Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
OUR aim in this war is the complete material and psychological defeat of our enemies. We have rejected the idea of an armistice or negotiated peace and have pledged ourselves not to accept either at any stage or in any guise. When we have beaten Germany, Japan, Italy and their satellites, together or seriatim, into unconditional surrender, and while we are making sure that our accomplishment cannot be evaded or undone, we shall not recognize any limitations on our action except those imposed by our own consciences or any commitments except those which have been arrived at openly among the United Nations.
The outlines of the postwar world which we and our allies have already sketched constitute a pledge to and among ourselves alone. We may bungle the attempt to turn it into living reality. If so, we shall again suffer the lamentable consequences of our failure. But this time we are making our enemies no promises and shall not count on them to fulfill any part of a bargain. We on our side rely on ourselves alone -- our own physical strength, our own strength of will. If we fail to keep the promises which we have made to ourselves and between ourselves we shall complete the destruction of our civilization by our own sole negligence and frivolity.
We hope to be able eventually to accept the peoples now our enemies as partners, and we are prepared to go as fast and as far as we safely can in making such a relationship with us seem reasonable and even attractive. But we fear that "eventually" is a long way off. In the interim, the one standard by which we shall measure every step will be whether it increases or diminishes our security. We shall try this time to remember how close we came to destruction and the grim sacrifices by which at the last moment we saved ourselves from it. Without vindictiveness but without apology or compunction we shall assign each of our beaten enemies his necessary rôle; and, provided we can match our perseverance to our present determination, we shall see that he carries that rôle through precisely, until such time as we may deliberately decide to modify it.
What does this mean, country by country?
It means that we intend to teach the German people beyond any chance of misunderstanding or later denial that they are not a race of supermen designated by some primordial decree to rule the world but instead a quite ordinary conglomeration of several racial stocks, without preternatural origins, with a number of unlovely traits as well as talents of a high order, and with a completely wrong belief that you can pound your neighbors into loving you as an apache pounds his woman into dazed rapture. We intend to see that the methods by which Germany regenerates herself confirm the lessons of her defeat. We hope that as a result of the dual demonstration Germans will understand that they are not unlike other nations and realize that in future they must cultivate something which they have always discounted in their attempts to wring satisfaction from an obscure destiny -- the spontaneous esteem and collaboration of the rest of the world.
We are not so careless or unfair as to indict the whole German people for the specific crimes of some Germans. We do, however, indict them as a whole for having allowed arrogant thought and regardless action to secure a dominant place in their organized national life. We have only an academic interest in discussing whether the abdication of individual judgment which is responsible derives from a German inferiority complex or a German superiority complex, supposing the two are really different. We know that whichever it is, it has dogged the German people from the Valhalla of perpetual fights and feasts to the military councils of Potsdam, the beer halls of Munich, the frozen Volga and the grey village square where the French priest and postman are shot as a routine reprisal for some act of sabotage committed by persons unknown either to them or to the German officer who gives the command.
Some day, we must hope, the German nation will break loose from the ancient spell and cease to quiver between elation and despair, with acts of violence always the compensating outlet from either intolerable strain. Some day, we must hope, Wotan will yield to Apollo. Until we are sure that day has come we mean to curb at the source every manifestation of the traditional German spirit which can possibly bring ruin again to the quiet homes of peaceful peoples, near or far.
We do not underrate German culture, whether it comes to flower in German science or the glories of Goethe and Beethoven. Similarly, we think Germans should not underrate other cultures, and certainly not to the point where they feel entitled to tear them up by the roots and sow salt in the fields where they flourished. We cannot require Germans to think highly of Comenius or Chopin, Hus or Dvorak, Racine or Pasteur, Tolstoy or Tchaikovsky, Van Dyck or Erasmus; but we can require that they leave peoples which have produced men of genius like these to continue the peaceful enjoyment of their works and to continue adding diversifications and special beauties to our common civilization. We intend to do this. We recognize that we cannot reorient the German mentality from without by force or effect a lasting change in the political and social organization of German society against the will of the effective majority of Germans. But we can create conditions in the world which are likely to make the majority of Germans decide in favor of letting other nations continue to live well as a condition precedent to themselves living better. We have various plans whereby in the course of time and with sufficient good will we hope that all nations may be enabled to live better. So far as the Germans are concerned, we think we are likely to make permanent progress only if we address them at the start wholly in their own familiar categorical imperative:
"Conquered lands -- leave them! Armies -- disband them! Stolen goods -- return them! Prisoners -- free them! Discriminations -- repeal them! War factories -- dismantle them! Nazi heroes -- hang them! Food? After we have fed those you have starved! Forgiveness? When you have repudiated the conception of German destiny which leads you to act detestably. Respect and confidence? When new German professors teach new lessons from new textbooks to new generations of German children, new German philosophers expound a new anti-mystic in new treatises, new editorial writers use a new language of tolerance in new German newspapers, new German statesmen seek a new German destiny in a new conception of coöperation and mutual accommodation, new German legislators embody that new conception in a new policy, new German judges ratify it, new German diplomats practise it and the German people in their hearts approve it!"
