A Letter to the New President

"Your big job is to prepare the American people to make peace. They are prepared morally and militarily to make war, but they are poorly prepared to make peace."


As you take office the American people are looking to you for a new approach to our nation's foreign affairs. They are no longer interested in rehashing the mistakes of the past Administration. They are deeply interested in what you are going to do about peace and war in our nuclear age. That is the subject that interests them most.

They have shown by their votes that they believe what you have promised about a stronger nation economically and militarily. The fact that we as a nation will grow stronger prompts the caution that great power used wisely can bring wonderful blessings to a bewildered world. If used recklessly, vainly, or stupidly, it will become a scourge and blight to humanity.

Yet your plea for stronger military defenses has added to the momentum of the most gigantic armament race the world has ever seen. History confirms that every such race, unless moderated, leads to war on a grand scale. The peoples of all nations have sensed this danger with the approval they have given to the idea of disarmament. Fortunately, this growing strength of ours will put you in a better position to negotiate. Only by successful negotiations can this dangerous armament race be abated and the prospects of hydronuclear war be postponed.

If negotiations are to be successful, both sides must be ready to compromise; both sides must expect to give up something in return. Successful negotiations require a temperate atmosphere. That means that, just as Mr. K must stop his bullying, missile rattling, and sending of ultimatums, so might you see to it that our talking generals and admirals are silenced.

Peace cannot be made in an atmosphere where each adversary tries to out-boast, out-denounce, and out-threaten the other. A Summit meeting will be worthless unless its success has been reasonably ensured by previous negotiations. If diplomats at the working level cannot come close to a tentative agreement, you will not be able to come to an agreement at the top level.

Your big job is to prepare the American people to make peace. They are prepared morally and militarily to make war, but they are poorly prepared to make peace. They have been taught to expect a rigid perfection in the conduct of our foreign policy. They need to be told that perfection is not only impossible but dangerous. Although they accept compromises constantly in their everyday domestic lives, they reject them as "appeasement" in our foreign policy.

You can do much to change their present-day thinking that we are always right and the other fellow always wrong, that unless we have victories we will have to suffer humiliating defeats. The people must be persuaded that there can be diplomatic successes where each side profits by making mutual concessions.

A widespread belief prevails that unless we defeat Communism, Communism will take over the whole world, and that if we defeat Communism, our troubles will be over. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, there can be no compromises. The Communist must give in; we must never give in. The resulting deadlock, coupled with the intensified armament race, creates an increasing danger of hydronuclear war.

Badly needed at this time is an explanation that Communism today is a widely accepted belief, but so is our Judeo-Christian belief in freedom and democracy. Because each one is backed today by political powers that can never be vanquished by military conquest, both will continue to exist for generations, if not centuries.

The big issue before these two giant political powers is whether it might not be best for the leaders of each to try to get along with the other rather than to try to destroy each other. It is better for us to get along just halfway than to expect perfection from each other. That means compromise. That there must be concessions by both sides is scarcely understood. If the American people could see that it is to their own self-interest to make concessions in return for concessions by the Soviets, as a means of avoiding hydronuclear war, a more peaceful climate might result.

This situation requires that you, as President, boldly explode the present-day myth about disarmament or control of armaments, which assumes that agreements about arms can be made without dealing with the conflicting political ambitions that create the necessity to arm.

Surely the time has come for the people of our country and the world to learn that war is a social disease brought on by conflicting political ambitions, which in turn are generated by economic, social, religious, and racial causes. War cannot be abolished by legal edicts. Armaments are a fever of this social disease, not a cause. They will rise and fall with the virulence and scope of the disease. If we are to lower the fever, we must deal with the cause. We can never hope to abolish war completely, but we should hope and work to limit its scope and virulence, just as we have in the case of numerous other diseases.

You should not be expected to perform wonders, such as abolishing war, nor should you insist that our ideals be made to prevail throughout the world. That is the big mistake that President Truman and President Eisenhower have made. They have, unwittingly, promised the impossible in laying down the rigid policy that our ideals of freedom and democracy must be made to prevail “everywhere” by “liberating the enslaved.” You can certainly promise the American people that Communist ideas will not be allowed to prevail everywhere.

You cannot succeed in armament controls unless some of the political differences can be resolved. The only partially successful armament conference of modern times, the Washington Conference of 1921, proves that. The limitations that it imposed on the major navies of the great powers were accompanied by the Nine Power Pacific Treaty, which resolved for a while the political differences over China. The signatory powers pledged themselves to recognize the administrative and political integrity of China.

That this treaty lasted only into the early 1930s should remind us that the keeping of the peace is an everlasting job. When the Japanese warlords launched their attack on Manchuria in 1931, and on Shanghai a year later, they nullified this treaty, defying the pleas of their own government as well as those of the United States and Great Britain. Subsequent events seem to have taught the American people the wisdom of the prompt, united action that they took in the case of Korea, backed by the United Nations. They will respond to dynamic leadership such as President Truman showed in that instance.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In