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War Without Guns

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

War is an elfish thing; seemingly obvious, it is elusive. Palliatives have failed; and now, when a substitute is offered, it may turn out to be nothing but war itself. Last winter, it will be recalled, President Lowell of Harvard and other distinguished men circulated a petition which related to this substitute. The petition prayed American co-operation in any boycott which the League of Nations might institute under Article XVI of the Covenant. The measure, without doubt, was aimed at a nation which at the time was not behaving properly; and the purpose was to make the wrongdoer change its ways. Conditions in that particular quarter of the world have changed meanwhile; and in any event it is certain that the petition has failed of effect. But the popular notions that informed the movement are still alive. The petition, in short, was symptomatic, and we should be prepared for others of like character.

At present, of course, this country is too poor to indulge all its virtuous impulses; it costs money even to nag a neighbour. Also, the Lowell petition suggested the co-operation of certain other nations who likewise are preoccupied. But the boycott, as a mode of expressing the national will, has a permanent character, because it is suggested as a substitute for a very ancient institution. And as war, which the boycott is to supersede, belloweth where it listeth, we may be sure that sooner or later another petition will be broadcast. It may be conditioned on the co-operation of other peoples, or it may suggest that we act alone; that detail will depend upon how strong we may happen to feel at the time. And since no one can foretell the date of prosperity returned, or predict what will happen at any day in certain quarters of the world, and since petitions of this sort have a seeping method all their own, the average citizen should be prepared to say whether he will sign if asked. More important is it to ask what would happen if everybody signed. Thus the national boycott, as an active idea, deserves discussion, not with reference to passing detail but in principle. Added weight is given to the need because of the arguments which boycott petitions provoke. Those who support such measures say that they are a substitute for war. The principal argument to the contrary has been that the boycott is apt to cause war. These contentions, however, leave something unsaid that might be of interest to the person who is opposed to war in principle. It is suggested, therefore, that before one signs another boycotting petition, he consider the most interesting argument of all; that the national boycott, in and of itself, is war.

This suggestion is disagreeable; indeed, it is offensive. For, to support the point, one must attempt an analysis of war itself, an ungrateful task requiring frequent use of a word that is moving rapidly toward the taboo. It is all right to talk of armament and disarmament, and there are military estimates in national budgets. But war, one-syllabled as it is in at least three modern languages, will soon find itself in company with other words that figure in Urquhart’s Rabelais. On the other hand, the word boycott, when used in the present connection, is as respectable, if not as nepen-thic, as Mesopotamia. Indeed, as a measure of promoting international peace, the boycott features a separate article of the League of Nations Covenant; and there it is likely to stay, despite a strong distaste that was expressed by some Scandinavians—”lesser breeds without the Law,” as Kipling would have called them had this occurred while he was active in lightening the gentiles. But if we keep on signing petitions for national boycotts, some day there might be a result; and so, unpleasant though it may be, perhaps the idea should be tracked down that boycotting is nothing but an improvement, a late development indeed, of the art of war.


It is certain that if the word, war, is indecent in our modern conventions, the word boycott is worse, because it is dangerous. The danger lies in implications that are often overlooked. In trade and labour disputes our courts recognize no less than three types of boycott, and have commented on the fact that no two people are apt to use the term in the same way. When suggested as a measure of national policy, the difficulty is that the boycott, on its face, seems peaceful in the last degree. At the outset nothing happens but a stoppage of intercourse. That involves, it is true, an end to commerce with the offending nation; but what of it? Trade itself is peaceful, so poets of the classic period have told us; hence it may be asked how anything that is done with regard to trade, can savour of the warlike. And with that question triumphantly posed, the petition to boycott an offending people is offered for your signature. What answer have you?

Perhaps Dr. Johnson put us in the way of a reply when he said, “Let us clear our minds of cant.” This was repeated (with due apology) by Sir Charles Russell before the Parnell Commission. Johnson offered the thought as an approach to a subject on which most Englishmen of his time disagreed with him; and Russell was defending an unpopular client (the Irish Land League) against a charge of promoting the boycott in order to gain its political ends. Of course cant, as Dr. Johnson knew, does not necessarily mean hypocrisy. It may indicate only that we have an idealist who has ceased to analyze his own processes; who is using a cliche instead of melting the metal and re-writing his copy. So all we need do, when we deal with the boycott as a national proposition, is to doubt a little. Not much, of course; but just enough to make room for this question: is commerce itself wholly divorced from war as we know it? Let us see how far that will carry us.

Even when the two, commerce and war, really were living separate and apart there was an affinity, for commerce itself can offer the campaign, the raid, the siege, and the storm. Trade, in fact, is war; it can present all varieties of martial endeavour except the pomp and splendour; and, until the late crash, it had a great deal of that sort of thing, too, as sometimes one thought when he saw the march of a corporate president attended by his satellites. The uneasy consciousness of this fact, that trade is predatory, has led to all the attempts to glorify its activities in the religious phrases happily preserved by the satirists of Mr. Mencken’s school. There is no need to ask who was the first great business man, for we were given the answer several times—while business was good. It is interesting, however, to compare that idea with the opinions of two disillusioned persons who lived nearly a century apart and in different countries. Each writer was somewhat realistic because he had seen, not only religious wars, but holy men. One of these onlookers, Montaigne, observed that “no profit whatever can be made but at the expense of another”; and, what is yet worse, “Let everyone but dive into his own bosom, and he will find that his private wishes spring, and his secret hopes grow up, at another’s expense.” The other philosopher, Hobbes, can hardly be mentioned to-day, because it is the fashion of our new schools to condemn him and all his works. But when Hobbes said that the natural state of man was war, he was right so far as business is concerned.

A modern illustration is afforded by the question, lately presented, although not for the first time, to the United States Supreme Court, as to the power of a State to limit the number engaged in a business of a given nature. There is the ice business in Oklahoma. A certain number of concerns are in the field. Is it to be closed to others? The interest of the community may require an affirmative answer: if so, then those within the pale are protected and the aspirants must look elsewhere for a chance to make a living. If the bars are let down, then those inside may not do as well. Laissez-faire sounds well; but Carlyle found hardness in the ring of it. Our ancestors, however, found monopoly hateful. Back of it all, then, lies the fact that the economist, the philosopher, the judge find the balancing of trade interests to be really a task of matching cruelties. Of course mercantile affairs are regulated by law, but the operations of war are, too; and so many plans of the counting house, when carried into effect, remind one of the tented field, that even our judges at times describe trade wars in military terms. Listen to this, from a decision of a late English Chancellor, Lord Cave, as to a type of private warfare that often ends in the courts:

Both moves were episodes in a trade war which was being waged between the retailers of newspapers on the one hand and the producers and wholesalers on the other, and were adopted in the supposed interests of one or the other side. Stroke and counter stroke, whether wise or not, were equally prompted by a desire to forward or protect trade interests. The plaintiff struck the first blow, and when it was countered by a similar blow struck by the defendants, ran to the court for protection. His attitude recalls the saying of a French author: “Cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il se defend.”

This must have been the reason why the Gallic people, with their clear perception of things, made such a fuss about that saint of theirs who gave his military cloak to a beggar. When Martin of Tours performed the gesture it was not as a soldier, although he was an officer of a legion, and it was not as a business man, although the Empire was full of such. Hence his fellow provincials asked that he be canonized. One must be in this world or out of it. Trade methods are often cruel, not because they are wrong but because they relate to one’s getting what one wants.


That was war, also. War merely attempted on a national scale to make other people do something after persuasion had failed. Never mind what was wanted—territory, favoured trade relations, opportunities for immigration, — whatever might have been wanted finally was denied by the nation of whom it was asked. When that point was reached, the demandant either had to put up with the refusal or seek means of making the other nation change its mind,—and by the treaty of peace the demandant got what was asked or did not, according to the fortunes of its armies and its fleets. That is why Clausewitz was quite clearheaded when he said that war was nothing but an expression of national policy.

What else, it may be asked, is the national boycott? Its field of operations is not a visible terrain; but a force is exerted just the same, and the object is to make the other nation so uncomfortable that it will yield to the movant’s request. Of course, we would never boycott another nation unless we were in the right. But, at least of late years, did ever a strong man armed go forth in a lesser mood of pious resolve? Was not every war a just war?

This affinity between national commerce and national war, however, is no longer a matter of dialectic. On the contrary, the union between the two is really a commonplace of our day, despite the fact that we still have a choice of words the better to conceal our thoughts. War by means of armed force has been solemnly renounced in the treaties that have characterized the last two decades of this century. War nowadays is “outlawed.” But separating the word from the fact, let us see whether offensive operations are necessarily confined to the field, the sea, or the air. In other words, does war mean only the attack upon one army by another?

