The Writings of Carl Schurz/Armed or Unarmed Peace


The address recently delivered before the Naval War College at Newport by our new Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, has deservedly attracted much attention. It was a very eloquent and forcible defence of the proposition that this republic must have a great navy in order to be prepared for war, and that in being well prepared for war is the surest means of preserving peace. The building of a big navy was thus presented to us as essentially a peace measure.

Had this plea for the preservation of peace by the construction of a large number of war-ships come from a member of the Peace Society or from any one else known as an earnest advocate of the peaceable settlement of international disputes, it would stand on firmer ground than it does coming from Mr. Roosevelt. This is said in the kindest spirit and without the slightest desire to disparage his character or the eminent services he has in various ways rendered to the public. The fact is that Mr. Roosevelt has always with perfect frankness confessed himself to be what is currently called a jingo. But he stands foremost among the sincere and honest men of that class. He is not one of those who would urge his country into a war, and then try to get a contract or some cheap popularity by talking or writing bloody patriotism while others had to do the fighting. He would be prompt to seek the post of danger for himself. The story is told of him that some years ago, when there seemed to be a prospect of a conflict with Chile, Mr. Roosevelt wrote to the War Department asking for himself the privilege of being the first volunteer for active service. And it is probably doing him no injustice to say that when the Chilean trouble was amicably composed, he may have been a little disappointed by being thus deprived of the chance of fighting for his country. Aside from his patriotic impulses, Mr. Roosevelt is essentially a fighting man by temperament. Nobody relishes the “joy of the conflict” with greater zest than he does; and it is therefore not surprising that a peace argument should have been an awkward and somewhat bewildering task to him.

Every attentive reader of Mr. Roosevelt's oration will be struck by the bellicose flavor pervading it. It is really a panegyric on war. With almost poetic enthusiasm he describes how war arouses noble emotions, stimulates patriotism, brings forth heroic examples and how “no triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war.” To be sure, he has also a word of recognition for the merits of peace, but it is rather of the conventional and perfunctory kind. Peace must be quite honorable to be entitled to respect, and Mr. Roosevelt seems to think that we must look sharp or peace will be as likely as not to become dishonorable and craven without our knowing it. On the whole he is inclined to believe that a long peace will have a tendency to make a people effeminate and unpatriotic, and that it will require an occasional spell of blood-letting and devastation to restore or keep up the necessary vigor, manliness, elevation of sentiment and patriotic devotion. Mr. Roosevelt in his combative ardor has probably not noticed the logical quandary into which he has reasoned himself. It is this: according to him a long peace has a tendency to make a people effeminate and unpatriotic, while war will invigorate a people and inspire patriotism. But he argues also that the building of a great fleet of war-ships will be a means not to bring on war, but to preserve peace. Ergo, the building of a great war fleet will effect that which promotes effeminacy and languishing patriotism. Mr. Roosevelt, according to his own theory, will hardly accept this result as satisfactory to himself. His argument in favor of a big war fleet as an instrumentality of peace comes thus to an untimely end.

In truth those among us who are really in favor of peaceable methods of adjusting international differences are not in favor of building a great war fleet, while almost all the zealous advocates of a great war fleet belong to the Jingo class, many of whom are not nearly as honest and unselfish as Mr. Roosevelt is, and would hesitate little to drive their country into a war with some foreign Power without necessity.

The reason why the true friends of peace are opposed to the building of a big navy is a very simple one. We do not need such a navy for the maintenance of peace between the United States and foreign nations. Since the War of 1812, when this Republic was so small and feeble that other Powers thought they could kick and cuff it with impunity, we have not had another foreign war save that with Mexico, which was a war of aggression and conquest on our part. With that exception we have lived at peace with the world. During that long period we never had a navy worth speaking of in comparison with those of the great naval Powers, except during our civil war, when we had our hands full at home. And yet, in spite of our having no navy, our rights were respected and our interests never lacked protection; and whenever we had any just cause of complaint we never found it difficult to obtain our dues by peaceable methods. In fact, we have been permitted to do some things which would not have been tolerated if done by other nations. Why? Not because the great Powers are particularly fond of us, but because there is not one of them that can venture upon a serious quarrel with us without exposing itself to the gravest peril in its relations with other Powers that might take advantage of its embarrassments. The very first axiom in the catechism of British statesmanship is that peace must be kept with the United States. And the reasons which make this self-evident to every British statesman have the same force with the other great Powers too. They may sometimes growl at us or try to gain a little diplomatic advantage of us, but every one of them will go to the utmost verge of concession to avoid a serious embroilment with us. The Jingo talk we hear so often about the dangers threatening us, and of the encroachments and insults we may expect at the hands of European Powers, is therefore the veriest balderdash. Not one of those Powers will venture to invade any rights or to deny any just claims of ours to the extent of risking a warlike conflict with this Republic, although we are unarmed. We can have no war with them unless we want war, and drive them into it by making it to them a matter of plain self-respect.

Thus we do not need a big war fleet to preserve the peace or to protect our dignity or our just rights or interests. Those objects are accomplished by our geographical position, by the well-known abundance of our resources and by the ever-vigilant jealousies of other Powers among themselves. There is not the slightest reason for thinking, if we follow a rational and decent policy toward other nations, that in this respect the future will differ from the past. The American people are enjoying the inestimable privilege of being secure without being obliged to burden themselves with costly military and naval establishments. This privilege is the envy of all nations that groan under the load of arms which an abhorred necessity forces upon them. Are we so utterly lost to good sense as wantonly to throw away this priceless privilege and to take that abominable load upon our backs without any such necessity? That we should have a smart little navy enabling us to do our share of police duty on the seas nobody will deny. In this respect the new navy we have will very nearly meet all reasonable requirements, and its quality in officers, men and equipment may well be a matter of national solicitude and pride. But are we to spend untold hundreds of millions in building one of the great war fleets of the world, which, as experience shows, will be antiquated almost as soon as finished, without being obliged to do so? Are we to tax our already heavily taxed people for this purpose—not to preserve the peace, for that requires no big fleet—but to bring on a danger of wanton war by exciting a desire to use the costly new armaments before they are superseded by newer ones? It is amazing how eager some otherwise sensible Americans are to strip their country, without any necessity, of one of its proudest and most beneficent distinctions—an exceptional blessing which we cannot be too thankful for—that of enjoying an unarmed peace.

  1. From Harper's Weekly of June 19, 1897. Grateful acknowledgments are made to Harper & Brothers for generous permission to reprint this article.