Force and Freedom

The question of a preventive war, the question of what the Man in the Kremlin will do when Russia has the homh, the fundamental and, as yet, unresolved question of how we in our free society can reconcile the use of force with the preservation of freedomhere are the deepest, the most far-reaching issues of our time. The Atlantic is proud to publish this thoughtful analysis by President JAMES BRYANT CONANT of Harvard, one of our greatest scientists and educators and a man who knows beyond any layman the awful potentialities of the bomb.


CAN there be a moral basis for freedom in a world of force? This is one of the ugly questions which disturb many intelligent people at this moment. Can we reconcile the doctrine of military force — the idea of killing men in war—with a moral purpose? As a matter of history, freedom has often emerged from the successful use of force; yet we abominate war as intensely as we love freedom. How are we to resolve this paradox?

I should be ready to maintain that while liberty has repeatedly been gained by war, once won it can be protected only by adherence to those moral principles which were repudiated in its achievement. The distinction between the ethics of war and the ethics of peace, I believe, must be a fundamental postulate of our free society. If this be so, it is of the utmost importance to emphasize the distinction in these confused and gloomy days.

Either history is devoid of meaning or else we must believe that a study of the past will enrich one’s understanding of the present. “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to be always a child” — from which it follows that we must read the book of history diligently and scrutinize with the utmost care the events recorded. In that spirit one may venture to approach the difficult problems of reconciling force and freedom in our day by a glance at certain events which took place in England three hundred years ago.

Everyone familiar with even the outlines of modern history will recall that the 1640’s were a period of civil war in the British Isles. All who have traced the connection between the evolution of democratic institutions in the seventeenth century and the history of the United States will be well aware that the outcome of these wars left a lasting mark on the development of the colonies of North America, hor example, a commission of the Congregational and Unitarian churches of this country recently commemorated the tercentenary of the adoption of the Cambridge Platform. This document was essentially a statement of the local independence of the churches of the Puritan colonies. It was a manifestation of a current running strongly both in old England and in New England as to the importance of local control and local initiative in mat ters of religion. Ambitious claims have been made that this Platform was basic in the development of the cultural pattern of the United States. Certainly we are all aware of the significance of the twin doctrines of local responsibility and local initiative, and even the members of other Protestant denominations can give due credit to those early Congregationalists who proclaimed the independence of each one of the New England churches.

Any celebration, however, which rejoices in the influence of the New Englanders of three centuries ago must likewise recognize the role of force in the drama which was being enacted in the 1640’s. The tramp of Cromwell’s soldiers echoes through the years. For just when the learned ministers were writing the Cambridge Plat form in New England the genius of Oliver Cromwell and the discipline of his red-coated New Model Army were settling the claim of rival church parlies for the organization of the Protestant religion in the Anglo-Saxon world. A second civil war had broken out in April, 1648; the Royalists defeated in the earlier struggle were allied with the Scotch and the discontented Presbyterians. If this strange alliance should prove successful. there was a strong possibility that a combination of Scotch and English Presbyterians would control the form of church government in both Great Britain and the colonies. But the victory by Cromwell and his followers at Preston in August, 1948, eliminated tins danger. The Congregationalistsof New England and the Independent Party in old England were made secure.

Copyright 1948, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.


THE relationship between force and freedom in the seventcenth-cenlury history of the Englishspeaking people is evident. Without the victories in the first eivil war there would have been no possibility of a Cambridge Platform; a triumphant King would have seen to that. If the Presbyterians had won at Preston there would have been a prompt suppression of independent churches at home and in the colonies.

But it was more than the victories on the battlefield which firmly established in a relatively few months the “New England way of life.”Between the time when the Cambridge Plat form was adopt ed by the ministers and enacted by the General Court, the influence of Cromwell and his soldiers had become literally overpowering. It is the irony of history that the arbitrary action of Cromwell’s officers in Pride’s Purge of Parliament in December, 1648, and Cromwell’s subsequent dissolution of what remained, the so-called Rump Parliament, made secure a rule which was one of the sources of American freedom. For Cromwell’s Independents saw eye to eye with the New England men

The Cambridge Platform was certainly something more than a passing resolution of a handful of stout church rebels only because of the continuing victories of an extraordinary army, and perhaps only because of the arbitrary action of the same army against a representative assembly. Just as in England religious toleration grew out of a period of military dictatorship of “godly men,” so our liberties in this country can claim to have drawn nourishment from the same harsh soil. Cromwell’s soldiers fought for freedom of the Parliament from the King, freedom of till Christians from the Pope and from the Anglican Bishops. Cromwell’s officers and men later manipulated the political scene and coerced the nation on behalf of independent church government and the consequent independence of a great variety of sects.

