Is Permanent Peace Possible?

Stephen Leacock October 1 1916

Is Permanent Peace Possible?

Stephen Leacock October 1 1916

Is Permanent Peace Possible?

Stephen Leacock


EDITOR’S NOTE.—In a previous article Professor Leacock dealt with the possibilities of permanent peace as viewed in the light of world history in the past. In the accompanying article, he sums up the discussion after a consideration of the probabilities and the possibilities of the future. The conclusion that he reaches may not be entirely acceptable to the peaceloving visionary—but the facts presented cannot be evaded or misconstrued.

IN the preceding part of this article I have discussed the problem of permanent peace as viewed in the light of the past. I endeavored to show that in earlier ages the war of tribe against tribe and the fight of man against man seemed a necessity of human destiny. Permanent peace could only be spiritual aspiration.

Nor did the beginning of civilization in any way alter the prospect. The form of fighting changed, it is true. The club of the savage was replaced by the arquebus and the cannon. But of war itself there was no cessation. The improvements and inventions of the arts merely served to render war more complicated. They did not in any way lessen its recurrence.

Then came the wonderful age of the nineteenth century, differing utterly from every period of history that had preceded it. Since the coming of the steamboat and the steam engine, about a hundred years ago, the world has witnessed a mechanical and industrial progress that has transformed every phase of human life. Man seemed triumphant over nature. The new power of machinery multiplied a hundred fold the means of sustenance. The new possibilities of communication made the world’s thought one. The institution of democratic government seemed to supply a mechanism of common action and universal agreement. The interchange of commerce appeared to connect the welfare of each with the welfare of all. War began to appear a horrible and impossible thing, a mere relic of the past, something that could never again, in the light of common sense and common thought, devastate a world of peace and plenty. Prophets of peace abounded. It was freely said that the days of war were ended. “It is quite out of the question,” wrote a distinguished English advocate of peace as recently as 1913, “that a single soldier of all the enormous German army will ever live to see a gun fired in war.” This and similar expressions of opinion were part of the common stock in trade at the opening of the twentieth century.

THEN came the war, overwhelming in its catastrophe the greater part of the globe, obliterating all landmarks, and burying in its universal ruin, the milestones of centuries of progress. What is to come after it? Shall we pass through the dark shadow of war to the sunshine of universal lasting peace, or into a gloom deeper still? There has been a widespread feeling, especially prevalent in the earlier stages of the struggle, that the present conflict is to prove to be the “war that will end war.” Humanity, it is said, will no longer tolerate the renewal of its horrors. The close of the war, it is argued, will witness the great states in the world uniting in some form of common polity. It will no longer be in the power of any one nation to make war upon any other unless it is prepared to face the overwhelming force of universal attack. Henceforth all international disputes, so it is claimed, will be settled with the orderly decorum of a lawsuit. A properly constituted tribunal will deliver its judgment on any case of conflicting interests and the parties to the dispute will bow to its decision precisely as do the litigants in an ordinary case at law. The man in the street has a vision of the Allied Powers, in concert with the United States, dealing out international justice and compelling the reluctant assent of a defeated Germany and a dismembered Austria.

There can be no doubt that such a vision in its general outline accords with all that is highest in human aspiration, nor can any one deny that it must in some sense represent a goal that will be reached in a far future, distant indeed, yet even now discernible through the mist. Universal peace, one must admit, seems only to be attained by universal agreement. The day is gone when any potentate or any state can dream of conquering the world and so imposing peace. When Alexander the Great “wept because there were no more worlds to conquer,” he had in reality overrun a territory about as big as Saskatchewan. The whole Roman “world” to which for a period Rome dictated peace was not as large as Northwest Canada. Nor does the teaching of history leave any doubt that the imposed peace of a conqueror can never last Smouldering Under the conquered soil there still burn the unquenched embers of war.

TF peace can ever come it must, there-*■ fore, only come as the result of general acquiescence and assent. And that it will some day come is a belief deeply stamped upon the general consciousness of our time. We have all grown to bé “perfectionists.” The wonderful advance of modern science has made us so. We do not think, as the ancients did, in terms of things moving in a narrow circle, from good to bad and back to good again. Uní consciously, perhaps, our minds are saturated with the idea of “progress.” We think in terms of betterment and improvement. Poverty and pestilence, the ravage of the plague and the sordid swelter of the slums, are things that we feel are destined to be conquered and put away for ever. So too with war. As children of our generation we cannot but believe.that the “progress” that will obliterate poverty and banish pestilence and famine will remove from the world the lurid horrors of war.

