A Presiding Spirit
by H. M. TOMLINSON
THE spring this year was the first we noticed since 1940. The last spring we remember, of five years ago, was just as vivid, but it was not for us. It was in a dimension removed, the apparition of a fabled existence. We dared not so much as wonder whether we should ever see its like again. Opposite us on the coast of the Channel was the exultant enemy.
But this year the earth was awakening, and we had the space to admire. In April the London air was free of warnings, shocks, and convulsions. In suburban gardens, as if in celebration and at a signal, apple, pear, cherry, almond, and lilac were suddenly alight. A house might be only an abandoned wreck, with revival about it, but now spring astonished us where last year we had forgotten. There had been no time then to join in the rejoicing of earth. We were occupied in watching robot bombs instead, to judge whether this one coming would carry straight on or was about to hit the ground.
One morning, still at ease and expecting more good news, we picked up our daily paper, Roosevelt was dead. We stood and looked at each other, then drifted silently apart. For a time there was not a word in the house, and then someone asked, “Now what shall we do?” What answer could be given?
Long before Pearl Harbor, when the night was dubious and there was no knowing what our fortune would be before sunrise, his familiar voice was telling us across the Atlantic that America intended the goods and weapons meant for us not to go to the bottom if she could prevent it (and to us he was America). It was an article of faith over here that what he knew then all Amorica was bound to know soon. We heard the voice of courage from America, austere and formidable with understanding and purpose. A friend was speaking who knew the power of evil and that it was at large, but knew of a greater power. He spoke for the helpless and inarticulate everywhere, and he had great authority. He was the President of us all.
What Americans possibly did not realize was that outsiders regarded Roosevelt’s existence as an act of Providence at a critical juncture for humanity. Whether its destiny was to be this way or that, America too was involved. Yet was that known to most Americans? Well, presently it would be, without a peradventure. The only doubt we had was that general knowdedge of a common cause might come a day too late. But Roosevelt knew the issue and the danger and was watching. The decision was with him, and we could no more hasten it than change the minute of sunrise. We must endure, and America would come to us.
It may be said now that we looked with concern at the pictures of him when he attended conferences. At Yalta and elsewhere his expression was that of happiness, but it could be seen that he was spending his life extravagantly. Would he last this out? For he was giving away fast his dwindling store to those in need of his life. We saw a reason then why even foreigners should honor the affectionate words, “Old Glory,” for the flag of America. Has it been supposed that the last sacrifice for helpless mankind has been made? Only cynics and the half-witted would still deny that good men have always given their work and their lives to their fellows. That is a commonplace rejected only by the ill-disposed and self-seekers who cannot believe it, because inevitably to them human nature is their nature. Roosevelt was happy in spending himself for the welfare of unknown men and women, and the light of that virtue overcame the shadow of death in his eyes. It will overcome death itself.
THIS has been a narrow escape. Our industrial civilization had forgotten or rejected what religion it had. It was supported by a substitute no more reliable than casual and cynical materialism. It has been uneasy for many years with a sense of collapse to come. Most of us felt that. We suspected that our society had faith solely in material power, as if Paris, New York, and London were but superior Zulu kraals — that it did not deserve to continue because it was uninformed by the light of reason. This was suspected, for conscience remained with us, though only as memory and comparison.
Still, change was resisted. What change could there be but by revolution to anarchy? With the futility of our vacant souls we recognized no positive good worth our effort. But these outlaws could be positive enough for evil because they knew what they wanted and judged they had the means to get it. And they were determined to have it.
The Nazis and Fascists merely took advantage of a state of affairs favorable to their adventure. The origins of this catastrophe are lost in the beginning of this century, when pride in man’s control of nature overcame what sense of moral responsibility remained with us for the proper use of power. Revolutionary mechanical inventions were let loose into a society unaware of their inherent perils.
