The Moral Challenge of Post-War Planning


By DR. HARRY GIDEONSE, President, Brooklyn College

Delivered over CBS Network, September 15, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 62-64.

DO you believe—as a New York editorial put it—that thinking about the post-war world and post-war planning is solemn guff by Professors on "How to cook your rabbit before you catch it"? Or do you agree with a Republican state platform in one of our Middle Western states, which I read last week, and which avoided all mention of post-war programs because the subject was declared to be premature until the war was over? Doesn't it seem strange that the same people who hold these views, refused to prepare for possible war until the war had come to us? And that these people have therefore apparently learned nothing from our recent experience about the need for preparedness, about the need for thinking through alternatives that may be open to us—or that may be forced upon us?

Our own history tells us that it is harder to prepare intelligently for peace than for war. This is no academic theory but a simple summary of our tragic national experience after the last war.

We managed to win the last war but in spite of the fact that we had a President and a majority in the Senate to back up our post-war plans of 1919, we lost the peace because a determined minority was better prepared for reaction and destruction than the majority which hadn't paid much attention to domestic politics while the war was being fought.

It is a false picture of history to think of winning the war as one chapter, and of winning the peace as another, quite distinct and separate. History is a seamless web—there are no separate and watertight compartments of time. War and peace are interwoven from peace to war, and back again from war to peace. Our lend-lease legislation and our draft legislation—passed before we were attacked—made us a more formidable adversary when the attack finally came than we would have been if we had not developed our industries to support our later allies at an earlier stage, and had we made no preparations in advance. In the same way, the things we do now, while at war, will help to determine the framework of the post-war settlement that will follow our victory.

The present grew out of the past—it cannot even be understood without studying the past. The future will grow out of the present—and we can help to determine the future by the direction we give to the present. If we refuse to give thought to the future which may grow out of our present—either because of ulterior motives of a political sort or because of a thoroughly understandable pre-occupation with the immediate challenge of the enormous peril in which we find ourselves—then we are really deciding in favor of another type of post-war planning. That is to say: We are then in fact planning to leave the future to drift. Now drift has been tried in the past—and it has been found wanting. Drift has given us two world wars in twenty-five years. Drift will almost certainly repeat the pattern of the past—and a refusal to think about our long-run purposes is therefore really a proposal to have another world war when our present soldiers and sailors have sons old enough to be drafted.

It is true it may be politically dangerous for some people to discuss their post-war ideas—which is one reason why they would like to see all of us silent on the subject now. It is a far more important truth that it will be political dynamite for our entire civilization to trust to drift, ignoring all past experience.

There is an understandable reluctance to open up a chapter of discussion that is so full of sore memories of past disagreements and mistakes. It is tempting to assume that the "government"—who or whatever that may mean—is probably giving careful consideration to these things. The sober fact, however, is that the government, as a good democratic government, is extremely reluctant to "put its neck out" too far ahead of clearly expressed public opinion, and, secondly, that the government itself is far too busy with the process of streamlining our war effort.

It is furthermore historically clear that the people who are good at waging war, are not necessarily as good as preparing a peace. Winston Churchill who speaks with considerable authority because of his vast experience in both wars and his participation in the last peace settlement, wrote after the last war that "those who can win a war well, can rarely make a good peace, and those who could make a good peace, would never have won the war."

My point is not that we should prepare blueprints now for the utopia to come. Far from it. The post-war world will not be Utopian. I do not even believe that it will be very secure or stable. The most we can buy with a victory is the right to have something to say about the kind of world we would like to see emerge in a period in which one world is dying and another is struggling to be born. If Hitler wins, that question will be answered by the Axis. If we win, the victory will not give us our kind of world. It will merely give us an opportunity—which we would not have in case of defeat—to work out our own destiny in a frank process of experimentation. It may well be one of the most dangerous temptations of the present to picture the future in rosy and optimistic terms. Such wishful thinking may simply promote the type of disillusioned "morning after" sentiment when it becomes clear that winning the war is merely the first—even if essential—step, and that winning the peace is not an easy road back to some familiar picture of the past but rather a challenging, difficult and morally exhausting process over the years that will follow the actual cessation of hostilities.

The strategy for winning the peace is not unlike the strategy for winning the war. It would be foolish for a general staff to prepare plans for just one kind of war. Whether the staff would ever be allowed to fight the war in that particular way, would depend on many factors, including the military skill and imagination of the enemy. A general staff that is worth its salt will therefore make plans—and careful plans, painstaking in detail, anticipating all possible enemy reactions—for all the types of war that might conceivably arise.

Peace planning should proceed in the same manner, although this is apparently very hard to swallow for some groups. Such groups may have their minds all set up on one pet idea, and they may be impatient with the idea of a careful study of alternative notions. The fact remains that the cessation of hostilities may find us with a set of facts that may make the originally attractive plan impossible, just as a war may start under circumstances that may make the theoretically most attractive plan for a military campaign obsolete. Under these circumstances—if our efforts in preparation and our public education have been devoted to a scheme that turned out to be impractical—we would be especially handicapped for a careful and thorough participation in an alternative scheme. Even from the standpoint of getting the pet idea translated into action, a preparation that considers alternatives might be desirable, for the very process of considering alternatives may increase the clarity of conviction with which the first idea will be pursued if it stands up well in comparison.

Now these are not problems for Washington, for some public official who is likely to be swamped with the detail of his own immediate job, and who, not infrequently, is likely to be profoundly impressed with the wisdom of "leaving well enough alone" when he is urged to get people interested in something that is not immediately on the agenda. In a dictatorship this would be a matter for the propaganda ministry. It would "cook up" the right idea,develop the radio and press "angles," and then "enlighten" the people. The Nazis and the Japanese are doing this now in behalf of their "New Order" and "Co-Prosperity" sphere. In a free society this initiative and momentum should arise in the discussion of war objectives among the people themselves. The emergency conditions of recent years have given us a tendency to leap too much on Washington. The best way to strengthen the old tradition of a spontaneous and self-reliant public opinion—which is, of course, the very core of the free and democratic society we are defending—is to preserve the process of free discussion in these matters.

