The Case Against Intervention


By EDWARD H. REISNER, of Teachers College

Delivered at an Inter-divisional Conference held in conjunction with the Summer Session Courses at Columbia University, July 21, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 655-658.

I DO not believe that the United States should enter the present European War, and shall try to give you my reasons for so believing. However, before so doing, I should like to discuss briefly several related matters.

In the first place I should like to say that we are not yet in the war, notwithstanding what many interested or fainthearted persons are saying to the contrary. We shall not be in war until we are declared in by Congress, which alone has the constitutional right to declare war. The President made a personal declaration of war, as I interpreted it, in his Message to Congress on January sixth of this year, but up to now he hasn't been able to make it stick. Congress is a long way behind him, and the people of this country are even farther behind Congress in their desire, or even their willingness, to back up the President's belligerent language and, latterly, his belligerent acts.

If the Congress of the United States once declares war, no matter how unwise and unjustified I may think such a move to be, I shall quit talking against that policy. I shall accept the declaration as the will of the nation and fall into line. Until such declaration is made, I shall consider it my duty as a citizen to oppose that action as contrary to the welfare of the United States with all the resources at my command.

The suggestion that the nation has made up its mind and that all opponents of our entering the war should shut up and get behind the President, is only a "slick" and unscrupulous propaganda device of the pro-war crowd. It is simply an effort to weaken the opposition by attempting to smear it with imputations of poor sportsmanship or even of disloyalty. As long as from seventy to eighty per cent of the people of the United States are opposed to our entry into the war, no propagandist group, however powerful and however desperate, can with any suggestion of truth say that the nation has made up its mind in favor of our participation in the European conflict and that the customary operation of the democratic process in coming to decisions must be stopped.

The United States now is and for many months past has been the scene of a stern conflict between propaganda aiming at taking the United States into the war and counter-propaganda designed to keep us out. The subjects upon which this barrage of persuasion and counter-persuasion has been operating are the voters of the United States. Tension has been great and feelings have run strong because the stakes are high—the highest that human beings can put up, namely, the economic future of their country for generations to come as well as their own lives and the lives of those they love. On one side stand a group who are motivated by an intense feeling of loyalty and affection for Great Britain. They believe that the world will not be worth living in if Britain falls and they place British victory above every other consideration. To that end they are committed to all-out aid to Britain and desire the United States to accept the role of doing everything which is necessary to guarantee victory for British arms. To some observers it seems that members of this group place the welfare of Britain above that of the United States. They determine their policies with primary reference to British advantage and with only secondary attention to the probable effects of those policies upon the United States. They are making of their country the horse that pulls the British cart.

If we were to seek the extreme opposite of the all-out aid for Britain policy, it would be one of support for the Axis and of aid to the enemies of Britain. But it may be said in all conservatism that there is no significant or effective group in this country backing such a policy. Outside of a very few Bundists and a small number of English-hating Irish, the American public execrates Nazi brutality and the whole totalitarian system of social regimentation.

The effective opposite to the all-out British aid policy in this country is the belief that decisions with reference to our participation in this war should be made on the basis of the welfare of the United States. The conflict is not between a pro-British and a pro-Axis policy, but between a pro-British and a pro-United States policy.

The obvious advantages for propaganda purposes, however, of identifying pro-United States with pro-Nazi policy are so great that there has been a strong effort to make this identification. Since the general public hate Hitler so thoroughly, it is smart tactics to say that Senator Wheeler, Colonel Lindbergh, General Wood, and the America First Committee are Hitler stooges, the transmission belt of Nazi propaganda in this country. It is good tactics to undermine the prestige of the opposition by identifying it with something generally despised whether there is any truth in the accusation or not. If it were sufficiently important, this humble effort of mine would receive the attention of Mr. Ickes or some other leader of the all-out-aid-for-Britain propaganda and be designated as inspired from Berlin, or, at best, as unconscious support for Hitler.

