Peace and Some of the Ancient Virtues


By DR. KARL T. COMPTON, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Delivered at the Commencement Exercises, Wellesley College, June 17, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 631-633.

WHILE puzzling over what would be an appropriate theme for my remarks to you, I happened to ask a friend, who had more experience than I with women's colleges, what was the chief difference between the problems met in a women's college and those in a men's college. The reply was: "The problems are essentially the same, but women are more complicated." That did not help me much, or reassure me a bit. So it seemed to me perhaps appropriate to talk about certain subjects which are the joint interest of all groups, and very much on all our minds at the present time: "Peace, Prosperity and Some of the Ancient Virtues." But, as I thought further, it seemed to me that prosperity is so dependent on peace, and there is so much that needs to be thought through and done on the subject of peace, that I am going to restrict the subject to Peace and Some of the Ancient Virtues.

With most of Europe and Asia at war, this may seem a strange time to talk of peace. Yet peace is what we want, and it is important to be thinking constructively about how it might be secured more effectively. At any rate we can now see more realistically what factors are involved than we could twenty years ago, or even one year ago.

In the past decade, as the high hopes for the effectiveness of the League of Nations faded, there was increasing conviction among all people, but especially among young people, that something must be done, and done quickly, to avert future wars. This took various forms. There were frequent peace conferences; there was agitation against military training, especially compulsory military training in colleges; there were attempts to secure widespread pledges of non-participation or non-cooperation in any war effort; there were "strikes" to force public attention to youth's determination for peace; there were satires on the unsuccessful efforts of earlier generations. There has been evidence of lack of faith in the policies and perhaps the sincerity of the older generation, and a tendency to question the validity of arguments which have been accepted as justifying resort to arms in extreme situations.

There is no question but that the very great majority of those active in the movement for peace have been actuated by high idealism. There is also no doubt that certain selfish groups, not sympathetic to our American ideals, have found in these noble sentiments a ready-made opportunity to further their own purposes,—especially as these purposes can flourish to the extent that America is weak. These so-called "fronts" have operated systematically in every region and social level,including the colleges. The more idealistic the group the easier has been their job.

Let me give just one example out of many which have come to my attention. Last winter I attended a meeting of a student peace federation, and heard one of the leaders of this organization speak scathingly against Herbert Hoover's efforts to raise funds to aid the non-belligerent refugees of Finland. His argument consisted of an attack on Hoover's personal integrity,—charging that Hoover espoused this cause out of revenge against Russia which had once forced mm to abandon a valuable mining property in the Orient. Now some of us know Herbert Hoover personally as a man of the highest integrity, unselfishness and overpowering love of humanity. Some of us are old enough to remember Hoover's magnificent job of Belgian relief in the last war, and how he forced Clemenceau and Lloyd George to permit the influx of thousands of tons of American food to save the starving children of Germany right after the Armistice of 1918. I inquired about this student and was informed that he had previously been a leader in the young communists group in one of the New York City universities, and this year was a leader in the Student Peace Federation and the American Student Union. This student later demanded my protection of the right of M. I. T. students to wear the button bearing the motto: "The Yanks are not coming,"—the title of an absurd and scurrilous pamphlet sponsored by an allegedly communistic west coast labor union. I assured him of freedom to wear the button, but do you think that I would let my name go on even the most perfect declaration of peace policy sponsored by a group in which he is a leader? I do not trust the motives or the good faith of the way in which the document will be used. It is one of the tragedies of recent months that knowledge or fear of such concealed motives has made people wary of subscribing to peace statements which, on their face, are wholly admirable.

Turning now to those whose motives are honest and consistent with our democratic ideals, all will agree that peace is desirable, that war is brutal, and that it is a stupid and wasteful method of settling international disputes. All agree that something should be done to lessen the hazard of war. But there is wide and sincere disagreement as to the proper policy for securing peace. Some base their policy on the goodness of God and the reasonableness of man. If all people were like them, the problem would be easy. A policy of disarmament and arbitration, and international agreement to forswear war, would be the answer. Others take a pessimistic anddefeatist attitude saying: "There always have been wars and there always will be wars." If all people held this view there would certainly be no hope for future permanent peace. Is there no middle ground which recognizes the existence of groups and situations which will provoke war unless restrained, but in which some method can still be found for preventing it?

One of the few things which I remember from my college course in biology is the phrase: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, which means that the individual develops through stages and analogous to those through which the race passed in its long process of evolution. I believe there is reason to believe that the reverse of this phrase may also be true when applied to the social evolution of the art of living together in reasonable peace and harmony. Let us look at our problem from this point of view.

