Richard Nixon photo

Remarks to the National 4-H Congress in Chicago, Illinois.

December 01, 1971

Mr. Chairman, all of the distinguished honorees, and all of those attending this Golden Anniversary Congress of 4-H:

I want all of you to know what a great inspiration it is for me to be here, to see you, to hear you, to see the young people that represent all of America.

As I was doing a little homework before coming out here, I found some interesting things about 4-H. I suppose, like most people, I had the idea that 4-H was almost exclusively an organization with its interest in agriculture and farming.

4-H was born on the soil. 4-H has its roots in the soil. But as you know, approximately 35 percent of your members are from farm communities and 65 percent of your members are from smaller towns, larger towns, and even large cities.

Another thing that is very interesting about this organization is that you are all winners. I found that out by going into the background. I knew that I would have the privilege of presenting these beautiful silver trays to the six winners that have been picked from all over the country, but I understand that everyone who is here, of the 3,000 attending this meeting, has been recognized as an achiever or as a winner in his own community or in his State. I congratulate a group of winners, the largest group of winners I ever saw, here in 4-H.

Another thing that I found in studying the background of this organization is that you come from all the 50 States, and that insofar as your age group is concerned, it represents what we generally refer to as the teens--the lower teens, the middle teens, and the like.

After reading all of that information, I had to make a decision about what to talk about, and, naturally, the first inclination would be to talk about agriculture. It is an extremely interesting subject; it is vitally important. At this particular time in our Nation's history, it is essential that America continue the great strides we have made forward in productivity in agriculture. Because while we hear of problems of competing with nations abroad in terms of other technologies, in agriculture America leads the world, and because we do lead the world, it means that only 5 percent of America's people can produce enough to feed and clothe all the people of America, and to provide very much for people abroad when they are in need.

This, of course, is something that needs to be said, and those who come from the community of agriculture can be very proud of what American farmers, people in agriculture, have done for this country and for the world. And yet, as I thought further about the problem, I realized that you were a broader group simply than one interested in agriculture.

You are interested in all of America, because you come from all of America-you come from the cities and the towns and the farms. And because the America of the future will be yours and what you make it, you, therefore, I think, would like whoever appears before you--and particularly one who appears in the capacity that I do, as President of the United States, President of all the people--you would like to have me address you not as a narrow, special-interest group, but as young people representing the young people of America.

I would like to do that today. I would like to say some things that I have been wanting to say for a long time to a young audience, a young audience representative of the whole country. You are that audience, and that is why I have chosen this forum for the purpose of saying these things.

I am going to begin with a proposition that perhaps is a little different from what you sometimes hear. It seems to be somewhat the fashion for a speaker speaking to a young group to point out what a terrible time this is to be growing up in America--the problem of a war, the problem of environment, the problem of jobs, all the other things that we see and that we hear about. There are many problems. I am keenly aware of them. I think about them a great deal, as you might imagine, just as you think about them a great deal.

But then I tried to put myself back a few years, many, many years, when I was as young as you are, and I thought of what I thought about America then. I thought it was a great country.

At that time, particularly as I entered the twenties of my life, America was in a depression. But I looked to the future with hope, because I realized that whatever our problems were, that this country, our country, could solve them, that this was the place that I would choose to live if I had to make a choice of all the countries in the world. I believed that then, and I believe it now.

I want to tell you why I think you should believe it, believe it very, very deeply today, not with any Pollyannaish statement in which we cover up those things that are wrong about our country and wrong about this world, and not with any statements in which we downgrade the great dangers that we confront in the world, but just laying it on the line like it is, the kind of America you are in today, the kind of America you can make tomorrow, the kind of a world we can have, particularly you can have, by the end of this century, in the year 2000, when we celebrate a new year that comes only once in a thousand years.

One of the reasons that I speak in optimistic terms is this: Just to stand before this great assembly of young leaders and young achievers, as you are, to feel your idealism, your commitment to excellence, is to stand on the threshold of the brightest future the world has ever known. I believe that.

You are coming to maturity at a time which history will remember as a great period of emancipation for young Americans. Your generation has the opportunity to participate more fully in the American adventure than young people have ever been able to do since Revolutionary times 200 years ago.

You can remember those days as you read them in history. How stirring they were. More than half the population of America at the beginning were less than 20 years of age. The cause of liberty was the cause of youth and of age alike. Citizens belonged not to this or that generation; they belonged to America. Hamilton in his late teens emerged as the leading voice for independence in the State of New York. Jefferson at 33 authored the Declaration of Independence. Sixteen other patriots in their thirties, three in their twenties, Franklin at 70, the old man of the group, joined Jefferson as signers of the Declaration of Independence.

