How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
TO attempt to identify and interpret the changes wrought in American mentality by the Great War and its sequels is alluring but hazardous. So easily does the writer dip his pen in the pathetic fallacy. If he has lived through the period 1917-1927 with an intensity of emotion almost painful, and with every inherited patriotic fibre often set quivering, he is in danger of confusing his own consciousness with the collective mind, as Gibbon was said to have been unable to tell, at the end of his long studies, where his own personality left off and that of the Roman Empire began.
Nor must he forget how swiftly the generations march across the scene. Today there must be a million Americans between twenty and thirty years of age to whom the first battle of the Marne is but as a faint and far-off echo of something read about. They can know nothing first-hand of the agonized suspense with which their elders watched its clash and recoil of armies as leading to either the end or the hope of civilization. And one who, as he saw his nation enter the war and emerge from it triumphant, felt like crying out, "Oh, Beautiful my Country," must not be too sure that such a sentiment swells in the hearts of his fellows just because it still does in his own.
Another difficulty of understanding is the common and complacent assumption that the last ten years changed America out of all recognition. It is true that Titanic energies were let loose, but they did not utterly shake down the old landmarks. The result was less a creation than a disclosure. Americans simply perceived themselves more clearly in the lightning flashes of the war. They were not new made but new circumstanced. The world looked on in wonder but it was only because the time had come for America to meet the poet's test and "appear to be that which thou art internally."
Let us also put aside the notion that the war first made the United States conscious of being a World Power. America had no such delayed infancy. Its fathers had from the beginning empire in their brains. The nation which, only half made up, could announce and maintain the Monroe Doctrine, certainly had no craven fear of being great. The proud dispatch that Daniel Webster when Secretary of State sent eighty years ago to the Austrian Foreign Office was as assured in strength, and as confident in facing a frowning world, as was Seward's notification to France to quit Mexico, or Olney's note to Lord Salisbury asserting our fiat as law in this hemisphere. America did not need to wait for the roar of her guns in the Argonne to know that she had an immense destiny challenging her to live up to it.
Undeniably, the people of the United States took from the anvil of the war a newly forged sense of unity. How could it have been otherwise? A spirit of nationalism breathed on the face of the waters. In those days of mighty effort, the North cried to the South, "Give up," and the East to the West, "Hold not back." Cliques, cults and sectionalism were swept into the gulf. The nation stood out a glowing whole. Tell citizens of a necessary sacrifice, and, instead of doubting or shrinking, they leaped to it. Law did something; glad spontaneity much more. Each man felt himself a willing rival of his neighbor in competing for the privilege of giving up something for the country. Never had there been so nearly a common mind in America. Inevitably something of the warmth of that fusion of thought and purpose was lost later on, but the demonstration had been complete. America knew herself one. Nothing can hereafter blot out that consciousness.
Nor can America ever forget the realization of her power which the war brought to her. It was partly physical. Those marching millions embodied an irresistible force which we did not know was ours. That this was not insensate pride of war or delusion of military grandeur was shown by what followed. Our armies melted back into the peaceful mass from which they had sprung. The contrary was planned by hasty statesmen. We should never be caught that way again. There would be a standing army of at least 500,000 men. Compulsory military service would be continued. Look what the camps had done to lick insubordinate boys into disciplined men. The country had seen that miracle, and would never consent to go on again without it. Wouldn't it! Little did those who reasoned in this way know their America. She had shown how she could fight, but she had never wavered in the belief that her mission and work in this world are peace. Let her democracy be called haphazard and improvident; shambling, impatient of regimentation, careless of the future. Never mind. At least it possessed and cherished "the manners of liberty." Unkempt and disorderly, if you please, but still free.
Note should be taken of one other aspect of their resources of power which the war first fully revealed to the American people. This was financial. Money flowed to the Government in streams beyond previous imagination. Vast popular loans were floated to an amount a hundred times greater than skilled bankers thought to be the limit of the possible. And taxation rose correspondingly. Huge sums were taken from citizens who beforehand would have wailed that it meant confiscation and ruin. They found that they could pay and live. The country observed that they could pay and prosper. That lesson abides. The old arguments about not being able to provide public funds for needed public works have lost their teeth. Free education, hospitals, roads, parks, town planning, the City Beautiful have been shown where to go for money, and we may be sure that they will not forget the road. An unsuspected financial strength called forth by the war will remain to serve peace.
