The World War:
Its Tragedies And Its Lessons
By Theodore Roosevelt
[The Outlook; September 23, 1914]
Our country stands well-nigh alone among the great civilized Powers in being unshaken by the present worldwide war. For this we should be humbly and profoundly grateful. All of us on this continent ought to appreciate how fortunate we are that we of the Western world have been free from the working of the causes which have produced the bitter and vindictive hatred among the great military Powers of the Old World. We owe this immunity primarily to the policies grouped together under the title of the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine is as vital to the interests of this hemisphere to-day as it ever has been. Nations like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile are as deeply concerned in its maintenance as we are ourselves.
We of the United States have a twofold duty in this crisis. We must profit by reading aright the lesson writ in fire and steel before our eyes, and therefore we must safeguard our own future against the onfall of any similar disaster. Moreover, we must not only stand ready to act as an instrument for the achievement of a just peace if or when the opportunity arises, but also do whatever we can to formulate and secure adhesion to some kind of efficient international agreement whereby the chances of the recurrence of such world-wide disaster shall at least be minimized. To serve these various ends we, all of us, without regard to party differences, must stand ready loyally to support the Administration, asking nothing except that the policy be one that in truth and in fact tells for the honor and interest of our Nation, and in truth and in fact is helpful to the cause of a permanent and righteous world peace.
Of course peace is worthless unless it serves the cause of righteousness. Peace which consecrates militarism is of small service. Peace obtained by crushing the liberty and life of just and unoffending peoples is as cruel as the most cruel war. It should ever be our honorable effort to serve one of the world's most vital needs by doing all in our power to bring about conditions which will give some effective protection to weak or small nations which themselves keep order and act with justice toward the rest of mankind. There can be no higher international duty than to safeguard the existence and independence of industrious, orderly states, with a high personal and national standard of conduct, but without the military force of the Great Powers; states, for instance, such as Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, Uruguay, and others. A peace which left Belgium's wrongs unredressed and which did not provide against the recurrence of such wrongs as those from which she has suffered would not be a real peace.
As regards the actions of most of the combatants in the hideous world-wide war now raging, it is possible sincerely to take and defend either of the opposite views concerning their actions. The causes of any such great and terrible contest almost always lie far back in the past, and the seeming immediate cause is usually itself in major part merely an effect of many preceding causes. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was partly or largely due to the existence of political and often murderous secret societies in Servia which the Servian Government did not suppress; and it did not suppress them because the "bondage" of the men and women of the Servian race in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Austria was such a source of ever-present irritation to the Servians that their own Government was powerless to restrain them. Strong arguments can be advanced on both the Austrian and the Servian sides as regards this initial cause of the present worldwide war.
Again, when once the war was started between Austria and Servia, it can well be argued that it was impossible for Russia not to take part. Had she not done so, she would have forfeited her claims to the leadership of the smaller Slav peoples; and the leading Russian liberals enthusiastically support the Russian Government in this matter, asserting that Russia's triumph in this particular struggle means a check to militarism, a stride towards greater freedom, and an advance in justice towards the Pole, the Jew, the Finn, and the people of the Caucasus.
When Russia took part, it may well be argued that it was impossible for Germany not to come to the defense of Austria, and that disaster would surely have attended her arms had she not followed the course she actually did follow as regards her opponents on her western frontier. As for her wonderful efficiency—her equipment, the foresight and decision of her General Staff, her instantaneous action, her indomitable persistence—there can be nothing but the praise and admiration due a stern, virile, and masterful people, a people entitled to hearty respect for their patriotism and far-seeing self-devotion.
Yet again, it is utterly impossible to see how France could have acted otherwise than as she did act. She had done nothing to provoke the crisis, even although it be admitted that in the end she was certain to side with Russia. War was not declared by her, but against her, and she could not have escaped it save by having pursued in the past, and by willingness to pursue in the future, a course which would have left her as helpless as Luxemburg—and Luxemburg's fate shows that helplessness does not offer the smallest guarantee of peace.
