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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: The United States and the war

30 August 2014

8:30 AM

30 August 2014

8:30 AM

The Spectator, 29 August 1914

IT is most gratifying to Englishmen who value American sympathy to know that public opinion in the United States is wholly with them in the war. We may be told that we overestimate the advantage of the approval of the United States, and may seem to be in danger of reckoning it as an asset that may be measured in material terms— which, of course, would be entirely, and absolutely wrong, since the United States is, and ought to be, in the strictest possible sense of the word, a neutral—and yet we cannot help saying that we should prosecute this war with heavy hearts if we had any reason to think that the United States (a country which cultivates idealism in difficult places) withheld from us her moral sanction. The Spectator has always had close associations with Americans, and it is with no ordinary satisfaction that we notice that virtually the whole American Press, after digesting the diplomatic negotiations which preceded the war, has come to the conclusion that Germany was given one opportunity after another of preserving the peace, and that she declined them all. Americans, as becomes a nation of idealists, are consequently heart and soul with the allied nations which find themselves involved in war against their will because they hold that there is an even greater evil than war, and that is that civilized men should be craven enough to consent to the crushing of small nations, and to the tearing up .of pledges of honour as though they were—to employ the shameful phrase used to our Ambassador by the German Imperial Chancellor—nothing but scraps of paper. President Wilson has proved to the world how he for his part regards the sanctity of a nation’s word by his fine and unforgettable deed in repealing the discriminating tolls of the Panama Canal Act. “A promise is a promise,” he said in effect. “No commercial injury matters beside the injury that would be done to civilization if it were felt that a Christian country signed pledges only to break them.”

We may take as an instance of the severe judgments which have been formed by Americans of German policy a remarkable article in the New York Evening Post. This paper, which may be compared with the Manchester Guardian or the Nation in England, has always been strongly sympathetic towards Germany, and regarded the long tension between Britain and Germany as capable of being ended if mischief-making could be stopped. Of course, the Evening Post was mistaken in that view ; there was much more than mere mischief-making—there was the policy of Bismarck—at the root of the antagonism. But now that the British Foreign Office has published the text of all the diplomatic negotiations, the Evening Post is in no doubt whatever that the blame for this criminal war rests upon Germany. The article tells us that the expression of this conviction is regarded by Germans in the United States as a kind of treason. One German paper in America has even advised its readers to burn every copy of the Evening Post they come across. In vain the indignant Germans command the Evening Post to recognize that Germany stands for Teuton civilization against Slav barbarism. The Evening Post knows the signs of barbarism as well as its critics:—

“Never have we upheld the Germany of the mailed fist, or the autocracy of militarism; against its claims, its excesses, its encroachments upon civil rights, its assertion that it constitutes a sacrosanct caste superior to any other, we have protested in season and out of season. We have long seen in this swashbuckling, overbearing attitude of the militarists, and particularly in the activities of such a body as the German Navy League—we are cursed with one of our own—a grave menace to the peace of Europe; and it has now brought the very worst to pass that the human imagination can conceive. . . . It is another Germany which we have been proud to recognize and acclaim—the Germany of high aspirations and noble ideals, the Germany of intellectual freedom, the Germany to whose spiritual leadership every nation the world over is deeply in debt. Its flag has meant to us the flag of scientific knowledge planted furthest north in more fields of mental and govern- mental activity than is perhaps any other. It is the country of Fichte, Kant, and Hegel, of Schiller and Goethe, of Korner and his fellow-champions of German liberty in the wars for freedom just a century ago; of Carl Schurz and Siegel and Kinkel and their revolutionary comrades of 1848; of Schubert, Schumann, and Wagner; of Lessing, of Mommsen, of Helmholtz and Siemens…. Against this Germany the war into which it has been so recklessly plunged is nothing short of a crime. Whether victory or national disaster come out of it all, the intellectual and spiritual growth of the nation is checked for no one knows how long…. For ourselves we can only say that to us the one consolation in it all is that, if humanity is not to retrograde unspeakably, absolutism must pay for this denial of Christianity. In place of the kingdoms there must arise the republics of Europe ; out of the ashes must come a new Germany, in which pure democracy shall rule, in which no one man and no group of professional man-killers shall have the power to plunge the whole world into mourning. If this be treason to Germany, our readers must make the most of it.”

