Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
THE attitude of the American people towards this war and the inherent revolutionary conflict which it contains has undergone profound modifications during the last fifteen months. The most important changes took place after the surrender of France in June.
The first shock was stunning. The fact that the French army, considered at least as good as the German, could be defeated in less than forty days, and that France, one of the main pillars of democracy, could become enslaved to the Axis, demoralized Americans as it demoralized the French themselves. In spite of a great deal of wishful thinking, faith in the ability of England to withstand the well-advertised final blow was at a low ebb during the first part of the summer. Isolationist sentiment, founded more or less consciously on the conviction that the Allies would win the war, underwent a radical transformation: it became quite strong again, but for opposite reasons. The possibility that England might be doomed and that help would come too late incited the former isolationists to become appeasers. Colonel Lindbergh, speaking for many of them, expressed the idea that it did not really matter who dominated Europe and that it was in the interest of the United States to establish good relations with the probable victor. Like Chamberlain and Bonnet at the time of Munich, the neo-isolationists denied or disregarded the validity of the ideological world conflict created by the Nazi and Fascist dictators. They argued, as European appeasers had argued, that democracy and freedom could survive in America while totalitarianism ruled the rest of the world.
This doctrine would probably have gained ground more rapidly had it not been for the extraordinary resistance put up by England. As the summer ended, a counter-current of public opinion set in. Confidence in the British was restored. It might be too much to speak of real optimism and truer to say that the sense of acute alarm was followed by a reappraisal of a situation which, temporarily at least, appeared slightly less depressing. To quote a correspondent of the New York Times writing from the Middle West during the election campaign: "The American people, like the English themselves, are growing accustomed to the bombing of London." There is no way of telling whether this was written with irony or candor, but it probably reflects the state of mind of the average American at the time.
This return of relative confidence was not due alone to the British resistance. The American people's unanimous acceptance of the necessity of directing their efforts towards national defense improved the American morale. The fact that the necessity was recognized by both parties during the presidential campaign is proof of the deep evolution of American thinking in recent months. If the elections had occurred a year earlier such unanimity could hardly have been achieved.
At the time of writing, one can say that the extreme confusion which characterized American thinking during the first year of the war has been to a large extent dispelled. The question of whether the frontiers of America are on the Rhine is not asked since it has become so generally apparent that they have been moved back to the Channel and since the fall of France has brought the Germans to the shores of the Atlantic. Criticism of England has died down because the British Isles are now considered to be fulfilling in the Atlantic a rôle analogous to that of the Philippines in the Pacific. They are part of the defense system of this country. The conclusion of the triple alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan and the open admission by Fascist and Nazi spokesmen of the universality of the Fascist revolution have made the American people conscious of the fact that their country is now at the geographical and psychological center of the conflict and not on the outskirts. The United States is not at war with the Axis Powers. But it recognizes the now obvious fact that the domination of the world by the totalitarians, under the guise of establishing "New Regional Orders," cannot be prevented unless the armies, navies, air forces and civilian populations of their actual opponents -- which for the moment means England, Greece and China -- are assured of the increasing moral and material support of the United States.
True, there is a great deal of reluctance to admit that the real backbone of resistance to totalitarian imperialism is the United States. The American people have a traditional distaste for any intimation that they can influence the destinies of the world in any other way than by example and moral suasion. They feel that the last time they undertook a crusade it failed. There is no desire to repeat the experiment. Nevertheless, in spite of this disillusionment, in spite of the suspicion of all things European, in spite of the nostalgic attraction of the idea that they can pursue their own course alone, they find themselves confronted today with a situation of immense responsibility, one from which it is difficult to imagine any satisfactory escape.
In this situation the American people have developed a fairly clear line of policy which can be summed up as follows: I. Development of national defense to meet all contingencies, including those that might arise if England were to be defeated. 2. Increased help to England of all descriptions short of sending an expeditionary force abroad. The hope is, of course, that England will be able to resist and even to defeat the Nazis either by acquiring a crushing superiority in the air, or following the development of rebellions in the conquered countries, or following an internal collapse of Germany, or by a combination of these three factors.
In any event, the American aim is to retain a purely defensive attitude. In one of his campaign speeches, Mr. Roosevelt said: "By defense, I mean defense." Both he and Mr. Willkie repudiated vigorously any suggestion that the United States might at any time resort to war or commit any act which might too obviously lead to war. The vast armament program adopted by the United States, the large army and navy which it is creating, are not for the purpose of making war but to prevent war from reaching the shores of this continent. This has been made quite clear by the leaders of public opinion, and apparently the majority of Americans believe in the soundness of the program.
It has been noted, of course, that the solemn pledges given by both Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Willkie not to take the country into war were inspired by the political necessities of the campaign. Both candidates were intelligent enough to know that if a situation developed in which American public opinion manifested its will to make war, no President could effectively oppose the trend. But the important point is that, at present, recourse to war is not to be contemplated except on the basis of national defense. Americans would fight if they were attacked on this continent, or if their neighbors to the north or south were attacked. They repudiate the idea that they might take the offensive themselves. That the United States wants peace is fundamental; and every effort to reinforce national defense is intended as a step in preserving it.
The question is whether such a defensive policy will insure the desired result.
Neither England nor France wanted to go to war, either in 1939, or in 1938, or at any other time. The intensity of the antiwar feeling which existed in these two countries during the last twenty years has probably never been fully appreciated on this side of the Atlantic. This is due to many reasons. One is that as Americans have had a few less wars than the European Powers have had, an illusion was created that the American people were by nature more peace-loving than the Europeans. Also, the complexity and instability of European politics fostered the notion that "Europe was always at war." Too many Powers were too often engaged in maintaining or restoring some sort of equilibrium either by diplomatic bargaining or by force. In contrast, the American continent, dominated as it is in fact by the overwhelming might of the United States, offered a much simpler picture. Another reason why European pacifism was underestimated is to be found in the "disillusionment" following the last war. This found expression in American condemnation of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. The United States having decided to withdraw from European affairs, a strong contrast was created in the public mind between the easier course of aloofness which America had set for herself and the chronic maladjustments characteristic of European politics. Having rejected the Treaty and the Covenant, many American scholars and leaders of opinion tended to emphasize constantly the defects and insufficiencies of these instruments.
This does not alleviate the responsibility of European statesmen for having failed to organize Europe. It does explain, however, the general impression prevalent in America during the past twenty years that the peoples of Europe were not as interested in maintaining peace as they were in practising power politics. In fact the opposite is true, as concerns both the people and most of their leaders. The horrors of the last war left too deep an imprint to be so easily forgotten. And it must be remembered that the real slogan of that war -- for the English, the French and their Allies -- was not that it should make the world safe for democracy, but that it should be a war to end all wars. Anyone who remembers November 11, 1918, in Europe knows that the dominant note that day was not the elation of victory, nor the glorification of any particular political philosophy, but merely a sense of relief because the war was over.
The anti-war feeling expressed then is the real clue to the history of the following twenty years. It is the clue to the breakdown of the policy of sanctions at the time of the conquest of Ethiopia. It is the clue to the policy of non-intervention in Spain. It explains why the French let Hitler reoccupy the Rhineland in 1936. It explains the betrayal of Czechoslovakia and the explosion of popular enthusiasm which greeted Chamberlain and Daladier when they came back from Munich. And when a second armistice was signed in France on June 22, 1940, there came from the hearts of many French men and women the same sigh of relief that had greeted the first one, nearly twenty-two years before.
Unfortunately this profound anti-war feeling is also the reason why the dictators have succeeded in conquering the whole of continental Europe and why they threaten today to dominate the rest of the world.
For love of peace to be one of the causes of war may appear as a paradox. Yet the conclusion is inescapable.
Mussolini avowed the doctrine that war is justified as a means of fulfilling national aspirations, but in view of the prevailing pacifism of the time the Duce's philosophy was taken as a purely local phenomenon. The spirit of modern pacifism, later formulated in the Briand-Kellogg Pact actually outlawing war, continued to permeate the consciousness of the masses. The idea that war might be reinstated, could ever be glorified again as it had been in less civilized ages, encountered stubborn resistance. Despite many disappointments, the great hope that the war of 1914-18 had been the last one, at least for those who had taken part in it, could not be abandoned. People held to it even when Hitler had begun to boast of his intentions to use force and later on had begun putting them into action in a series of acts of violence.
Even in Germany, despite the efforts of Nazi propaganda to whip up a warlike spirit, the mass of the population was satisfied that Hitler could attain his objectives without actually going to war. This is so true that when war finally came in September 1939 it had to be sold piecemeal to German opinion. During the first weeks of the war, the Germans thought that they would have to fight only the Poles. Later on, German propaganda was careful not to treat France as an enemy and to concentrate all its animosity against England. This of course had the advantage of tending to separate the Allies; but it had the additional purpose of reassuring German home opinion, which was quite as reluctant as the French to face again the wholesale massacres of 1914-18.
As we look back at the policy followed in the past few years by England and France, as well as by all the smaller nations, whether so-called neutral or not, the dominant impression we receive is of inexcusable blindness. Hitler's plans could have been thwarted with little effort or danger at the time he reoccupied the Rhineland. The same result could have been obtained later on -- though with increasing efforts and risks. All that was required was determination in London and Paris and cohesion between the two responsible governments. The necessary determination did not exist or when it did exist could not be synchronized. This is the common responsibility of practically all the British and French statesmen in power in these years. Yet it should not be forgotten that any attempt on either side of the Channel to show firmness always collided with the popular fear of war. It was the dominant instinct of the European masses at that time, just as it is of Americans today.
After every new and successful step taken by Hitler the risk that to oppose him would bring about war became greater. War finally broke out not because the anti-war feeling was less but because the tension created by the threat of war had lasted too long, had become unbearable. By offering to guarantee Poland, Rumania and Greece, the Allied Governments set a kind of automatic deadline in the long story of their humiliations and retreats. It was almost as if they wanted to place the question of going to war beyond their own will, or lack of will. But in doing this they did not change the fundamental attitude of their people towards war itself. When war came, the people of England and France met it with determination but also with fatalism; and consciously or not they clung to the idea that real war, total war, could still somehow be avoided. The Germans had been mobilized for nearly seven years, so that for them the transition from peace to war was insensible. The English and French, on the contrary, would have had to repudiate suddenly not only their normal habits but a whole attitude of mind towards the idea of war as such. They would have had to accept the fact that war implies the total transformation of the nation and of every individual in it. They would have had to reject -- overnight -- all their peacetime conceptions of the freedom of the individual, of material values, of the meaning of life. Briefly, they would have had to adopt at once the attitude of mind that pervades England today. But it was nearly a year before the British people crossed this frightful threshold which divides peace from total war.
The French and all the other nations which are now under German domination never had time to place themselves in this attitude of mind. Or if that time existed, it was not properly utilized by their leaders. Quite the contrary: the prewar policy of chloroforming the people into complacency was pursued right up to the very end. The Allied states and the neutrals alike were led by kings, queens, ministers and generals who had been and still were ardent pacifists, men of good will, members of the Oxford Movement. In France the newspapers which for years had suppressed or distorted unpleasant news continued their demoralizing work. The French leaders never even tried to explain the real nature and meaning of Nazism, for the simple reason that neither before nor during the war were they able to understand its real nature and meaning themselves.
It is a strange thing that Americans, so far removed from Germany, have been the first people to grasp the full meaning of Nazism -- to understand that its dynamics implied both military aggression and revolution, and to draw the conclusion that the only choice offered by Nazi Germany to other nations was subjection or a fight to the finish. Europeans, and particularly the French, were not made to perceive clearly the magnitude of the peril that was threatening them, not because they were less intelligent than the Americans but because their proximity to Germany made the horror of war so real and so imminent that they tried in innumerable ways to delude themselves rather than face the grim reality. Hence France's contradictory policies and internal dissensions, and the constant effort of politicians and groups to blame opponents for heading the country into war.
In this respect those who in September 1939 advocated a second Munich and those who decided that the moment to resist had come were both guilty of the same error of judgment: they underestimated Hitler's limitless ambitions. The appeasers who wanted a second Munich hoped (and are still hoping) to find a livable compromise. The so-called "bellicists" could not bring themselves to draw the logical conclusion from their attitude; they lulled themselves into the belief that merely defensive measures, psychological and military, would suffice to preserve France's moral integrity and keep the invader off her soil. If the idea that at a given moment the offensive should be taken was ever considered, it was discarded as too costly. The whole conduct of the war was determined by public opinion -- and it had not been told the truth for years.
Today it is fashionable to blame democracy for the softening of the national spirit and the lack of preparedness. But it would not seem that this phenomenon is a factor of any particular form of government. The conduct of the English is an example. The truth is that since democracy is founded on the principle that public opinion is free to express itself, democratic régimes can only reflect the trends of the moment. Ever since 1918, the dominating trend in the world has been an effort to eliminate war. Democracy has reflected this trend faithfully. The increasing threats from aggressor nations, where the will of a few men or of one man alone creates a warlike spirit, disturbed and strained the pacifism of the democracies. But even in nations obviously menaced in their very existence, as was France, public opinion could not evolve quickly enough to face the full implications of a modern war. People accepted the war because there was no escape, but they limited it in their minds to defense. This negative attitude is probably the most important single factor in the defeat. It explains the over-confidence in the Maginot Line and the ensuing demoralization when suddenly it was proved useless. It had enabled the Germans to maintain the initiative in propaganda and diplomacy. It now enabled them to take and hold it in the field of military operations.
