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The New International, October 1942

Out of Their Own Mouths

What They Said They Would Do If War Came


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 9, October 1942, pp. 281–283.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In June and September of 1935, the then existent radical magazine, Modern Monthly, held a symposium entitled What I Will Do When America Goes to War. The editors of Modern Monthly composed three questions which they sent to a number of public figures, including a state governor, a leading poet and two playwrights, among others. The replies of these individuals are extremely interesting in light of the opinions some of them hold today, especially in view of the activities in which the quoted gentry presently engage. It was not that they were poor prophets who exhibited a woeful lack of understanding of the realities of world imperialism. For the questions put to them by the editors were very real and the war today fairly accurately represents a situation which now prevails in the world.

We reprint their answers not merely because these gentlemen have failed to do what they so fervently declared would be their individual determinations, though that would be reason enough. But in one way or another, some militantly, some protestingly, they all support the Second Imperialist World War and, directly or indirectly, they have attacked revolutionary socialist opponents of the war, those who remain true to their proletarian internationalist principles, i.e., all those who stand for socialism now as the only way out of the impasse of decaying capitalism. Note in particular the replies of Norman Thomas, Archibald MacLeish and Elmer Rice. Below are the questions and the answers.

The Questions

1. What will you do when America goes to war?

2. Will your decision be altered if Soviet Russia is an ally of the United States in a war with Japan?

3. Would a prospective victory by Hitler over most of Europe move you to urge U.S. participation in opposition to Germany in order to prevent such a catastrophe?

Van Wyck Brooks

1. I should oppose any conceivable war up to the point of an outbreak. If the country were actually at war, I should join as a writer with those who were seeking the best possible outcome of the war. But the question strikes me as vague.

2. No, I should not advocate war with Japan under any conceivable circumstances.

3. No, though I should feel like doing so. Definitely no.

John Dewey

1. Do my best first to keep the country out and then if it happens, to keep out myself.

2. No.

3. No, as at present informed.

Archibald MacLeish

The wording of these three questions constitutes a very interesting contribution by the editors of the Modern Monthly to their own symposium. The moment the possibility of a justifiable war is admitted the strongest position against war is vacated. The question then becomes: What would be a justification for war? And upon that question the issue shifts from war against peace to one man’s war against another man’s war. To X, war is justified if the United States is invaded; and “invasion” may mean anything from the seizure of Manhattan Island to the violation of the extra-territoriality of a United States ship in a Japanese port. To Y, war is justified if Hitler is about to make Europe unsafe for democracy – or for anything else but Hitler. To Z, war is justified in support of Russia against Japanese imperialism. But to all three war is, on the proper occasion, justified.

It is very clear that the admission of this possibility implies that war is not the greatest of human evils but that there are evils worse than war. If that is the position of the editors, I agree that history is with them. The whole history of wars of liberation, of violent revolutions – even of the usual dishonest imperialistic war – proves that there are conditions, real or imagined, which men find unendurable and to which they prefer the miseries of war. But the danger of an anti-war program built upon that admission, historically sound though it may be, is nevertheless obvious. For it is precisely those deepest human emotions to which the propaganda (!) machinery always addresses itself in time of war ... of any war.

The last war against Germany was fought, you will recall, to make the world safe for democracy. The next war against Germany might very well be fought, as your third question suggests, to make the world safe against Nazism. With war in the offing the realistic and skeptical journal is not read; the newspapers echo the common cry; the propaganda machinery whips up the dust of its own choosing. If enough people believe that a certain type of war might be justifiable then the War Department will see that they get that kind of war – in print. The kind of war they have gotten in fact they will discover for themselves some years afterward.

The consequence is that my answers to your second and third questions would be No. And that I should answer your first question as follows: I should do everything in my power to prevent the United States going to war under any circumstances. There is only one possible position against the menace of militarism: absolute hostility. Any other is romantic. Any other supplies the forces desiring war with the means of securing it.

Robert Morss Lovett

1. In case the United States goes to war, I shall take my stand on the Kellogg Pact, in which, by treaty having equal force with the Constitution, this country has renounced war as an instrument of national policy. I shall take no part myself and shall do my best to defend others who take a similar stand.

2. No.

3. No.

Stuart Chase

1. Accept the fact. In the last war I registered as a conscientious objector, and this I would do again, but the gesture would be futile as I am too old for the draft ...

2. Decision for what? A war against Japan is a war against human beings.

3. No. Fascism is governed in the long way by economic forces, not by tin-pot Hitlers and Mussolinis. I would rather wait a few years, for the technological imperative to get in its fine work, than ship 5,000,000 doughboys to be butchered in Europe. I am not afraid of fascism any more than I am of capitalism. Both are scarcity systems and are incapable of operating for long under power age conditions. The real alternatives are collectivism in the public interest – mass consumption unrestricted or chaos and old night. I will admit I am afraid of the latter, but going to war will not help very much.

Elmer Rice

1. Go to jail probably; or get shot.

2. No. I don’t subscribe to the theory that there are good wars and bad wars. I am bored with all this adolescent shrilling about barricades and street fights. I think that physical combat is a stupid, lazy and irrelevant way of solving any problem or settling any argument.

3. No.

Charles Beard

1. I never cross a bridge until I come to it and have a look at it. If, however, I am called upon to fight for the promotion of oil profits in China, or the collection of defaulted bonds in Peru, they will have to come and get me – to use the picturesque of that forthright soldier, Smedley Butler.

2. No.

3. No; let them fight it out.

Reinhold Neibuhr

I can give you my answers to your questions very briefly: I do not intend to participate in any possible war now in prospect. I take this position not on strictly pacifistic grounds, for I am not an absolutist, but simply because I can see no good coming out of any of the wars confronting us. The position of Russia on the one hand and of Germany on the other hand in any of these wars would not affect my decision.

Norman Thomas

1. I shall do all I can to keep the United States out of any new international war. If and when America enters new wars I shall keep out myself, do what I can to bring about prompt peace and take whatever advantage I can of the situation in order to bring about that capture of power in government by the workers which is the true basis of freedom, peace and plenty.

2. My decision would not be altered on the basis of the present facts or any facts that are likely to exist. A war between Soviet Russia and the United States on one side and Japan and possibly some other powers on the other would not be fundamentally changed in character by the participation of Stalin’s Soviet Russia. It would still be a war of rival imperialisms.

3. I suppose my answer to your third question is “No,” but I think the question rather unfair. A prospective victory by Hitler over most of Europe is highly unlikely. The circumstances of such victory would not be conditioned primarily by the triumph of fascism over democracy but by a host of other considerations. The nations of Europe will not fight against Hitler out of love for democracy and hatred for fascism. They will fight because of competing national interests. Out of that sort of maneuvering no victory for a genuine workers’ democracy can come. The victory we want over fascism must be won by the workers themselves on other than a basis of nationalistic war. I view with profound regret the recent acts of the Communist International in going back to the position of the majority Socialists in 1914; that is to say, the position of supporting a possible “good war,” in this case a war against fascism, as that was allegedly a war against imperialism.

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