The Crisis and Our Responsibility


By MARY E. WOOLLEY, Author, Educator and Expert on International Affairs Delivered at the dinner of the New York State Federation of Women's Clubs, Rochester, N. Y., November 13, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 205-208.

THERE are certain remarks which grow in significance.

A remark of that kind was made by James M. Beck, one of the visitors at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1932. "The world has faced four major crises in its history: The Fall of the Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War; the French Revolution and the day in which we are now living." The remark startled me at the time. The year 1932 in the group with the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War, the French Revolution, as a major crisis in the world's history? As a student, I had wondered how human beings could survive through the Fall of an Empire; through the dragging years of a Thirty-year war; through the horrors of the French Revolution. The truth of the statement, which seven years ago seemed incredible, is today only too apparent. We realize, that we are indeed living in one of the major crises of the world's history.

There are many avenues of approach to this subject of a crisis; I should like to approach it from the point of view of the way in which it invalidates. It invalidates, weakens, the human being from the most practical point of view, that aspect which we call his common-sense. The present situation is one absolutely devoid of common-sense, approach it from any angle that we may. Take for example, the financial. The suffering of human beings in the world staggers the imagination: millions upon millions are poverty stricken not simply in the sense in which we ordinarily use the expression, without adequate food, clothing, shelter; they are literally starving and freezing to death. Never in the history of humanity has there been a "refugee problem" commensurate with the one which we are facing. Eighty million refugees in China alone; thousands from Spain and Germany and Central Europe; every country under the influence of the totalitarian race delusion, with its tragic quota; to the millions in need because of financial depressions, other millions deliberately added by the insanity of intolerance.

"You cannot throw the world's wealth onto a scrap-heap without paying the price," said a keen student of international affairs during the depression of 1932. And the world, not learning the bitter lesson which the World War taught, in 1939 is again throwing the world's wealth onto the scrap-heap. Two billion pounds, the estimated cost of the war for this year in Great Britain alone. Eight billion dollars,—not to build up but to tear down! Eight billion dollars in one year,—gruelling taxes today, and gruelling taxes for generations to come. At the best, a bitter period of readjustment, how bitter, no one dares prophesy.

The present situation is a blow at the common-sense of human beings from other points of view. Generations have gone into the building up of the monuments of Europe; minutes encompass their destruction. Scientists devote their lives to medical research in order that the physically and mentally sub-normal may become at least not a menace to society; millions upon millions of dollars are invested in hospitals for these "unfit" and other millions are devoted to their care. And the "flower" of the nations, the physically and mentally most "fit", are the first to be sent to the holocaust of the battlefield! The tragic situation of the world today points toward human bankruptcy, bankruptcy in common-sense.

It points toward bankruptcy in other lines. There is no contrast more impressive than the contrast in human personalities. Years ago in London I arose very early one summer morning to take a train. The early morning light was touching the trees in St. James Park opposite my window and as I looked out to see the miracle of the daybreak, I saw one of London's police poking what looked like a big bundle of rags. But as I looked, the bundle moved, lifted itself, and a woman stood on her feet, a woman drunk, sordid, sodden, a bit of human driftwood, that stays in the memory to be recalled with a shudder.

Over against that picture there is another, also of a woman. The background is California this time, San Diego on a sunny day and the picture that of an old lady over ninety years of age with bright eyes, rosy checks, quick wit, with almost a century of useful living behind her, keeping a serene, deep-seated joy in life to enrich the lives of all with whom she comes into contact.

I could draw upon my memory for illustrations many times over and so could you, illustrations of the heights to which human personality can rise and the depths to which it canlink. The heart of the crisis is embodied in the question: "What is it doing to human personality?" This is not a rhetorical question. The theory that might is right, strikes at the centre of human living. What does it do? First, it brutalizes. The "blood-bath" with which the Nazi Government threatens Europe and of which it has given a sample in Poland, means not only incredible suffering on the part of the victims; it means also incredible brutalization on the part of the victors. The papers report that rejoicing in Berlin over the glorious victory in the sinking of the Royal Oak. "A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale." Is that a lost ideal in these days of death from the skies and from the depths?

