The Clearing Aim of the War

THERE is a certain sense in which we have all known quite clearly, since the war began, what we were fighting for. There is another sense in which none of us has known. That we were fighting for liberty, justice, the sacredness of treaties and law, and for ‘humanity ’ in its deepest sense— about this there never has been a scintilla of doubt in the general mind of the Allied nations. In that sense we have known what we are fighting for; and to have known so much has been our strength and inspiration and so will remain to the end. But at that point our vision has been arrested. Assuming that victory for the right will assuredly be won, and taking our stand on that assumption, we found ourselves gazing forward into a dark hinterland of unsolved problems. How is victory to be applied? In what way, in what form, are its fruits to be used? What precisely is to be done, what specific arrangements are to be made, in order that the justice and liberty for which we have shed our blood and spent our treasure may become effective in the life of nations, and not merely sacred names which have been vindicated indeed, but which cannot be applied? It is this concrete question which baffled us, and in the diversity, I had almost said the chaos, of answers given to it, we have the grounds for asserting a sense in which we have not known what we were fighting for. The cause for which we are fighting has been clear. How to make the cause effective, when triumphant, has been obscure.

Quite recently — I am writing on March 23 — the dark hinterland before which we stood perplexed has been illuminated as by a great searchlight, and we have seen afar off the towers and battlements of our goal. Two great events have happened — the revolution in Russia and the advance of the United States to the brink of war. Events are always our greatest teachers, and these two have thrown more light on the meaning of the war, and given us more help in the interpretation of its immediate objective, than all the books, pamphlets, articles, lectures, and speeches which have been written or spoken since the outbreak of hostilities. They have made all things new, not by diverting our aims, but by clearing them. Nothing that has been previously said about justice, liberty, humanity, needs to be withdrawn; but these terms which, like the ocean, sometimes confuse us by the vastness and depth of their meaning, suddenly concentrate their light on a single point and reveal the deed that must be done. It is not merely that they render our victory doubly secure, as indeed they do. Their value at the moment is that they show us the first and immediate application to which victory must be put. In their light we see the next step after victory, and it can be said no longer that through ignorance of that step we know not what we are fighting for.

Will the reader bear with me if for the moment I hold my meaning in reserve? It is through no respect for the arts of rhetoric, or other dodges for exciting interest, that I crave this indulgence. I wish the reader to learn my meaning gradually, as I learned it myself and as thousands besides myself are learning it. With that purpose I invite him to follow the process of thought which led me to that point of bewilderment at which, by the favor of heaven, the two events of which I have spoken threw their searchlight on the scene.


The chief phrases in which we have hitherto defined our aim in the war were supplied to us by Mr. Asquith. Quite early in the struggle he declared that we were fighting for the cause of Public Right. Later on, when we had begun to ask how public right was to be enforced in the event of our victory, he answered by three words, ‘ reparation, restitution, and guaranties.’ These are precious words and they have served a great purpose. They are landmarks in the history of the war. But, like all words which announce ethical principles, they leave us without a clue to their application. What precisely is the ‘public right’ in question? What reparation would atone for the shameful injuries? What restitution would make good the immeasurable loss for which the wrongdoer is responsible? And what guaranties would be effectual with a nation which, as the inception and conduct of the war too plainly prove, has no respect for its plighted word?

First then as to ‘public right.’ The term has been frequently expounded, and no doubt need exist as to the general scope of its significance. It is the principle of non-interference, of live and let live — in a word, of laissez-faire, applied to international relations, with especial reference, it may be, to the smaller peoples.

