For a Holy War
[The Independent, December 15, 1917]
Our President has again delivered an epochal state paper. In his message addrest to Congress last Tuesday he has given a definition of our war aims that can be emblazoned on our banners for all the world to read, and left flying to the breeze until the war is won. But he has done more than give us a declaration of national policy about which to rally. He has sounded a trumpet call to our allies to purge themselves of ambitions for aggrandizement. He has explicitly and for the first time laid down the inexorable terms of peace to our enemies.
It was necessary for the American people thru their constituted spokesman to take this step as a rightful debt to the civil populations of our allies, that they may surely know what it is they and We are toiling, suffering and striving for. We owe it to the soldiers on the battle line who are giving up more than their lives for something which must be made worthy of their sacrifice. We owe it to ourselves as a bloodless measure of prime military importance. We owe it to our enemies that they may know what to expect and when to quit.
Reduced to their simplest terms President Wilson asserts that our rightful aims in this war are the following:
First. To fight until Germany is helpless or free.
Second. To win from her reparation without vengeance.
Third. To win for ourselves victory without spoliation.
Fourth. To establish a League to Enforce Peace.
Let there be no mistake about our first aim. The President has not turned aside one hair's breadth from the purpose for which, as he long ago declared, we entered the war. Unless the German people themselves overthrow Prussianism, we shall fight to the last man and the last dollar, even tho the victor suffer equally with the vanquished, civilization sink to her death-bed and the dark ages descend on earth once more. There is a faint hope yet remaining that the common peoples of our enemy may help us prevent this evil day. We must leave the door open for this contingency.
Second, this is a war too vast for vengeance. No conceivable punishment would atone for the devastation and misery and sin of it. Yet the wrongs must have their appropriate reparation, a reparation that the sinning nations are physically capable of making. Belgium and northern France must be delivered from "Prussian conquest and Prussian menace" and the peoples of Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, and Turkey must be delivered from "the impudent and alien domination of the Prussian military and commercial autocracy." For the assessment of damages there must be singled out excesses of wanton destruction and brutality—the burning and plundering of defenseless towns, the levying of contributions, and the forced labor and exportation of helpless civilians. Reparation, yes, but no vengeance. Vengeance belongs not to man, nor has he the capacity to measure out the due measure for these days of cataclysm.
And, third, not "peace without victory," but victory without spoliation. Here is the stumbling block. Our allies have shown marked reluctance to publish their peace aims in concrete terms. Those secret agreements that have already been given out in Petrograd show-—as we all suspected—that these terms include for some of the Allies' aggrandizement for themselves in territory and political influence. No selfish aims will succeed in this war. What rightfully belongs to these nations may come to them, if only they show a disposition to work for the common good. Our fearless President has done well to speak directly on this point. "We are Seeking," he says, "permanent not temporary foundations for the peace of the world and must seek them, candidly and fearlessly. As always the right will prove to be the expedient."
Yet how can we blame England, for instance, if she refuses to return the African conquests to Germany. It would be a grim jest to the native population and would create a perpetual military menace to her peaceful and self-governing colonies. What shall be done with the conquered territories?
This leads us to the fourth and most important requisite of the President's war program. The Allied nations are now definitely committed to the establishment of a League to Enforce Peace. As to whether the League shall be formed before or at the close of the war opinions differ. The President evidently does not propose its establishment now. But why should not this League of Nations, when constituted, be put in control of all territories conquered by the Central Powers or the Allies? We have particularly in mind, however, the backward nations and the undeveloped and disorganized areas of the earth, which have been so fruitful a cause for dissensions and wars among the powers. Let the League administer these territories for the joint benefit of the native inhabitants, the civilized colonists and the whole family of nations. The profits from what has been mere exploitation of natural Resources will furnish under enlightened and stable international supervision abundant funds for the development of these territories in communication, industry, education and all other elements of civilization. The ultimate aim will be to restore to their racial and lingual stocks such separated peoples as wish to be so restored and to make new self-governing units of the more backward and unattached areas. This joint control of conquered territories is favored by the Labor Party and many of the liberals of Great Britain. If practical it would at once solve the most difficult problems before the world, some of which would seem almost incapable of negotiated solution on any other basis.
Into this League of course all free and enlightened nations must be invited. The President wisely suggests, however, that should Germany at the end of the war still retain, a government that could not be fully trusted, she might not be permitted to enter the League or enjoy its military, economic and political advantages until she democratized herself.
The plan of a League to Enforce Peace is radical and revolutionary. But it is no more radical or revolutionary than the issue that confronted our fathers in 1776. How can the statesmen of the world today begin with any better words than these found in the preamble of our Constitution?
We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure, the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
What better expression can we find for the desirability—nay, in view of present and future menace, the necessity—of a more perfect Union for the Free Peoples of the Earth, as well as for the free states of America? What one of us is there who does not feel a dread in his heart, a gripping fear, lest the democracy our fathers fought for may be struck from our hands? What better safeguard is there than to apply on a larger scale the measures applied by our fathers on our few hundred miles of Atlantic sea coast?
Another parallel with our own history is that which the conquered areas assigned to the League bear to our own national domain before statehood was granted to our western territories. This undivided area, owned by all the states in common, was one of the most powerful of the bonds which made a nation of those thirteen states. The conquered areas will do the same service for the League to Enforce Peace.
This is a matter of extreme importance. A few miserable pubic yards of stone, brick and mortar in the Peace Palace at The Hague formed all the tangible property binding the nations together in the days before the war. Let us make this league worth joining, worth working and fighting for! Give the Free Peoples a stake in it! Here is the talisman which lifts the movement for internationalism above ribald jests and paper constitutions.
The third parallel is an ominous one. It is that between individual human slavery and race slavery. The time is coming when all the Free Peoples will realize that no one people is well intentioned enough, or wise enough, to hold in subjection another people who are of compact population and who occupy well-defined territory—even tho that subject people may be backward and uncivilized. Only, the family of free nations has the right! to administer the necessary restraints and corrective measures; and on it devolves the duty of educating and civilizing.
This serious problem may, with some misgivings, be left for the future, as our fathers left it. But the solution must not be too long delayed. Meanwhile let us start with race slavery eliminated from our common domain, as they eliminated personal slavery from theirs.
In the fourth place we have a parallel case to the Monroe Doctrine. We say to the autocratic powers, as Monroe said to the Holy Alliance in his day, "Hands off—this soil is sacred to Freedom and Democracy." As foreshadowed by our President, our own narrower interpretation will be incorporated into this disentangling alliance, this larger Monroe Doctrine, and with the merger we shall gain strength and standing for our common interests against any menacing Devil's Alliance that can confront it.
The fifth and last parallel is with the military and political considerations, which led Lincoln to sign the Proclamation of Emancipation before the Civil War was won. The definition of aims and the formation of the League to Enforce Peace which we are proposing, taken together, form a military measure of the first importance. So far as the plain citizen can judge, this war may come to a serious pass in its political aspects at a time when it should not be unfavorable to us from the military standpoint. We have been accustomed to deride the diplomacy of Germany, and with reason, so far as concerns her skill in the legitimate exercize of the art. We cannot deride, but must instead regard with great concern, her success in the lower fields of intrigue and lying propaganda among uneducated peoples.
Russia is rendered helpless and the Italian front is broken by German victories which are political rather than military. We hear rumors of war weariness among the peoples of all the Allied nations. This weariness is encouraged, propagated and given channels of expression by the same subtle agency. A peace based on any of the proposals which have been inspired by this weariness would give Germany all those tremendous material and moral gains which are listed by M. Cheradame in the November Atlantic and which were so vividly described by the President in his Buffalo speech.
As with the military situation, so with the political situation, salvation lies in the hands of America. We cannot, must not, fight the political battle with the same evil weapons of falsehood and intrigue. Instead we must use the strength which our military importance and our disinterestedness give us to press for such a revision of war aims among our allies as will strip our side of the contest of all its remaining sordid aspects.
To put it briefly, the Allies can bring this war to an early and successful conclusion, if their war aims can be 'published, in reasonable detail, and can be seen by all the world to contain no material gain for any one of them. So long as military success entails aggrandizement in territory and political influence for the individual Allied nation, so long will opposing political propaganda have food to grow on, and so long will the end of the war be delayed. It is criminal to delay that end for the sake of material advantage. Let all the Allied nations therefore endorse President Wilson's four great aims of the war.
Thus, at one stroke, we cleanse our purposes, hearten our peoples, attract further the sympathy of neutrals, perchance retain the assistance of Russia, and with pure spiritual fires burn out the props which sustain the military organizations of our enemies.
But—can we win our allies to this program? We do not want to—we must not—unduly embarrass them in these critical times. Let us admit, once for all, that we may not win governments to this program; but we must and shall win peoples!
Governments in Europe have risen and fallen, but, the peoples have fought on. Of peoples as distinguished from governments we need have no fear. Never before, indeed, has the might of mere masses of men been exhibited as in this war. It is fought not with armies, but with peoples. In their hands lies the issue.
This the clear vision of our President has discerned. At last he stands today as the acknowledged leader of the forces of democracy engaged in the overthrow of absolutism, as the great champion of liberalism on earth. To him is apparently destined the imperishable honor of first translating the dreams of the poets, prophets and philosophers into practical statesmanship. He first has had the vision and the courage to make the common purpose of this war the establishment of justice and democracy and the substitution of cooperation for competition in international relations. His message will raise the war to a higher level. It will hearten all men of good repute, among the Allied nations. It will drive the wedge deeper between the German people and their Government. We shall fight it out under his high leadership, and when we and our allies have purged our aims of all selfishness this war will become a holy war. Thank God that Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, is hastening the coming of this day.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald