Whenever a man like Theodore Roosevelt suggests that the disarmament of peaceful nations will not produce peace on earth, a cry goes up that he is spoiling for a fight. It is assumed at once that if only he had had the chance, we should by this time have overrun Mexico, gotten ourselves embroiled with Japan, and have sent an army to the battlefield of Flanders. And so we say: "Thank God for Bryan, for the peace treaties, for a small navy and a small army."
Well, you may be thankful for them if you like. You may be glad that you have managed to avoid the risks of living on this planet; but don't talk about the need for world cooperation, the sanctity of treaties, an international court and an international police. Don't assume that the world will heed you, don't mistake your private good-will for the universal morality of nations. For if you do you make yourself the victim of your naivete, and your dreams will turn to despair. Though the world may love you as it loves St. Francis, the world will ignore you as it ignores him.
We were all surprised at the war, stunned at the idea that such things could happen. And then we took to reading Bernhardi, Cramb, Bulow, Fullerton, and we discovered that this war had been a long time in the minds of the men who know Europe. Their speculations seem to us unbelievably cynical and cold-blooded. We learn with astonishment that the strategists of Europe had military plans drawn, that every well-informed person in England, France, Germany, and Belgium knew that Germany would probably strike through Belgium, that the Germans had built railways from Aix-la-Chapelle, that England knew where she would land her expeditionary force. We discovered, in short, that our surprise was due to our ignorance and to our miscalculation of motives. And yet, in the face of this, it is assumed that security and peace in the future can be guaranteed by more ignorance and more miscalculation. It is assumed that by not doing anything, by pretending that peace is the reward of the peace-loving, neutrality will be assured and treaties made invincible.
Chiefly because Colonel Roosevelt is free from that delusion, we believe that of all Americans commenting on the war his judgment is the ripest. We reject as the idlest superstition the idea that he enjoys war and despises peace. We honor him and respect him for his courage in shouldering the inevitable risk of misunderstanding which is the portion of anyone who faces a brutal situation with intellectual integrity.
The situation which Colonel Roosevelt has faced is this: How is it possible to create the beginnings of international order out of the nations of this world? Not out of a world of pacifists, not out of a world of Quakers, but out of this world, which contains only a small minority of pacifists and Quakers. For it is peace on earth that men need, not peace in heaven, and unless you build from the brutalities of earth, you step out into empty space.
The first question that arises is the maintenance of treaties. We have seen them violated not only in Belgium but in Manchuria and China. We have seen the Hague conventions, to which our signature is attached, torn up and thrown to the winds. Undefended towns have been bombarded, exorbitant levies made, hostages taken. We have not even protested. We have watched the paper structure of good-will collapse. And yet when a man like Roosevelt insists that we must create no more valueless paper, he is denounced as an American Bernhardi and the twin of the Kaiser. On this same score The New Republic will no doubt be accused as a militarist organ, hostile to the good faith of the world.
If we range ourselves with Roosevelt on this question, it is because we believe that treaties will never acquire sanctity until nations are ready to seal them with their blood. England may not have been too scrupulous about treaties in the past, but to-day she stands irrevocably committed. If she makes treaties now they may mean something, and that is an incalculable advance for the human race. So with us. It is our business to make no treaties which we are not ready to maintain with all our resources, for every scrap of paper is like a forged check, an assault on our credit in the world. We must not permit ourselves to fall into the plight of Germany, where our word is distrusted by the nations. For there can be no morality of nations so long as promises are idly given and idly broken. So long as that condition prevails, distrust and suspicion will rack the world, and behind a facade of delusive promises the nations will continue to arm.
So when Colonel Roosevelt says that our neutrality does not carry with it the obligation to be silent when our own Hague conventions are destroyed, he is taking an active step towards ultimate peace. Had we protested against the assault on international morality when Belgium was invaded, our faith in public law would have been made somewhat real. For unless someone some time is ready to take some chance for the sake of internationalism, it will remain what it is to-day, an object of derision to aggressive nations. Had the United States, as the courted neutral, stood out for the neutrality of Belgium and the rules of the Hague, would have received the severest jolt it ever imagined. We do not think the United States should have gone to war. We alone cannot undertake to police the world. But we might alone, or with the help of the other neutral nations, have used the pressure of our diplomacy, and so laid the foundations of effective world opinion against international cynicism. A precedent would have been established which could react on all the future. The beginnings of world organization would have been tested in fire, and the hope of peace would have taken on at least the shadow of reality.
Against all this it may be said that because we acted so as to preserve the good-will of Europe, we shall be able to exercise a guiding influence in the settlement of the war. It is an idea which gratifies not only our desire to keep out of trouble, but our vanity and our hope that we shall do great things with small difficulty. The nation is doomed to disappointment. For while the settlement may be made by a peace congress held under the presidency of the United States, the decisions will be determined by the balance of power in which the war results. The nations of Europe will have sacrificed so much that they will settle the issues in accordance with their own strength and position. And when we enter the congress with nothing but a record of comfortable neutrality, an acquiescence in the violated Hague conventions, and an array of vague treaties for a half-conceived future, our voice may well be disregarded. We shall be treated as we deserve to be treated, as a nation of well-meaning people who run no risks, and build their faith upon their simple and uncritical desires.