We Fight No More




WHEN war starts, what is the difficult task set for men who are conditioned by the same factors that animated their ancestors, and who when hungry and distressed are as emotional as their ancestors? It is to maintain neutrality. And what is neutrality? Neutrality, according to Professor Borchard (Borchard and Lage, Neutrality for the United States), is ‘an old institution, which finds its source in candor, in the obligation to hold the scales even, to remain a friend of both belligerents, to lend support to neither, to avoid passing judgment on the merits of their war.’

If, therefore, a great war starts in Europe, millions of Americans have merely to be candid in their point of view, to hold the scales even, to remain a friend of both belligerents, to lend support to neither, and to avoid passing judgment on the merits of the war. But who are Americans? They were once English, Scotch, and Irish; Greek, Italian, and Turk; French, German, and Serb; Scandinavian, Slovak, and Finn; Portuguese, Polish, and Spanish. They were — and are — almost all the peoples of the earth who came only yesterday to these shores. They brought with them their religions, their prejudices, their racial memories and hatreds, as well as their dreams and their aspirations. In a thousand years, or two thousand, Europe and Asia will perhaps have vanished from their souls. But now they are still the products of their history. Their psychology is still conditioned by the same factors that animated their ancestors. They are still emotional when they are hungry and distressed.

But when war comes the country will decree by law that emotional man is to be unemotional ; distressed man is to be calm; hungry man is to be satiated; hotblooded man is to be cold-blooded; biased man unbiased; self-seeking man selfless. That is a task at which even the gods have failed.

If we assume, nonetheless, a will on the part of millions of men to be neutral in the face of a European war, it still remains true that the country cannot achieve neutrality unless the men who administer the laws are themselves neutral. But they cannot escape the factors that conditioned them, the passions that animate them, the hopes that beguile them, the ambitions that distort them, and the light that is given them. Men work and have their being and act within the pitiful bounds of the circumscribed flesh. Theirs is not the austerity of the rocks, nor the all-seeingness of the stars. At best their works drop groundward although they themselves may attain heaven.

Copyright 1937, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

Consider the recent debate with respect to the membership of the Supreme Court. Where were the neutrals who judged the bitter conflict with divine impartiality and with candor? The one side maintained that the Court did not interpret the Constitution with rigid impartiality but proceeded out of the bias, background, and social prejudices of its members. So-called impartial justices must therefore be appointed to redress the balance on the Court. The other side retorted that the new justices would also be biased, but that their bias would lie for and not against social legislation to be enacted by Congress. And now there no longer remains any pretense that men do or ever will interpret the Constitution with godlike detachment. And what is true of the interpretation of the fundamental law of the land must also be true of the interpretation and administration of its neutrality laws.


Despite its apparently peaceful aspect, its separating oceans, the absence from its borders of powerful neighbors, and the undisputed possession of a prodigally rich continent, the United States has been at war more frequently than some European countries. The Scandinavian states, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, although near the world’s battle arena, have stayed out of wars more successfully than this country. Founded in the closing years of the eighteenth century, the United States had had a succession of wars before the end of the nineteenth century. It fought the British in 1812; the Mexicans in 1846; the Civil War in 1861; and the Spaniards in 1898. In the intervals between the greater wars there were innumerable ‘little wars’ with the Indians who were being put in their place — the grave. The dawn of the twentieth century saw the country working out the problems of ‘manifest destiny’ in areas as widely separated as Havana and Manila; and at the moment when Europe was moving toward the eclipse of the World War the guns of American battleships were blasting the waterfront of Vera Cruz.

It is indeed characteristic of the mercurial American temperament that the same Pershing who in 1916 with a handful of soldiers at his command chased a bandit across Mexico (without catching him) was by 1918 pitted against Ludendorff and Hindenburg in France with two million men at his back and two million more on the way.

The history of the United States is starred with the names of military leaders who became Presidents — from George Washington, who, because his revolt succeeded, lived to become the Father of his country instead of dying a traitor’s death upon the gallows, to Theodore Roosevelt, whose gallop up San Juan Hill aided him in his eventual gallop to the White House door.