When once Belgium was invaded, every circumstance of national honor and interest forced England to act precisely as she did act. She could not have held up her head among nations had she acted otherwise. In particular, she is entitled to the praise of all true lovers of peace, for it is only by action such as she took that neutrality treaties and treaties guaranteeing the rights of small powers will ever be given any value. The actions of Sir Edward Grey as he guided Britain's foreign policy showed adherence to lofty standards of right combined with firmness of courage under great strain. The British position, and incidentally the German position, are tersely stated in the following extract from the report of Sir Edward Goschen, who at the outset of the war was British Ambassador in Berlin. The report, in speaking of the interview between the Ambassador and the German Imperial Chancellor, Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg, says:
The Chancellor [spoke] about twenty minutes. He said the step taken by Great Britain was terrible to a degree. Just for a word, "neutrality," a word which in war time had been so often disregarded, just for a scrap of paper. Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation. What we had done was unthinkable. It was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants.
I protested strongly against this statement, and said that in the same way as he wished me to understand that for strategical reasons it was a matter of life or death to Germany to advance through Belgium and violate the latter's neutrality, so I would wish him to understand that it was, so to speak, a matter of life or death for the honor of Great Britain that she should keep her solemn engagement to do her utmost to defend Belgium's neutrality if attacked. A solemn compact simply had to be kept, or what confidence could any one have in England's engagement in the future?
There is one nation, however, as to which there is no room for difference of opinion, whether we consider her wrongs or the justice of her actions. It seems to me impossible that any man can fail to feel the deepest sympathy with a nation which is absolutely guiltless of any wrong-doing, which has given proof of high valor, and yet which has suffered terribly, and which, if there is any meaning in the words "right" and "wrong," has suffered wrongfully. Belgium is not in the smallest degree responsible for any of the conditions that during the last half-century have been at work to impress a certain fatalistic stamp upon those actions of Austria, Russia, Germany, and France which have rendered this war inevitable. No European nation has had anything whatever to fear from Belgium. There was not the smallest danger of her making any aggressive movement, not even tho slightest aggressive movement, against any one of her neighbors. Her population was mainly industrial and was absorbed in peaceful business. Her people were thrifty, hard-working, highly civilized, and in no way aggressive. She owed her national existence to the desire to create an absolutely neutral state. Her neutrality had been solemnly guaranteed by the great Powers, including Germany as well as England and France.
Suddenly, and out of a clear sky, her territory was invaded by an overwhelming German army. According to the newspaper reports, it was admitted in the Reichstag by German members that this act was "wrongful."
Of course, if there is any meaning to the words "right" and "wrong" in international matters, the act was wrong. The men who shape German policy take the ground that in matters of vital national moment there are no such things as abstract right and wrong, and that when a great nation is struggling for its existence it can no more consider the rights of neutral powers than it can consider the rights of its own citizens as these rights are construed in times of peace, and that everything must bend before the supreme law of national self-preservation. Whatever we may think of the morality of this plea, it is certain that almost all great nations have in time past again and again acted in accordance with it. England's conduct toward Denmark in the Napoleonic wars, and the conduct of both England and France toward us during those same wars, admit only of this species of justification; and with less excuse the same is true of our conduct toward Spain in Florida nearly a century ago. I wish it explicitly understood that I am not at this time passing judgment one way or the other upon Germany for what she did to Belgium. But I do wish to point out just what was done, and to emphasize Belgium's absolute innocence and the horrible suffering and disaster that have overwhelmed her in spite of such innocence. And I wish to do this so that we as a nation may learn aright the lessons taught by the dreadful Belgian tragedy.
Germany's attack on Belgium was not due to any sudden impulse. It had been carefully planned for a score of years, on the assumption that the treaty of neutrality was, as Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg observed, nothing but "paper," and that the question of breaking or keeping it was to be considered solely from the standpoint of Germany's interest. The German railways up to the Belgian border are for the most part military roads, which have been double-tracked with a view to precisely the overwhelming attack that has just been delivered into and through Belgium. The great German military text-books, such as that of Bernhardi, in discussing and studying possible German campaigns against Russia and France, have treated advances through Belgium or Switzerland exactly as they have treated possible advances through German territory, it being assumed by the writers and by all for whom they wrote that no efficient rulers or military men would for a second consider a neutrality treaty or any other kind of treaty if it became to the self-interest of a party to break it. It must be remembered that the German system in no way limits its disregard of conventions to disregard of neutrality treaties.
For example, in General von Bernhardi's book, in speaking of naval warfare, he lays down the following rule:
"Sometimes in peace even, if there is no other means of defending one's self against a superior force, it will be advisable to attack the enemy by torpedo and submarine boats, and to inflict upon him unexpected losses.... War upon the enemy's trade must also be conducted as ruthlessly as possible, since only then, in addition to the material damage inflicted upon the enemy, the necessary terror is spread among the merchant marine, which is even more important than the capture of actual prizes. A certain amount of terrorism must be practiced on the sea, making peaceful tradesmen stay in safe harbors."