A parallel has often been drawn between the evolution of public opinion in the European democracies and in the United States. It is said that, with a certain time lag, the United States has been following the same path as England and France. To support this view it is pointed out that Americans, having refused for a long time to believe in the reality of any danger, now face the necessity of taking important measures to protect themselves. Clearly, however, all their preparations are not intended to bring the United States into the war. Quite the contrary, they are intended to keep war away. They are measures of defense.
The question arises whether the course followed by other great nations in Europe, in analogous circumstances, really constitutes a precedent or whether the case of the United States should be considered as a totally new problem.
Comparisons between diverse peoples are apt to be misleading. To satisfy an intellectual inclination for symmetry, one is apt to distort reality, to overlook differences. For instance, the sense of security which the Atlantic gives to Americans is often compared to the Maginot Line psychology in France. This is stretching the point too far. Even if the British and American navies lost control of the seas, an actual invasion of United States territory would be very difficult. The Channel has so far proved impassable. But if the Axis Powers actually controlled the seas they would not need to invade the United States. Their domination over the world, including the Americas, would be a fait accompli. American independence would have lost its meaning.
But though the threat of actual invasion is not so great for America as it was for France and as it is for England, there still are other threats which are more dangerous for the United States than for these two countries. Both England and France, and especially the latter, have survived many changes in the structure of government and many social upheavals. They are not necessarily dependent on the survival of democracy to maintain themselves as national entities. The same cannot be said of the United States, where national consciousness and national unity do not spring from the notion of a common origin nor even from the tie of a common language. Quite the contrary: American unity is founded on the unanimity of faith in the harmonious coexistence of diverse races, creeds and cultures, blended into one by a long practice of mutual tolerance, respect for the individual and freedom. No system of government except democracy -- and specifically American democracy -- can insure the perpetuation of this kind of national unity. It is profoundly and essentially ideological, which means that the most dangerous threat to the existence of America is not -- and never has been -- actual military invasion but internal disunity.
Now the attempt of the Axis Powers to reorganize the world assumes a dual form: military conquest and revolution. When and if they attempt to destroy or subjugate America they will naturally adopt the second weapon as more efficient and less costly than an effort to conquer America by force.
It may be argued that America has outlived many European revolutions and that the general course of its development has not been changed by them. This is true, but only because all the revolutions which have taken place in Europe in the last hundred and fifty years have been oriented in general towards the same goal which Americans themselves accept. The revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century were all in the direction of liberalism, freedom and more social justice. Today for the first time the United States is confronted with a counter-revolution, the object of which is precisely to deny and destroy the very principles upon which the United States was founded -- which are, in fact, the reason why the United States exists at all. The only persons who can conceive that the United States could survive and live its own life in a Nazified world are those who consider material and economic forces the only real world forces and who therefore imagine that since deals might be made with the dictators on economic problems no other conflicts would arise.
This, however, does not seem to be the prevailing point of view. The majority of Americans give every indication of instinctively understanding the magnitude of the peril that confronts them, even though they cannot make up their minds as to just how and just when it will become acute. The fact that England is holding out, and that the Axis Powers find it to their interest to minimize the importance of the United States as an obstacle to their program, tends to blur the picture and to encourage the sincere hope of Americans that they will weather this crisis without actually having to go to war themselves.
This is why the policy of intensive national defense and all help to England short of actually sending an expeditionary force has been generally accepted. It is a policy that satisfies equally the sense of increased danger and the profound feeling against war. It can be supported by isolationists as well as by those who think that the main job is to reinforce England. In case England should succumb, it even leaves the door open to appeasement. For there is little doubt that America would continue to arm -- as England did after Munich -- even if she thought it expedient to "coöperate" and do business with the triumphant Axis Powers.
The present policy of the United States is the subject of much rationalization by political leaders and writers. It has been almost universally presented as the only sound course to be followed at the moment. And that is true if one takes into account the fact that American public opinion, like opinion in France and in England up to a few months ago, will agree to think about the problem only in terms of defense. The fact remains that it is not the only possible course, and hence that it may not be the best one to achieve this country's ultimate aims -- to halt the spread of Axis domination in the world and to check or re-direct the revolutionary processes which the dictators have set in motion.