Of course belligerency of the old-fashioned sort, the dynastic conflict, wrought little upon the ordinary life of the civilian, as the pleasant Sterne noticed when his sentimental journey brought him into France without his realizing that St. James’s was at war with Versailles. Trading with the enemy was countenanced or at least winked at. True, the ordinary citizen had to fear an enemy raid in his fields or a siege of his city; but otherwise war was not a concern of the non-combatant with respect to his property or his business. This point was distinctly stated by Napoleon himself in the fulmination which he issued from Berlin against the English. But the great Emperor was talking of what already was a bygone thing, as in fact he had shown in his own practices; for long before his time an idea had taken form in which lay the seed not only of modern wars but also of national boycotts. In Lawrence Sterne’s day, in Shakespeare’s period, the thought played its part in restricted areas; what the Berlin Decree did, and the retaliatory Orders in Council of the English, was merely to extend it.

That idea was to make the civilian uncomfortable, so that he would force his government to sue for peace. In older times this pressure was exerted in the case of a city under attack. Before the place was formally invested it was summoned to surrender, with the penalty that if the garrison should hold out until the fortress was taken by storm, then houses could be sacked and inhabitants outraged. The civilians, thus ran the thought, must be made, through starvation and the fear of worse, to force the governor of the place to surrender it. All of this can be found in the address which Shakespeare’s Henry V makes to the citizens of Harfleur, advising them to surrender before he urges his Englishmen “once more into the breach.” The siege of a city, then, meant pressure on the non-combatant. One who wants to be reminded of the horrors of the old-fashioned investment, with its bombardments and starvation, need only read the Erck-man-Chatrian novel, “Le Blocus de Phalsbourg,” or visit, in Hamburg, the monument to the citizens who died there as a result of Marshal Davoust’s obstinacy in holding the town so long against the Allies.

It was quite certain that as soon as war really assumed a national character, the sphere of these measures would enlarge. Instead of a city being invested, the plan would be to blockade a whole nation. It is needless to dwell upon the Napoleonic struggle, which brought in its train not only paper blockades but also the seizure of private property and the detention of helpless civilians; or our Civil War, notable for the effective closing of one Southern port after another. It is more important, for present purposes, to speak of the latest war to which this country was a party. Not only our expert writers, but our courts, seem to be agreed that during that period “commerce existed only as an adjunct to war”; to quote another authority, the struggle “was to an unprecedented extent an industrial as well as a military one.”

Thus, through the space of a century and a quarter, war as an art moved steadily in the direction of pressure upon the non-combatant. We saw it in the late struggle, when civilians died through air raids, finding consolation doubtless in the theory that modern war takes no account of domestic areas. Such is the law; wherever there is a “depot” or “place of arms” there no one is safe from raids. And so the blockade takes no account of relative guilt; all in the nation under interdict must suffer.

In what essential respect, we may now ask, does a national boycott differ from a national war? To one who may suffer through the creeping paralysis of trade slackening it will make no difference whether his country is undergoing a blockade or a boycott. Step by step, we have learned that war can be made by methods apparently peaceful. The Grand Fleet emerged with enlarged strength from a four years’ struggle which, in an older day would have produced at least one Trafalgar, a couple of Rodneys, and perhaps a Nelson. What has happened, although we will not admit it, is that we are changing the method of making war. But war remains war, unless the choice of weapons is hereafter to exhaust the definition.

In proof, let us recall that it is easy to break up a man’s business, but very hard to restore it. Courts know this, having learned it during the years that introduced them to various aspects of business relations. In that private warfare known as commerce, certain forms of boycotting and kindred cruelties are allowed, it is true. But no one knows better than a banker, judge, or lawyer accustomed to this sort of practice, that trade relations, once broken up, are difficult to restore. The Old Bailey barrister who described his client as owning a business so delicate that it was “like the bloom on a peach—touch it and it is gone,” raised a laugh because the client happened to be a cheesemonger; but what he said was true without the imagery. In that respect the boycott can operate as cruelly as the bombardment of a town. A man whose business is ruined, a man on the streets out of a job, will suffer just as keenly as if he had received a sword cut or had been gassed.

As to this, that peaceful methods may bring horrors no less than war, all we need do is look around. A few years ago it might have been hard for many people to understand the suffering that comes from the breaking of life lines, the suffering that is attached to helplessness and humiliation. But all one has to do now is give a lift to the waif of the roadside, trudging from the town where he lost his place to the Carcassonne where men say jobs are to be had. The philanthropist who offers the smelly bundle of clothes a place beside him need not be a man of deep sympathies in order to realize how stretcher bearers feel on their first detail.

