Will Young England Fight?


ON February 9, 1933, the Oxford Union carried the famous controversial Resolution whose supporters refused to fight ‘for King and Country.’

This historic debate was followed by a howl from die-hard opinion throughout the world. Stalwart colonels from Egypt and India flooded the press with letters deploring the corruption of modern youth by white-livered ‘pacifists’; hardbitten planters wrote from Ceylon and the Gold Coast comparing contemporary undergraduate ‘degeneracy’ with the patriotic he-men of their nobler times. All over the British Empire, Conservative newspaper editorials denounced young Oxford as decadent, neurotic, effeminate, and ‘yellow.’

Astonished by this outburst of noisy publicity but unshaken in their convictions, the youthful critics of time-worn slogans continued their demonstrations in Oxford and elsewhere. The ‘King and Country’ debaters followed their motion by protests against the military character of the Armistice Day service, and against the circulation of Officers’ Training Corps propaganda through the University. Where the discussion of the Oxford Resolution was permitted by other university authorities, it was nearly always passed by large majorities. Out of twenty-three universities and colleges which debated the motion, it was lost only in three.

Unorganized and spontaneous though it was, the movement spread to the British Dominions and America. Universities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa followed England’s example by carrying the Resolution. In the United States a ballot of over 20,000 students was taken. The result showed 6347 who proclaimed that they would fight for their country whenever they were called upon, 7742 who stated that they would fight only if their country was invaded, and 8938 who declared that they would not fight in any war whatever the circumstances.

These demonstrations of five years ago were significant in terms of the international background against which they occurred. The economic depression which hit America in 1929 did not strike England until 1931. That year, which ended the improvement in international relationships since 1925, saw also the first Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and the beginning of the League’s long series of failures to prevent ‘aggression.’ The guns sounding from Shanghai, and the triumph of German Naziism during the spring of 1933, were hardly favorable auguries for the success of the so-called Disarmament Conference, then holding its Laodicean sessions. By the following October, Hitler’s Germany had left both the Conference and the League of Nations.

Of these disturbing events, and their possible consequences for themselves, the young men and women of 1933 were conscious with an acute intelligent awareness which is perhaps the chief and is certainly the most valuable quality that distinguishes modern youth from the ignorant, idealistic, and too easily exploited generation of 1914. In an essay published in 1934, the twentytwo-year-old President of the Oxford Union, Keith Steel-Maitland, — son of the Right Honorable Sir Arthur SteelMaitland, a Conservative M. P. and former Minister of Labor, — expressed his views on war and peace in words which remain equally true in these present critical days both of his own contemporaries and of the younger men and women still up at the universities.

It may be necessary for Britain to embark upon a fresh war, but one thing is certain: that upon the merits of the case our contemporaries will not have their minds made up for them. It is becoming all too obvious that the experience of ‘our elders’ in foreign policy is synonymous with their particular prejudices. We have far too acute a realization of the vexed uncertainties, the disappointed aspirations, and the grinding injustices that are abroad in Europe to-day to believe that a divine solution of our difficulties can be arrived at by the fortuitous declaration of a war in which we don’t believe and won’t share. . . . The spread of informed knowledge ought to be the aim of all Progressive Conservatives, for it is the best possible insurance against those attacks of hysteria which are most likely to cause war.

The Oxford Resolution was important because if brought into the open, not only the strong anti-war feeling existing amongst the youth of 1933, but their clear-headed repudiation of the sentimental slogans by which their less critical predecessors had been deluded. Far from being entirely composed of uncompromising pacifists, the supporters of the ‘King and Country’ motion included economic sanctionists, military sanctionists, and believers in an international police force.

They were united by their refusal to respond to an old form of cant with an emotional patriotic appeal; they perceived the falsity of the time-worn propaganda which asserts that, whatever other nations may do, England fights only for her honor and has nothing to gain from war. The experience of the war generation, and the national perplexities which surrounded their own youth, saved the post-war generation from living half a lifetime before they discovered that material aims not only enter into but dominate the war policy of Britain in exactly the same way as they dominate the policy of other nations, and that our arms are raised for purposes of ‘defense’ only because we have nothing further to gain from attack.

This skeptical pacifism was attributed by the young son of a Liberal M. P., Michael Foot, an Oxford undergraduate at the time of the debate, to three sources, the chief being youth’s reaction to the deterioration of international affairs. Already, in August 1932, the Communist-inspired World Anti-War movement had sprung into being at the Amsterdam Conference as a protest against the apathy of statesmen. The Oxford Resolution was a similar gesture of exasperation with the ‘ old men ’ whose policy of drift had brought international relations to the edge of a Gadarene slope. This impatience was increased by a widespread reaction amongst undergraduates against the English public-school system, with its tendency to strengthen class loyalties and uphold the existing world order.

Finally, the released spate of war literature during the previous half decade had produced its effect. Scientific symposia describing the probable consequences of gas, aircraft, and bacteriological warfare were widely read and debated, and the most discussed personal war books of 1933 — such as Storm Jameson’s No Time Like the Present and Beverley Nichols’s Cry Havoc — appeared to be equally welcomed by all sections of the student peace movement. Nobody foresaw that in another five years these young men and women and their undergraduate successors would be divided into half a dozen or more varieties of controversial opinion.


The first event which severely tested the faith of pacifists both young and old was Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia. Curiously enough, this act of aggression which proved the complete unworkableness of a sanctions policy led to an outcry for sanctions on the part of many peace workers who had hitherto questioned their ethical justification.

‘Until then,’ writes an undergraduate who went up to Oxford the year after the ‘King and Country’ debate, ‘I was confident of my pacifism, because it meant to me that I would not fight to gain national or imperialist ends. But when Italy made her cowardly and scientifically barbarous attack on Abyssinia a new emotion was aroused in the hearts of many pacifists. . . . I wanted to protect Abyssinia, the weak, from Italy, the strong; I wanted my country to take the lead in enforcing a respect for the law of nations upon the aggressor — and that entailed the threat of force. I knew that the chief motive of the British Government might be the preservation of the Mediterranean as a highroad of the Empire, but I was willing to ignore that if Italy would be prevented from massacring a defenseless native people.’

Unhappily, the Abyssinian invasion was only one of a series of provocative policies and campaigns on the part of the ‘aggressive’ or ‘ Have-not ’ powers. Since the repudiation of the Hoare-Laval agreement by the House of Commons, many Liberals and Socialists have been brought dangerously close to new manifestations of war hysteria by the Jewish persecutions in Germany, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the capitulation of Danzig to the Nazi terror, the Japanese massacres in Shanghai and Nanking, and, more recently, by the German invasion of Austria and the acute threat to Czechoslovakia through her Sudeten German minority.

Faced by these catastrophes, the British Labor movement has split into three sections, of which the first two have become increasingly bellicose with each new crisis. Major Attlee and the Parliamentary Labor Party demanded sanctions against Italy; under the leadership of Dr. Hugh Dalton and Sir Walter Citrine, the Trade-Union movement has since supported the Government’s rearmament programme. Other Socialists, such as Professor Noel Baker and Denis Pritt, K. C., have declared in favor of rearmament provided that the arms be used to further ‘League action.’ In the third place a small but powerful minority, led by George Lansbury, Lord Ponsonby, and Dr. Alfred Salter, have joined the pacifist Peace Pledge Union.

Amongst the younger generation, one result of these events has been a steady hardening of opinion against Germany since 1933. Five years ago the supporters of the Oxford Resolution, like a large section of older British opinion, deplored the decade and a half of German misery which followed the Treaty of Versailles. The persecution of Germany and her democratic leaders, Stresemann and Brüning, was a recent and remorseful recollection; the inept provocations offered to German statesmen at the Disarmament Conference were contemporary occurrences.

