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Toward American Morale

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

Morale means, not morality, but determination. Between the accession of Hitler to power and the outbreak of the war, the Allies had intelligence on their side: the most learned and most philosophical nation on earth had abdicated in the hands of a crude fanatic. They had the better moral case: they stood for reasonableness, conciliation, peace. They had by far the larger resources in numbers and wealth. The Nazis had morale; that is to say strength of purpose. They have been uniformly victorious for over two years; and they shall not be stopped unless they meet a determination equal to their own.

To attain such strength, cool intellectual assurance will not suffice. It might even be a handicap. No one will fight hard on behalf of a mathematical truth: it can take care of itself. If we believed unquestioningly in “the coming victory of democracy,” democracy would surely be defeated. Pseudo-scientific determinism and the optimism of Dr. Pangloss are equally destructive of morale. Morale implies an act of faith: the conviction that the fulfillment of our hope depends upon our own action. In theological terms: God’s purpose needs our co-operation. On a different plane, although the Marxists love to talk impressively about “ineluctable processes,” they did not wait for dialectical materialism to dispose of Kerensky or Wrangel. Knowledge may be a condition of power; by itself, it is not power. A mere glow of enthusiasm is even more futile. If the fervor aroused by innumerable revival meetings could be turned into a firm purpose, America would be a nation of saints. We glow, we cool off, and business proceeds as usual. The essential problem of morale is to harness together and drive with a steady hand that ill-assorted team, Intelligence, Passion, and Will.

I am not suggesting that morale is a substitute for skill, numbers, equipment. The Greeks had shown magnificent morale against the Italians; but it was of no avail when the Panzer divisions struck against their exposed flank. The morale of the Russians seems beyond praise; it has not prevented them from losing to the Nazis an area larger than the whole of France. There is a point at which determination, faced by overwhelming material forces, must either break or lead to utter destruction. When resources are available, however, it takes morale to organize them and use them efficiently. Morale works no miracles; but within very large limits, it is the decisive factor.

The faith which is the foundation of morale requires vision, a word which is not in very good repute. It suggests either a hallucination, or the sales talk of a promoter. Let us take it literally: Vision is the power to see. At its best, it means intense realization. Of all men who have sight, not many have vision. Vision may be prospective: the clear hope or dread of what tomorrow may bring. It may be retrospective: a revelation of past glory, the memory of hardships and humiliations endured. It is most effective when applied to the contemporary scene: the poignant sense of what is happening under our very eyes.

One last step: for effective action, more than intensity of vision is required: there must be singleness. In counsel, two heads may be better than one; but if a man be of two minds, he will be paralyzed. History records few more patent cases of low morale than that of France from 1934 to 1940. Yet the French, individually and in large groups, had not lost their clearness of sight, their earnestness, their will power. Only their visions were at variance, and their purposes clashed. The men who now rule at Vichy realized intensely the perils of Communism. They were ready to destroy the League of Nations, to abandon the allies of France, to weaken France herself, rather than combat those whom they considered as the champions of their cause in Europe— Franco, Mussolini, Hitler. Leon Blum appealed for a “sacred union,” and a patriot who had Jong opposed him exclaimed: “Vous etes un grand Francais!” But the lurid vision of a continued Popular Front obscured the dire vision of France under Hitler’s heel.

Morale, then, is the determination that comes from intensity of vision and singleness of purpose. If this definition be accepted, we must admit that American morale, in this late fall of 1941, is exceedingly low. As a community, we have no keen realization of the issues, and there is no dynamic will common to us all. This I admit without shame; I do not want to see an America of one hundred and thirty millions with but a single thought, for whose thought would it be? It is not well for a nation at peace to impose upon its members any kind of uniformity, except in the form of traffic regulations.

But a nation in which all enjoy the democratic privilege to dissent had better remain at peace, for it is manifestly not fit for war. The justification of our late neutrality policy was not so much selfishness as it was the lack of selfhood: America was not too proud, but too bewildered to fight. The trouble was that, although committed to bewildered neutrality, we never were neutral in thought, word, or deed. We had taken—hesitatingly—a semi-definite stand. We are in the conflict now; we have been in it from the moment the Nazis seized power in Germany over eight years ago. We are moving– do not say drifting, for the force that impels us is the whole momentum of our principles and traditions— towards the crucial test; and in such a test, hesitation means disaster. Yet we see the problem as through a glass darkly, and we can not muster the determination to grapple with it.