One feels that when the Evening Post writes such burning words of scorn and condemnation there can hardly be an English tongue left in the United States to speak for Germany.

Although we are very grateful for the strong moral support of Americans, we must not, whatever our extremities may be in the struggle before us, look for anything more than good wishes from the United States. Her proper course, her natural course, the course which is prescribed by international duty as well as by self-interest, is to remain, as we have said, in the strictest possible sense of the word, a neutral. So far as we can foresee events, there is no need why human wisdom should not enable the American rulers to steer clear of all the delicate questions which might tend to attach them in active benevolence decidedly to one side or the other in the present war.

To begin with, there is the intervention of Japan. We understand and appreciate the almost universal desire of Americans that the United States should remain a “white man’s country.” We know the force of the feeling which has from time to time directed itself against the industrial invasions of the Japanese on the Pacific coast. It follows that we cannot ignore the very natural anxiety of the United States lest the Japanese should use the successes they will probably win in the Far East to secure a larger control over the future of China and the Pacific Ocean, and a wider capacity for asserting their rights of entry in lands hitherto forbidden to them. After all, this is a fear which weighs upon our fellow British subjects in Australasia almost as heavily as it weighs upon Americans. All we can say is that we are certain that the declaration of war by Japan was prompted by a narrower ambition than some Americans suppose. Japan has never forgotten the humiliation forced upon her after the Chino-Japanese War, when Germany persuaded France and Russia to step in and deprive Japan of part of her harvest of war. Japan was compelled to leave the peninsula of Liao-tung, and Russia established herself at Port Arthur, while Germany, seizing as a pretext the murder of two German missionaries, forcibly acquired a long lease of Kiao-chau. Was it likely that Japan should forget this? She has nursed the grievance ever since, and as though to prove what was in her mind when she declared war she incorporated in her ultimatum to Germany—with a dexterous touch that amounts to a kind of diplomatic wit—the very words which Germany used when she exacted the departure of Japan from the Liao-tung Peninsula. For our own part, we should deplore it if Japan exerted her energies in any direction but those plainly indicated by her declarations. She has announced her intention of restoring Kiao-chau to China. In other words, she intends that, though she herself cannot have Kiao-chau, Germany at least shall be made to give it up. As the United States has always been opposed to the partition of China, we cannot help thinking that this undertaking to postpone to the Greek Kalends all thought of the partition of China—for that is what the undertaking means—ought to be agreeable to Americans. Englishmen in general, and, we imagine, any British Government that might be in office, would exhaust every means within their power to ensure that Japan should really restore Kiao-chau to China if (which we do not regard as at all likely) Japan suddenly believed herself to have some good reason for changing her mind or weakening her present intention by the introduction of reservations.

