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Justice as Realpolitik

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

Exactly what the Axis powers have done to the American people will not be clearly understood for a generation, or, perhaps, for a century. Certain effects, and probably some of the more important effects, of the blow will appear slowly; therefore any diagnosis of the present state of the nation is even more hazardous than such diagnoses usually are. All that we can be sure of is that the material damage is accompanied and perhaps surpassed in importance by psychological effects that are converting the United States into a new nation certainly different and probably radically different from the old one.

Nevertheless, some examination of the probable course of events is incumbent upon every thoughtful man, for while we cannot see ahead clearly, we can see dimly, if we have resolution to look; and if we shut our eyes as we plunge through the next year or two, we shall be inviting avoidable collisions, involving unnecessary frustrations and disappointments. We shall be inviting a repetition of the disasters of 1919 and 1920, when we missed the opportunity to stave off this war for many years. Countless voices have been raised to warn us that it is possible once more to win the war and lose the peace; but not many have even asked, much less answered, the question, What peace? There are several kinds of peace that might be made after a military victory. If the victory is less than complete, it is obvious that the peace will not be the sort of peace we might choose if it lay within our power to dictate terms; but if the war in the field results, as we hope and believe it will, in the shattering of the Axis nations’ power to resist, we may choose among several alternatives.

In such circumstances, which direction is our choice likely to take?

Again and again this question has been asked of the President, as if it were within his power to answer it. To call upon Mr. Roosevelt to “state our war aims” is idle, for the simple reason that Mr. Roosevelt has not the faintest idea what our war aims will be when the war is over. He knows what Mr. Roosevelt’s war aims are, and he stated them in the so-called “Atlantic Charter,” but he has no assurance whatever that his personal aims will coincide with those of the people when hostilities cease; and he has the example of Woodrow Wilson to show him the hopelessness of trying to force a distasteful treaty upon a reluctant Senate. Mr. Roosevelt may maintain his position unchanged; but the people’s war aims will certainly be modified as the war progresses. In fact, they have undoubtedly been modified already as the flame burns away illusions and misconceptions. Perhaps they have been modified far enough to indicate the general direction they are likely to follow as the struggle progresses.

The way in which the war began had an important effect upon the attitudes and manner of thinking of the American people. Last December this nation, for the first time in its history, found itself at the start of a war looking and feeling extremely foolish. Apparently the President and the Secretary of State had a fairly adequate conception of the real situation; at least one gathers that impression from Mr. Hull’s frantic telegrams to Hawaii in the last days of November. Possibly a handful of members of Congress may have known, but certainly not many. As for the high command, naval and military, Pearl Harbor is the lurid proof of its complete ignorance.

As far as the country was concerned, this ignorance was not merely lack of information of what was going on; it went further. We had a great deal of information that was totally false. The average American was firmly convinced that the leaders of the powerful nations had long ago come to believe that war is, as a rule, profitless and foolish. Most of us thought that even Adolf Hitler fought because he had worked himself into a situation from which there was no other way out. It followed, therefore, that we took it for granted that the Japanese negotiators had come here really to negotiate. The possibility that they had determined upon war long ago, and were going through the motions of negotiation merely to lull us until their air force was ready to strike was one that the common sense of the country rejected. We could not comprehend how any group of statesmen could be grievously disappointed by the avoidance of war. All moral considerations aside, it just wasn’t reasonable.

The humiliating fact is that it was we who were unreasonable in assuming that our point of view was the only tenable one. We know now that the Japanese and to a lesser extent the German idea of what constitutes national good differs from ours. We believe in the dignity of the individual. It follows, therefore, that the national good is served by a policy that tends toward permitting the individual to live in peace, pursuing his own satisfactions in his own way. Both the Germans and the Japanese had told us distinctly and repeatedly that they reject this view in toto; but we were so enthralled by perfection of our own reasoning that we flatly refused to believe what they said. When it turned out to be quite true, we were left looking pretty silly.

Now it is characteristic of an individual who is made to look foolish to pass swiftly from that emotion to rage, and from rage to bitterness. Americans, in their thinking about international affairs, have hitherto been distinctly an idealistic people. Their actual foreign policy has not always followed their thinking, but even the foreign policy of this country has been, as such things go, emphatically on the amiable and good-natured side. Such incidents as the evacuation of Cuba, the restoration of the Boxer indemnity to China, the withdrawal of the marines from Nicaragua and Haiti, and the granting of Philippine independence may brand our foreign policy as dimwitted, but certainly not as tight-fisted and sour. Hardly any other first-class power can cite such a long series of cases in which it has clearly placed decency ahead of immediate self-interest.