States or communities are to be left free to enjoy and develop their own life, their own civilization, their own culture, in their own way, and secured in the right so to do. No nation, however powerful, however firmly convinced of its own mental or moral superiority, may impose its culture or its civilization on the rest. Any such attempt is a violation of public right. Each community is the best judge of what is good for itself, and is not to be interfered with by other nations which think they know better. There is to be no tampering with the individuality of a people by self-constituted superiors — as happens for example when Germany seizes Belgium by the scruff of the neck and proceeds to teach her what’s what. Belgium is to work out her own salvation and not to have it worked out for her by Germany, no matter whether Germany is or is not what she claims to be — the moral and intellectual superior of Belgium. And so with all the rest, great and small. Reduced to plain language ‘public right,’ as a rule of international polity, is the rule that each nation, big or little, is to mind its own business and leave other nations, big and little, to mind theirs.

It is immediately apparent that this principle, adopted as a rule of international law without further qualifications, would run clean counter to the prevailing practice and tendencies of modern states, whether autocratic or democratic, in their domestic organization. Here the principle of non-interference has been long discredited and, in large measure, replaced by its contrary. Any one in these days who, when domestic affairs are in question, should proclaim the right of every individual to live his own life in his own way, deny the right of government to interfere with his liberty to do as he pleases, and say that every man, no matter how ignorant, weak, backward, or vicious, is the best judge of what is good for himself — any such pleader would at once be treated as a crank or an obscurantist.

Yet, in spite of the utter discredit into which this principle has fallen as a rule of domestic politics, it nevertheless appears to be identical with what most persons have in mind when, surveying the states of the world in their various grades of civilization and culture, they proclaim the right of each state to live its own life, without interference by the rest. For example, when Germany, believing herself to be the most enlightened nation, claims the right to impose her culture on nations less enlightened than herself, how, after all, does her conduct differ in principle from that which we all acclaim in domestic government when we say that the ignorant must submit to the control of the wise, that virtue has the right to stamp out vice, and the expert to rule the incompetent? Germany is merely applying on the international scale a rule which each nation adopts within its own borders, and adopts, moreover, on the ground that only thus can true liberty be secured. And yet it is as a violator of the liberty of nations that Germany has sinned. It is evident we have here to do with two conceptions of liberty, one for domestic, the other for international use. And the two, so far, are flat contradictions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that statesmen and political authors who defend the doctrine of public right, as a rule of international law, are seldom entirely consistent. Mr. Balfour, for example, in his famous letter, after squarely accepting the general principle of public right, does not hesitate to make a sharp exception against the Turks. He is by no means disposed to allow them to enjoy their own civilization in their own way. On the contrary, he proposes their expulsion from Europe —a most desirable object for everybody except the Turks. Mr. George Armstrong again, who is a stalwart defender of the rights of small nationalities, and whose book, Our Aim in the War, has been widely read in this country, proposes an equally prompt extinguisher for the Turks. Is this consistent?

A federation of all nations for the purpose of defending their mutual rights is no doubt a magnificent conception; but a clique of nations, however respectable they may be in their own eyes, who agree to defend all rights except those of the nations who, like the Turks, happen to be objectionable to themselves, is another proposition altogether. It might be followed in practice by a league of the objectionable nations against whom exception had been made, and most serious trouble would be likely to break out between the two groups. When proposals of this kind are under discussion, it is well not to forget the existence of a continent called Asia, containing vast and highly intelligent populations, whose ways are not our ways, and whose notions of what is good for themselves — and for us — are by no means in accord with our own.

But it must be conceded at once that those who define our aim in the war as the maintenance of public right are not in general to be charged with these major inconsistencies. They back the plea for public right with another proposal. They would apply to interstate relations that very principle of government control which has been almost universally adopted in domestic legislation, thereby bringing the two things into line. A Federation of Peoples, a League of Peace, a Council of Nations, an International Police is to be set up, and by this means the policy of individual states is to be checked and controlled in the common interest of all nations, in exactly the same way in which the action of individual men and women is checked and controlled by the law of the land. The community of states, in short, is to be democratized, organized, and governed by an authority of its own creating. The rank individualism of mere non-interference is thus avoided.

