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Europe’s War and America’s Democracy

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

It may have been a great mistake for the American colonies to have left the British Empire in 1776, but that decision was not in the hands of this generation. Being out of the Empire, it may be wisest to conduct our foreign policy in the light of this fundamental historical reality. It is perfectly obvious that a pro-American approach to world affairs today is an extremely quaint attitude, but it may prove a healthy variation from the run-of-the-mill discussions. It is certainly not yet a treasonable way of looking at things, though it probably will be shortly after election day. We may well take advantage of the precious interval.

In clarifying the role of the United States in the world situation today it is desirable at the outset to dispel some of the more common myths which befog and distort our vision, Among these the following are the most important:

(1)  This is a holy war with all the nice people on one side and all the murderers, idiots, thieves, liars, and degenerates on the other.

(2)  We are certain to be invaded and overrun by a victorious coalition of Nazis, Fascists, and Stalinists after they have joined forces and conquered Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia, Madagascar, Africa, South America, Central America, the West Indies, and Mexico.

(3)  The British navy always has been and is now our chief line of defense against every conceivable foreign enemy. If Britain is defeated we shall be utterly at the mercy of any country that looks upon us with an envious eye.

(4)  It would be an unspeakable calamity for Germany to win and for Britain to lose in the present conflict.

Just who the nice people and who the world-villains are is and always has been a very debatable question. In this matter it is preeminently true that there is no accounting for tastes. My own preferences are for the French, but I would have difficulty in defending this prejudice on any ground other than my infantile conditioning. For a half century after the Civil War most literate Americans thought the Germans were the nicest people in the world and John Fiske used to tell us that the first great battle in American history was the battle of the Teutoburg Forest where stout Ar-minius destroyed the legions of Augustus. All our democracy was traced to the German backwoods. Just now it is somewhat of an understatement to say that we prize the British more highly than we do the Germans. But so did the French on June first of the present year. . . .

When it comes to such things as political treachery, diplomatic lying, wartime and imperialistic atrocities, territorial ambitions, and the like, no country or coalition of states enjoys any monoply of good or evil. One can assemble a most shocking anthology from the historical records of Russia, Germany, Austria, France, Britain, Italy, or Spain. Indeed, our own record hardly warrants Mr. Hull’s assumption that we can qualify readily to act as the moral schoolmaster of the world. The present war started out as a struggle of the Old Thieves against the New Thieves, in which the Old Thieves had the better manners and the New Thieves the better case, accepting as our scale of values those which prevail in an era of nationalism and capitalistic imperialism.

There is little probability that the totalitarian of the Old World will swoop down upon us after they have overcome and occupied all of the other land masses of the planet. They are far more likely to fight among themselves. Even if they do not, it is improbable that they will jeopardize the vast spoils of the Old World in order to launch a desperate venture in the Western Hemisphere. The totalitarian leaders may be knaves, but they are not fools. They will hold what they have gained in the Old World, and it will take them generations to organize and digest the spoils of victory, Save for the vaporings of disgruntled renegades and sensational journalists there is no evidence that the totali-tarians even remotely contemplate any onslaught against us.

Having some knowledge of American history I cannot take too seriously the common allegation that the British navy has been our invariable and sole defense against a hostile and bellicose world. The British navy was hardly our first line of defense in 1776, 1808, 1812, 1862, or 1914. It might be well to ask, quite simply, just whom the British navy has ever protected us from. We have never been attacked or threatened by any powers save Britain and France.

In fact, it is not unfair to suggest that the British Empire is probably the chief menace to the peace of this country. It is not likely that the British will ever attack us in the future, but there is every probability that we will be dragged into any major war in which the British Empire is involved. If we must fight, it might be a healthy change for us to have one good war in self-defense.

Any friend of the democratic way of life will frankly concede that it would be a shocking thing for Germany to triumph in the Old World and to dominate all Europe west of Russia. But it is rather too late for the United States to do anything about that now. If we intervene at the present stage we would in all probability have to fight a totalitarian coalition dominating the Old World from the French Channel ports to the islands of Japan. In such a case, we could certainly not save Britain and we would be likely to meet an ignominious defeat in the bargain. The British did not welcome any proposals of American aid against Hitler or Japan when both could have been easily overcome. There is less than any reason for us to wreck American civilization in the futile effort to bail out the British Empire at the present writing.


If human beings could learn anything from history our experience in the first World War should impress us with the dangerous and expensive futility of actively intervening in Old World quarrels. Our intervention in the first World War was an unmitigated calamity for both the Old World and the New. By going in we prolonged the war unnecessarily for at least two years. This more than doubled the mortality and expense of the war. Our entry made impossible any “peace without victory.” It led to the vindictive Treaty of Versailles and to the perpetuation of the Versailles system after the World War. This did more than anything else to destroy the German Republic, to bring Hitler into power, and to make possible the outbreak of the second World War.

The effect of our entry into the first World War was no less calamitous for the United States. It transformed us from a liberty-loving people into a mob which temporarily ran roughshod over our civil liberties and set up a totalitarian despotism in our midst. It cost us $50,000,000,000 directly to participate in this war, and the total cost to us will ultimately run to at least double that figure. We failed to take advantage of the one decent and constructive outcome of the first World War by not entering the League of Nations and the World Court. The best epitaph on the futility of this disastrous adventure was the statement made by Wilson, shortly before his death, to James Kerney: “I would like to see Germany clean up France, and I would like to see Jusserand and tell him so to his face.”

Our going into the first World War was equally disastrous to our domestic policy and well-being. It led to the transition from the New Freedom to the era of Normalcy. It produced what has been called “the most disastrous triple play in our political history”—Wilson to Harding to Coolidge. The New Freedom was the most promising democratic experiment in social reform in our national history.

It was ruthlessly sacrificed to the futile foreign adventure, and we entered upon an era of unprecedented political corruption and economic abandon. The reckless speculation led us from boom to crisis, and we have never recovered from the latter. Fascism at home stares us in the face. It is much more truly “right around the corner” than is prosperity.

In 1930 an eminent American lawyer asked Newton D. Baker if he thought that Western civilization could stand up under the impact of a second World War. After a moment of thought he answered gravely: “I sometimes doubt if we shall ever recover from the first World War.”

Incredible though it may seem, we stand dangerously near to falling a victim to the same propaganda which led us astray between 1914 and 1917. Indeed, the British have not paid us the tribute of even rewrapping the old gold brick or putting a new ribbon on it. As an actual matter of fact, the lure held out to us today is even more preposterous fakery than it was in 1914-17. When the first World War broke out Britain and France were at least fairly vigorous democracies and their diplomacy was surely as forthright as that of their adversaries.

We are now urged to intervene on two grounds, one idealistic and one materialistic. The idealistic appeal takes the form of urging us once again to make the world safe for democracy and to keep the Open Door open in the Far East. The materialistic line of argument concentrates upon the danger of totalitarian attack, the unique value of the British navy as our first line of defense, and the exhortation to defend our investments in the Far East. But there is obviously little democracy left to defend in the Old World. The Open Door is simply legalized international larceny at China’s expense, and our total investments in China amount to but one-quarter of one per cent of what it would cost to defeat Japan.


Our interventionists, who have been promoting and approving the unneutral policy of the United States in the European situation, and would even have us immediately declare war on Germany, fail to realize the disaster which our unneutrality has already brought to our friends in Europe. It is doubtful if the second World War would have broken out had it not been for the unneutral policy of the United States in European affairs since October 1937. Our partisanship convinced Britain and France that we would come into the war on their side just as soon as the trick could be turned. But for this and our meddling in British-Polish affairs, it is improbable that Britain would have guaranteed Poland and gone to war in her behalf. Had Britain and France kept out of war, Germany would probably have tangled with Russia long before this and the two great totalitarian states would now be destroying each other, leaving the British and French Empires safe and secure for another generation.

Our biased and jaundiced diplomacy not only helped on the second World War, but it has been as responsible as anything else for the devastating defeat of France and the ominous peril of Britain. Had Hitler not feared our inevitable entry he might have been willing to stake his fortunes on a war of attrition and nerves. Feeling, however, that we would be in by 1941 and that he must “shoot the works” this summer if he was to win at all, Hitler was encouraged to launch his Blitzkrieg. This succeeded beyond his own fondest hopes and brought our friends in Europe to ruin or to the verge of ruin. Had we maintained an attitude of strict aloofness and isolation, Britain and France might have won a war of attrition or at least delayed Hitler’s Blitzkrieg until they were prepared to meet it.

The friends of American intervention have been beating their breasts in desperation and indignation because we have not done more to aid the Allies and fulfil our destiny in “the battle for civilization.” We might well inquire just what more we could have done than we have to aid the Allies. In 1932 Secretary Stimson proposed to the British that we join them in checking Japan. He was turned down in insulting fashion. Had we proposed at any time between 1935 and 1939 to enter a common front against Hitler we would have been sharply rebuffed by Britain, for the British were then grooming Hitler to mop up Russia. In 1937 Britain joined with the Vatican in urging our State Department to hand over Loyalist Spain to the Fascists and we complied in docile fashion. Since 1938 we have sold England and France all the raw materials which they wished to buy to make into munitions. Since the neutrality law was repealed last fall we have offered to sell them far more munitions of war than their purchasing agents were willing to order. Since May of this year we have entered into a state of undeclared war on Germany in order to aid the Allies by furnishing them with airplanes, with boats from our “mosquito fleet,” and with guns and rifles. There has been a lot of talk about the desirability of having the United States take all measures “short of war” to aid the Allies, but we have long since gone far beyond this stage. Had Germany wished to declare war on us, we have offered her many opportunities to do so on the best of legal grounds.

Suppose we followed the advice of the extreme interventionists and declared war at once on Germany. The most frantic among them would be stumped to tell us just how this would render any effective immediate aid to Britain and save her from Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. It would take a year for us to render potent aid against Hitler’s mechanized forces, and even this estimate is regarded by military authorities as over-optimistic. As an actual matter of fact, a declaration of war on Germany would in all probability enormously strengthen the Germans and Italians. Russia would seize with great alacrity and gusto the opportunity to prolong the war until her great capitalistic rivals, Britain and the United States, could be worn out and destroyed. Stalin would bend every ounce of Russian energy to the aid of Germany. Japan would grab off the Philippines and close in on the Far East. India would pull out of the British Empire and link up with China. These two countries, under Russian and German domination, would quickly come to an understanding with Japan and we would find ourselves at war against more than a billion persons, with vast natural resources at their command and a social system all tuned up for effective war. Our entry into the war in behalf of Britain now is not likely to rescue Britain but it would be extremely likely to end American civilization and political independence.

Even though we entered what proved to be a victorious war the results would certainly destroy American civilization as we know it today and would forever put an end to what we know as the American way of life, provided the war ran an active course of two years or more. It would surely require a vast amount of conceit and optimism to imagine that the United States could put down even Germany and Italy alone in less than this time.

If we are lured into the second World War as a result of British propaganda and the will-to-power of our own leaders, the democratic and capitalistic way of life would be wiped out for an unpredictable period. There would come almost immediately a thorough regimentation of our own economic and political life. The slightest criticism, however sane or well merited, would be branded as “Fifth Column” activity and treated with barbarous severity. When one takes into account the hysteria and witch-hunting which already pervade our country in a time of peace, we can get some idea of the mob psychology which will prevail if we actually go to war. The enormous cost of a victorious war for the United States would lead us directly into a towering burden of debt, crushing taxation, and national insolvency. If we were to add another fifty or one hundred billion dollars to our present national debt our economic system would go crashing down in ruins, and long before this happened American democracy would be only a vague memory.

In short, our intervention in Europe’s war would not save the American way of life in Europe, but it would rudely and precipitately destroy it in our own country. Whether they recognize it or not, American interventionists are the best friends that Hitler, the social revolutionist, possesses in this country. In a very real and literal sense, they are, institutionally speaking, the American Fifth Column, and what they would have us do really offers Hitler the most sincere flattery, to wit, the flattery of imitation.


Few Americans realize the extent to which our liberties would be suppressed if we once again go to war. Indeed, liberty is likely to be extensively sacrificed in the heat of our defense hysteria. In its last annual report, the American Civil Liberties Union warns us that: “No such critical situation has confronted democratic liberties in the United States since the World War.” In an extremely important bulletin on “The Fifth Column” the Institute for Propaganda Analysis shows the incredible extremes to which this “name-calling device” has already gone. Before long, the term will be applicable to any person who exhibits an I.Q. above 59 in discussing world affairs or whose loyalty to the American flag is greater than his loyalty to the British flag. Already so varied a list of persons as Earl Browdev, J. P. Morgan, Leon Trotsky, James H. R. Cromwell, John Dewey, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Colonel Lindbergh, and W. Z. Foster have been denounced as Fifth Columnists. President Roosevelt himself has, by direct implication, called men like Senators Wheeler and Clark, who put American interests before British interests, “Fifth Column appeasers.”

Indeed, in the second World War the Fifth Column nonsense has taken the place of the atrocity stories in the first World War. It is doubtful if any atrocity story was more fantastic than Ludwig Lore’s yarn that Holland was betrayed in part by sixteen brunette “Aryans,” who had been selected by the German Gestapo, circumcised, instructed in Jewish ritual in a Jewish synagogue for weeks and then sent into Holland under passports stamped with the letter “J,” to indicate that they were Jews. Even so reliable a correspondent as Leland Stowe seems to have fallen prey to the habit. He alleged that Norway fell because of Fifth Column activities, but Otto D. Tolischus, hardly a Nazi sympathizer, later assured us that there were only 500 German citizens in Norway last April and that most of these were Jews. Indeed, Major Quisling, head of the Norwegian Nazi party, was snubbed by Hitler, and later news revealed the fact that he had, only a short time before, been acting as a British secret agent in Russia.

The unlimited resources of the Fifth Column racket in the way of promoting witch-hunting and intolerance have been well stated by H. L. Mencken: “Nothing could be better adapted to the uses of demagogy. It gives every boob a chance to harry and defame his neighbors in the name of Service, and it secures him against any hazard of reprisal, for most of his operations may be carried out in whispers, and whenever he is dragged into the open he will have a gang behind him and not only a gang, but the full force of the state.” In similar vein is the comment of Raymond Clapper: “Before long any little pants presser will be able to put a competitor out of the way by turning him in as a Fifth Columnist. Any fellow who wants 30 cents an hour when the boss is paying 25 cents will be suspected as a Fifth Columnist. If this business goes on what will be the difference between a Communist criticizing President Roosevelt or a Republican criticizing him?”

All this becomes the more humorous and the more ominous when one reflects that, of the real Fifth Columnists, namely, those who would have our foreign policy dictated in the interest of a foreign government rather than in the interest of the United States, there have been five English and French agents to one German or Italian. It has been openly charged that the State Department has prevented the F.B.I, from directing an unfriendly glance toward the secret agents of France and Britain.

If matters can go to this extreme in a period of peace, it staggers the imagination to comprehend what might develop in the midst of wartime hysteria. When the war is over and the mob seeks a scapegoat on which to avenge our losses in men and money and our mistakes of policy, we would set up a system of intolerance and persecution which would make the Ku Klux Klan of fifteen years ago seem almost indistinguishable from the American Civil Liberties Union. The latter would, of course, in those days be only a faint memory, seemingly almost as remote and quaint as Patrick Henry or Ethan Allen.


No sane American will object to a reasonable defense program, provided it is literally a defense measure. There is little probability that we will ever be attacked by any foreign power or coalition of powers. But the events of the last few years have demonstrated that it is wisest to take no chances on probabilities. We can, however, arm effectively only if we abandon the policy of trying to make the whole world good and of posing as the moral schoolmaster of the world. Not even the United States is big and rich enough to build an army and navy which will enable us to police the world from the Vistula to Turkestan and from Greenland to Cape Horn. Nor can we very well execute a successful defensive armament program in juxtaposition with an offensive and bellicose diplomacy. We can get nowhere if every time an accredited spokesman of the Administration makes a speech we make pretensions or take on obligations which require a couple of more battleships. Not even the richest and strongest country in the world can build ships as fast as bellicose diplomats can talk. We will get along best if we keep our heads and avoid irrationality. How hard this is going to be is evident when our leading liberal editors currently exhort us to be even more “jittery” than we are.


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