America Looks at Europe's War


By HENDRIK VAN LOON, Historian Over Radio Station WPXR, September 15, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 29-30.

WAR has broken out in Europe and our Government has asked us to refrain from anything that might in any way impair the safety of our nation. Having spent the first twenty years of my life in Europe in the happier days when it was still a civilized part of the world, I got into an early habit of obeying what was supposed to be the law. And if it is the law that I must be neutral, I shall be very careful to observe that law and I shall most scrupulously avoid writing anything that might make me incur the wrath and displeasure of those countries now engaged in that unfortunate struggle. But, as far as I know, the law did not say a word about "thinking" and that is what I shall therefore do. I shall do a little thinking. That can't possibly do any harm to anybody and the German submarines will have no occasion to sail up Greenwich Cove and turn my delightful garden into a replica of a Warsaw park.

Of course, I am placed in an extremely difficult position. I am 57 years old. Furthermore, a night spent in an open life-boat in a stormy sea as the result of an unexpected encounter with certain highly explosive materials, has done certain rather uncomfortable things to a nerve in one leg and I doubt very much whether I would be of the slightest use as a soldier. Therefore those who are much younger than I and who still have two good legs at their disposal, might well tell me, "Hey there! old fellow . . . please remember that it is we who will have to do the fighting and the killing and the being killed. So suppose you leave it to us to decide what we should think about this war and what we should do about it, while you sit safely at home and nurse that leg."

And, if they spoke that way, I would be obliged to confess that they would be entirely right. I have always maintained that the peace negotiations of Versailles should never have been entrusted to four men who were so old that certain endocrine changes, inseparable from an advancing age, had definitely set them apart from an ordinary, normal human existence. The job should have been handled by a much younger group of men, who still were alive in every sense of the word. Of course, it is too late now to do anything about it, but we might keep this in mind at our next peace conference. Let me hasten to add however that I have never agreed with the subtle German propaganda which depicted the final treaty of Versailles as the most monstrous of all peace treaties of the ages. What about Brest-Litovsk and that little treaty of Frankfurt of 1871, which made an end to the Franco-Prussian war, and practically every other peace treaty ever since the beginning of time? But what else can one expect of peace treaties which in nine cases out of every ten are made in such a spirit of anger and vengeance that nobody is able to listen to the still small voice of reason? And while Versailles was undoubtedly a pretty severe sentence, all the world now knows that it was being scrapped at such a rate of speed—and by the Allies themselves—that it had hardly any resemblance to its former self, long before Adolf Hitler thought of using it as an argument for breaking not merely that treaty but every other treaty which he himself had recently signed. And when the Nazi armies invaded Poland, Germany had not only regained its "former territory, but had so tremendously increased in size that, in my imagination, I can see old Wilhelm in his castle of Doom studying his maps in slippered ease and saying to himself, "That funny looking old corporal of mine is sure going places. Why didn't I ever hear from him during the war? He might have come in handy!"

Yes, Versailles had been pretty bad, but already, when theson of Alois Schickelgruber came to power, it had been reduced to a few scraps of parchment of highly doubtful value, I therefore have always replied to the arguments of some of my less suspicious neighbors who, having swallowed the subtle Nazi propaganda poison, used to assure me that Hitler was dead right about that treaty Germany had been forced to make with our so-called allies who since then had refused to pay their war debts and who invariably topped off their hymn of praise with an outburst something like this: "Now never mind what you personally may think about him. But is it Hitler who has saved the world from Bolshevism or is it not?"

That sounds a little funny today. Adolf Hitler as the noble defender of civilization against the agressions of Bolshevism! Can you see the happy little get-together in the Kremlin, safe in the bomb-proof cellar of Ivan the Terrible? "Jo-Jo, mein Freund, please pass me the caviar." "Garasho, mein lieber Adolf, and how about another wee little nip of that vodka? Wonderful vodka! I stole it myself one day when I was . . . but never mind . . . that was many years ago and so here is to a long life and a merry one . . . Gesundheit! Sdorovie!"

It must have been a charming scene but it does not help me in deciding what course we ourselves should follow, now that the two great prophets of autocracy have made common cause and are going to make the world extremely unsafe for the sort of lives which we ourselves prefer to live.

What should we do? Some day in the far or near future, we will have to decide and decide for ourselves. For we are not as fortunate as those 12,000 pets in London, those dogs and cats and canary birds, which had to be killed because their owners were obliged to betake themselves to the country lest Adolf and his great big bombers come and blow them to bits. I wonder what we ourselves would have done if little Noodle had been still alive? Suppose that after more than twelve years of the most perfect friendship, loyalty and affection, we had been forced to take a needle and to say, Well, old fellow, it has been wonderful but you know, der grosse Adolf is coming and so there is nothing to do but take it . . . take it like a little man, little dog, or better still, take it like a dog. That will make you feel less ashamed of your human neighbors.

I don't know whether I should have said this. Perhaps it will interfere with our neutrality. But the neutrality act did not mention dogs and so I suppose it was all right.

Somewhere in the darkest recesses of the soul of every one of us, be he Christian or Pagan, there stands a little altar where sometimes (when we know that nobody is looking) we worship before those gods whom we have chosen as our own. It is before such a hidden little altar, I fear, that we each and every one of us shall have to draw his own conclusions and reach his own decision. For this is not a war of conquest. It is not a struggle for territories and oil fields and coal mines. They enter of course into the consideration but they are much less important than the spiritual values that are at stake . . . spiritual values which are so basically opposed to each other that they can never hope to exist on one and the same planet.

I hold no particular brief for England nor for France nor for Poland, as shining examples of democracy. To tell you the truth, I am not really very much interested in democracy. The Declaration of Independence does not mention it. Neither does the Constitution, which is of course quite natural as democracy is not an end in itself, but merely a means towards an end. It happens to suit us as a means to our own end of establishing and maintaining a reasonably well functioning form of representative self-government, but I shall at once concede that it may be totally unsuited for other nations. Therefore suppose we leave that stop-gap word "democracy" out of the debate, as to what we should do or should not do and that we keep our eyes firmly fixed upon the main consideration—the spiritual one. . . . Then, what do we want to do? Let us remember that in our official dealings we have at least always done our best to maintain certain ideals of a "gentle conduct," as it was not only preached but also practiced by the men who founded our nation and put their own stamp upon that peculiarly American civilization which they had helped to create. Let us avoid the charming vocabulary of a triumphant Nazi-dom and make up our minds that such terms as "liar, crook, cheat, traitor, renegade, beast, swine" and others of such a nature, that I cannot even print them in quotes (as in America we reserve them for those public fences which are at the mercy of nasty little boys)—let us make up our minds that they do not quite fit in with the American scheme of things. Let us not get excited but merely ask ourselves, when we are trying to thresh these matters out and come to an honorable conclusion . . . let us ask ourselves, which is the voice we want to listen to? Do we want to listen to that which two thousand years ago spoke unto Us from a hillside in Galilee, or do we want to listen to that which today shrieks at us from a hilltop near Berchtesgaden?

That the final analysis (I fear me) is the choice which some day all of us will be called upon to make. It will be a terrible choice, but it will have to be made, for there is no other.