The World Awaits Another Waterloo
OUR FAITH IN THE MORAL IDEAL MUST NOT WEAKEN
By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University
Delivered at the 187th Commencement of Columbia University June 3, 1941
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, 556-557.
HISTORY makes plain the fact that as the human race developed from its elementary barbarism to a complex and many-sided civilization, there has always been one fundamental and unending conflict. That conflict is between the moral ideal of unselfish service to one's fellow-men and the controlling desire for gain at whatever cost to others.
Ever since the curtain rose on the recorded happenings which constitute history, this conflict has been plainly in evidence. It is a conflict not only within the nature and personality of an individual human being, but a conflict also between groups and organized special interests, whether political or economic. Reflection upon the happenings of some five thousand years and an understanding of their true significance make it increasingly clear that the whole of human history is to be written in terms of this unending struggle. Perhaps that struggle would have been much less violent had men listened to the wise words of the 1st Viscount of Halifax, spoken some three hundred years ago: "If men considered how many things there are that riches cannot buy, they would not be so fond of them."
Time and time again, not only in the history of a few human lives, but in the history of the lives of many millions of men, victory has been won by the moral ideal. But this is not enough. The gain-seeking instinct has control of so vast a proportion of humankind that it has repeatedly reduced the moral ideal to absolute impotence. What is true of individual lives in this respect is equally true, and even more conspicuous, in the history of the building and development of those organized human units which we call nations. There have been times—not a few of them—when, to all appearance, the moral ideal was gaining ground in the formulation and execution of national policy, and when men of vision and of courage have had reason to believe that the time was approaching when that moral ideal would be sufficiently controlling to serve as the foundation for a world of cooperating nations ready to work together for prosperity and peace. Such an era appeared to be in course of development, though with interruptions and setbacks, during the latter half of the nineteenth century. There were wars—serious and damaging wars—but at the same time there was a growing consciousness of their futility and their wickedness and an increasing belief in the possibility of a world organized for peace. It was this conviction which, as the nineteenth century was about to end, led to the enthusiastic reception which was given throughout the world to the famous rescript of the Czar of all the Russias, made public on August 24, 1898. Everywhere—in Europe, in Asia, in Africa and in the Americas—there was spontaneous and enthusiastic response. The action which governments were willing to take was, however, unhappily far behind the wish of public opinion, and as formal consideration of this rescript proceeded men of light and leading began to lose hope and courage. They felt that somehow and somewhere there were powerful forces at work to restore the gain-seeking instinct to a place of dominance and to make impossible any real progress toward an established system of international peace.
Here in the United States there was genuine vision, and one great leader after another—William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Elihu Root andWoodrow Wilson—sounded the note of hope and of progress toward a strengthening of the moral ideal in international relations. Indeed, in the month of June, 1910, the Congress of the United States by unanimous vote of both Senate and House of Representatives called upon the President to offer the leadership of the American people and their government in accomplishing the rule of moral principle over mere gain-seeking in order that international peace might finally be established among men. What happened, through no heedhaving been paid to this appeal, is so tragic and of such appalling magnitude that it need not be recounted here.
For the time being, the moral ideal has disappeared in all that has to do with international relations. The gain-seeking impulse supported by brute force has taken its place, and so far as the surface of things is concerned human civilization has gone back a full thousand years. Inconceivable though it be, we are brought face to face in this twentieth century
with governments of peoples once great and highly civilized, whose word now means absolutely nothing. A pledge is something not to be kept, but to be broken. Cruelty and nationallust have displaced human feeling and friendly international cooperation. Human life has no value, and the savings of generations are wasted month by month and almost day by day in mad attempts to dominate the whole world in pursuit of gain.
How has all this been possible? What has happened to the teachings and inspiring leadership of the great prophets and apostles of the mind, who for nearly three thousand years have been holding before mankind a vision of the moral ideal supported by intellectual power? What has become of the influence and guidance of the great religions—Christian, Moslem, Hebrew, Buddhist—with their counsels of peace and good-will, or of those of Plato and of Aristotle, of St. Augustine and of St. Thomas Aquinas, and of the outstanding captains of the mind—Spanish, Italian, French, English, German—who have for hundreds of years occupied the highest place in the citadel of human fame? The answer to these
questions is not easy. Indeed, it sometimes seems impossible. Are we, then, of this twentieth century and of this still free and independent land to lose heart and to yield to the despair which is becoming so widespread in countries other than ours? Not for one moment will we yield our faith or our courage! We may well repeat once more the words of Abraham Lincoln: "Most governments have been based on the denial of the equal rights of men; ours began by affirming those rights. We made the experiment, and the fruit is before us. Look at it—think of it!" However dark the skies may seem now, however violent and apparently irresistible are the savage attacks being made with barbarous brutality upon innocent women and children and non-combatant men, upon hospitals and institutions for the care of the aged and dependent, upon cathedrals and churches, upon libraries and galleries of the world's art, upon classic monuments which record the architectural achievements of centuries—we must not despair. Our spirit of faith in the ultimate rule of the moral ideal and in the permanent establishment of liberty of thought, of speech, of worship and of government will not, and must not, be permitted to weaken or to lose control of our mind and our action.
A little less than one hundred and fifty years ago this world was called upon to witness what may be described as a full dress rehearsal of that which is now going on. For nearly twenty years Napoleon Bonaparte dominated the continent of Europe and threatened Great Britain with invasion. He took over one government after another and put members of his family as puppets upon the thrones of kings and princes. He was apparently sweeping all before him when his unconquered ambition made the fatal mistake of invading distant Russia. That invasion proved to be the beginning of a final retreat. Discontent and dissatisfaction grew throughout the occupied territories of once independent nations. Then followed Waterloo, and Europe was set free again.
Today the world is awaiting another Waterloo. It may come on the continent of Europe, or it may come on the sea. It may come in Africa. It may come in Asia. We have faith that it will come. When this second Waterloo does come, let us make sure that our moral principles are so all-controlling, our courage so adequate and our foresight so clear, that the people of the United States and their government will take full responsibility for leadership in organizing the world of independent and liberal-minded nations. Only in this way can we reestablish prosperity and peace, to the end that the foundations upon which our life and government rest may never again be put in danger, and that no third Waterloo may ever be necessary.