Beware the Aftermath

IN the last year of the first World War a friend who had a very gallant son at the front said to me that the young men had attained such an exaltation of spirit as to make them live on a plane higher than we had done. I am afraid it shocked him terribly when I remarked that, on the contrary, this war would be followed by an era of materialism. To a meeting of clergymen the same statement was later made, with the suggestion that the churches should be prepared to meet the condition. Of course they did not believe it, and yet there was historic evidence from modern wars to make it seem probable.1 The struggle with Napoleon postponed political reform in England for a generation, and the years that followed were marked by the worst abuses of the factory system. In France under the Restoration men’s interest turned to amassing wealth; while in central Europe the Holy Alliance repressed all liberal aspirations until they gathered force enough for an explosion. At the close of the American Civil War there were many young men who felt that, having abolished slavery, we were in a position to attack and solve all other vexed questions in our public and social life; but the most conspicuous event was the Tweed Ring.

Few people will now deny that the prophecy of a material age to follow the war was in part, at least, correct; that there was a tendency among the victorious nations to consider their own interests, to return to what President Harding called normalcy, as contrasted with the ideas of international loyalty, security, and mutual help so much talked of during the war. This was neither unnatural nor altogether wrong, but surely must be taken into account by people who aspire to reform the world, and if so they should consider the meaning, the extent, and the causes of such a revulsion in feeling after the close of a great war.

Unlike the armies of earlier times, composed mainly of professional troops or semi-professional feudal levies, modern armies consist essentially of conscripts drawn from the whole community, whose occupation in life is very seriously impaired by any war that lasts more than a year; and this is not only true of the workingman, but often even more so of the professional, who finds it very hard to pick up the threads he has dropped. He feels that he has not only sacrificed his comfort and his work, with his risk of life, but also endangered his career; and this he rightly thinks he is entitled to take up again as soon as his service is over. He does so believing that it needs his first, his chief, if not his undivided attention, and so he often returns to his occupation leaving other matters aside.

Another cause, not less weighty because less measurable, is moral fatigue. Of emotional, as of physical, exertion it is true that when it is over, when the stimulus is removed, the attention becomes wearied and turns to something else, occasionally to a feeling of a wholly different kind. I recall asking an artist many years ago how Michael Angelo, after creating the beautiful figure of the refined slave in the Louvre, could have carved on the back of the marble that supports it the face of a monkey. The answer was that after working at such an exalted pitch he wanted to do something totally different, trivial, comic or grotesque. It is related of some wellknown preachers that after a sermon of especial elevation they showed an inclination to horseplay; and in small ways, if not in great, most men must have felt the sensation of relief after an effort is over in turning to something less. This is no doubt one reason why well-organized churches tend to discourage revivals. Of course any such revulsion of feeling is strongest when the emotion has been violent; and for the public, civilians as well as soldiers, no emotion is more violent than that of a modern war with its airplanes, submarines, and, in Europe, famine staring people in the face.

Should we not, therefore, assume that this war, like the last, will be followed by popular doubts, hesitations, indifferences, and reluctances that will make permanent adjustments to a better world more difficult than some of our enthusiastic planners suppose — that is, assuming that the war is to be won by the Allies? If the Nazis and their partners are to win it, the world will, of course, be radically different from what it has been in the past, but by force and not by consent. If, on the other hand, the democratic nations are victorious, and propose to remodel the world so as to preserve future peace, are they not more likely to succeed if they attempt something within practical reach rather than if they seek the unattainable?

All this does not mean that great and durable changes in the organization of international affairs cannot be made, and made radically, to promote more orderly relations and the reign of law on the earth. But it does mean that such a result will be more probable, and have a better chance of permanence, if the actual conditions then confronting mankind, and the emotions that will then affect it, are well understood than if the men who make plans about these things dream unwaked in an unreal world. One of the most real matters at the time of making peace will be the attitude of mind in which, after the war has passed, people are likely to receive proposals for changes in their former customary existence; and it is for this reason that I have ventured to suggest these cautions.

Every government has, for good or evil, a tendency to prolong itself — to retain a form supposed to have an intrinsic merit of its own which, if in a healthy condition, alters slowly by a process of development or growth. It is based on a belief in its own inherent value, and, though always capable of improvement, changes in it normally take place within the general pattern of the institutions the country has evolved. This is a quality that fosters human continuity and advance, and it cannot wisely be left out of account in any planning of post-war reorganization. In getting rid of elements and institutions that tend to produce war we must be careful not to eliminate others that tend to prevent it. For example: because the smaller countries failed last year to offer an effective resistance to Hitler some people are inclined to think them useless; but it does not follow that their natural objection to war may not be so organized as to be a strong preventive force. In short, if we are aiming at setting up a law-abiding world we should encourage the law-abiding forces therein. In a search for a law-ruled world, wrecked by a disregard of existing law, the continuity of existing institutions may have an effect that would be lost by a disregard of them.

There is, therefore, a danger of failure to perceive the qualities in a government which impede, if they do not actually prevent, the use of a country in the way world reformers may think best. Some of these obstacles might in time be removed, but not suddenly, and it is not wise to forget them, for they have a way of taking their revenge if neglected. Americans are liable not to see these things, because their own institutions are in many ways so elastic that they appear capable of being stretched indefinitely.

