The Historical Spectator.

G. K. Chesterton on America’s Entering the First World War

From “Our Note Book,” Illustrated London News, April 14, 1917.

The American declaration of war was practically the verdict of history. It is no flattery to say that this great and democratic yet distant population stands somewhat in the position of posterity. It is only upon the largest and plainest matters that it is even a compliment. Posterity may make mistakes; and probably will make many mistakes in matters of detail. We had better be Chinamen and worship our ancestors than be like some modern evolutionists and worship our descendants. Our descendants (if they preserve the family likeness) will muddle a great many things and misunderstand us in a great many ways, but they will see certain historic facts simply as facts, as we see the Norman Conquest or the discovery of America. One of the broad facts they will thus see in bulk is the fact that the Prussian appeared in history as an enemy, exactly as we see that the Hun appeared in history as an enemy. We know very little about the followers of Attila; and that little, like so much that modern learning has deduced from the Dark Ages, is very probably wrong. But that the glory of Attila was a calamity to society, that the power of Attila was the impotence of society, is the verdict; and it will not be reversed.

The first fact which makes the American decision conclusive is plain enough. Yet it needs careful statement in order to avoid, as I have always tried to avoid, the tone of cheap superiority about the long neutrality of a vigorous and valiant nation. Anybody who ever supposed that Americans as such were “too proud to fight,” in the ironical sense of being too timid to fight, was a fool whose impudence was simply ignorance, and especially ignorance of history. Within living memory, America was full of fighting, in a literal sense even yet unknown to England, although England is full of fighters. It was even less likely that they had changed in military quality since Bull Run and Gettysburg than that we had changed in military quality since Plassy or Waterloo. Moreover, much that strikes an Englishman in America, like much that strikes him in Ireland, as being mere anarchy is only a different manifestation of mere courage. But when we have guarded against this irritating error, we can safely propound the purely intellectual truth. And the truth is that America had been largely converted, in the manner of a relatively mild religious conversion, to the modern ideal of peace, both in its sane and its insane formulae. The difference might be stated thus: Pacifism really was in America something which it never is anywhere else, though it always pretends to be. It was democratic. The people, or great tracts of the people, really wanted peace; and were not (as in Europe) merely told by horribly unpopular Socialists that they really wanted peace. It was the poor, plain man of the Middle West who could truly be described as disliking all war. It was not merely the International Proletarian, who can safely be described as disliking or liking anything, since he does not even exist to answer. The most startling proof of this is the fact that there could be in America such a thing as a pacifist popular song—a music-hall ditty that is not patriotic; and is almost anti-patriotic. Try to imagine that “Keep the Home Fires Burning” could be sung enthusiastically with the intention of keeping all males of military age at home by the fireside. Imagine a song about the British Conscientious Objectors in the style of the British Grenadiers. That will suggest the position in which it was possible for a very virile people to applaud the mother’s song which ran “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier.” That mother has already discovered that you always run the risk of doing so, if you raise him to be a man. Now, to have stung all this solid and sincere neutralism into war is a fact which history will count as final. No arguments about whether the pacifist had cause to be exasperated can count for an instant against the fact that he was a pacifist and that he was exasperated. If the Germans did something which made Mr. Bertrand Russell plunge into a suit of khaki and rush out of Cambridge breathing fire and slaughter, it would be quite useless to say that what they did was not provocative. If some German action awoke M. Romain Rolland in his Swiss mountains and made him rush down the slope and die in the carnage of Lorraine, it would be quite clear that his comment on the act was an answer to all possible defence of it. Americans had a right to be neutral, which in the case of Mr. Russell and M. Rolland is perhaps more difficult to expound; but they certainly desired to be neutral, and it is the final criticism on Germany that they could not be neutral, even when they desired it. The question is yet further clarified by the last provocation actually offered to America—the proposal to treat the self-defence of merchantmen as piracy. This theory is so plainly an insanity that it is not even a sophistry. It has nothing to do with any international understandings, but with the elementary ethics of cause and effect, of responsibility and reason. It is precisely as if a magistrate were to pay a band of official highwaymen to stab and rob all pedestrians, and then hang the pedestrians for rioting if they resisted. With this enormous idiocy modern Germany loses her last link not merely with civilisation, but with the human mind itself, and merely barricades herself in a mad-house. And the moment of that loss is the moment of the entry of America, which may truly be described as the entry of mankind. It is even, as I say, like the entry of unborn mankind. We have talked too much of America as “a daughter nation”; and have tried too often to patronise a daughter when we ought rather to have respected a very distant and very independent cousin. But in this sense there is truth in the tag—the Western democracy speaks for our daughters and our sons even more than for ourselves. The youth of the world has found Pacifism impossible because it has found Prussianism intolerable; it is the rising generation that is knocking at the door of Potsdam, and knocking with a battle-axe; it is the babe unborn that stirs and cries against the Herod who has slain so many babes.

President Wilson, in his great speech, was truly and worthily what somebody was once called fancifully—the orator of the human race. There was a powerful impersonality in his very eloquence which was all the more human because it was not individual, but rather like the mighty voice of a distant but approaching multitude. The simple words with which he ended were among the sort of historic sayings that can be graven on stone. There is a moment when man’s moral nature, apparently so wayward, finds its path with a fatality like that of doom. “God helping her, she can no other.” That is the answer of humanity to all possible preaching about the inhumanity of war, to libraries of loathsome realism, to furnaces of ghastly experience, to the worst that can be said, to the worst that can be endured. There comes a moment in which self-defence is so certainly the only course that it is almost superfluous to say it is the right one. There is nothing else, except to commit suicide; and even to commit suicide is to connive at murder. Unless a man becomes the enemy of such an evil, he will not even become its slave, but rather its champion, In such an extremity there enters at last an awful simplicity; and we share something of that profound spiritual peace which always possesses the armies fighting in the field. God helping us, we can no other; for God Himself will not help us to ignore evil, but only to defy and to defeat it.

Included in The Miscellaneous Chesterton. Serif Press, 2019.
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