Shall we instance this? There was the invention of the Wright brothers. That miraculous outcome of imagination and industry has resulted in the blasting and disruption of the foundations of civility in Europe. There is the plain truth of it: that invention did not mean progress. It has thrown civilization back far beyond the Middle Ages, back behind the beginning of history into nomadism. Again vast multitudes are this day drifting apathetically to starvation and death. Europe is a wilderness. Cities and transport have gone. It was not life more abundant that the flying machine brought, but a condition of things worse than the period of the Black Death. And the reason is apparent. We had not the least idea what should govern the purposes of men when they could dodge about the heavens. Therefore the latest contrivance was damned at birth.
During the long period of the blitz, the flying bombs, and the rockets, I wished that those people who are anxious for freedom of the air were compelled to live in London, and that I wasn’t. Freedom of the air? Freedom for what? If this freedom of the air continues, it may result in an inability to breathe it. The stillborn babies will be the lucky ones. Never before in history has man had such a store of knowledge and so little understanding. He has been satisfied with facts; he has cared little or nothing for the implications of facts and their relationship to a rational life. Immediate profit was all he wanted. The authority of religion, law, literature, and the arts went long ago, usurped by technology.
The present enterprises of men with power enough behind them to blot out human existence altogether, whether by chance or sudden whim or maniacal passion, have been directed heedless of a worthy tradition for guidance. They have had no background for reference at all. The only responsibility enterprise has acknowledged has been to some narrow personal advantage. Life itself has lost its importance. It has been sacrificed to a fabulous necessity. In such a world we should have expected that nihilists more energetic, unscrupulous, and cunning than ourselves would surely scheme for access to greater power.
Germany and Japan — with peoples both docile and industrious, with masses of manpower of a uniformity unknown elsewhere — have shown what can be done when the political controls of this age of machines, with the new means of forming a flat opinion by the radio and the cinema, with a perfected science of policecraft, and with war engines winged and wheeled, are seized by men whose motives are those of man-eating sharks.
Is this new to us? It is not new. For twenty years past, the signs have been as plain as a volcano smoldering. We have even had victory before this year — and remember what was done with it. In all Roosevelt’s words there were echoes from that old tragedy, when an opportunity came for a more seemly world but was thrown away. Beyond this war, we were aware that he was the leader who understood well that if the opportunity were lost again, then humanity’s last chance went with it. And he was resolved that it must be saved. In all he did there was vision, which is the mark of a superior mind. You see it in his choice of admirals and generals — Eisenhower, for one, gets the devotion from the British that he gets from his own folk. We have merged; I have yet to hear a jealous word.
Well, there the miracle is, and Roosevelt brought it about. We must not lose the treasure he has given us. He succeeded in winning the complete confidence of people beyond America because he always freely acknowledged the contribution of each to the common effort. When England stood alone and stood her ground, we were confident he would never allow that initial success in the service of mankind to be lost. And he was also aware that but for the gigantic sacrifice of Russian life and treasure the enemy might never have been overthrown.
Where truth was concerned, he did not recognize frontiers. And what, after all, are frontiers, when every land is wide open to rockets and the rest of the diabolism of modern war? Today no land is exempt. The jet plane alone, now in its infancy as the plane with a propeller was an infant last time, is a threat to human existence unless the right controls are made. The Atlantic and Pacific are to America today what the Channel was to us when Blériot crossed it one fine morning not so very long ago. And no expanse of water or any other protection will hold off the rocket, which drops without warning like doom from interstellar space.
It is not much use rescuing the world’s economics from anarchy, since civilization is impossible without a settled life, and settlement has no meaning when the sky is a constant menace to plows and workshops everywhere. That was our situation when the discussions began at San Francisco for its improvement. Over the confusion of national aims and the intrigues of many interests, a shape there presided, silent but influential. The death of Franklin Roosevelt ordained a final outcome beyond recall by any resolution the Conference may make. A presiding spirit has been raised for us by death, and it keeps alive the hope and aspiration of the nameless men who have fallen in battle. This time the unknown warrior has a name with which to conjure.