Under our sham neutrality, we were, in increasing numbers, more and more firmly committed. Some of us were moved, two years ago, by a quixotic loathing for the bully. An injustice to a Pole in Warsaw seemed to us no less con-demnable than an injustice to a Pole in Chicago. For some of us, right and wrong do not depend upon frontiers, any more than religion, science, or art; some of us are the heirs of William Lloyd Garrison, whose statue bears these words: “My country is the world, my countrymen are all mankind.” These sentiments may not be wise in this generation; they are certainly not ignoble. Most of us, however, are animated by the purest “Americanism,” only we realize that this America is not a mere territory, and cannot be reduced to a big business concern. America is a way of life. And that way of life is not simply a material standard of living. It is conceivable that Hitler would not and could not invade our land; if he were to rob us of some of our business, the loss would not be worth a fight; and, under efficient Nazi leadership, we might have two baths to every bed, and three cars in every home. The American way of life is not the opportunity of getting rich, and not the duty of being all alike: it is the privilege of being all different. Democracy is the freedom to disagree in peace. And it is this essential freedom that is menaced by the Nazi ideology.

That ideology is already beating at our very door. Battleships, planes, and tanks can be stopped, but ideas range the whole world. A complete Nazi victory in the old continents would mean the triumph, not of Nazi arms, but of Nazi ideology, in every republic south of the Rio Grande. And at last, even if we never had to fight the German Nazis abroad, we might have to submit to our own Nazis at home. There are in this country Quislings, Lavals, Darlans, who proclaim their readiness to “co-operate.” They do not even need the sharp lesson of a defeat: they accept and preach the dogma of Nazi invincibility. They tell us that the future is in Nazi hands. We already have a candidate Fuhrer who demands a new kind of leadership, and who knows who could provide it. Still shouting “America First I” as poor old Petain quavers “France d’abord!” we should be ruled by Nazi ideas, Nazi methods, and ultimately by Nazi guns. For, if I know this country, not all of us would submit tamely to an American Fuhrer; so, in order to suppress the “disorder,” the “rebellion,” the “terrorism” instigated by “Communists, Freemasons, and Jews,” he would have to request the support of his liege lord, just as Franco could not establish himself in Spain without the aid of Mussolini.

All this we feel, and because we feel it, we are almost to a man against a Nazi victory. But our feeling remains vague. The American Way is the very air we breathe: we can not seriously imagine its being challenged and imperiled, just as in June, 1940, France could not have imagined her own rulers passing anti-Semitic measures at the command of Berlin. The material frontiers we can visualize: if a Nazi parachutist were to drop on Long Island, the country would be ablaze with patriotic fury. Frontiers of the spirit actually mean more, but they are more shadowy. So Nazi ideology is threatening, not a few acres of our earth, not the stones of a few cities, but everything we hold dear; we know it, and yet we are not roused. As a result of our hesitancy, we have allowed one country after another, whose help would be priceless today, to go down. When Paul Reynaud sent his last: despairing appeal, even a distant promise from America would have kept the French fleet and the French empire on the fighting line. If our obstructionists had their way, we should let England and Russia go down also. Then we should face, alone and shaken by the failures of so many democracies, an enemy flushed with pride and power. “When there is no vision, the people perish.”


For this confusion, which may send us into the hardest battle in history with impaired morale, I do not blame the obvious evil influences, the “fifth columnists,” the cowardly, the callous. Their number is small, and their part smaller still. Two forces which once threatened to hamper American morale have lost much of their power. The first is our heterogeneity. This, long dreaded, means surprisingly little in this conflict. The hyphenate American is far less of a danger now than he was in 1917. Among the most active anti-Nazis in our midst are found, not only men of German ancestry, but men of German birth. The other obstacle to unity is party politics, including personal animosities; it was the chief reason why we failed the world twenty-two years ago. But, although still real, this factor is no longer decisive. The line between Isolation and Intervention is not wholly determined by party allegiance. The President has placed prominent Republicans in key positions. The defeated Republican candidate agrees with the President a good deal better than the President agrees with himself.

We are suffering from a conflict of ideals which are legitimate in themselves. If they interfere with our main purpose, morale will not be enhanced by our denouncing them, but by our assigning them their proper place, which, at the present moment, is not the first. There is nothing wrong about wanting to build a pleasure boat, but today we need the steel for tankers, freighters, destroyers. And there should be priorities in ideas as well as in raw materials.

The two feelings—they are feelings rather than thoughts —which do most to blur our vision and numb our hands are our old traditions, isolation and peace. Isolation is not the result of sheer ignorance: in the past, it was the result of bitter knowledge. We came here only too well aware of the fierce quarrels interminably raging in Europe, and we were anxious to leave them behind. No American of Danish, French, or Polish origin would want the United States to fight for Slesvig, Alsace, or Pomorze. We do not want to meddle in the dynastic or tribal feuds of a tragic past. If such were the meaning of intervention, we should all agree that it is not worth the lives of our sons. But if this contest means—as the last war did mean—an effort to establish the reign of law, and thereby to save liberty in a world which could not long remain half slave, half free, then isolation is another name for blindness.

