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Foreign Affairs Anthology Series

Essays for the Presidency

Library of Congress Robert M. La Follette, the progressive candidate.
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American Foreign Policy: a Progressive View

It is historically characteristic of governments devoted to conservative measures and the maintenance of the status quo in domestic matters to develop an aggressive policy in foreign affairs, and similarly for governments whose chief outlook is toward the progressive improvement of existing conditions to seek to disembarrass themselves from the complications of foreign policy. Whether or not much weight should be attached to the popular interpretation of conservative policy as seeking to allay discontent at home by feeding national pride with triumphs abroad, there is an apparent relation between the amount of attention in a democracy which is directed to internal development and reform, and that which can be released to sustain an active interest in external relations. Thus the two great periods of internal development in the United States, one beginning with the administration of Jefferson and the other after the Civil War, were characterized by an indifference toward foreign affairs which yielded only to the aggressions of others. In England the liberal statesmen, Lord John Russell, Cobden, and Gladstone, minimized the interest in external relations, while the conservatives, Disraeli, Palmerston, and Salisbury, emphasized it.

It is natural therefore that the Progressive movement in the United States should be regarded as so deeply concerned with the domestic situation as to be comparatively indifferent to foreign policy, and that its leaders, partly, it is true, through their own utterances, should be considered the most pronounced of isolationists. As a matter of fact the platform of the Third Party devotes its final and longest plank to foreign policy, advocating a program which challenges the attention and thought of the public to an extent immeasurably greater than the conventional pronouncements of the older parties--a plank which, should the Progressives have an opportunity to carry it out in practice, would involve a complete break with the principles upon which the two preceding administrations have acted.

The plank headed Foreign Policy in the Progressive Platform is as follows:

We denounce the mercenary system of foreign policy under recent administrations in the interest of financial imperialists, oil monopolists, and international bankers, which has at times degraded our State Department from its high service as a strong and kindly intermediary of defenseless governments to a trading outpost of those interest and concession seekers engaged in the exploitation of weaker nations, as contrary to the will of the American people, destructive of domestic development and provocative of war. We favor an active foreign policy to bring about a revision of the Versailles Treaty in accordance with the terms of the armistice, and to promote firm treaty agreements with all nations to outlaw wars, abolish conscription, drastically reduce land, air, and naval armaments, and guarantee public referendums on peace and war.

There will be a disposition to discount this plank as lip-service to an ideal, as an effervescence of good-will which can by no means be reduced to a practical program, as a talking point for the campaign. On the contrary, it can be shown that this announcement is a characteristic feature of Progressive thought and that it has taken form under the same influences which have moulded the paragraphs which preceded it. As a preliminary consideration it must be recognized that the Progressive Platform is not a logical presentation of a political philosophy or comprehensive statement of a political program. Four years ago the attempt was made to build a new party upon a systematically drawn foundation. It failed. This year, as an alternative, the sponsors of a third party have been content to offer as the basis of their appeal to the country a concrete statement of the historical course of the movement. It is a pragmatic document which has grown out of experience, and has been formulated in respect to actual positions taken up and defended by Progressive leaders in labor organizations, in journalism, and in state and national assemblies. Particularly is it representative of the career and thought of Senator La Follette, whose service in point of time transcends that of any other Progressive. There are many omissions in the Third Party Platform, some of which seem inexcusable to advocates of the causes unrepresented. There are omissions in the program for foreign affairs. Where, one may ask, is any statement in regard to immigration and exclusion? In regard to the debts of the Allies? In regard to the Treaty of Lausanne or the recognition of Russia? On the whole, however, it must be said that the subjects touched upon in the platform are of most immediate and far-reaching concern to the United States and those which are most vitally connected historically with the development of Progressive opinion.

