American Democracy at the Crossroads


By DR. FRANK AYDELOTTE, President, Swarthmore College

Commencement Address, Swarthmore College, June 3, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 531-532

IT is by invitation of the Senior Class that I address you today and attempt haltingly to express those feelings, too deep for words, which fill our hearts as we go forth from Swarthmore together. The Seniors have been here four years during which time the shadows of the present calamity have been extending further and further across the landscape and darkening the sky more and more in this and every other country. I myself have been nineteen years at Swarthmore—almost exactly the interval between two world wars. This has been a time of boom and depression, of wide-spread unemployment, of decline in international trade and decay of ideals of political and economic freedom, and of international good faith. These years have seen the development of Communism in Russia, and rise of Fascism in Italy, and the domination of Germany by the Nazis. They have been years which the citizens of this country have passed in the vain effort to isolate themselves from the troubles of the world.

As I look back on this period between two world wars I wonder what the members of the class of 1940 will think of it when they return to Swarthmore as the class of 1890 has done today for their 50th reunion. It seems to me possible that everyone living may in the future look back upon the period from 1920 to 1940 as the brightest and sunniest in their lives. It is also possible that men may look back upon this period as the troubled beginning of a happier and more serene day than men have ever known before. The one thing that seems to me clear is that tremendous changes lie ahead and that democratic civilization must either build upon the foundations of the past a stronger and a greater future or must end altogether.

We in the United States must face these problems. The American people often seem to me to make neutrality an excuse for refusing to think. It seems almost as if our leaders did not dare to answer the questions put to us by the war in Europe. Thanks to the wonderful organization of our newspaper press and radio the people the United States probably know more about the actual events which are taking place in Europe than any other people on earth. On the other hand we have thought less than almost any other people about the issues of the war and their possible significance for us. A democracy which refuses to think, which refuses to face reality is in serious danger. The American people seem to be waking up, thoughslowly, to the tremendous stake which this country has in the outcome of the war in Europe. Should the Germans win in the present struggle the whole future history of this country will be changed. If the Germans possess the English fleet and the English naval bases it would probably be impossible for us to defend our interests in Latin America and the Far East. If we chose to sacrifice those interests and to submit to German domination of our foreign relations and our international trade we might be allowed to remain at peace, but it would be a peace hard for a proud people to accept.

Even though the Germans might not invade this country with tanks and planes they would be certain to invade it with their ideas and to transform us more or less into their own likeness. Indeed that process has already begun. If the Germans should win the war military preparation and military service on a scale hitherto unknown would be inevitable in the United States. For a generation to come our economic life would be regimented, our young men compelled to do military service, our taxes vastly increased by the production of materials of war, and the free, irresponsible life of a democracy would be ours no more as long as Germany maintained her present character and remained master of the world.

All the interests of those Americans who are primarily interested in peace and of those whose first concern is the defense of this country alike dictate immediate assistance to the Allies by every means possible to us short of war. Britain and France are our first line of defense against the Nazi effort to dominate the world. They are fighting our battle. It will be good for our souls to recognize this fact and it will serve the interests both of peace and national defense to take the steps which will be prompted by that recognition. When the great mass of our citizens see the situation clearly they will bring irresistible pressure upon the American government to make available to the Allies our airplanes and other war material, our military secrets, our great financial resources, and the immense productive capacity of American industry. The danger is that our people, misled by the false hope of isolation from the world, will delay too long to face the realities of the situation. Prompt action offers at the moment the best chance of keeping America out of war and of insuring a world in which the continuance of democratic government will be possible.

If, as we hope, the Allies win the war we shall be confronted with another great test of our faith and our idealism. The situation will probably be somewhat similar to that which confronted the world in 1918. The democracies would again have the opportunity of trying to organize the world for peace and the question would be whether they had learned sufficiently the lessons of the last twenty years to make a greater success this time.

Many people in this country would be skeptical of such success. They argue that the democracies have had twenty years in which to organize the world for peace and the result of all their efforts has been complete failure. They point out that twenty years ago the Allies were master of Europe, a League of Nations had been organized, many of the most brilliant minds of the world were attacking the problem of preserving peace and international order, all without success.

Individuals of this way of thinking ask what good may be expected by defeating the Germans again. They are disillusioned by the failure of the last twenty years and they would have this country take no part in any future effort to establish a saner and stronger system of international government which would make wars impossible.

