You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Liberalism Can Avoid Futility

When Liberalism argues for an intensification of American aloofness, it sinks only deeper into futility.

Galeries des Glaces / Hall of Mirrors where the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed.
PA Images/Getty Images
Galeries des Glaces / Hall of Mirrors where the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed.

When Liberalism speaks of the triumph of Briand over Lloyd George it condemns itself. If wickedness has conquered in the person of Briand, it was largely because we were not there to help on the right side. And when Liberalism now argues for an intensification of American aloofness, it sinks only deeper into futility. The way to peace in Europe is not through America ranged against Great Britain and France, but through America throwing all her weight to the elements of moderation in both countries. They are there and only wait for our assistance.

The preceding quotation comes from the final sentences of an article in the New York Evening Post, entitled “Must Liberalism be Futile?” It condemns the attitude of the New Republic towards the present war in Europe as “futile” and “destructive,” because by advocating a policy of “aloofness” since the publication of the Treaty of Versailles, we did what we could to prevent the “elements of moderation” in France and Great Britain from winning a victory over the intransigents. We helped to deprive them of American support and, when deprived of American support, they could not effectively oppose their more violent and vindictive fellow countrymen.

There is some superficial force in this criticism. If Lloyd George, for instance, could have counted on the assistance of the American government in opposing a bill of reparations which, as he knew, was so large that Germany could not and would not pay, he might, it is possible, have been willing in such good company to break with France. We do not believe that he would, for to break with France would mean a revision of the Treaty of Versailles; and when that Treaty is revised, it will not be by Lloyd George. Still it is possible. But in so far as this criticism is valid, it is an extraordinary indictment for the Evening Post to draw up against the New Republic. For since the Paris Conference the post has lined itself up, not with the “moderate elements” in France and England, but with the intransigents. 

The reparations bill as determined by the Paris Conference, it has insisted, was well within Germany’s ability to pay. When the German people disagreed with this sentence and refused with substantial unanimity to promise the payment of more than they considered themselves able to pay, the Post condemned them to punishment, and it put up only a mild and negligible protest against the abominable policy of summarily using force to collect a doubtful debt. If the American government had ratified the Treaty of Versailles, the evening Post, to judge by its present attitude, would not have invoked American influence and power to check the plans of those Frenchmen who are seeking or risking the ruin and dismemberment of Germany for the supposed profit of France. By endorsing a bill for reparation which the German people sincerely believe they cannot pay, it has voted to place in the hands of the French partisan’s of “Revanche” the weapon which they need to carry on their work of destruction.

Contrast the attitude of Evening Post with that of either Republicans or liberals who, like the New Republic, were opposed to the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. The Republican administration, instead of jumping to conclusion that the reparation bill as prepared in Paris was reasonable, has clearly intimated that in its opinion the validity of the bill was dependent on its determination by a “fair and just process.” It has advised the reopening of negotiations “on a new basis.” It apparently intended to use its influence in favor of a modification of the Paris agreement rather than in favor of its affirmation and execution. In all probability it will in the end arbitrate  some of the differences between the Allies and Germany. On the other hand, if the American government had ratified the Treaty of Versailles, the Republicans would feel the same difficulty in refusing to carry out its provisions that Lloyd George and the Evening Post feel. Ratification would and should have predisposed them in favor of execution.

American “aloofness” from the Treaty of Versailles is the salutary fact which may enable the American government to intervene in the present crisis as a disinterested and powerful third party. If this result takes place and the New Republic has contributed to it, even in a small way, we shall consider our attitude since the publication of the Treaty of Versailles sufficiently vindicated. So far from the “futile” it is proving to be precisely the reverse. America for all the “aloofness” of the Harding administration is by way of resuming the function which she first assumed when she intervened in the European war. 

The general declaration of policy which the Republican Senators propose to affix to the Knox resolution and which promises American intervention against any clear and dangerous case of aggression in Europe, tends to make of the United States the balance-wheel of European politics. It is right and possible that she should serve as a balance-wheel. It is wrong and impossible that she should act as one member of an alliance occupied chiefly in exploiting its military victory.

But let us suppose that the American government, instead of tending to put its “aloofness” to some constructive use, had either remained a member of an Alliance of the victors or had assumed an attitude of utterly irresponsible isolation. Let us suppose that American “liberals” who opposed the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles could not point to any formative tendency in American foreign policy which was born of non-ratification yet which would protect them from the charge of having advocated a “futile” course. Would other liberals who have favored the ratification of the Treaty be justified in stigmatizing their course in opposing ratification as merely “futile” and “destructive?”

We deny that they would. A liberal may have many allegiances, but his primary allegiance is to his vision of the truth. In so far as he is a liberal he must affirm the existence of a truth about human nature and human society which, if men live by it, will set them free. The modern liberal usually conceives this liberating truth in a pragmatic manner. It is the kind of truth which must vindicate itself in practice. But his pragmatism does not justify him in renouncing a sincere and a mature opinion because it may have no immediate justification in works. Even though the conviction may be one whose availability can only be justified in the long run, it is not for that reason both futile and destructive.

Consider in this connection the position of a convinced liberal in Russia or in Germany before the war. Being a liberal he was bound to recognize the obstacles which the organization and outlook of the Russian and German governments offered to the liberation of human life both at home and abroad. Yet in spite of their utter illiberalism, they looked as stable and as necessary to political order as any other governments in the world, and a policy of irreconcilable opposition to them as menaces to human freedom would have looked destructive and futile. True; but how much more destructive and futile the policy of conniving at their power, which so many German and Russian liberals adopted, turned out to be. A liberalism which refused to work with these governments was not futile because it was destructive. It was futile because it was not destructive.