As a people we have never ceased to talk peace — and as a government to pay pensions to the soldiers of our wars. This would seem to drive us to the painful but irresistible conclusion that we are much like other people. The English, we say, are hypocritical; the French selfish; the Germans imperialistic; the Japanese crafty; and all of them are warlike. We, on the other hand, are sincere, selfless, non-imperialistic, straightforward, and peaceful. These qualities ought to keep us out of wars. But they do not. Naturally it is no fault of ours that we are dragged into wars. The causes lie neither within us nor in our political and economic systems. Villains are the architects of our woes. But those who tell us why we entered the World War and how to stay out of the next war do not agree upon the identity of the villains.

Senators Nye and Clark know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are bankers and munition makers. (Yet the Congress of which these Senators are a part has voted the largest peacetime appropriations for arms ever known in this country.) Mr. Newton D. Baker, our wartime Secretary of War, assures us earnestly that German submarines got us into the war. Mr. Charles A. Beard, the historian, despite an exhaustive study of the war documents, is unable to blame our belligerency upon a single devil alone. Mr. John Bassett Moore attributes our wartime woes to the stupidity of the State Department. Professor Borchard is sure that the demons who plagued us in 1917 were Anglophiles such as Woodrow Wilson, Colonel House, Ambassador Page, and Secretary Lansing. Out of so extensive a demonology every citizen can find a devil whom he can hate and to whom he can attribute our entrance into the Great War. And while historians still search for the causes of the last war, general staffs are preparing the equipment for the next war, and diplomats are laying its groundwork.

The statute books of the United States are cluttered with laws designed to keep us out of war, and with other laws to enable us to fight wars out of which we did not stay. They stretch from 1793 to 1937. Along with the neutrality laws runs the desire to profit from the wars of others without taking the risk (if possible) of becoming involved.

‘Since it is so decreed by fate,’ wrote Thomas Jefferson when he heard rumors of wars in Europe, ‘we have only to pray that their soldiers may eat a great deal,’ so that ‘the new world will fatten on the follies of the old.’

The soldiers did eat a great deal. We fed both sides. And we almost went to war with both the French and the British. Our commerce was interrupted by the belligerents. Mr. Jefferson thought that he could bring them to their senses by cutting off all shipments to them, and Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807. It almost caused another war in an entirely unexpected place. The Act was flagrantly violated in New England, and secession was openly discussed in Boston and Salem. Consequently it was repealed and Congress passed the NonIntercourse Act permitting trade with all countries save belligerents. It was repealed in 1810. And by 1812 British troops were in Washington.

One hundred years stretched between 1812 and 1914. There had been many wars in the period and during all of them we had protested our peaceful desires and our determination to stay out of European quarrels. And when we went to war (as with Spain) we wanted others to stay out of it. Yet when the Great War burst upon the world we were totally unprepared for it. We had neither the arms that might deter nations who tampered with our commerce, nor any conceptions of neutrality that were not at least a century old. We became involved in the Great War just as we had become involved in the British and French wars of the early part of the nineteenth century. Our laws and our isolation failed to protect us.

Now, however, we are wiser. With two great failures and one hundred and fifty years of history behind us, we are convinced that at last we have mastered the difficult technique of snatching valuables from a burning building without being burned.

The process is simple. We have simply to avoid repeating our old mistakes. What were they? We insisted upon the rights of neutrals. We shall give them up. We lent money to belligerents. We shall lend no more. We listened to propaganda. The next time we shall stuff our ears. We had Anglophile diplomats. Now we shall have men who will weigh facts with the impartiality of a mechanical scale. We had idiots in the State Department. Henceforth it shall be composed of Metternichs and Talleyrands. Consequently we shall stay out of the next war.


