What of England?

[The following extracts are from a correspondence between two friends; the first and last are by an American whose New England ancestry runs into the Colony of Massachusetts, and who occupies a position in a college near Boston; the other is by a Canadian who has lived for many years in the United States as a student and teacher in a University of the Middle West. Secure in their mutual respect and friendship, they make an honest attempt to define the motives of that England which is so dear to them both. — THE EDITORS.]


ENGLAND sees this war as a war of right against wrong. She quite honestly believes it to be that.

This view of herself, which is at once the weakness and the strength of England, is characteristic. It is the view expressed by the Man in the Street and by Sir Edward Grey in his admonition to neutrals.

I am of English speech, of English blood, brought up on English literature and English history, dearly loving England and cherishing my English heritage. What can I say to Sir Edward Grey’s challenge? Not what I should like to say. Only that I do not believe that she represents righteousness in this war — neither she nor any belligerent. I do not believe that the cause of small nations is guaranteed by her victory, or necessarily defeated in her defeat. Unspeakable as would be the calamity of a victorious Germany, I do not believe that crushing Germany would strengthen the development of democracy in Central Europe, but the reverse. For if Germany is crushed her people will be bound by every tie of indignant loyalty to the imperialism which gave them their brief forty-four years of unity, glory, and economic prosperity, while Russia would be given a power more unbridled than ever before, to hold down her subject classes and her subject peoples. England’s loss of interest in Finland’s wrongs, her surrender of Russian refugees to the Tsar’s police are very evil auguries.

As between the belief of England that her cause is justice without alloy, and that of her outside friends who do not believe this, where, a priori, is the truth likely to lie? With those whose press is censored, whose publishers can issue no ‘enemy’ works copyrighted since the war began, who are engaged in the heat and dust of the struggle, whose hearts are sore with suffering, or with neutral friends who cannot accept England’s cause at her own valuation?

Not doing so, am I, as Mr. Muirhead said in the New York Nation last summer, like the benevolent old gentleman who impartially admonishes two fighting boys without taking the trouble to notice that one is a bully and the other putting up a righteous fight?

This fight is indeed one in which tremendous issues of right and wrong are involved and in which (as I see it) the guilt of the Central powers is the greatest. But it is also a fight (as I see it) which both are to blame for bringing on, if one traces the responsibilities back a little way; in which both have mixed motives; to end which, both must yield something. So far from feeling self-righteous for myself and my nation, I am most painfully aware how far I and mine fall short, and how cheap is the virtue of those who have not been through the fiery furnace. Yet we, outsiders but not alien, may help by stating our cooler point of view, and the opportunity to do so creates the duty.

May the love of fair play, which is one of the finest English traits, triumph over the tendency to self-right eousness, which is not hypocrisy (though many not unfriendly Continental observers interpret it as such), which is, rather, twin-brother to the self-right eousncss of Germany, though neither country could endure to admit it. Just as German sentimentalism has taken at one time the guise of the sorrowing Werther and at another the guise of the knight in shining armor, so English idealism sees itself now as the apostle of free trade and peace, and again as the armed champion of the weak and oppressed.

When is our England, which combines hard headed practical sense with the honest simple purpose to do right at whatever cost, going to come to herself and deal with the issues of the war as they now are, apart from rhetoric and Kiplingism?


What you have written regarding England’s present attitude on the war has interested me profoundly. I feel with you that just now, when the censorship of peace discussion is somewhat relaxed, there is a very definite kind of help which sympathetic Americans can give to thinking Englishmen. That help must consist in holding up a kind of mirror by which England could see herself as others see her and be saved from foolishness and self-righteousness, from mistaking national pride for national conscience, from missing something of that deeper ideal of internationalism for which she honestly supposes herself to be fighting. If she does think of this war as one of right against wrong, if she has made her heroic sacrifices in that spirit, then she can and will listen to the highest reason. But if Americans, and especially American pacifists, are to gain her ear, they will have to bear certain things in mind: —

(1) England as a whole does not believe in non-resistance. She believes that principles have to be vigorously maintained and contended for, and that military force is a justifiable means to use if other means are not enough.

(2) England believes that there are at present vital points at issue. If you scold her for self-righteousness in contending that her cause is just and that the war is one of right against wrong, she may admit, as a matter of taste and good manners, that you are probably in the right of it; beyond this she will be more or less puzzled as to what you mean. The average Britisher in his most candid and confidential mood may confess a good many national sins — that in Persia and Morocco England’s hands were n’t clean, that the Boer War was a crime, that there are plenty of things to be ashamed of in Egypt, India, and Ireland, that an alliance with Russia has its embarrassing aspects, and that England is not free of blame for the conditions that brought on the war; that some of the methods of carrying on the war have not been what one would have chosen, that the German people may be in the main very decent, and that not all Englishmen are angels.

