Where Do You Stand?

An open letter to American undergraduates


During the last six months something has been happening on the campus that many of us who graduated twenty five or thirty years ago cannot understand. You may not be startled by this discovery, but I assure you that we are, since we have always prided ourselves on being able to understand you a good deal better than our parents ever understood us. We like to feel that we are more flexible and more tolerant. We admit that you are more inquisitive about the world than we were, that you have read more widely, and that socially you are far more mature. Incidentally, I wonder if you realize what gallant efforts we have made to get your point of view. And why not? The important thing is to keep the line of communications open between the two generations, and that is what we have tried to do. It has not always been easy. Superficially you may appear more demonstrative than we were. Actually you are like Cordelia in that you 'cannot heave your heart into your mouth,' and, like Cordelia too, you are sometimes dreadfully obstinate. At least we think so. You call it looking at things objectively.

Please don't think that I am drawing up an indictment against you. Obviously one cannot indict a whole generation any more than one can a whole country. There must be infinite shades of opinion among you, as indeed there are among us. Still I think that most of you feel very differently about the war than we do. By 'we' I mean those of us who fought in the last war. We are baffled by your attitude. You think us sentimental, we think that you are unimaginative and cold blooded—not all of you by any means, but apparently the majority.

To be specific, we want to know why it is that the undergraduates of Dartmouth, Cornell, Harvard, Yale, and other colleges as well, have petitioned the President not to intervene in Europe. Youth is traditionally impulsive, generous, and idealistic. How do these qualities display themselves in the college press?

The Daily Dartmouth warns its readers against the dangers of helping Finland. 'Contributing funds to Finland means shutting our ears to the other side, means swinging our emotions solidly to the side which may not have all the right . . . it means falling in with British and French propaganda, sending money, money not just for relief but for arms, perhaps eventually sending volunteers.' The Harvard Crimson, 'frankly determined to have peace at any price,' raps Presidents Conant and Seymour over the knuckles for having spoken 'so soon and so early the words that may send to destruction the lives in their charge.' Bishop Lawrence's expression of sympathy for the Allies is roundly denounced as 'warmongering.' The German rape of Belgium and Holland inspires 300 Harvard undergraduates to tell President Roosevelt in a petition dated May 15, 1940, that 'never under any circumstances will they follow in the footsteps of the students of 1917.'

At Cornell the American Student Union exercises its ingenuity by constructing a cardboard tank six feet high, topped by a dummy turret and gun, which is sent to the White House with the inscription, 'Dear President Roosevelt keep America out of war,' painted on its side. The Yale News surveys the conflict in Europe with Olympian detachment and on September 29, 1939, finds that 'there is no preponderance of good or evil on either side.' Nor does the Nazi invasion of Norway, Belgium, and Holland appear to have altered that conviction among the students at large. At the end of May, when Hitler's armies were crashing through to Paris, a self styled Christian committee of Yale undergraduates secured 1486 signatures to a petition to the President urging among other things that 'this country should grant no credits, give no supplies, and send no men.' It is true that a counter petition was set in motion the next day protesting against the isolationist poll and urging that 'the United States extend credits and send supplies to the Allies wherever such assistance is needed immediately,' and it is also true that a certain number of undergraduates who signed the first petition in favor of isolation cheerfully signed the second petition against it; but even so, only 700 went on record as being in favor of helping the Allies. With more time the examination schedule interfered with the second poll—another hundred names might have been added, but no juggling with figures can alter the fact that the average student is not sympathetic to the cause of the Allies.

We find this flow of student petitions to the White House pleading for a purely negative attitude in foreign affairs very difficult to square with the notions of idealism we associate with you. A lawschool student who is deeply interested in European affairs writes to Life, 'I hope desperately that England and France can win this war,' and in the next breath he adds, 'We feel that this country should extend no further aid to the Allied governments beyond what they can buy with the many billions in cash and credits that they now have over here,' In other words, he wants to see Hitler stopped, but he prefers someone else to do the job, and he is not going to lift a finger to help. What sort of idealism is that?

Some of you, no doubt, are Christian pacifists, and I think you will find that even the people you accuse of being warmongers respect your opinions. Unfortunately a good many students have rallied under your banner who don't belong there. The man who is inspired by hysterical timidity, and so refuses to send aid to Europe in case he should become involved, has no right to call himself a conscientious objector. He is an objector, all right, but his conscience has nothing to do with it. The true religious pacifist is a lion of courage, because, though he cannot bring himself to take another man's life, he is always willing to risk his own in die relief of suffering.

