A Message to the People of the United States

By William Howard Taft

[The Independent, August 10, 1914]

As I write, Germany is reported to have declared war against Russia and France, and the participation of England on the one side and of Italy on the other seems imminent. Nothing like it has occurred since the great Napoleonic wars, and with modern armaments and larger populations nothing has occurred like it since the world began.

It is a cataclysm. It is a retrograde step in Christian civilization. It will be difficult to keep the various countries of the Balkans out of the war, and Greece and Turkey may take part in it. All Europe is to be a battleground. It is reported that the neutrality of Holland has already been ignored and Belgium offers such opportunities in the campaign certain to follow that her territory, too, will be the scene of struggle.

Private property and commercial shipping under an enemy's flag are subject to capture and appropriation by prize proceedings; and with the formidable navies of England, France, Germany, Russia and Italy active the great carrying trade of the world will be in large part suspended or destroyed or will be burdened with such heavy insurance as greatly to curtail it.

The commerce of the world makes much for the prosperity of the countries with whom it is conducted and its interruption means great inconvenience and economic suffering among all people whether at peace or war. The capital which the European people have invested by the billions in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and in the Orient must perforce be withdrawn to fill the war chests of the nations engaged in a death grapple, and the enterprises which that capital made possible are likely to be greatly crippled while the hope of any further expansion must be definitely given up.

This general European war will give a feverish activity in a number of branches of our industry, but on the whole we shall suffer with the rest of the world, except that we shall not be destroying or blowing up our existing wealth or sacrificing the lives of our best young men and youth.

It is hard to prophesy the scope of a war like this, because history offers no precedent. It is impossible to foresee the limits of a war of any proportions when confined only to two countries. In our own small Spanish war we began it to free Cuba and when the war closed we found ourselves ten thousand miles away with the Philippines on our hands.

The immense waste of life and treasure in a modern war makes the loss to the conqueror only less, if indeed it be less, than the loss to the conquered.

With a high patriotic spirit, people enter upon war with confidence and with the thought of martial glory and success. The sacrifices they have to make, the suffering they have to undergo are generally such that if victory does not rest upon their banners they seek a scapegoat for that which they themselves have brought on in the head of the state, and the king or emperor who begins a war or allows one to begin puts at stake not only the prestige of his nation, but also the stability and integrity of his dynasty.

In such a war as this, therefore, with the universal tendency to popular control in every country, the strain and defeat in war may lead to a state of political flux in those countries which shall suffer defeat, with all the attendant difficulties and disorder that a change of government involves.

While we can be sure that such a war as this, taking it by and large, will be a burden upon the United States and is a great misfortune, looked at solely from the standpoint of the United States, we have every reason to be happy that we are able to preserve strict neutrality in respect to it. Within our hospitable boundaries we have living prosperous and contented emigrants in large numbers from all the countries who are to take part in the war and the sympathies of these people will of course be with their respective native lands. Were there no other reason this circumstance would tend to keep us free from any entanglement.

We may sincerely hope that Japan will not be involved. She will not be unless the war is carried on to the far Orient, to India or to China. Germany has but a small settlement in the Orient, while France and Russia and England would be allies in this war and it would seem quite unlikely that there would arise any obligation under the English-Japanese alliance for Japan to assist England.

Of the great powers of the world, therefore, the only ones left out are likely to be the United States and Japan, and perhaps only the United States, by reason of the alliance between Japan and England. Japan, if she keeps out of the war, will occupy the same advantageous position, which will be ours, of complete neutrality, of an actually judicial attitude, and therefore, of having an opportunity at some time, we may hope, to mediate between the powers and to help to mitigate this disaster to mankind.

At the time when so many friends of peace have thought that we were making real progress toward the abolition of war this sudden outbreak of the greatest war in history is most discouraging. The future looks dark indeed, but we should not despair.

"God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform." Now that the war is a settled fact, we must hope that some good may come from this dreadful scourge. The armaments of Europe had been growing heavier and heavier, bankruptcy has stared many of the nations in the face, conflict between races had begun to develop.

War seemed likely at some stage and the question which each country had to answer for itself was at what time the situation would be most favorable for its success. The immediate participants have decided that the time has come and thru their international alliances all Europe is involved.

There has been no real test of the heavy armament on land or water as developed by modern invention and this contest is to show what has been well spent for war purposes and what has been wasted. It is by no means certain that waste will not exceed in cost that which was spent to effective purpose.

One thing I think we can reasonably count on is that with the prostration of industry, with the blows to prosperity, with the state of flux that is likely to follow this titanic struggle, there will be every opportunity for common sense to resume its sway; and after the horrible expenditure of the blood of the best and the savings of the rich and the poor, the opportunity and the motive for a reduction of armament and the taking away of a temptation to further war will be greatly enhanced.

It is an awful remedy, but in the end it may be worth what it costs, if it makes this the last great war. The influence of America can be thrown most effectively for peace when peace is possible and for minimum armaments when disaster and exhaustion shall make the contending peoples and their rulers see things as they are.

Manor Richelieu, Quebec

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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