We Stand Here

Two Yale students defend their isolationism.

Students gather at an anti-war demonstration at Yale's sister institution, Vassar College, in 1936 (AP)

In his Open Letter to American Undergraduates which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for August, Mr. Arnold Whitridge voiced his indignation and consternation that so many younger citizens should oppose American intervention in Europe. This is a sentiment with which we have become very familiar in the last few months. We heard it at commencement time, we have read it in irate letters from prominent alumni, and we have seen it on the editorial pages of Eastern newspapers. But our efforts to weather this storm of protest have been reenforced by the knowledge that for once we of the ivied walls and cloistered walks are in agreement with the great majority of Americans of all ages. In fact, we cannot see why Mr. Whitridge has challenged the loyalty and faith of undergraduates while he has not questioned the ideals or courage of his contemporary opponents, from Herbert Hoover to John L. Lewis. However, since he has been gracious enough to clothe his indictment in question form, he should be answered; though it is just as impossible for us to speak for all those who would have to fight this war as it is for Mr. Whitridge to represent all those who fought the last one.

As Mr. Whitridge has noted, people of our age are reluctant to parade their ideals in public. This is partly so because we know the inadequacy of words and have seen righteous phrases so often used to hide selfish expediency or to misguide sincerity. Also, we took it for granted that our ideals were part of a faith common to all Americans, and we still think so. But if we are asked 'Where do you stand?' we cannot reply without trying first to make clear the beliefs underlying our position.

The basis of these beliefs, and presumably of Mr. Whitridge's, is a regard for the value of human beings and a respect for their inherent dignity. For all the impersonality and standardization of our time, we believe that individuals have an intrinsic importance which transcends their wealth, their physical value, or their usefulness to us. In short, we think that man is an end in himself. The rest of our political and social ideals are built on this estimate of the individual. We care about those ways and forms which give people the greatest scope for their full development. Specifically, we believe in the concept of freedom because it allows each person to realize his own particular potentialities. We believe in the institution of Democracy because it permits all to take part in shaping the common destiny.

Almost everywhere now except on this continent these beliefs are abstract ideals only, if they are allowed to be thought of at all. Because we are citizens of the United States, they are more than that for us. Our nation is the only one which has been dedicated to these ideals from its origin. Ours is the only nation whose entire population is made up of people who are citizens because they or their ancestors repudiated hate and oppression in order to live by these principles. And thanks to our size and resources we come nearest to being nationally self reliant. Therefore, while we know that these ideals have not been fully realized for millions of Americans, still we are more aware than ever before that we have a better chance of achieving them here than anywhere else. This conviction, as well as our natural allegiance, compels us to put the United States first in our loyalties.

We acknowledge the challenge to defend America in the Americas as the test of our patriotism and courage. But we can by no standard accept the defense of England as the automatic measure of our loyalty to American ideals. The cause of one's own country comes before that of another. We do not condemn Englishmen for feeling the same way in the case of Ethiopia, China, or Spain, but we do claim that same right to put allegiance to our own nation above all else. Mr. Whitridge's conclusion that this means we 'have no sympathy for the Allies' or 'condone the crimes of Germany' is unfounded. It would be just as unfair for us to conclude from Mr. Whitridge's interventionist stand that he cared more for England than for his own country. Such casuistry and acrimony seem to us as unworthy as they are unjust.

Just as our allegiance to our own country comes before our sympathy for Britain, so too our idealism does not permit us to betray the principles themselves merely for the thrill in what Mr. Whitridge calls 'defying horror and in enduring the rending of the heart.' In simpler terms, we reject the glorification of war in itself. Perhaps there lies the greatest difference between us and our German contemporaries, whose highest ideal is Blut und Ehre. We will not fight just for the sake of fighting; but convince that war is the best means of serving our American ideals and we will follow anywhere.

Here, essentially, is the question at issue: Can we best preserve our American can ideals by entering the war abroad? Those who insist that the issue is one of difference of faith and degree of courage are avoiding the question. Those who condemn the use of reason and historic experience as 'arrested skepticism' are merely hindering us from arriving at the right answer.