But he will nevertheless — all this and more being granted — stoutly insist that the war is one of right against wrong. ‘We’d be glad to stop,’ he will say, ‘if Germany would give in, but if she won’t what are we to do? Come now, honestly, what can we do about it? Even granting, for the sake of argument, that we are partly responsible for letting France and Belgium in for this, is n’t that all the more reason why we have got to get them out of the scrape? You say we ought to yield. Yield what? Yield Belgium, Serbia, and France to Prussian domination? Yield Europe to the menace of militarism? Just because we have n’t any Germans in our own territory; just because we are the fellows with the navy and with resources over seas; just because we are n’t feeling the pinch yet as much as the others but will feel it if we go on; just because we have been slow and bungling in getting at it and were n’t prepared when we ought to have been and have had to let France bear the brunt of it; just because the others could n’t go on without us — don’t you see, all that is the very reason why we have to stay in? The whole thing is a point of national honor and world-responsibility. We may have done wrong in the past; I grant you we are n’t perfect. But that’s no reason for doing wrong now. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Yield! Yield the principles of freedom and justice? You know you can’t mean that seriously! Of course we ought not to take any particular credit to ourselves for fighting. Any decent fellow would fight. But it is of absolute importance to keep it clear in our own minds and the minds of our people that it would be a mean, cowardly trick to quit.

‘We are sorry about the mails and the interference with trade and all that. The war has been rough on you neutrals, but not half so rough as it has been on us. We’ve carried the heavy end — don’t forget. And you have only had to sit still and make money. Of course, in going to put out the fire, as it were [here we will let him borrow an illustration from a recent cartoon], we ’ve had to cross your lawn, and technically we’ve no right to be there. But if we don’t put the fire out, your place will catch next. Technically we ought to have gone around another way if you shut your gate against us, but that would have increased the risk to all concerned. We may have dug up your lawn a bit, but we were careful not to hurt anybody and to do as little damage as might be. I know we’re using our own private apparatus, but if the town had no fire engine, what were we to do? And you know — if you don’t mind my saying it — if you had any sense of civic responsibility, you’d have turned in and helped us. I’m prepared to admit that man for man the Germans may be as good as we are; but I’m not prepared to admit that this war is a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other, or that it’s a toss-up who ought to win. It’s a war of right against wrong, and if we want our people to behave worthily, we’ve got to keep that fact clearly and steadily before them. For until we can obtain the freedom of Belgium, France, and Serbia and some guaranty that the thing won’t happen again, we’ve got to keep on fighting.’

This being the state of mind of the Britisher, it is of no use to urge him to ‘yield.’ Any hint of compromise will close his ears to what you have to say. You must make it clear to him that you have in mind some alternative to his present course of action, some constructive alternative, which will not outrage his own code of honor, though it may transcend it. If you wish him to stop the war now, you will have to point out either (a) that the essentials of ‘the right’ can be obtained from Germany now as terms of peace, or (b) (if you disbelieve sufficiently in the military method) that even if Germany would not now agree to ‘right’ terms, the Allies could nevertheless stop fighting without yielding, by continuing their moral protest and by keeping up the fight morally until the ‘right’ has triumphed. (3) And now here is a third thing to bear in mind in offering any criticism. Our Britisher, if he is a gentleman, will be polite, or try to be, and will do his best to conceal the fact that he minds what you’ve said. But as a matter of fact, he is cut to the heart. Look him straight in the face and you will see that his eyes are miserable. He is saying to himself that what he minds is not so much your criticism as your neutrality. That you are an American and, being an American, fail to understand and are detached and judicial and say ‘you’ when he vaguely feels that you ought to say ‘we’ — that hurts. Though, naturally, he is n’t going to admit it, he feels precisely as he would if, for no reason that he could understand, his own brother courteously but firmly insisted on treating him as a stranger. One of the pathetic things in this war has been the way that England has turned to America for sympathy; the eagerness, for example, with which she has watched the American press; the conscientious way that a periodical like the Nation has tried to follow and respond to it. England wants to understand American opinion, but it remains more or less of a puzzle. Individual Americans have reacted in various ways. Some have been vehemently partisan and reflected the English view of the war. Some have been dispassionately critical. Blind partisanship — cold criticism! America might have given something so much better than either. Individuals have at times given that better thing; but America as a whole has failed to react. Somewhere she has missed the point. ‘America is young and hard,’ I used to explain it to myself in the first year of the war. ‘Her cruelty is the cruelty of youth. She has not yet lived enough as a nation. That is why she cannot understand.’ But I think that perhaps the true explanation is something like this: — The European nations have been stimulated into intense national consciousness; America has not. She cannot react as a whole because her own thought, her own feeling, have n’t been amalgamated. She has been divided rather than united by the war. And because the feeling of Americans is not collective, it lacks somewhat the depth and power that we find in the experience of the nations that have been consolidated by the war. The American who is determined not to ‘make his judgment blind’ has refused the British emotion, has refused the German emotion, and yet is not taken out of himself by that American emotion which ought to have gone out both to England and to Germany and given them something which they have been half unconsciously asking of America since the war began. That they have asked it, that there is wistful reproach — passing sometimes into proud and bitter resentment — in their attitude to America, is only a hint and symbol of the range of possibilities in the future world-order of the friendship of nations, which may introduce new and productive elements into the complex of human relations. America as a whole has missed the great experience of this period when humanity has been self-conscious as it never has been self-conscious before. America has not been able to gather herself into one unit of power and feeling, to concentrate her forces to one end. Yet it may be that it is in the peace negotiation, in the new, creative internationalism that she will find herself, and that those who have looked to her for comprehension and affection will no longer ask in vain.

