America at the Crossroads


By REV. JOHN A. O'BRIEN, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame

Delivered over the radio, August 18, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 715-717

I PROPOSE to discuss the subject, America at the Crossroads, calmly, dispassionately, with no indulgence in personalities and no appeal to racial animosities. I shall appeal only to the fair-mindedness, to the reason and to the patriotism of the American people.

I should like to make it clear that I am speaking neither for Notre Dame nor for the Catholic church, but in my own name as an American citizen. I have abhorrence for Hitlerism, loathing for Stalinism, sympathy for the valiant people of Britain and for the victims of aggression everywhere. I have sympathy, likewise, for the common masses in every land including those of Germany, Italy and Soviet Russia because they are the helpless victims of the tragedy of war. But I have devotion to America and to our own people first of all. I believe that patriotism, like charity, begins at home.

America stands today at the crossroads, facing the road to war and the road to peace. Which will she choose? Uponthat choice hinge the welfare of our country, the civilization built up by our fathers over two centuries of toil, and the lives of millions of American boys.

Choose Peace

I am asking my fellow countrymen to build an impregnable defense for America and to choose the road to peace. For it is only by walking along that road that we can effectively assist the distressed people of the Old World and preserve our freedom and democracy. The path to war means not only national impoverishment but the loss of our freedom and democracy. It is the unfailing pathway to destruction, agony and death.

I spent the first year of the war at Oxford University, England. There I heard the British labor leader, Arthur Greenwood, declare: "If this war is fought to mutual exhaustion, the British Empire will experience a degree of impoverishment, the like of which we have never known.

And at the end of the road of all our bloodshed and sacrifice, we shall find not a democracy but an authoritarian regime of the Right or of the Left."

Uttered during the early months of the war, these words should be placed before the people of America that we too might see what awaits us at the end if we take the road to war.

Accomplished What?

Now that the nations have been engaged in the titanic struggle for two years let us ask: What have they accomplished? Have the Germans proved by their conquest of Poland that they were right and Poland was wrong? Who can remember precisely what the German-Polish dispute was about? There was something about Danzig, the Free State, the corridor and East Prussia. But does not the original point at issue, whatever it was, seem microscopic in comparison with the enormous expenditures in money and in human lives already made by both sides?

Have the Allies proven Nazism and Fascism to be wrong? Have the Axis powers disproven the democratic theory by their conquest of France and their over-running of the other countries of Europe? If Soviet Russia with the help of Britain and the United States should triumph over Germany, would that demonstrate that Communism is the better way of life and that Europe and America should, therefore be Bolshevized? What single good result has emerged from these two years of bloodshed, slaughter and unparalleled destruction?

The Real Victors

If we look at the matter calmly, dispassionately, not through the eyes of emotion but through the eyes of reason, we shall be obliged to say: All this orgy of killing and destroying has yielded not one single good result. It has accomplished nothing. It has decided no question of justice or right. It has decided merely which side has the more effective military machine and more human fodder to feed it.

Hundreds of cities have been laid waste. Thousands of works of art, culture and civilization have been destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of families have been uprooted and their members scattered far and wide. Millions of men, women and children have been slaughtered like cattle. A whole civilization is in flames.

Who are the victor? Lunacy, destruction, death. The whole stupid, brutal business of seeing which side could destroy the most property and kill the largest number of human beings has pulled Europe back into the caveman stage where might is right.

Stripped of all rhetoric, emotionalism, chauvinism, cant, this is the plain, unvarnished statement of the ugly realities.

Europe A Desert

If America should enter the fray, and the war should last for five or ten years, what would the result be? Even if we sent ten or twelve million men, the conquest of an Axis dominated Europe would be problematic. Let us suppose, however, that by some circumstance not immediately apparent, we should succeed after ten years in eeking out a military victory. What would we have gained?

Europe would be a desert. Ten to twenty million men would be killed. Centuries of civilization would be in ruins. Disease, famine and death would stalk the land. Our country would be bankrupt. A debt would weigh like a millstone on the neck of generations yet unborn. A military bureaucracy would regiment our every act. The flower of our manhood would be slain. Every home would be in mourning. Who would the victors be? Once again, lunacy, destruction, death.

A Fallacy

What good would we have achieved? Absolutely none. Would we not, however, have crushed Hitlerism, Nazism, Fascism? We might have slaughtered millions of Germans and millions of Italians, but we would not have crushed these ideologies. As these are ideas, they are impervious to destruction by tanks, guns and bombs. They can be conquered only by other ideas assimilated through the free play of the mind. Reason, education and discussion are the only means by which we can purge the human mind of falsehood and secure the entrance of truth.

The whole argument calling for America to enter the European strife to crush Nazism and Fascism is vitiated, therefore, by a fundamental fallacy—the naive assumption that ideas can be destroyed by arms and warfare. Instead of dislodging these ideas, force will only drive them deeper. External assault will rally even the foes of Hitlerism to the defense of the Fatherland. Peace and the capacity to think dispassionately which peace affords, offer the best means of enabling persons to free themselves from false ideas and vicious philosophies. Only by the sword of the mind functioning freely in peace can we slay the dragon of totalitarianideology.

War's Futility

War never decides a moral question, a question of right or wrong over which it is always allegedly fought. It merely decides which side has more guns, more bombing planes, more instruments of death, more cannon fodder. The common masses in all the war-torn countries are the tragic victims. After millions of human beings are slaughtered like cattle, after cities are destroyed and civilizations laid waste, and both sides are exhausted, a conference is held.

