The American Plan to Prevent War


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University

Delivered at the 188th Commencement of Columbia University, June 2, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 520-521.

WHEN the nineteenth century came to its end and the curtain rose upon the twentieth, the hopes of men were high that a path had been found over which they might move forward toward a world of prosperity and of peace. It was the famous Rescript of the Czar of all the Russians, made public on August 12, 1898, and the sympathetic response given to it by the governments of the world which stirred the hearts and minds of men to believe that something real and truly progressive was about to be accomplished.

The first Hague Conference—that held May 18 - July 29, 1899—assembled in this spirit of hope and of faith. In particular, the people of the United States, represented by a delegation of exceptional ability and high character, were confident that some important steps toward effective international cooperation were now to be taken. Unhappily, as the published record of the proceedings of that first Hague Conference makes clear, it was the influence of narrow-minded, technical and merely gain-seeking objections to any such comprehensive plan of international action as the Czar had proposed which brought about what was to all intents and purposes the tragic failure of that Conference. Its only practical and definite result, achieved by reason of the untiring efforts of the American delegation, was the establishment at The Hague of a Permanent Court of Arbitration. This was a step in advance, but only a short one.

The difficulties which confronted this Conference in its attempt to formulate and adopt a policy of truly constructive progress in the field of international relations were almost entirely the result of that gain-seeking economic nationalism which several of the more important nations of Europe accepted as the natural and appropriate expression of their independent sovereignty and their national ambitions. Out of such a situation as this there quickly developed international economic friction and economic antagonism which shaped with increasing force the policies of not a few of those nations.

In the United States also, economic nationalism gained new authority in matters of public policy. Despite the ringing declaration of President McKinley, made when at the very height of his leadership, that "the period of exclusiveness is past," the Congress of the United States proceeded during the next quarter-century to adopt policies of still stronger international trade restriction that added fuel to the fire which had already begun to burn in Europe and which paved the way for the disastrous business depression which came to the people of the United States in the autumn of 1929. In Great Britain, Joseph Chamberlain put his personality on the side of these economic barriers and greatly influenced British public opinion. In Germany, thegovernment and many of the large business interests felt that they must enter this struggle with vigor and prepare themselves for whatever might result from it, be it war or peace. If a personal word may be pardoned, from 1905 to 1913, it was my privilege to serve as confidential and, of course, wholly unofficial intermediary between the German Emperor and the leaders in the Liberal government of Great Britain—Asquith, Grey, Haldane and John Morley—in the hope that they might at least lessen the differences of opinion and of policy which, if continued, were almost certain to lead to war. Despite the fact that the Emperor himself and the leaders in the government of Great Britain did not desire war, but rather greatly feared its possible results, the forces at work beneath the surface continued to extend and even to multiply their power until the climax which came with the collapse of August 1, 1914.

Then followed more than four years of desperate and destructive military struggle which was so severe that, when it came to its end, it seemed almost certain, so convincing were its lessons, that now at last the nations would be prepared for that form of international cooperation which would reduce or perhaps even remove the possibility of the renewal of any such armed contest.

The story of what happened at Versailles and afterwards at Geneva is well known. Statesmen of vision in every land looked forward with the same spirit which had animated the American delegation to the first Hague Conference twenty years earlier. The bitterness of the struggle through which they had all passed of course made international agreement difficult, but the destruction which that struggle had caused in human life and in human savings made such agreement seem an absolute necessity. The various happenings which followed are so recent as to be a matter of familiar history. It was tragic that such outstanding leaders as Briand of France and Stresemann of Germany, who worked together earnestly and with high intelligence to bring about international understanding and international cooperation, should have passed from earth at the very moment when the continuance of their lives seemed essential to world peace. Internal dissensions in several lands and internal revolutions on the continent of Europe brought new antagonistic forces into existence, both economic and political. It was these forces which turned to arms, to navies and to the air, to establish first of all their control at home. Then they were ambitious to extend that control over parts of the world beyond, far beyond, their own national boundaries. The obvious and necessary result of such developments as these meant a return to world-wide military struggle. It is that struggle which we are witnessing today.

This war has taken the form, not of a contest for nationalindependence or for national security on the part of any of the aggressive powers, but for world control. This is particularly obvious in the policies of two peoples, the Nazi Germans and the Japanese. Neither of them shows any concern whatever for those fundamental principles of civil, political and religious liberty which have marked the progress of the Western world for more than five hundred years. Their purpose and their hope are to establish absolute economic and political control over a large portion of the earth's surface by armed force and by its most brutal use. The fact that these governments are among those which formally signed an international agreement, in which sixty-three nations joined, to renounce war as an instrument of national policy is only referred to by them with sarcasm.

This world war, whether economic or military, has now extended over fully a third of this twentieth century. The future historian will take note of the fact that, no matter what may have been the hopes and the promises of governments and of men, this is a twentieth-century world struggle of unprecedented magnitude and determination. In the face of a situation such as this, there is absolutely no sense in talking of peace until the struggle for the defense of civil, economic and political liberty is won.

Every effort of free men and of their governments must be turned to the achievement of this victory as quickly as possible, despite the appalling cost in human life and in human savings. Liberty is not only worth fighting for, but it must be fought for when attacked by armed force.

The minds of forward-facing men and their governments must now go back to the problems which were so earnestly considered at the beginning of the century. In the light of these problems and of these later happenings one must be prepared, when victory for liberty shall come, to propose and to establish a plan of international cooperation which will so far as is humanly possible bring about prosperity and peace. Preparation for peace is even more important than has been preparation for war.

If the representatives of the government of the United States took the lead in quiet and unobtrusive fashion at thefirst Hague Conference of 1899, surely it is becoming that they should again take that leadership so soon as armed hostilities shall end. The path has been clearly marked out for them by the acts of their government and by the words of their official spokesmen. McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Taft, Wilson, Harding—and now Franklin D. Roosevelt—have all declared themselves with emphasis and definiteness in favor of world organization for prosperity and for peace. Both great political parties have time and again made similar formal statements in their platforms.

The simplest statement of what may be called the American Plan is that declaration made by the Congress of the United States in the Joint Resolution adopted in June, 1910, to which attention has so often been called and to which attention should continue to be called until it is definitely and successfully acted upon by American public opinion. These are the words of that Resolution, adopted, let it be said once more, by the unanimous vote of both Senate and House of Representatives—no Republican and no Democrat dissenting—and signed by President Taft on June 25, 1910:

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That a commission of five members be appointed by the President of the United States to consider the expediency of utilizing existing international agencies for the purpose of limiting the armaments of the nations of the world by international agreement, and of constituting the combined navies of the world an international force for the preservation of universal peace, and to consider and report upon any other means to diminish the expenditures of government for military purposes and to lessen the probabilities of war.

The text of this Resolution can not be printed too often since it is apparent that it would still be news to most of the world.

It is this American Plan, supported by the principles of our Federal Constitution and it Bill of Rights, which should lead the way to world prosperity and world peace when this war shall be won.