The problem of reconciling force and freedom by an historian reviewing the seventeenth century has a familiar modern ring. One can envy the men of three hundred years ago on one point at least — they were spared some of the more disturbing doubts which three centuries have forced on the Western world. One can feel the sincerity of Cromwell’s remarks when, describing one of his great battles, he said, “And the Lord made the enemy stubble unto our swords.”There is no evidence that aside from the Quakers the pious people of England or New England in those days had any scruples about the use of force, provided it was used by them. Whether the doubts which now assail so many honest men represent a slackening of our religious faith or a quickening of our sensitivity as human beings or a better appreciation of the Christian message is a question I leave to the theologians and preachers of this day.

If one may venture to express a judgment on the actors of the great drama of the Puritan rebellion, I should say that Cromwell and his followers are to be praised for having fought well in both the civil wars. Indeed, I fail to see how anyone who rejoices in our liberties could well maintain the contrarv. The behavior of the Army leaders after the close of the second civil war is another story. The verdict of history must be that they failed to execute a plan by which an orderly development of a broadlv based government would be possible in England; they failed in spite of Cromwell’s conservative instincts and his prayerful attempts to find a constitutional basis for his regime. The considered judgment of till who believe in the Western definition of democracy and freedom must be that they wenwrong to establish a military dictatorship even of godly men; in short, the rule of armed saints is to be condemned on both pragmatic and moral grounds.

History is full of examples of earnest men so dedicated to a cause that they did not scruple to use violence as an adjunct to political action. To their minds the issues between themselves and their opponents were of such a nature as to justify the application of the rules of war even in times of peace. Families who believe they are divinely led, or that history is on their side, usually maintain that the end justifies the means. Hence an admixture of violence and treachery in affairs of state is for them the equivalent of the taking of life on a field of battle.

Any unwillingness to admit the validity of the moral distinction between war and peace is at once exploited by all apologists of dictatorships — past, present, or future. At the present moment those who believe that nothing can be worse than war are eagerly sought as allies by those who believe that nothing can be worse than our American practice of democracy. The two join hands in pointing the finger of scorn at the apparent paradox that a nation founded on the principle of the sacred ness of human life is ready to secure its liberties by war if need be. The one group bases its case on the consistent application of Christian teachings, the other on equally consistent denial of the Christian ethics. Yet the pacifist and the communist unite in exposing the logical inconsistency of the traditional American attitude toward force and freedom.

Today as in the past the vast majority of the citizens of the Ended Stales, while abhorring war, nevertheless believe that it is not always wrong. They have a deep-seated conviction, however, that war is always totally different morally from peace. The consequences of abandoning this illogical position by proclaiming that fighting is never justified are all too clear. If we were to lay down our arms as a matter of Christian principle, and as a nation take an eternal vow of non-resistance, those who feel otherwise could hardly fail to accelerate the course of history as they see it. From their point of view they would be negligent in their duty if they failed to eliminate the Christian basis for our brand of democratic freedom.

I have not the slightest fear that we shall adopt the doctrine of non-resistance. I am not so certain, however, that we might not adopt the exactly opposite course of action. And if we did, we would very shortly destroy our freedom. If we became sufficiently oppressed by the logical inconsistency of our emphasis on the distinction between war and peace, we might repudiate the paradox by accepting the premise of the totalitarians that at all times the end justifies the means. Once we had gone over to their position, the doctrine of a preventive war, so-called, against a potential enemy would be quite compatible with the philosophy of the nation. But so, too, would be strong-armed methods at the polls, intimidation of a legislature, even a coup d’état and political assassinations.


THE few who have been flirting with the idea of a preventive war have failed to see the implications of their position. Their argument says in effect, “In the next decade the Russians will have perfected their instruments of mass destruction; let’s smash ‘em now before they’re ready.” This reasoning of those who wish to force Russia to fight now might seem attractive at first sight to all who pride themselves on being hardheaded. I suggest that it is vulnerable, however, on realistic grounds. Basically the argument for a preventive war fails to consider the fundamental nature of the struggle which underlies the present uneasy armed truce with the Soviet Union. We need to probe deeply into the question of what the Soviets’ ambition would be if and when they have weapons of mass destruction in sufficient quantity and are ready with suitable methods of delivery.