It will be seen that the plank is divided into two parts. The first sentence is a self-denying ordinance against imperialism and is in line with the historic position of Liberalism, the position of Cobden against Palmerston. It promises abstention from selfish and mischievous interference of the government, for the advantage of its own citizens, in the affairs of weaker countries. The fundamental evil against which the Progressive strikes is monopoly. Here is a form of monopoly peculiarly despicable which certain privileged classes enjoy, to some extent at the expense of their own countrymen but chiefly as a burden on the people of foreign and helpless lands. The extent to which this development of business imperialism has gone in recent years is quite unknown to most Americans. In the Atlantic Monthly for July, 1924, Mr. S. G. Inman gives a summary of the situation with reference to the countries to the south of us. Of twenty Latin American republics only six are free from American interference in one form or another. In eleven countries this interference takes the form of official direction of financial policy, and in six this direction is backed by United States troops. Among the more flagrant cases of intervention may be cited Nicaragua, where since 1912 the United States has maintained, by a force of marines, a government opposed by 80 percent of the Nicaraguans but favorable to the American banking house which collects the customs and owns the national bank and railroad. Worse than this is the plight of Haiti, where the United States marines uphold a government chosen under their supervision, where an American financial advisor collects customs and makes loans guaranteed by the United States, where the constitution has been rewritten to permit United States corporations to hold land, and where in Mr. Wilson's administration some 3,000 Haitians were put to death by United States marines. In regard to China, the historic American policy of disinterested benevolence has been succeeded by one of selfish assertion marked by Mr. Hughes' recent note to Peking on the disposition of the Chinese Eastern Railway. In other parts of the world, notably Persia, Turkey, and the East Indies, the State Department is no longer the promoter of a general and wholesome good-will, but the guardian of special financial interests.

This mercenary foreign policy, as in the case of Great Britain, began when American capital sought investment beyond the sea. The distinction between the effect of commercial exchange of goods and export of capital was long ago pointed out by Cobden. It is to the advantage of a trader to have his customer prosperous, while to the banker or loan shark the bankruptcy of his client may be his most profitable transaction. The appearance of the United States in the role of an empire dates from the Spanish War. Then followed the fomenting of the revolution in Panama and the taking of the Canal Zone. But these overt acts were less obnoxious than the process of insidious penetration and infiltration in other countries which since 1912 has gone on, with characteristic stealth under the Wilson Administration, with cynical avowal under Hughes. The difference between the Third Party movement of 1912 and that of today is at no point more striking than in the attitudes respectively taken toward the question of imperialism. The Progressives of 1912 blindly followed Roosevelt in his defense of a predatory policy of which he was one of the conspicuous exponents. But during the next four years the Progressives awoke. Wilson's bullying attitude toward Mexico, the bombardment of Vera Cruz, and the punitive expedition in pursuit of Villa were targets for their attack. When information in regard to the occupation of Haiti began to leak out the Progressives forced investigation in the Senate. The Nation made a vigorous campaign of publicity, and under its auspices was formed the Haiti-Santo-Domingo Independence Society which conducted the case for the oppressed islanders. To Senator Borah belongs the chief credit for forcing the Haitian situation on the attention of a reluctant Senate. Our relations with Mexico and Nicaragua have been especially the charge of Senator La Follette. In March, 1916, he introduced into the Senate a resolution approving Pershing's expedition in pursuit of Villa in terms which restricted the use of force to that single end, and declared the intention of the United States in no way to encroach upon the sovereignty of Mexico. This self-denying ordinance had the same effect as the famous Platt amendment in regard to Cuba, and it was this aspect, doubtless, which led to a vigorous denunciation of it by Senator Albert B. Fall. In July, 1921, Senator La Follette introduced a resolution forbidding the use of American troops in Mexico without the express authority of Congress. In July, 1919, he introduced a resolution inquiring of the State Department why our protected republic of Nicaragua was permitted to invade Costa Rica, and why the latter was not permitted to sign the covenant of the League of Nations.

Imperialism is an issue which belongs to the Progressives by peculiar right. Both Democratic and Republican Platforms are entirely silent on the subject. The Progressives recognize it as a moral issue. In the words of Mr. Inman: "Our North American Christian civilization will find its final test in the way we treat our next-door neighbors. We are piling up hatreds, suspicions, records of exploitation and destruction of sovereignty in Latin America such as have never failed in all history to react in wars, suffering, and defeat of high moral and spiritual ideals." The Progressives recognize it also as a political issue. They see the actual and potential embarrassments which affect the realization of the domestic program of the British Labor Party in the face of the situation in India, South Africa, and Egypt, and they are resolved to deal with similar difficulties in good time. They realize that the worst of foreign entanglements--more dangerous than alliances--are those imperial commitments which put the national honor in pawn to selfish interests. If Mr. La Follette is elected President, and only in that event, shall we have an honest effort to treat our neighbors and other weaker countries in a spirit of absolute fairness and good faith, with no taint of selfishness or the influence of privileged individuals or special interests.

