What Are We Fighting For?

By A. Lawrence Lowell
(President of Harvard University)

[The Independent, March 30, 1918]

The United States entered the war because one of the chief objects of every government must be to protect the lives and .property of its citizens from destruction in violation of the rules of international law and the principles of humane civilization. After the renewal of submarine warfare conducted in disregard of law and humanity, a great nation that did not protect its citizens would have been an object of scorn whose rights could be disregarded in future. We should have been a certain mark for aggression by any power whose desires might conflict with ours; and especially by Germany as soon as she had recovered her strength, and found her ambitions blocked in Africa and Asia. Nor should we have had a claim to expect aid or sympathy from any nation in resisting an attack upon our shores, or upon Central or South America.

The aims of the United States in declaring war were strictly defensive. We did not take part with the Allies to obtain any benefit territorial, economic or financial, for ourselves or for any other country. But if so, why does our President, together with Mr Lloyd George, tell the world that the terms of peace must include changes of territory among the belligerents? There are two reasons for this, not unconnected, altho resting on distinct principles.

The first is that having been drawn into the war in defense of our own citizens we do not propose to stop, if we can help it, until justice has been done to the peoples who have now become our allies. When a man takes part in a fight he inevitably makes, to some extent, common cause with the other men who are fighting on his side, and he cannot honorably leave them in the lurch. If a robber has picked my pocket of ten dollars, and I find that another man from whom he has stolen one thousand dollars is pursuing him; if I join in the pursuit and after the other man becomes exhausted, or gets a knock-out blow, the robber turns on me, can I say to him, "Give me back my ten dollars and you can keep the money of the other man?" We have now made common-cause in arms with the Allies, and we cannot desert them by backing out and leaving them to suffer from injuries unredressed. If Germany had, either before or during the war, taken part of our territory, or ravaged it, we should have a mean opinion of our allies if they made peace with her without insisting on restoration and reparation for us; and we cannot do to others what we should blame and despise them for doing to us. This applies to our demand for restitution and indemnity in the case of Belgium, Serbia and France. It covers also the cases of Alsace-Lorraine, taken by force, or under the duress of force, in 1870.

Moreover, this war in whatever way it ends, will certainly be followed by some reorganization of Europe, apart from the restitution of the territory of our allies. Being a party to the war, we cannot shirk the responsibility of seeing that the peace which concludes it is right and just. We cannot say that whether the changes made involve oppression and injustice or not is of no interest to us, and no affair of ours. As a civilized and free nation we must throw our weight into the scale for the liberation of'oppressed peoples and the fair treatment of all peoples, and it is well that we should say so now.

The second reason for including territorial adjustments among the terms of peace conies from the fact that we are not fighting for terms at all. If Germany were to offer to abandon her submarine warfare during the remainder of the conflict we could not now withdraw, because it would mean merely a desperate attempt to detach another belligerent, not a recognition of neutral rights or a renunciation of the menace of aggressive militarism. Even if she were to offer any terms the Allies pleased, purely in order to recover her strength and begin war again under more favorable conditions, they could not be accepted, because we are in fact fighting to prevent the recurrence to ourselves and to mankind of such a calamity as this war. We are not fighting for the sake of war, but to prevent war. We are fighting that such things as have happened within the last three years shall, if we can help it, never occur again. In any peace, therefore, we must seek to remove the causes of future wars.

Now among the chief causes of recent wars have been the aspirations of people of the same race, or rather who speak the same language, to unite as a nation and be free from the domination of another race. It is interesting to consider the influence of this motive in the great struggles that have occurred in Europe, let us say since the Crimean War. In the period immediately succeeding a number of wars arose from the efforts to create a united Italy and a united Germany. The first of these conflicts was that between France and Austria in 1859. The ostensible cause of that war, and to a great extent the underlying motive that provoked it was the desire to free the Italians in Lornbardy and Venice from the Austrian yoke. Five years later came the war of Prussia and Austria against Denmark. It was only a prelude to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, which had as its occasion a quarrel over the administration of the duchies wrung from Denmark, but which was really carefully planned to drive Austria out of the loose Germanic Confederation and unite Germany in a single federal body under the hegeniony of Prussia. The last of this series of wars was the Franco- Prussian War of 1870, where the quarrel arose nominally over a candidate for the throne of Spain, but which was in fact provoked by Bismarck in order to complete the union of the German states in what is now the German Empire.