Unselfishness, self-sacrifice and love undoubtedly first existed, thousands and thousands of years ago, in the primitive relationship of parent to child. A father will fight to protect his child, a mother will die to save it, and both will make any sacrifice for it. They do not do this for any conscious self-interest. It is one of the glorious facts of life that this relationship of parent to child is so deeply enrooted as to be called instinctive.

It was undoubtedly later that this feeling of responsibility for mutual assistance, support and protection spread to include all members of a family, then to a tribe or community, and finally to a state or a nation. As this attitude spread to larger and wider groups, it became less clear cut, so that it usually takes a crisis of some sort to detect it on a nationwide scale.

Even within the family it may take a crisis to make this group loyalty apparent. I recall vividly how this first came to my personal attention. As an older brother, I regret to say that I used to tease and abuse my younger brothers unmercifully. But one day a gang of other boys undertook to tease one of my brothers,—no worse than I had been doing, —and instantly I went hot with anger at them and a protective feeling for him and sprang to his defense. Long after the fight was over I felt bursting with pent-up emotion. It was then that I first realized that I loved my brother, and that there was a tie there whose power I had never suspected.

Similarly in the larger group, the nation, it takes a crisis to bring out the inherent solidarity. Intersectional bickerings over commercial advantages, or conflicting interests of social groups, or political disputes may often make it appear as if there were little unity, but let a real national emergency arise as it did with the war in 1917, or the depression in 1930, or again now with the threat to our basic ideals of liberty, and these differences are submerged in a wave of solidarity and national purpose.

Is it too much to hope for, and to work for, that the same attitude may be developed in the field of international relationships? After all, it took many thousands of years to develop an attitude in which forty-eight states could live together without war between them for nearly a century, or in which two great competing nations like Canada and the United States could exist for over a century not only without war but without even enough threat of war to be worth the trouble of putting forts along the international boundary. The close relationships between nations, as made possible by fast communication and transportation, are very recent indeed. Surely the fact that, throughout history, ever larger and larger groups have found out how to live together in peace gives ground for hope that this will continue until the entire world learns the lesson.

Some encouragement may be found in the fact that progresshas been made during the past century. Just after the Napoleonic era there was a league of nations,—the Holy Alliance of 1815 between Russia, Austria and Prussia. In it "Their Majesties solemnly declare—their unshakable resolution—to take as their sole rule the precepts of Holy Religion, precepts of righteousness, Christian love and peace—. Consequently their Majesties have agreed, conformable to the words of Holy Writ which command all men to regard one another as brethren, to remain united by the bonds of a true and indissoluble brotherhood, and to help one another like fellow countrymen in all conditions and all cases. Towards their peoples and their armies they will behave as fathers to their families and they will guide them in the same spirit of brotherliness as that which inspires themselves—. The three allied sovereigns feel themselves but the plenipotentiaries of Providence for the government of the—branches of the same family."

Nothing could be finer than the sentiment in the terms of this alliance, which originated largely from the mystical sentimentalism of Alexander I of Russia; but it became the vehicle for engineering political deals by the cynical realist, Metternich, and ultimately broke down.

Almost exactly one hundred years later came the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. The Treaty of Versailles incorporated too much of self-interest on the part of the victor nations, arising from a combination of fear, revenge and desire for gain. It and the League of Nations have also failed, but despite this failure I believe that the League of Nations episode is encouraging for the following reasons.

The League of Nations also was built on the idealism of a man, this time Woodrow Wilson. It also lacked a necessary element of realism and became subject to the manipulations of "practical politicians". But, whereas the Holy Alliance was the expression of three autocratic rulers, the League of Nations expressed the ideals and aspirations of all the peoples of the world. This, in itself, marks a great advance. It was the greatest effort ever yet made to set up a permanent plan for securing international peace.

We can learn much from the failure of the League to guide us in formulating another and wiser effort. In the first place, when the present war is past, there must be a reasonable peace in which revenge and greed play no part. In the second place, the terms of peace and of whatever league, union or other arrangement is set up must be so clear cut as to give no loopholes for quibbling or manipulation. In the third place, I am firmly convinced there must be a definite and adequate provision for enforcement.

It was primarily through lack of adequate provision for enforcement that the League failed. This was partly due to the fact that League actions were not binding on its members, who remained free to do as they pleased. It was partly due to the isolationist and independent attitude of the United States. For example, when the League voted economic sanctions against Italy during her invasion of Ethiopia, at obvious financial sacrifice to the member nations of the League, the United States insisted on its unrestricted right as a neutral to trade with any belligerent even though it be the aggressor. According to Dr. Sarah Wambaugh, the U. S. exports to Italy in this period increased 2700 per cent., thus completely hamstringing the effort which the League was making to check the aggressive ambitions of Mussolini for conquest. This is but one of the series of failures to check international aggressions which has led finally to the breakdown of the high hopes of 1919 for permanent peace.