I think it extremely probable that the men who rule Russia do not dream of a military victory over the United States followed by an occupation and control by Russian commissars, bul rather a revolution in this country which would result in a totalitarian socialistic state with native American rulers. Once this is accomplished, the Russian dream appears to foretell, the world revolution is achieved and the Utopian aspects of communism are possible.

I think the Russians now accept their MarxEngels-Lenin doctrine with fanatic seriousness. If my assumption about the nature of the thinking in the Kremlin be admitted, it follows that the overall strategy of the United States must be aimed primarily at preserving the type of free society we have inherited from the past and now enjoy. Our open society rests on a fundamental moral basis; once we destroy this basis, we have destroyed the essence of this nation.

If I am right about my analysis of war and peace, any acceptance of the doctrine that the end justifies the means would be the moral equivalent of dropping atomic bombs on a dozen of our own cities. For us to develop a Machiavellian foreign policy which would culminate in our launching a surprise attack on the Soviet Union or declaring war for the purpose of a destruction of their armament would nogale the very premises on which our culture rests. In short, it seems to me the moral argument against a preventive war is by no means softheaded, but rather a realistic appraisal of the fundamental issue which divides the world.

Let me make it plain, I am not advocating any policy of appeasement in regard to the present. The whole problem of our stralegy for the months immediately ahead is another matter. If the Soviets force us into war by their own actions, that is another story. What I am opposing is the notion that we should precipitale a war a few years hence in order to beat the enemy to the punch in this matter of weapons of mass destruction.

Wc have been told by more than one authority who has access to governmental secrets that sometime in the 1950’s the Russians will probably be able to produce atomic bombs. Assuming this prophecy to be true, one may well ask: How is the United States to survive as a free society in such a hideous era? But another question has priority: How will the rulers of Soviet Russia use the threat of their possession of atomic weapons (if and when they have them) to forward their own ends?

What, would you do if you were living in the Kremlin and were a firm believer in the MarxEngels-Lenin doctrine which includes the idea that the eventual triumph of communism is scientifinally assured? I suggest that first of all you would prepare defensively against the possibility that a “preventive war" party in the United States might develop and gain control, and a “superblitz” from North America to Russia might some day come. Second, you would lead the United States to believe that Russia was well prepared offensively to attack that country by a “superblitz,” hoping thereby to cause panic among the people. One might feel certain that the citizens of a free society, sufficiently disturbed and frightened, in their frantic attempts to ward off military damage would wreck their economy, their social si ructure, and eventually their political framework.

If there be any merit in this analysis of mine, those in whose hands will rest the determination of the military policy of the United States a few years hence may have to solve a most baffling problem. On the one hand the United States must be well prepared for war in the age of atomic bombs, of a “superblitz”; on the other, we must see that the methods used in such preparation do not lead to the very ends that the Russians may have in mind: namely, a breakdown of our economy, of our political system, with the consequent internal destruction of our nation.

To me it means we must deliberately refrain from taking out all the forms of military insurance that may come to mind. For example, to do everyth in a t hat could IK* thought of to insure against destruction of our cities might involve such drastic shifts in our whole life as to destroy our national being. Even in terms of dollars and cents I believe military preparedness could wreck us. If I were sitting in the Kremlin, I should have great faith in the power of an inflation to ruin the United States. One way to cause a runaway inflation is surely to spend too freely and too fast on military equipment. Already, perhaps, one can smell danger in the air.

There has been a considerable amount of talk about the atomic age. It may be argued that we shall not be living in that age until two or more powers have atomic bombs in sufficient quantity to constitute a military menace to each other. If and when t his t ime comes, those who are responsible for spending this nation’s resources on military matters will be confronted with the century-old problem of force and freedom in a new and terrible form. They must walk a perilous knife edge: on the one side will be inadequate defensive and offensive military power, the possibility of outmoded strategic concepts and antiquated equipment; on the other will be the precipice which drops to domestic ruin — the destruction of the basis of a free society.

I see no escape from the fact that in planning for this possible future we must take some calculated risks. And the calculations will be difficult indeed. They involve the analysis of a complex situation, an appraisal of many technical and military factors. A vast amount of staff work by professionals must provide the necessary data. Fortunately we have high talent in the military establishment and men of wide vision and imagination. But the rules of war must never be allowed to dominate the ethics of our people. Control must be in civilian hands. The basic judgments must be made by the voters and transmitted by them through Congress to the President and his civilian cabinet members.

If all concerned keep in the forefront of their minds the vital issue, the survival of our free society, then we may believe the eventual decisions will be sound. We must never falter in our faith in the moral basis of this republic. On these terms and these alone can we hope to resolve the paradox of force and freedom in an atomic age.