I am sorry to say that such pessimism is too often the view of those who are most interested in peace. Too many pacifists are also isolationists. Furthermore those people who are the strongest in their objection to war too often take a merely negative position and do not see that it is the responsibiliy of those of us who oppose war to advocate some constructive plan of world government which will make war impossible.

The Director of Pendle Hill recently made an impressive statement of the irreconcilable conflict between the pacifist and the isolationist. The pacifist, said Dr. Brinton, cannot possibly be an isolationist for the reason that the isolationist says in effect that we shall have no relations with other countries, except to fight them, while the pacifist is willing to cooperate with other countries precisely to the end of keeping the peace. The point is very important, and it is too little understood by peace workers in this and in other countries.

This lack of faith in the possibility of a better future for the world is the weakest element in all the democracies today. It stands in striking contrast to what seems to be the attitude of the Nazis in their fierce crusade against democracy. The faith of the Nazi youth in Adolph Hitler and in what he stands for seems to us so fantastic as to be hardly sane. Doubtless it is based upon false assumptions and is doomed to speedy disappointment, but for the moment it has filled a great nation with a kind of maniacal fury. The Nazis look with contempt upon democracies as something that is soft, slow, fumbling, and ineffective. They despise our love of comfort and of individual liberty and believe that they, as a hardier and superior race, have the mission of destroying democratic liberty and of using the wealth and resources of democratic countries in the service of what they consider to be their own superior culture.

Doubtless the unity of Germany is not so perfect as it looks from the outside and is partly the result, not of conviction but of censorship and machine guns. Nevertheless it seems clear that the Nazi youth have to a surprising extent been convinced by their own propaganda and brought to enlist with enthusiasm in a crusade against the whole democratic world.

It may be that the Nazi scourge will improve democracy if it does not utterly destroy it. It is good for our soulsto realize that in democratic countries men have come to accept with too much complacency their privileges and their blessings. We take for granted liberties which our forefathers won by courage, intelligence, and idealism. We forget that we can continue to possess these liberties only by deserving them.

Whatever turn events may take in the future, they bid fair to teach this country the lesson we have found it so difficult to learn, of the difference between isolation and peace. For twenty years we have pursued an isolationist policy in the belief that it would bring us peace. Instead our policies have provided for the Germans precisely the opportunity which they wanted, and we have to that extent assisted in bringing on the present war. The voice of those wiser pacifists who perceived the inconsistency of pacifism and isolation has gone unheeded.

Certainly the antithesis to peace is such a state of international anarchy as we have had in the world since the breakdown of the League of Nations a few years ago. Science and industry are rapidly unifying the whole world. That unity must be expressed also in our political organizations or we shall never have peace. Unrestricted national sovereignty and excessive nationalism have produced this war and will continue to produce war so long as they are unrestrained. We shall never have peace in the world until we have some effective international government which will place limits upon national sovereignty and which will safeguard the peace just as our national governments safeguard the peace within their own borders.

The League of Nations was an attempt at such an international government. It did not succeed partly because the strongest and richest nation in the world was not a member, partly because of faults within the Covenant of the League. The whole democratic world today is eagerly discussing such changes and improvements in the organization of international government as would make its success more probable. That discussion is extraordinarily interesting, and I have myself no doubt that the thought which is being applied to the question will in the end reach a successful conclusion just as we solved a similar problem in the working out of the American Constitution in a long hot summer in Philadelphia 150 years ago.

The great question before the democracies today is whether their people have the courage to face the realities of the present situation and the faith to believe that if the Germans are again defeated, they will have the intelligence and the idealism to solve the problem more successfully than during the last twenty years. The survival of democracy depends in the last analysis not upon guns or ships or airplanes or military technique of material wealth, but rather upon the faith and idealism of the peoples which compose them. The attitude of every democracy is important, but it is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the world today hangs more upon the courage and idealism of the citizens of this country than of any other.

The contribution which the United States can make in this desperate emergency depends upon how fully and how quickly we can learn the lessons of our past mistakes, depends upon our realization that the world situation is partly our concern and our responsibility, depends upon our realization that we cannot enjoy the blessings of peace and freedom without deserving them. It depends upon our having the faith and idealism to imagine a better future for the world and upon our having the discipline and determination to take the steps which are necessary to translate that dream into reality.