After the Price of War, the Price of Peace


By ROBERT M. MacIVER, Department of Sociology, Columbia University

Delivered at Third Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, New York City, August 29, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 765-768.

DO we want an enduring peace? Then we must be willing to pay the price. The price of victory does not cover the price of peace. Peace too must be won, and it would indeed be strange if so precious an achievement, unlike any other human achievement, fell without price into our hands. The winning of peace makes certain clear demands upon us. Are we prepared to meet them? We pay millions of lives and billions of dollars and countless tears for the chance of victory. Shall we offer nothing for the one great good that this victory makes possible, an abiding peace?

There are those who are ignorant of the price and those who are unwilling to pay it. There are the selfish ones who peer at their own narrow interests and will not raise theireyes, no matter what portents are in the sky. There are intolerant ones who make their group or their nation the standard of humanity. There are the embittered ones who have suffered grievously in the war and cry for what they believe is justice. There are the stupid ones who cannot think beyond the old traditions, or the old catchwords. These reactionaries are unwittingly the greatest enemies of peace. For a genuine peace, so far from being passivity is a revolutionary thing. A war like this latest war is a revelation of the need for a revolutionary change. Somewhere, in the ordering of human affairs, there was profound fault to cause so dreadful a catastrophe. The problem of peace is to discover where it lay and to remove it. Any other peace will be merely a longer armistice. But we cannot findand we cannot remove so profound a fault if we persist in certain old attitudes, in certain old notions and valuations that have hitherto governed a great sector of human relations.

Peace has, first and foremost, what for want of a better name we shall call a psychological price. Since peace means a reconstruction of the relations between men as organized in states, it means also a reformation of the attitudes of men. The mentality of war-making is a precise opposite of the mentality of peace-making. War is division, peace is the healing of division. War is reciprocal destruction, peace is reciprocal construction. War is nation against nation, peace is nation joined with nation. Peace is the opposite of these things if it is genuine peace, if it is peace just as truly as war is war.

If we want this peace we must heal division. If we want peace we must join with other nations in peace, with enemies no less than with allies. Here is where the psychological price is demanded. Already, if they read these words, there are those who are saying: "This man is tender to our enemies. He is on their side. He is dangerous." Those who say so show that they are unwilling to pay the psychological price of peace. When we plan for peace we must abandon sides. We must think of the whole. If we want an abiding peace we must think in the terms of peace, no longer nation against nation, but nation joined with nation.

It is, if you care to put it so, a scientific problem. Assuming that an abiding peace is our goal we ask, simply and squarely: under what conditions can it be attained? Since such a peace requires the cooperative activity of states, whether they have been our friends of our enemies, we ask again; under what conditions can we secure this cooperation? To answer this question we must consider, among other things, how the peoples of the defeated countries will react to the terms we impose. Now one of the commonest difficulties in the way of our ordinary human relations is our inability to put ourselves in the place of others, to understand how our behaving affects their behaving. We look mainly at one side of the relation, our own. This difficulty is intensified when the other party is regarded as alien to us, and is greatest of all when the other party is or has been our enemy.

So in making a peace with a defeated nation the victors are most apt to disregard its needs, to brand it with inferiority, to subjugate it, to humiliate it. They do not ask: what effect will this have on the peace we make? They do not seek to understand the feelings of the humiliated people. They do not realize that after all the humiliated people are men and women just like the rest of us, and that they will react to such humiliation as we too would react. It is the old lesson that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice when Shylock turned the tables and said: "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that." In the affairs of nations there is also this vicious circle of injury and revenge that can be broken only when we have the intelligence to make a genuine peace.

To make it we must understand how the other parties to the peace will react to it, not immediately but in the longer future. The best way to do so is to ask how we ourselveswould react to similar conditions. To many men the very idea of being treated as they would treat their defeated enemies is simply unthinkable. They evade the thinking of it by talk about treating the enemy as the enemy deserves. We may answer again in the words of the great writer who understood the hearts of men. "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping." Who can judge what a people deserves? Such talk conceals our unwillingness to face the true problems of peace. It is the childishness of group egoism.

In saying so we are not minimizing or glossing over the intolerable wrongs that our main enemy in this war has committed. We have unutterable loathing for the barbarous doctrines he has proclaimed and for the brutal manner in which he has enforced them. We deal with that subject in its proper place. Here the point is that in the making of this peace we have to face tremendous alternatives, and we must choose between them. After two world wars, devastating beyond previous experience, the opportunity is approaching when we can build at last an enduring peace. Shall we or shall we not seize the opportunity?

First we must set our attitudes right. It is simply a question of common sense. It is not Utopian; it is immensely practical. War has become too deadly and too disruptive to be borne. Most men fear it and hate it. But many have short-sighted thoughts about the thing they fear and hate. They think, for example, that if the enemy is properly punished, if he is disarmed and rendered powerless, then we shall be at last secure. They do not reckon with human nature—and the peace of 1919 has taught them nothing.