So think at least the vast majority of us. Here and there perhaps, before thé war, a contrary opinion was heard, a plea that war was a great and ennobling thing which neither could nor should be banished from the world. Such were the viejvs perhaps of some poor strutling of a German prince, his narrow brain-pan decorated with the gold braid of a staff officer and his little chest resplendent witlj,, unearned eagles and mimic death-heads;, or such the views of some dull and brutal' Prussian to whom war meant the hope of. plunder and rapine and the relief of casting off a civilization that he had neither invented nor enjoyed; or such again the. views, here and there, of some silly theorist, dipping his pen-hand to the elbow in a bath of blood that turned out to be only printer’s ink.

Such theories may have existed before the war, but the war has ended them. The world in its agony cries out against them.

PEACE then, and not war, is the only ultimate destiny that we care to contemplate for mankind, while the ultimate peace must be achieved and maintained not by conquest, but by agreement. And the agreement must undoubtedly take something of the form, in broad outline, of a union of the greatest states of the world in such a way that for certain purposes they form a single unit backed by their united power. With the aspiration towards such a union and such a peace any rational human being might, indeed must, sympathize. But it is quite another question to ask whether such a world peace and world union are possible now, in our own time, on the very heels of the great war. It is not possible and it cannot be. To base our future policy on the adoption of such a plan would be to invite disaster. We might as well reinstate Lord Haldane as Secretary of War to sing us to sleep with his crooning songs of inoffensive Germany, or let good Mr. Birrell sit once again with his knitting beside the cradle of Irish rebellion.

For fpw people have stopped to realize just what a world union and a world peace maintained thereby must mean, and the limitations and conditions that are implied. The outline of it, one can draft readily enough. Any school boy of twelve can do it. Here you have, let us say, the British Empire, the United States, France, Russia, Italy and Japan united in a World Alliance with a cluster of minor powers clinging to the fringes. One admits that the minor States—Holland, Sweden and such—offer no difficulty. They must do as they are told. Of Germany and Austria, and Turkey, we may speak presently. They may be imagined either inside the Alliance or outside of it. The argument will be valid either way. For the time being, let us think of them as out. This World Alliance is supposed to maintain some sort of court, a kind of glorified Hague Tribunal where cases of National dispute can be tried. Any nation which engages in a controversy with another and loses its case, before the Tribunal is supposed to submit at once and do as it is told. NOW this sounds as simple as daylight,

But would it work in practice? Let us suppose that the Central Tribunal, on application from Japan, ordered the United States to admit Japanese citizens to full rights of residence and property in the American Republic; or ordered the British Empire to admit Japanese immigrants into Australia ; recognized, on application, the claim of Spain to Gibraltar and ordered its restitution; undertook to revise the partition of Africa so far as to give Russia a share therein, or, if you will, ordered the European powers out of Africa altogether on the ground that the original partition was robbery; or endorsed a petition claiming to come from two hundred millions of the inhabitants of India asking for independence; served notice to the United States to get out of the Philippines. In short, let us suppose that the Tribunal gave a decision vitally concerning some one or other of the issues about which the interests and the passions of whole nations are centred. Would such nations submit? Never—or never unless they had to. For the trouble With the pen and ink theorist of these matters has always been that he imagines for himself, controversies of a trivial kind which have no real importance. These, it is quite true, can be settled by a Central Tribunal just as they can by half a dozen other agencies. Such things as these the dummy tribunal that exists at the Hague has been settling for twenty years. It is true that in the past trivial and unimportant controversies have at times, for lack of a means of settlement, plunged nations into war. England and Russia were once on the brink of war over the boundaries of Afghanistan and England and the United States over the question of where the Swamps of Venezuela, ended and the jungles of British Guiana began. Over questions such as these, the man in the street—overfed and ignorant of war —worked himself into a mimic fury, hunted up his claim on the map, learned it painfully by heart and then threw himself down in hysterics, screaming for gunpowder. Such folly did we witness once at least in Canada—over the so-called Alaskan Boundary dispute. Who knows or cares about it now?

'C' OR the settlement of such controversies as these, a Central Tribunal, let it be fully admitted, is an admirable institution. But for the settlements of real questions, things that spell life and death, joy and sorrow, freedom or slavery, the thing is, taken by itself—without value.

force behind it and can compel obedience to its decrees. And in that very problem of force lies the crux of the whole matter. Consider the condition that is at once created. In order to set up a central power that can make its will obeyed, the nations of the world must endow it with a force greater than their own. It will not do for them merely to promise or pledge themselves to support with their own strength the decrees of the tribunal. This would be simply to substitute for a scrap of paper a whole waste paper basket full. A nation that would strip itself of its arms, disband its soldiers and dismantle its navy on the strength of a mere international pledge of this sort would be guilty of a folly that would invite its inevitable fate.