To-day the universities house a generation which had barely reached political consciousness at the time of Hitler’s accession to power. These young men and women associate Germany, not with the poverty, hunger, and humiliation which she suffered at the hands of the ‘victors’ in the war, but with Jewish atrocities, violated treaties, and threats to the security of democratic nations. The fact that the one situation arose from the other tends to be overlooked by those whose political memories are less than five years old. Like some of their elders they have largely been captured by the new jingoism and its attendant slogans, which present ‘our Spanish brothers’ and ‘little Czechoslovakia’ (the direct psychological descendant of ‘little Belgium’) as the ‘defenders of culture’ and ‘the bulwarks of civilization ’ against ‘ war and Fascism.’

A second consequence of the darkening international scene has been the disintegration of the peace movement itself into different groups, so that ‘pacifism ’ in 1938 means something quiteother than the ‘pacifism’ of 1933. Professor C. E. M. Joad has remarked that when he spoke at Oxford in favor of the ‘King and Country’ motion nobody realized that the Pacifists and the supporters of Collective Security were two classes and not one. Much less did anybody imagine that by 1938 these two groups would have become opponents, whose leaders would be too deeply divided by a difference of principle to appear on each other’s platforms.

Thus the now immediate question ‘Would the youth of England fight in another war?’ must be considered in terms of the principal alignments in Great Britain to-day — not only in the peace movement, which in any case represents a small though very articulate minority, but throughout the country as a whole. It cannot be answered except by a comparison of these alignments, with a view to discovering which opinion is most likely to prevail if war succeeds the present crisis.


One of the largest permanent groups of British opinion is still that of the militaristic patriots whose motto for living, unshaken by the progress of thought and the lessons of history, still remains ‘My country, right or wrong.’ Low, the cartoonist, has satirized them — probably for all time, since the name is becoming part of our vocabulary — in the world-famous figure of ‘Colonel Blimp.’

The influence of this group is apt to be underestimated because it is less articulate than the rest; its ranks are composed of persons who feel and act rather than think. Their strength lies chiefly in their wealth and hereditary power, combined with the robust health and physical attractiveness which spring from these advantages. Their ideas, in so far as these can be distinguished from their emotions, centre round the time-worn belief that the way to maintain peace is to prepare for war.

Disregarding the fact that the pre-war international anarchy made Armageddon inevitable sooner or later, these militarists argue that if Britain had made it clear in 1914 that she would stand by France the Great War would have been averted. Their conviction that peace can always be secured by our own nation’s being stronger than any possible combination of hostile powers was expressed during the war in a jingoistic rhyme printed on the cover of the militant magazine, John Bull:

Come the four quarters of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them; naught shall make us rue,
If England to herself will be but true.

Those who use this argument complacently disregard the fact that exactly the same thesis is being advocated in Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, France, and the United States, thus causing their calculations to be based upon an arithmetical impossibility. Their policy may postpone war but can never abolish it, since competitive armaments, secret treaties, and the other ingredients of international anarchy are all part of their stock in trade.

A second group, which is equally uncompromising from a precisely opposite angle, is that of the Communists and near-Communists, whose numbers have greatly increased since the foundation of the Left Book Club in May 1936. This club was formed by a powerful triumvirate, composed of the publisher Victor Gollancz, Professor Harold Laski (two leading representatives of English Jewry whose policy, in the light of Nazi antiSemitism, is inevitably influenced by racial resentment), and John Strachey, now widely known as Exponent Number One of British Communism.

The exact number of genuine Marxists in the Left Book Club cannot easily be estimated, since many Socialists loyal to the Labor Party belong to the movement owing to the educational value of its publications. British Communism has many of the same aims as British Socialism, but its strategy is entirely different. The Socialist believes that Socialism, particularly in a democratic country like Great Britain, can be achieved through the expanded framework of the Parliamentary system; the Communist holds that even in England it can come only as the result of violent revolution and the forcible overthrow of the propertied classes.