A few of you, but I think only a very few, are actually hoping for a German victory. More than a few admire Hitler tremendously. You can't help it. You have been taught to admire success whether it be in the realm of athletics, business, social life, or politics, and Hitler is the greatest exponent of success the modern world has ever seen. In the midst of your admiration just remember what William James said about the danger besetting America, 'the danger of moral flabbiness born of an exclusive worship of the bitch goddess Success.' Only on the plea of success worship can I understand why you are so very ready to condone the crimes of Germany.

Let me give you an example. The day after the Altmark incident, when the rest of the civilized world was chuckling over the rescue of British prisoners, the Yale News came out with a flaming indictment of Great Britain's breach of international law. Righteous indignation is not a popular weapon in campus journalism, but here for once the editors let themselves go. The law had been flouted, and the Yale News was not going to stand for it. Had there been any similar outburst over the German sinking of neutral ships? There had not. The fact that hundreds of neutrals had lost their lives through German action did not seem to the News worthy of editorial comment. Whether or not a belligerent is justified in using the coastal waters of a neutral for the transfer of prisoners I do not pretend to know. International lawyers are not agreed on the subject, but it is significant that the campus wiseacres jumped to the conclusion that Great Britain must be the guilty party, not Germany.

An undergraduate explained to me that it would be a great mistake to infer from editorials of this kind that student opinion as a whole was pro Nazi. The argument seems to be that the worst fate that could befall America would be to become involved in the war. If we should go to war it would certainly be upon the Allied side. Therefore you feel it is your duty to blackguard the Allies upon every possible occasion and to soft pedal the considered brutality of Germany. That explanation does not seem to us to be worthy of your heart or even of that brilliant young surgeon, your mind. Great Britain and France have learned to their cost that fear of war is no basis for a national policy, but, while you are very ready to criticize the tragically inept diplomacy of Chamberlain and Daladier, you seem to us to be heading in exactly the same direction.

Let us have a look at this isolationism which you cling to so fervently. You say that you are ready to defend America if and when we are attacked, but that that is not likely to happen, and that in the meantime America's opportunity lies in remaining completely apart. Someone has told you that we were hoodwinked into the last war by a stealthy combination of munitions makers, Wall Street magnates, and British propaganda. You have read a lot of books on the subject, including Walter Millis's Road to War, which you say has made 'a profound impression' upon you. You are absolutely convinced, on the basis of a pleasant trip through Bavaria last summer, that the Germans are a nice people and you can't imagine wanting to fight them. Anyway, it is all Chamberlain's fault for embarking on that ridiculous policy of appeasement. You say that we did not get excited about Ethiopia and Czechoslovakia, so why should you get excited about the fate of Norway, Holland, and Belgium?

I think you will recognize these arguments as old familiar friends in campus discussion. Are you satisfied with them? I am not, and I cannot believe that you are either. Nor can I believe that Colonel Lindbergh reflects your sentiments. Lindbergh recoils from the idea of sending aid to the Allies as that might ultimately involve us in war. His policy is much simpler. 'We insist upon military bases being placed wherever they are needed for our safety, regardless of who 0owns the territory involved.' In other words, he advocates our following the German example in Norway. Ignore the independence of weaker countries and take what you must have for defense. That is the inevitable conclusion to Colonel Lindbergh's 'realism.'

Since the subjugation of the Low Countries and then France, a good many people have changed their minds about the issues of this war. History has become a kaleidoscopic process in which the isolationist of yesterday reappears as the interventionist of today. If you are morally bewildered by the war, you are certainly in good company, for you have with you most of the Presidential candidates, but I am surprised that your bewilderment and mine spring from such very different sources. You are disgusted more than our generation realizes by any sort of moral appeal. I am disgusted by any appeal that is not founded on morality. In the last few years we have all heard of the timid souls who look under the bed every night to make sure that a Communist is not lurking there. I believe that you look under the bed every night for propaganda. Though you pride yourself on being able to recognize it under any disguise, there is nothing that you dread so much. The fact that the last war or, to be more exact, the last peace did not make the world safe for democracy has proved to you the terrible fallacy of all idealism. Any expression of patriotism makes you back away into your corner. It is immediately suspect as an incentive to war. Forgive me if I have mistaken your position, but your distrust of ideals frightens me. It frightens me because, if it is true, it is our fault even more than it is yours. Our teaching, or at least the emphasis in our teaching, must have been all wrong. If we have made you think that there is no problem in life which cannot be solved by a rationally objective approach, then we are guilty, like Saul, of having played the fool and erred exceedingly.

