What We Fight For


DURING the last war a young reserve officer was called into active service and sent to Fort Meade, Maryland. His first assignment there turned out to be the supervision of several hundred conscientious objectors.

The men were, he found, among the most militant men in camp, and they objected so often and so conscientiously to so much that they were a great problem. Finally they refused to wait on table. In despair the young officer arranged a conference between the leader of the men and the mess sergeant, a soldier of an older school.

‘Let me tell you something,’ said the leader of the objectors, starting right in on the mess sergeant. ‘This is a capitalistic war.’

‘Yes,’ said the mess sergeant, who had heard this before. ‘Well, let me tell you something. It’s the only one we’ve got.’

That was a 1917 wisecrack. But, as we see it in 1941, it has a point that is serious. First, though, let us say that we are not proposing to speak for youth in numbers any more than we are proposing to speak for old age in numbers, and that we do not know anybody who knows anybody who has ever been interviewed by Dr. Gallup. Our ‘we’ is editorial.

We see that America is challenged. There are those who have told us that America is not challenged, and we have listened to them for a long time. We have listened to them since they dissuaded the United States Senate from ratifying the Covenant of the League of Nations. We still listen to them as we have always listened to them, attentively, because the story they have for us is a story we like to hear.

But we no longer believe them. We have looked at the map and the record and we have judged for ourselves. We have found that the policy of American isolation is as hollow as the ring of the voices that still cry for it. They are oldguard voices and they are fighting a rearguard action. They tell old wives’ tales. We have learned, whether by our will or against it, that we are living not alone in a country but together in a world — that, whatever may be the matter with the world, it is our matter, and it is our matter now.

We have then been told, after it has been admitted that we are in ‘the most desperate crisis this country has ever known,’ that we are facing such a crisis without faith.

We do not believe this either. And we say that those who call us faithless would not see the kind of faith they are looking for if they waited until an enemy bombed Kansas City. We say this because the kind of faith they are looking for is not the kind of faith we have.

We have no fanatical, wild-eyed faith — no panacea, no total, complete goal. We have no faith that can be spread by the armored division and the dive bomber. We have no signs telling ten-year-old boys at camps that they were born to die for their country. We do not even have any of those camps. Tomorrow we do not rule the world.

Perhaps we should not use the word ‘faith’ for what we have. Certainly it cannot be expressed by any one word — least of all by any one word with an ‘ism’ on the end of it. Even the word ‘Americanism,’ if it means anything, means something we do not want too much of. And if we must have slogans we wilt not say ‘Strength through Joy’ — we would rather sing ‘Yes, we have no bananas.’

There is, though, an idea in America. It is a very simple and undramatic idea. It is an idea that cannot be spread by force because it has nothing to do with fear. It is an idea that plain, ordinary people, free people, — not one group of them or two groups of them or any number of groups of them, but all of them, — giving to their majority the right, to say ‘yes’ and their minority the right to say ‘no’ — that these people can in time and with tolerance work out for themselves a better government than has ever been worked out for any people in any country. That idea is what we have.


What we have is, in fact, something so simple and undramatic that it can easily be taken for granted. And when it is challenged — and it is exactly what is now being challenged — there are those who wonder what it is. Perhaps, in the face of every example before us, there will be those who will go on wondering what it is until they have lost it — and then, when it is later than they thought and too late, they will know what it was.

This could happen, and if so the responsibility will not lie with the old order or the new order over there, or the old deal or the new deal over here — it will lie with those who called themselves Americans but who went on wondering what our idea was and wanting a faith to fight for.

These people have sat back until they cannot stand up. They have forgotten there was a time when there were things no one could buy. They had been used to everything for so long that nothing they had was worth anything to them. First they lost most of their money, and then they lost all of their values.

Since the depression they have built up a new mental attitude — a ‘won’t’ power. It is an attitude of getting good at getting out. Theirs is a reasoning that leads only to passive conclusions, a reasoning that moves only to negative ends. They ‘so-what’ this and they ‘what’s-in-it’ that. They are so submerged in self that they are no longer among us.

It is not. difficult to urge such people to public service — it is impossible. They look at patriotism and they see only jingoism. They have come to regard a man’s love of country as a barometer of his ignorance. They are the smart people, the people they know are the right people, and what they know it is clever to know.

They are of no use now, but they are not traitors. They are a real fifth column only in the sense that a road streaming with refugees is a fifth column. They get in the way.

These people too might have said, as we have read, ‘There is no more martial spirit ... in the men who will have to fight if we go to war than there is in a turtle.’

We do not think that these people would know much about this — the spirit and the fighting. We do not see anything so peculiar about a man’s not wanting to kill and about a man’s not wanting to die. Fighting — even mechanical fighting — is not very clean and it is not very fair. It is no fun.

But the men who will fight are young men. They are plain, ordinary, free young men — men who cannot afford ‘won’t’ power. They have been told for many long years that there would never be a need for fighting, and even now, with hundreds of thousands of them in training camps, they continue to be told so by those who one short year ago told them there would never be a need for training.

And young men forget, as children forget, when the things they are told are not the things they see.


Now, as little as we may have wanted the last war, we wanted this war less. Our case came up for trial before we were prepared to take the stand.

For we had started here on something that was new. We had been, through several busy years, engaged in a great housecleaning. And, through these same several busy years, there had arisen on the continent of Europe something that was also new. It was a power which, in our terms, was a power conceived in hate and dedicated to an order of slavery. It was what we hoped had perished from the earth.

Then, as we watched, this power spread itself by force into one country after another, into fourteen capitals of the world. The houses of our neighbors were on fire, and where that fire was being fought the forces that were fighting it were being consumed.

We saw big houses which were divided and which fell because they could not unite among themselves, and we saw small houses which were united but which fell because they could not unite with each other. That fire was spreading to our house.

So, when we had seen enough, in the same way as we had debated and decided how best to do our housecleaning we debated and decided how best to fight that fire.

We have put down our brooms and we have picked up our guns.

There are many of us who will be fighting for what is to come after. There are some of us who will be fighting in order that the one positive good to come out of the last war — the League of Nations — may come again. There are some of us who will be fighting for Mr. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms or for Mr. Streit’s Union Now or for Mr. Luce’s American World. And there are some who wall be fighting so that small nations may live again.

There are, in all, many of us who will be fighting for those things. But there are absolutely all of us who will be fighting for what we have not lost here and what we wall always fight for.