The principal reason given for American participation in a shooting war against the Axis powers is that as soon as England is defeated Hitler will attack the United States. This theme has been embroidered by the President of the United States and by several of his cabinet officers. They see Hitler as operating a vast pincers movement against this country, one claw beginning with Dakar, extending to Brazil and working by easy stages up the South American coast and across the Caribbean Sea to our northern shores, and the other claw starting with the captured British Isles and reaching us by way of Iceland, Greenland, Nova Scotia and Canada. At the same time the combined navies of Germany, France, and Italy will make a frontal attack across the Atlantic Ocean. They further say that the only thing which stands between us and destruction is the English fleet. Our real frontiers of defense at an earlier time were said to be the Rhine, but since the capitulation of France they have been moved westward to the British Isles.

It is difficult to say whether or not the pro-war advocates believe this story or not, but they have made most effective use of it. It has been reiterated time and again. It was the principal argument used to secure the passage of the Lend-Lease Act and to place in the hands of the President of the United States such powers as are wielded only by dictators like Stalin and Hitler.

My personal reaction to the idea of an imminent and inevitable attack on the United States on the part of Hitler is that such a project is without means or motive and that it could not be accomplished against us now, and much less after our current armament program will have been carried out.

The overwhelming weight of expert opinion is to the effect that the demands upon shipping for the carrying of necessary soldiers, machines, munitions and supplies over the Atlantic for a successful campaign against an enemy as powerful as the United States would be insuperable. The landing of an army on our shores against the opposition of our first-class navy and of the air force which, while yet largely "on order," will undoubtedly be operating long before Hitler could turn his attention to us, would be a precarious operation holding little promise of success.

In the second place there is no motive for such an attack. Every move that Hitler has made has been in furtherance of his plan of reorganizing continental Europe to the advantage of Germany, by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary. His attack upon the small democracies on the Atlantic coast was part of his military plan to defeat France and England. His expansion to the Balkans was for the purpose of protecting vital supplies and weakening England in the Mediterranean. The reasons for his attack on Russia are not yet clear, but presumably he did so to insure an adequate supply of grain, oil, and essential minerals for the needs of Germany and the other countries which have come under his sway. Hitler is interested in Europe, and in breaking the strangle hold upon the free intercourse of Continental Europe with the rest of the world which up to now has been in the power of the English navy. What could Hitler get from the United States which he could not more easily and conveniently secure on the continent of Europe? Why would he go three thousand miles out of his way to attempt the conquest of the toughest opponent he could find in the whole world?

There is, to be sure, an answer given to these questions to the effect that Hitler will attack the United States because he hates democracy. This answer ties up with another angle from which the present war was made to be seen as our war. England, it has been said over and over again by the all-out-aiders, is fighting to defend democracy and in so doing she is defending us. From that viewpoint it is a matter of right and honor that we should assume our full share of responsibility for Hitler's defeat, which could be done only by participation in the war. Side by side with the Great Fear the pro-war propagandists placed the Holy Cause.

On close examination the Holy Cause does not stand up. England is fighting to defend her empire and not to destroy totalitarianism. Germany is fighting for her national aims in Europe and not to destroy democracy. Indeed England for years gave aid and comfort to Hitler on his way to power because she feared him less than the communism which he was fighting in Germany. England had for allies Poland, Greece, and Turkey, three of the tougher dictatorships, and up until two weeks before the outbreak of the war she was wooing Russia for some kind of alliance. At the present time, with England in a mutual assistance pact with Russia, the claim that England is fighting to defend democracy becomes even less plausible than it was in 1939. On the contrary this war is a part of the selfish struggle for national advantage which has kept Europe in continuous conflict for the last three hundred years. One does not criticize England for cementing her alliances as she can and taking her allies as she finds them, but she cannot follow the path of power politics and at the same time get credit for a high-minded, humanitarian crusade in defense of democracy. England isand has been righting for her own interests first, last and all the time.