Belgium has felt the full effect of the practical application of these principles, and Germany has profited by them exactly as her statesmen and soldiers believed she would profit. They have believed that the material gain of trampling on Belgium would more than offset any material opposition which the act would arouse, and they treat with the utter and contemptuous derision which it deserves the mere pacificist clamor against wrong which is unaccompanied by the intention and effort to redress wrong by force.
The Belgians, when invaded, valiantly defended themselves. They acted precisely as Andreas Hofer and his Tyrolese, and Koerner and the leaders of the North German Tugenbund, acted in their day; and their fate has been the fate of Andreas Hofer, who was shot after his capture, and of Koerner, who was shot in battle. They fought valiantly, and they were overcome. They were then stamped under foot. Probably it is physically impossible for our people, living softly and at ease, to visualize to themselves the dreadful woe that has come upon the people of Belgium, and especially upon the poor people. Let each man think of his neighbors—of the carpenter, the station-agent, the day laborer, the farmer, the grocer—who are round about him, and think of these men deprived of their all, their homes destroyed, their sons dead or prisoners, their wives and children half starved, overcome with fatigue and horror, stumbling their way to some city of refuge, and when they have reached it, finding air-ships wrecking the houses with bombs and destroying women and children. The King shared the toil and danger of the fighting men; the Queen and her children suffered as other mothers and children suffered.
I am not now discussing the question whether or not it is proper and necessary to use air-ships as they were used against Antwerp, and as under like circumstances they would undoubtedly be used against New York or Chicago. I am merely calling attention to what has actually been done in Belgium, in accordance with what the Germans unquestionably sincerely believe to be the course of conduct necessitated by Germany's struggle for life. But Germany's need to struggle for her life does not make it any easier for the Belgians to suffer death. Nor am I now discussing whether or not it is moral to have utterly destroyed Louvain, and to have imposed such paralyzing pecuniary fines as that upon Brussels, backed by the statement, as alleged, that the art treasures will be removed if the fine is not paid. All that is necessary for my present purpose is to point out the obvious fact that the Germans are in Belgium from no fault of the Belgians, but purely because the Germans deemed it to their vital interest to violate Belgium's rights. Therefore the ultimate responsibility for what has occurred at Louvain and what has occurred and is occurring in Brussels rests in no way upon Belgium. The invasion could have been averted by no action of Belgium that was consistent with her honor and self-respect. The Belgians would have been less than men had they not defended themselves and their country. For this, and for this only, they are suffering, somewhat as my own German ancestors suffered when Turenne ravaged the Palatinate, somewhat as my Irish ancestors suffered in the struggles that attended the conquests and reconquests of Ireland in the days of Cromwell and William. The suffering is by no means as great, but it is very great, and it is altogether too nearly akin to what occurred in the seventeenth century for us of the twentieth century to feel overmuch pleased with the amount of advance that has been made. It is neither necessary nor at the present time possible to sift from the charges, countercharges, and denials the exact facts as to the acts alleged to have been committed in various places. The prime fact as regards Belgium is that Belgium was an entirely peaceful and genuinely neutral power which had been guilty of no offense whatever. What has befallen her is due to the further fact that a great, highly civilized military power deemed that its own vital interests rendered imperative the infliction of this suffering on an inoffensive although valiant and patriotic little nation.
I think, at any rate I hope, I have rendered it plain that I am not now criticising, that I am not passing judgment one way or the other, upon Germany's action. I admire and respect the German people. I am proud of the German blood in my veins. When a nation feels that the issue of a contest in which, from whatever reason, it finds itself engaged will be national life or death, it is inevitable that it should act so as to save itself from death and to perpetuate its life. What has occurred to Belgium is precisely what would occur under similar conditions to us, unless we were able to show that the action would be dangerous. If any Old World military power, European or Asiatic, were engaged in war, and deemed such action necessary and safe, it would at once seize the Panama Canal, or the Danish or Dutch West Indies, or Magdalena Bay, exactly as Belgium and Luxemburg have been overrun by Germany, as Korea has been seized by Japan. They would certainly so act if they thought we would in any real crisis pay heed to the political theories resulting in the all-inclusive arbitration treaties that have just been negotiated in Washington. They would refrain from so acting only if they knew we would instantly and resolutely act ourselves in such manner as to forestall and defeat their action.