And so it is a delicate matter for an American to approach the belligerents in a spirit of criticism. It is needful to remember that there may be bad motives as well as good motives for stopping a war; that England may be honestly afraid of stopping, through bad motives, in weakness and weariness betraying what she feels to be her high cause. The pacifists must make it very clear that they do not want to impose their notion of right on her against her conscience, but that they have a positive and constructive ideal not out of harmony with her own, and that in asking her to stop the war, they want to appeal definitely to good motives and to repudiate bad ones.

What one would like to make England understand is that her lovers in the United States have taken her profession of idealistic motive quite literally and are applying to the British nation as a whole those standards of taste and feeling, of conscience, humanity, dignity, unselfishness, that have hitherto been applied to individuals only. Such a standard of criticism may be, as it were, unjustly high, may be unreasonable and discouraging, but it cannot be called uncomplimentary. Englishmen think the attitude priggish and presumptuous and are disposed to bid the neutrals concern themselves with their own national faults and responsibilities. But therein, after all, the English are unjust to their critics. It may as well be candidly admitted; the fault of those critics has been simply that they have idealized England.

And now what is it that we want of her — we, who cannot deny expression to our desire that she achieve the ideal of her that we cherish? If she would do for us just what we wish, what are the things specifically that we would ask her to do? First of all, as you have said, we want her to give up self-defensive argument and recrimination and to seek the right in simplicity and humility of spirit. We want her statesmen to give to the people new and high catch-words, sane, human, restoring. We want the censorship of ideas to cease, and freedom of thought and of speech to prevail again. We want to be certain (though again it may be no business of ours) that England is going to remedy, as rapidly as she has power to do, any conditions within her own Empire which may be inconsistent with her avowed belief in the principles of the free development of every racial unit. Above everything we want indisputable evidence that England is sincerely seeking peace, the ‘peace that shall last’ because founded on justice, on the welfare and harmony of all nations. To our minds there is only one kind of evidence that could be indisputable; and that is a standing offer of immediate settlement, public, specific, always open. Unwillingness or inability to define the terms of peace in a standing offer is to us a confession of mixture of motives, and produces in us an attitude of criticism and doubt, of neutrality and divided obligation, which we cannot help.

What we want of England is that she put forward a challenge to the nations of the world, an offer to join with any nations that are ready, in the beginnings of international organization. In a world in which some nations are not yet willing to organize, any alliance to be ethical must be not a closed alliance of the old kind such as could be mistaken for an aggressive alliance, but a federation perpetually open to any nation that is willing to come in on condition of assuming reasonable responsibilities. By such a challenge we want England to mobilize her spiritual forces and to get the conflict as rapidly as possible out of the military and into the moral arena.

And yet, though the pacifist, like every one else, must have his own theory and his own conviction, he has no right to dogmatize about it. The ‘conscientious objector’ has no monopoly of conscience. Young men do not lay down their lives, fathers and mothers do not give their sons for anything that we may touch with sacrilegious hands. Truth is not a theory, not a set of facts. It is a spiritual thing; and the price of it is obedience. He who gives most receives most. And the best thing the pacifist can do is to bow his head in the presence of those who have given more than he.


Yes, you are right. It is because I love and idealize England that it hurts me so to see her assume that it is for her to judge, for her to punish. It is because the sacrifice has been so unspeakably costly — on both sides — that I cannot bear to see it spent for any cheap imperialistic gains such as Italy on the Slavic side of the Adriatic, Russia on the Dardanelles, England in the German colonies — or for the still cheaper commercial exploitations designed at the Paris conference.

Annexations of Belgian and French territory by Germany, or the destruction of Serbia and Montenegro, I agree with you in thinking intolerable. But does any one really suppose to-day that the Allies could not make peace now without yielding these essential points? The cynical suspicion haunts one that England does not desire an explicit German statement which would deprive her of her claim that she is fighting to redeem Belgium and France and Serbia, and which would expose her as continuing the war which is ruining all Europe, for the sake of retaining the captured German colonies and dominating the near East.

As you say, each belligerent is under the gravest suspicion till terms are unequivocally stated.

The only tolerable solution of all this tangled misery is the international solution. I share your disappointment that America has not proved mature enough to lead the way toward this, and I have hopes that she may yet do so in some measure.

England says that she must ‘crush German militarism,’ Germany that she must have a guarantee against future wars. Does this mean that England wants to tear Germany to pieces? That Germany plans to secure strategic frontiers, by annexation if necessary? Or would England accept, as proof that the danger of German militarism is past, a willingness on her part to enter the international fold? And would Germany accept, as the needed guarantee of future peace, the creation of an organized society of nations offering really adequate protection against attack?

These are the questions on which the fate of the world hangs.