The present position of those who would take the United States into war has narrowed down to the blunt proposition that Hitler must be destroyed and the German nation and its allies decisively defeated. Mr. Roosevelt says that the United States cannot exist as an oasis of democracy in a world dominated by totalitarianism. This viewpoint is only a continuation and reiteration of the statement made by the President in his message to Congress on January sixth of this year when he said that the United States would never acquiesce to a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. In other words the call of the war party is to all-out participation of this country, which means complete acceptance of the British war aims and full responsibility for British victory.

It is not difficult to see why some twenty to twenty-five per cent of the American people back that policy. There are many persons in this country of British descent and even many who in their own lifetime have come to the United States from some part of the British Empire. There is also the tie of common language, of common culture, and of common political institutions. Indeed the strong sympathy of American citizens for the British cause runs far beyond the figures showing willingness to back England to the extent of fighting on her side. It is quite compatible with strong British sympathies to deny the desirability of our entering the war.

It must be added further that there is a very general execration in this country of Hitler and his cause. Our people dislike him thoroughly for his suppression of the democratic process in Germany and wherever else his armies have gone. They despise him for his cruelty to the Jews. Their anger rises against him for his invasion of all the countries which have stood in his way, some of them outstanding examples of the democratic way of life. They have wept in sympathy with the innocent civilians on land and sea who have suffered the results of his absolutely ruthless way of realizing his military objectives. Hitler himself has been a most effective agent in creating sympathy for the British cause over and above the normal and natural reservoir of pro-British sentiment in the United States.

The overwhelming preference of Americans in favor of British victory has had its practical expression up to the present in a great deal of aid to the British in their war effort. Steps already taken will involve the outright gift to them of planes, tanks, guns, munitions, food, and other supplies, which will run to a total of many billions of dollars. But the American people hold back with ever increasing resolution from the proposal that their sympathy should find expression in all-out war and an expeditionary force to fight in Europe.

This reluctance to enter a shooting war on the side of Britain is justified from a certain reading of history and study of world affairs. The present European conflict is not a fight between the good people and the bad people, not in any sense a holy war, not a war in which the United States is called upon to take part, but a continuation of an old struggle on the part of England to keep on being top dog in a selfish world. England has been the dominant power in the world for almost two centuries. She gained her position by military methods and she has never relaxed her exertions to maintain it through her control of the seas. On the whole she has been a benevolent mistress, although there have been episodes enough of unscrupulousness and violence. But England has been in the center of a web of political intrigue and military preparation and action designed to maintain the British Empire in a position of unequalledadvantage in the world. Even now, in spite of all of Hitler's victories on the continent of Europe, his position is precarious because England holds the sea lanes. She has shut him off from overseas supplies of oil, rubber, cotton, foods, and many minerals essential to normal industrial production and to the maintenance of his war effort. She has been able to frustrate the desires of many philanthropic persons in the United States to alleviate the suffering of starving peoples of Western Europe by denying the passage of any ships to those countries carrying needed grain, milk, clothing, and medical supplies. If Mr. Roosevelt is determined to secure freedom of the seas for American ships, he should speak to Mr. Churchill about it, not Mr. Hitler.

We talk a great deal about Hitler's great military machine and about his aggressive belligerence, but little is said about England as a war power. With her great navy and her occupation of Gibraltar, Malta, Crete, Alexandria, Singapore and Honk Kong, not to mention the constituent parts of her great Empire spread over the entire globe, England is the greatest military power in the world even now, with or without the help of the United States. The broad sweep of Hitler's conquests has been prompted by the need, for him, of expanding to the very edges of his continent to gain the chance of winning the war or of holding out for a draw before his people starve and his military machine stalls for lack of necessary materials.