The rights and wrongs of these cases where nations violate the rules of abstract morality in order to meet their own vital needs can be precisely determined only when all the facts are known and when men's blood is cool. I am not at this time striving to lay down a general law, although I believe that it is imperative, in the interest of civilization, to create international conditions which shall neither require nor permit such action in the future. I am not at this time criticising the particular actions of which I speak. But I do wish to point out just what these actions are, and just what lessons we of the United States should learn from them so far as our own future is concerned.
There are several such lessons. One is how complicated instead of how simple it is to decide what course we ought to follow as regards any given action supposed to be in the interest of peace. Of course I am speaking of the thing and not the name when I speak of peace. The ultra-pacificists are capable of taking any position, yet I suppose that few among them now hold that there was value in the "peace" which was obtained by the concert of European Powers when they prevented interference with Turkey while the Turks butchered some hundreds of thousands of Armenian men, women, and children. In the same way I do not suppose that even the ultra-pacificists really feel that "peace" is triumphant in Belgium at the present moment. A deputation of Belgians has arrived in this country to invoke our assistance in the time of their dreadful need. What action our Government can or will take I know not. It has been announced that no action can be taken that will interfere with our entire neutrality. It is certainly eminently desirable that we should remain entirely neutral, and nothing but urgent need would warrant breaking our neutrality and taking sides one way or the other. Our first duty is to hold ourselves ready to do whatever the changing circumstances demand in order to protect our own interests in the present and in the future; although, for my own part, I desire to add to this statement the proviso that under no circumstances must we do anything dishonorable, especially towards unoffending weaker nations. Neutrality may be of prime necessity in order to preserve our own interests, to maintain peace in so much of the world as is not affected by the war, and to conserve our influence for helping toward the re-establishment of general peace when the time comes ; for if any outside Power is able at such time to be the medium for bringing peace, it is more likely to be the United States than any other. But we pay the penalty of this action on behalf of peace for ourselves, and possibly for others in the future, by forfeiting our right to do anything on behalf of peace for the Belgians in the present. We can maintain our neutrality only by refusal to do anything to aid unoffending weak powers which are dragged into the gulf of bloodshed and misery through no fault of their own. Of course it would be folly to jump into the gulf ourselves to no good purpose ; and very probably nothing that we could have done would have helped Belgium, We have not the smallest responsibility for what has befallen her, and I am sure that the sympathy of this country for the suffering of the men, women, and children of Belgium is very real. Nevertheless, this sympathy is compatible with full acknowledgment of the unwisdom of our uttering a single word of official protest unless we are prepared to make that protest effective; and only the clearest and most urgent National duty would ever justify us in deviating from our rule of neutrality and non-interference. But it is a grim comment on the professional pacificist theories as hitherto developed that our duty to preserve peace for ourselves may necessarily mean the abandonment of all effective effort to secure peace for other unoffending nations which through no fault of their own are dragged into the war.
The next lesson we should learn is of far more immediate consequence to us than speculations about peace in the abstract. Our people should wake up to the fact that it is a poor thing to live in a fool's paradise. What has occurred in this war ought to bring home to everybody what has of course long been known to all really well-informed men who were willing to face the truth, and not try to dodge it. Until some method is devised of putting effective force behind arbitration and neutrality treaties neither these treaties nor the vague and elastic body of custom which is misleadingly termed international law will have any real effect in any serious crisis between us and any save perhaps one or two of the Great Powers. The average great military power looks at these matters purely from the standpoint of its own interests. At this moment, for instance, Japan has declared war on Germany. She has paid scrupulous regard to our own rights and feelings in the matter. The contention that she is acting in a spirit of mere disinterested altruism need not be considered. She believes that she has wrongs to redress and strong national interests to preserve. Nineteen years ago Germany joined with Russia to check Japan's progress after her victorious war with China, and has since then itself built up a German colonial possession on Chinese soil. Doubtless the Japanese have never for one moment forgotten this act of Germany. Doubtless they also regard the presence of a strong European military power in China so near to Korea and Manchuria as a menace to Japan's national life. With businesslike coolness the soldierly statesmen of Nippon have taken the chance which offered itself of at little cost retaliating for the injury inflicted upon them in the past and removing an obstacle to their future dominance in eastern Asia. Korea is absolutely Japan's. To be sure, by treaty it was solemnly covenanted that Korea should remain independent. But Korea was itself helpless to enforce the treaty, and it was out of the question to suppose that any other nation with no interest of its own at stake would attempt to do for the Koreans what they were utterly unable to do for themselves. Moreover, the treaty rested on the false assumption that Korea could govern herself well. It had already been shown that she could not in any real sense govern herself at all. Japan could not afford to see Korea in the hands of a great foreign Power. She regarded her duty to her children and her children's children as overriding her treaty obligations. Therefore, when Japan thought the right time had come, it calmly tore up the treaty and took Korea, with the polite and businesslike efficiency it had already shown in dealing with Russia, and was afterwards to show in dealing with Germany. The treaty, when tested, proved as utterly worthless as our own recent all-inclusive arbitration treaties—and worthlessness can go no further.