Our aversion to war is obviously a virtue that we do not want to lose. We no longer take any joy in “the martial spirit”; we do not accept the responsibility ahead of us “with a light heart”; least of all do we hail war as “f risch und mun-ter,” fresh and joyous. But we cannot cause war to cease simply by calling it an “outlaw.” War is with us; if we hate it and want to end it, there are only two ways open: non-resistance, or the creation of an effective world government. I need not argue the problem of absolute pacifism: even if such a course were the only one compatible with strict Christianity, it is obvious that, as a nation, we are not ready for it.

The other alternative is world government, Wilson’s great vision that remained a dream. We are still paying heavily for Wilson’s defeat. His formulas were right, although not always rightly understood; but, because he failed, they are seldom mentioned without a sneer. Now as then, we should be “too proud to fight”; that is to say that we should place our pride above the fighting level. Our aim is again “peace without victory,” a peace sweeping victory aside to make room for justice. Again we are struggling to make the world—our world, from which we cannot seclude ourselves —”safe for democracy”; that is to say, for liberty under law. And after an armistice of twenty feverish years, we are resuming “the last war, the war to end war.” But the disrepute into which the Wilsonian ideal had fallen stood and still stands in the way of a firm American morale, We have spent nearly twenty years in a thorough endeavor to “demoralize” ourselves. No wonder the hour of rearmament finds us unready.


For the hour is at hand: it is essential that we should build up our morale against the inevitable ordeal. A nation might as well go to war without ammunition as without a clear purpose. Even if through sheer superiority of resources we should ultimately win a half-hearted war (against such an adversary as Germany, this hypothesis is little short of absurd) , the cost of half-heartedness, in terms of human lives, would be appalling. It pays to be determined.

How can we strengthen our morale? Three of the more obvious ways in which we might be tempted to do it would, in my earnest opinion, be self-defeating.

The first would be: morale as the result of war, and war as the result of an incident. We need not expect outright, unqualified aggression; the enemy knows our psychological weakness and greatly profits by it; he is not going to help us out of our indecision. He is not likely to drop bombs on the Capitol, or torpedo one of our ships in Brooklyn Navy Yard. When he shoots, it will be, very correctly, in self-defense. But incident follows incident. Some day—perhaps before these lines are in print—an incident will assume singular significance; we shall be, almost openly, at war. Then, as soon as “the honor of the flag” is at stake, thousands who are now reluctant or tepid will be burning with patriotic zeal. We shall have all the externals of the highest morale: fiery speeches, solemn vows never to sheathe the sword until our righteous cause has won, regrets that we have but one life to lay down for our country. Compared with the present list-lessness and misgivings, it will be a magical transformation. Yes, but that morale will be the old martial spirit again. It might lead us to victory, it would never lead us to peace. For as soon as the flag has been duly avenged, the foe humbled, and our heroes welcomed home, our enthusiasm will at once subside; and we shall revert to isolation and “sacred egoism.”

The danger would be very much the same if, instead of waiting for an accident to start the war and thus create morale, we reversed the process, and attempted to whip up our morale, before declaring war, through propaganda in the obnoxious sense of the term. The tricks are familiar and effective enough: coarse unceasing appeal to passions and prejudices, through slogans, headlines, streamers, insignia, brass bands, parades—in a word, ballyhoo. We have Hitler’s admission, or rather his boast, that these were the methods he used, and we know with what success. President Roosevelt is the reverse of a Hitler; but Woodrow Wilson too was a scholar and a gentleman; and he was unable to check the fostering of war morale by means which were not scrupulously those of the seminar room. What a penalty we had to pay for this well meant attempt to force our enthusiasm I Because some of the propaganda was exaggerated, our young people grew up in the belief that it was wholly a fabric of lies. We must take the long view, and brace ourselves not for the crisis of the next twelve months, but for that of the next twenty years. If we want the kind of morale that will carry us, not into the war and through the war merely, but through the more trying time of the peace discussions, through the most arduous period of building up a saner world, then we must rule out anything which appeals purely to the primitive, the low, the ephemeral. Our case is overwhelmingly strong: let us not saddle it with anything that a court would not admit as evidence.

Morale demands unity: the third danger would be to secure that indispensable singleness of purpose by silencing all dissent. It is Hitler’s method. It was Daladier’s: he felt himself a Clemenceau when he had deprived sixty deputies of their seats, sent municipal councillors to concentration camps, suppressed all opposition papers, and placed the rest under ruthless censorship. France was “unanimous”: we know how much this unanimity weighed in the hour of trial. It is Petain’s method now: whoever does not agree with him is “destroying the union and sapping the morale of the French people.” This is the death knell of democracy.