Is there any doubt that in these affairs the government has reflected pretty faithfully the sentiment of the people? Consider, for example, the evacuation of Cuba as contrasted with the somewhat dubious procedure by which we acquired the right-of-way for the Panama canal. Theodore Roosevelt boasted that he “took” Panama, but he also maintained, plausibly, that he had remained strictly within the letter of international law throughout the transaction. In any event, there are few to deny, today, that the building of the canal was beneficial, not to this country only, but to the whole world. Nevertheless, the business troubled the conscience of the country for eighteen years until Colombia was assuaged at the price of twenty-five millions. On the other hand nobody, with the possible exception of a few Colonel Blimps, objected to the evacuation of Cuba. There was no objection to the return of the Boxer money, little to the withdrawal of the marines, little to Philippine independence. The government, in short, has never aroused strong popular disapproval when it acted handsomely in foreign affairs, and it has frequently started trouble when it seemed to be acting otherwise, even though the final effect of its course was as obviously beneficial as it was in the case of the Panama canal. It is reasonable to argue then that amiability and generosity in foreign relations have reflected the attitude of the average American and that cold-blooded calculation has misrepresented it. It is as true as any generality can be to say that the average American has been rather easy-going and good-natured in this field.

But it is notorious that the amiable, easy-going man turns into the sourest cynic when he discovers that people are taking advantage of his decency to rob him. This painful and humiliating discovery the American people made on Decernber 7, 1941. They found out that day that they had been robbed; they have been finding out since that they were not only robbed, but almost ruined. Are they going to remain tolerant and good-natured hereafter? It is doubtful, to say the least. If the nation reacts, as many an individual has reacted in similar circumstances, it may swing to the other extreme, and go into the peace conference not the pacifier of Versailles, but the hardest-boiled protagonist of realpolitik in the gathering. The event may prove that Hitler and Hirohito have released upon the world something more disastrous than the waste of war in injecting vindictiveness into the attitude of a very powerful, but hitherto peaceful, nation.

Who will be represented when the peace conference assembles is at this time highly problematical. As this is written, the war in Russia seems to be more or less stalled; but if Stalin should muster the strength to throw Hitler out of Soviet territory before we have settled with the Japanese, it is hard to see why the Russians should continue to fight. They have no territorial ambitions and they certainly have no occasion to love us or the British. They have taken a fearful battering and have had to sacrifice their whole economic program, If Hitler had the wit to get out of their territory and stay out, he might be able to make peace.

Such a development would be a first-class disaster from our standpoint, probably sealing the death-warrants of a million or so of our men; but it is a possibility that must not be overlooked, as one peers into the future.

However, the Germans are so heavily committed in Russia that Hitler may not dare even consider peace without victory on the eastern front. In that case, Russia would have no choice save to fight to the end, and the peace will be dictated by the most strangely-assorted allies imaginable—the United States, Great Britain and Russia, a republic, an empire and a commune. Historically, this would seem to be a flatly hopeless situation as far as making peace is concerned, but there is one highly novel element in it, namely, the fact that none of the three probable victors is land-hungry. The United States certainly needs no more land, Great Britain is already overwhelmed with territorial possessions, and Russia in 1939 had barely begun the exploitation of what she held then. Permanent occupation of large areas of conquered territory, therefore, is hardly to be expected.

But would the United States be inclined to raise strenuous objection if it were proposed? The answer to that perhaps depends, in part, on the length and sternness of the war. If we are relatively lightly hit, we may not be too feverish to retain our perspective; but if, as is but too likely, we reach the peace conference only after the fight of our lives, and in a state closely approaching exhaustion, the necessity of making sure that this thing doesn’t happen again, or at least not for several generations, may easily blind us to the less obvious realities.

If Russia, Britain and America are the survivors, it seems rather likely that this country will witness a resurgence of isolationism in a somewhat different form. We know, now, that the old isolationism is nonsense. When Japan could paralyze Detroit by striking in Malaya, it is evident that our safety is dependent upon something more than the inviolability of our continental boundaries. Moreover, we have seen it all too fully proved that a small nation, with the best will in the world, simply cannot be relied on to hold a critical point. In order to protect itself a great power must itself make sure of every dangerous avenue of approach to its own territory.