Hysteria does not tend towards edification; and in this country hysteria is unfortunately too often the earmark of the ultra-pacificist. Surely at this time there is more reason than ever to remember Professor Lounsbury's remark concerning the "infinite capacity of the human brain to withstand the introduction of knowledge." The comments of some doubtless well-meaning citizens of our own country upon the lessons taught by this terrible cataclysm of war are really inexplicable to any man who forgets the truth that Professor Lounsbury thus set forth. A writer of articles for a newspaper syndicate the other day stated that Germany was being opposed by the rest of the world because it had "inspired fear." This thesis can, of course, be sustained. But Belgium has inspired no fear. Yet it has suffered infinitely more than Germany. Luxemburg inspired no fear. Yet it has been quietly taken possession of by Germany. The writer in question would find it puzzling to point out the particulars in which Belgium and Luxemburg—not to speak of China and Korea—are at this moment better off than Germany. Of course they are worse off; and this because Germany has "inspired fear," and they have not. Nevertheless, this writer drew the conclusion that "fear" was the only emotion which ought not to be inspired; and he advocated our abandonment of battle-ships and other means of defense, so that we might never inspire "fear" in any one. He forgot that, while it is a bad thing to inspire fear, it is a much worse thing to inspire contempt. Another newspaper writer pointed out that on the frontier between us and Canada there were no forts, and yet peace obtained; and drew the conclusion that forts and armed forces were inimical to national safety. This worthy soul evidently did not know that Luxemburg had no forts or armed forces, and therefore succumbed without a protest of any kind. If he does not admire the heroism of the Belgians and prefer it to the tame submission of the Luxemburgers, then this writer is himself unfit to live as a free man in a free country. The crown of ineptitude, however, was reached by an editor who announced, in praising the recent all-inclusive peace treaties, that "had their like been in existence between some of the European nations two weeks ago, the world might have been spared the Great War." It is rather hard to deal seriously with such a supposition. At this very moment the utter worthlessness of even the rational treaties drawn to protect Belgium and Luxemburg has been shown. To suppose that under such conditions a bundle of bits of paper representing mere verbiage, with no guarantee, would count for anything whatever in a great crisis is to show ourselves unfit to control the destinies of a great, just, and self-respecting people.
These writers wish us to abandon all means of defending ourselves. Some of them advocate our abandoning the building of an efficient fleet. Yet at this moment Great Britain owes it that she is not in worse plight than Belgium solely to the fact that with far-sighted wisdom her statesmen have maintained her navy at the highest point of efficiency. At this moment the Japanese have declared war against the Germans, and hostilities are taking place in what but twenty years ago was Chinese territory, and what by treaty is unquestionably Chinese territory to-day. China has protested against the Japanese violation of Chinese neutrality in its operations against the Germans, but no heed has been paid to the protest, for China cannot back the protest by the use of armed force. Moreover, as China is reported to have pointed out to Germany, the latter Power had violated Chinese neutrality just as Japan had done. Very possibly the writers above alluded to were sincere in their belief that they were advocating what was patriotic and wise when they urged that the United States make itself utterly defenseless so as to avoid giving an excuse for aggression. Yet these writers ought to have known that during their own lifetime China has been utterly defenseless, and yet has suffered from aggression after aggression. Large portions of its territory are now in the possession of Russia, of Japan, of Germany, of France, of England. The great war between Russia and Japan was fought on what was nominally Chinese territory. At present, because a few weeks ago Servian assassins murdered the heir to the Austrian monarchy, Japan is fighting Germany on Chinese territory. Luxemburg has been absolutely powerless and defenseless, has had no soldiers and no forts. It is off the map at this moment. Not only are none of the belligerents thinking about its rights, but no neutral is thinking about its rights, and this simply because Luxemburg could not defend itself. It is our duty to be patient with every kind of folly, but it is hard for a good American, for a man to whom his country is dear, and who reveres the memories of Washington and Lincoln, to be entirely patient with the kind of folly that advocates reducing this country to the position of China and Luxemburg.