A most complex problem. We must admit that Hitler cannot be stopped by free discussion and gentle reasoning: nothing but force will compel him to abandon the use of force, and that means war. A nation at war becomes an army, and no army can be run on the same bases as the competitive market, journalism, or party politics. Some restrictions of our liberties are therefore inevitable. But it must be forever kept in mind that they are temporary, like all other war measures, and that they should never be carried beyond the indispensable minimum. It is obvious, for instance, that war news should be censored, so as not to give valuable information to the enemy. It is hardly less clear that the right to strike demands limitation: a factory is as much a part of the defense system as an army camp. Profiteering should be curbed everywhere—among manufacturers, middlemen, and laborers. On all this, agreement should be easy.

One further step is still safe enough: a state, at peace or at war, has the right to suppress fraud, treason, sabotage, violence, and therefore to prohibit the advocacy of these felonies. War censorship, under the plea of defending our morale, would be tempted to go much beyond this. It would seek to stifle “dangerous opinions.” Now what ideas would it be justifiable for us to shackle? Subversive ideas? All ideas are subversive of their opposites: Quakerism is subversive of our military establishment; philosophical anarchism is subversive of our social security program; the income tax was once declared subversive of the Constitution. Un-American ideas? It is rigorously impossible for any American to hold any thought that is not defended by some foreigner and attacked by some American. Some of us, of old American stock, agree with Stalin to the extent of turning whenever he turns; some are in miraculous harmony with Goebbels and win his praise; some are at one with Winston Churchill. Defeatism? We have no right to rule out defeatism as unpatriotic. Even when defeatism, in any particular case, is mistaken, it may not be morally wrong. It is very fine, and the greatest triumph of morale, never to know when you are beaten. But “the bitter end” might be total annihilation. No country except primitive little Paraguay in 1870 ever lived up to that glorious ideal. If we have intellectual courage, we should be ready to consider at all times the possibility of defeat and count the cost of victory.


A democracy worthy of the name needs, not the morale of stampeded cattle, but that of thoughtful, open-eyed, quietly determined men. We should not fool ourselves, as the Nazis do, with the delusion that we are unanimous in all things, when we know we are not. What we can do is to seek the points upon which there is no dissent, and make them the only aims of our national policy. These points are our love of liberty and our love of peace. All we need to do is to make them so clear, so vivid, that our course will be clearly illumined, and that we shall not be stumbling wearily in the wilderness.

War is not our goal, nor the victory of any nation or group of nations. What we seek is the end of this war and the end of all war through justice, without which there can be no liberty. We need no persuasion to convince ourselves that this goal is worth attaining. We still have to persuade ourselves, however, that it is attainable. There is the crux, the indispensable condition of American morale. If in our minds an international order based upon liberty and justice is merely a blurred utopia, we shall never work for it and fight for it with a will. And nothing short of that is worth fighting for.

What we need is the intense realization that this order is actually within our reach, ours for the grasping, and that only our lack of faith makes it appear vague and remote. It would be far easier to establish now than it was in the days of Wilson, just because we have given anti-Wilsonian egoism its full chance, and we know that its fruit is death. Let us make it clear that we shall be satisfied with nothing less than permanent peace, because we cannot tolerate any longer the horror of ever-recurring war. If that purpose is clear in our minds, if we make it clear to the world, it will constitute a standing offer of peace.

But it must be evident to the most wilfully blind that these principles—peace, liberty, fairness to all, a law binding upon the mighty as well as the weak—are exactly the reverse of everything that Hitler stands for. With Hitler, there can be no compromise, no appeasement. Even if he should profess himself converted, we could not trust him. By the very nature of our commonwealth, we are irremediably at war with the ideology he represents.

We, with the rest of the world, are engaged in a contest which is decisive. It may be decisive in our favor, if we have but the will to make it so. For such a contest, there is no word in the language but war. Until we dare to utter it, our morale will be low, for we shall be of two minds. The sufferers will see in our shirking attitude nothing but selfishness under a virtuous mask, and they too will lose heart. If armed resistance is futile and wicked, why are we arming, why do we not urge Britain, China, Russia, to stop this folly and lay down their arms ? If, on the contrary, the police have a case against the gangsters, if force can be placed at the service of justice, why do we shrink from assuming our full share? If it were merely a question of defending our comforts, our profits, our dear old party squabbles, then I should say: Let us not fight! But what is at stake is the America of the spirit. One or the other must be broken: Hitler’s will to dominate, or our own will to live in a world of free men. When we have the vision to realize this with sufficient vividness, we shall have the morale to defeat him.


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