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Democracy’s Test by War - and Peace

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

War interferes with human liberty, in uncon-quered democracies, in that it compels men to fight, or to work. It seems fair to say that the draft of men and women deprives them of part of their essential freedom, while the imposition of rationing or price control or priorities interferes only with commercial custom or industrial privilege. This line of demarcation is not easy to defend, of course, on a strict logical basis. Some will say that a single ration stamp seals the coffin of liberty. Others will remember that Switzerland has compelled military service for over a century and remained free and democratic.

War-time interference with liberty is not consistent with the purposes of democratic government, but without such interference we would lose all hope for democracy. Therefore, we put up with it. We forfeit some of our freedom, temporarily; we intend thereby to save our democracy permanently. The trouble is that we may fool ourselves into thinking that the struggle for democracy is won when the war is won. In fact, that struggle is endless, and the effect of war will be felt far more heavily after the fighting stops than it is today.

It is often said that democracies are best fitted to wage war, because free people fight with more fervor and endurance than their enemies. It is also said that war is incompatible with democracy, in that it requires virtual dictatorship and so threatens the whole democratic structure with permanent destruction. These are both general propositions which have been blithely stated by many important people. Neither should be swallowed whole.

France was a democracy and lasted for six weeks under attack. Russia is a tyranny and is winning’ the war. England, a democracy, showed the courage, in Kipling’s phrase, to “hold on”; the United States, a democracy, has produced not only powerful fighting forces but also the weapons of victory. But the British might have held on just as well under an absolute monarch, and our own effort might have been as great under a dictator. I doubt if it would have, but I cannot tell. Certainly, we cannot prove, with any confidence, that democracy is the best government for a nation at war.

As for the effect of war on democracies, let us see how they have fared. Most of them have been destroyed or enslaved. That is evidence of what war does to nations, not to democracies as such. It is an intimation of what war in the future will do to the greatest nations, whatever their governments: stratosphere rocket bombs will not be bothered by constitutions any more than by distance.

I remember reading with close attention the views of Mr. Hoover and others, who declared that if the United States entered the war, our democratic system would be in deadly peril from within; we would “lose our rights” and quite possibly never regain them. This danger was one factor to be weighed in the constant mental scales-tipping which occupied many of us in Congress during 1041. It did not bulk very large, but it was a possibility to be considered.

From our own experience, as well as Great Britain’s, it is now obvious that these fears were groundless. We have not lost our rights, nor our freedom to shout for them. In some ways, in fact, the democratic structure has been buttressed by war, instead of weakened. Governmental power has necessarily been more centralized, and yet the Bill of Rights still exists here, elections are held on schedule, and Congress over-rides vetoes or ignores presidential requests.

In England, to be sure, there has been no general election since 1935; but in by-elections radical candidates have been sent to Parliament. The Marble Arch corner in Hyde Park still echoes, of a Sunday, with the cries of the stump orators, and at Westminster Mr. Aneurin Revan says things about Mr. Churchill that remind one faintly of the personal attacks of a Congressman like Hoffman or Lambertsou on the President and his family.

To be sure, there are still some British subjects incarcerated, without a trial, under regulation “18-b.” as being-persons dangerous to have at large during the war. Considering the proximity of the enemy and the life-and-death importance of “security,” the number is extraordinarily small, and it is a pity that it was reduced a year ago by the inexplicable release of Sir Oswald Mosley. In America, we have been holding a number of suspected persons, most of them aliens. To be keeping thirty-nine Italian aliens in custody, months after the fall of Rome, because of their pre-war praise of Fascism, may offend some of us, but it is no cause for alarm about democracy in America. The record of the Roosevelt administration in this war, with respect to concern for the citizens’ constitutional rights, is far better than that of the Wilson administration, the only reallv black spot being the treatment of loyal American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

Maintaining our democratic rights during the “regimentation” of war-time strengthens democracy itself, for it serves to deepen the faith of all who care to see. Of those, in this country, who do not care to see, it can only be said that they were sniffing tyranny on every breeze from the Potomac long, long before Pearl Harbor. They cannot very well say now that war has impaired American democracy, for they have been despairing of American democracy for ten years anyway. Here, and in Great Britain, and in the nations of the British Commonwealth as well, we have the surprising spectacle of war, the supposed destroyer of democracy, actually proving that the democratic system and tradition are strong enough to weather the mightiest of storms.

In another respect, also, the war has quickened our democracy. It has demanded that citizens perform the duties of citizenship: and millions have responded and found enjoyment and pride in their response. This, of course, is far more the case in England than America. Enemy bombers make the whole world kin, and civilians surprise themselves by doing their duty regardless of personal discomfort or danger. Ordeal by blitzkrieg is a drastic test, but the free people which survives it emerges with its democratic tradition purified. We in this country have been put to no such test. Men returning from abroad sometimes wish we had been, when they see the waste and pleasure-seeking, and hear the grumbling. Hut we arc not weaker than the Brit-ish; we have simply not been under fire. And for every car we see illegally at the race track, let us remember the local civilian defense unit and multiply it a thousand times:

groups of people doing their duty as citizens, preparing for attacks that never came.

In the fighting of a war, men are men regardless of their national or racial origin; and here we have an impact of war upon democracy which may or may not be good for it. Our awareness of the problem of “minorities” has been heightened. This war is different from others, in that the enemy is the preacher of anti-Semitism, and part of our job is to keep his ideas from winning while his armies lose. But anti-Semitism is not a product of this war. What the war has done is to portray in bold relief the challenge presented by the mere existence of two other groups: in England, the children of the slums; in America, the Negroes.

The evacuation of the children from London and other cities revealed conditions which shocked the British people. Upper and middle-class families learned, first hand, that their great cities harbored squalor and filth and ignorance which, they imagined, had disappeared a century ago. The most startling symptom was the vast quantity of lice in the Youngsters’ hair. The obvious remedies included re-housing, greater emphasis on compulsory free education, and a more equitable distribution of income.

The case of the American Negroes is of course much more complicated. The war has brought the Negro problem to a sharper point than we have known for seventy years. Colored soldiers and sailors fight for America and die in the line of duty. The manpower shortage makes colored workers worth more, in wages, than many white men were in prewar days. These facts have renewed our consciousness of discrimination. Whether a frontal attack on discrimination is good for democracy, or America, or the Negroes themselves, is a debatable and much debated question. Surely, however, it is well to locate the points of infection in the body politic; and without prescribing the remedy, we can begin by recognizing the existence of a disease. This disease of racial discrimination may, just possibly, run its course, like the common cold; but it seems to me more likely that it will result in a pretty high fever soon after the war is over. It is well to be prepared for that.

In fact, it is well to prepare now for the days “after the war is over.” American democracy weathered Pearl Harbor with hardly a tremor. Can it weather the coming day of peace? If it is fair to say that war, in itself, has not impaired our democracy, it must also be admitted that it has created or heightened new attitudes—call them psycho-political—which may seriously endanger democracy during the next few years. The centralization of power leads to political demands for decentralization, or even abnegation of power; the emotions of war-time are often followed by cold and selfish cynicism; men who have felt equal to anyone on the battlefield are not easily relegated to positions of inferiority and hopelessness. Can a democratic state survive this triple reaction?


First, consider the reaction against strong government, We have indeed been fortunate in this war and the last in that we had in the White House men big enough to handle the great powers of war-time with equanimity. Lesser men would either have fumbled the ball (or passed it outright to the generals), or would have been frightened by the posses-

sion of power and so seized it far too tightly. But if Wilson

and Roosevelt were well qualified to serve as war presidents, their pre-war policies heightened the likelihood of post-war

reaction. The New Freedom and the New Deal demanded much of the people: readiness for change, mental effort to “keep abreast of Washington,” self-control when cherished “isms” were trampled on, and great faith in the worth of humble men. They were both part of the process by which government-the-arbiter was being transformed into what Ambassador Winant has called “service democracy.” They both frightened many people who still possess great industrial or economic power. Those people have a good chance to regain political power when the war is over.

Add to the record-keeping and supposed annoyances caused by the new laws of the ‘thirties the war-time regulations such as price-fixing, and as a result of their impact you will find a people pretty weary of government. Take the individual who has had one unfortunate experience with his ration board, or feels that he has been unjustly treated by being denied materials with which to finish his house:—l may condemn the government as a whole. The Republican party capitalized, in 11)20, on this perfectly natural reaction; the Republican platform, in 1944, is essentially a promise of normalcy. Regardless of party, there are many important people who want to deprive the government of its war-time powers as soon as the fighting is over. They would hardly stop with war-time powers. The attack on government itself seems to me to constitute a serious threat to democracy and freedom. Its violence will be increased by war. Its full force will be felt in peace-time.

Why should a “return to Thomas Jefferson” threaten democracy and freedom? Is not the least government the best government? No longer: the least government, nowadays, is just a stepping-stone toward the worst government. Professor Carl Becker says that the choice before us is “what kind of collectivism?”—a choice imposed by “the history of technological society in our time.” The only kind acceptable to most Americans is “social democracy”—sufficient government participation to achieve maximum production and equitable distribution, without the surrender of our basic liberties.

Possibly a sincere optimist can honestly say that the desired goals can be reached by untrammeled private enterprise: but he would have to be ready to disregard the evidence. History, here and elsewhere, refutes him: and the evidence before us right now does not confirm his faith. How is private enterprise going to employ not only the “war workers” but ten million ex-service men as well? No one can give a convincing answer. Of course there must be government participation: the issue is one only of degree. And as for private enterprise itself, are we going to revert to a chaotic scramble for supplies that are still short, and to prices fixed only by each producer or combine? We may do so—but if we do, the goal of full production will recede into the dim distance, and the spectre of violent inflation will stalk again. The quick abandonment of price control would lead to confusion and suffering. We should not forget that in the last war the worst “high cost of living” came not during the conflict, but after Armistice Day.

A really sharp reaction—a real attempt to return to the “normalcy” of the 1870’s and the 1920s—would itself endanger democracy. It would mean cither weak government, or strong government on the side of the few. Either of these would pursue policies inevitably leading to unemployment, and we would be lucky indeed to live through another great depression without falling under the spell of some native-American tvrant.

There are plenty of straws of reaction in the wind, and they must not be ignored. When Congress terminated the National Resources Planning Hoard, it killed the one national agency which was designed to give impetus and unity to constructive post-war planning. Nothing has been put in its place. When a majority of both Houses voted to upset the price-control program by abolishing subsidies, and the labor relations program by curbing labor’s rights, they gave us an inkling of wdiat to expect in the near future: prices running wild, and a concerted effort to weaken or destroy unions and go back to the days of low wages and long hours. This is the temper of the majority of the 78th Congress. Whoever is elected President, it is likely to be the temper of the 79th Congress also.

It is not reasonable, perhaps, but it is human enough. For some years members of Congress have grown increasingly resentful over the small part they play in actual law-making. Yet when action is needed—to combat the depression, to fight the Germans and Japanese—Congress necessarily responds by delegating a large amount of quasi-legislative power to the executive branch. They have to do this, because events compel it; but they do not like to do it at all. Hence they suddenly lash out and, in the name of “legislative prerogatives,” abolish this agency or that—learning later that they have neither time nor inclination to do the job themselves. It is an unhappy situation, made the more so by the wide gulf between the “experts” in the bureaus and the “politicians” in the Congress. The experts are inclined to think of Congressmen as wild animals, amusing when caged, but dangerous when at large. The politician thinks of the bureaucrat as an ivory-tower snob. This gulf can he greatly narrowed by good sense and some organized effort on both sides: whoever is elected in November, the year 1945 would seem an excellent time to begin. A “service democracy” cannot function in an atmosphere of endless antagonism within itself. And if it docs not function, we will not have any democracy long.

For the government to he effective in the modern world, much rule-making power must be delegated. Some of this is (lay-by-day legislating; some of it is a quasi-judicial process. The neat division into three branches has been blurred, not so much by men as by events, until the dividing lines, instead of being boundaries, are more like pathways from one branch to another. If we had held fast to the original concept of the separation of powers, by this time we would probably find all the power in the hands of someone we did not like, instead of in our own hands where it still finally rests.

The war has given us additional experience in governing. Many men of vision and ability have participated in the work of the war agencies—work which is part executive, part judicial, part legislative. They have learned something of the complexities of the democratic process. They have chafed at waste and delay: but they have also taken pride in the doing of a difficult job. They know now that a “bureaucrat” is not necessarily a figure of fun, but rather a hardworking man doing work that has to be done if confusion is not to confound the national effort. Most of these people will return to private life when the war is over, but they should have a keener realization of both how government functions and why it must function. The last is the most important—an understanding of why government must function. The peril lies in imagining that while government must be effective in time of war, it should get back to the sidelines—or the umpire’s box—in time of peace.

Why are we afraid of our government? It is ours, and we can change it if we want to. Ah, says the critic, we can change it if we get the chance: but an all-powerful government, in order to retain its power, will deprive us of that chance. It will deny us free elections, free speech, a free press. That is the old complaint against the concept of “social democracy”: the “social,” or socialistic, side is in the nature of things a threat to democracy and freedom. And the old complaint makes less and less sense as we learn by our own experience that we can have an effective government and still be free. Two wars in twenty-five years have taught us that we must be vigilant, but we need have no fear, Those who seek to arouse our fear, by saying that strong government deprives us of our liberties, either ignore history or are misleading us for their own purposes. The American people, so long as they are not in desperate straits, will nottolerate a dictator: and vigorous and intelligent popular government is the best insurance against getting into desperate straits. We need such a government to win wars. We need it if we are to solve the problems of the peace.


We are hardly likely to have any effective government at all if we forget that it is ours. That applies to local communities as much as to the nation. If the requirements of war have led us into new habits of thinking of ourselves as citizens, there is more hope for the future. In this country, however, we cannot assume that such habits will endure beyond the day of peace, and we cannot be sure that the returning service men will give first place to the duties of citizenship.

The situation in Great Britain is different. Again, enemy bombs teach lessons which cannot be learned by proxy. Furthermore, the British have done well not only in keeping alive, but in stimulating the concept of citizenship in their fighting forces. The Army Bureau of Current Affairs has provided not only an outlet for soldiers with ideas, but an exciting education in modern democracy. Many British soldiers have taken pride in it, and have shown their eagerness for more discussion of the politics and economics of the present and the future.

In our own Army, a few attempts have been made at duplicating this successful experiment. But the handicaps have been great. There still remains, among our young men, a curious sense of shame in talking about public affairs; the boy who wants to listen to the Town Meeting of the Air instead of a comedy program is afraid of being considered queer or radical. To overcome this juvenile reluctance, a good strong push was needed from the top: but the officers in charge were not bold enough to give this push. Worse, they were timid in the extreme when it came to criticism by Congress; one speech by a Hoffman or a Woodruff would make them postpone or change their plans. They feared the criticism of reactionaries, and the whole program suffered. Witness the recent absurdity of banning a life of Mr. Justice Holmes from the soldiers’ libraries, because of its invisible political implications. Witness the fate of the progressive editor of “Yank” in England, who built up a first-class, stimulating magazine only to be removed and replaced by a former staff member of the New York Daily News.

What will be the result of this partial failure? Already many returning service men say that their comrades are scornful of “politics” and “politicians” and view all speeches or statements or programs as “bunk” or worse. A large number of them, then, will come home armed with a layer of cynicism as far as public affairs are concerned. They have had a grim time. Despite the excellent Army motion picture series, many still are vague as to why they are fighting, especially in Europe. They have been living under discipline, without the great civilian responsibility of making choices about many things every day. They have been separated from home by more than oceans. Every plan for veterans’ rehabilitation falls short if it does not include a program for bringing these boys, as private citizens, into the centre of many forms of community endeavor.

One reason for the soldiers’ cynicism is the real or fancied political selfishness of both individuals and organized groups. The anti-union feeling is partly caused by the belief, whether right or wrong, that unions have used the government for their own ends. When the profits of private war industries are finally compiled, they will likewise be deemed evidence of the use of political power for private ends. Every pressure group which pleads its own cause and fails to show that it is also pleading for the country’s good will plays into the hands of the skeptic and the scorner. We arc only worthy of democracy if we have faith in it, and there are always some who lose their faith in it because they feel we are unworthy of it. If we ever find ourselves drifting into the blackness of Fascism, it will be because the men of little faith, without any real intention to do so, let the sails drop and the rudder get fouled.

Rut not all men who lose faith are blameworthy. Sometimes they are denied the chance to know what democracy is. Sometimes they never experience the freedom they hear about. The children of the slums who begin to understand the meaning and value of liberty are fortunate and few. The minority that is denied equality with other human beings finds that talk about democracy simply does not ring true. Why should an American citizen who cannot vote, or attend the college of his choice, or go to see a play at the theatre, or sit where he likes in a street ear, have any great faith in lofty verbiage about democratic institutions?

Their lack of faith is inevitably shared, to some degree, by all those who silently or vocally resent injustice. The war has increased the likelihood of that resentment, for it has made the injustices more apparent. This may be a good thing, if we accept the challenge and correct the evil; it can be a bad and bitter thing, if we sit back, feeling ashamed of ourselves, and do nothing whatever about it.

1 have mentioned the children from the East End of London and other cities. One thing the war has done in England is to create a widespread determination to correct the evils that have been revealed. I doubt if even a highly conservative government could long thwart that determination. In the highly unlikely event that nothing at all is done and the rulers merely say, “the poor we have always with us,” the ensuing despair or radical reaction might not be at all good for democracy. The war has revealed social injustice, and the revelation can he a boon to democracy if it results in positive action.

It did not take war to reveal social injustice in America; vet in the case of the Negro, it has certainly heightened the Negro’s consciousness of it. The colored soldier who was treated as an equal by white civilians in other lands will not easily accept inferior status at home. We have hardly begun to grapple with this problem, for it has only been with us in its present form for eighty years, and that is probably a short time compared with the decades or centuries it will take before the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration are in fact accepted by all our people. Hut we cannot ignore it. We can deny that there is a problem, and be plagued by race riots: and the effect on our democratic system will be calamitous. Or we can recognize the problem and try to solve a part of it. I do not profess to know how fast we can go; possibly, as John Temple Graves has argued, precipitate action might damage the wdiole cause of human freedom. Possibly not. Anyway, even precipitate action for the establishment of a more just relationship between colored and white people is better than no action at all: for inaction, under the new conditions bred by war, can lead only to violence, as it did after the last war.

In all these matters there is a question of will -the will to make government effective for the public good; the will to hold the government responsible to us, and to hold ourselves responsible for it; the will to face up to the grave complications of the present and future. The war has cleared away many of our groundless fears. We know we have a workable and reasonably decent system of human society. We know that we can make it work if we maintain both faith and courage. If, heedlessly or cynically, we let matters drift and give no thought to the welfare of the nation, we will not keep our freedom long. Democracy can survive a depression if something is being done, by the instruments of the popular will, to give hope in the future. It can survive the internal conflicts that are always with us, if we are making any progress toward removing the causes of those conflicts. But it could not long survive the indifference of the people to the public weal. The inconveniences, emotions, and experiences of war-time can lead to political, psychological, and social reactions which might be fatal to our system of free government. They need not do so; but they will, unless we recognize the challenge and prepare to meet it. Democracy has survived the test of war. The harder test is yet to come.


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