And then, although prosperity returns, it should be remembered that the boycott, like all forms of war, may cause suffering to the virtuous as well as the unrighteous. This “war of the custom house,” as Cobbett described the struggle which England was making against Napoleon, may hurt people at home as well as the recalcitrants abroad. Before we boycott Japan, for instance, should we not think of the silk mills in our Eastern States? It might be remembered, too, that raw sugar often goes from Cuba to Japan by virtue of contracts made in New York. If necessary, the list could be increased; indeed, one could dive to the regions occupied by the processes of financing which attend the manufacture and movement of goods. If one nation should boycott the other, most assuredly it would result in people losing jobs in both countries. There would be illicit operations, of course, for blockade running, as an art, may be considered as inaugurated by the national methods of war previously discussed; but have we not had enough of bootlegging?

Nor must we forget a sinister development of recent date in the methods of warfare. There will be “enemy property” in our country at the time any boycott is declared; and we have learned a new (and lucrative) method of bringing an enemy to his knees. The Alien Property Custodian, that sinister invention of the World War, can be called from the wings at any time to resume his part. And what that means is a new method of inflicting harm. In older days war suspended contracts but did not terminate them, and privately owned enemy goods were safe. But the tender offices of our Alien Property Custodian, when exercised in the late war, meant the sale of the enemy’s business,—a sale at which he could not be present; with the result that on the coming of peace he received, not his original property, but cash representing the price derived from a forced sale in a hostile country. The patents were gone; the business and trademarks were gone. How long after a boycott started would it be before some of us thought of reviving the office of the Alien Property Custodian?


In view of this, it would seem that our new method of war would differ greatly from the kindly dealings of Tilly and Gustavus Adolphus. Their ways were severe, but they left few scars. In the good old days, when a beleaguered place surrendered, it was part of the victor’s duty to throw provisions in at once, so that those left alive of the inhabitants might eat and feel themselves once more. But with the raising of a boycott, who can restore the disrupted trade, and what can it profit the former enemy again to be a friend, but impoverished? Of course the boycotter will approach him with the unctuous feeling of one who has accomplished his purpose without a thing to confess. But can we be sure that the boycottee will feel the same way about it?

Perhaps he will. Human nature is fearfully and wonderfully made. ” ‘Tis all one,” said old John Selden, another disillusioned person of the seventeenth century, ” ‘tis all one to be plundered by a troop of horse or to have a man’s goods taken from him by an order from the council-table. To him that dies ‘tis all one whether it be by a penny halter or a silk garter; yet I confess the silk garter pleases more, and like trouts, we love to be tickled to death.”

But it is possible that some boycottee might not appreciate our purpose or our methods; and it is conceivable that the miscreant would bide his time for revenge. And so it is that, refraining, though with an effort, from observations on tickling (whether self-administered or inflicted by foreign hands) as having to do with our national twitches and jerks of late years, the writer ventures to hope that, in this matter of boycotting, we move carefully.

At least, when we talk about boycotting another nation, let us acknowledge the implications, and let us eliminate the non-essentials. Thus, if it be true that the boycott is nothing but a method of making war, do not let us draw a line between the boycott as declared by a league of nations or other coalition and as put into effect by a nation acting alone. There may be a difference as to prospects of success, but there is no distinction in principle.

Above all, let us avoid the well-worn cliches, pacifism and militarism. A single illustration will do. Last winter the prophet of an eastern land, when taken through the part of England most injured by a boycott which his country was practising against British goods, was not noticeably moved by evidence of the distress thus caused. That prophet is rated as a pacifist par excellence. But what he had done was to cause suffering in England in order to make Whitehall concede India’s demands. When General Sherman used the famous expression, “War is hell,” he was informing the mayor of Atlanta of the strong measures he proposed to take regarding that conquered city and its inhabitants. Yet no one was more gentle or generous than Sherman once peace came; and the context of the phrase, “War is hell,” was all to the effect that war should be made so disagreeable that the South would choose peace. Thus the difference between Sherman and Gandhi lies only in the method of making things hot for the adversary. The prophet Gandhi is doing it by the boycott, and history tells us what General Sherman did. Except in the matter of raiment, there appears to be no real difference between these two gentle and peace-loving men, although one is called a pacifist, and the other was not that.

When the boycott is mentioned, then, the citizen should face the realities. If he wants war, let him say so, and let him realize that when he calls for the boycott he is calling for war. And if it be argued that the boycott might not be as bad as carnage in the field, let the citizen realize that this argument deals with detail rather than substance. One of our national failings seems to be that so often we ask for what we really do not want, simply because we have not appraised our prayers. But as to this business of national boycotts, fortunately, it is not too late for us to follow the advice of certain philosophers, of our own day as well as of a saner time. It will do us no harm, according to those thinkers, if we test our categories before we employ them.


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