If you want an abiding peace you must be ready to curb revenge and hate. If you want an abiding peace, you must not set up conditions that the vanquished nations will bitterly resent for generations to come. If you want an abiding peace you must put the welfare of the whole above the immediate advantage of the part.

These conditions are surely obvious to any one who reflects on the subject. Unfortunately it is a subject on which people have not been taught to reflect. What stands in the way of reflection is the simple ethnocentric character of national sentiment. Men are suffered with the sense of the superiority and prestige of their own nation—which would be all very well were it not that it betrays them into foolish notions about other nations. We display too often the attitude of the small boy who believes that nobody else's father is so strong and brave as his. If we win, it is because we are finer fellows; if we lose it is because of the treachery of the enemy or because of his overpowering numbers or because our own leaders have betrayed us. If we win we thank God and exalt ourselves; if we lose we do not mention God but we put the blame on scapegoats. So Hitler did after the First World War. So after the victories of the Second he exclaimed: "The deeds of our soldiers will go down in history as the most glorious victory of all time. In humility we thank God for this blessing." Hitler has the small-boy attitude in its extremest measure. Most of us have it in some measure, if without the ruthless and consuming fury of the German dictator.

Now any statesman of intelligence, if he is negotiating a peace, must reckon with this ethnocentric emotion. He must ask how it will respond to this or that treatment. It is very powerful, endlessly persistent, rooted in the depths of human nature. This is because it conveys the sentiment of community, because it is an expression of the social instinct itself. So when we insult or humiliate or suppress it, there is a terrific reaction. In the making of peace we must beware of offending it. Treat as you will the misguided priests and the lying prophets of the tribal God, so long as you leave standing the ancient altars of the tribe.

And when it is our lot to make the peace we must not let our ethnocentrism blind us either to the needs or to the reactions of other peoples. The new peace must be built on the equality of all peoples before the new law, the law of nations. The pride and prejudice we have displayed towards peoples of other color, must be controlled, if we haven't the courage and the wisdom to abandon it altogether. We must realize, among other things, that the peoples of the Orient must become as free and undominated as the peoples of the West. For our own self-interest we must realize it, for they vastly outnumber us, and if we treat them otherwise they will soon learn, if they have not learned already, to "better the instruction."

In this connection it is well to remember two further points concerning the sense of community, especially as it finds expression in national sentiment. The first is that though men make great sacrifices for the sake of it the sense of community is no pure altruistic self-effacing emotion. It is still "human, all too human." Men are very ingenious in identifying their particular interests with the cause of their community. When their own interests change they are too apt to discover that the good of the nation has changed in the same direction. A tragic instance was the manner in which many of the politicians of France and many of its large industrialists changed their attitude after the debacle of 1940 and embraced a program of cooperation with the Nazis to save their patrimonies and their skins. This instance leads up to the second point. The face of national sentiment that is turned toward other nations is peculiarly changeful. It can change overnight from detestation to administration, or vice-versa. The appraisal is always relative, never intrinsic. Illustrations are hardly necessary—there have been so many in recent times. Witness the various reversals of sentiment that have occurred with respect to Russia or the various changes of popular French sentiment with respect to Great Britain.

The reason we have dwelt on these two points is to show that there is no insuperable difficulty in the adaptation of national sentiment to changing conditions and changing needs. Show people the necessity, bring home to them the fact that to win an enduring peace they must change certain attitudes and renounce others—then they will pay the psychological price.

Perhaps in the last resort the only price is the psychological one. The economic benefits of assured peace are so great and so universal, as against the staggering costs of war, that probably even the munition makers, turning to other products instead, would profit by it. And certainly if there are special interests that fatten on war, we cannot regard the ending of that state of things as a price of peace, but rather as in itself a most desirable goal. It would indeed be ridiculous to think that the people as a whole pay any economic price for peace. But there is another kind of price that remains to be considered. We may call it the political price, though as we investigate it we shall see that here too the exaction is solely psychological, that what is required of us is again a certain change of attitude, a correction of an illusory tradition, rather than any more tangible costs.

There is an old notion concerning the nature of sovereignty that stands in the way. If we are to have an enduring peace we cannot allow every state, or any state, to act as though it were independent and absolute in determining its relation to other states.

At a certain stage in the history of Western civilization,particularly in the sixteenth century, a group of legalist thinkers developed the notion of sovereignty, though its origins go further back. In the sixteenth century it was developed to serve a particular purpose. It was a way of asserting the need for centralized authority in the transition from feudalism to the national state. It served that purpose and that purpose is now spent, but as so often happens the notion survived its usefulness. It was a pragmatic concept parading as an exercise in pure reason. People came to believe that this notion of sovereignty expressed the very nature of things. So it has become a dangerous notion, one most ill-adapted to the needs of our age. We should apply common sense to it and strip it of its pretensions. Then we would soon discover that this legal concept of sovereignty, as applied to the relations of states, is a monstrosity. For sovereignty is a claim of right as well as of power, and it is a claim of the right to use power without regard for the rights of other states. This kind of "right" is sheer irrationality.