This proposal is neither more nor less than a new scheme of world-dominion; and though it comes oddly enough from those who are resisting the attempt of Germany to win the dominion of the world, it is not on that account to be judged unsound. For there is this great difference, that, whereas Germany would organize the world herself, probably on an autocratic basis, this government would be based on the consent and concert of all concerned — would be in fact a world-democracy.


We now reach that fuller statement of our aim in the war as it was in the minds and on the lips of so many of us before the revolution in Russia, and before the course of events had brought the United States to her present position. It was the establishment of public right, to be enforced by a league of nations. In order to secure the liberty which comes from ordered government each nation must surrender, like the individual citizen, some portion of its unchartered freedom to a higher authority.

In the bare statement of this idea there is nothing inconceivable, and there is much to attract and inspire. But one condition is essential to its realization. It is that all the nations which are parties to the scheme should be free nations. Of this until quite recently there seemed to be no prospect.

The will of the peoples is everywhere for order and peace, and wherever this will moves freely, order and peace arise almost automatically. But this can come about only when every one of the participant nations is truly democratic. It is not enough that some should be free, or even that most should be free, in order that a free federation may stand firmly on its feet. They must all possess freedom in the same general form and understand it in the same terms. The presence of one powerful member in a group of nations, whose action was subject to the will of a despot, or to that of the criminal entourage which despots never fail to gather round themselves, would, inevitably, wreck the working of any scheme which had the world’s peace or the world’s order for its ultimate object.

For this reason there has been, up till now, a weakness in our case whenever we affirmed, as we so often did, that our aim in the war was the establishment and enforcement of public right— a weakness which you in America have been quick to note. One of the principal members of the Grand Alliance was, in appearance at least, the worst military despotism the world has ever seen. How, with such a coadjutor as the Russian government had for ages shown itself to be, was it possible for us to cherish the hope that victory would leave us in a position to vindicate the liberties of the nations? How was it possible for us to claim for our hopes the sympathy of the United States?

A league of nations to enforce peace, in which some, and those in certain senses the most powerful, of the participant members, would be nations governed by despotism such as existed before the war, and still exists in one or two remaining instances, is clearly an impossible dream. Agreeing perhaps in the abstract principles for which the league was founded, these despotic powers would be able to divide it against itself over every concrete application of the principles that might come up for judgment. And this, unless their past record belies them, they would assuredly do. It is idle to talk of an international police which would restrain them. They themselves would be the chief members of the police, and as members of it they would seek to control it; they would pursue their ancient quest for power, employing for that end all the arts of intrigue by which tyranny has ever maintained itself in being.

It is not true that tyrants become innocuous when seated at a round table with the representatives of free nations. Truer were it to say that they are never more noxious than then. Divide et impera remains their rule. The power and influence of the tyrant are not sterilized by the fact that his fellows at the council board are the representatives of free nations. On the contrary, his art consists in taking advantage of this very fact to persuade some of them that they are free to side with him.

Thanks to the certain use of these arts the presence of a single tyrant in the councils of the league would inevitably ruin its efficacy either for order or for peace. He may talk of Liberty as William II so frequently does. He may even be sincere. But he does not mean by liberty what America means, what Great Britain means! He means the opposite, and works, by means of which he possesses the secret, to opposite ends.

How intolerable such an element would be in any league of free nations becomes plainer as we scrutinize more closely the face of the facts.

The advocates of the league of peace have shown a dangerous tendency to look upon the races and nations as so many static units whose boundaries might be easily defined and stereotyped, and in this respect they may justly be accused of much blindness. For example, they have discussed the position of the small nations on the assumption that all the small nations were content to remain small for ever and ever. They have announced their intention to protect the rights of small nations, but they have forgotten that the chief right of a small nation is the right to grow into a big one, and to occupy so much place in the sun as its growing vigor, intelligence, population, and efficiency entitle it to occupy. Worst of all, the big nations, who talk so benevolently of protecting the little ones, seem to have forgotten that they were once little themselves. Had the present Great Powers of the world been subject in their infancy to the authority of a league of nations, which decreed their boundaries and forbade their expansion at the cost of their neighbors, is it not obvious that not one of them would ever have become a great power? Has the course of history, then, which made them what they are, come to a stop? Is the process of their own aggrandizement to be closed against others who might imitate their example? Are small states to be forbidden to grow up? Are great states to be guaranteed forever in their present possessions, however unworthy they may become to hold them, however degenerate, however inferior to their neighbors in virility, in population, in intelligence?

What should we say if a group of successful men of business — of industrial ‘great powers, so to speak ’ — were to form themselves into a league and lay down the rule that other men should be forbidden to seek success by the means themselves had employed? What should we say if these millionaires, having grown rich in the arts of industrial warfare, were to be suddenly converted to industrial peace, and to set up a great organization to maintain it, on the principle that they themselves were to retain their fortunes while everybody else was to be content with his present possessions, even though they amounted to no more than five dollars a week? Needless to say, the proposal would be laughed out of court. Yet what else does the proposal amount to when a number of great states unite for the purpose, among others, of setting bounds to the ambitions of their younger and less powerful neighbors?

The truth is that, far from being static units, the races of mankind were never in such a state of rapid flux and change as they are at the present moment; and never has it been so manifestly impossible to stereotype their relative importance, proportions, and boundaries. In some quarters there is rapid decay; in others rapid growth. Side by side with the decay of the Turks there is the renascence of the Arabs. The Slav races of Southern Europe are full of promise. Asia is moving — ‘waking from the sleep of ages!’ America is working out the greatest racial problem in the history of the world. New racial births are impending, and the wisest prophet would be utterly unable to predict what race or people fifty years hence will have shown itself best entitled to a place in the sun.

Such are the shifting problems with which a league of nations would have to deal. The hands of the international police will be pretty full! Is it not obvious that a shifting scene of this nature, in which new ambitions are ever springing into being, provides despotism with the very opportunity it needs for the practice of its characteristic arts. To make himself the champion of rising hopes and then befool the people who have trusted him — such has been the history of every tyrant from the earliest to the latest specimen. Never were opportunities for such adventures greater than they will be in the years that are to come. Unless the world is to be given over to the intrigues of these men, unless it is to remain at their mercy, as it has been for ages, it is essential that the last of them shall be forthwith removed from the earth. No league of peace can protect us against them. On the contrary, there are abundant reasons for fearing that such a league, if formed, would simply become another instrument in their hands for the infliction of woe on the human race.


Such is the clearing of our aim which has come to many of us as a sequel to the Russian revolution, and collaterally from the approach of the United States to the brink of war. In all that has been said hitherto about the enforcement of public right by a league of the nations we have been looking too far ahead. The federation of the nations may come, will come when the time is ripe. But the time is not ripe so long as one despotic tyranny remains in power on the earth. Now that the Russian despotism has gone, only two remain — only two that count. They too must go, and their departure now becomes our ami in the war. The greater aim is not abolished — it remains in the background; but something more comprehensible, more easily defined, more immediately practicable, steps to the front. And this clearing of our aim solves the darkest and most perplexing problem which the war has raised — for the victory which it reveals is a victory in which friends and foes, and indeed the whole world, will share. It is the true substitute for ‘peace without victory.’

The meaning of the present war will not be clear until it is seen that we are fighting over again the battle of the French Revolution — fighting it, not on the scale of one nation or of several nations, but on the scale of all nations. It is the greatest struggle that mankind has ever undertaken, and I believe the final struggle, to rid the world from the curse which has blighted it for ages, the curse of despotism. The war was made by despots, and by the war despotism is to be finally undone. It is vain to trace its origin to ‘ideas,’ ‘tendencies,’ and other such philosophical abstractions. It sprang from a malignant and perfectly concrete institution, which has been the source of all the great wars and the great crimes of history, and which is now represented by the persons of a diminishing group of most unfortunate men, and by their criminal entourage. Russia has shown us the way. She has brought us nearer to our true aim than we should have been brought by a dozen victories in the field. One step more, and the goal is won. When that step is taken, the rest follows. The league to enforce peace will not be needed. For peace lives in the hearts of the peoples and, when the peoples rule, will require no man to enforce it.