Sure of herself as mistress in her own house, America has for ten years had more to do with her neighbors on the earth than ever before. They have looked in at her windows. They have knocked at her door. She has not been able to ignore or avoid them. Even if she had agreed with Dr. Johnson that foreigners are mostly fools, there they were with their unescapable contacts, their ineluctable relations, commercial, financial, political. In vain sternly to remind her that she must turn her back on entangling alliances. She saw herself entangled in a thousand ways. New bonds had tied her to Europe that could not be snapped. Break one and two new ones took its place. The more the doctrine was preached that she must leave Europeans to stew in their own juice, the more she discovered herself stewing along with them. The time had passed when any one nation could live unto itself. It could not even die unto itself, for the whole world would then be chained to a body of death from which a mortal infection would flow to the rest. This was a new experience to America -- new at least in degree. Previously she had touched old world affairs when she pleased; now she found that she could not pass them by on the other side even if she sought to do so. Caught in the great coil in spite of herself, she had continually to ask what she was going to do about it. The effect of all this upon the American outlook, the American mentality, invites like a fascinating study.
It would be superfluous to go over again here the long chronicle of confusion and cross-purposes and groping from 1919 onward -- the treaties, the conferences, the negotiations, the approaches, the retreats, the settlements that settled nothing, the definite refusals that meant only renewed demands. The record is open and known of all. What mainly interests today is less the events themselves than their sequences, the results etched by them in the American consciousness. Here we must discriminate and divide. We cannot say that all Americans were affected alike. They have to be scrutinized group by group, party by party. To attribute motives is both ungracious and precarious. Yet effect defective comes by cause. All action has its impulses and aims, and no account of what was taking place can be complete or even fair unless it pierces to the quick and shows how those were actuated who were responsible for its taking place.
Scanning the turbulent flood which has swept over the earth during the ten years past, what has it carried away, what left? We have seen thrones sunk in the muddy waters. Dynasties have been engulfed. Institutions have been broken up, so that only their disjected parts are now visible. Yet America has kept most of its old frame intact -- more than has any other nation. But what about the American idealism of which we used to hear so much in the early days of the war? Has that been sucked to the bottom of the Serbonian bog? Is it true, as so many have been quick to say, that our professed ideals have gone sour and sordid?
On this subject it is necessary to clear our minds of a lot of cant. Uncle Sam never was the knight in shining armor that it pleased some to picture him in 1917-18. Of the American boys -- the rose and expectancy of the State -- who crossed the sea on a path starred with noble purpose, too much cannot be said in praise. They deserve our fondest idealization. But the rhetoric which we poured out on them as a marching song did not convey the exact truth about the attitude of the country as a whole. It was not thinking in terms of high altruism, so much as setting its teeth to do a hard job. We had not wanted to go into the war, but being in we resolved to make the others sweat for it. They would find that we had the men, we had the ships, and we had the money too. Our own peril we but dimly sensed. But we openly faced our tough work. And it was more in a spirit of dour efficiency than of knight errantry that we tackled the business. If there was a trace of Don Quixote in Uncle Sam at the time, there was still more of Sancho Panza, the intensely practical man who was confident of his ability to govern any island that might be assigned to him, no matter how large.
In all this matter of national idealism, Americans are but slightly self-conscious. They are not in the habit of X-raying their moral insides. They do not take kindly to a grand public clinic in psychoanalysis. For them the main thing is the next piece of work in hand. This is what they have been busying themselves about since the war. They have labored and traded and farmed and manufactured and bought and sold and got rich. They have sought to whiten new seas with the sails of their foreign commerce. They have explored and exploited. They have investigated and invested. All this may seem very far from abstract idealism, but it has opened the way for the most practical kind of idealism. Unconsciously, Americans have been preparing themselves to take their fit place in the world. They may have thought that they were merely amassing wealth. But they are waking up to the fact that they have been accumulating power. And it is a power which requires extension and exercise beyond the ocean, else will it crash at home. America has been making herself the ablest of nations. But able for what? Manifestly, for holding the nations together, for supporting them in their struggles to get back on their feet, for keeping the peace of the world, for enlarging opportunity to every mortal that breathes.
Let us for the moment drop idealism and talk of hardheadedness. Of that Americans have God's plenty. They may not be patient with fine-spun theories, but they know when they are hit in the face by a solid fact. With actual events they understand that they have got to reckon, and it was a true word spoken by an English observer when he said that the United States would be brought into the World Court and the League of Nations, not by appeals on the score of duty or humanity, but by the inexorable logic of events. In the end, enlightened self-interest will lead us where impassioned eloquence could not persuade us to go.
As the tenth year closes we can hear the slow grinding of the mills of the gods. By a kind of moral gravitation the ends of the earth are more and more drawn together. America aloof is as impossible to conceive as America thrust back to Colonial days. Trade knits us to other lands. Finance calls us. Common problems of health bind us. Quickened intercourse and interchange make it impossible for us to live apart. For us not to be willing to share and coöperate is to shrivel up and die. There has to be a physical basis for everything precious in life. We have it in this country, and have it more abundantly. But it has to be used, or it will fall in upon itself like a dome from which the supporting arches have been removed. And it is the immense, virtually unlimited physical basis for playing a great and needed part in the world, that America has been building up, unwitting of its destined end, it may be, which gives us confidence in this year 1927 that she will perforce go forward to fulfill or surpass in practice all the hopes and dreams of 1917.