In the year 1935 I published a book, "Road to War," which described in severely critical terms the whole process whereby the United States went down into the first World War. I have since seen this book more than once referred to as "the isolationists' bible." I don't know how many times I have heard the isolationist spokesmen exclaiming, as Senator Wheeler did the other day, that present administration policies are simply "running down the road to war." I don't know how many times in the past year or so I have been asked how, as the author of "Road to War," I can support these policies of active opposition to the dictators, of all aid to Britain, of a bold attitude upon the world stage, as earnestly as I do. Yet it seems to me that no argument is more irrelevant, and that no question could be easier to answer.
Problems Not Like 1914
I need only call the calendar in evidence; 1941 is not 1914, nor even 1915 nor 1916. This is not the same war. The problems which it presents to the United States are different and deeper problems; and the policies ruling today in Washington are not the same--despite similarities of appearance--as those with which Wilson and House once fumbled their way through the early months of the war of 1914. The enormous processes of political and social disintegration put in motion by that war, and which might conceivably have been arrested in their earlier stages had the American people followed a wiser course, have run on instead through a whole quarter of a century, producing at last a situation to which remedies which might have been appropriate in 1915 or 1916 are now wholly inadequate an indeed completely inapplicable.
Few of those who criticize the American entry into the war in 1917 have ever suggested that once in, we should have halted the war effort and backed out again before it was won. We may or may not have been unwise in what we did in 1917 but we could not undo it in 1918; we could not undo it (though we tried disastrously to do so) in 1920 or in the subsequent decades. And we cannot now undo the history of those decades by imagining ourselves back in a time which they have destroyed.
Learn From Past
It has always seemed to me that the best outcome for the first World War would have been the "peace without victory" which President Wilson sought to secure in 1916; and it has always seemed to me that the most tragic aspect of the whole episode was the manner in which the United States disqualified itself, in the early war years, for working to such an end. But after 1916 and especially after the American declaration of war, such an outcome was no longer possible. It would have been patently idle to work for it in 1918; and in the same way it seems idle to me now to suppose that in the far more desperate times of 1941, we can fall back upon any given solutions simply because they might conceivably have worked a quarter of a century ago. In solving the problem of the present, we can learn certain things from what I believe to be the blunders of the past. Wee can learn not to be misled by the merely trivial or accidental or falsely emotional. We can learn to avoid errors of method--as indeed we have learned, in refusing again to set such a trap for ourselves as Wilson's submarine policy, which put the peace of the United States at the mercy of the strategic calculations of the German High Command. But whatever the past may teach us, it is still the problem of the present which must be solved.
This is all that matters; and though in the debate over it both sides often cite the last war, the debate itself has really little to do with the last war. Sooner or later--and generally sooner rather than later--this debate boils down to the two positions about this war between which there is no rational reconciliation. War of any sort, says the one side, is so colossal an evil that it would be worse than anything which could happen to the American people in the event of a Hitler victory.
A Hitler victory, says, the other side, would be so colossal an evil that it would be worse than anything in the way of war which would be likely in the to happen to us if we exerted ourselves now to prevent that victory. Between these two views there can be no scientific or rational decision; neither the evils of any war in which we might in fact become involved nor the evils of a Hitler victory are exactly measurable; they are not even exactly foreseeable.
Emotional Reaction at Bottom
At the bottom, no doubt it is an emotional reaction; and perhaps both sides tend to clothe their instinctive attitude in pseudo-logic. The one side, I am certain, exaggerates the ability of the United States to defend itself alone in a totalitarian world; it indulges in fantastic hopes of a negotiated peace; it hides it in contemplation of the crimes of the British, or the failings of democracy, both of which are completely irrelevant to the fact that the British, however criminal, are in fact fighting for the reconstruction of the kind or world we have known and that democracy, however faulty, is still preferable to the totalitarian rule of force and fraud. Of this I am certain.
Perhaps the other side, which seems to me on incomparably firmer ground, also buttresses its position with wishful thinking.