For almost two centuries England has dominated the world through the superior gunpower of her surface fighting ships. Today that supremacy is menaced by the submarine which lurks under the waves and by the bomber which attacks from the air. By these new modes of warfare England's easy domination of the world is threatened. Even her long-enjoyed security from attack in her island citadel is at an end. It has been said that England has not been invaded by an enemy force since the time of William the Conqueror almost nine hundred years ago, and that she never will be invaded as long as she maintains her naval supremacy. But that is not longer true. England has been invaded by air any time the Germans have wished to send a bombing fleet to attack her industrial cities and her ports. She is even being threatened with shortage of food and war materials by the action of enemy submarines and airplanes. That easy control of the world by means of her navy has become a thing of the past. It may be that with American aid England may continue to feed and defend herself and even trade blow for blow from the air with Germany. In that way the present war may last indefinitely and end with the exhaustion of all the participants and with the near-destruction of Western civilization. As for the defeat of Germany on the continent of Europe by an invading force, that seems extremely remote. For the United States to underwrite such a victory for England would mean an expeditionary army of several million men and the direction of her total economy to the war effort for years to come.

In my judgment England should recognize a new situation created by the invention of new means of war. She should abate some of the control which she has exercised on the world by means of her naval superiority. She should be satisfied with something short of the complete and definitive subjection of Germany and turn her undoubted political genius in the direction of a new and more cooperative world order. Instead of inciting nations to war and their destruction thereby, the administration of the United States should apply its influence in the direction of peace.

You will say, perhaps, that it is folly to speak of peace now, but it is at least no more unthinkable that Englandand Germany should stop their war than it is to see England fighting arm in arm with Russia against Finland and Germany. It has never been a part of Hitler's foreign policy to seek a war with England, as he says plainly in "Mein Kampf." The German people will not likely fold up behind him as long as any weakening might mean another Versailles Treaty and worse. But with an offer of peace from England and signs of a disposition on her part to develop a more cooperative world society his ascendancy over his people would be threatened. On England's side it might reasonably be guessed that if she were definitely convinced that this time the Yanks were not coming she would immediately take steps for peace and probably would be able to secure acceptable terms.

This present war in Europe is the result of strictly European tensions and it must be settled in terms of the balance of strictly European forces. We intervened in the same struggle in 1917 and stayed long enough to win the war for France and England, but found that we could not win the kind of peace which might, in the long run, resolve the conflicts of Europe. We are now being asked by a powerful and aggressive minority in our country to do the same thing one generation later. The great majority of the American people, some seventy-five and more per cent of them, remember the futility of that earlier effort and are unwilling to repeat the undertaking. Their feeling is to keep out of what is to them "this European mess." In the long run, that feeling will be reflected in American foreign policy.

Common sense would indicate that the United States cannot become the police force for the entire world. She cannot intervene in every struggle in which might seem to betriumphing over justice. If, in the immediate past, she had followed that policy, our country would have been at war with Italy for her invasion and subjection of Abyssinia. She would have fought Japan for her attack upon China. She would have fought Russia for her brutal aggression against Finland. The only difference between these cases and our present situation with reference to the war between England and Germany is that in this war the sympathies of a powerful minority of our citizens are so strongly engaged in favor of Britain that they are trying to get us into the war on Britain's side. They have a perfect right to try to do so, but they have no right to say that unwillingess to follow their lead shows any lack of American patriotism. It is perfectly sound Americanism to place American interests above those of any other country. And if, in all good conscience, it appears to any citizen that his country's interests are favored by abstention from this war, he should not be called an appeaser for standing up for his convictions—he should not be called a "copperhead" for resisting the drive for our involvement in the war.

With many others—close to eighty per cent of our total population—I hold that this war is not a crusade of the noble and good against the evil forces of this world, but a wicked, useless war entered into as the outcome of the selfishness and material ambition of the nations of the world. I hold that we should stay out of this suicidal, profitless conflict and seek a better democratic community at home. I hold that we should lend our hand to any move for peace, and when the war is ended, should undertake whatever can be done to heal its ravages and to build a better international order for the happiness and well-being of future generations.