christian movement there had some superb leaders: Kang Won Yong, Oh Jae Shik, Kang Moon Ku all became prominent in Korean culture later in the church or in NGOs. But most important of all were the remarkable students I worked with.

At that time, 1960, there was a group of medical students that formed the "V.V. Club." It's still going in Seoul. V.V. means "veneratio vitae," which is Latin for "reverence for life," which was Albert Schweitzer's motto. They formed this club and decided to go out to a clinic in a small village about 30 miles from Seoul on the weekends to a village that had no health care. It was really isolated, deep in the country, and bereft of any modern amenities. These students would go out and they'd spend 12 hours on a Saturday in a clinic treating all kinds of diseases, dispensing medicine, even pulling a few teeth. And on Sunday they would hold a service and they'd return to Seoul, weekend after weekend. Those members of the V.V. Club have spread out over Korea and all over the world. One of the most distinguished hand surgeons in the United States, a former member of that club, is at the University of Pennsylvania.

What happened to them was even more far-reaching, intangible, powerful, and their lives would never be the same. And they could never live just for themselves again. And I witnessed that, and participated in it, found it myself inspired by them, far more than I gave them.

I returned and went into education and I was determined to think that something like this must happen on the university campuses of this country. There's too much narcissism, solipsism - call it what you will - there's too much sense that everything is defined by monetary success. There's too much sense of "it's just a 'me' world." It's not "just a 'me' world." And the tragedy of that is, when one wakes up and finds that it's not, maybe part of one's life is already gone, slipped away.

This is not something that I alone have been concerned about. In the last few years two books have come out - one by the Dean of Harvard College, called "Excellence Without a Soul," and he talked about Harvard. And he said, "What's happened to Harvard? We may be the best in the world, but for what end? We educate the finest, the brightest and the best, and they take what we have and they use it - to what end?" What's happened to the earlier desire to influence the spirit, the soul, the character - to shape the character? And the Dean of Yale Law School has written a book, "How Our Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life." Now these are not counsels of despair. They're an acknowledgement of the fact that our culture, in defining itself, is not only split politically, maybe even economically, but we don't know what our common bonds are. We don't know how to find them. The bonds that not only tie us together, but give us something to live for.

I keep thinking about what I want to share with my own grandchildren as I've shared with the students, and there are two icons in our own history that come to mind. One is Washington and the other is Lincoln: Washington, not because he was a military genius, which he really wasn't, but because of his leadership. He was willing to identify with his troops, and as a result they grew to love him. At Valley Forge, that bitter winter, he stood and stayed with his troops. I think after that winter that those soldiers would have gone into the jaws of hell for George Washington.

Note, he wasn't just pursuing his interest at this. He had an interest larger than himself, larger than the soldiers, larger than all of them. He believed in something! And when the war was over, he gave up his commission. He resigned it. And why did he resign it? He wasn't self- abnegating. He knew that if they crowned him a hero or a Caesar instead of a Cincinnatus going back to his farm, that this would be inimical to the young republic that was to be born. They had to make the choice. It could not be a crowning.

He later became President, but again he stepped aside after two terms. That kind of self- restraint had never been seen in the history of the world. That's our heritage! One of the things ICAS stands for is Liberty. Now that's the kind of liberty we're talking about: freedom used for purposes larger and nobler than the self alone.

I talked about Washington. The other icon, of course, is Lincoln. He had resolve. He was going to win the war. And he had a great sense of ambition. He wanted to make a mark. But the thing that he leaves us, his great legacy, in addition to emancipation, is - there was no vindictiveness. He saw both sides as being flawed. And he said, you know those words, "with malice toward none and charity for all. Let us do the right as God leads us to see the right." No malice; but charity. That was at a time when the feelings between the two sections were just unbelievable. Of course he was assassinated, but his legacy - his legacy was reconciliation in the context of freedom.

Hannah Arendt, the great philosopher of the last century, said that the most creative human act is the act of forgiveness - releasing others from the past. We may be called upon to do that on the Korean Peninsula some day. I know all the arguments and I'm not going to rehearse them here. But let's remember that part of our heritage, the greatest part is that kind of restraint that Washington showed and that kind of generosity of spirit that Lincoln showed.

These are some of the things that make me wonder about our country. I'm deeply concerned that there be voices that are raised to remind us that we have really a great heritage. This is not na´ve. This is real. We need to claim it. We not only have that heritage, but we also have that task, that mission. The mission is not to be an imperial power in the world. The mission is not to impose our will upon the world. The mission is to be a people of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for whom life is larger than the self, and the expression of that largeness is a quality of spirit and generosity, colleague-ship, participation, just sympathy - the ability to think in behalf and for another person. And that's what I long for my grandchildren and I long for our students, I long for our nation, and may I say it, I long for our airwaves. This room has seen a lot of "stuff," a lot of rhetoric, a lot of history, but at its best, it's found itself the locale of a definition of America that is inclusive and diverse and broad and generous, and, if we would fulfill our destiny, a nation that is great.

Thank you.

This page last updated 1/29/2010 jdb

ICAS Fellow
Speakers &