There is even a possible question whether we are not ourselves, like other neutral powers, violating obligations which we have explicitly or implicitly assumed in the Hague treaties. In Chapter I of the Convention defining the rights and duties of neutrals, the Tenth Article reads: "The fact of a neutral power resisting even by force attempts to violate its neutrality cannot be regarded as a hostile act." The precise worth of this particular provision—and of all other provisions in all these treaties, save as they are backed by force—is beautifully illustrated by what has befallen Belgium at this time. All that she has suffered has been exactly and precisely because she did "resist by force attempts to violate her neutrality." In theory, so far as paper treaties go, she cannot be considered to have committed "hostile acts." In practice, Germany so treats her acts. Under actual conditions this Hague guarantee would excite laughter were not the tragedy such as to move us to tears instead.
One of the main lessons to learn from this war is embodied in the homely proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Persistently only half of this proverb has been quoted in deriding the men who wish to safeguard our National interest and honor. Persistently the effort has been made to insist that those who advocate keeping our country able to defend its rights are merely adopting "the policy of the big stick." In reality, we lay equal emphasis on the fact that it is necessary to speak softly; in other words, that it is necessary to be respectful toward all people and scrupulously to refrain from wronging them, while at the same time keeping ourselves in condition to prevent wrong being done to us. If a nation does not in this sense speak softly, then sooner or later the policy of the big stick is certain to result in war. But what befell Luxemburg six weeks ago, what has befallen China again and again during the past quarter of a century, shows that no amount of speaking softly will save any people which does not carry a big stick.
I earnestly believe in peace. I respect every sincere and upright man who with wisdom and proper sense of perspective does all he can at peace conferences, or by the negotiation of reasonable arbitration treaties, or by the utilization of the Hague International Court in proper cases, to minimize the chances of war among civilized nations, and to give the opportunity to use other means than war for the settlement of international disputes. A little good can come from all these movements, but only on condition that there is no attempt made to erect shams and say they are truths or to pretend to be doing what we are not doing. A little good can come, but only on condition that nations remember that as yet arbitration treaties, neutrality treaties, treaties for the erection of independent tribunals, treaties of all kinds, can do nothing to save a nation in great crises unless that nation is able to defend its own honor, its own vital interests.
America should have a coherent policy of action toward foreign powers, and this should primarily be based on the determination never to give offense when it can be avoided, always to treat other nations justly and courteously, and, as long as present conditions exist, to be prepared to defend our own rights ourselves. No other nation will defend them for us. No paper guarantee or treaty will be worth the paper on which it is written if it becomes to the interest of some other power to violate it, unless we have strength, and courage and ability to use that strength, back of the treaty. Every publicman, every writer who speaks with wanton offensiveness of a foreign power or of a foreign people, whether he attacks. England or France or Germany, whether he assails, the Russians or the Japanese, is doing an injury to the whole American body politic.
We have plenty of shortcomings at home to correct before we start out to criticise the shortcomings of others. Now and then it becomes imperatively necessary in the interests of humanity, or in, our own vital interest, to act in a manner which will cause offense to some other power. This is a lamentable necessity; but when the necessity arises we must meet it and act as we are honorably bound to act, no matter what offense is given. We must always weigh well our duties in such a case, and consider the rights of others as well as our own rights, in the interest of the world at large. If after such consideration it is evident that we are bound to act along a certain line of policy, then it is mere weakness to refrain from doing so because offense is thereby given. But we must never act wantonly or brutally, or without regard to the essentials of genuine morality—a morality considering our interests as well as the interests of others, and considering the interests of future generations as well as of the present generation. We must so conduct ourselves that every big nation and every little nation that behaves itself shall never have to think of us with fear, and shall have confidence not only in our justice but in our courtesy. Submission to wrong-doing on our part would be mere weakness and would invite and insure disaster. We must not submit to wrong done to our honor or to our vital National interests. But we must be scrupulously careful always to speak with courtesy and self-restraint to others, always to act decently to others, and to give no nation any justification for believing that it has anything to fear from us as long as it behaves with decency and uprightness.
