War Is a Disease


By JOHN CUDAHY, American Ambassador to Belgium

Delivered at the Annual Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States

Los Angeles, California, August 26, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 710-712

MR. PRESIDENT, and comrade veterans of foreign wars. You have flattered me by asking me here tonight as your speaker, but I am not conceited enough to think that your invitation was extended because of any individual distinction or conspicuous merit on my part. It would be pleasant to think that, but it would do violence

to the truth. I know that the reason I have the great luck to be with you tonight is because you, as soldier citizens, are vitally interested in the European scene, this war madness which has changed the whole tenor of American life, and whose dread portent reaches to even the most cloistered corner of our beloved country.

Every intelligent man, every prudent man, every patriotic man is disturbed and disquieted, by the sinister aspect of those black clouds which hang so heavily across the Atlantic. We have seen Norway, Luxemburg, Holland, Belgium and then the Republic of France, go down, in swift cataclysmic disaster; so that the average American is stunned and bewildered by this unprecedented procession of violent events and asks himself how could it all have happened, and if it did happen over there, is it not possible that it might happen here. And if it is possible that it happen here, — what measures is our country taking to prevent the same dark fate from being visited upon our own United States of America.

No one has a more unquestioned right than the soldier citizen to ask these questions, for his love of country, is not manifested by flag waving and speech making. It has been proved by acts of quiet courage and sacrifice, as Lincoln said, "in the last full measure of devotion."

Because I think the story of Belgium has a bearing upon these searching issues, I have come here tonight, from across the continent, to tell you that story. And I am well aware, that I shall be criticized for doing this and raked over the coals by those same critics who four years ago lambasted me, because I, an Ambassador, had the temerity to openly and publicly tell the American people that a major war impended in Europe. Yet, there are times when, even, an Ambassador, must speak regardless of personal consequences. You may say that an Ambassador should address the President and the State Department. But back of the President, the State Department, the Congress, the Constitution, the Courts and the Capital, is the power of the people. For the people and only the people are charged with the ultimate responsibility of our government. By this test our American way of living will make or break. By this test our democratic institutions will survive and march on, or go down — and out — before the march of the dictators.

Right here and now, we, the people of the United States, have to decide and determine whether the war in Europe is a menace to the security of this nation. And whether the United States is prepared to defend itself. It is a terrible responsibility we have undertaken, one which concerns not only ourselves, but more important than we old soldiers, the rising generation of Americans, and Americans yet unborn. You need to hear all the facts; you need to weigh all the evidence, you need to heed the warnings, and that is why I have come, to do my poor little part in telling the story of Belgium.

The Belgian people did not want war! Never had a government leaned too far back in adherence to neutrality. Never was a King less warlike than Leopold III. Never had all national leaders striven more earnestly or in greater good faith to hold themselves aloof from taking sides, from manifesting any tendency which even approached sympathy towards any of the belligerents. Never had a people hoped and yearned and prayed more earnestly and more fervently for peace.

There was the assurance of treaties, and solemn guarantee given in 1937 over the hand and seals of the Foreign Ministers of Great Britain and France on the one hand, and Germany on the other. Von Neurath, speaking for the Government of the Reich, declared that "the Government of the Reich, like the Royal British Government, and the French Government, is ready to assist Belgium in the event that Belgium should be the object of an attack or invasion."

Twelve years before this solemn declaration, a protocol had been drawn up and executed as a part of the Locarno deliberations wherein Germany and Belgium undertook to settle all differences by arbitral proceedings. An elaboratejudicial commission was set up for this purpose, and no matter the dispute, it was inconceivable that any controversy between Germany and Belgium could be determined except by order juridical methods.

But, it was not to treaties and the pledged word that Belgium looked for her assurance of a peaceful life, rather to the Albert Canal which paralleled the northern frontier and joined the strong positions of Liege and Namur on the Meuse. More important than the Albert Canal were the series of strong points and fortifications which girded the little country with what was thought an impregnable barrier from Antwerp to Namur. These fortifications, and the army of seven hundred thousand, nearly three times the number of the British Expeditionary Force, gave the Belgian people faith that they could somehow escape the conflagration of Europe and keep the peace.

In Brussels the diplomatic colleagues had it all worked out with meticulous mathematical precision that an attack would never be attempted against the low countries, — "Why," they said, "such an offensive would cost not less than two million German casualties." And they would reason and argue and demonstrate by ponderous. irrefutable logical methods that a thrust by Germany across Holland and Belgium would be suicide; a course of desperate folly which would never be tolerated by the German people.

"There will be no war." "There will be no war." How often I have heard that in the chanceries, in Belgian homes, and from the people you met on the streets. So often they repeated it that an article of hope became an article of faith. For you can make yourself believe anything if your will is persistent enough. Yet these same credulous people must have known in the inner counsels of their hearts that all through the centuries their flat land had been the battlefield of Europe. Spanish, Austrian and Dutch armies, and the Grand Monarch struggled there for dominion, and there was staged the duel for the continent between Napoleon and Wellington. Through Belgium came the German hosts on their heavy booted way to Paris twenty-five years ago, and if then Belgium was "essential" in the execution of the Von Schlieffen plan, why, some of us asked, was it not "indispensable" now in the execution of the Hitler plan?

But the war was not coming the Belgium way. We all know the instinct which makes us run away from unpleasant realities. In Warsaw the Poles had a way of saying, "there is no danger, only immediate danger" and back of this refusal to face and accept disagreeable facts is that same human trait which makes us reject the fatal diagnosis and run to another physician even though we know that hope is based upon falsity. No one likes disagreeable truths any more than one likes gloomy prophets and gloomy prophecies. Therefore, there never will be any danger except immediate danger. So it was in Belgium.