The portion of the plank already discussed refers chiefly to the relations of the United States with the Western Hemisphere and Asia; the remainder has reference to Europe. It pledges the United States to seek a revision of the political and financial provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, "in accordance with the terms of the armistice"; and to promote "firm treaty agreements with all nations to outlaw wars, abolish conscription, drastically reduce land, air and naval armaments, and guarantee public referendums on peace and war." Like the first part of the plank this second sentence is a considered formulation of the thought of Progressives and a crystallization of their opinion in regard to the responsibility and function of the United States in the situation growing out of its participation in the World War. It must be read with this background in mind.

During the war those who now call themselves Progressives occupied widely different positions, ranging from that of the conscientious objector against all war to the advocate of military participation by the United States in this war, in the hope that it might be the last. On the whole the Progressives held a more detached attitude and professed less illusion in regard to the origin of the war, the character of our associates, and the reason for our participation than either of the two regular parties. After the war, opinion among Progressives tended to move in one direction until it was unified by the Treaty of Versailles. There are some who would accept the Covenant of the League of Nations as a pitiful salvage of their hopes and a salve to their consciences, but the Treaty as a whole they recognize as an instrument of dishonor and destruction, a crime gratuitously added to the crime of the war.

The Progressive Platform calls for a revision of the Treaty of Versailles, first of all because it rests upon the falsehood that Germany is solely responsible for the war and should bear alone the burden of war guilt. The first clause of the treaty which contains this statement is, as Mr. Lloyd George has pointed out, the fundamental hypothesis underlying the whole structure, the major premise from which the various conclusions are drawn. The Platform further recognizes that the treaty is in substantial variation from the pre-armistice agreement on which Germany surrendered. This agreement specifically limited the sums for which Germany was liable to damage done to civilians and their property by land, sea, or the air, and was designed to exclude payments for pensions and other claims approximating the total cost of the war. In respect to the financial clauses of the Treaty, revision is already foreseen through the medium of the Dawes Report. This plan will probably never operate to bring large reparations payments. The time for such fruitful husbandry of German resources has passed. The goose, potential layer of golden eggs, is already dead. It may be hoped, however, that the plan will work successfully to break the endless chain by which political pressure and occupation of territory automatically follow financial default on the part of Germany. But certain territorial clauses of the treaty are no less in violation of the prearmistice agreement into which were specifically read the Fourteen Points promulgated by President Wilson with their stipulations in regard to annexations and transfers of territory. Some of these provisions, such as those with reference to the Polish corridor and Danzig, the Sarre Valley, the granting of a large part of the Austrian Tyrol to Italy and of Upper Silesia to Poland are, quite apart from reference to the pre-armistice agreement, in their nature so unjust and inexpedient that it is impossible to believe that they will not remain a cause of unrest in Europe until they are changed.

It is somewhat surprising to find the Progressives, who of the three political groups engaged in the present contest were most skeptical in regard to the participation of the United States in the war and least concerned in its results, the only party which accepts the responsibility of the United States for those results. Yet of that responsibility there can be no intelligent doubt. Apart from the general fact that the United States lent its military and industrial force to the Allies for purposes categorically defined, there is the specific fact that the pre-armistice agreement which recognized those purposes was negotiated through the intermediation of the President. There is the further circumstance that representatives of this country took a leading part in drawing up the Treaty, and in some cases contributed largely toward formulating the provisions which are most obnoxious. The United States bore its part in continuing the economic pressure upon Germany, after the armistice, which forced that country to assent formally to terms which were not only unjust and degrading but impossible of fulfilment. It has been plausibly argued that the signature of the German commissioners at Versailles was due to the stipulated representation of the United States on the Reparation Commission. The fact that the constitution of this country made it possible for a political quarrel to prevent ratification and ultimately to enable us to secure the advantages of the Treaty of Versailles without committing ourselves to its enforcement, is a waiver of legal but not of moral responsibility. The Progressives were in general opposed to the ratification of the Treaty. The chief argument for such ratification was that by remaining in cooperation with the associated nations we should be able to contribute in the end to the purposes which we accepted as justification for the war, and to the pacification of Europe. The Progressives for the most part did not believe this. They accept, however, the responsibility for these objects, and the obligation to employ to these ends the strategy of the position which the United States has, in the course of events, assumed.