Whatever the answer, the prospect is not pleasant. On the one hand there are the consequences of total war. On the other we are faced with the consequences of German victory in Europe. And just as no one can claim that his answer holds a pleasant promise, so nobody can pretend to know with any certainty what may happen in either case. The situation holds too many imponderables to allow anyone to set himself up as an omniscient prophet. We can rely only on our own interpretation of the present and our estimate of future probabilities.

Weighing the alternatives in the light of what little we have to go on, we hold that there is a greater chance of maintaining our American ideals by refraining from active participation in the war abroad. Intervention has from the outset seemed to us a fantastic military proposition. For immediate action we have nothing to fight with which would substantially alter the European situation. By the time we could be ready for effective action, war against Germany would mean an attempt to conquer a whole continent dominated by a nation whose entire stock of men and material has been organized for military ends for the past seven years. We should be committed to a transoceanic war of aggression with no end in sight.

And what of the things we should be fighting for? Democracy and freedom would obviously have to be scuttled. That would not matter so much if there were some prospect of their restoration after the war. But even if we had the promise of the men in power, conditions would make the return of democracy impossible. We have not yet recovered from the scars left by our last effort abroad, little as it was in comparison with the demands of victory under present circumstances. We see no hope for believing that the gigantic task of national demobilization and reconstruction after a prolonged total war could be accomplished, if at all, by democratic scans.

And most of all, intervention seems to us a fantastic moral proposition. The lesson of the last war writes too plainly the fact that out of the devastation and hatred of wholesale war does not come any promise of a fair peace or a lasting order. What is there to lead us to believe that, even if we were victorious, we should not have to face the resurgence of old prejudices and the creation of new ones beyond our understanding and control, all of which would mean another war in a generation or two? The basis of all our beliefs the respect for the inherent value and dignity of the individual would be lost the world over in the impersonal brutality of war.

The alternative, we admit, is not pleasant to contemplate. If we do not light now and Germany is victorious, it means that we shall be stripped of our outposts in Europe and shall probably have to withdraw from the Far East. It means that we shall not be able to count on the British fleet. In short, we shall be left alone without support outside of this hemisphere. Even here our job will be made more difficult, for a cartelized Europe would be able to offer more trade to South America than we could. By the very nature of the situation, we should have to rely on ourselves alone for our survival.

Yet we choose this course of nonintervention. We take our stand here on this side of the Atlantic, precarious as it is, because at least it offers a chance for the maintenance of all the things we care about in America, while war abroad would mean their certain extinction. We would not say that there is a good chance merely that there is a greater chance of preserving American democracy by keeping out of war. Even if you dismiss the possibility that Germany would not want to dominate us, all is not lost. We have the moral advantage of the defensive position. We have the superior strength of resources undrained by the demands of total warfare.

Our stand here does not mean a submission to 'the technique of nonresistance, which implies accepting a Nazi-dominated universe.' Rather we insist that America make itself strong enough to repulse any invader who might attack. It may be that our youth gives us an unreasonable faith in what America can do. But when we see all that man has achieved in science and industry for private gain alone, we have grounds for believing that America can save itself by calling upon the tremendous material resources and human genius for production which have made this nation the industrial leader of the world. Of course, national defense cannot be a money making proposition. Similarly we cannot count on cooperation in South America without giving up the advantages of economic imperialism. And perhaps most difficult of all is the task of renewing faith in our ideals by making them real to more people. It cannot be done by mere words; it cannot be done by a national witch hunt in the name of Americanism. It can only be done by making democracy work. If we fail in this, we cannot hope to meet the Nazi strategy of 'divide and conquer.' We do not say we will do all this, we merely say that we can. Even then there is no guarantee of security. But we choose this effort and this risk, for in them we see the only possibility of preserving what now is in the most real sense 'this last best hope on earth.'

We are young. In the light of a greater inspiration or a higher wisdom we are ready to change our ideals or our conclusions. But we shall be shamed out of neither.