Diplomats wearing spats and boutonniers and generals and admirals with gold braid, assemble. "You take this territory, and you take that," they say. Then putting their papers back into their portmanteaus, they go home. But there are some things they do not put back. Among them are the precious lives of the millions of poor human beings who were butchered to decide a question of right which can be decided only by the reason and the conscience of man. Herein lie the folly and the tragedy of war—it is meaningless, completely, utterly, abysmally meaningless.

Before the outbreak of the war, Hitler and Daladier warned each other that the only victors would be destruction and death. President Roosevelt had previously reminded both Hitler and Mussolini that the World War proved that military victory was sterile, that it solved nothing, and accomplished nothing.

"Nothing," declares the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, "is gained by war that cannot be achieved by peace; in war all is lost." Time after time, His Holiness has set forth the ideals of peace which we all cherish. "I shall not relax either my efforts or my prayers," he declares, "for the cause of peace." Every day he is praying and struggling to bring peace to a war-torn world.

Moral Losses

I have spoken of the stupendous Josses in property and in human lives which modern war entails. The losses in the moral and spiritual spheres are, however, not less appalling. Mercy, kindliness, justice, truth, patience, humility, meekness, tolerance, and Christ's all-embracing law of love are among the first casualties. War declares a moratorium on morality and prostitutes the findings of science to the dirty business of mass slaughter.

Flouting Christ's teaching concerning the dignity of the human personality, the sanctity of human life, and the lawof universal love which teaches us to regard all men as our brothers, children of the same Father, war converts men into cannon fodder and uses as its explosive the dynamite of hatred. Trampling upon religion which proclaims: Love and Save, war sings but one refrain: Hate and Destroy, Hate and Kill, Hate and Annihilate. Even in an America at peace, 3,000 miles from Europe's flaming feuds, we feel the repercussions of the fear, hysteria and hatred disseminated by the party clamoring for war.

While religion and ethics justify a nation in defending itself against unjust attack, let it be remembered that America in spite of her repeated violations of neutrality has not been attacked. Before a war can be justified, ethics demand that in addition to a just cause, there must be the exhaustion of all pacific means of settling the dispute, and that the good effects outweigh the evil effects. What have we done to exhaust the possibilities of bringing the warring leaders to the peace table? Precisely nothing. Who would maintain that the good effect, if any at all can be found, will outweigh the monstrous and incalculable evils of modern total war?

No Justification

Reason compels us to say, therefore, that there is not a shred of ethical justification for America entering the European conflict. The moral obligation not to enter that blitzkrieg of destruction is further deepened by the solemn promises, made time and again, by the President during the election campaign. Thus in Boston on October 30, 1940, speaking with a great depth of feeling, the President said: "And while I am talking to you, mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before but I shall say it again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."

No President in all history has given to the American people a more unequivocal, a more deliberate, a more solemn and sacred promise. The violation of that solemn pact between the President and the people would be not merely a grievous breach of fundamental morality, but it would blast more effectively than all the armies of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini all faith both at home and abroad in democratic government as well. It would break the heart of the American people and the heart of democracy as well.

I have faith in the President. I am supremely confident that, in spite of the war advocates who seem to surround him on every side, he will keep faith with the American people who have trusted and honored him and as they have honored no other man in all our history. Let us help the President to keep that promise by writing to him and to the Congress each day to keep our American boys out of the raging holocaust now devouring the manhood and the civilization of Europe.

Launch Peace Offensive

We must not be content, however, with mere oppositionto war. The time has come when we must render an historic contribution to world peace. To continue the present orgy of destruction until Europe is in ruins and mankind is liquidated spells not merely the bankruptcy of statesmanship but stark madness as well. What the people of America want, what the people of all the European countries want, is a cessation of the stupid, and brutal strife now consuming them.

I join my voice with the noble voice of the venerable dean of the American hierarchy, Cardinal O'Connell, of former Ambassador John Cudahy, of Congressman Louis Ludlow and of mankind the world over, in pleading; "Now is the time, Mr. President, to summon the warring leaders to the conference table to lay the foundations for a just and a lasting peace. That must be done eventually, why not then before more millions of people are killed instead of afterwards?"

No government will turn a deaf ear to an invitation coming in a spirit of fairness and good will from the greatest moral power in the world. It is not on the battlefield but only at the conference table that fair peace terms can be worked out. For that can be achieved not by violence but only by the reason and the conscience of man.

If it be said that Hitler can't be trusted, then let an association of nations establish effective, international sanctions. Ultimately the present anarchy among nations, the worst menace to enduring peace, must be supplanted with judicial machinery to settle disputes and with a world sheriff to enforce the decisions of such an international tribunal. That development is as inescapable as the swing of the stars in their courses, if we are to halt the endless competition in armaments and the ever-erupting flames of war.

Role of Peacemaker

If you will take the lead now, Mr. President, and throw all your magnificent talents and the power of your mighty office, with the cooperation of Congress, into the Christ-like work of halting the brutal European strife, mankind will acclaim you above all the generals that ever lived. Better than a battle won is a battle prevented. Better than a war won, is a war halted. You will be the benefactor, Mr. President, not only of the valiant people of Britain but of the inarticulate masses in all the war-torn countries as well, not excluding Italy, Germany and Russia.

You will be putting into practice at the greatest crisis in the world's history the deathless truth voiced by the Prince of Peace when he said: "Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God." I ask all my readers to write letters immediately—and to continue to do so each week—to the President, to your congressmen and senators, to your newspaper editors, radio stations, news columnists and radio commentators pleading for the launching of a vigorous and incessant peace offensive not after Europe is in ruins but now, now, now.