AS the war widens the range of alternatives for the United States narrows. By his proclamation of a total emergency the President has recognized implicitly that war is imminent. By his assertion of determination to see that war material reaches Great Britain he foreshadows the possibility of at least a limited naval conflict. And he has suggested that America’s modern Bunker Hill may be fought thousands of miles away from Boston.
Hard and decisive choices are being forced upon other countries besides our own. The aged Marshal Pétain must weigh the immediate pressure of German land and air power against the potential might represented by Anglo-American sea power. The inscrutable Stalin in the Kremlin, by his recent assumption of the post of Premier, has very probably served notice that the sands are running out for his preferred policy of aloof fence-sitting while the ‘capitalist’ world destroys itself. The time may be very near when he must become a much more active partner of Hitler or fight. If Stalin is left any choice in the matter, it is safe to predict that he will prefer collaboration to a trial of strength between his much-purged Red Army and the Nazi Panzer Divisions.
In Tokyo there is a small group of brown men — generals, admirals, statesmen — who must also make difficult and fateful decisions. Behind an Oriental screen of group anonymity, of secret conferences, of ambiguous statements, the rulers of Japan are weighing the relative risks of implementing and evading their pact with the Axis. Some day there may well be the making of a dramatic historical scenario in reconstructing the scenes in which one nation after another made its choice of alternatives, for war or for peace, for involvement or abstention from a world war that carries strong overtones of a world revolution.
The approach to a war crisis always brings to the surface a vast amount of emotional froth. Sentimentality is mixed with sentiment, heat with light, sometimes in unequal proportions. What is perhaps most needed is a clear, balanced view of the world situation into which we are being precipitated, free from hysteria and from the exaggerations of optimism and pessimism that are so prevalent in periods of crisis.
It is possible to draw some lessons, general if not specific, from the tragic mistakes which brought France to its fall and England to the gravest ordeal in its history. Three capital blunders stand out in this recent record. The first of these was the passive acquiescence in German rearmament and in German remilitarization of the Rhineland, in violation of the Locarno Treaty. Both Czechoslovakia and Poland were militarily lost from the moment when Hitler was able to wall off his western frontier against invasion.
The second great blunder was the giving to Poland of guaranties of military support which there were no means of implementing. The consequences of this abrupt lurch from ‘appeasement’ to adventurism in British and French foreign policy were more disastrous than is generally realized.
Any possibility, however slight, of a compromise settlement of the Danzig and Corridor questions was ruled out. By promising to go to war on behalf of Poland — which, as events were to prove, they could not help — Great Britain and France canalized Hitler’s tide of aggression from an eastward into a westward channel. They played into the hands of Stalin, who had always desired a European war in which he would not participate. They also brought it to pass that the war, when it came, possessed the best propaganda buildup for the Germans and the minimum stimulus for the peoples of France and England. Nearly all Germans, even before Hitler came into power, believed they had a legitimate grievance in their eastern frontier. Very few British and French wished to die for Danzig.
The third cardinal blunder was to fight the war half-heartedly after the irrevocable decision to engage in it had been taken. During the quiet first eight months of the war there was nothing like a total mobilization of French and British national energies and resources. France only awakened from this lethargy when it was already too late. England rose to the full height of its moral and material power when its darkest hour had come, when it was compelled, as an island, to beat off the attacks which were backed by the resources of a continent.
In these mistakes there are certainly lessons for ourselves. There should be a clear recognition that wars are not won with words. There should be no reckless giving of assurances that cannot be fulfilled. There should be no humiliating fiascoes, no enterprises which fail for lack of proper appreciation of risks to be run and obstacles to be overcome.
If war proves to be America’s destiny it should be resorted to only on an issue where the government can be certain of an overwhelming support of public opinion. A deeply divided people will not pass the ordeal of modern war. Such a war will require efforts and sacrifices of which America’s present social, economic, and financial setup does not offer the faintest prevision.
For war cannot be won on a basis of limited liability. The successful prosecution of modern war excludes business as usual, pleasure as usual, strikes as usual. France and England and Canada can all afford us valuable object lessons. All began by giving too little. For France the ‘too little’ spelled ‘too late.’ And for England too the penalties of a slow start have been cruel.
One should not put on rose-colored spectacles to view the international situation. Full American intervention, should it come, will be attempted under conditions definitely less favorable than those of 1917.
At that time Germany, while still victorious on land, had been bled white of man power and reserves of food and raw materials. There was a stable front in France into which American troops and supplies could be fed at such a rate as to make ultimate victory almost a mathematical certainty. Japan was an ally, and the whole American Navy could cooperate with the British in checking the submarine threat. And submarine activity was less formidable because Germany did not hold the entire coast of Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees.
The present year is very different from 1917. Germany’s man power has scarcely been touched. The number of Germans killed in all the campaigns up to the present time is probably less than 100,000. France is knocked out and may be forced still further into at least passive coöperation with Germany. As for Italy and Japan, both members of the coalition which defeated Imperial Germany, the former is an active, the latter a passive, ally of the Third Reich.
We must face these facts and their implications, not in a spirit of defeatism, but in a spirit of realistic appraisal of the enormously greater effort and sacrifice which will, in all probability, be re quired of America if there is to be a total victory over the Nazi régime.
There are, of course, counterbalancing factors. The British and American navies together can still dominate that greater part of the world’s oceans where air power is not yet a serious threat to sea power. The industrial and natural resources of the two Americas and of the British Empire are well in excess of what Hitler controls now.
But the result of the Battle of France shows that it is dangerous to be complacent about potential resources. It is only the material that is transformed into fighting power on land, on sea, or in the air, that really counts.
Nothing is impossible in a world scene that has witnessed Rudolf Hess dropping from the skies and the amazing war of the elements in ancient Crete. But it would seem that, barring the desperate gamble of an attempted invasion of England, the war is deadlocked at the present time. And the deadlock is perhaps less easily soluble than the stalemate on the Western Front in 1918.
Bismarck once said that a war between England and Russia would be as absurd as a fight between an elephant and a whale, since neither combatant could get at the other. This same figure of speech might apply to the struggle between Hitler’s land empire and the British maritime empire. There can be campaigns in subsidiary theatres and competition in air destruction. But, always excepting the possibility of invasion of the British Isles, neither side would seem to stand much chance of giving the other a knockout blow. There is, of course, the possibility that if the German air and submarine threat should seem to outweigh for England the immediate prospect of American aid, the stage might be set for a compromise peace.
While Americans are thinking how they can help England win the war they should not neglect the problem of how humanity is to win the peace. One could almost call the last world conflict The War Nobody Won. For the true victors in that gigantic struggle were not the Kaiser or the Tsar, not Wilson or Lloyd George or Clemenceau. They were three men of whom one, now the most powerful, was totally unknown and the other two familiar only to small revolutionary circles. Their names were Adolf Hitler, Lenin, and Benito Mussolini.
We should never forget that the war is only a link in a long chain of chaotic transition from an old liberal civilization that has collapsed to a new civilization that is still struggling to be born. If any ordered stability in the international and internal relations of states is to be achieved, three problems of transcendent importance must be solved. The right of small peoples to cultural independence must be reconciled with those larger economic units which modern mass-production technique demands. Security against political aggression must be reconciled with provision for economic change and growth, and combined with more all-round equality of economic opportunity as between nations. And within the states the precious heritage of individual liberty must be harmonized with the insistent demand of the masses for economic security.
Perhaps these problems are as difficult as the Riddle of the Sphinx. But unless they are answered more satisfactorily than was the case during the aftermath of the last war, the downward course of our civilization, caught in an infernal cycle of war and revolution, will continue.