For a so-called simple people we are capable of nice if not convincing distinctions. We will sell arms to a nation at peace in order to enable it to defend itself or make war. Once it is at war we will sell it no more. The result, therefore, is that nations who rely upon the American market become well prepared in advance of war, knowing that they cannot buy arms and ammunition here when they are at war. Thus we get our share of the business. But more than that: we remain virtuous — virtuous on the theory that, while it is moral to sell a pistol to a criminal with which to commit a robbery, it is immoral to sell him one at the moment when he is committing it. And the fact is that in the armaments trade the United States is now second only to Great Britain.

Once a nation is at war we will not sell arms and ammunition to either of the belligerents. We won’t take blood money. If, for example, Japan declares war upon China, we will not sell her an airplane or a machine gun. But we will sell her gasoline without which the plane would be grounded; we will sell her steel for making machine guns, shoes for her soldiers’ feet, wheat for their stomachs, chemicals for their poison gases, and cotton for both bandages and explosives. But arms and ammunition? Never!

During the days of prohibition certain sellers of unfermented grape juice published advertisements which read: ‘Do not expose the contents of this keg to the air. If not kept tightly sealed fermentation will take place.’ Unfortunately many buyers were careless and paid the penalty of having their grape juice turn into wine; that, however, was not the fault of the seller, who had carefully warned the buyer. Nor is it our fault if we ship cotton to a belligerent and it turns into guncotton; lead into bullets; steel into tanks; chemicals into poison gas. Have we not a right to assume that a country at war will use cotton for making babies’ dresses, lead for plumbing, steel for houses, and chemicals for killing potato bugs? This virtuous and certainly profitable naïveté we carry over into our neutrality laws.

The last Congress struggled with neutrality legislation until its confusion became so great that Senator Pittman, the sponsor of the Act, admitted that it was not neutrality at all. And Mr. Bernard Baruch, the author of the cash-and-carry principle which puts the United States upon an international chain-grocerystore basis during war, said that the law ‘is not neutrality — not by twenty sea miles. It amounts to giving active assistance to whatever nation has command of the seas.’ Our former policy was to stay out of war through what we assumed to be neutrality. Our present policy is to stay out of war through legislation that we admit is not neutrality. It would appear, therefore, that in order to be neutral we must repeal our unneutral neutrality law.

Under the Neutrality Act, when the President declares that a state of war exists between two or more countries, the following provisions go automatically into effect: (1) shipments of arms and ammunition to belligerents are prohibited; (2) loans and credits to belligerents and dealings in their securities are prohibited; (3) American citizens are forbidden to travel upon ships of belligerents; (4) the arming of American vessels trading with belligerents is prohibited.

These provisions are mandatory upon the President. But discretionary powers of the most vital import are delegated to him. Thus at his discretion he may: (a) forbid American ships to carry goods or materials — which he may enumerate — to belligerents; (b) forbid shipment of goods from this country to belligerents until the title to them has become vested in a foreign agency or government; (c) forbid use of American ports as bases of supplies by American vessels; (d) apply all the provisions of the Act to any civil war which in his opinion threatens the peace of the United States.

This is plainly a when, as, and if Act. And the sole judge of the when, as, and if is the President. Two nations may destroy each other, yet if they do not declare war the President may or may not proclaim that they are at war, and thereby harm or help the one side or the other. He may put the cash-and-carry clause — the heart of the Act — into operation when war begins, six months later, or never. And this too may harm or help the one side or the other. Whoever suffers will regard the United States as an enemy, and in the desperation of war may be moved to take such steps against us as he would against a declared enemy. This cannot be considered neutrality. It may, however, be interpreted as a tacit admission by Congress that, while neutrality is impossible, some gesture towards it must be made for the sake of public opinion. But no foreign government will look upon it as neutrality.

Presumably, at the outbreak of war between two great countries, pressure will be brought to bear upon the President first to cause him to declare that a state of war exists, then to put the Neutrality Act into effect, and finally to bring into operation the cash-and-carry clause. He may not yield to such pressure. He may act when he sees fit within his sole and uncontrolled discretion. No one can know in advance what he will or will not do; nor can one anticipate the endless combinations and permutations of circumstance, interest, and policy with which he will be confronted by a great war. The discussion that follows is designed to throw some light upon the situation that would prevail if the President should invoke the cash-and-carry clause in the event of a war involving one or more great powers.