But let us suppose that the central tribunal is endowed with an armed force of its own, an international army and an international navy of such dimensions as to overshadow the remaining forces of any one nation—or any probable combination' of nations—to the point of compelling submission to its wishes. For, if the international power stop short of this, nothing is effected. The scenes are merely shifted. War, instead of being made by one nation against another, would be made by one nation, or combination of nations, against the central authority. War, in fact, would become merely a new form of rebellion, resulting in the setting up of some new form of central power.

On the other hand if we give to the central power an overwhelming force, so great that resistance is hopeless, then the thing is merely national suicide. Our destiny henceforth—our property, our liberty, our lives—would lie in the hands of a board of delegates—some white, some yellow, and some brown. Henceforth we must pray God to grant us the Peruvian vote, and put our trust in the integrity and justice of the delegate from the Mosquito Coast.

THE more one looks at it the more impossible the thing becomes. We dare not trust ourselves so. We have learned in the last two hundred years, to get along, in a certain uneasy and rickety fashion, with men of our own race and speech by this process of voting and being voted on. Yet even within the single commonwealth the process is not always without friction. Submission does not always follow with mechanical accord at the bidding of a legislative vote—as witness the troubled case of Ulster. Applied to the world at large, such a submission to authority is as yet and will long remain a mere dream. Who is to guarantee for us the honesty and integrity of the delegates? How are we to know that they are not being bribed and bought; that a secret combination in arms is not about to overwhelm us; that the international fleet is not about to be seized by a gang of conspirators acting in accord with some traitor nation. Before the war, such fears might have appeared fanciful. We should have fallen back upon some general aphorisms about public honor and the common instincts of humanity. We know better now. We have seen that there is—alas, that it should be so—-no refuge but in force, and no strength save that of arms.

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Is Permanent Peace Possible ?

Continued from page 13

More than all, what is to be done with such a league and in such a world policy with the barbarous nations — the Bulgarians, the Turks, and still more the Austrians and the Germans? In these, as the war has shown, there is no faith and no honor. A treaty made with them is, as they have declared it to be, a mere scrap of paper.

They number about a hundred and fifty million people and occupy the whole centre of a continent. Can anybody think that the generation which has witnessed the tyranny that has drawn the tears of Belgium and bowed the neck of Servia under the yoke, that has heard the cries of prisoners under the lash, and the call of drowning women and children—can this, our generation, ever trust the written faith of the people of Germany?

Such a thing cannot be. Towards Germany and Austria for generations to come there is no possible policy except to keep and maintain in our own hands and under our own control an armed force, great enough and ready enough to crush them in an instant.

THE truth is that the world at large Í9 not yet ready for the kind of common citizenship that alone would supply the basis of a world union. The war has put it further from us instead of nearer. It has brought to us international friendships, such as that with France, warm as the heartbeat of a blood brotherhood. But toward other nations it will leave with us an almost sacred legacy of hatred and contempt. And, towards the rest of the world, it has given us a solemn warning that in a day of disaster we might call and call in vain.

It is, of course, altogether probable that the close of the present war will be followed by a prolonged interval of peace. Even the victors will be exhausted, and the world at large sick with the reek of blood. No statesman in any country is likely for some time to propose a policy of aggression or conquest. Settlement by arbitration will be accepted all too readily. But this is not permanent peace, but a mere passing phase of the world’s history. The truth is that our only reliance after the war will be, as it should have been before it, in armed preparedness. It is true that we can greatly add to this by Alliance with friendly and kindred nations. One can see, in imagination at least, a combination of England, France, Russia and the United States that might for a generation possess force enough to maintain upright the unstable equilibrium of peace. But the existence of such alliances will not and should not enable us in any way to dispense with the maintenance of our own army and navy on as large a scale as we can in reason keep it.

It may well be objected that the prospect thus indicated appears at best a gloomy one. It does, indeed, seem scarcely tolerable that after the tremendous efforts and sacrifices of the war, the civilized world should go on bearing the enormous burden öf armed peace. But there seems no other way. To disarm is to expose ourselves to dangers which we had thought relegated to the centuries of barbarism, but which the Germans have shown us to be still present to-day.

The meaning of it all is that the pathway of progress is far more arduous and the pace at which humanity can hope to move upon it far slower than we had thought. Permanent peace, though it will still stand as the gaol to which an elevated and altered humanity will one day attain, must remain for generations to become nothing but a dream.