Let us glance at two of the great representative governments to see what can be learned from their institutions that has a bearing upon the reorganization of the world, and begin with the United States. Begin there because it is a federal organization, and therefore, from the point of view from which we are looking at it, very simple, although for that same reason highly complex. Let me explain. It is complex because it has a large number of officials exercising authority independently, some national, some state, many of the latter selected quite separately from others with whom they work. On the other hand, it is simple in that new territory and new members have been admitted without readjustment or shock to the national government or to the existing members. The new State takes its place and everything goes on as before; and in fact there would have been friction, if not an explosion, in case the territories had not been admitted when populous enough, for they have looked upon it as a right. The result has been that the new States coming in on their own request and without a jar to the fabric have increased the number from thirteen to forty-eight, all under the original Constitution. In short, the tendency of the American system is centripetal.

Nevertheless the admission of new States has been by no means so indiscriminate as it seems, for their inhabitants by the time of admission were, in dominant part, citizens who had wandered from the older sections of the country. Of course we have admitted citizens from every land in Europe, but we have received them gradually, and in late years have concluded that they were coming too fast.

For practically our whole population, English is the national tongue. A proposal to use any other as generally official would, no doubt, be laughed out of court. In short, we are truly a people: and, while we have differences among ourselves, everyone purports to be an American. The nations to the south of us we want as good friends, but neither we nor they want them to be incorporated in our citizenship. Haiti is now asking admission as a State. Shall we include her as such, and how much farther shall we go? Shall we look forward to a possible pair of Senators from Liberia, or have we expanded as far as is wise?

To take a case that raises no questions of political origins or of language, does anyone seriously believe that we should be willing to receive the whole of Great Britain as a number of new States under our Constitution, to meet in a Congress to sit, let us say, alternately in London and Washington — to say nothing of the British Dominions and various other peoples that might be included in the plan? A military alliance of an effective kind is one thing, a union for domestic or general legislation is quite another; and who will guarantee that such a yoke joining the best of friends will not produce friction between them?

Strong as are the objections that may be raised on behalf of the United States to a union with other nations, it is wise to look also at their point of view.

The other great democratic country that comes immediately into the picture is Great Britain, and about her one would like to ask some plain questions. If victorious, will she not remain Great Britain, with her pride in her past? Will she in that case be willing, for the sake of a better world unity, to give up the parliamentary form of government which has been her great political pride? If not, it would be impossible for her to join the American Union as a State or number of States. In short, the supreme responsible parliamentary system of England is inconsistent with subordination under the American Presidential system. Would it be possible, on the other hand, for Great Britain to form a union with some other peoples on the basis of the British system? In other words, would the British people be willing to expand their Parliament by adding any considerable numbers elected to it from outside the British Isles? For practical purposes a similar experiment was tried when the Irish members sat in the House of Commons, and it was not encouraging. Even as regards the Dominions, such a solution of the relations to each other of the mother country and the self-governing members of the Empire has never been brought before Parliament, no doubt because it would clearly not at present be acceptable to either side. In short, the parliamentary system in Great Britain is a delicate instrument, on the whole of a centrifugal tendency; and it is unlikely that, when victorious, she would accept a change contrary to the spirit of her institutions.

Moreover, would not Norwegians, Danes, Dutch and Belgians, to say nothing of the French, object vigorously, when liberated, to being subject to a British Parliament whether represented in it or not? And if they did not object to joining it would not their attitude toward any cabinet make the system too unstable to last, or indeed for any Englishman of experience and capacity to contemplate seriously? If that is the meaning of unity, it would seem quite outside the range of the possible.

Those of us who in the last war were interested in the League of Nations had a grave disappointment, and many reasons have been given for its failure. But the simple fact is that the League in itself had no power (if, indeed, any such organization can have control) over its reluctant members, who in this case from the beginning to the end failed to carry out the provisions of the Covenant when the occasions arose. To execute them fully involved a sacrifice of national to general interests — or, let us say, of immediate to future interests — which the members were not prepared to make, and thereby opened the field for the aggressors. There is little use in trying to assign blame, nor is it possible to arrange a workable plan of universal peace so long as one great nation (and there are now three) believes its aspirations require totalitarian war. For the time, we Americans must join, directly or indirectly, in the conflict; and, in the view of the writer, the quicker and the more effectively the better. When it is over we must help to prepare the world for a peaceable existence in which men can live the national lives they desire. This is in accord with the agreement of the President and the Prime Minister at sea.

That the present phase of world affairs, like the Napoleonic Era, will pass away there can be no doubt; that it will involve the loss of the lives of a multitude of young men is certain; that it will leave the world as it was before is improbable; but that it will mark a violent and radical change in the trend of human history is also unlikely. Germany, Italy, and for international purposes Japan, are still young nations that feel their oats and see an exorbitant future before them. They are in somewhat the same state of mind as much of the American public at the time of the Mexican War, before we were sobered by the civil struggle. Only they are far more ruthless, and have the use of deadlier weapons. In spite of much talk in the press and in private we have no animosity to their people, but they must learn that they are not the only races in the world deserving consideration. Our basic doctrine is that man is an end in himself and does not exist to be the tool of another’s will. This does not mean that we propose to extend our ideas by force over any other land, but we insist on being unmolested, unthreatened, free from danger in our own way of life, which is in essence that for which the British are at war.

  1. Some of these tendencies and the reasons therefor I tried to state, in Public Opinion in War and Peace (1923), pp. 268 ff. — AUTHOR