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The Future of Pacifism

The future of the profound American desire for peace is a topic which is intimately connected with the war itself.

President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to send U.S. troops into battle against Germany in World War I, in his address to Congress in Washington D.C. on April 2, 1917.
The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images
President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to send U.S. troops into battle against Germany in World War I, in his address to Congress in Washington D.C. on April 2, 1917.

When the editors of The New Republic conceived the magazine, they never intended to devote so many of their pages to the affairs of Europe. But by the time they sat down to prepare their first issue, war had erupted. The first-ever editorial announced that America could no longer afford to harbor dreams of blissful isolation from the world.

The owner of the magazine, Willard Straight, was a full-throated hawk. He joined a training camp in Plattsburgh, New York, where proponents of “preparedness” were camping in tents and completing martial drills, with the hope that their enthusiasm for joining the fight would highlight the Wilson administration’s aversion to it.

Straight’s employees took a more ambivalent position. They considered war more inevitable than imperative. It wasn’t something one wished, but it was also an opportunity. The cloud of conflict could be a pretext for remaking America and the world. Feelings of solidarity would weaken the natural American instinct toward individualism—and the demands of combat would necessitate the rapid expansion of the federal government. (Randolph Bourne derisively mocked this idea: “War is the health of the state.”) Just as important, the ruins of Europe would need to be reconstructed so that the continent would never again fall victim to the destructive imperialist impulse.

This argument might not have been an extension of the pragmatic school of American philosophy, which John Dewey helped create, but it was certainly expedient thinking.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

There is no paradox in the fact that the American people are profoundly pacifist and yet highly impatient of the present activities of many professed or professional pacifists. The disposition to call the latter pro-German and to move for their suppression is an easy way of expressing a sense of the untimely character of their moves at the present juncture.

But the war will pass, and the future of the profound American desire for peace, for amity, for unhampered and prosperous intercourse, is a topic which is intimately connected with the war itself. For upon its constant consideration depends whether the impulse to a better ordered world which reconciled America to war shall find satisfaction or meet frustration. And I know no better way to introduce the subject than a consideration of the failure of the pacifist propaganda to determine finally the course of a nation which was converted to pacifism in advance.

The explanation, I take it, is that it takes two to make peace as well as to make war; or, as the present situation abundantly testifies, a much larger number than two. He was a poor judge of politics who did not know from the very day of the Lusitania message—or at all events from that of the Sussex message—that the entrance of the United States into the war depended upon the action of Germany.

Any other notion was totally inconsistent with any belief in President Wilson’s sincerity; it imputed to him an almost inconceivable levity in a time when seriousness was the chief need. Those who voted for him for President on the ground that he “kept us out of war” and who felt aggrieved when we got into war have only themselves to blame. He had unmistakably plotted a line which led inevitably to conflict with Germany in case the latter should take the course which she finally adopted.

This indictment of professional pacifism for futile gesturing may seem to rest upon acceptance of the belief in the political omnipotence of the executive; it may seem to imply the belief that his original step committed the nation irretrievably. Such an inference, however, is merely formal. It overlooks the material fact that President Wilson’s action had the sanction of the country.

I will not enter into the question of legal neutrality, but morally neutral the country never was, and probably the only stupid thing President Wilson did was to suppose, in his early proclamation, that it could be. And this brings us back to the basic fact that in a world organized for war there are as yet no political mechanisms which enable a nation with warm sympathies to make them effective, save through military participation. It is again, an instinctive perception of this fact which encourages the idea that pacifists who do not support the war must be pro-German at heart.

The best statement which I have seen made of the pacifist position since we entered the war is that of Miss Addams. She earnestly protests against the idea that the pacifist position was negative or laissez-faire. She holds that the popular impression that pacifism meant abstinence and just keeping out of trouble is wrong; that it stood for a positive international polity in which this country should be the leader of the nations of the world “into a wider life of coordinated activity”; she insists that the growth of nations under modern conditions involves of necessity international complications which admit “of adequate treatment only through an international agency not yet created.” In short, the pacifists “urge upon the United States not indifference to moral issues and to the fate of liberty and democracy, but a strenuous endeavor to lead all nations of the earth into an organized international life.”

That intelligent pacifism stands for this end, and that the more intelligent among the pacifists, like Miss Addams, saw the situation in this fashion need not be doubted. But as Miss Addams recognized in the same address there are many types of pacifists. I question whether any one who followed the pacifist literature which appeared in the year or two before we got into the war derived from it the conception that the dominant ideal was that ascribed to pacifism by Miss Addams, namely, that the United States should play a “vitally energetic role” in a political reorganization of the world. But even if this had been the universal idea of what was theoretically desirable, the force of circumstances forbade pacifists who drew back at war as a means of bringing about this role from pressing it.

The pacifist literature of the months preceding our entrance into war was opportunistic—breathlessly, frantically so. It did not deal in the higher strategy of international politics, but in immediate day-by-day tactics for staving off the war. Because the professional pacifists were committed to the idea that anything was better than our getting into the war, their interest in general international reorganization had no chance for expression. They were in the dilemma of trying to accomplish what only definite political agencies could effect, while admitting these agencies had not been created. Thus they were pushed out of the generic position of work for the development of such agencies into the very elementary attitude that if no nation ever allowed itself to be drawn into war, no matter how great the provocation, wars would cease to be. Hence the continuous recourse to concessions and schemes, devised ad hoc over night, to meet each changing aspect of the diplomatic situation so as to ward off war.

The logic seems sound. But the method is one of treating symptoms and ignoring the disease. At the best, such a method is likely to remain some distance behind newly appearing symptoms, and in a critical disease the time is bound to come (as events demonstrated in our case) when the disease gets so identified with the symptoms that nothing can be done. All this seems to concern the past of pacifism rather than its future. But it indicates, by elimination, what that future must be if it is to be a prosperous one. It lies in furthering whatever will bring into existence those new agencies of international control whose absence has made the efforts of pacifists idle gestures in the air. Its more immediate future lies in seeing to it that the war itself is turned to account as a means for bringing these agencies into being.

To go on protesting against war in general and this war in particular, to direct effort to stopping the war rather than to determining the terms upon which it shall be stopped, is to repeat the earlier tactics after their ineffectualness has been revealed. Failure to recognize the immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war; failure to recognize the closeness and extent of true international combinations which it necessitates, is a stupidity equaled only by the militarist’s conception of war as a noble blessing in disguise.

I have little patience with those who are so anxious to save their influence for some important crisis that they never risk its use in any present emergency. But I can but feel that the pacifists wasted rather than invested their potentialities when they turned so vigorously to opposing entrance into a war which was already all but universal, instead of using their energies to form, at a plastic juncture, the conditions and objects of our entrance. How far this wasted power is recoverable it is hard to say. Certainly an added responsibility is put upon those who still think of themselves as fundamentally pacifists in spite of the fact that they believed our entrance into the war a needed thing.

For the only way in which they can justify their position is by using their force to help make the war, so far as this country can influence its final outcome, a factor in realizing the ideals which President Wilson expressed for the American people before and just upon entering the war. All such pacifists—and they comprise in my opinion the great mass of the American people—must see to it that these ideals are forced upon our allies, however unwilling they may be, rather than covered up by debris of war. If the genuine pacifism of our country, a pacifism interested in permanent results rather than in momentary methods, had had leadership, it is not likely that we should have entered without obtaining in advance some stipulations. As it is, we (so far, at least, as any one knows) romantically abstained from any bargaining and thereby made our future task more difficult.

Not that the difficulty is all abroad. We have plenty of Bourbons and Bureaucrats in international diplomacy at home, and war undoubtedly strengthens their position by making them appear the genuine representatives of our war motives and policies. Their attitude is well expressed in the fact that since their imagination is confined to the flat map, their intellectual preparation for the post-bellum scene consists in redrawing the future map of Europe and the world—a form of indoor sport which even the literary men of England have now well nigh abandoned. Thus the present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.

In view, for example, of the unjustified invasion of Serbia and Belgium, the rights of small nationalities tend to become an end in itself, a means to which is the “crushing” of Germany. The principle of nationality on its cultural side must indeed receive ample satisfaction in the terms of war settlement unless fuel for future conflagrations is to be stored up. But to get no further than setting up more small isolated nationalities on the map is almost willfully to provoke future wars. If the day for isolated national sovereignty in the case of large nations has been rendered an anachronism by the new industry and commerce, much more is that the case for small political units.

The case of Ireland, the clutter of nationalities in southeastern Europe, the fact that all the smaller neutral nations are now leading a distressed existence as appanages of the warring Powers, show how much more important questions of food supply, of coal and iron, of lines of railway and ship-transportation are for the making and ordering of states than the principle of isolated nationality, big or small. Germany was realistically inclined in its belief that the day of the small nation—in its traditional sense—had passed. Its tragic error lay in that egotism which forbade its seeing that the day of the big isolated nation had also passed.

So one might, I think, go over, one by one, the phrases which are now urged to the front as defining the objects of war at the terms of peace and show that the interests of pacifism are bound up with securing the organs by which economic energies shall be articulated. We have an inherited political system which sits like a straitjacket on them since they came into being after the political system took on shape. These forces cannot be suppressed. They are the moving, the controlling, forces of the modern world.

The question of peace or war is whether they are to continue to work furtively, blindly, and by those tricks of manipulation which have constituted the game of international diplomacy, or whether they are to be frankly recognized and the political system accommodated to them. The war does not guarantee the latter result. It gives an immense opportunity for it, an opportunity which justifies the risk. Military men continue to think within the lines laid down in the seventeenth century, in the days when modern “sovereign” nations were formed. Statesmen, guided by historians and that political science which has elevated the historic facts of temporary formations into an abstract and absolute science, work on the same model.

As a result, too many influential personages are pure romanticists. They are expressing ideals which no longer have anything to do with the facts. This stereotyped political romanticism gives the pacifists their chance for revenge. Their idealism has but to undergo a course in the severe realism of those economic forces which are actually shaping the associations and organizations of men, and the future is with them.