Today presents a exists in human living from the point of view of honor. When the pledged word becomes a "scrap of paper", as it has become in the power politics of Europe, there is no foundation stone upon which to base human relationship. "Unless there be faith, there can be no human relations"—-said Crotius three hundred years ago. There can be no conference table, no reasoning together, no "peace with justice" except as there is honor among nations and among the individuals who make up the nations. "The plain truth is that after our past experience it is no longer possible to rely upon the unsupported word of the present German Government," are Neville Chamberlain's words to his people. What future for humanity if there can no longer be reliance upon the pledged word?

"Our responsibility"—that is a question which involves a look backward and a look forward as well as at the present situation. The look backward I should like to take as far as the close of the World War. There was never a time in all history when the soil was more ready for a new world order. War had lost its glamour,—was seen for what it was. "The War to end war" was over; "Never again" has become the slogan. As we look back, we can see more clearly, than at the time, how direct was our responsibility following the armistice. We helped win the war, but we failed to help win the peace. It is incredible that we could have been so blind. The road from the battlefield to the conference table was bound to be a steep one, hard to climb. How could it be otherwise? The League of Nations was an experiment in an environment of centuries-old prejudices and passions and prepossessions. The enterprise could not spring full-grown, a Minerva from the brow of Jupiter. But it was the alternative to the battlefield. The Government of the League offered opportunity for the necessary revisions in the Treaty of Versailles; the conference table, opportunity for the rectifying of injustices in that Treaty; the World Court, opportunity for the adjustment of disputed questions. It was the blazing of a new trail, the opening of a straight and narrow path of reason leading to construction in place of the broad highway of insanity and unreason that throughout the generations had led to destruction.

It never has been easy for Europe to understand the train of thought which led the United States to disclaim responsibility for helping to substitute reason for force, in the event of international misunderstanding. In 1917 we were ready to cooperate in the arbitrament of force; in 1919 we refused to cooperate in the arbitrament of reason. It is an anomaly impossible to explain. The League of Nations was the achievement of the President of the United States more truly than of any other person. To make our logic even more illogical, we refused to join the World Court, framed and revised largely by American jurists, foremost among them Elihu Root, thus repudiating the work of an outstanding Republican, as earlier we had repudiated that of an outstanding Democrat.

The years since the close of the World War have been marked by failures of the Great Powers to improve opportunities. It is hardly too much to say that the international hell of today is paved with neglected opportunities 1" The Republic of Germany failed to receive a helping hand from the other democracies of Europe; the conference on the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments, to fulfill the pledge of the Allies in the Covenant of the League, was deferred from 1919 to 1932, thus losing through those years the help of the conciliatory personalities of Briand and Stresemann, and preparing the way for Hitler; in 1932 England failed to make effective the "Stimson Resolution" to "recognize no treaty, situation or agreement, reached through violation of the Covenant of the League or the Pact of Paris" and thus opened way for the doctrine that "might is right" in China and Ethiopia, Czechoslovakia and Poland; again in 1932 England and France "damned with faint praise" the Hoover plan for the one-third reduction of armaments, and effectives, thus defeating an arms treaty in 1932 and making possible Hitler and all that Hitlerism means.

It would be easy to fill our evening with the "backward look" as far as our responsibility is concerned. There is a subtle temptation to dwell upon past opportunities and our failures to improve them, with a resulting spirit of defeatism. And "defeatism" is not the mood in which to face difficulties. "I make mistakes," said a wise and capable woman, "but I try never to make the same mistake a second time". It is that mood which makes for progress in the case of the world, as in the case of the individual. The world problem is infinitely more difficult than it was in 1919,—that goes without saying. The theory that "might is right" has never had the strangle-hold which it has today. With that conception is linked a certain contempt for the humane, for the merciful, the just; in other words, a sneer for the teaching of the greatest sermon in the world,—the Sermon on the Mount. You may have seen a quotation from a recent article entitled "Background and Foreground," which Wickham Steed wrote for the London "Fortnightly." "Hitlerism is something more and something worse than the 'Prussian militarism' that was the enemy in 1914-1918. Common to both is the immoral doctrine that Might is Right and the Prussian conception of the State which Hegel defied as 'God's movement in the world', 'the absolute Power on earth' and 'an end in itself.' New in Hitlerism is Hitler's own conviction that he himself is divine. In the words that he used to one of his former advisers: 'Insofar as there is a God, I am He.' Even William of Hohenzollern, whose familiarity with the Almighty astonished the world in the closing years of the 19th century, never went beyond speaking of 'My old ally, God'."

