We Enter WWI: The American Tradition and the War

We Enter WWI: The American Tradition and the War

We Enter WWI: The American Tradition and the War


The past months have witnessed a rebirth of American patriotism. Many of us had been taking the United States almost for granted. It had been to us something like a club in which we were members by right of birth — a club in which we paid our dues as a matter of course, on behalf of which we accepted our casual slight responsibilities more or less grudgingly, and to which we paid comparatively little attention: the purpose of the club was something so vague to us that in the pressure of our other interests and occupa-tions we lost sight of it entirely. But now, suddenly, the fact has come home to us that we are greatly responsible to our nation, and that this responsibility cannot be evaded.

Our sentimental affection for the flag takes new hold of us. Everywhere up and down the streets we see it shaking in the wind; since February 3 “every day has looked like Wash-ington’s Birthday.” We hear our national anthem played after performances at the thea-tre, as the English have always been wont to play “God Save the King” — but with the fervor of novelty. We feel a tingle down our spines when “America” is sung in church and at concerts. Perhaps we hitherto have held nationalism to be something artificial, the by-product of monarchical and imperial ambition; a useful but dangerous force des-tined to give inevitable precedence to a saner internationalism. Yet in the face of war clearly the first great need is for union and loyalty. And it is not strange that each of us asks himself what this loyalty should be, how it should be manifested, and exactly what it is to which he must be loyal. Americans must stand together — that is clear; but where? They must work together; but for what? Now more than ever, if we are to fulfil our national promise, we ought to take stock of ourselves as a nation and inquire what America means to us and in what direction our loyalty should lead us.

What, then, is the American tradition? Our national shortcomings have been advertised only too loudly since the beginning of the European war. We know only too well that our democratic philosophy has had a way of proceeding sentimentally from the hypothesis that one man is as good as the next — “and probably better” — to the lazy conclusion that vulgarity and incompetence are normal, that special intellectual equipment may be discounted, that second-rate work is as good as first-rate work. America lavishes as much praise on the man who “gets away with it” as on the man who knows his subject. Americans have too often sacrificed the finer things of life to their fetich of getting along. We have been a self-willed, thick-skinned, provincial people; our ears have been too full of the noise of our self-praise to hear the advice of others; our eyes have been too fixed upon the present to look back at the lessons of history and the accumulated wisdom of the past. We must admit that we are undisciplined, careless of law, too ready to disre-spect authority and upset orders. In great measure our democracy has been ineffectual, and our blind optimism has allowed us to surrender too easily to the irresponsible com-mercialism which has grown up around it.

But every sensible person knows that there is another aspect of our experiment in de-mocracy — its idealism. If our nation has to its discredit the foolish contention that all men are equally fit to hold responsible office and to discharge special duties requiring special gifts, it has to its credit the overwhelming emphasis which it has placed upon the common humanity of all mankind, on the equal right of high and low — founded on that common humanity — to equal justice, equal education, equal opportunity, and the pro-tection of the law. We may not have been the home of the brave, but in a real sense we have been the land of the free. West of Ellis Island the oppressed of many nations have found not only that freedom to worship God which the Pilgrims sought, but freedom from social restrictions and religious persecution. American women have come nearer receiv-ing their economic due than those of any European nation. The youth of America have been independent of their elders — trusted to conduct themselves decently and choose their own vocations — to an extent hardly believable to most Europeans. We have prided ourselves upon the right of free speech and a reasonably free press. Although slavery had a long life in the South, and virtual economic slavery persists in many localities, it may fairly be said that the great figure with uplifted torch in New York harbor represents a characteristically American ideal.

Again, an unexampled faith in the good intentions of the ordinary man has made Ameri-cans tolerant. Europeans have laughed at us for our ingenuous hospitality, our credulity. We have proved an easy mark for the impostor and — it may yet be proved — for the spy. But if our unworldliness has made us easily duped, if our hatred of bigotry has sof-tened us to religious indifference, at least it should be remembered that they have kept us from disillusion. The spirit of America has remained the spirit of youth — eager to try everything new, willing to give a place in our American sun to other races and other creeds.

And our American faith in government by consent of the governed has been so real that we have succeeded, more than any great nation living to-day, in carrying over into our national foreign policy the principles of honorable individual conduct. Our happy-go-lucky, boorish, shirtsleeve diplomacy has in the main been fair to other nations. It is not only because the farmer of Podunk has been more interested in Podunk than in Para-guay that we have resisted the imperial temptation. We have done the right thing by Cuba and China and the Philippines. We have gone far to set ourselves right for our ac-quisition of Panama by disclaiming exemption from the payment of canal tolls. The vigor with which we condemn the blunders and evasions of our recent policy in Mexico should not blind us to the proud fact that throughout our Government has been honestly trying to do what would be best for the Mexicans — a policy of national altruism without a par-allel. The Monroe Doctrine has grown into Pan-Americanism — a movement which promises to set us farther on the road towards a brotherhood of nations than we have ever gone before. One does not have to deny our provincial astigmatism and our spread-eagle cant to conclude that the American spirit has been nearer the spirit of friendliness and forbearance, the spirit of Christ, than that of any other great nation on the face of the earth.

