W. Allen Wallis: An Appreciation
By David Henderson
I gave a talk last night at the University of Rochester. The talk was titled “Do We Need to Go to War for Oil.” It was nice to catch up with friends in Rochester and former colleagues: John Long and Ron Hansen in the Simon School, the latter of whom has done some excellent work on FDA regulation, Ron Jones and Steve Landsburg in the economics department, and also meeting with the editor of Econlib. It was also fantastic to form a new friendship with Michael Rizzo, a dynamic, passionate young man who is doing outstanding work with undergrads at the U. of R. What a treasure he is! In the afternoon, he put together a special seminar with about 10 students who had read in advance two chapters of my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey.
My talk was very well received. The vast majority of the students were interested and engaged. One young woman, who, it turned out, had gone to the same school as my daughter in Monterey, told me after that she had come prepared to zone out after 10 minutes but had quickly got completely involved in the event which, with Q&A, lasted over an hour and a half. This was the funnest talk I’ve given in quite a while.
I’m writing this, though, to highlight one important contribution of a man whose name is on the room in which my afternoon seminar took place: the late W. Allen Wallis. I developed a friendship with him shortly after I arrived at the U. of R. as an assistant professor at age 24, while he was the Chancellor and former President of the U. of R. Here’s part of what I wrote about him in my article, “The Role of Economists in Ending the Draft,” in Econ Journal Watch.
One other economist worth noting, both for his work on the Commission and for his public opposition to the draft, is the aforementioned Allen Wallis. Wallis had been a top adviser to President Eisenhower and was later to be the Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs under President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George P. Shultz. On November 11, 1968, while president of the University of Rochester, Wallis was invited to give a speech in Rochester to the Monroe County branch of the American Legion on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. His speech is a model of how to approach an audience when you have an important, controversial message to give and you think your audience might disagree with you. Wallis spent the first half of the speech connecting with his audience, telling them his reminiscences of being a young child at the end of World War I, telling them his thoughts about war and foreign policy, and generally assuring them that although he wished for peace, he was not a pacifist. Then he turned on a dime, saying:
There is one measure we can take and should take immediately that would do much to resolve the dilemma that arises because, on the one horn, one of America’s most fundamental–and also most admirable–characteristics is repugnance for war and, on the other horn, the ability to wage war is essential to the preservation of freedom.
The measure I propose will, I fear, shock some of you. I respectfully request that you nevertheless hear me out and think over my proposal carefully, rather than reject it out of hand. It is not a view that I have come to lightly or recently, but one I have held for over twenty years. It is not original with me, nor is it without strong support from many respectable citizens of unquestionable patriotism.
A step that would do much toward resolving our dilemma is to abolish the draft–abolish it completely, lock, stock, and barrel; abolish it immediately, with no ifs, ands, or buts.
I then go on to write:
When I read the speech in 1976, I wondered how the audience had reacted, but I didn’t get my answer until a day in 1979, when I had lunch with Wallis. I expected him to say, “I got some polite applause.” Polite applause would have been a victory with such an explosive issue in 1968, the peak of the Vietnam War. Instead, he answered that he had received a standing ovation. Wallis later gave me a copy of a letter he had written to a Republican friend, John A. Perkins, telling of the reaction. The following are excerpts from that letter:
You ask about the reception [given the speech.] It was considerably better than I anticipated. I am not sure that “standing ovation” is quite accurate as a description of their response, but it is a fact that they all stood up while they clapped. The chairman of the meeting turned to me and said, “I agree with you completely: I have sons.” One member of the audience shook my hand as I was leaving and said, “I admire your courage!” Two Negroes stopped me, clasped my hands warmly, looked deep in my eyes for more than five but less than ten seconds, seemed to convey a feeling of deep emotion, but said scarcely anything.