It will be argued, of course, that revision of the Treaty of Versailles is entirely a matter for the nations which signed it, one upon which the opinion of the United States can be at best merely academic. On the other hand it may be replied that, quite apart from any special concern in view of the origin of the document, this country has in common with the neutrals of the late war an interest in a settlement so subversive of the principles upon which peace can be maintained, so obnoxious to the revival of prosperity throughout the world. It is clear that the Progressive group now in Congress, from whose experience the present platform is so largely drawn, has become increasingly awake to the relation between the economic welfare of this country and that of Europe. Such considerations may be depended on to give reality to what might otherwise seem a gesture in the air. And if it is further argued that the revision of the Treaty is incredible in view of the multitude of interests which it has created, it may be further replied that the Treaty is now undergoing revision. It has been revised in favor of France; it is being revised in favor of Germany. The force of political gravitation is all against its permanence. We may join with Mr. Roland W. Boyden in the opinion which he has expressed in the June issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS: "Germany, again for her own sake, ought voluntarily to pledge herself to abide by the territorial results of the treaty except as they may in the future be changed by peaceful negotiations with the Allies." But something more is needed to save the situation than pious hope. The Progressive Platform, it may be asserted, is the only one which recognizes the realities of the situation and promises coöperation to secure by peaceful means the results that Mr. Boyden envisages. Should Senator La Follette be elected to the Presidency, his Secretary of State, instead of gumshoeing about London, Paris, and Berlin, offering (we may hope) wise counsel and exercising (we may pray) a wholesome influence, always with an eye cocked toward the bedside of Senator Lodge, will raise in the open court of the world the question of revising the Treaty of Versailles by peaceful conference before it is shot to pieces by the cannon of the next war.

The last words of the plank cover the ground occupied by such arrangements, actual or proposed, as the League of Nations, the Permanent World Court of Justice, the Draft Treaty of Disarmament and Security, and the undertakings of the Washington Conference. Toward these various enterprises Progressives maintain a skeptical and watchful attitude. Not all of them are opposed to these measures, and all of them are in sympathy with the ends sought. In general they believe that these pieces of machinery are valuable only when given viability by the force of good-will, and they would take account of the motive power before constructing the engine. Toward the accumulation and releasing of this power in the world, they hold that the United States beyond all other nations is bound to contribute.

At this point there is a clear difference in emphasis between the political philosophy underlying the Progressive Platform and that of many honest liberals. The effort to set up the machinery of coöperation among nations, such as the League of Nations and the Permanent World Court of Justice, depends upon an extension of international law. Now the only kind of international law which is valid for the purpose is analagous to that natural law which individuals have learned to obey because the breaking of it brings swift decline to society and disaster to themselves. The law "thou shalt not kill" has thus come to prevail among the individuals of a civilized state. It does not prevail among nations because our national mind still finds advantage in killing men of other nations and is heedless of the disadvantages to ourselves. International law, as understood today, has little to do with natural right and is largely a mere codification of customs and ceremonies, like the so-called laws of war. Not until nations have advanced in dealing with one another to the point where natural right, so far as it can be perceived, outweighs the immediate temptation of selfish advantage, can we look with hope to the machinery of international organization. This matter is admirably discussed by Mr. Jackson Ralston in his volume "Democracy's International Law," wherein he points out the fallacy involved in the parallel often drawn between the proposed organization of the world and that of the United States. "American peace," he says, "is not due to the fact that we have a common executive, a Congress, and a Supreme Court, useful as all of these instruments may be. It exists because any citizen of the United States equally with any other citizen has a right in perfect freedom to pass state borders with all his family and property; to import and export from place to place within the limits of the United States any sort of property he pleases without hindrance from any state authority; to gain access to and from the seas without any local interference whatsoever." It is often urged that the proposed international arrangements--leagues, courts, conferences, and the like--are steps in the right direction. Senator La Follette has a passage in his autobiography discussing the difference between himself and Roosevelt which is in point here. "He (Roosevelt) acted upon the maxim that half a loaf is better than no bread. I believe that half a loaf is fatal whenever it is accepted at the sacrifice of the basic principle sought to be attained. . . . A half-way measure never fairly tests the principle and many utterly discredit it." It is for this reason that the Progressive Platform as a basis for international arrangements at this time emphasizes contract rather than law, treaties rather than leagues and courts which at present can obtain their powers only through such treaties.