There is another matter which might attach the interests of the United States decidedly to one side or the other in the war, and thus tempt her to depart from a position of strict neutrality. We mean the opportunities presented for the enlargement of American commerce by the necessary destruction of German ocean-borne trade. Our own economic convictions lead us to repudiate the opinion that what is gained by American trade is necessarily lost to us. The more commerce grows the more wealth grows, and the greater is the purchasing power of our customers. We hope that the upheaval of the world’s commerce will bring new markets to the United States. At the same time, war does offer peculiar opportunities of taking over trades abandoned by others through force of circumstances, and such trades may not be easily regained after the war by their former creators or masters. During the American Civil War much American trade passed into British hands, and it is a perfectly sound and right policy for the United States now to cast about for opportunities of taking over trades left derelict by the war. But we are not surprised that President Wilson’s plan of buying many of the ships, and in particular German ships, which are now laid up in American ports is not causing much enthusiasm. The Times says that the more American men of business examine the scheme the less they like it. The objections are twofold—international and economic. As regards the economic side of the enterprise, it is entirely for Americans to judge. What Mr. Wilson has in mind seems to be an adventure in State ownership. Ocean shipping has hardly ever been made to pay in the United States, largely because the wages are so much higher than those paid by competing foreign companies. Where private enterprise has failed, State ownership, with its notoriously more expensive methods, hardly seems likely to succeed. However, it mar be that the exceptional conjunction of ships and vacant trades might justify Mr. Wilson. It is, as we have said, for Americans to decide. But if the plan were actually carried out, with what ports would these ocean-going ships under the American flag trade? There is evidently in the United States a strong tendency to distinguish between European trade and trade with the Latin States of South America. European trade is probably considered —we think with extremely good reason—to open up perilous paths. The United States would, of course, take the seas as a neutral, and all the neutral ports of Europe would be open to her. But there are certain neutral ports, as, for example, Rotterdam, through which Germany is being supplied with food, and it is conceivable that dis- agreeable questions might too easily arise. Of course the United States would have every right to trade with the Dutch, yet if her ships carried food intended for the consumption of the German Army, even though its method of delivery were indirect, she would not be playing the part of a. neutral. She would be carrying contraband. All food is conditional contraband of war. That is to say—to take a specific case—if we have good cause for supposing that a cargo of food consigned to Rotterdam is intended for German troops, we have the right to stop it. In practice it is an extraordinarily difficult task to decide whether food entering a neutral port which is near to a belligerent country is contraband or not. Surely in these circumstances the path of wisdom for the United States would be simply to avoid such difficulties as would have the effect of throwing her suddenly and violently out of that position of strict neutrality which accords in nearly all respects with her interests and her sentiments. This is not, we should say, a favourable moment for engaging in a novel undertaking that would commit her to notorious hazards. We trust that leading men of business in the United States may come to the conclusion that, even if Mr. Wilson’s proposal is sound and desirable at all other points, it certainly is not desirable that it should bear on its back the danger, not to say the com- mercial disadvantage, of contraband disputes. It may be that Congress, if it approves of Mr. Wilson’s scheme at all, will do so only in respect of Latin-American trade, and if that should be the outcome, we shall watch the experiment, not only with deep interest, but with the genuine hope that Mr. Wilson may be justified of his daring, if somewhat Socialistic, move.

Yet one more reflection. While we recognize the undesirability of the United States doing anything to aid Britain at any period of the war, or even refraining from commercial enterprises on the mere ground that she might in some way do an injury to the British cause, we think that Americans might do well to look at the matter from the reverse side and ask themselves what the effect of a German victory would be on the United States. A German victory would mean a great attempt at world-wide domination. Germany would throw out her tentacles into every part of the globe. The Republics of South America would be an obvious vantage-ground for making her influence felt. The United States might point to the Monroe Doctrine. But what would be the use of that? Germany has shown that she cares for nothing but sheer brute strength. If Americans held to their view that the Monroe Doctrine was an essential instrument of their policy, they would have to create an enormous army—an army at least large enough in conjunction with sea-power to be anadequate means of arguing and treating with Germany. This would be opposed to all American conceptions of the proper task in the world for the United States, and we should be sorry indeed to see such a revolutionary necessity thrust upon her. A victory by Britain, France, and Russia, on the other hand, would mean no such danger to the United States. That would be a victory for three watchful and independent nationalities, and not for a monopolist and militarist Empire, drunk with the dream of universal dominion. We fancy that Americans scarcely need any assurances on that point. To sum up, the United States, in our opinion, would be well advised to see that she is as neutral, so to speak, towards Germany as towards Britain. Any act that might indirectly—and with no actual intention of doing so—aid Germany, might provide for the United States herself in the future a feast of troubles of which Americans in their distant hemisphere have as yet little conception.

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