Above all, let us avoid the policy of peace with insult, the policy of unpreparedness to defend our rights, with inability to restrain our representatives from doing wrong to or publicly speaking ill of others. The worst policy for the United States is to combine the unbridled tongue with the unready hand.
We in this country have of course come lamentably short of our ideals, but our ideals have been high, and at times we have measurably realized them. Last spring some of our foes in Vera Cruz were guilty of the same misconduct as that because of the existence of which, as is alleged, Louvain was destroyed; but it never entered our heads to destroy Vera Cruz. When we found that our share of the Chinese indemnity paid us after the Boxer outrages was excessive, we returned it to China. When we gave our word to make Cuba independent, we kept our word—and none of the chancelleries of Europe thought we would do so. From the beginning we have recognized what is taught in the words of Washington, and again in the great crisis of our National life in the words of Lincoln, that in the past free peoples have generally split and sunk on that great rock of difficulty caused by the fact that a government which recognizes the liberties of the people is not usually strong enough to preserve the liberties of the people against outside aggression. Washington and Lincoln believed that ours was a strong people, and therefore fit for a strong government. They believed that it was only weak peoples that had to fear strong governments, and that to us it was given to combine freedom and efficiency. They belonged among that line of statesmen and public servants whose existence has been the negation of the theory that goodness is always associated with weakness, and that strength always finds its expression in violent wrong-doing.
Edward the Confessor represented exactly the type which treats weakness and virtue as interchangeable terms. His reign was the prime cause of the conquest of England. Godoy, the Spanish statesman, a century ago, by the treaties he entered into and carried out, actually earned the title of "Prince of Peace " instead of merely lecturing about it; and the result of his peacefulness was the loss by Spain of the vast regions which she then held in our country west of the Mississippi, and finally the overthrow of the Spanish national government, the setting up in Madrid of a foreign king by a foreign conqueror, and a long-drawn and incredibly destructive war. To statesmen of this kind Washington and Lincoln stand in as sharp contrast as they stand on the other side to the great absolutist chiefs such as Cæsar, Napoleon, Frederick the Great, and Cromwell. What was true of the personality of Washington and Lincoln was true of the policy they sought to impress upon our nation. They were just as hostile to the theory that virtue was to be confounded with weakness as to the theory that strength justified wrongdoing. No abundance of the milder virtues will save a nation that has lost the virile qualities; and, on the other hand, no admiration of strength must make us deviate from the laws of righteousness. The kind of "peace" advocated by the ultra-pacificists of 1776 would have meant that we never would have had a country; the kind of "peace" advocated by the ultra-pacificists in the early '60s would have meant the absolute destruction of the country. It would have been criminal weakness for Washington not to have fought for the independence of this country, and for Lincoln not to have fought for the preservation of the Union; just as in an infinitely smaller degree it would have been criminal weakness for us if we had permitted wrong-doing in Cuba to go on forever unchecked, or if we had failed to insist on the building of the Panama Canal in exactly the fashion that we did insist; and, above all, if we had failed to build up our navy as during the last twelve years it has been built up. No alliance, no treaty, and no easy good will of other nations will save us if we are not true to ourselves; and, on the other hand, if we wantonly give offense to others, if we excite hatred and fear, then some day we will pay a heavy penalty.
The most important lesson, therefore, for us to learn from Belgium's fate is that, as things in the world now are, we must in any great crisis trust for our national safety to our ability and willingness to defend ourselves by our own trained strength and courage. We must not wrong others ; and for our own safety we must trust, not to worthless bits of paper unbacked by power, and to treaties that are fundamentally foolish, but to our own manliness and clear-sighted willingness to face facts.
There is, however, another lesson which this huge conflict may at least possibly teach. There is at least a chance that from this calamity a movement may come which will at once supplement and in the future perhaps altogether supplant the need of the kind of action so plainly indicated by the demands of the present. It is at least possible that the conflict will result in a growth of democracy in Europe, in at least a partial substitution of the rule of the people for the rule of those who esteem it their God-given right to govern the people. This, in its turn, would render it probably a little more unlikely that there would be a repetition of such disastrous warfare. I do not think that at present it would prevent the possibility of warfare. I think that in the great countries engaged, the peoples as a whole have been behind their sovereigns on both sides of this contest. Certainly the action of the Socialists in Germany, France, and Belgium, and, so far as we know, of the popular leaders in Russia, would tend to bear out the truth of this statement. But the growth of the power of the people, while it would not prevent war, would at least render it more possible than at present to make appeals which might result in some cases in coming to an accommodation based upon justice; for justice is what popular rule must be permanently based upon and must permanently seek to obtain or it will not itself be permanent.