We intend to teach the Japanese, who have not been defeated in modern history, that they can be defeated. We intend to drive out of their heads the same fixed notion of superiority which makes the Germans feel thwarted and restless in any world not yet conquered. We intend to demonstrate to them that their Emperor is not a god but a man of most fallible judgment; that his policies are not evolved in the remote stillnesses of Heaven but in the councils of palace sycophants and ambitious generals; and that they are founded on error and bring disaster.
As with the Germans, we think the most hopeful way of giving the Japanese their new and necessary sense of proportion is by practical demonstration. No matter how long it takes, we shall reconquer from Japan bit by bit all the territories which she has seized in this and previous wars and return them to their inhabitants, either at once or so soon as they can develop, with our help, the necessary capacities for self-rule. We shall disarm Japan immediately and completely. Her neighbors will admit her to a share in the co-prosperity sphere of the Far East when they feel she no longer interprets that phrase as meaning prosperity for herself and slavery for others. She will be allowed to share in the discussions and decisions of civilized international society when the nations which have preserved that society from Axis depredations are convinced that she has definitely abandoned force as a national policy and will seek a proportioned destiny through negotiation and collaboration.
The lesson which the Italians must take to heart is simpler because they are intrinsically weaker. It is that a second-class Power cannot be built into a master race by rhetoric, grimaces, blackmail and castor oil, and that attempts to ride to conquest on the coat-tails of others will end in humiliation and disaster no matter which of the major contestants wins.
When we call Italians to account for their merciless conduct in Ethiopia, Spain, Greece and Jugoslavia we shall not forget that Leonardo and Dante enriched the whole human race or that a generous idealism burned, not for Italians alone, in the hearts of Mazzini and Garibaldi. Nor, on the other hand, shall we forget that the Italian sovereign acquiesced in the coup d'état of 1922 and in Mussolini's countless subsequent illegalities and that the Italian people, with a painfully small number of honorable exceptions, stood negligently by for 20 years while the Fascisti destroyed one after another of the liberties which Mazzini and Garibaldi had won them. We shall not forget how many Italians of ancient name and large fortune wore the Fascist badge lightly in their buttonholes while Black Shirt gunmen were murdering in the streets and Mussolini was defiling the monuments of antiquity with puerile scribblings. We have seen pictures of the Italian Army goose-stepping in imitation of the enemies their fathers expelled from Lombardy and Venetia. We still remember, now that Mussolini's conquests have been wiped from the map, how pleased most Italians were with them while they were being won easily and cheaply.
The record seems to require that we do more than welcome the Italian people's eleventh-hour repentance. Their pride in having established the first totalitarian state in modern Europe and their support or tolerance of its violence at home and aggression abroad through two decades constitute something more than a juvenile escapade. When the Nazis have been pushed beyond the Alps we must examine with great care to see whether the new spokesmen who come to us in Italy's name have clean hands and whether their past records confirm their professions of devotion to constitutional methods of government. We have no interest in rehabilitating individuals who gambled wrong and now would like to recoup their losses out of the supposedly abundant funds of American generosity and naïveté. Only Mussolini and the chiefs of his jackal pack will require bodily punishment. But many more must be excluded forever from all share in the direction of Italian affairs and any Italian government must remain for a time on probation.
We shall not forget the lesser culprits. Hungarians, Bulgars, Rumanians and others have sold their services and reputations to the Nazis and Fascists, in some cases in return for parcels of territory stolen from neighbors with whom they had just signed treaties of faithful friendship and mutual aid. To these also we intend to make a memorable demonstration on behalf of international law, order and good faith. They will, of course, disgorge their stolen goods completely. But it will not be sufficient for them to do that, to dismiss their puppet dictators, to hang the officials who have joined the invaders in committing so many atrocities, and to profess repentance. They must give evidence, through acts, that in future it will be much harder than it has been in the past for some great neighbor to bribe them, or for new leaders of their own to manœuvre them, into wasting the savings of their simple and hardworking populations in foreign wars. We hope through general security measures to forestall small as well as large breaches of the peace. Even so, we think that before the nations of Eastern Europe can collaborate peacefully several of them will have to modernize the present feudal structure of their society and that living conditions in that neighborhood will have to be improved and equalized both as between classes and between nations. Perhaps this can be achieved more easily if the nations in question come together in one or more confederations. We shall not impede any such development and we shall be ready to give what material aid we can in the execution of these nec essary changes and improvements.
Presumably this statement of general intentions will be acceptable to most Americans. The differences of opinion crop out when one tries to particularize from the general, and especially when one begins to detail the lessons America must learn as well as those she must teach. Some people even feel quite sincerely that to think about those lessons or to outline the kind of world we are fighting for diverts energy from the fight itself and so constitutes a sort of sabotage.
There is, of course, a time for everything and first things come first. The American engineer dispatching a string of trucks northward from Zahidan, the marine landing at dawn on a beach on Guadalcanal, the pilot settling into the seat of his bomber for an attack on Düsseldorf, cannot be asked in that moment to think beyond the delivery into Russian hands of the tanks loaded on those trucks, the mopping up of the Japanese in the jungle behind that glimmering stretch of beach, the dropping of those bombs on the German factories. Nor can their colleagues back along the lines of communication to Washington, and the officers there where operational directives are issued, spend time, while the day's work is still to be done, thinking about things outside their own spheres of responsibility. But there is nothing incompatible between doing the day's work and having a clear idea as to why it is necessary. In fact, people who are not professional soldiers are apt to do the day's work better if they understand clearly the reasons which make it necessary and the results which will be its justification. The definitions must be made for them, however, by their political leaders. This falls in their sphere of responsibility. They must see that the war is conducted not simply so that it is won in the quickest time and with the least loss of lives but also so that it secures the fullest possible achievement of our broadest national objectives.
The objectives of a nation are not marked by a dot in time; they are continuous and developing. Nobody can suppose that consideration of any temporary factors of numbers, technics or logistics kept England erect when Nazi bombs rocked Westminster and Buckingham Palace and turned Coventry and Bristol to rubble; or decided de Gaulle to quit his country, family and army and continue France's war against Germany; or sent Mihailovitch and his Serb guerrillas into the mountains to fight planes and cannon with knives and rifles; or made the Czech nation ignore threats and punishments and continue to strike as individuals against the soldiers and police of their conquerors; or collected a Polish army from Russian prisons to take up the war again in the Middle East; or informed the Russians that at Stalingrad they would be impregnable. In each of these peoples there was a conviction that in the substrata of its national being runs a vital current which is not finite and perishable but continuous and self-renewing and that it will supply future generations with the substance of a better life long after the fragments of enemy shells have rusted away in the ground. Each of them has imagination; but none could imagine a time when it would cease to exist or, existing, cease to grow.
The United States has inherited wellsprings of that same national confidence from the days of Plymouth Rock and Lewis and Clark and Ellis Island. The country then was not abashed by the unknown, could look at its lengthening shadow and say boldly: "I change because I grow." Today those springs are riled. Contradictions and uncertainties attend the convulsive efforts of a giant nation which has been sprawling at ease on the floor to send the right message to its unaccustomed muscles, to draw itself erect, to substitute disciplined action for uncontrolled reflexes, and to strike coördinated blows at the enemies who had assembled unnoticed to destroy it.
The springs must and can be cleared. They must be cleared, both because we need confidence that we can create a secure and at the same time growing society if we are to set about planning it with sufficient intelligence and energy, and because unless that confidence exists we shall find the purely military victory harder to win. They can be cleared, by defining aims which are reasonable and possible and by taking, in company with our allies, the preliminary steps which will permit giving those aims eventual realization. Doubts are being sown by pessimists and traitors. Fundamental American principles are being misinterpreted by those too timid to hold them intact. Monstrous world structures are being blueprinted by amateur engineers who seem to know everything except that nations are obstinately diverse. Milky illusions are being propagated by those who think of the war mainly as it seems to offer a lovely opportunity to transform the world into a neighborhood settlement house. And vague dreads and animosities are being inspired by those to whom it is only the opening phase of a new era of destructive social conflict and revolution. To such distortions the answer which will inspire confidence is not abuse, ridicule or violence but the presentation of a more detailed picture of our national destiny drawn on a larger canvas than any used yet.