Eight months went by and Belgium stayed apart from the war. Hope would not be downed. Why, the king reasoned, if the country had been spared for eight months, would it not continue to be spared. In January a German war plane made a forced landing on Belgium soil near the German frontier and in it were captured two German officers with detailed plans for the invasion of Belgium. In March three Belgian planes were shot down by a German flyer returning from France. In April there was a series of scares from Holland, and all this time two million German soldiers were poised for attack, a few kilometers from the Luxemburg, Belgium and Dutch frontiers. Yet the Belgium people would insist that the war could not come to their country. There is no danger, but the immediate danger.

Then, like a flash of lightning from these blue California skies, the war did come to Belgium. At dawn on May tenthwe watched dark German bombers loom out of the disc of the rising sun and drop bombs upon Brussels. There was no ultimatum, no memorandum, no warning of any kind,—only this unheralded shattering attack from the skies.

Three hours after the first Von Bulow Schwante, the German Ambassador presented himself to Paul Henri Spaak, the Belgium Minister for Foreign Affairs and made a statement setting forth that Germany had come to protect Belgian neutrality.

Such was the weight of German force the declaration emphasized that resistance was hopeless. If no opposition was attempted the Government of the Reich promised to respect the territorial integrity of the little nation, to assure the continuation of the reigning dynasty and to withdraw all military forces at the conclusion of the war. If Belgium did not yield to these conditions, Germany would not be responsible for the consequences.

You know the consequences. In eighteen days German mechanized divisions swept through France and Belgium, to the sea. Isolating the Allied armies from the French and driving a barrier between the British and Belgians so that the Belgian army retreating on a constantly narrowing front, and thronged by starving terror driven refugees was surrounded in the northwest corner of the country; and the king, a soldier and a Christian gentleman, like Robert E. Lee at Appomattox courthouse had no alternative but surrender.

The fight for Belgian was lost when the French Ninth Army was smashed at Sedan. A new technique had been introduced to warfare as crushing in consequences, as demoralizing in effect, as the use of the strong bow at Crecy. Always since the first days of organized war, there had been some sequence, some order of battle formation. First had come the reconnaissance; then advance troops to test out the enemy's strength; and then the main body to carry out the plan of combat and reach the objective. Always a certain design or rule had been followed in the progressive development of the offensive so that an opponent had precedent to guide him, broad outline of what to expect. But now every principle of the war game was violated, for bombing and fighting planes ranged hundreds of miles ahead of their own troops, and behind them came tremendous tanks and armored vehicles, which crashed through all opposition and in small groups, some times, only four and five at a time, rushed on at thirty-five miles an hour and kept going. The bombing planes placed their projectiles with pulverizing precision close together row upon row, and screeching Stukas dove like plummets a few yards over the heads of the bewildered, befuddled soldiers on the ground who were machine gunned front and rear, and raked by enfilade. It was a conflict of machines, this air and tank war, against which the human qualities of courage and fortitude seemed irrelevant and of little purpose. You may talk of courage and gallant fighting spirit, but what do these avail against an insentient monster.

It is a silly and senseless spectacle to oppose a steam roller with courage. Everyone knows what would happen to any man attempting such an adventure and that is just what happened to Belgium in its contest with the German war machine.

All in Belgium regardless of party and creed desired peace and strove for peace just as all in this country desire peace. But peace is not had merely for the asking. There are some sixty-three pacifist organizations in this country and the doctrine of many of them is that peace comes by prayer. We must not question the purity of their motives or the sincerity of their purpose, — but why must they oppose as warlike and incendiary all efforts for adequate national defense, there is no greater pacifist in the world than a soldier, for he above all, knows the misery, the obscene filth and depravity of war. Yet every soldier knows that you cannot have peace by wishing for it. Like everything else of value, peace is bought at a price, and that price is preparation for war.

How can any reasonable man or woman who has eyes to see and ears to hear, doubt that this world in which we live, has gone military-mad, and we must become a military nation? It is a desperate fact, but an undeniable fact, that this country must in a military world, whether we like it or not, become a military nation. This means sacrifice and denial on the part of us all. We must all play our part. The only American principle is that in the effort for national defense all must serve, every one according to his capacity and his strength.

They will tell you that if the nation is filled with soldiers, there will be an irresistible temptation on the part of military caste to practice their profession. But since when has any caste dominated the counsels of this nation? We all know that public opinion would never tolerate an aggressive war, just as we know that the American people harbor no imperialistic designs, have no dreams of conquest, no desire for world domination, and like the people of Belgium ask only to be left in peace.

We shall not prepare for war; we shall prepare for peace, to preserve peace and to fight for peace. War is a disease. You do not cultivate smallpox by being vaccinated against it. Nor does the purchase of an insurance policy encourage suicide, any more than the presence of the police stimulates crime, or the fire department incites arson.

Merely to make these statements is to demonstrate their verity, and ridiculous is the declaration that an adequate army and navy must lead the United States into wars. Only a powerful and hard-striking army and navy can keep us out of war, — and nothing else can protect our lives, our families and our homes if war must come.

We face today not the challenge of the sword but the challenge of the scientific war machine. You cannot face that challenge with words or with a sling shot. It is a depressing challenge but the American people will meet it just as they have met every other crisis and emergency.