What must be done about sovereignty? We have to amend the notion and change certain practices of states that appeal to the notion but have no rightful ground, since they depend solely on power falsely claiming to be right. We must accommodate the sovereignty of the state to the needs of men. The prevailing notion of sovereignty spreads a smoke-screen over the facts.

Sovereignty is simply the authority that is exercised by or in the name of the inclusive political organization, the authority that government commands. "There is no power on earth that can be compared with it," said the old absolutist, Hobbes. That is true if properly understood. For in the modern world this authority alone has the final right of enforcement. It is invested with this final right where it is, and because it is, the final coordinating power over the affairs of men. Somewhere, if we are to have a systemof law and order, there must be a final authority, beyond which there is no appeal. But here there are two points to remember. In the first place this authority can be, and often is, assigned to it by the people, which can set it up and pull it down and therefore can make it in turn responsible. In the second place this final authority is organized differently under different conditions, and its location depends on the form of political union. In a unitary state it is uni-centered. In a federal state it is multi-centered. Where states are not completely separate and independent, the more inclusive union maintains a last court of appeal concerning those issues with respect to which this independence is limited. Sovereignty requires a last court of appeal.

This simple fact has been magnified into a tremendous myth. A vast amount of grandiose nonsense has been written about sovereignty. It is presented as a sacrosanct mysterious power somehow residing in a super-organism called the state. In earlier times we were content to say it was ordained of God; but modern philosophers of the Hegelian school took the notion over and inflated sovereignty into a kind of transcendent will and power. This expansion of the myth has taken its most gross form in the imagination of the philosophers of totalitarianism. To them the state is not an organization to carry on the business of the everyday humans who are its members. It has a will that is not the will of these members or of the mere flesh-and-blood politicians who make laws and decrees. Sovereignty is a being supreme and ineffable. Awesome and inscrutable forces hover about it. The mere individual, as one Nazi exponent puts it, is "a serving member of one great organic structure that encompasses his existence, his life and his action. He is a point of intersection for the motions of these powers, elemental, higher, historical, supermundane, that after their own will consume his self and his essence." The state is a high and holy thing, beyond the thoughts and purposes of common men. If it is thought of as an instrument at all it becomes, for the followers of Mein Kampf, the instrument of the blood and instinct of the race. To that function it is directed by the One, the Fuehrer, who knows best who is the divinely appointed agent for the fulfilment of that function.

All this is dogma in the service of power. Authority is what we make it, or what we suffer it to be. It is an institutional device. It has the prerogatives we assign to it, or accept under it. The dogma has no necessary relation to the fact. The theology of sovereignty contains a clause that sovereignty is unlimited. Every federal state refutes that clause. It contains another clause to the effect that sovereignty is omnicompetent, in other words that no human interests or activities are withdrawn from its range of control. Every written constitution refutes that clause. Sovereignty is what we make it, and it cannot be defined as though it were a phenomenon of nature, which we must take as we find it.

We are therefore perfectly justified in asking what kind, what range, and what organization of sovereignty is best adapted to the requirements of our civilization. As soon as we ask this question we must recognize that completely independent states, bound to no other states by no obligations other than those they care to accept and only for as long as they care to accept them, are alike perilous to and incongruous with our modern civilization. For we live in an age in which a vast number of our interests and our activities are deeply affected by the behavior of other states than our own. Our interest, spiritual and intellectual as well as economic, are for the most part not bounded within the frontiers of a state. The state we belong to is not, and can never again be—unless we revert to some degenerate barbarism—a self-contained unity, a closed system. The traditional doctrine of sovereignty is a presumptuous denial of this truth.

We must give up the proud stubborn prejudice of independence, the historic prejudice of the independent state. We resent any foreign interference in our affairs—that is all very well, but we must ask once more: what then are our affairs? Are they still our affairs alone if what we do about them directly and vitally affects the well-being of other peoples? No one proposes that an external power should have the right to interfere with our purely domestic policies or our particular way of life. But there is a sphere of interdependence of such great importance for all concerned that the only reasonable course is to assign it, with proper safeguards, to an international system of control. At present every state acts as though it had the right to determine its foreign policy solely in terms of its own presumptive interest.

It has neither the right nor the power. There is no right where there is no obligation, where there is no constituted society governed by inclusive law. Nor has the individual state really the power to settle such issues. If it exercises its power to this end it is most likely to incite opposing power, and there is no certainty whatever that it will then achieve its objective. What then is this absolute sovereignty that states still assert, without any ground of right and without any efficacy of enforcement?

It may hurt our pride to abjure this prejudice of the independent sovereign will—but what is that price compared with the gain? The hurt will not be to our unity or to our loyalty—and the greatest menace of our civilization will be removed. The dogma of absolute sovereignty is maintained at an incalculable cost to the well-being of us all. Is it not better to give it up, to pay the psychological price?