Moreover, the horror that right-thinking citizens feel over the awful tragedies of this war can hardly fail to make sensible men take an interest in genuine peace movements and try to shape them so that they shall be more practical than at present. I most earnestly believe in every rational movement for peace. My objection is only to movements that do not in very fact tell in favor of peace or else that sacrifice righteousness to peace. Of course this includes objection to all treaties that make believe to do what, as a matter of fact, they fail to do. Under existing conditions universal and all-inclusive arbitration treaties have been utterly worthless, because where there is no power to compel nations to arbitrate, and where it is perfectly certain that some nations will pay no respect to such agreements unless they can be forced to do so, it is mere folly for others to trust to promises impossible of performance; and it is an act of positive bad faith to make these promises when it is certain that the nation making them would violate them. But this does not in the least mean that we must abandon hope of taking action which will lessen the chance of war and make it more possible to circumscribe the limits of war's devastation.
For this result we must largely trust to sheer growth in morality and intelligence among the nations themselves. For a hundred years peace has obtained between us and Great Britain. No frontier in Europe is as long as the frontier between Canada and ourselves, and yet there is not a fort, nor an armed force worthy of being called such, upon it. This does not result from any arbitration treaty or any other treaty. Such treaties as those now existing are as a rule observed only when they serve to make a record of conditions that already exist and which they do not create. The fact simply is that there has been such growth of good feeling and intelligence that war between us and the British Empire is literally an impossibility, and there is no more chance of military movements across the Canadian border than there is of such movement between New York and New Hampshire or Quebec and Ontario. Slowly but surely, I believe, such feelings will grow, until war between the Englishman and the German, or the Russian, or the Frenchman, or between any of them and the American, will be as unthinkable as now between the Englishman or Canadian and the American.
But something can, be done to hasten this day by wise action. It may not be possible at once to have this action as drastic as would be ultimately necessary; but we should keep our purpose in view. The utter weakness of the Hague Court, and the worthlessness when strain is put upon them of most treaties, spring from the fact that at present there is no means of enforcing the carrying out of the treaty or enforcing the decision of the Court. Under such circumstances recommendations for universal disarmament stand on an intellectual par with recommendations to establish "peace" in New York City by doing away with the police. Disarmament of the free and liberty-loving nations would mean merely insuring the triumph of some barbarism or despotism, and if logically applied would mean the extinction of liberty and of all that makes civilization worth having throughout the world. But in view of what has occurred in this war, surely the time ought to be ripe for the nations to consider a great world agreement among all the civilized military powers to back righteousness by force. Such an agreement would establish an efficient World League for the Peace of Righteousness. Such an agreement could limit the amount to be spent on armaments and, after defining carefully the inalienable rights of each nation which were not to be transgressed by any other, could also provide that any cause of difference among them, or between one of them and one of a certain number of designated outside non-military nations, should be submitted to an international court, including citizens of all these nations, chosen not as representatives of the nations, but as judges—and perhaps in any given case the particular judges could be chosen by lot from the total number. To supplement and make this effectual it should be solemnly covenanted that if any nation refused to abide by the decision of such a court the others would draw the sword on behalf of peace and justice and would unitedly coerce the recalcitrant nation. This plan would not automatically bring peace, and it may be too soon to hope for its adoption; but if some such scheme could be adopted, in good faith and with a genuine purpose behind it to make it effective, then we would have come nearer to the day of world peace. World peace will not come save in some such manner as that whereby we obtain peace within the borders of each nation; that is, by the creation of reasonably impartial judges and by putting an efficient police power—that is, by putting force in efficient fashion—behind the decrees of the judges. At present each nation must in the last resort trust to its own strength if it is to preserve all that makes life worth having. At present this is imperative. This state of things can be abolished only when we put force, when we put the collective armed power of civilization, behind some body which shall with reasonable justice and equity represent the collective determination of civilization to do what is right.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald