EARLY in the war the Atlantic Monthly did me the favor and the honor to publish certain articles I had written advocating a league of nations as the only way to save civilization.1 The years have passed; the war has been fought and won; America, contrary to the then expectation, has helped to win it; and now, two years after the peace, I write from a Europe in ruins to an America wrapped once more in ‘splendid isolation,’ recruiting an army, and building what is to be ‘the biggest navy in the world.’ Bewilderment almost paralyzes my pen. I do not know to what or to whom I am writing. And I should not venture to write at all, were it not that I am in some sort pledged to a little band of Americans doing salvage work in Europe.
I have just returned (November, 1920) from a visit to Germany. I found her slowly and undramatically perishing, in the prison into which the Treaty of Versailles has shut her, along with her yet more unhappy neighbor, Austria. Not that Germans are dying on the streets. No. A visitor to Berlin will find life going on, to all appearance, much as it was before the war, except that it is dowdier, drearier, and darker. He will see shops full of goods, theatres and concerts crowded, hotels luxurious, profiteers unashamed. And if he be that sort of man, he will write to the newspapers to explain that Germany is recovering rapidly and can easily afford to pay the whole cost of the war.
If, on the other hand, he will visit the American Society of Friends, at 2 Dorotheenstrasse, and put himself under their guidance, he will receive a very different impression. They will take him where he may see crowds of little children, pale, ricketty, undersized, receiving from the gifts of Americans the only square meal they get in the day. They will tell him that they have 800 such feeding-stations in Berlin alone; that they have many others in other cities; that they are feeding 400,000 children, and expect shortly to be feeding 600,000. If the visitor, struck by this, asks for further facts, they will show him reports from every part of Germany, telling the same monotonous tale of underfeeding, scrofula, rickets, and tuberculosis. They will take him to the bare cold homes of the poor, where the one bright spot is Quäkerspeisung. They will take him to children’s hospitals, where he will be told of the gallant, almost desperate, work that is being done, with inadequate resources, to rescue the young generation from death, or a life of chronic disease. They will tell him that any fresh testimony to the need they are trying to meet may help to bring in funds from Americans at home. And on the chance that they may be right these words are written. For, in Germany, as in Austria, in Poland, and elsewhere in ruined Europe, Americans and a few British Friends are the only pioneers of hope, perhaps the only saviors of civilization.
The more perplexing is it that America, as a nation, in her public policy, should have turned altogether away from Europe during these last terrible years, and let the continent she came into the war (as she said) to save, perish. For let there be no mistake. Europe has been, and is, perishing. What may happen in the near and far future is matter for prophecy. What has already happened is done and cannot be undone: the unnecessary deaths, the disease, the weakened constitutions, the long, intolerable pangs of hunger and cold, and the bitterness and despair of mind and soul — all this has happened, whether or no it is going to continue. And all the signs are for its continuance, and worsening.
What was America doing all the time — official America and America as a people? Americans can answer better than I. I only know that they were not with us, to help us. Yet America is largely responsible for our condition. The root of the suffering and ruin of Europe is, of course, the war. In the outbreak of that, it is true, America played no part. But she played a part, and an important one, in its continuance. When she entered the war in 1917, the idea of peace without victory was definitely abandoned, and the war, which would have ended that year, was prolonged until the eventual complete overthrow of the German power by the Allies. It was prolonged by American aid, to the economic ruin, first of Central Europe, then of all Europe.
How then could America be indifferent to that ruin? The reply perhaps, will be something like this: ‘We came into the war to end militarism and to make this war the last. Europe made a peace which destroyed this prospect. She chose war and ruin, instead of peace and reconstruction. We therefore shook off the dust from our shoes and left her to reap the fruits she had sown.’ How true that is as an explanation of American policy, I cannot pretend to know. But the fact it affirms is true, that the ‘peace’ is a peace of ruin, a mere continuation of war.
The question remains, how did such a peace come about? It is one of the most astounding catastrophes in history. Let us look back. At the end of 1916 there sounded over the delirium of Europe, like a clarion from heaven, the voice of President Wilson. All of us who had been struggling, as in the pit of hell, to keep alive the soul of humanity and reason, looked up with a desperate hope and saw, through the thunderclouds, at last a strip of blue sky. When America entered the war, although we saw that she would thereby prolong it, we ventured to believe that that evil would be justified by the result. There had stepped into the arena, like a champion of mediæval legend, a nation that had no ends of her own to gain, a nation that stood, for the first time in all the long course of history, for Right, for humanity, and for nothing else. Every successive utterance of the President renewed and enhanced our faith. That grave voice, sounding majestically above the shrill rhetoric of our own statesmen, carried with it the promise of a new world. And all that was young, all that was hopeful, all that was faithful in Europe turned to America, as to the sun rising on a shipwrecked world.
Well, the war was won. The Germans surrendered on terms which were those laid down from the beginning by President Wilson. America had not only helped to win the war — what was more important, she had won the peace. And, as it seemed, she had the power to secure that the peace she had won should be established. Emerging almost unharmed, she held, by her credit and wealth, the whole world in the hollow of her hand. What she willed, it seemed, the others must do, whether they liked it or no. And as if to emphasize that fact, the President, with a dramatic gesture, came himself to Europe, to clinch his victory. With what hopes was his voyage not followed by the forces of light! With what dismay by the forces of darkness! The world held its breath. The President disappeared into the Council Chamber. And in due time there emerged therefrom the Treaty of Versailles.
What happened in that chamber is only gradually transpiring. I shall not therefore attempt to sum up the sordid and miserable tale. But one thing I feel impelled to say. The ultimate blame rests, not on President Wilson, but on the governments, the governing classes, and the electorates of Great Britain and France, and on public opinion in America. Mr. Wilson may have been, as Mr. Keynes has said, an inexpert negotiator. He may have antagonized the Republican party in his own country. He may have committed this or that minor error of tactics. But all that is dust in the balance compared to the main fact, that he had vision where the others had passion; that he looked to the future, while they looked to the past; that he drew his inspiration from reason and truth, while they drew their expertness from hatred, greed, and fear. Nor is it only the statesmen of Europe on whom the blame must be laid. It falls also on the peoples to whose passions they appealed, and who responded to the appeal. Their electorates were behind them, urging them on, even had they wished to halt.
And what of the people of America?
Did they know what a man had been vouchsafed to them as a leader? Were they really behind that great voice? Was it, after all, their soul that spoke in him? It does not look like it. It looks as if, once more, a prophet had appeared, and been without honor among his own people. The prophet lies sick and broken now, and every dog barks at him. Would that my voice were strong and authoritative enough to bear to him, while he yet lives, that verdict of posterity which will acclaim him as the first statesman who ever came to an international conference of victors, to put humanity above country, the interest of the peoples above that of their rulers, reason above passion, justice above revenge, and reconciliation and peace above all. The powers of this world defeated him, and men will pay, and are paying, dearly for it. But if there is to be any continuing civilization for mankind, if there is to be any movement toward a better and juster society, his name will live when those of his adversaries are lost in ignominy; his star will shine from the heaven of our fixed lights when their marsh-fires are vanished, together with the swamp on which they fed.
Well, Americans do not like the Treaty of Versailles. Neither do I. Neither, I think, does any good man, who understands it, and what its fruits are and must be. America, therefore, refused to ratify the treaty. I will not criticize or discuss her action. But I must point out its consequences.
In the first place, America got nothing at all from her intervention in the war. From her point of view, all was clear loss. She had come in to establish a certain order in the world, which should guarantee her, along with other nations, from a repetition of the great calamity; which should stabilize peace and make possible a free and uninterrupted devotion of all the energies of mankind to constructive and creative work. She had failed to achieve that purpose. She had therefore fought in vain, and shed in vain the blood of her sons.
Next, and as a consequence of that, the League of Nations was made abortive at its birth. It was clear to all Europeans who had concerned themselves with that great project, that only the adhesion of America could prevent the League from degenerating into a mere alliance of victorious states, evoking, in the end, a counter-alliance, and causing Europe to revert once more to the old conditions driving to the old catastrophe. In America lay the hope that these conflicting elements could be forced to combine. By her remoteness from European interests she was capable of the detachment of which the states of Europe are incapable, of the impartiality at which they do not even aim. Not by any peculiar virtue that Americans possess, but by the happy accident of geographical position, they were able, and they alone, to give peace to the world. Their standing out of the League of Nations was the death-knell of that hope.
And what is the consequence to America herself? That America is preparing for war! I do not ask, and I do not know, against whom. But I see the resistless logic of events. When I was lecturing in America, in the spring of 1916, on this (then unfamiliar) idea of a league of nations, I used to say to my audiences, what surely is palpable now, that there was no longer any question of an isolated America, pursuing her own internal life in disregard of happenings in the world without. The question was, not whether America should have a world-policy, but what that policy should be. It must be either a league to guarantee the peace of the world, or a series of wars, as futile and as meaningless as those of Europe have been, and even more fatal in their only possible issue — the ruin of civilization, perhaps the actual extermination of mankind. Well, America, to all appearance, has chosen the latter course, and chosen it without knowing or affirming what she was choosing.
America has just held one of those solemn assizes in which she decides the future of her policy. In such a crisis as that in which we live, it might have been thought that the issues joined would be great, and that the combatants would be worthy of them. What, in fact, were the issues placed before the people? We over here honestly do not know. Whatever they were, they seemed to us to have no relation at all to the tremendous riddle put once more by the sphinx of history to this poor Œdipus, Man.
And the candidates who embodied the issues? Surely, had the state of the world been understood, a Christ would have confronted a Napoleon. Instead, Mr. Cox confronted Mr. Harding. Mr. Harding won, and the only thing we here can understand about it is, that it marks a final condemnation by the American people of the man we hailed as a prophet. What else it may mean for the world in which, for good or for evil, America must play so tremendous a part, we do not know. We see only that America continues to build a navy and recruit an army. And with a sick heart we look back on the former promise of the new world.
We see a nation founded by men who braved the perils of the Atlantic, and of an inhospitable and unknown land, because of the faith that was in them. We see them cut off, by that great act, from the tradition of violence and power which prevailed, and prevails, in Europe. We see them forced by the necessities of their position to honor, not arms but labor, not ambition but conscience, not destruction but creation. We see them master a continent by the proper arts of man — by work, intelligence, spontaneous coöperation. We see the countries they made attract, by the magic of opportunity and the freedom of institutions, all that is most keen, most liberal, most active from all the nations of Europe. We see her moulding these newcomers into a common citizenship, in which the foolish and bloody vendettas of Europe fade away into old, unhappy, far-off things of the childhood of the race. We see her at last become strong enough to impose on the world, not by force, but by the weight of her economic power, the mass of her common sense, that ideal of peace, of labor and of exchange which was, as we thought, the blood in her veins, the current upon her nerves. We see her finally, with a kind of dramatic symbolism, come forward, in the maddest, darkest hour of this mad and dark Europe, with her offer of light and of healing.
Then something happens. An interlude of eclipse succeeds. And when it clears up, America, as if she had caught the madness of the Europe she was rash enough to visit, is running like a wild beast down the old road that has led all peoples of the past into the abyss. Europe, in her dying hour had, it would seem, venom enough left to infect the western continent, before she stung herself to death with her tail.
Is this — which I put down honestly, as it continually haunts my mind — is this only a nightmare vision? Is the truth other and better? How gladly would I be assured of it! For it is not hard to see what America might, and could, do even now, if she had the will, the insight, and the vision.