There is here no question of vengeance as that term is commonly understood. For my own part, I am indeed convinced that vengeance is whetting her sword over Germany, and that so far as the German people are a party to the crimes of their rulers, crimes without example in history,they are doomed to endure punishment such as never yet has fallen to the lot of any people. Their punishment is so certain that there is no need to make it any part of our aim in the war. It will be brought about, inevitably, by greater powers than any which are lodged in the hands of men, and it needs but little effort of the imagination to forecast some of the forms it will take. The

question of the fate of despotism is quite distinct from that of the punishment of the peoples who have lent themselves to the criminal enterprise of the despots. The existence of these is an anachronism in the modern world, and if suffered to continue will be an enormous crime for which all civilized nations will be jointly responsible.

Now more than ever the despot is the enemy of mankind. Even if it be true that he can no longer torture his own subjects as Nero did, or play the game of a Caligula, — and the history of the Russian despotism renders even that doubtful, — he has power to torture the subjects of other states to a degree which puts the crimes of Nero in the shade and might almost be said, by comparison, to whitewash the memory of Caligula. He has the power, and he has shown the will to use it. I care not whether attention be focused on the despot, or the despotism. The thing must go, and the manner of its going must plainly indicate the determination of mankind that it shall never return. So long as it stands nothing can be done. No peace worth having can be made.

A few months ago the language of President Wilson seemed to indicate his belief that peace could have been made there and then. Perhaps it could. Perhaps it could be made even now. But neither then, nor now, nor at a future time, could any peace be made to which despots were a party without a total surrender of the cause of liberty. Such a surrender can be forced upon us only by the miscarriage of the event of the war — which God forbid! Voluntarily entered into by the free nations on one side and despots on the other, it would amount to the betrayal of mankind.

At the present moment the press, the pulpit, the platform, are teeming with proposals for reconstructing society after the war. I am the editor of a quarterly magazine, and every week programmes of reconstruction pour in upon me in shoals. In their totality they amaze and bewilder me. They certainly reveal, and one rejoices to see it, that in every direction men are resolved to make a new start after the war. But can they make it? They cannot, if we assume that the despots will be left in their places to direct the policy and to sway the destiny of mankind. With that evil unremoved these dreams are impracticable, whether we take them one by one, or whether we take them in the mass.

Moreover there is a real danger — it will have to be guarded against under any circumstances — that the very multitude and variety of these proposals will interfere with the process of carrying any of them into effect. They will jostle, and perhaps cancel, one another, as good schemes so often do when a multitude of counselors is at work. For the moment I think we should lay them all aside, not because they are worthless, but because they are, one and all, contingent upon something else. Let us concentrate on the one moral deed which is necessary, not only to clear the ground for the rest, but to assure civilization that it has the power to vindicate the distinction between right and wrong, by removing once and forever an institution whose work through the ages has been to flout that distinction and trample it under foot. This will put us in heart for the immense tasks of reconstruction that lie beyond. On the other hand, our failure at this end will discourage us from the outset and the new start will be made under auspices of the very worst.

There remains only the possibility that the event of the war may miscarry — a possibility which we in England never contemplate except for the purpose of enforcing our resolve and doubling our efforts to prevent the miscarriage. If that happens, we are undone. Good-bye then to all our dreams of a reconstructed world! It is not merely that the victors would make short work of our ‘programmes’ — though most assuredly they would. It is not merely that we should lack the material resources to carry them out — though that is serious enough. We should have neither the hope, the confidence, the faith, nor the energy to enter upon any such enterprises. All the free nations of the earth would be brokenhearted. By the waters of Babylon they would sit down and weep. Who then would sing them one of the songs of Zion?