An example of rationalization of what is in fact merely the expression of a profound anti-war feeling is the often-heard argument that England does not need men and that even if an American expeditionary force were ready to sail there would be no place to send it. This is true if one thinks of millions of half-trained and unequipped American soldiers and pictures them as landing in England or France. But suppose there existed today an American army of a few hundred thousand men trained and equipped in the same way as was the relatively small German force used to conquer France. Can one doubt their effectiveness in Africa or in the Near East or in the Orient? Would Mr. Winston Churchill reject such help as superfluous? Would not the plans of Hitler, Mussolini or the Japanese be considerably upset by it?
Then there is the question of the American navy. Obviously it is fulfilling an important function in the Pacific. The argument is that most of it should remain there even if the United States went to war. This may be true. But when one sees with what anguish the British waited for the release of 50 over-age destroyers one understands that the help of a hundred others and of some cruisers would be highly welcome. The same might be said about the American air force and American pilots.
These examples have not been cited to prove that it would be better for the United States to go to war now. There are many arguments in favor of that policy and many against it -- one of them being the difficulty, or perhaps the impossibility, of convincing the bulk of American public opinion that it was indeed the best course. The point is that there is a considerable similarity between the state of mind of the American people at the moment and that of the French and the English a year ago. Due to their fundamental sentiment against war, the American people put their entire trust in defense (with its corollary, help to England). They are no more willing than were the French to envisage the possibility that it might be more advantageous to face the conflict in all its aspects. That would mean taking certain initiatives and running certain risks.
In details, too, the policy of the United States is reminiscent of the policy of the European democracies during the last few years.
Thus the way in which help is sent to England reminds one of the non-intervention policy applied to Spain. There is the same wish to give as much aid as possible and the same determination not to make any definite commitments. The survival of England is spoken of as "vital" to the security of this country. But there is great alarm at the mere thought that some "secret understanding" might exist between the British and American Governments. England and the Dominions are looked on as part of a "system of alliances," but there is no treaty bond with them. They are treated much as the allies of England and France in Eastern Europe were treated before they were lost or abandoned.
Another analogy might be found in the policy of guarantees. Mr. Chamberlain guaranteed Poland, Rumania and Greece. The United States now has guaranteed Canada and all the South American Republics against aggression. The undertaking might easily be extended to include Greenland, Iceland and the Azores if the Axis Powers threatened to use those territories as naval or air bases. In other words, the United States intends to keep control of the Atlantic and Pacific, which means in fact a return to the doctrine of the freedom of the seas, seemingly abandoned when the Neutrality Act was adopted.
All the moves so far made and those now taking shape -- the arms program, help to Britain, hemispheric defense, resistance to Japanese imperialism -- spring from the same mass instinct which prevailed in England and France for so many years: the hope of avoiding war. Whether the hope will be justified in America after having failed in England and France nobody can predict. And in plain fact the task of determining the answer to the problem has been delegated, for the time being, to England. So long as England fights, public opinion in America can remain pacifist.
It is now fairly clear that England will not defeat the Axis Powers by remaining on the defensive. It is the hope of Mr. Churchill, and in the circumstances must therefore be the hope of most Americans, that the time will come when British superiority in the air will enable the R.A.F. to inflict such blows on the German population and on German industry as to cripple Nazi striking power. Whether this will suffice to bring about the collapse of the dictators is again debatable. A time may come, then, when the United States will be faced with the choice of accepting some kind of a stalemate in Europe -- which in the long run means a victory for the Axis -- or of changing its present conception of its own rôle in the conflict.
This may mean war or it may not. Certainly it will imply a change in the anti-war sentiment which has dominated the thought of this country since 1918. It will mean abandoning the negative attitude expressed in the concept of defense in favor of a positive attitude which finds expression in some form of counter-offensive. It will mean a recognition by public opinion of the fact that if Hitlerism and democracy cannot in sober fact live side by side in this world, then the future world order will be determined by one side or the other. The social and economic revolution which is taking place in the world cannot be stopped. The question is: Who will direct it and towards what ends? Mere resistance to it will not be enough.
The transition from a negative attitude of defense to a positive conception of counter-attack did not take place in France. There was no time. This was as true of the military aspect of the problem as of the social and psychological readjustments which should have been made, and were not. In England the transition has taken place. Whether it will occur in America cannot be predicted. But one thing can be predicted: that the evolution and outcome of the present world conflict will depend on the evolution of public opinion in America.