Once he was a foreign correspondent. Tall and thin and blue-eyed, he was often mistaken for Lindbergh. He covered that American hero in Guatemala, the excavation of Carthage, border wars and the League of Nations, the birth of the Turkish Republic. He watched the world grow nervous, wrote about the changes taking place, the rush of history. And so he might have continued, weighing his life in personal scales.
He was still a young man when his world changed, when he got an idea and couldn't let go. Now Clarence Streit is 86 years old and he has lived his life as if it were an arrow, the arc of his days described by the cause he has believed in for the last 40 years. A singular man with a singular mission, an "Atlantic union" of the world's democracies, sharing the same laws and currencies, the same principles, united against totalitarianism.
The dying light of the winter sun throws the room in shadows as the old man listens to the sound of his voice 30 years ago, clear and confident. He sits on the striped velvet sofa amid the quiet clutter of his apartment high in the weathered old stone of an apartment building in Adams-Morgan. Faded oriental rugs cover the floor, framed memories of wife and children and an autographed portrait of a long revered hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, cover the mantelpiece. Clasping his hands, one in the other, he nods in agreement. " . . . I believe there is a way through these dangers and out of the dilemma. A way to do what we all want, to keep both peace and freedom, to keep them securely and be done with this nightmare. And to live as we have not lived before . . . in a union of these few peoples, in a great federal republic built on and for the things we share the most in a common democratic principle of government for the sake of individual freedom . . . Just why cannot you and I agree to form this union now?"
He devoted his life to his idea, and took himself out of the world of ordinary ambition. And though the world has left him largely to himself these days, having politely listened once, only to politely turn away, he continues. He spends long days in his study, writing and telephoning and dreaming his dream.
A Supreme Court justice left the bench to help him, a president invited him to dinner. Senators and representatives endorsed his plan. He traveled the country, spent a third of his nights on trains one year, to the small towns and the big cities of America at the beginning of World War II. "His courageous advocacy . . . stands in the direct succession from Washington and the fathers of the American Constitution, the writers of 'The Federalist' and Abraham Lincoln," said a British ambassador. "When I read this book, I began to breathe freely for the first time in years and then I made a vow to myself to do all I could to expand this idea," said a French foreign minister. "He has stuck to an idea, he has hammered it home, he has given everything he had in support of that idea, and he has accredited himself, I think, as a very great American," said Owen J. Roberts, after he left the bench to work with Streit.
In 1950, he was on the cover of Time magazine, but by then the fire he had started had dampened in the international uncertainty and domestic plenty of postwar America, and it was only Clarence Streit who didn't seem to notice, working away in the crowded study on Ontario Road, beneath the picture of Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the jumbled piles of paper, the leaning towers of correspondence.
The Confidence of Youth
"The only thing that moves me," he says, "is noble action against great odds." An old-fashioned idea, expressed in antique terms; but then, he was born before the century. As a boy he lived in Missouri, in a small town called California; when he was a teen-ager, his family moved to Montana, when harsh winds still blew across the prairie and America was still young in the way that brash confidence and an ignorance of defeat keep a country young.
When he was a boy, he read Victor Hugo, Walter Scott. Daniel Boone was a hero. In knee pants, he haunted the courthouse listening to the politicians' speeches; he thought he wanted to be president then. By the time he went to the University of Montana at Missoula, he had changed his mind. He wanted to be a journalist, and by then he had also developed a strong streak of individualism as well. He was the only student who refused to sign a resolution endorsing Woodrow Wilson in the Great War because Wilson had not yet made it clear how he meant to secure peace. Yet he was among the first on campus to enlist in the war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy.
He wrote once about a night standing sentry on the transport Saxonia that first took him to France. "I was not the colonel or the captain. I was just one buck private, one insignificant individual in the thousands on that ship, in the millions in the war . . . Who was I to think the universe depended on my doing this or that? What difference would it make in the end what I did?"
Sitting with him is his wife of 60 years, Jeanne Defrance, who was 18 when he met her in Paris, 21 when he married her. He calls her sweetheart; she calls him cheri. "We've been a team on this all along," he says. "Since the beginning." She listens to him with a fierce pride, hurrying him along when she thinks he is rambling, but with him all the way.
Now she is white-haired, still elegant and very French, not only in the traces of the accent that cling to her speech but in the blunt pragmatism with which she greets the world: "He has a very reasonable philosophy, and he is sure that it will all come about; otherwise, it is enough to shoot yourself, to put your whole life into something you know, you know is right and to see what is happening now, with NATO and the rest of it, he is right." But yes, she has had doubts. "At times, I am completely discouraged with it. But to his dying breath he will fight . . . Once in a while he will say, 'I must remember to get in touch with so and so,' and we have no staff, no typewriting expert. As we get to the end of the line, I wonder, I have to read things to him now, but he's never going to relax, never going to retire, and he's never going to give up. Not Clarence Streit."
He went the distance. No small accomplishment in a time when 3 1/2 minutes on a morning show is a long life for an idea and success is counted in the small change of charm. He made a commitment and kept it. It seems a minor miracle, in a time when change itself has become something of a sacrament and only options are essential. He made the sacrifices. He kept the promise, and it seems as if, in the twilight of his days, the promise has kept Clarence Streit as well.
He remembers how the idea came to him. He was living in Geneva, covering the League of Nations for The New York Times, watching the international knife fights. He was preparing a series of articles on the balance of power between the democratic and totalitarian countries in the League. He noticed the ways in which the democracies controlled most of the world's resources; if only they would come together in a formal union, giving up some sovereign rights in exchange for the promise of peace. He took the 15 he considered to be the "most advanced" in democracy. He can still quote the statistics on silk and phosphate, population, land mass and mineral yields.
