I HEAR Australians singing. Their voices come to me across deserts and oceans, borne upon wings swifter than the light. They are singing in Cyrenaica; debarking with song at Singapore. I hear them amid the noises of city streets, in my bed at midnight awakening. Nothing can come between us because we need nothing for our communication. This is a music that static cannot distort, nor the jamming apparatus of the enemy hinder. I hear Australians singing from the ends of the earth. Their voices come to me steady and clear and loud.
The English, too, are singing. They are dying, their homes are smashed to rubble, but they are singing. Theirs is a song so calm, so full of certainties, that no man who loves the high heart can listen without being moved as English voices are lifted in ‘There’ll Always Be An England.’ Always, mind you.
Men whistle in the dark to keep up their courage, but they sing when they are happy, at peace with themselves, and with the world. But can men be at peace with themselves in the midst of carnage and tears? England gives answer. On the first day of war — far away and long ago on September 3, 1939 — Winston Churchill said to his countrymen: ‘Outside the storms of war may blow and the land may be lashed with the fury of its gales, but in our hearts this Sunday morning there is Peace.’
One asks: ‘Is this a Peace that passes our understanding?’
Here in the United States we are not at war; our cup runneth over with butter.
But we are not at Peace. We do not sing. Is it because we are coming so dilatorily to the aid of those who have been fighting our battles as well as their own, and fearful lest our aid arrive too late to save ourselves? Is it that, although like has been calling to like, brother to brother, Christian to Christian, and slave to freedman, this nation, free and Christian, has turned its head away only to be jolted out of its sleep by voices that enter through no sentient ear? Is it that we have been weighing the martyrdom of man against cash, securities, and lend-lease? That the descendants of those who dreamed upon this continent a world-transforming dream and created an earth-reverberating poem are frightened lest the dream dissolve and the poem be lost beyond recapture? Or that we feel creeping upon us an icy loneliness — the loneliness of a people upon an island with empty oceans lapping our shores and the world beyond sunk in barbarism, a world more remote than China was from Europe when Marco Polo went out from Venice?
Look at us. While the world — ours as well as the other fellow’s, if you grant the brotherhood of man — is consumed by such obscene cruelties that the imagination mercifully reels, we blow thin drafts of words down the necks of one another. Mr. Henry Ford bids us supply Nazis and English with weapons so that they may both be destroyed — ‘then the United States can play the rôle for which it has the strength and the ability.’ The rôle, that is, of cosmic undertaker and ghoul prowling amid the ruins of Europe. This is the terrible idea of our greatest industrialist. It is shared with him to the full by Josef Stalin. Mr. Charles Lindbergh, saying a plague on both your houses, suggests we abandon the world to Hitler and the Japanese while we live safely in a sterile desert. Then there are the Committees. Touch an American these days and he proliferates into a Committee, For example, there is the America First Committee. First in what? In humanitarianism? In generosity? In far-ranging wisdom? Testifying a short while ago before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, General R. E. Wood, of the America First group, said he didn’t like to cast aspersions but he felt that possibly the British had not revealed to us their true money posit ion. Maybe they have got a few more dollars. Maybe we can get them. There never yet was a gold sovereign, however stained with blood, which could not be washed and made as shiny and as spendable as ever.
In the land and in the Congress, talk winds its weary length. Every sonorous period of the ‘statesmen’ — politicians who utter guaranteed-for-ten-days platitudes — reverberates in millions of homes. (When Andrew Jackson couldn’t get satisfaction in a controversy with France, he ordered the Navy made ready. Settlement soon followed.) Isolationist Senators promise us security. What if it is the security of a grainelevator mouse lying beneath piles of barley encased in cement and guarded by soldiers? It’s security, isn’t it, even if on a rodent level?