Before a decade had passed began the first of the wars caused by the efforts of the Christian Slavs in the Balkans to rid themselves of the rule of the Turk. In 1876 there began the attempt to free Bulgaria, which was followed by the war between Russia and Turkey. From that time there was no war between European nations on any large scale until the first of the late Balkan wars in 1912. This was, of course, an attempt to carry farther, and indeed to complete, the process of liberating the Balkans from the control of the Turk; and it was succeeded by the second Balkan war, a quarrel between the victors over the spoils, turning in part on the question whether the people of Macedonia were essentially Bulgarian or not. Finally the occasion and the pretext, tho not the real underlying cause of the present war was the condition of the Serbian peoples, part of whom lived in Serbia and part under the rule of Austria-Hungary.

If the question of race has been a source of war in Europe, for 'two generations we cannot expect it to disappear in the future unless racial aspirations are reasonably satisfied; for it has grown up with democracy and the spread of popular education. So long as government was conducted exclusively by a throne and aristocracy, the ruling class was constrained to speak one language, that of the court and of polite society. All cultivated people in the land were educated in the same literary tongue, which was naturally used in official transactions. The uneducated classes talked their own dialects and cared little what their rulers spoke. They have not always objected even when these men affected a foreign culture, Frederic the Great thought himself a French litterateur and spelled his name like a Frenchman.

But when popular elections were introduced, and still more when primary schools became universal, the question of language assumed a far greater importance. Then, the matter of race was brought to the forefront. The Czechs in Austria, for example, must insist that their children shall be taught in Czech, and that their language shall not be excluded from public affairs, or their people will inevitably be Germanized. The sentiment has, no doubt in some cases been exaggerated until men of letters nave raised a dialect into a language, and local patriotism has inspired a small branch of a great race with a feeling of distinct nationality. Yet the sentiment is real, and if it is not given political expression, and the people who hold it are not allowed the means of economic development, it is certain to remain a source of agitation and a probable cause of war. A prudent man does not keep in his house combustible objects where they are liable to be set on fire. We are not fighting this war to prepare materials for another, or to leave in the world explosive elements if it is possible to avoid doing so. A great war may start from the discontent of a small people; and if the condition of the large European countries should remain unchanged after peace is concluded, it might well be, for example, that a future revolt of the Czechs or the Croats would, from sympathy or policy provoke the interference of some great power, as the ultimatum to Serbia provoked the intervention of Russia in July, 1914. Europe might be set ablaze by race questions in Austria-Hungary, as she has been by troubles in the Balkans, and such a source of war ought to be foreseen and prevented.

The President's statements about territorial changes have, therefore, the same object as his declarations about a league of nations. Neither of them has the slightest punitive intent. Both are designed to prevent future wars, by removing causes of strife, by allowing free play to national development on the part of peoples great and small, and by restraining war until every other means of settlement has been exhausted.

Three years ago it was necessary to argue that the United States could no longer maintain a position of complete isolation, that she must assume the duties and responsibilities which her growth and the increasing rapidity of transportation across the ocean had cast upon her; and the burden of proof was upon him who asserted that our traditional policy had been outgrown. But we have not been able to preserve our isolation in this war, and it has become our obvious interest and duty to see that another preventable war does not break out, into which we shall again be drawn. To do this we must insist upon terms of peace that will remove as many of the causes of war as possible; and we must form with other countries having the same object in view, a league of nations which will secure the submission of international controversies to a tribunal or a body of conciliators, and which will provide a deliberative body for the formulation of international law and the public discussion of international problems. We must be prepared to join with the other great nations of the earth in compelling, by force if necessary, a resort, to these peaceful methods for the settlement of disputes before a recourse to violence. The object in stating our terms is not an immediate, but a permanent, peace, and while we can maintain a force in the field we can demand nothing less.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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