However, in the present state of military science, we are fairly safe, on the eastern side, while we hold the Iceland-Bermuda-Trinidad line. On the west, though, we shall hardly rest easy until we dominate the southern part of the Pacific. We can probably work out a joint agreement with Australia to effect this. Therefore, if our allies will grant us a free hand in this hemisphere and in the Pacific, why should we interfere in any arrangements they may see fit to make regarding Europe? Certainly there will be loud and insistent demands that we keep our hands off.

Nor will it be by any means a simple matter to demonstrate the fallacy of this form of isolationism. Two years ago, when certain short-sighted persons were calling on us to convert the United States into a new Korea, a Hermit Nation, “the world forgetting by the world forgot,” the absurdity of the proposal was blatant enough to be apparent even to those who have done little thinking about international affairs. But when it is proposed that the United States, far from retiring from the world, undertake to work out a modus vivendi with the other great powers by carefully delimiting its sphere of influence and agreeing to attend strictly to its own business on condition that the others do likewise, why a great many Americans will see in such a proposal no absurdity whatever, but obvious common sense.

The historical argument is not likely to be very effective against such a program. The United States entered this war —or, more precisely, was propelled into it—without any commitments whatever other than our obligation to the Filipinos. Doubtless most Americans favor in principle restoration of the independence of Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Poland and Czechoslovakia; but we have given no guarantees to any of these nations. We sympathize with France and are heartily in favor of throwing the Germans out of Paris, but we have entered into no contract to redeem one foot of French soil. Therefore if the Russians, when the military power of the Axis is broken, set up the argument that they simply cannot afford to have the tip of Jutland, commanding the entrance to the Baltic, left in weak hands, and the British show reluctance to risk another occupation of the Channel ports, no one can adduce any formal pledge of the United States that obliges us to oppose, or even to question, any dispositions that our allies see fit to make. Whatever arrangement in Europe the British and the Russians may find acceptable is not likely to be contested by us merely on the ground that it violates the principle of self-determination, or is ethnically questionable.

We shall probably be in no position, morally, to do so. Certain it is that if we have the power we shall see to it that strong points all around the United States are held by American troops under the American flag, and if that involves impairing, not to say violating, the sovereignty of various small nations, why that will be regrettable, but not a ruling consideration.

Nor is it likely that the average American’s conscience will trouble him greatly. He will argue that the occupation of a strong point does not necessarily imply conquest. England has held Gibraltar for centuries, but Spain has remained independent. We will certainly not admit that our occupation of Guantanamo for a generation has destroyed the sovereignty of Cuba. The ordinary American, therefore, will not easily be persuaded that a British garrison in Dunkirk, and a Russian garrison on Jutland would necessarily mean the disappearance of Belgium and Denmark.

Our thinking on these matters may be strongly affected by our own economic history. The American is pretty thoroughly persuaded that the creation of the great corporation was made inevitable, not by the machinations of wicked men, but simply by technological developments. Improvement of communications and transportation enormously increased both in size and in complexity the problems of procurement, distribution and finance; they have become so large and so complex that only a huge corporation can deal with them when the product involved figures in a nation-wide market. By analogy, it is easy for the American to understand how the development of technology has made war an enterprise in which only huge nations can engage with any hope of success. The small nation, therefore, like the small business, is not only in a perilous position itself, but in some circumstances may constitute a peril to its larger neighbors; and this is due, not to the malevolence of some personal devil, but to the effect of science and invention on the methods of warfare. Is it shameful to recognize the obvious facts and to act accordingly? Our people are not likely to think so.

I doubt that the American is going to be very greatly impressed by the arguments of such dreamers as still talk of the restoration of a European balance of power with Germany and France poised as counterweights, and various small nations arranged as buffers. In the first place, even if this could be done, which is doubtful, it would constitute but a partial and incomplete settlement of a question immensely larger than Europe. It is natural, no doubt, for Europeans -—as, for example, Professor Spykman—to continue to assume, as the basis of their thinking, that determining the fate of Europe will automatically settle the destiny of the rest of the world. This has been true for five hundred years, but it is true no longer. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect Europeans to realize the extent of the change that has taken place, and to blame them for not realizing it; but if we are silly enough to permit the American counterparts of the Baldwins and Chamberlains to direct our foreign policy, then we shall richly deserve the ruin that will be brought upon us.