I could sympathize with you in your present dilemma if you were merely shying away from the principle of supporting the Allies up to the hilt and still insisting on our neutrality. To sell ships to a junk dealer for resale to the Allies, to fly planes up to the Canadian border and then have them dragged across the line, may well strike you as a ridiculous travesty of neutrality. It is, but your objections to this policy do not seem to me very impressive. You complain that it is dangerous; I complain that it is equivocal. Our present conception of neutrality leaves us in the difficult position of the Irishman who admitted that he was neutral, and then, feeling vaguely dissatisfied, inquired of his Government, 'but neutral against whom?'

Judging by your college papers, I can't see that your pacifism is founded on any rock of principle. If you take the Quaker stand, then I have the greatest respect for you, though after reading what Lincoln said to the Quakers their position seems to me untenable. 'Your people, the Friends, have had, and are having a very great trial. On principle and faith opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma some have chosen one horn, and some the other.' No conscientious objector has ever explained to me how, assuming that Hitler is the aggressor, he can escape this dilemma. But most of you, by your own admission, are not conscientious objectors. Whatever objections you may have are economic and political rather than moral. I picture you hovering on the sidelines, some of you inclined to cheer for the Allies, but most of you still contemplating the tragedy of Europe as something interesting but remote. You seem to me to be suffering from a sluggish imagination and arrested skepticism. You have arrived at the conclusion that war is heartrending and horrible. and there you have stopped. The further conclusion that there is something noble in defying horror and in enduring the rending of the heart has apparently escaped you.

Germany has been successful in this war up to date not only because of her numbers, her mechanized divisions, and her powers of organization, but because she has imbued her people with an ideal, however perverted that ideal may be from our point of view. The threat of a Nazi controlled universe cannot be met by a philosophy of meaninglessness, nor can it be met by insisting at this hour on our individual right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The democracies have paid lip service to their ideals, but since the signing of the Armistice in 1918 we have not been willing to sacrifice anything for them. As Basil Gildersleeve, one of the most lovable as well as one of the greatest scholars America has produced, expressed it in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly nearly fifty years ago: 'Counting the cost is in things temporal the only wise course, as in the building of a tower, but there are times in the life of an individual, of a people, when the things that are eternal force themselves into the calculation, and the abacus is nowhere. "Neither count I my life dear unto myself" is a sentiment that does not enter into the domain of statistics.'

Students and professors are sometimes accused of leading a cloistered existence comfortably removed from the dust and heat of everyday life. There may be some truth in that accusation, but let us remember that in the Dark Ages it was in the cloisters rather than in the market places that the flame of the spirit was kept alive. How is it faring today at Harvard and Yale, at Dartmouth and at Cornell? Are you determined to use your education merely to get a good job, marry and settle down, in ordinary times that would be the natural aspiration, or are some of you chafing to defend the rights of the spirit in a rapidly materializing world? Unless you are, the shadow of Hitlerism is likely to darken the world for a long time to come.

For myself, I can see only two possible avenues of conduct. Either I must learn the technique of nonresistance, which implies accepting a Nazi-dominated universe, or I must gird up my loins and prepare to fight. It is not a pleasant choice. I am not a knight-errant by nature, and I hate the dirt, discomfort, and danger of war. On the other hand, I cannot suddenly acquire the Oriental passivity that the policy of nonresistance involves. You may say there is still another alternative that I have not considered. I can go about my business, forget about Hitler, and hope for the best.

My dear man, I have done a lot of hoping in the last few years. I hoped that the Chamberlain policy of appeasement would work, I hoped that Germany would be satisfied with Czechoslovakia, that the Maginot Line would prove impregnable, and that the Swastika would never fly over Paris. My capacity for pure, undiluted hope is finally exhausted. If the way of life which we have evolved in America is worth preserving, and we have taken it for granted for so long that we forget how much we love it, I believe we shall have to do something besides hope for victory and sell secondhand ships to Great Britain on a strictly cash basis. I believe that, much as we hate war, we shall have to fight, and the sooner we get ready for it, the better.