British Communists, whose chief adversaries are the patriotic militarists of Group I, fervently desire the ultimate abolition of war, but they believe that permanent peace will be attained only when the whole world has been transformed into a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Since international war is thought to serve this purpose by creating a revolutionary situation, pacifism is no part of present Communist policy. The chief service of the Communists to peace lies in their emphasis upon the economic causes of war, since these are liable to be overlooked by the average half-informed citizen who does not read such illuminating documents as the Van Zeeland Report.

The third large body of political opinion is derived from those who still stand by the League of Nations and ‘collective security.’ Ten years ago this group, whose members were and are still gathered within the now diminishing ranks of the League of Nations Union, represented in embryo a world of united law-observers who would combine in overwhelming numbers to restrain an aggressive disturber of the peace. Even in 1933 the supporters of the League included many real internationalists and pacifists, who regarded it as the finest example of peace machinery devised by the mind of man, and believed it — despite the warning lessons of Manchuria and the Disarmament Conference — to be still capable of use in the interests of a new international system.

During the past five years the gradual weakening of the League by the defection of various powers has changed it from the object of pacifist hopes into a Balance of Power alliance of the old type. Germany and the other defeated powers of the Great War have always regarded the League as the Allied instrument for maintaining an unjust status quo. Since the establishment under League auspices of the International Peace Campaign, with its insistence upon the ‘sanctity of treaties ’ even when these were the product of most unholy emotions, this is exactly what the League has become. The object of its supporters, like that of the supporters of the Balance of Power, the Holy Alliance, the Concert of Europe, and other similar historic expedients, is to gather a preponderance of power behind their own interpretation of ‘justice.’

A ‘punitive war’ waged on behalf of ‘the League’ would differ neither in character nor in results from the old punitive wars of an imperialist type, since ‘collective security’ is to-day no more than a sanctimonious name for an anti-German alliance, cherished by its upholders as a combination of the ‘ democratic’ powers (which so strangely include Russia) against ‘Fascist aggression.’ The pious talk prevalent a year or so ago about ‘a Franco-Soviet Pact supported by Great Britain to guarantee collective security through the League of Nations’ barely disguised the fact that this gilded angel of internationalism was merely the ghost of the Triple Entente sitting crowned upon the grave of the Covenant. To-day even Geneva enthusiasts have all but ceased to pretend that when they talk of ‘a League of peaceloving powers’ they mean anything but Britain, France, and Russia allied against Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Since they occupy an increasingly discredited position, the ‘pacifists’ of the League of Nations Union have recently lost many members both to the Communists, who still regard the League of Nations as a capitalist institution which Russia has joined merely as a strategic expedient, and to the genuine pacifists, who now perceive in ‘collective security’ one of the time-dishonored moral camouflages behind which the profiteers of power politics reassemble their forces. Many pacifists who for years supported the League of Nations in the belief that it was a genuine and hopeful experiment in internationalism suffered months of mental conflict when they discovered that their erstwhile colleagues were busily, if blindly, betraying the cause of peace. The failure of the League has at least taught them that they can never find a spiritual home amid the ‘compromise ’ policies of those who begin their campaign for ‘ peace’ by advocating war.

The exponents of present-day British pacifism are chiefly drawn from the Society of Friends, the survivors of the wartime conscientious objectors, and the men and women who were converted — like Siegfried Sassoon, Max Plowman, and Storm Jameson — to a belief in pacifism by their war experience. But the rank and file of the movement is largely composed of university students and young men and women in many businesses and professions, who are old enough to understand the political and economic lessons of the Great War, but too newly adult to have ever been deceived by the once plausible face of ‘ collective security.’

The organizations which have enlisted their support include the Friends Peace Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the numerous Anglican and Nonconformist Peace Fellowships, and the large and rapidly growing undenominational Peace Pledge Union, with its membership of 120,000, founded in 1936 by Canon H. R. L. Sheppard and George Lansbury. There is a peculiar significance in the fact that the Left Book Club and the Peace Pledge Union were started within a few weeks of each other by personalities whose response to the growing danger of the international situation took a diametrically opposite form. The first group made use of existing hatreds to foster the development of a particular ideology; the second took the view that hatred itself is an evil which can only lead to evil results.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, pacifist policy is based upon a belief, not in passivity before an aggressor, but in nonviolent resistance such as Gandhi has successfully carried out in his noncoöperation campaign in India, and the disarmed Germans maintained during the French invasion of the Ruhr. Its interpreters hold that unilateral disarmament, though admittedly perilous, is infinitely less dangerous than the provocative competition in armaments which has never led to anything but war. In their view, the world is divided, not into ‘virtuous’ and ‘wicked’ powers, but into possession-loving nations who will fight with equal ferocity either to defend the territory that they have already seized or to acquire that which they covet.

The members of the Peace Pledge Union, whose pledge requires their signature to the words ‘I renounce war, and never again will I support or sanction another,’ believe that ‘fighting Fascism’ by arms can only result in the imitation of its methods and the consequent downfall of democracy in the democratic countries which go to war. They advocate instead the abandonment of power politics in favor of sincere and constructive provisions designed to achieve social justice, and ‘to meet the economic requirements of the large masses of poverty-stricken people to be found in varying degree among all nations of the earth.’


The part likely to be played by British youth if this latest crisis leads to war depends upon the relative strength of these different groups. Their liability to permutations and combinations of outlook has been illustrated by a recently published Oxford symposium entitled Would I Fight? in which eleven contributors, all recently undergraduates, reveal not only their own diverse views, but the cross sections of opinion into which British youth is now divided. They agree only in being strongly humanitarian, clearly conscious of their international background, keenly perceptive of all forms of humbug, and unmitigatedly contemptuous of the Church of England for the inglorious ‘compromise’ which attempts to combine lip service to Christ with the championship of rearmament.

From other parts of the country comes evidence which endorses both the variety and (in some cases) the confusion of thought characteristic of these Oxford essayists.

‘I have never known young men so thoroughly international in spirit as these young men,’ writes a Manchester business man, the father of three sons between eighteen and twenty-five, whose work brings him closely into contact with the younger generation. ‘They have no prejudices against other nations and no hatreds; the idea of killing young men of other countries seems just “damned silly” to them. . . . They definitely think war is silly and bestial. It never enters their heads that they would not instantly respond to a call if war broke out — for they firmly assume that war could only come about by England being attacked. . . . Our pacifist young men have the ideas, but my group have virility and character — with an inadequate analysis of moral cause and effect.’

Farther north, the association of pacifism with nonvirility is no longer substantiated. In October 1937, when Canon Sheppard stood as pacifist candidate for the Rectorial election at Glasgow University, where the students are notoriously ‘tough’ and ‘Red,’ he was elected by a large majority over his three opponents, Winston Churchill, the left-wing Professor J. B. S. Haldane, and the Scottish Nationalist Professor Macneile Dixon. At the new Rectorial election in October, made necessary by Canon Sheppard’s tragic death a week after his success, the candidature of Mr. Laurence Housman, the famous playwright who has been a lifelong pacifist, will again test the sincerity of Scottish pacifism. If war by that time has actually come, or is obviously unavoidable, the test will be severe.

Unless England is attacked — a possibility definitely repudiated by Hitler’s final Nuremberg speech unless she herself chooses to enlarge the field of conflict — there will be little enthusiasm for war among the ‘under thirties,’ who agree with most of their elders that the collapse of European civilization is a somewhat disproportionate price to pay for Czechoslovakia’s possession of a strategic frontier. But if, as is more likely, the problem is magnified by war hysteria into a ‘League’ struggle to defend ‘collective security’ against ‘Fascist aggression,’ the influx of volunteers will probably be greater than the British Government could have hoped for at the time of the Oxford Resolution.

Nevertheless, the number who will refuse to fight is likely to be greater than in 1914. At the moment it is sufficient to overtax the resources of existing British prisons, and the twenty years’ background of deplorable error out of which the present catastrophe has arisen is unlikely to convert any serious pacifist to patriotic enthusiasm for a new attempt to save democracy at world cost.