The Great Necessity


By HENRY P. VAN DUSEN, Professor, Union Theological Seminary, New York City

To the British Public over British Broadcasting System, London, September 28, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 112-114.

I SPEAK to you as one linked by ties of peculiar intimacy with Great Britain. Most of the theology I know was learned at the feet of two Scottish theologians. Scotland gave me—albeit most unwillingly—one of her most talented daughters as my bride. My eldest son, born close to the heart of Midlothian, may claim with equal right British or American citizenship; but at the stern of his toy battleship there flies the Union Jack; and he proudly proclaims himself a loyal subject of His Majesty the King. So, you see, I come among you in the happy, though not always easy, relationship of a son-in-law.

I speak, too, as one who, since the first hour of the war,has been convinced that Nazism could be overthrown only with the full participation of the United States, that America was certain ultimately to come in, and that the soonerthe better.

I speak, finally, as one whose principal mission here is to bring from the churches of America messages of affection, of admiration and of gratitude to the Christians of GreatBritain.

A question which I know lies very close to the surface of many minds is: "Why are the people of the United States so slow to awaken to the deeper meaning of the conflict, so hesitant to face the ultimate issue of full participation?"

Let me say at once that the present position is definitely encouraging. For some months you have been misled by those who told you that the United States was teetering on the brink of the final and irrevocable plunge. That was never true. Until Thursday, September 11, the outlook was dark. In the perspective of history the President's speech of that evening may prove the most momentous of all his utterances. He himself had said that "convoy mean shooting and shooting means war." Now he has gone far beyond convoys and he has ordered the initiative in shooting. The third step is inescapable. The United States is now definitely across the divide. Advance into full participation, while it may take longer than we wish, it ultimately is inevitable. And the united strength of the British Commonwealth and the United States is invincible.

Nevertheless, I should like to explain some of our difficulties in moving American opinion to action. Let me speak of three. Those who would understand the normal attitude of Americans toward the war must keep constantly in mind first one basic fact: the sentiment of national insularity is deeply rooted in the American consciousness. It is a revered historic tradition; it is psychologically inevitable; it is the dictate of short-sighted national self-interest.

The policy of aloofness from foreign conflicts is first of all a revered inheritance from our "Founding Fathers." But the sentiment of national insularity also truly reflects the normal and indeed inevitable attitude of the average American. He lives a thousand miles from any sea-coast and four thousand miles from any European or Asiatic nation, any potential enemy. Although his grandparents, or his great-great-great-grand-parents may have immigrated from Europe, he is claimed by no compelling sentiments of memory or debtorship. His is a relationship which breeds solicitude prompting generosity, but not responsibility leading to partnership. Few Europeans ever appreciate the inevitable consequences of such geographical remoteness upon the mentality of a whole people.

But the sentiment of national insularity is far more than a matter of tradition and physical remoteness. If policy were to be determined by short-range national self-interest, a strong argument can be advanced for American withdrawal from all compromising associations with foreign nations into the security of continental self-sufficiency and self-protection. Let me be quite clear: I believe that a free and democratic United States and Hitler cannot exist in the same world; I have done what I could to persuade my countrymen to that conviction. But it must be said in all honesty that the case is by no means overwhelmingly convincing. It becomes less convincing with each passing day as British strength grows and Russia maintains her heroic resistance. Let us suppose that, in those dark days of July 1940, when France collapsed and Britain, almost denuded of material at Dunkirk, was daily threatened by invasion—those days when President Roosevelt, in secrecy and without authorization by either Congress or people, stripped America of her land defences and sent them across to you—suppose that, from those days, we had held for our own defences every plane and gun and tank and ton of raw material which have crossed the Atlantic; suppose every energy of national economy and people had been set to the one purpose of rendering North America defensively impregnable. Might not the United States by now have been secure against attack, as we certainly are not today? We abhor the views of Colonel Lindbergh and former President Hoover. Let us not suppose that they lack a persuasive case. Moreover, it is a case fully in accord with accepted axioms of statecraft. I said: "If national policy were to bedetermined solely by national self-interest. . . ." But by what other consideration is the foreign policy of nations traditionally determined, especially in so vital a matter as entrance into major war? Only once has America departed from this policy of national isolation—under Mr. Wilson's leadership in the last war. She is unlikely to forsake it again unless through similar motives.

American Disillusionment

So we come to a second factor. Virtually all Americans are profoundly disillusioned over the development of world politics in the interval between the wars. Very generally they fail to face the measure of America's responsibility for that debacle. We initiated the retreat from responsibility; other nations followed the evil example. Americans are not alone in uniting sharp judgment upon the shortcomings of other nations with blithe indifference to their own. They are perhaps peculiarly susceptible to that hypocrisy. The late Lord Lothian, who understood us and believed in us, used to say chaffingly: "You Americans are incurably idealistic about our foreign policy; incurably realistic about your own."

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that each successive step in that bitter sequence—Manchuria, Ethiopia, the Rhineland, Spain, Albania, Munich, Prague—has served to aggravate disillusionment. But this prevailing attitude is due also to disease within the national organism. The past two decades have been an era of lush comfort in life, an era of "debunking" in thought. The former has bred a certain measure of softness—softness of physique, of morale, of character. The latter has bred cynicism of spirit. And cynicism and softness—blood-cousins—are unpromising parents for an hour when the security of civilization is threatened. The whole thing comes to sharper focus in the attitude of youth. You will best understand what I am describing if you recall attitudes among your own youth, certainly in the universities, as late as 1938—those youth whom Mr. A. A. Milne has celebrated as "The Lost Generation"—those same youth who have become the warriors of the skies today ringing the shores of this isle with a flying" wall of impenetrable gallantry. I have confidence that our youth, when claimed by similar demands, will respond with not dissimilar heroism and fidelity. But they must have a cause worth the ultimate sacrifice.

This leads directly to my last point. American opinion has moved less speedily than we have wished. We have not been altogether happy in the fashion in which the cause has been urged upon the American people. It has been presented almost entirely in terms of self-defense or aid for Britain. We have been handicapped by lack of clear, positive, and compelling objectives beyond the overthrow of Nazism. Please understand that we are fully alive to the cogent reasons which have led to the postponement of a formal declaration of peace aims. I am raising no questions as to the wisdom of that policy. I am concerned to report its effect upon the American problem.

The policy of the American Government is, I think, now reasonably assured. By no means does that assure the unity of the American people and their single-minded concentration upon the task ahead. We have just about exhausted the possibilities of moving the American people through the appeal to self-security or to aid for Britain. The lesson from the last war is clear. The American people did not believe themselves entering that war to save their own security, but to secure a great possibility for the whole world, including themselves. So, today. Recall that two compelling factors in your situation are absent from ours. You are face to face with a threat of annihilation demanding national unity. And you have a mighty centuries-old national tradition as the basis of that unity. We are not face to face with imminent peril. And if unity is to be achieved, it cannot be through recourse to the past, but through concentration upon a goal ahead claiming and steeling the national will. As things are now going, you will have our formal partnership in the struggle. You will not have the all-out enlistment of our people without which victory can hardly be made certain.

Can the Peace Be Won?

But much more is at stake. The great question regarding America has never been whether she would enter the war: it has been whether the United States would remain in the peace. That is still the larger and graver uncertainty. I should be less than candid if I did not report to you that the misgiving which today haunts the minds of our most thoughtful people, little spoken but silently pervasive, is not "Will the war be won?" but "Can the peace be won?" The parallels between 1914-1919 and 1939 to that date when peace shall be written are only too obvious. Will those parallels carry through into and beyond the next Versailles? What assurance have we against a repetition of that tragic aftermath? Is this not the most fateful question of all.

That is the reason, as I believe, special importance attaches to the relations between Christians of the United States and of Great Britain. In the making of peace the significantdivisions will not be, as will be made to appear, between victors and vanquished or even between the nations allied in victory. They will be within nations. They will be between men who know and trust no other principles and arrangements than those which twice in a quarter-century have brought us to holocaust—between them and men who are profoundly committed to principles and structures which can assure world order, not for a brief interlude, but for the long future. To believe in and attempt such a peace requires spiritual vision and experience transcending national loyalties and the rutted habits of history, and spiritual resources of magnanimity, patience and a firm resolve.

Our Real Problem

I know nowhere where the apostles of such a peace are so hopefully to be sought as in the leadership of the Churches of Great Britain and the United States. The great necessity is that those who so envision the peace should discern clearly where our real problem lies—not between our nations but within each nation; that they should see that the bonds which unite like—purposed people of our two nations are more intimate and more commanding of allegiance than those which join us with fellow-countrymen, that we should have thought and talked our way through to a common mind as to what we seek; and then, that we should struggle shoulder to shoulder within our respective nations for the realization of that end upon which the hope of all humanity hangs.