A Decent Peace Now
by A.J. Muste - 1939
I believe that we have arrived at a stage when our whole technological, economic, political and cultural situation is such that there is no moral or rational justification for war; in this situation, the seemingly idealistic course of renouncing war has become practical politics.
THE RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE is often sensitive to the evil in some social institution before men in general share this conviction. Those who bear witness to the evil in question may for a long time be in a minority. The time comes when such changes occur in the political and economic scene, such advances in the realm of culture, as to make the institution in question clearly unfit for survival. After a more or less violent struggle on the part of its beneficiaries, or more exactly those who think that some benefit may still be derived from it, the institution is removed. Thenceforth the general conscience of mankind agrees in condemning it and would regard with horror any proposal to restore it. Something of this sort has occurred in the history of dueling, for example, or chattel slavery.
I believe that we have arrived at such a stage with regard to the method and institution of war--a stage when our whole technological, economic, political and cultural situation is such that the traditional attitude of the Society of Friends (Quakers) must be universally adopted or mankind will suffer a colossal reverse. There is no moral or rational justification left for war.
The masses sense this to be the case. They have no enthusiasm for war, since it means not only death for many individuals but suicide for the state or society which engages in it. Governments are equally reluctant to take the plunge into unrestricted warfare. The chief reason is that they have no assurance that anything can be gained by "victory." Each major power, unless war itself be eliminated, is confronted with impossible, diabolical alternatives.
If real fighting breaks out on the western front, one possible outcome is a German "victory." Germany can win only with the help of Russia. For the moment Stalin's game may simply be to keep Germany and the French and British fighting in order to keep out of the trap which he believed was set for him (that is, a war in which Germany and Russia would exhaust each other to the advantage of French and British imperialism), and to strengthen Russia in the Baltic, Balkans and any other favorable spot. Obviously, even on this basis, the question is posed whether the Allies have anything to gain by continuation of such a war.
It may well be, however, that the forces which drove Hitler and Stalin into each other's arms in the first place will drive them closer together; that a vast bloc of revisionist, totalitarian powers including Germany, Russia, Japan, is in the making and will strive finally to demolish French and British hegemony. The victory of such a bloc would mean the domination of something called Communazism or Stalinism minus the earlier Communist idealism, over Europe from the Rhine east. Some such regime would come into existence also in defeated France and Britain. It is this hideous prospect, which causes many Americans to say that we must join Britain and France at any cost in order to prevent this catastrophe.
Very well, suppose we do. What will happen then? If with our help France and Britain "win," will they be able to impose their peace on Europe and keep Germany and other nations in subjection? They could not do it after their victory in the last war. Another more devastating war can only further weaken the "victor" empires. And what will happen in Germany? There will be another Wilson to bring about an armistice based on fourteen idealistic points, and another Clemenceau and Lloyd George to pretend they embrace these proposals, but actually bound to say that "this time we must not be easy on Germany as we were the last time." Even if they felt disposed to offer a decent peace, would Germany after her experience in the last war be likely to believe them? Germany in defeat will be in the same position as Russia at the close of the last war, and the same kind of thing will happen as happened there minus, as we have already said, the old idealism.
What will the French and British people do when, after such a war, they return to their devastated homes and discover that, on their side, the only "victor" who has any spoils is again "Uncle Shylock" from across the Atlantic? The contagion of Communazism will reach them too. Certainly there will be no "democracy" left in their countries to believe in.
Similarly if a real war results in a stalemate of exhaustion the establishment over wide areas of a brutalized totalitarianism will be the outcome.
All this means that the seemingly idealistic (i.e. romantic!) course of renouncing war has become practical politics. Concretely this means that with urging and backing from the United States the nations which won the last war and utterly failed to use their victory for the purposes they had professed, should offer to write a decent peace now. This, all agree, means drastic armament reduction, equal access for all peoples to raw materials, etc
When you propose this, people always ask, Would Hitler accept? And if he did, could he be trusted to carry out his pledges? But a proposal cannot be accepted or rejected until it is made. Will Chamberlain, Daladier and Roosevelt make such a proposal? If they did, could they be trusted to keep their word, any more than Lloyd George and Clemenceau or the U. S. Senate of 1919-20?
There is probably as much chance, or as little, that Chamberlain and Daladier will propose a decent peace as that Hitler would accept. There is a chance that they will, nevertheless, because the alternative is suicide. If a decent peace were proposed, and evidence given of its genuineness, no one in Germany who rejected it and then tried to make the Germans fight would have any more chance than the proverbial snow-ball in a very hot place.
The business of the United States is to stay out of the war and to offer mediation to bring about such a peace as I have described.
Personally I was a pacifist in the last war, refusing any support to war, both because I could not reconcile participation in war with my Christian and ethical insights and, on the common-sense ground, I was not convinced the war would achieve any of the attractive results we were promised. This time I shall again be a pacifist on Christian and ethical grounds. As for the practical side, nobody seems to have any heart for even promising that any good can result, so why place any bets on a horse that does not even pretend to be alive?