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America’s Distinctive Brand Of Change

2016 July 4
by Greg Satell

A few weeks ago, my friend and former colleague Vitaly Sych reached out and asked me to write an essay about “change in America” for the Ukrainian newsmagazine, “Novoe Vremya.” It is to be published in a supplement to the magazine published in cooperation with the American Embassy in Kyiv this week.

Ukrainians are, for a variety of reasons, intensely curious about the US. They, like most nations, are interested in knowing more about the most powerful country in the world. Our influence in their affairs has grown since the Euromaidan protests and the conflict with Russia that followed. Much of their fate rests in our hands.

So while we are currently viewed very favorably by the former Soviet Republic — by a margin of 69-22 according to Pew — and they welcome our support for their independence, there remains an element of confusion surrounding us, our values and our motives. I wrote this essay for a Ukrainian audience, but I’d also like to share it here on July 4th.


In 1997, I left my home in the United States for what I thought was going to be a six-month stint in Eastern Europe. As things turned out, I ended up spending 15 years, living and working in Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey. The amount of change that occurred in that span—in both the US and Eastern Europe—is staggering.

When I embarked, the US was at a high point. We were experiencing a new confidence under the Clinton administration, partly due to a tech-fueled economic boom and partly due to our relatively newfound status as the world’s sole remaining superpower. We were admired throughout the world not just for our success, but for how we seemed to have an uncanny ability to adapt to the times.

Since then, we’ve experienced the worst terrorist attack in our history, the most crippling economic crisis since the Great Depression and two horrible wars. More recently, our current Presidential campaign has brought our worst instincts for racism and xenophobia to the fore. It is a reminder that we are not only a nation of moonshots, but also of slavery, Jim Crow laws and a thousand other transgressions.

We are, in many ways, a shining example of the best and worst of what humanity has to offer. Yet I look at America today and I can’t help be optimistic. Since I returned to my country in 2011, I’ve been amazed at its continued capacity for renewal. In fact, wherever you look, America is at the forefront of social, economic and technological change.

We’ve not only elected a black president to two terms, but have been at the vanguard for LGBT rights and fight against climate change. We’ve recapitalized our financial system faster than anybody thought possible and have begun to reverse our long decline in manufacturing. We lead the world in just about every advanced technological area, from medical science to informational technology.

These are the three pillars of America’s success: social, economic and technological change and what I think is unique about my country is not how change within each of these pillars inevitably leads to the strife and conflict that reveals our darker side, but how all three combine to create a society that is truly exceptional.

To understand how this all works, I want to take you back to a seemingly innocuous meeting that took place in 1932. Abraham Flexner, the foremost expert in education at the time, had been given a grant by the Bamberger family to create an entirely new kind of academic institution. It would be without classrooms or laboratories, but would host great minds and allow their genius to roam free. It was to be called, The Institute for Advanced Study.

As luck would have it, Albert Einstein was in residence at Cal-Tech at the time, so Flexner went out to meet the great man and get his thoughts on who to recruit to the Institute. Flexner’s timing proved to be fortuitous. There was growing hostility to Einstein and his “Jewish physics” in Germany and group of Aryan scientists had just published a book denouncing him. The growing persecution had convinced him it was time to leave Europe and he agreed to join the fledgling institute.

Einstein’s arrival soon attracted others. The influential Hermann Weyl, whose wife was Jewish, came in 1933, as did John von Neumann, the Hungarian polymath, also born Jewish. In 1935, Wolfgang Pauli came too. These legendary scientists, now in fear for their lives, came to America and were met with open arms.

As the trickle of great minds became a flood, the United States quickly amassed the greatest collection of talent the world has ever known. This unusual band of refugees fleeing persecution would arrive just in time to not only alter the course of the war that was to come, but to change the fate of their adopted country.

In 1939, another emigre, Leo Szilard, went to see Einstein. Szilard, who had helped develop the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, realized that the process could be used to make a bomb of unimaginable power. Together with fellow Hungarians Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, he drafted a letter to President Roosevelt.

Normally, a letter from some immigrant scientists would not reach the President’s desk, but Einstein’s signature carried a lot of weight. The President ordered the idea studied and determined that it required action.  As luck would have it, at the same time an engineer from MIT, named Vannevar Bush, was also in the process of selling Roosevelt an idea.

Bush’s brainchild was the OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development), which would capitalize on America’s newfound talent to conduct scientific research to support the war effort.  Bush would run it and report only to the President. His proposal was approved and given almost unlimited resources and funding.

The OSRD was an unparalleled success. In addition to the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb, it also developed a number of other innovations that contributed greatly to the war effort, including the proximity fuze and radar. Perhaps most importantly, it forever changed how science was funded and undertaken in the United States.

As the war drew to a close, President Roosevelt asked Bush to write a report about how to organize future funding for science. That report, called Science, The Endless Frontier, was presented to Truman in 1945. It proposed the formation of a new government agency to direct government funds for basic research.

Bush’s work led to the formation of a variety of agencies, including the NSF (National Science Foundation), NIH (National Institutes of Health) and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Like the OSRD, in time this new funding architecture became critical to America’s technological leadership.

The NSF has funded innovations such as barcode scanners and next generation materials. NIH backed the Human Genome Project as well as research that has led to many of our most important cures. DARPA, quite famously, invented the Internet and GPS. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without the breakthroughs that these programs developed.

American dominance in information technology is especially instructive. The first digital computer was not, as many believe, invented in the United States, but in Britain’s own World War II skunk works, Bletchley Park. Unfortunately, Winston Churchill ordered the machine destroyed at the end of the war in the name of national security.

To compound the error, further work was cordoned off in an obscure government lab and Alan Turing, the British mathematical genius who pioneered the field of computing, killed himself after enduring untenable persecution for being a homosexual. That, in a nutshell, was what killed the British technology industry.

Things went much differently in the US. John von Neumann, one of the immigrants who fled anti-semitism in Europe, developed a new model for computers, partly based on the British version, at the Institute for Advanced Study. Unlike in Britain, this work was done openly and the design of the IAS machine was shared widely.

Today, virtually every digital device in the world is based on the von Neumann architecture and America dominates the global market for digital technology. That dominance is now paving the way for America to lead in the technologies that will drive the next generation of progress, such as genomics, nanotechnology and robotics.

In today’s global media environment all of America’s capacities—for good and ill—are laid bare for the world as never before. In the years I spent overseas I was always struck how the world was fascinated by our capacities for both immense achievement and almost comical foolishness. America is, in many ways, the world’s soap opera, satisfying an insatiable global demand for both romantic notions of grandeur and the seediest gossip.

Yet what I think what most people miss about my country is that, throughout our history, it has been our openness that has made us a beacon to both new people and new ideas. That, in turn, has given us the ability to transcend our challenges and forever begin anew.

– Greg


4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 11, 2016

    Nice. Thank you.

  2. July 12, 2016

    Thanks Edward:-)

  3. Jim Grant permalink
    July 17, 2016

    Thanks Greg for another illuminating article.

    However, I believe your essay deals with the easiest of the “three pillars of America’s success” to be optimistic about.

    I would very much like to see you map out our most likely futures and dependencies in the social and economic arenas in an equally succinct and enlightening way.


  4. July 17, 2016

    Thanks Jim. I’ll keep it in mind.

    – Greg

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