The English and American liberals who actually or symbolically signed the Treaty of Versailles adopt a course which, like that of the former national liberals in the German Empire, will sooner or later necessarily destroy the integrity of their liberal outlook. Many of them, such for instance as General Smuts, have claimed that in signing they were merely keeping alive an association which would enable them subsequently to work more effectively for revision. By putting forward this claim they deceive themselves. 

When they signed they accepted and sanctified the defeat of their own program, and they rendered themselves and their liberalism negligible in relation to the execution of the Treaty. For signature means endorsement. The signatory becomes an apologist for his own act and cannot prepare public opinion for subsequent revision. The signed contract serves as the basis of subsequent negotiation and joint action. The party who proposes to stick to the terms of the contract has all the presumptions in his favor. He has a right to ask from the other signatories some loyalty to the spirit and the letter of the agreement. He has a right, that is, as the result of signature to ask of liberals general acquiescence in conduct which condemns them to connive at inhumane and violent behavior.

The fact that France has a right to ask of its co-signatories some measure of loyalty to the document they had endorsed explains the recent collapse in England and in this country of the opposition to the drift of French policy in the direction of sabotage. The reparations bill which the Paris conference agreed to present to Germany and if necessary to force upon her was a moderation version of the indemnity which the victors were entitled to claim under the Treaty. Yet it was a bill which the German people unanimously believed themselves unable to pay and which, if paid, would work grave injury to to both creditor and debtor. 

The German nation as a matter of self-respect was bound to refuse signature to a pledge which it believed itself unable to fulfill. It did refuse and by refusing exposed itself legally to severe penalties. The penalties meant a renewal of war in everything except actual bloodshed. They constituted a method of settling a controversy about money which is abhorrent to the spirit of liberalism. Yet those of them who had agreed to the signature of  the Treaty were stopped from an but the most ineffectual of protests. As honorable men they could not uncompromisingly object to the imposition of penalties for the failure to execute an agreement which was born of the Treaty of Versailles and which they themselves had endorsed.

Liberals who get themselves into a false position of this kind are driven to protect themselves against its discomforts. The only sufficient protection they can find is to shut their eyes to certain aspects of the truth. Being obligated, for instance, either to support France in collecting money from an unwilling Germany by force or to connive it, they protect themselves by refusing to look facts in the face and to recognize the dangerous drift of French policy. They refuse in particular to admit that the imposition of a military execution on Germany for the refusal to pay an impossible debt is a perfectly logical and necessary corollary of the Treaty of Versailles. 

Certain clauses in that Treaty were written for the purpose if necessary of bringing about precisely this consummation. They were written to provide a legal pretext for the weakening of Germany until she shall cease under any circumstances to be a menace to the future safety of France. The spirit which promoted these provisions is the spirit which has dictated the execution of the Treaty. It is a spirit which if it has its way will assuredly force many millions of Germans either to starve or emigrate. It is a spirit which renders the formation of a League of nations, based on mutual good faith and any recognized principles of international cooperation, and absurdity. It is nihilistic, egotistic and incorrigible spirit which calls not for accommodation and compromise on the part of liberals but for resistance.

The difference between the Evening Post and the New Republic turns, consequently, on two fundamentally different conceptions of the Treaty of Versailles. The Post considers the Treaty, in spite of its admitted defects, a possible foundation for the peace of the world and for the future moral and social progress of the democratic liberation nations. The New Republic considers it, on the contrary, a morally and socially impossible document. It embodies a fabric of European public law which is radically unjust and self-destructive, which is the expression of irreconcilable antagonisms and fears, which will never be validated by the consent of the vanquished peoples and which demands a continued preponderance of force on the part of the victors as its necessary sanction. 

The obligation assumed by the European governments to carry out its provisions renders the foundations of European public order precarious. It associates international law in Europe with the intensification of existing sources of moral and social disorder. It calls not for minor amendments but for radical revision. American ratification of the Treaty would not have redeemed its blunders and sins, but it would have incriminated the American Republic in the attempt to carry them out. This attempt can only result in perpetuating the suffering, the animosities and the feuds which prevailed during the war. The American government can, and in our opinion will, by independent mediation prevent this disaster from taking place; but if it fails or if it does not try, American liberals can at least be thankful that their country has not expressly consented to the visitation on their fellow human beings of this new calamity.

At this moment there is no way of proving which of these two conflicting conceptions of the Treaty of Versailles is nearer the truth. It will be many years before the human intelligence will possess the facts which may permit a final decision of the controversy. But in the meantime the Evening Post begs the question in condemning liberal opposition to the Treaty as futile. A negative policy is not futile because it is negative any more than an affirmative policy is capable because it is affirmative. It all depends upon what you deny and what you affirm. By denying the Treaty of Versailles the New Republic is, as its editors think, affirming the truth of that principle of political conduct which American in her better moments has always cherished—the principle that governments derives its just powers from consent.

The Treaty of Versailles sets up in respect to the vanquished peoples an egregious violation of that principle. Its execution will confirm that denial and will necessarily erect force into the one sufficient sanction of international behavior. It will consequently, like other despotic and violent governments, eventually destroy itself. But if it destroys itself it is important that liberals should not allow their own principles to go down in the ruin. In so far as they support the Treaty, as in general they must if they favor ratification, they will suffer from the disrepute which will eventually attach to the perpetrators of that instrument. But if they oppose the Treaty and try to build up public opinion in favor of radical revision, they may accomplish by voluntary and enlightened effort a work of destruction which, if left to an automatic process, would be far more costly and far less promising for the future. It is of the essence of liberalism to substitute, as the New Republic is now trying to substitute, voluntary action determined by a true vision of human needs for the sinister inhumanity of the law of compensation.