Inasmuch as a great European war is inconceivable without the participation of Great Britain and France, both of whom are dominant sea powers, the cash-and-carry policy would make our resources available to them while permitting us to present an appearance of impartiality. The British and the French, by virtue of their navies and their money, could come and get our goods. We do not, we say, discriminate between nations. Any country can buy from us during wartime if it is strong enough and has cash. It is not our fault if Germany and Italy have neither the monetary nor the naval strength of Britain and France; if Germany could buy here, but Czechoslovakia could not, during a German-Czechoslovakian war; if Japan could avail herself of our markets during a war with China while China would be shut out.

We are, we say, neutral and impartial. And as proof of our impartiality and neutrality we say to the world, by implications clearly drawn from the Neutrality Act itself: —

A nation does not have to qualify, to buy from us in wartime, by showing that it was wantonly attacked, that it maintains a general high level of national and international decency, that it is not a violator of treaties and international laws, or even that its destruction would be inimical to the self-interests of the United States. All that a nation must do to buy from us is to have a big navy and a big purse. It does not, then, concern us if it is criminally aggressive, if its level of national and international decency is obscenely low, if its form of government is utterly repugnant to the American people, or even if its victory would be distinctly against the self-interest of the United States. Give us cash, no risks, and no questions will be asked.

As proof of our general intentions, let us examine the course of our actions in a threatening war: a Sino-Japanese war.

If the Japanese set out on a deliberate war of aggression and conquest of China, would we sell Japan goods?


Would the fact that the sympathies of the American people are with China make any difference ?

Not at all. It does not matter to us if all the peaceful countries of the world are overrun by hungry, prowling, warlike, aggressive nations.

Has this country any conceivable conflict of interest with China?


With Japan?


Do we not, as a matter of fact, regard Japan as an aggressor nation?


Does the United States in making its war plans consider China a potential enemy?


Does the United States in making its war plans consider Japan a potential enemy?


Are our present and projected fortifications in the Pacific directed against China?


Against Japan?


Are they directed against the other powers — Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands — who have interests in the Pacific?


Would the conquest of China by Japan militate against what we conceive to be our interests in the Far East?


Would that conquest be aided by Japan’s ability to buy and sell in the American market during wartime?


Would China’s inability to trade here during wartime hamper her measures of self-defense?


Have we a naval rivalry with China?


With Japan?


Have we a number of dangerous unresolved differences with China?


With Japan?


Despite these facts, we would nonetheless freely buy from and sell to Japan during a Sino-Japanese war, but we would sell nothing to China because she could not come and get the goods?


In the event, then, of such a conflict, what would be the practical effect of our policy?

Its effect obviously would be to give aid to a powerful, aggressive, military people in conquering a weak, nonaggressive, nonmilitary people. We should be giving valuable help to a country with which we ourselves carry on a dangerous and costly naval rivalry; with whose policies our own policies frequently conflict; whose rise we watch with jealous eyes; whose intentions we suspect and whose word we doubt; with whom we maintain polite but not cordial relations; and whose conquest of China would militate against our own conceptions of self-interest.

Conversely, the effect of our policy would be to injure a people with whom we have maintained cordial relations since the founding of the Republic; with whom we have no quarrel, no rivalry, no conflict of interest; and the preservation of whose integrity as a nation has long been a cornerstone of American foreign policy.

Nor is that all. The United States, along with Japan and a number of other countries, is a signatory to the NinePower Pact guaranteeing the territorial sovereignty of China. Japan violated the Pact in 1931-1932 when she seized Manchuria. She is flagrantly violating it now. Consequently the application of the Neutrality Act would be to injure China, whose interests we sought to protect in the Nine-Power Pact, and to aid Japan, the violator of the Pact. Thus, while doing nothing to prevent the rape of China, we would aid the rapist not only in assaulting the victim but also in burning down the victim’s house, so that no trace would be left either of his body or of the crime. And our crime would be the greater because we had made a pact with the rapist under which we agreed with him that there would be no assault at all upon the victim.