Of all the plans for the future, granting that the outcome of the present war may give any opportunity for plans, thebest seems to me to be the one advocated by the Chinese scholar and present ambassador to the United States, Dr. Hu Shih. He would have the nations bind themselves by a very solemn and very straightforward agreement, capable of no misunderstanding, each and all to go immediately to war with both economic and military forces against any nation which invades another's territory against that nation's resistance.

Had this simple formula been in force since 1919, would Japan have invaded China, would Italy have invaded Ethiopia, would Russia have invaded Finland, would Germany have invaded Austria, Czecho-Slovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France? I think not.

It is interesting to note that, except for substituting the idea of invader instead of aggressor nation, since there can be little uncertainty about who is an invader while there may be endless debate about who is an aggressor, this same plan was put forward by Alfred Nobel, Swedish inventor of dynamite who left his fortune to establish the great system of Nobel prizes. He was much interested in peace, and dreaded lest his invention of dynamite be used for destruction in war. (Parenthetically and happily, dynamite has never played any significant role as a war explosive.) In 1893, Nobel wrote to his secretary, Bertha von Suttner, the following message:

"I should like to allot part of my fortune to the formation of a prize fund to be distributed in every period of five years—. This prize would be awarded to the man or woman who had done most to advance the idea of general peace in Europe. I do not refer to disarmament, which can be achieved only by very slow degrees. I do not even necessarily refer to compulsory arbitration between nations; but what I have in view is that we should soon achieve the result,— undoubtedly a practical one,—that all states should bind themselves absolutely to take action against the first aggressor. Wars will then become impossible, and we should succeed in compelling even the most quarrelsome state either to have recourse to a tribunal, or to remain silent. If the Triple Alliance instead of comprising three states were to secure the adherence of all, secular peace would be ensured for the world."

Why should nations not employ force against any nation that attacks another, just as in civic life we bring police or national guard force to suppress murder, assault and robbery and to punish those who commit them? If some county, having a dispute against another should do the unheard of thing of going to war about it, the state's national guard would at once march in to restore order, leaving it to the courts to settle the dispute. It is because laws against robbing banks, or crossing intersections against red lights, or such matters of general good are enforced that reasonable adherence to the law is secured. When the laws are not enforced, confusion and insecurity quickly ensue and grow apace. Enforcement of an international law against war should likewise bring results.

To do this would require some sacrifice. It would mean occasionally giving up freedom of action, just as inhabitants of the forest regions give up freedom when they are drafted by forest rangers to fight a forest fire. It would require some courage. It might sometime even require going to war over some issue in which we had no direct interest except the interest in maintaining in operation the machinery for enforcing peace. It would cost us something in cold cash. But think how minor all these sacrifices are in comparison to those which are forced on belligerents and neutrals alike when the peace machinery really breaks down, as at present!

Back of any discussion of peace and war is one very basic question: "Are there any things worth fighting for?" If we believe that war is the greatest of all evils, and that its results are so disastrous that even the worst conditions into which mankind may be plunged had better be endured rather than to fight for better conditions, then out and out pacifism in its extremest form is the proper answer. But even Christ, the Prince of Peace, drove the money changers out of the temple.

I submit that there are some things whose preservation can justify even war,—whose loss would do more permanent damage to the souls of men than even war could do. One of these is generosity and unselfish help to other people who may be in trouble. Another is justice. Another is liberty,— religious freedom, intellectual freedom, and freedom of action compatible with the rights of others. Our American Declaration of Independence set forth as inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are qualities whose loss would be so degrading to a people who, through generations of struggle, have secured a sense of their value, that even recourse to war, if necessary to secure and maintain them, is the lesser evil. So, in sincere efforts to secure a permanent peace, we must not throw away our hard-won birthright, but must rather do our utmost to secure justice, altruism and liberty, as well as peace, even if we must be prepared to fight to secure them.

As you of the graduating class go out into a troubled world, I sincerely hope that you may soon be privileged to live and work in a peaceful and friendly world; I hope that you will work to make it this kind of a world; but most of all I hope that we all may be exponents of those ancient virtues of courage, integrity, self-reliance, altruism and wisdom which must continually be cultivated and practiced if our ideals of peace and freedom are to be preserved for us and passed on to our children.