That was the young America at the time of our birth. Then, in the course of two centuries, things changed. They changed radically. In the 1950's, when you were born, generational stereotyping and pigeonholing by age groups became all too common. Most young people in those years went intensely and quietly about the ordinary task of just growing up. Some of the young in those years, in the fifties, however, went underground into a Bohemian subculture. It is obvious now that older people at that time should have been asking why, but few bothered to ask why that was the case. It was so much easier then just to tag one group as "the silent generation" and the other "the beat generation" and just leave it at that.

Then suddenly in the sixties everything seemed to go to the other extreme. A new breed of young men and women shook the Nation. They wrote a record dominated by remarkable good but also shadowed with ominous wrong--civil rights laws on the one side, urban riots on the other; campus reform and academic anarchy; a war against aggression in Asia, a war against the war in the streets of America; a surge of participation in politics and a wave of terrorist bombings; a rich new diversity in life-styles and a grim new plague of drug abuse--all of these side by side in that stirring decade of the sixties.

All in all, it was a time when youth reached vigorously for a new role as full partners in American society. The result was monumental, and yet the cost in disruption and alienation seemed almost prohibitively high.

Why was the record of the youth movement only mixed in the sixties, when it should have been magnificent? It was only mixed because it took the form of an outside force, rather than of integrated, individual participation in the larger society. It was forced into that form by the rigid generational walls erected in American attitudes and institutions over the years. Its frustrations and its excesses arose in large part from the painful experience of battering against those walls--an experience that dramatized the need to sweep them away once and for all.

And so came the end of the sixties, and Americans awoke to several important realization. They saw that to regard a person's date of birth as more important than his own unique individuality is to indulge in the insidious bigotry called age-ism. They saw that it is wasteful, stupid, and unjust to restrict the generations in a narrow structure in which those in the middle of life would monopolize the centers of power, while the young would plod along in apprenticeship or chafe in alienation, and the aged would draw social security, preferably well out of sight.

They saw that it was time to pull down the generational stereotypes involved, hip, silent, beat, lost--and to raise a new standard of brotherhood, tolerance, and mutual respect between those generations.

As these new attitudes have taken hold, young America has passed from its stormy night of recent years into what I believe will be a bright new morning.

College turmoil has subsided sharply-not in resignation, but in wisdom. High schools, young working people--the next declared target of the radicals--have not caught fire as they were expected to. Opinion surveys have detected a rising disgust with political radicalism, even in strongholds of the counterculture.

Most of you in this great audience are not only witnesses to these developments, you are leaders in them. You could not be leaders in a more important cause. For the more convincingly the young majority demonstrates its resilience and levelheadedness, the faster you will find the so-called Establishment responding to your hopes, opening to your aspirations.

The young in America are no longer going to be treated as a mass or a bloc in this country--neither as a generation apart nor as a generation idolized. You deserve better than that. And you will have better, for America is rapidly moving to take you, the young, into full partnership as individuals in our society.

Your country knows how much it needs you, and we are proving that, not just with talk but with action.

We need your voice, first, in the political process, as soon as you are prepared for that trust--and that should not take 21 years of your life. That is why I was able last July to certify passage in record time of the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18.

We need your abilities, your insights, in the making of public policy. And that is why I have directed departments in the Federal Government and agencies throughout the executive branch of the Government to recruit young talent and to hear young ideas. That is why I have brought an unprecedented number of men and women in their twenties into positions of trust on the White House Staff.

We need your energies in the urgent work of helping the less fortunate across America and in other lands. That is why we have moved to expand and improve the Peace Corps and VISTA programs by merging them into a form of [a] new volunteer service agency, ACTION.

That is why we have initiated the University Year for ACTION to draw thousands of young people into this new effort. And that is why we have also worked outside government to make voluntarism a vital force in the independent sector-so that every single American who wants to serve his fellow man can have an avenue for doing so.

Young people today, every survey shows, are more generously committed to human betterment through voluntary service than any generation before you. Your own work in 4-H has shown what mountains that commitment can move. I urge you to redouble it, to share it, to maintain it throughout your lives.

Very few of you will enter government as a full-time activity. But whatever your jobs may be outside of government, I would ask that each of you make a commitment now to pledge a part of your time to volunteer service for your community throughout your lives. It will be worthwhile.