The false prophets can be blanketed and the struggle in which we are engaged given more hopeful meaning if we will act imaginatively, yet soberly and with a sense of history, on the truth which Wendell Willkie uttered at Chungking: "The war is not simply a technical problem for tank forces; it is a war for men's minds." Since men's minds are not fettered by any limits of space or time our military strategy cannot accept such limits. When we repeat the current phrase that war is total, we mean -- or ought to mean -- that it is not merely total in its extent over the entire surface of the globe but total also in the inter-relation of what men remember from the past, what they do in the present and what they hope for the future.
It is a platitude of political discussion to say that a country should bring its responsibilities into balance with its physical powers. History furnishes plenty of horrifying examples of what happens, or might easily have happened, when it does not. But has the cardinal error of the United States been that it did not attempt to bring the two into balance? Does not history teach that the cardinal error of the United States was that it did not know where the line of its interests could be drawn?
The United States would be safe and respected, though hardly loved, if the whole area of its interests coincided with the zone of its power and if it remained constantly ready to use that power. But wishing will not make it so, and our adoption of a cautious policy of withdrawing our commitments to the outer limits of the range of our direct power will not protect those of our interests which lie beyond. It is beyond those limits, then, that foresight and the exercise of skill in the conduct of our foreign relations are most required. For it is in this outer zone that disputes which often do not seem to touch our interests originate and may grow into wars in which we may later be forced involuntarily to intervene. That outer zone, the writer believes, has no limits in the whole world.
If this thesis is true, we need urgently to arrange for our influence to be felt everywhere in the world, continuously and hence in time, despite the fact that in many parts of it we are unable to exercise power directly. And for this purpose we must accept partnership in a system of give and take, called by President Beneš "live and help live," not on a limited basis calculated by the limited range of our own individual power but on a universal basis calculated by the unlimited range of our national interest.
With whom shall we deal? With the nations that happen to live in our neighborhood, and as the leader of this bloc with other regional blocs? Or with one or two or three other Great Powers which in turn can exercise control over large areas of the world, so that together we can in fact control it all? Or with all like-minded Powers, the more the better? The writer believes that in the long run the United States will be stronger and safer in the larger group than in a bloc or a limited alliance. He believes that the general acceptance of a general relationship, with general though graduated responsibilities, offers the only basis for organizing world peace under the conditions produced by the development of science, communication and education, and that nothing but world peace is good enough for a World Power like the United States.
The cautious will say that half a loaf is better than no bread. But if the half loaf is not enough to support life, it is not worth risking much to gain. The American people will not find sufficient reward for their present sacrifices in being enabled to escape responsibility for helping prevent several small wars and then either perish or lose their way of life in another great war.
Neville Chamberlain said that the British people were not concerned with what was happening in a faraway land. As a result of that misapprehension Britain came as near to perishing as a nation can come and still manage to survive; and if Britain had perished we also should have perished, in one sense or another of the word. There is no faraway land. Our struggle to fix that fact in the public consciousness must not cease or falter. We must not proffer the American people half loaves or plan to accept half loaves on their behalf. On a half loaf they can subsist temporarily; they cannot live securely, nor develop as a nation the collective characteristics which in an individual we recognize give proportion, harmony and lasting satisfaction.
These pages are written in the conviction that our national future is bound up with the future of the whole world and not any single part of it; that it is possible at one time to learn from the past, work in the present and look to the future; and that it is necessary for our salvation that we do these three things together, do them on the scale indicated, and do them now.
Without a military victory there is no chance of a worthy peace. Without a worthy peace victory will have been worth winning in only a very limited sense. Whether or not the peace is worthy will depend on the coördinated action and common will of the United Nations -- all of them -- now and later. Unless we can reach clear understandings among ourselves now we are most unlikely to get them later. For the pattern of any future organization of the world will derive from the habits and instruments we create to deal with our present common peril, and if we cannot agree when the peril is instant and concrete how shall we agree when it has resumed the appearance of an abstraction?
These ideas are throbbing in the minds of millions of Americans, military and civilian alike, even as they concentrate on the day-by-day problems of the war. They crave to be told what it is they will get out of victory besides temporary survival. To let them see what they will get if they will assume the risks of peace as firmly as they have assumed the risks of war is not to divert their energies from the fearful tasks in hand -- to give them, as one commentator naïvely put it, an opiate. On the contrary, it is to throw idle dynamos into action.
"From a high hill near the airdrome," wrote Byron Darnton from New Guinea in a last dispatch to the New York Times before his death there on October 18, 1942, "a man can see his countrymen building with blood, sweat and toil the firm resolution that their sons shall not die under bombs but shall have peace, because they will know how to preserve peace." Let the resolution of men at desks match the resolution of men under bombs. And let it be a resolution informed by the failures of the past and measuring without either foolish optimism or needless despair the difficulties and hazards of the future.