The interventionist Senators, on the other hand, do us a greater wrong and understand us less than the isolationists. They are bewildering us with a slogan at once metaphysical and narcotic: ‘All aid to Britain short of war.’ This phrase has so many possible meanings that nobody can know what it means. At what point do we go ‘short of war’? When the British are licked ? Then if, as the interventionist Senators postulate, British survival is essential to our survival as a free people, are we to aid the British up to the point when they have been defeated, or shall we, by war if necessary, keep them from being defeated? As it stands the whole concept, it seems to me, has more than a touch of Mussolini in it, and almost anything that he touches, we now know, turns into a retreat. It was his bright idea to pitch in when the enemy had been licked. It is our idea apparently — going II Duce one better — to lick the enemy by staying out of war completely. But if the worst comes to the worst and we must fight, then we shall fight for two things: first, for selfpreservation; second, to keep world markets open for American mouthwash, canned grapefruit, wallpaper, and other things.
Now all this, I submit, is sordid. Worse, it is anæsthetic and defeatist. Still worse, it violates the American soul. If it be said that self-preservation is a basic law of life, it is a law that applies to animals as well as to men. A rat, a rabbit, a snake, will fight when cornered. Such action is reflex, involuntary, instinctive. Man presents a different case. He too wall fight when cornered. But in man the refusal to fight save in self-defense may be not only profoundly immoral but morally catastrophic. For man is a willing and purposeful creature. He can make his world. He can lift up his eyes to the hills and achieve the summits. Sometimes he decrees golden domes to arise upon the flat plains of his existence. And whenever he has done so he has been at peace with himself and approached a little nearer to the angels. Morality, moreover, — despite the cynics, — pays. But immorality must be paid for.
The truth of this, and the meaning of these words as they are used here, may be illuminated by well-known facts. The British and French tories, isolationists, and ‘practical’ men shamelessly, and against all their plighted words both to the nations involved and to the League of Nations, abandoned the Chinese, the Ethiopians, the Austrians, the Czechs, the loyalist Spaniards. Those abandoned have shed blood, wept, and been enslaved. But the French too have wept, shed blood, and been enslaved, while Britain struggles for her life. Saving these peoples in the name of humanity, the British and the French would have saved themselves. Long ago it was written: What I gave, I have.
Such arguments, I am told, are sentimental. One must appeal now to men’s minds, but not their hearts, for we have belatedly become a logical people. Logic is a coat that we do not wear well. We are awkward and constrained within it like a yokel dressed for a fashionable ball. An illogical people, we are at our best when we are illogical, for then we are most ourselves. We are the only nation that personified, on the day of its birth, a spiritual, social, and political Brotherhood of Man. We laid down as a fundamental right of Americans — right, mind you — the pursuit of happiness. This is not logic, but flaming, star-reaching idealism. We continue to this day to be a feeling rather than a thinking people; intelligent but non-intellectual; earthy for all that we are now largely urban; and poetical despite our seeming toughness — poetical in the sense that we arrive at truth, as do the poets, without going through a tortuous process of ratiocination. That is why the people, in the recent crises, have been so far ahead of the Congress.
And the world’s most illogical people — the English? When Mr. Churchill became Prime Minister, what did he promise his people? ‘Blood and sweat and tears.’
Logical? Hardly. Yet Churchill’s people have followed him into the valley of the shadow of death exalted by his eloquence and his vision. Would anyone deny that the Prime Minister’s phrases as they go winging around the earth, touching the peaks of men’s souls with light, are worth a squadron of battleships to his country? Yet they are not the cold words of the logician, nor the calculating words of the trader, but the symbols of a poet who stirs the comprehending heart. Little wonder that the Australians are singing at Cyrenaica and debarking with song at Singapore, while I, transiently in a Boston hotel room, hear them and am moved. There is a day, there is an hour, there is a minute when — we know not how — the flesh is made whole.
Logic will not stir us. We ask for bread, and our leaders give us a stone. Let them remember that there is in this land a fierce alchemy which can transmute base metal into gold, the dull jewel into the living light, the agate eye into the piercing vision. There is something to fight for. There is something, I believe, for which Americans will fight: our soul’s repose, and a world made in our own splendid image. Walt Whitman, most American of American poets, knew us better than our Congressmen: —
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot
have their counterpart of on the same terms.