With the grim reality of World War overshadowing all, there was no time during the vacation for Christmas cheer among the forces of William Allen White, Verne Marshall, the columnists and the politicians; they were too busy clarifying their positions and branding each other as small minorities seeking to mislead the people. The two weeks of the vacation witnessed a heightening tempo of war fever and of bitter debate, reaching a mighty crescendo in President Roosevelt's defiant message to Congress yesterday.
It is rather surprising that in his address the President assumed that the opposition to his stated policy is negligible. To be "realistic" is the fashion today, but it is hardly realistic for him to talk of national unity when disagreement is so evident high and low. The method he proposes for dealing with "the few slackers or trouble makers" is more realistic but perhaps not very democratic: "first, to shame them by patriotic example, and, if that fails, to use the sovereignty of government to save government."
The opposition in Congress and in the country has some definite things to say which may be worth listening to; is it not a little premature to shut down on debate? Fascism, it is true, abhors and fears free discussion, but democracy thrives on it. The right of free speech should be sacred, not just a privilege which may be revoked if it is inconvenient or embarrassing. The maxim which Roosevelt took from Benjamin Franklin to illustrate the futility of a dictated peace is a sword which cuts both ways: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
If all opposition is crushed, then to Roosevelt program of total defense, aid to Britain, and unconditional defeat of the Nazis will give a good idea of the shape of things to come. If war becomes necessary to our purpose, we will go to war. Once the nation has committed itself to victory or death it cannot turn back. America might not win. But if she did, after a necessarily long and exhausting war, the chances are that she would "in one embrace grasp death and victory" (in the quaint phraseology of the Widener murals), except that in this case death would take the form of permanent fascism.
This is one probability of a battle to the finish on the side of Britain. There are others, equally disturbing, which the President chose to forget. He preferred instead to conjure up a rosy vision of the post-war future "in our own time and generation" when the world will be peaceful, prosperous, and safe for democracy. Such prophecies are likely to inspire a faintly sickening nostalgia for the good old days of 1917-19, when America was young and innocent. No, Mr. Roosevelt, let's be realistic. Maybe we really will win, and maybe we won't go totalitarian. But can there be any doubt that the Clemenceaus and the Lloyd Georges will gather 'round again, that just as war hysteria is whipped up, so will be the hysteria of punishment for Germany? There will be an irresistible demand to lay the aggressors so low that they can never again threaten any democracy. A new and more terrifying Hitler will arise, and we may realize, too late, that war breeds only more war.
If it must be war, let it be entered grimly, not as a matter of cheering and singing but as something to be gotten over with. Let America understand that it can be at best a negative war, for the destruction of the Nazis; and before slic plunges in let her pause a moment and reflect that when she, the last major nation at peace, is swept from her moorings the result may be the destruction of "our way of life" as well.