Democracy is not first of all a matter of laws and governmental machinery. It is rather a matter of shared purpose, of a belief in the same fundamental ideas about fair and unfair, good and bad—in other words, it is a matter of acceptance of the same values. The new responsibilities of a shrinking world—a world of radio and airplanes—impose new burdens on our values. Our values have to grow, so to speak. They must carry a heavier load. They must bridge a wider gap than ever before. And in a sense the trouble with much of our discussion and thought about the war and its aftermath is precisely that we ignore this moral challenge and place almost all our stress on the military and economic, and technical aspects. It should be clear to anyone that military and economic policies are simply methods achieving certain purposes—they are not ends in themselves—and that these purposes that are to be achieved, are really the heart of the matter. That is not only true at home, among ourselves. It is true abroad, in our relations with our allies—and in the effect of our policies upon our enemies.

No one who remembers the influence of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points inside Germany, can deny that such a clarification of war aims can have the greatest possible military importance. Such an opportunity exists again this time—in some ways the ruthlessness of our enemies has increasedtheir vulnerability in the war of propaganda. It is also true, however, that our record last time—I mean the manner in which we refused to back up Woodrow Wilson when the fighting had come to an end—has created a very great psychological handicap for our public spokesmen. People all over the world wonder whether we will treat Mr. Roosevelt as we treated Mr. Wilson—and they are inclined to accept our pronouncements at a heavy discount for this reason. We must convince the world, including our enemies, that we mean it this time, and that our governmental statements are not likely to be disavowed by an unsympathetic or uninformed public opinion. In other words, even from the standpoint of their immediate political and military effectiveness, our post-war program must have behind it a convincing measure of public endorsement, and this can only arise in a campaign of public discussion. We need such participation to develop the national purpose, to develop the moral "growing points," if you please, and to clarify all possible alternatives. We need it also to convince a world which remembers our performance last time, that there will not be another Harding administration.

If and when we win the war, we'll probably win it by stages. There may be war in the Far East long after war may have ceased in Europe—and we will therefore of necessity be improvising peace settlements while we are still waging the war elsewhere. These improvisations will be the crucial process. They will set the pattern for the future. They will be based on such ideas and plans as then prevail. They will be based on such public agencies and policies as then exist. It's up to us now to see that they are right. If history is a seamless web, the future will be mortgaged then and there. It will be mortgaged in one part of the world, as we continue to wage the fight in another. There won't be any chance to re-weave the pattern in one place after we have finished the war in another. The pattern will be set inthese day-to-day improvisations which will have created their own roots, their own vested interests, their own loyalites. We'd better see to it that our domestic political picture doesn't resemble the 1919 pattern of American politics too closely for the comfort of those who will have sons of draft age in 1960. In a democracy this is not a matter for specialists. They may know about the methods of achieving a common purpose when that common purpose clearly exists. The clarification of our purpose and the growth of public support behind it is a matter of the widest possible participation. The chief role of the technician—such as the diplomat, the international lawyer and the economist—is the elaboration of the purpose once it has been democratically adopted.

In the language of one of our radio programs, truth is our "secret weapon." We refuse to believe that a free America has to stoop to lying propaganda as an answer and a defense against the lying propaganda of our enemies. We refuse to believe that we must work up a hatred for our enemies to build a world according to our ideals. We are firm in the belief that a war fought from deep conviction anchored in truth and reason, is not only mere promising introduction to the post-war reconstruction that will follow the war, but also a war that will be harder to meet with the traditional weapons of the Axis. Goose-stepping, regimentation, propaganda, bloodlust and racial hatred are Nazi weapons—let us beware of a form of defeatism that tells us that we can only win this war by adopting our enemy's tactics and ideas. Let us beware above all of the type of surface patriot who would curtail all discussion of post-war plans during the war because it is supposed to create disunity. Such men overlook the new grip on a national conviction that comes with the clarification of our purposes. They may pose as realists but they are in fact advocates of war and post-war drift. This second world war is the bitter fruit of the activity of the immediate predecessors of these supposed realists in the days of Woodrow Wilson's struggle with Senator Lodge and his so-called irreconcilables.

There is no road back to isolation and "normalcy" that is not a road back to another world war. There is no road back to the pre-war status quo that is not a road back to the precise conditions out of which the present war grew. To go back to "where we came from," is to go back where the war gradually became inevitable. If a free America is to be preserved in a free world, we shall therefore need a program that goes beyond the day-dreaming of those fellow citizens who are merely homesick for the past. We are not even interested in preserving "the American way of life" if that phrase means the preservation of America as it was in 1939—and if this is not what the slogan means, the only fruitful subject for discussion would be the distinction of the things that are worth preserving or restoring from the things that had better be forgotten as a part of the past that helped to bring on the present.

There is a spurious patriotism that gambles on the public nostalgia for a past, that never was. It is similar to the symbolism of Hitler's Third Reich which in its very terminology calls up the memory of an idealized Teutonic history. Free men and women can live in the challenge of the present without these drugs of false history or selected facts. True conservatism in a time of unparalleled speed of social and scientific change, will stress the need for truth as the first weapon of freedom, and for continuous reconstruction in the light of emerging experience—at home as well as abroad.

Peace is not established by winning the war. Winning the war merely clears the path. The construction of the new highway—the organization of the peace—will depend upon our wisdom. We shall need that wisdom when the fighting stops. We can only achieve it then if we clarify our purpose now.