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Bernard Shaw and Woodrow Wilson

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

On November 6th, 1914, George Bernard Shaw addressed to the President of the United States, through the columns of the London Nation, an open letter recommending a certain course of action with respect to the War. There is no record that the letter was ever read by the President. Nevertheless the circumstance is worthy of some note, not alone for the reason that the letter was written by a private citizen of one state to the head of another state, but more because it is one item in a striking mental parallelism between the Irish dramatist and the American President that persisted throughout the duration of the War.

The world of statesmanship and the imaginative world of the dramatist are so far apart that the suggestion that the mind of a playwright may have sometimes accompanied and sometimes led the mind of the head of a great state through the mazes of one of the greatest intellectual adventures of history, may strike the reader as incongruous. And yet I believe that something like this actually occurred. Between the minds of Woodrow Wilson and Bernard Shaw, separated as they were by differences of profession, of temper, and of nationality, there were resemblances no less striking than the differences. Both men were Puritans; both had a radical manner of cutting through the ostensible to the salient; both prided themselves on a prescience that protected them against illusions. Like Wilson, Shaw was a man of free intellect who insisted upon release from convention as a condition of thought. Like Shaw, Wilson was impatient with the impediments set up by custom, and particularly impatient with the moralities and sentiments that serve as cloaks of self-interest and the predatory spirit. Finally, both were dissatisfied with many of the conditions underlying our civilization, and especially with the conditions that had brought about the Great War.

Parallels may also be drawn between the public careers of the two men. If Shaw was the playwright trying his hand at the criticism of statesmanship, Wilson was the pedagogue trying his hand at the tasks of statesmanship. Neither derived his authority from the artificial sanctions of position; both had gained position by reason of radical and forthright thought and speech. Both Wilson and Shaw had employed all the resources of their chosen professions, in the one case schoolmastering, in the other case playwrit-ing, as instruments for the furtherance of their dominant interest, that of statecraft. Both had risen into world view from the platform of the amateur reformer. Of the two Shaw had had more youthful experience in politics than the future president had had. He had been addressing street crowds while Wilson was a student at Johns Hopkins, organizing the Fabian Society, and drafting the first designs of the Labor Party, while Wilson was teaching in a girls’ college.

By 1914 George Bernard Shaw’s reputation in literature and journalism was such as to guarantee for any contribution of his, particularly, on a subject of such immense moment as the Great War, the largest type, the most favored position, and the widest distribution. It is at any rate a supposition worthy of speculation that the President did in fact read Shaw’s comments on the War, that he was aided by them in the substance of his thinking, and even more by the tonic and corrective method of the playwright, which may well have served as a stimulus to his own mind in a period in which few in America had any conception of the nature of the President’s interest in the War.


At the outset of Wilson’s administration he faced the foreign responsibilities of his office with a view as nationalistic as that of the traditional American executive. His attitude implied at the same time an absorbing interest in the task of social and political re-organization at home, and something of a suspicious feeling that foreign affairs constitute a snare from which the wise administrator keeps his fingers as long as possible.

There was nothing discreditable to Wilson in this position. It was not even peculiarly an American attitude. For many years the United States had shared with Great Britain an unconcern with foreign affairs that had in each case been conditioned by the fact that they were both entrenched beyond danger of attack. In both cases there had been a splendid isolation, in the case of England protected by a stretch of water plus a commanding fleet; in the case of the United States by a stretch of water so wide that a commanding fleet was unnecessary. It so occurs that the wide-awake Britisher, Shaw, preceded by only a few years the wideawake American, Wilson, in learning the realities of foreign relationships. And the force that taught them both was a sudden threat of danger that broke through the protective girdle of the sea.

When the hint of crisis came to Wilson at the outbreak of the War his first action was one of caution and not of mastery. In international affairs there is a dignified term for the position Wilson took. This term is Neutrality. By his policy of neutrality Wilson implied not alone the avoidance by this government of participation in the War. He implied a definite exclusion of the United States from any part or interest in the War.

From this position of “guard” Wilson moved abruptly to the second phase of his policy. This phase carried the inference, whether fairly or not, that not only did America have no part in the War, but that in standing aside we were separating ourselves from the causes of the War, which had been discreditable alike to the combatants on both sides.

In the nature of the case no neutrality of caution and avoidance could be maintained. And certainly no neutrality, of Pharisaical judgment could be maintained. The third phase of American foreign policy during the War covers a period of growing alienation from both belligerent groups, an alienation based not alone upon America’s abstention from the War, but upon the morally factitious grounds which served as a basis for our detachment.

The fourth phase necessarily followed, forced by a new and imperative consideration. It became apparent that we were dealing not alone with judgments of the past, and policies as to the present, but with decisions involving the most serious consequences for the future. America would have to live in the world of after-the-war. It would be a smaller world than ever before; a world filled with resentments and bitter memories. This next phase then covers the disappearance of the fiction of neutrality, and the substituting therefor of the presumption that the causes which made the War, intensified as they were in Europe, were still general, that they operate everywhere, and were by no means without their influence in the United States. It was only when Wilson came to the recognition of America’s moral participation in the pre-war conditions that he was led to the theory of common action with one or another of the belligerent sides. And he came to this idea at the precise moment that the concrete dangers became pressing.

The culminating phases of Wilson’s war policy may be hastily summed up as, war to the uttermost for the salvage of democracy; and, an after-war settlement culminating in a League of Nations for the perpetuation of the moral fruits of the War.


Like Woodrow Wilson, Shaw had come slowly to an understanding of the international scene. He had started his career as a radical critic of the economic order. From a purely, mechanistic criticism of society he had pushed forward into an inquiry into the follies, delusions, gullibilities of the human race. This change of attack had coincided closely with the change of the cart-tail philosopher into the dramatist. Even now he Was not aware of, nor was he interested in, the external relationships of the nation. He was interested only in those internal relationships that had to do with the place of the individual in a great industrial fabric of which the state itself is but an agency.

In two respects Shaw’s peculiar philosophies as outlined in his plays had brought him very near to international policy. As an expert in human follies and delusions he had, in “The Man of Destiny,” “Arms and the Man,” and “Caesar and Cleopatra,” shown how the romantic standards of heroism had assigned false and impossible values to the warrior and therefore to war. In “Major Barbara” he had come nearer still to modern economic and political values. For here he finally identifies war with the industrial machine. The end of war does not lie in the hands of the Salvationists who cry “Peace, Peace.” Nor does it lie in the hands of the harried diplomats who take their orders from their masters and willy-nilly do their will. It does not lie in the domain between states at all. It lies further back than this in the invisible strong bonds which tie the state to its masters.

Armorer Undershaft of “Major Barbara” is the characteristic superman of our civilization. He is both industrialist and war-maker. As an industrialist he must be a war-maker or he cannot survive. With admirable dramatic objectiveness, Shaw puts into the mouth of Armorer Undershaft one of the most convincing speeches in the entire range of his drama. In this speech Undershaft defends his own existence against the sentimental whining of the Salvationists and futilitarian critics. As long as these are willing to live in his world, to take contributions from him, to ape him ineffectively, they should not complain that he governs the world by his necessities. And war is one of his necessities ; it is the substance of his being. If war is not wanted, and war of an increasingly cataclysmic order as industrialism widens its battlefields, there must be exchanged for an acquisitive industrialism another system of life based upon motives that are at once more human and more humane.

So far Shaw is doctrinaire. He is not yet an international statesman. He does not become a statesman until the immediate threat of war offers to destroy that placid world in which he is spinning his patient Fabian dreams. Now the philosopher loses patience, becomes anxious. He no longer seeks to end war by changing the social order. A particular war impends, which promises to kill millions of his countrymen and contemporaries. This war must be avoided.


In his search for a means of avoiding the impending war Shaw proceeds to educate himself in the “realities” of the present international situation. The first signs of his new illumination are found in the Preface to “John Bull’s Other Island.” By this time he has discovered that there is a shadow zone between the principles, professions, moralities on which the minds of people have been nurtured for two thousand years, and the necessities underlying the present organization of society. In other words wars are made for the industrial purposes of the present machine order, but wars are defended on moral and sentimental grounds that have nothing to do with that order. Between these two positions there lies a shadow land in which intrigue can work its will, deceiving alike the enemy and the people whose flesh and blood make the wars.

Shaw the philosopher was interested in the deeper causes of war which bind all to responsibility for it, whatever may be their professions ana disclaimers. Shaw the nascent statesman was becoming interested in a more proximate task, the prevention of the impending war, a war that had no shred of justification on any side. What to do then? Theoretically, the answer was clear. First and foremost: Destroy the shadow zone! Create open contacts between one government and another. Tear down the barriers between governments and their people. Make impossible the duplicity, that fattens on squeamishness and false morality.

But this was easier said than done, A large part of the problem, the thing that made war so tragically inevitable, was the fact that the foreign offices themselves existed in this shadow zone, and could conceive of no method for the handling of their duties other than those of indirection and intrigue. Even so the duty upon those who did see clearly was not to be denied. As the foreign offices were tied up in the shadow the individual citizen must act on his own initiative and responsibility. In France Anatole France had the same idea at the same time. The first of Shaw’s public pronouncements in his own name was printed in the columns of the Daily Chronicle during the summer of 1918 in response to a similar one from Anatole France. The second was printed in the London Daily News for January 1st, 1914.

By the beginning of the year 1914 it was well recognized in responsible circles in Europe that war was almost inevitable and was likely to come soon. There is therefore in Shaw’s final plea an urgency and an emphasis not found before. He begins by calling upon the government of England to announce “that war between France and Germany would be so inconvenient to England that the latter country is prepared to pledge herself to defend either country, if attacked by the other.” And he proceeds: “If we are asked to decide which nation is really the aggressor we can reply that we shall take our choice, or when the problem is un-solvable we shall toss up, but that we shall take a hand in the war anyhow.” He goes on: “International warfare is an unmitigated nuisance. Have as much character-building civil war as you like, but there must be no sowing of dragon’s teeth like the Franco-Prussian War. England can put a stop to such a crime single-handed easily enough if she can keep her knees from knocking together in her present militant fashion.”

Needless to say this suggestion passed unnoticed by any one in official position. As Shaw’s pronouncement had something of the manner of a jest, while being in fact in the most deadly earnest, it may be well to interpret explicitly some features in it that can be read only between the lines. Read in the light of Shaw’s pronouncements this proposal had the following implications:

1.  The recognition that if England, France, and Germany keep their relations in order there will be no European war;

2.  The hint of the usefulness of a league of great powers for the elimination of fear among themselves and the ordering of peace among others;

8. The recognition that the thing that causes war is not the designs and ambitions of any one nation but the cruel state of mind behind all nations;

4.  That this state of mind expresses itself in sword rattling but that it expresses knee rattling;

5.  That while fear always breeds pretense before both the enemy and the people at home, the conventions of diplomacy are such that only the people at home are deceived;

6, Finally, that in the confusion and inversions of diplomacy there is no chance of escaping war except through one nation being strong and confident enough to tell the truth in such a manner that it will be believed. This permits one kind of declaration only. If a nation declares that it will not strike, the assertion will be laid to deception. If it gives its word publicly that it will strike it will be believed.


Though there are ample evidences of a common view in the political thinking of the radical Irish dramatist and the radical American president it is clear that up to the outbreak of the War there had been no contact in their positions. But events were forming which were to bring about such a contact. The War broke. By a process as tortuous as any that Shaw had feared England found herself a belligerent. With the outbreak of the War there was organized and turned upon the English people and the world a machine not second in power even to the engines of death themselves.

As a skilled propagandist himself Shaw knew both the powers and dangers of propaganda. He knew that in the hands of the government propaganda was to serve a double purpose. It was to promote the plans for the defense of England and it was to justify the past record of the government. In other words propaganda was to be used to maintain intact throughout the duration of the War that shadow zone of intrigue and duplicity in which the present war had been bred, to serve as a breeding ground for future wars.

The Shavian campaign against war instantly entered its next phase. By the circumstance of the fait accompli, of the gage of battle thrown down, it was now too late to oppose the present war as such. Very well then, let the existing war be accepted as a tragic fact. Let it be carried on with vigor and to victory. At the same time let it be employed as a tableau vivant of the tragic futility of war. In other words, let this war be treated, as no war in the history of the world had ever been treated before, under the devastating light of “common sense.”

There have been some misconceptions about Shaw’s pamphlet “Common Sense about the War.” It was not a pro-German tract, though the Germans took it for such until the author corrected their impressions by publishing, in 1916, “The German Case against Germany.” It is not a pacifist pamphlet. Shaw is never afraid of a fight and believes in fighting under proper conditions. Finally it is not entirely devoted to the international aspects of war. At least half of it is devoted to issues that are local to the war-making country, and treats the measures any nation owes to its citizens before it sends them to war, measures which Woodrow Wilson took care to safeguard when the United States entered the War.

In writing “Common Sense about the War” Shaw had a very definite purpose in mind, a purpose no less serious than that with which he had made his first proposals for English intervention nine months before. To realize what that purpose was it may be well to inquire as to the audience or rather the state of mind to which “Common Sense about the War” was addressed. Shaw was aware of the modern theory of the “nation at arms,” which holds that modern warfare is an enterprise of such tremendous import that it draws to itself all the material and spiritual forces of the nation. He saw too that the War was threatening to become a world war, and that under the theory of “the nation at arms” we might yet see the world as a whole mobilized for its own destruction. In effect he did not subscribe to the theory of the complete and total mobilization of the nation in war. He held that there were important areas of national life persisting throughout the War whose chief purpose was the maintenance of the peaceful and productive integrity of the nation. In large measure these areas were made up of those stable and conservative mental powers of the people upon which the foundations of order had been built. It was in every respect important that those areas be kept inviolate during the distractions of a devastating war.

Here was the state of mind to which “Common Sense about the War” was specifically addressed. Something of this state of mind persisted in England. But there was one field in which this state of mind might be presumed to be the governing principle. This was among the neutrals which had not yet been touched by the great cataclysm. Chief among these was the great country to the west which was governed by a man who seemed to lean over backward in an insistence that his country should not be drawn into the whirlpool. While it was true enough that no country could wash its hands entirely of the conditions that had brought about the War, Shaw counted it fortunate that Wilson blinded his eyes as long as he did to the moral responsibility involved in America’s position, for the reason that by so doing he maintained across the seas an oasis of order which would be of the highest importance after the War.

Here then was the mental state of mind to which “Common Sense about the War” was addressed. It was nothing more and nothing less than an address to the principle of life persisting in the midst of the holocaust of death. Shaw had not then and has not now any idea that he was unpatriotic in thus appealing for the living principles of the nation, and while some of the more violent patriots in England and abroad affected to misunderstand there is no doubt that many of the members of the government agreed with him.

“Common Sense about the War” was addressed to the free mind of England which still persisted behind the passion and prejudice of the War, and it was addressed to the President and people of the United States who were at the time occupying a position of detachment and watchful waiting. It was a studied plea for the spirit of life and order in the midst of a world which was rapidly surrendering to the “uncommon sense” of destruction and disorder. It was the climacteric act of Shaw’s life. Never before or since in his career have the man of action and the man of thought united as they did here in perfect union with an historic event. He studied his facts carefully. His documentation was complete and accurate. He brought to his aid the art that has made him the consummate pamphleteer of modern times and one of the two or three greatest in British history. Against the romantic propaganda of the British Foreign Office he brought the realistic propaganda of inspired “common sense.” “Common Sense about the War” was published as a supplement to the New Statesman of London. As published on successive Sundays in double leaded type in the New York Times, it was the sensation of the early months of the War. If Woodrow Wilson did not read it in the White House it would be surprising.


Looking back on the world as it was in those days, and on the way Shaw’s mind was working, it almost seems that he had lost sight of England entirely. England must be saved. She would be saved if she kept the central core of reason. But the real salvation of the coming world lay in the west. And Shaw kept his eye consistently on America where a man was developing who seemed to embody in his own person the qualities of courage, clarity of mind, and openness of method that were so necessary for the great task of interpreting the real meaning of war to the world and saving the world from suicide. By the only method that was open to him Shaw spoke directly to that man, knowing that while his words were published to millions they would be best understood by one man.

In a letter to the New York American, August 20, 1914, Shaw expresses the opinion that the western nations cannot be smashed. He only hopes that they will all acquit themselves so heroically that they will be compelled to divide the spoils of war and strike hands afterwards.

In an interview with Mary Boyle O’Reilly, October 1st, 1914, he looks forw *o the time when the War will have made the United States all important. “When peace comes, as come it must, if only through international exhaustion . . . there must be a world conference with the President of the United States in the chair. . . . Americans must be the leaders of to-morrow. For Europe must now breed from the men of the last reserve.”

Two years later, in October, 1916, he returns to the same idea, when, in the New York Times, he discusses Anglo-American relations in a mood of devastating candor. We have had our hundred years of peace, but also of irritations, squabblings, ill-temper, and dislike; perhaps we have been kept from fighting only by pettiness and prudence. He reminds the United States that the world is becoming smaller, that like Great Britain the United States is no longer an island; and then he comes to the real point of his argument. The United States must be a party to the peace. This peace must be based on the principle that the United States has established in the world, the republican principle. There is only one country that is prepared to administer such a peace, and that is the country that has made republicanism work and is itself a little “league of nations.”

Ten months later, in August, 1917, when America had entered the War and Wilson had sprung to the offensive of ideas in responding to the Pope’s plea for peace Shaw is quick in approval. However good the plan proposed, Wilson had said, the American people cannot trust the present rulers of Germany. The evil power is not the German people. “It is the ruthless master of the German people.” And again Wilson says, “The American people have suffered wrongs at the hands of the German government but desire no reprisal upon the German people.” Over these words Shaw is exultant. “Reduced to vernacular,” he expounds, “it means, ‘Become a republic and we will let up on you; go to Kaisering and we will smash you.’ . . . The President knows what he is fighting for.”


In his study at 10 Adelphi Terrace Shaw was studying the design of a League of Nations just as was the President on the banks of the Potomac. And Shaw puts his signature to a plea for such a League long before the President had given the idea his public approval.

Before the War, Shaw had called for a bloc of the strongest republican nations of western Europe as a guarantee of peace. On November 24, 1915, after he had seen the part that the United States must take in the settlement, he urged a League of Civilization from the Rockies to the Carpathians, organized on a democratic basis. In his conception of such a league there were two indispensable concomitants: (1) It must be based upon the republican form of government; (2) It must comprise an international organization to enforce peace.

Four months before this, in July, 1915, he had given his approval to a design for a League of Nations drafted by the International Agreements Committee of the Fabian Research Department. This plan forecasts in many respects the design of the League ultimately erected at Geneva.

In all these things there is, or there seems to be, as hinted at the opening of this paper, a parallelism that goes deeper than mere coincidence of thinking, that seems to partake of the quality of a community of insight and of vision on the part of two great men who were both lonely because they had in imagination both advanced beyond the ideas and prejudices of the common run of mankind. How far Shaw’s ideas, born out of the imagination of a dramatist who was always awake to the concrete forces of a real world, were reflected in Wilson’s mind as he sat down to the solutions of the world’s pressing problems, I for one do not venture to say. It may well be that such questions of influence and indebtedness are unimportant. But it is important that during the years of Wilson’s great adventure his spear did have a brother. The fact is not entirely negligible that during the years in which Wilson was preparing himself for his historic role in world organization and innovating statesmanship there should have existed across the sea a man of his own inclination of mind, a man of undoubted articulateness and persuasive powers, moreover a man of such personal and intellectual force that he could in his own right speak face to face with those of the highest official authority.

In the world of the period of the Great War there was no man who more nearly approached equality with Wood-row Wilson than Bernard Shaw. And there was no man who had more of the very things that Wilson needed. In view of Wilson’s avidity as a reader, his quick intuitive response to all currents of world opinion, it is inconceivable that he should have been unaware of the ideas of the great Irishman, his corrective wit, his scoffing anti-romanticism, his concrete and definite analyses of the fabric of international fear, his precise contributions to a solution of pressing problems. These ideas were the very stuff of which a healthy liberalism was being created everywhere in the world.

And it is a striking fact that whether he was influenced or not Wilson’s development did in fact follow the lines of Shaw’s own thinking. As he trained himself in the realities of the world situation Wilson shifted his policy from one of detachment to one of participation and leadership. Through Colonel House he increasingly injected the United States as a watchful factor in the affairs of the belligerents. He prepared long ahead for a place at the Peace Conference. In the development of his own policy he displayed an openness of method fitting to a nicety the prescriptions of the Irish political philosopher. He literally thought out doors.

He displayed himself before all the world going to school to foreign affairs, building up his wisdom and his policy in full communion with his people. He avoided even the appearance of those dangers which Shaw had outlined, the dangers of the diplomatic shadow zone where wars are made against the will of the people. When the time to strike had come “his countrymen had him all by heart.”


That the logic of America’s position should eventually draw her into war was probably as clear to Shaw as it was to others. The important thing was that when she entered the War it was, as nearly as this can ever be, the people who declared the war and not the government which forced a war on an unwilling or misled people. After America entered the War Shaw’s public pronouncements were few. The War was now under the supreme direction of a man he could trust, a man who had dedicated the War to the freeing of peoples and the ending of war.

We come to the end of the War. Of Shaw’s “Peace Conference Hints” it is necessary only, to say that it was intended to serve as a reminder of common sense principles in the midst of the poison gas of special pleading released by the Peace Conference. Shaw did not doubt that many of the statesmen of the Allies were aware of the arguments for a peace without rancors, punitive victories, and Pharisaical assumptions. Of Woodrow Wilson he was sure. Therefore he reminded those heads of states who tended to the arts of the demagogue that there was a watchful and understanding eye upon them. And to Wilson he offered his hand.

In what temper of mind Shaw followed the history of the Peace Conference we can only imagine, He early surmised that Wilson’s real troubles would not come from Europe but from Ajnerica. As a believer in the life principle he rested his faith in “the entirely mystic force of evolution applied through the soul of the living engine we call the man of principle.” With the publication of “Peace Conference Hints” Shaw’s own contribution to international politics ends. From that day to this he has given the League of Nations his support and the smile of his countenance. But he has had no respect for any other conference since that time. Asked to come to the Washington Conference, he refused with an abruptness in which disdain and fear were equally blended.

There are those who say that in the early post-war days when the evangel of Wilson seemed to be in the ascendant some traces of romantic mysticism stole into the writing of the sceptic Shaw. If so he has done penance in the motley of the jester ever since, except for the heartfelt burst of cynicism and disillusion which he permitted himself in “Heartbreak House.” His adventures in world politics now well behind him, he has become more than ever before the irresponsible joker in public places, his jests well barbed with sinister reminder, and in his “metabiological” philosophy he is careful to set the millennium “as far as human mind can reach.”


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