First, as a necessary act of salvage, merely to keep Europe alive, before the process of healing can begin, she could lend the financial aid for which we are perishing. She could cancel Great Britain’s debt to her, on condition that Great Britain cancels the debts due from her allies. She could give Central Europe the credit for lack of which it is dying. She could recognize the government of Russia, and help her to rebuild her economic life. These things she could do. But none of them should she do, except on terms. And the terms should be these. First, that she herself become a member of the League of Nations, the covenant to be amended, if necessary, by the elimination of Article X. Next, that all states of the world be immediately admitted to the League. Thirdly, that the League take in hand, as its first task, a revision of the peace treaties, since it is from their provisions, as much as from anything else, that Europe and the Near East are perishing. That wretched junta calling itself the Supreme Council must be dismissed, with the execration of all honest men, into the annihilation it has earned. The common Areopagus of the world must step into its place, to do right and achieve reconciliation.
Next, having introduced some sort of order into our chaos, America might lead the League in its great task of confirming peace. To this the first step, and one in itself sufficient, would be a complete, all-round disarmament. The victorious Allies have decided that 100,000 troops is a large enough army to police 60,000,000 men in Germany. Very well, let them apply that standard all round. Let France reduce her army to 75,000, and Great Britain the same. As to navies, let them all go, and substitute a small international squadron to police the seas against piracy. There is nothing whatever chimerical about such ideas. They are common sense. The madness lies in the renewed attempt, in face of catastrophic failure everywhere and always, to preserve peace by piling up the instruments of war. Any plain man can see what nonsense this is. Nothing stands in the way of complete, all-round disarmament, except men’s lack of courage to act on a self-evident truth, because they have been inured, by centuries of wrong action, to a palpable lie.
Disarmament achieved, everything else would follow. All disputes, as a matter of course, would be submitted to a court or a council of conciliation. The decisions of such bodies would, as a matter of course, be accepted. Or, if sanctions should be required, the sanction of the universal boycott, already provided by the League, would suffice. We should not indeed have a world without friction and dispute: but we should no more have war resulting therefrom than we have private war in a well-organized state.
This kind of lead America might even now give to the world. She and she alone is strong enough, if she has the will. I do not know whether she has. I do not know whether she even attends to the galloping thud of the angel of death, hastening now so near down the corridor of Time. But I know too well what is the alternative to such beneficent and sane action on her part. Europe, caught in the net of the treaties, financially bankrupt, distracted at once by civil and international war, will perish in anarchy. We are nearer to this, very likely, than Americans understand. It is a question of a few years, perhaps of a few months. And on the top of that anarchy of Europe will surge in the anarchy of the East. Russia, if she could get peace and financial aid, might yet pull through, might yet begin to supply herself and the world with the products for lack of which all are perishing. But Russia left unhelped is Russia left to dissolution. And such a Russia will flood over to take what toll it can from the decaying and defenseless peoples of Europe. Throughout Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, the anarchy will run, with the fall of the British and French states; and the order built up in centuries and millenniums will disappear in decades.
Europe, I agree, has deserved all this — deserved it by her war, and still more by her peace. But is that a reason why America should stand aloof? Can she even afford to do so, in her own interest? The American people, I think, cannot know what tremendous issues are being decided here, and decided catastrophically, while they play a football-match between their Republican and Democratic parties. It is hard to know,
— that is, to realize and believe, — even when one is in Europe. Most Europeans, certainly, do not know, and least of all do their governments. But then Europe is still mad with war passions. Europe can think of no remedy for anything but more killing. If Europe is to be saved, it must be by America. Perhaps America might do it yet. Will she not at least try?
And meanwhile, to return to my starting-point, will not some Americans, some more Americans, continue and increase their contributions from their private purses to what their countrymen and countrywomen are doing to relieve the more urgent and immediate distresses here? It is, if you like, but a gesture, powerless to arrest the course of fate. But such gestures are beautiful, they are the true beaux gestes. And even in this last hour they are worth making.
- Four articles on ‘The War and the Way Out,’ printed in theAtlantic before our entrance into the struggle, will be remembered as having provoked wide and sympathetic discussion.— THE EDITORS.↩