Our own “realists” will perhaps be arguing for a balance of power, indeed, but one far transcending anything that entered into the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte, or William Pitt. The American is not accustomed to thinking in terms of Europe; he can contemplate without a quiver the possible elimination of boundaries that have existed for a thousand years; he is capable of voting without hesitation for the extirpation of national aspirations that have existed since the Caesars, if those aspirations offer a threat to the general peace. He does not understand Europe and he has no great desire to understand it—which makes him incomprehensible to the Europeans. All he wants is to see the power of Europe resting in hands not inimical to him. At present, Great Britain and Russia are friendly; then why not leave the arrangement of European affairs to them, especially as we do not believe that either has anything to gain by permanent occupation of large areas and the oppression of their inhabitants?

This reasoning is probably unsound in its basis and vicious in its effects, not solely for the reason that within a few months there may be neither a Great Britain nor a Russia left to consider. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that they both survive, both remain friendly, and, in collaboration with us, eventually shatter the military power of the Axis, still the sort of partition outlined would be a woeful basis for a settlement.

Nevertheless, it is bound to make a tremendous appeal to public opinion in this country, for it is admirably adapted to our mental bent. In the first place, it has the tremendous appeal of apparent simplicity. Any man can understand it, or thinks he can. True enough, no man really understands a concept so titanic; but few of us are thoughtful enough to realize that the apparently simple admonition, “Let Britain and Russia alone,” involves implications all but infinite both in number and in complexity.

Again, it has some color of moral sanction. To leave Europe in the hands of the two powers least avid of territorial acquisitions may bear some semblance to wise action in the general interest. There can be no question that it is a more decent course than leaving the continent to be ravaged by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Finally, it has some appearance of the cheapest way out. If Great Britain and Russia are left to arrange half the world to their liking, it will clearly be their responsibility to maintain the arrangements they make at their own expense, leaving us free of all charges except those incurred on our side of the world.

Present to the American people a program that looks simple and looks moral and you have presented a program almost sure of adoption. Add to these advantages an appearance of economy and it becomes irresistible. It seems to me highly probable that if we emerge victorious with Great Britain and Russia, a majority of the American people will favor a peace settlement roughly along the lines I have indicated; and it is just as probable that in adopting such a program we shall sow the seeds of the third world war,

For the only alternative is idealistic, at least in the sense that it is based upon an idea, that is to say, an untested theory of foreign policy, rather than upon historical fact. This is the theory that in a nation, as in a man, the acquisition of great strength implies the acquisition of great responsibility.

Within the past century the United States has acquired prodigious strength. Part of it is absolute, based on the multiplication of our population and our exploitation of an enormously rich continent. Part of it is relative, based on the terrific waste of the strength of Europe in two enormous wars. It seems probable that when the present war ends this country will represent the largest surviving aggregate of economic and military power. We shall be weakened, no doubt, but by no means to the extent that the other great powers are weakened. What strength remains on earth will be very largely in our hands.

This is incontestable. What is debatable is the implication of the possession of power that is great absolutely and enormous relatively. People who are fond of calling themselves realists will argue that the sole implication is that it is the duty of government to use its advantageous position to make its territory impregnable against assault from without, leaving all the rest of the world severely alone. This view will certainly be popular, and probably will prevail. Why not? This nation was plunged into war by a treacherous assault perpetrated at a moment when it was acting on the idealistic assumption that its enemies were civilized enough to prefer peace rather than war. Surely, then, we have had enough of idealistic assumptions.

But it is not altogether certain that this is realism. We are committed, as regards our internal organization, to the theory that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Is this, too, an idealistic assumption, or is it the expression of a keen perception of the only basis on which permanent government can be established? As regards our own country, unquestionably it is the latter. The colonial policy of Great Britain was not based on the consent of the governed and it was productive of endless dissension and disturbance. Among the Revolutionary leaders were some—Hamilton, for instance—who had little faith in the consent of the governed as an abstract good; but they realized that, in the conditions prevailing in America, it was the only practical basis on which government could be established with any hope of maintaining order. Certainly as far as those leaders were concerned, this principle was anything but idealistic. They consented to its adoption, not because they admitted its moral rectitude, but because it would work, and they could suggest nothing else that had any chance of working.

At the end of this war we are going to be facing, on a larger stage, the same problem that the Revolutionary leaders faced. We have discovered by experience that Detroit is ruined when Malaya is in flames, that Hollywood goes broke when the European movies are blown up, that the butchering of Lancashire cotton mill hands destroys the prosperity of Texas, and that armies marching through Shensi tread heavily on the toes of New England. The system of world organization under which we have been living is even more productive of nuisances than the colonial policy of Great Britain was prior to 1776. What we desperately need is something that will keep order. There isn’t any idealism in that. It is the rawest, most brutal realism.

British and Russian bayonets at the throats of half the world, and American bayonets at the throats of the other half will do it—for a time; but why should we suppose that order :so maintained will be permanent? It never has been.

This problem has existed, of course, ever since technology drew the world so close together that a fight in its remotest corner is bound to jar the whole society of nations; but responsibility for solving it has not hitherto lain primarily upon the United States. The conspicuous change in the situation is the alteration of the position of this country. As long as we remained a minor power, and even a great power in the company of half a dozen others, we had, so to speak, only one vote. But if events continue their present trend, we shall come to the end of this war with practically all the votes. American influence in the peace conference will certainly be great, and may be controlling. Having acquired most of the remaining power in the world, we have acquired the responsibility for maintaining order. Whether we like it or not has nothing to do with the case. The responsibility lies upon us and we cannot avoid it. Would it then be impractical idealism for us to apply to the new situation the principle that worked in the similar one that we faced a century and a half ago? Is it more impractical to do that than to apply a principle that has been tried a hundred times and that never has worked?

Between Sandy Hook and the Golden Gate we hold that an attack on the principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed is an attack on the United States. Some of us hold so on moral principle, but a good many of us simply because we know that denial of the principle inevitably leads to disorder. But if tyranny in Louisiana tends to disturb the peace of the whole country, will not tyranny in Abyssinia have a similar tendency? Did it, in fact? The answer is on the front page of every newspaper.

Shall we then set the United States the gigantic task of policing the whole world? Think what that would imply I We might end by having an American general in Australia, American soldiers in Ireland, and Iceland, and Egypt, and India, American aviators in Malta and Russia, American warships in the Mediterranean and among the Dutch East Indies. In short, it might bring us exactly where we are today.

On the other hand, the thing might not happen. It has not been necessary for the United States to send MacArthur, or any other general, to Oregon or to Georgia. The country’s mere guarantee of a republican form of government has been enough to keep those States relatively quiet, without the use of troops; but the guarantee was effective, of course, only because everyone has known that the troops were available and would be used if anyone undertook to govern Oregon and Georgia without the consent of their people. We do not even have to maintain good government in the States in order to maintain the peace. We could permit Huey Long to misgovern Louisiana atrociously, as long as he did it with the consent of a majority of Louisianans.

The political institutions of the United States, admirably as they suit us, are almost certainly ill-adapted to a large part of the world, and it would be impractical idealism indeed to attempt to force them upon unwilling people. But the principle of self-determination is essentially sound in spite of the woeful effects of its misapplication following the war of 1914-18. If the peace of the world is a unit—and of that there can be little doubt today—then human liberty is also a unit, for the denial of liberty in any quarter of the globe inevitably results in disturbance of the world’s peace.

It is certainly a fact that the consent of the governed furnishes the only basis so far discovered for permanent order. It is certainly a fact that the world’s best hope for relatively permanent order is for the major part of the physical power of the world to be committed to sustention of this principle. It is certainly a fact that there is reason to believe that the most powerful political unit in the world at the end of this war will be the United States. If this proves to be the case, then it is certainly a fact that the primary responsibility for the maintenance of world order will devolve upon this country.

But are the American people capable of realizing these facts and accepting their implications ? To be frank, I doubt it. After all, we are the one undefeated nation, and when did the undefeated ever acquire much wisdom? Moreover, we are not only undefeated thus far, but also smarting under a sense of intolerable outrage. Perhaps before we have battled our way to victory, we shall have calmed down; but perhaps the sting of the wounds we have received and must receive will serve only to inflame our just wrath all the more. Certainly the dictators have done all they could to assure that the United States will arrive at the peace conference in a completely unreasonable mood. If, nevertheless, we go there prepared to insist on a peace based on justice, we shall have won a victory more impressive than a victory over the military power of the Axis; for a nation must beat down its own prejudices and its own emotions before it can realize that resolute devotion to justice may be the very essence of political realism.


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