In regard to the specific enterprises mentioned the attitude of Senator La Follette is doubtless more critical than that of many of his followers. Nevertheless he represents their spirit. On November 19, 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was first before the Senate for ratification, he supported Senator Owen's resolution providing that the Fourteen Points should be binding in its execution. This resolution was defeated. Subsequently he proposed six reservations. They were (1) to exempt the United States from any obligation under Article X of the Covenant to give aid in putting down movements to change the sovereignty of subject peoples, Ireland, India, Egypt, Korea, etc.; (2) to provide for its withdrawal from the League of Nations within a year unless conscription were abolished by all members; (3) to provide for similar withdrawal unless the League adopted the referendum of the peoples in regard to entering war; (4) to require general reduction of military and naval establishments; (5) to provide for withdrawal in case a member nation attempted to seize the territory of a non-member state; (6) to provide for withdrawal in case a member nation exercising a mandate over any country attempted to appropriate to itself the resources of that country. Roughly and hastily drawn as these reservations are they are expressive of the Progressive attitude toward world problems. (a) There is the duty toward weaker nations whose rights have been so unscrupulously invaded by imperialism, so imperfectly safeguarded by the mandate system of the League of Nations. (b) There is the direct summons to the good-will of the world to declare itself by abolishing conscription, by reducing armaments and by adopting the referendum on war.

As to the first it will be urged that the Progressive position fails to take account of practical considerations in a world still controlled by the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. On this point Senator La Follette continues the high tradition of English political thought which began with Edmund Burke. His opposition to the Four Power Treaty negotiated at the Washington Conference was based on this regard for the rights of the weaker. "If we ratify this treaty," he said in the Senate on March 23, 1922, "it means that we deliberately take our place with Japan, and Great Britain, and the imperialists of France in order to profit by the misfortunes of Germany, Russia, and China."

As to the second, it will be asserted that the Progressive Platform is too vague in the absence of specifically defined means to be taken very seriously. It is, however, the clear purpose of the Progressives to bind themselves by "an active foreign policy" to attain so far as they can the object of world peace. If they are accused of vague idealism can it be said that the realism represented by the other parties is more practical? On the subject of disarmament the Republican Platform advocates the calling of a "conference on the limitation of land forces, the use of submarines and poison gas"; but in another part of the same document we read the uncompromising declaration: "There must be no further weakening of our regular army and we advocate appropriations sufficient to provide training for all members of the National Guard, the citizens military training camps and the reserves who may offer themselves for service. We pledge ourselves to round out and to maintain the navy to the full strength provided the United States by the letter and spirit of the limitation of armaments conference" (italics mine). The emphasis of this declaration cannot be misunderstood: The army and navy forever! Similarly the Democratic Platform, apparently legislating for the world: "We demand a strict and sweeping reduction of armaments by land and sea so that there shall be no competitive military program or naval building," but adds for home consumption: "Until agreements to this end have been made we advocate an army and navy adequate for our national safety." Again on the subject of referendum for war the same document asserts with what, except for its general level of intelligence, might pass for irony: "Those who furnish the blood and bear the burden imposed by war should whenever possible (italics mine) be consulted before the supreme sacrifice is demanded of them."

In contrast to these cautious and hedging declarations, designed to catch voters coming and going, this at least of actuality the Progressive Platform has--it means what it says. No one can doubt that in event of Senator La Follette's election he will make it the object of "an active foreign policy" to achieve the ends specified. His whole record points that way. And this further element of actuality the Progressive program has--a willingness to bear the cost and take the risk of the first steps. Everyone remembers how the Washington Conference opened in a dawn of promise due to the surprising and unexpected declaration of Secretary Hughes committing his own country first of all to a positive if meagre renunciation. The Progressives are ready to do business on this basis. As their faith in the rights of small nations and backward peoples to choose their own modes of life and enjoy their own resources submits itself instantly to the test of withdrawing the support of their government from private enterprise hostile to these rights, and relinquishing the way of economic imperialism, so their belief in the ultimate dependence of humanity on its own good-will, will prompt them to stimulate good-will by example as well as precept. If Mr. La Follette is elected President we may expect to see his foreign policy directed to promote the pacification and prosperity of the world without subtraction or reservation in favor of the special interests of the United States--generously and whole-heartedly and patriotically, in the conviction that our own peace and welfare are bound up with those of other nations and that we are strong enough to act on that principle.

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