The spirit prevailing in Hitlerized Germany and in the militarized regime of Japan, is a Juggernaut as relentless as the mechanized army which swept over Poland with ruthless crushing out of human life.

The world problem has become an exceedingly difficult one because of the increase in "the sinister" of European diplomacy. Who knows what is being formented in the Kremlin, in the tortuous mind of a Stalin? Today seems almost to out Machiavelli Machiavelli! A war of wits, of cunning, of duplicity,—what chance has a conference table in such an atmosphere? "Come, let us reason together." But how can we reason together, when the goal is to outwit one another!

Or what possibility is there for conference when the pledged word has again become a mere "scrap of paper." "The pledge and the performance"—an editorial in a New York Daily a short time ago gave a list of Hitler's pledges not to disturb further the security of nations in Europe— and his ruthless breaking of those pledges.

There are heavy clouds over-hanging the world today, there are rifts in the clouds. Chief among them is the change in the attitude toward war. The dread of war, the sense of its futility, are in marked contrast with the attitude of1914. The applause of the Italian women in Rome a few weeks ago to Mussolini's: "I see no real reason for war;" the hysterical joy in Germany recently over the false report of an armistice; the attitude in England, no enthusiasm, but "teeth set in grim determination;" the "War of Diplomacy", an indication, at least, of dread of a real war; the "never again" spirit in our own country. A realization not only of the horror, but also of the futility of war, has made greater progress within the last twenty-five years than in all the preceding centuries. "In war today neither side wins," has become a commonplace.

There are other gains, two of them of special significance. The first is the increased emphasis on the importance of the moral and the spiritual. Not all the sermons today are preached from the pulpit. They come also from public officials; from editors and "columnists"; from leaders in business and profession; from scientists and essayists. Listen to a Governor of New York who is a Jew; to an ex-Governor, who is a Roman Catholic; to a columnist, in a leading Daily. "The extent to which attacks upon religion have been also directed against democracy", says Governor Lehman, "has demonstrated that religion and democracy are rooted in the same basic concepts, and are bound together so closely that neither can survive long without the other."

"The nations of the Old World, like the prodigal son, are wasting their substance and we will only have peace and comfort when they return to their Father's house," are the words of "Al" Smith.

Speaking at the Annual Memorial service of the American Legion in France recently, the president of the American Club in Paris said that if the spirits of the dead could speak they might say that living in the past twenty years "had been enveloped in complacent optimism which permitted the degeneration of individual, national and international morality just at a moment when the world needed spiritual renaissance."

Anne O'Hare McCormick sums it up in her New York Times column:

"The development of recent days reveal something more than lack of confidence, among great powers seeking their own security, or the drastic change that has taken place in the position of small countries, no longer permitted even to be neutral; and thus deprived not only of political and economic but moral independence. Above all, they emphasize that the international crisis is a moral crisis, and the foundations of the world will be shaky until the moral props are restored."

These words and many others like them, reveal another gain of marked significance, namely, the trend toward spiritual unity. Take as an illustration, the recent Encyclical of the Pope. Is it of slight significance that the head of the Roman Catholic Church dwells at length upon the truth of which the Apostle of the Gentiles was the herald, that " 'God hath made of one, all mankind to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times, and the limits of their habitation.'"

In this world tragedy, what is our responsibility? First, as a people. What a problem confronts us as to that answer! Not war—and yet not isolation.