That was the prelude, he says. Then he saw the bigger story. America was out of the League; democracy seemed very weak in comparison to the ominous thunder of fascism, the danger from Japan. He was sitting on the veranda in Geneva, surrounded by the nasturtiums he raised. "Suddenly I had an extraordinary experience. I haven't said much about it, because I don't believe in the mystic, I don't . . . " Jeanne Defrance breaks in briskly, hurrying him along. "Okay well let's have it sweetheart, you don't believe in it but you were having it . . ." "Well," he continues, in his deliberate way, his voice scraped by age to a slow roughness, "a light came on, a flash of light, I liken it to being in a dark room, very dark, and unknown, you're knocking into this chair and stumbling over that and getting nowhere until you bump into an electric light button, and everything becomes clear. It was the question of sovereignty, the confusion over sovereignty. I've been wrestling with it ever since." A federation of democracies, that's what was needed, coming together as the 13 original colonies did, ceding their sovereignty for the greater good.
He wrote a book about it. It was orginally called "Thy Freedom," but he changed it to "Union Now." He worked on it for five years, writing draft after draft, sending it off to publishers only to have it rejected again and again.
It was 1938. War was coming, they knew it. The Streits thought their idea was a way to avert it. They decided that if they didn't get the book published they would print 300 copies themselves. They set Aug. 15 as the deadline. "There is a deadline, there is a divide, when it becomes too late. I never had such an experience of racing against disaster." But the Munich crisis made it topical, the world seemed desperately short of ideas, and Harper's accepted it for publication. The book was published in mid-February.
They sent copies of the book to world leaders. "They were in all the countries that were concerned. Many of them didn't have time--they were always so busy, you know, when you're working on the wrong medicine--well, take smallpox. If you try to cure smallpox by putting salve on each pox you keep very very busy. You have to go back to the bloodstream and cure it there. But the diplomats and the media are dealing with all these little poxes that sprouted out. Trying to cure them."
After the book came out, there was at first a tremendous impact. By July, there had been committees set up spontaneously, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia to work for the union he had proposed. He took a leave of absence from The Times. He was speaking night and day. Their story was in Fortune, Life and Reader's Digest. He was on the radio, CBS, Mutual Broadcasting, the international shortwave. Hundreds of thousands heard him speak. "God, the way things can move! I was very hopeful. It was such a contrast to the complete rejection of five years that it made one think that it might come to pass." Although, he says, "It was a very little time to move both sides of the Atlantic."
Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor, showed the book to Eleanor Roosevelt. In January 1940, Clarence Streit and Jeanne Defrance were invited to dinner at the White House and Streit sat next to Mrs. Roosevelt. After everyone at the table had had a chance to talk with their dinner partner for a time, the first lady rang a bell, to generalize the conversation. "Mr. Streit has been telling me about the reception he has been getting across the country," Mrs. Roosevelt said. "And I thought, Franklin, that you would be interested in this."
Streit told the company that one of the first questions he would get about his union was where the capital would be. "Quick as a flash, Roosevelt said, 'Yes, I thought of that myself. Do you know what my answer would be?' " No one had ever said that to him before. Roosevelt suggested the Azores--centrally located, impregnable from naval attack, and the climate was delightful. He chuckles still with the memory, the lingering pleasure of his delight. "Well, when he said, 'Do you know what my answer would be,' I really was happy you know--a man like that who was working on the problem himself! So of course I thought there was hope!"
A year later he was again invited to the White House for dinner. This time he was not the guest of honor, but seated "somewhere in the crowd." Watch out, said Harry Hopkins, "the boss is in a bad mood."
"How's this going to go down, in St. Louis, Kansas City and Omaha?" Roosevelt asked when the subject of the Atlantic Union came up. And that was all he asked.
The Rim of the Volcano
He sips frequently from a glass of cider as he talks, trying just as urgently to make his points now as he did so long ago. "The great trouble is that too few people have enough faith in themselves. I mean leaders and faith in the people."
He is worried about the future. "The moral fiber has gone down terrifyingly, the normal result of living a rather soft life, judging things on an instant basis, instant coffee, instant tea, instant everything." It will get worse. "There is an enormous lethargy in people, there always is, especially in a democratic society, they're concerned with their own affairs, they haven't got time for others, wishful thinking is widespread, it is right now. We're sitting on the rim of a volcano in the economic field, that could break into a depression this year even. There's so many interests. Another depression is much more imminent than another world war."
Truman said, "You must discuss this with Dean Acheson."
Eisenhower "came out very strongly for the idea," after he left office.
Kennedy gave a speech in Philadelphia and "it almost looked as if he would endorse it."
Nixon endorsed the idea as a senator but Watergate, of course, made the situation impossible.
And Reagan? The eyes shine brightly for a moment. "We're hopeful. After all, he's never taken a position on it one way or another." And as for all the others, with their kind words and lack of action, he says only, "Well, you know, the urgent always has a tendency to crowd out the important."
Friday evening, Adams-Morgan: Finally the day cracks and the night spills out, and in the quickening darkness everything moves faster, the click of high heels, the anxious traffic, the flash of neon on painted smiles and temporary passions. Already the air is ringing with catcalls and curses, and the easy laughter and the easy lies.
Clarence Streit puts on a silk scarf and an overcoat and cocks his beret at a jaunty angle, taking along a cane for protection. The scene around him moves impatiently as he slowly sees his guest to the corner. He laughs a dry laugh when he is asked how he has remained so loyal to his dream, why he has never given up. "Well, I come from Missouri, you know, and Missourians are skeptics, of course, but their totem animal is a mule. And if a thing is true," he says, "if a thing is true, well, then, what choice do you have?"