So much for neutrality in the Pacific. What about the Atlantic? If Germany (population 68 millions and a Fascist dictatorship) should attack Czechoslovakia (population 17 millions and an American-inspired democracy), we should be an ally of Germany. She could send her ships here for goods. The Czechs could not, because they have no navy. Wherever the mighty attack the weak we should automatically become the ally of the mighty. It is only in the event of a great struggle between firstclass powers — say, Britain and France against Italy and Germany and Japan — that we should be on all sides at once.


The cash-and-carry policy is based upon the smug assumption that it will enable us to sell goods during wartime without taking risks. It is, considered in another light, a species of arson by remote control. We will sell anybody incendiary torches with which to burn up their neighbors’ homes, but once the fires are started we must not be asked to aid in extinguishing them. But, while we are rich in natural resources, we have no monopoly of anything. Does a belligerent need cotton? Fifty-two countries besides ourselves grow it. Does he need wheat? It is grown almost everywhere. Meat products? They are produced in regions as remote as Uruguay and Australia. Oil? It may come from the Persian Gulf, Rumania, the East Indies, Russia, or Venezuela as well as Texas and California. Gasoline? It is now distilled from coal. Lumber? There are forests in Sweden, Finland, Poland, Russia, and elsewhere. Copper? It is mined in Rhodesia, Chile, and other countries. Sugar? We import it. Wool? We have no surplus to sell. Hides? We import them. Automobiles? Other countries make them. Machinery? American factories dot the world. They will be seized by belligerents.

We can lay down rules. But other countries do not have to abide by them. We shall demand cash and the carrying of goods in non-American ships. But suppose that Argentina and Brazil sell cotton to warring Britain on credit? Is it reasonable then that Britain would pay us cash? Suppose that she could buy wheat in South America on her own terms rather than our terms. Would she then turn to us? Is it not likely that belligerents will buy here only when other markets are closed to them, or are perilous, or inconvenient? And does that not mean that it would be difficult for us to batten off the ills of the world? Batten and run no risks?

There is, in my opinion, a sound reason why belligerents should buy from other countries on credit rather than from the United States for cash. Our Senators, writers, lecturers, and preachers have cried aloud for years that we were drawn into the World War by our loans and credits to belligerents; that we created an economic interest in them and were therefore determined to see them victorious. If that theory is true — and we seem to believe it — belligerents then would be well advised to proceed upon it again elsewhere in the world. It would be wise for them to get credits of goods wherever available, and thereby in effect create allies of neutrals.

The greatest test to which the cash-and-carry policy could possibly be put would arise if there should be no cash and no carry. If belligerents bought little or nothing here during a war, we should run almost no risk of being involved in war. They would of their own accord have established an embargo on our goods. They could not complain of the embargo, because it would be of their own making. And we could go about our business in the serene assurance that we should not be involved in war. But should we be serene?

If warring Britain or Japan bought all its cotton outside the United States, what would our cotton farmers do ? What would they say if they saw their great South American rivals growing fabulously rich and with their profits putting millions of new acres into production? (Belligerents could safely turn to South American cotton growers without being gouged because they could always threaten to turn to United States cotton.) Would not our cotton farmers demand that we try to get some of the business either by taking cash and delivering the cotton, or by selling upon credit and not delivering it, or, if they were desperate enough, by extending credits and also delivering?