"In a desolate and morally leaderless world, may America stand the strong and unswerving protectress of the good and godlike in man. May she do this, in the knowledge of good and evil, aware of her own human insufficiency, but scorning the lie, and standing by her sound and vital belief in the good, in freedom and truth, peace and justice," says Thomas Mann.

It is not difficult to accept that principle—the application is another matter. Difficult, but not impossible. In an age in which the impossible has become the commonplace in the mechanical world, nothing is impossible.

"World Federation" is in the air; — it has even-been brought down to earth by definite plans, organized effort to work for it. There is the possibility of effective appeals to the nations who are the signers of the Paris Pact, including Germany and Italy and Japan,—nations that pledged themselves "not to resort to War as an instrument of National Policy." Is there no way of bringing them to their senses? Of making the pledged word something more than a "scrap of paper"?

There is a part here for the individual to play. A thoughtful, informed public opinion, who knows what it might accomplish? A public opinion that might even disregard party lines in order to render world service!

There may be times in your experience when you will be in the position of the taxi-driver whom Secretary Perkins mentioned in a talk in Denver in June. "I voted for Mr. Roosevelt," he remarked in the course of a conversation which taxi-driver seem to enjoy carrying on with their "fares." "Then you are a Democrat?" the Secretary of Labor naturally observed. "No, I'm a Republican," was the reply. "But you know sometimes you have to do what is right in spite of your principles." May I add that it worked both ways, as far as party is concerned.

Difficult? Yes, it is difficult, very difficult. There is a curious attitude prevalent, the attitude that because problems in the economic, the political, the social world are difficult, they are therefore insoluble! Suppose that attitude had prevailed in the scientific laboratory? If it had, we would be back in the horse and buggy age, reading by the kerosene lamp. Rather, we would be travelling by the ox team and perusing our month old—or year old—"news" by the aid of the tallow-dip! There is nothing more inexplicable than the mentality which boasts of the progress made in the mechanical world but fails to see any hope of progress in the political and social world.

Our responsibility is for today, but it does not stop there. It is also a responsibility for tomorrow. The totalitarian governments labor under no delusions with regard to the importance of education for the future and in this particular we might well take a leaf out of their notebook. A leaf,— yes—but not the entire book! Our ideal is diametrically opposed to the ideal of the totalitarian state. Years ago, Dr. Charles N. Jefferson put into unforgettable words the thought which I would emphasize: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of learning how to live together." Nazi youth are being taught how not to live together; taught to substitute for the humane, the inhumane; for reason, unreason.

It has two sides, this education for youth. First, the problem of learning how to live together is a challenge to the human mind. An age in which the impossible in the scientific world has become a commonplace, is not the age in which to say that human mentality is unequal to the solution of economic, political and social problems.

Again, this challenge is a challenge to the human spirit.

"To many of us the religious training of youth has always seemed a matter of primary importance. The events and trends of today have made it a first essential," said the President of the Friedsam Foundation in granting one million dollars from the Foundation to the newly formed Jewish Education Committee for the improvement and extension of religious education among the Jewish youth of New York City.

"The Crisis and our Responsibility." The crisis is "one of the four major crises in the history of the world,"—the seven years since I heard that statement have simply confirmed its truth. "Our responsibility." As I was writing those words I noticed the report of the American Youth Congress of last summer, open on my desk at these words:

"This is undoubtedly one of the turning points in world history. What you, your neighbors—all the communities throughout the country do—will help determine to a great extent what kind of a world we will all live in during the coming years. What you all say, what you tell Congress,what policies you all support, are tremendously important." These are the words of youth to whom the future is ofvital importance, the "kind of a world" that they will have to "live in." What are we of an older day, ready to do to help shape that world?

I turn from the youth of today to the ancient Greek, that I may leave with you the words of Aristophanes:

From the murmur and subtlety of suspicion with

Which we vex one another,

Give us rest.

Make a new beginning,

And mingle again the kindred of the nations in

The Alchemy of Love, .

And with some finer essence of forbearance

Temper our mind.