We need to be sure that you are free to shape your own career along the lines that will provide maximum fulfillment for you in adult life. That is why we have reformed the draft to reduce the uncertainty and duration of its pressures on young men. That is why we are moving toward the goal of a zero draft, an all-volunteer armed force. That is why we have pressed for a new college loan system to insure that no qualified student in America who wants to go to college will be barred by lack of money. And that is why we are developing new career education and youth employment programs in recognition that something over half the college-age young do not go to college but do need salable skills, and they do need good jobs, and they should be prepared for those jobs with an education designed to do exactly that.

We need your ideas. We need them in the national debate on issues and goals and directions. That is why the 1971 White House Conference on Youth was different from any that had ever been held before, since they first began in 1909. It was a wide-open forum, run by young Americans, of them, and for them.

Since 1909, older people, as they have been meeting at these conferences, have done so at the President's invitation to talk about youth. Well, we felt that that kind of generational condescension was out of step with the seventies, so we turned the Conference over to the young people themselves--let us find out what they would tell us.

Now I am the first to tell you that not everything they did and not everything that they said lined up with my own point of view or with that of others in our Administration. But I totally recognize and I defend their right to say it. We need to hear it. We need to know what people, and particularly young people, want for the future of this country.

Certainly the time when the young are to be seen and not heard is gone in America-and gone for good.

More than 300 of the Conference's recommendations have just undergone 6 months of intensive review by the affected Federal agencies. When the results of that review are announced, the extent of agreement between Conference hopes and Government action will further weaken the myth of an unbridgeable generation gap and will further strengthen what the conferees called their sense of "kinship with persons of good will of all generations."

This sense of kinship, forged into a firm new alliance of the generations, will be essential if we are to seize the breathtaking opportunities opening up for America and the world in the coming decades.

The greatest of these opportunities is peace--peace not just for a few years but for a whole generation and beyond, something we have not had in this century. Such a peace, I believe, is coming, and the United States is leading the way.

We are concluding our involvement in the Vietnam war, and we are doing so in a way that is responsible, honorable, and constructive for the long-range stability of Asia and the Pacific region.

We have done and will continue to do all in our power to help defuse the explosive situations in the Middle East and the one that you are currently reading about in the Indian Subcontinent.

We have acted in an historic step to end the isolation of nearly one-quarter of all the world's people who live on Mainland China. We have moved from confrontation to negotiation with the Soviet Union. with limitation of nuclear arms, relaxation of tensions in Europe, increased trade among the possible results.

I know these meetings, particularly at the highest level, with the leaders of the Soviet Union and the leaders of the People's Republic of China may lead some to assume that the fact of a meeting means the end of differences between our systems and theirs.

That, of course, will not be the case; we have basic philosophical differences, basic foreign policy differences. But as we look down the road to the end of the century, what we have to realize is this: that with 250 million people in the Soviet Union and 750 million people in Mainland China, for the United States not to be in a position to talk to those leaders, in the event there is a confrontation some place in the world, could lead to a conflict which would mean suicide for both sides. And that is why we have taken these steps, so that when we do have differences--and we will have differences for many, many years to come--we will talk about them and not fight about them.

The world that is taking shape as a result will be far less dangerous, I believe, than the one you have grown up in, because you were born approximately at the end of the Korean war. You have lived much of your life through the Vietnam war, and now the question: What confronts you in the future?

I believe it will be less dangerous, but it will be even more challenging. Because as the danger of war recedes between great powers, the challenges of competition between nations living at peace with each other also greatly increases.

Political, economic, and military power will be concentrated in many centers instead of just a few. Look at the change, for example, since World War II. Immediately after that war, the United States had no competitors in the world. We produced half the world's goods with 7 percent of the world's people. And now, today, there are five potential economic giants in the world--the new Europe with England in the Common Market, the Soviet Union, Mainland China with 750 million people, and a resurgent Japan, not to mention, of course, the potential for the future from Latin America, Africa, and other parts of Asia.

So competition in the works of peace will be intense. America cannot maintain its position of leadership unless we work at the very best of our abilities, unless we bring the best out of our young as well as our older people. But there is something else that we should see about this world, something that I hope very much for you.

The world in which I have grown up has not been an open world, not an open world because so much of it was closed by curtains--iron curtains, bamboo curtains, call it what you will.

I want the world that you grow up in to be an open world not a world without differences; that would be a very dull world--but an open world in which there will be a chance for anyone who wants to, to know the other people of the world.

Yours will be an open world, I believe, and it also will be quite literally a new world, one in which more than 60 new nations and 60 percent of the people living in the world came into being since World War II. It will be a world where America's fabulous economic and technological advances which have gone into war in generations past can be turned more fully to the service of mankind in the generation ahead.

And what an appealing idea to young people, with your idealism, to see that all of this tremendous capacity that America has--so much capacity to do so much for good--is turned to the works of peace rather than the works of war, because then, when the manacles of war at last are struck off the hands of the American giant, think of what our potentialities will be.

Together we can work toward conquering hunger, poverty, disease, ignorance here in America where it does exist, and also even abroad. We can achieve a new birth of vitality in our democracy, our economy, our arts, and our culture. We can strike a new balance between quantity and quality in national growth, between dynamic cities and a healthy countryside in this wide land, with the heartland of this country revitalized, again contributing as it can and as it will to the growth and the balance of America.

We can rescue a threatened environment, a cause in which I know you are all so deeply interested, and form a higher partnership with nature. And we can truly build a new America in a new world.

That is why I said at the outset that the most exciting time and place to be young and to be alive, in all the record of mankind, is right here in America, now in the seventies.

From the very first, we have been a people who set high goals, we dreamed large dreams, we shared from the heart with our brother men. You all remember what Jefferson wrote when this was a weak country and a poor country. He said we act not just for ourselves alone, but for all mankind. It was presumptuous for him to say it then, because there wasn't much that that young, weak America could do about the problems of mankind. But because he said it, and because there was an idealism there, America did catch the imagination of the world.

But compare the situation now to then. If a Jefferson were to say today we act for all mankind, he could be believed, and believed because what sets these times apart from any earlier period in our history is that we now have not only the will to work miracles, but we have the means to achieve them. The heavy responsibilities of world leadership, the restless perfectionism that nags at our national life, I know these seem burdensome at times. Some of us must feel at times: Wouldn't it be well not to have all these responsibilities? Just live to ourselves as an island in the world and let the rest of the world go by.

It wouldn't be well. It wouldn't be good at all. We can feel tempted to complain about these things, but it is provincial and craven to do so. The power not merely of wishing good things but of doing good in the whole history of mankind has been granted sparingly to very few men and women and nations, and that power, in full measure, is what you have. It is destiny's great gift to the United States today--the power not only to wish good things but the power, if we organize, if we work, if we set our goals high enough, to do good things in America and abroad.

Generations before could yearn for peace. We can build peace, and we are. They could feel compassion for the oppressed, the destitute, the refugees of the earth. We can provide help for them surpassing all other nations, as we are.

For example, in the current tragic situation between India and Pakistan, the United States provides more help for the refugees there than all of the other nations of the world put together.

We should be thankful that we have that kind of ability and can help in that way. We could not do it unless America were the strong, economic, productive people that we are. Others could speculate about political, economic, and social systems that would set the human spirit free, but we can fashion such systems, and we are.

We can do these things, but now so much depends, really, on you--you who are so young, so full of idealism, with all those years ahead. How committed will you be?

Listen to Thoreau. He wrote, "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence." You have the freedom, almost literally, to reach the stars, and with it comes the responsibility to stretch for them with all your might. Don't let your hearts grow earthbound, for the universe is out there waiting for you.

In the spring of 1968, when the first sweet taste of freedom came to Communist Czechoslovakia, a group of students marched to party headquarters at midnight and shouted for the reform leader, Alexander Dubcek, to confront them. They were impetuous and impatient full of that young fire which our Youth Conference delegates called "the rage of love for... unimplemented principles...and...unfulfilled potential." Dubcek came down in the street to talk to the students, and one of them asked, "What are the guarantees that the old days will not be back?" He replied, "You, yourselves, are that guarantee; you, the young."

You know the rest of the story. The hopes of the Czechs for freedom met reversals, but the words of Dubcek are not less true for that. Here in America "the rage of love" has not burned out in young hearts. The flame is purer now, fed with new reason and realism.

Man's destiny of freedom is in your keeping; it is in your guarantee. And with a lifetime of adventure and promise before you, I have every confidence that that splendid destiny of America is in good keeping--and you will make good its guarantee.

Note: The President spoke at 3 :05 p.m. in the Conrad Hilton Hotel to thee 50th national congress of the 4-H, which was sponsored by the National 4-H Service Committee.

The President, as honorary chairman of the National 4-H Service Committee, presented 4-H Presidential awards for achievement, citizenship, and leadership to Neal Nygard of Minot, N. Dak., Rachel Koontz of Fort Wayne, Ind., Deborah Bell of Sylvania, Ca., Willie Johnson of Chicago, Ill ., Leland D. Jordan, Jr., of Shelbyville, Tenn., and Linda Miller of Morris, Okla.

Blaine J. Yarrington was chairman of the board of trustees of the National 4-H Service Committee.

An advance text of the President's remarks was released on the same day.

Richard Nixon, Remarks to the National 4-H Congress in Chicago, Illinois. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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