Now these American traditions of democracy and liberty and tolerance and self-government are confronted by war. They justify us in going to war. We stood aside from the European conflict long after certain elements among us passionately urged us to go in; and we stood aside not merely on account of our readiness to talk ideals rather than to live up to them and our increasing callousness to the sight of suffering and disaster-although it must be admitted that there were times when these faults seemed to be bringing about a paralysis of our national moral force but because we believed that if Germany had offended us greatly, she had done so for the very human reason that we got in her way when she was struggling in a war which was none of our making. We made excuses for her barbarity: she was fighting for her life against a starvation block-ade, imposed by an enemy that had herself overridden international law. We tried all peaceful means to win Germany over to a lawful attitude towards the rights of non-combatants. Patient to a fault, for a while we had partial success. But Germany’s deci-sion of January 31 added the last straw to the burden of our conviction that her initial aggression, her invasions of neutral territory and neutral rights, her absolute sacrifice to her imperial ambition of every moral scruple, made her the greatest obstacle between us and the sort of world we wish to live in. We knew that a Germany unrepentant would be incompatible with the American ideal. President Wilson had been preaching a new international order, which many of us thought a remote vision, but all of us knew to be a splendid vision; and it was inevitable that our first step towards that new order must be to protect the life of civilization as best we could against the German outlaw.

Our cause, then, can give us a calm conscience. But that is not enough. The question is whether we can remain true to the American tradition in time of war. War necessitates organization, system, routine, and discipline. The choice is between efficiency and de-feat. Pork will have to go. Government by “deserving Democrats” will have to go. The executive side of the Administration will have to be strengthened by the appointment of trained specialists. Socialism will take tremendous strides forward. A new sense of the obligations of citizenship will transform the spirit of the nation. But it is also inevitable that the drill sergeant will receive authority. We shall have to give up much of our eco-nomic freedom. We shall be delivered into the hands of officers and executives who put victory first and justice second. We shall have to lay by our goodnatured individualism and march in step at their command. The only way to fight Prussianism is with Prussian tools. The danger is lest we forget the lesson of Prussia: that the bad brother of disci-pline is tyranny — which our fathers fought to put down and our immigrants came to our shores to escape. It would be an evil day for America if we threw overboard liberty to make room for efficiency.

We shall have need of our traditional tolerance also. Already one can see the tide of feeling rising. Not long ago twelve Senators gagged the President’s armed-ship legisla-tion. Surely they were mistaken, surely their action was unfair and dangerous to the wel-fare of the country, but surely, too, it is a sign of bad temper to impugn their motives. Yet two New York papers of great influence and prestige classed these Senators with Benedict Arnold, and according to a press report the mention of their names at a fiery mass meeting in Carnegie Hall brought forth shouts of “Hang them!” One sees sensible people honestly suspecting the most transparently honest pacifists of conspiring on be-half of Germany. In their turn the pacifists are heard to accuse the war party of being bought with British gold. The situation is as old as the hills: two people disagree, lose their temper, and through inability to see each other’s point of view accuse each other of the basest motives.

What we have seen, it is clear, is only a beginning. Hatred will spring up quickly when American blood has been shed in war. Sensationalism will spread the German spy scare. Every suburban gossip will have her story of such-and-such a German-American’s concrete tennis court and three-inch gun. Reprisals against loyal Americans of Geran birth will be advocated, and, one fears, frequently effected. We may have our own Liebknechts thrown into prison, our own Haldanes scorned by public and press, our own conscientious objectors punished, our own Bertrand Russells expelled from our university faculties. If there is a censorship, it will be stupidly managed, and to its aid in making people bigoted will come the censorship of fear: newspapers and magazines do not dare advocate the unpopular cause at a time when passions run high. With all these forces working for intolerance, greater than he that ruleth a city will be he who keeps his American kindliness, his perspective, his quiet intentness upon justice.

Finally, the unselfishness of America, as well as her liberty and democracy and toler-ance, is to be put to the test. Living apart from the European family quarrel, we have hardly been exposed to the germ of imperial expansion. War will set this temptation squarely before us. There will be many who will want us to have our share of the fruits of victory and will bring out convenient arguments for our justification. “Can a proud na-tion lay down its sons for nothing?” they will argue. “Are we to have a seat at the peace council only to talk piously about the rearrangement of the Balkans and the restitution of Belgium? We went to war for America, not for any European nation, and everybody with red blood in his veins wants to see America paid in full. Let us show that we are a world Power and not John Bull’s hired man. To the victor belong the spoils. America first!” It is well, then, that the President in his address to the Senate on January 13, in his second inaugural, and in the great war address of April 2, stated for us very clearly the princi-ples to which we are to hold fast; and it would be well for us all, as a measure of moral preparedness, to make up our minds now — while the test is only beginning — that though we go into war whole-heartedly and to the limit of our strength, we nevertheless seek no territorial gain, no indemnity, no opportunity save to defeat the enemies of civili-zation and to cast our weight in favor of a just distribution of European territory and a peaceful association of the nations of the world.

To wage this war merely for the defence of American rights would be a short-sighted policy; it would be to forget that patriotism is not an end but a means, the end being uni-versal righteousness. To allow our purpose to include anything inconsistent with our na-tional ideal would be a base policy. The only noble policy is to hold steadily before us our responsibility to the new world which we are trying to make possible, and to act throughout the war in accordance with the American tradition of democracy, liberty, tol-erance, and national unselfishness. To that policy every one of us ought to recommit himself, so that in the test of war we who are a nation great in promise may be a nation great in deed.

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