In that event it would seem to be but a small price for running no risks of war if the government paid cotton farmers the difference between the pre-war domestic and the war domestic or even the world price. Would that satisfy them? In all probability it would not. First of all, the honest ploughman breaking the stubborn glebe is just as greedy as anybody else, and the heart that pulsates beneath overalls leaps as quickly at the prospects of high profits as does the heart that beats beneath a Savile Row suit. The farmer would remember the days of a war that was a worth-while war, when some grades of cotton sold for a dollar a pound, and other grades ’that wan’t fittin’ for nothin’ ’cept mattress stuffin’ ’ brought twenty-five cents a pound. His county agent would point out to him the long-run effects of the withdrawal from the market of a large part of the American crop: (a) it would stimulate foreign production to great heights; (b) an enormous surplus would be piled up in the United States, to overhang the market and depress prices for a long time; (c) foreign growers would establish new outlets and markets which he could recapture only with great difficulty; (d) there is a vast difference between selling your cotton to foreigners at a juicy profit and being compensated by your government for not selling it; the government would insist upon assuring to the farmer only a ‘reasonable’ profit, and then he would be taxed to pay in part the costs of the subsidy that accrued to him.

What of our exporters of wheat, meat products, minerals, machinery, and lumber? If our cash-and-carry policy — whose inevitable effect is to discourage buying in this market — succeeds so well that there is little cash and carry, will they be satisfied with security from war in lieu of war profits? Would labor be satisfied to see men out of work and wages lowered? And if the organized farm and labor interests descended upon Congress would it stand firm or yield? Who runs this country, anyhow?

Consequently it seems to me that powerful European countries who desire to bring the United States into the conflict either as economic or as military allies will be well advised to take the United States at its word: that is, to make our cash-and-carry policy effective by paying out no cash to us and taking nothing away from our shores.

The Neutrality Act was rammed down the throat of a reluctant Congress by large groups of persons who cling to the pathetic illusion that the United States, the richest and most powerful single country on earth, can be in the world and not of it; that we whose interests, moral and material, span the globe can view with detachment and indifference the slow disintegration of a once orderly world, governed by principles of law and dictates of humanity to which all men subscribed, into a number of brute, warring states recognizing no creed save might, obeying no law save force, and moved by nothing except superior force. It is blandly assumed that it would mean little to us, beyond a perfunctory expression of regret, if one by one the lights of western civilization went out, plunging Europe into darkness, but leaving a neon afterglow to play about our transient but precious heads.

It is dogmatically asserted that the United States is not actually a part of the world culturally or economically, but an independent planet spinning in space, and therefore beyond hurt whatever fate may befall Britain and France, which together are not as large as Texas, or the Netherlands, whose people spend their days tending cheese-bearing cows and tulips. Howdoes it concern us if the British Empire crashes in the course of a winter’s afternoon? Why should we be disturbed if London, Rome, Paris, and Berlin are burned to the ground? What if the spires of Oxford come tumbling down and the waters of the Arno are choked with the ruins of Florence? What if it should again be true, as it has been true in the past, that wars anywhere on earth must threaten the peace — to say nothing of the prosperity — of the United States? What if it be true that the inexorable logic of neutrality leads to economic self-containment, and the inexorable logic of economics proves that the only truly self-contained communities in the world are the cemeteries?

These things, we say, are as nothing to us, and as proof of it we have ordained a miracle called a neutrality law so that a bloody conflict involving hundreds and thousands of men and the destruction of millions of dollars of property is not a war, but an Oriental illusion done with mirrors and incense.

But already it is clear to all except peace-society martyrs of the catacombs that war will and must threaten the peace of the United States wherever it occurs in the world, because we are a world power and not a showboat stop in a riverside town; that neutrality laws have not saved us in the past hundred and fifty years, and are not likely to save us in the next five or ten years; and that our salvation, like the salvation of other peoples, lies not in staying out of wars once they have started, but in preventing wars from starting. And it must be remembered that we have stamped out contagious diseases, such as smallpox, not by hiding in cellars until the epidemic has passed, but by forcibly (if necessary) vaccinating the people before they became infected.

In the presence of threatened war, however, we, the most ingenious, inventive, and experimental people in the world, stand helpless and shivering. We are like the figure in Dostoievski who was condemned to immortality standing upon a narrow ledge above a bottomless abyss, unable to go forward or backward, fearful of falling, naked, cold, forlorn, and alone.