TOPICS OF THE DAY.
PRESIDENT WILSON'S MISTAKE.
NO one who has read the letters from American corre- spondents in the columns of the Spectator or followed the tendency of American public opinion in the American Press can doubt, whatever his predilections or prejudices, that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction in the United States with the general attitude of the Government at Washington. This dissatisfaction is not mitigated by the fact that those who are most dissatisfied often seem the least able to say what they would like to have done or to criticize President Wilson's action in detail. They feel that somehow and somewhere a mis- take has been made and a wrong turn taken, but exactly how or where they are at a loss to tell. It must not be supposed for a momeut that what we may venture to call an almost universal sense of uneasiness as to national policy is due to the American nation desiring to take part with the Allies. We are well aware that though the vast majority of native Americans—that is, of the men who were born citizens of the United States—desire that the Allies, as the representatives of freedom and sound public morals, should win, they are also intensely anxious to keep the peace, and not to be physically mixed up in a quarrel which is not theirs. Let us hasten to say, also, that we regard this attitude as eminently wise and sensible. We may have the strongest possible views as to the morality, or want of morality, of a particular action, and yet circum- stances may make it not our quarrel or one in which we are called upon to intervene. The Americans have a world of their own in which to take sides physically, and are perfectly entitled to say to Europe: "You must do your own police work and restrain your own malefactors. Europe must not expect from us more than abstract sympathy in regard to a European struggle." On the whole, and in spite of ex-President Roosevelt's generous and chivalrous attitude, we are strongly inclined to think that this is the right attitude for Americans to adopt. At any rate, it is the attitude that they do adopt.
How comes it that there is such general dissatisfaction in America with President Wilson's action ? Why are those who are conversant with great affairs, quite as much as the man in the street, perturbed by and annoyed with the attitude of the Administration ? On the face of it, it looks as if President Wilson, by keeping out of the war and yet at the same time maintaining the rights of America, was doing exactly what the people of America want. Why, then, has he lost so much of public confi- dence in the process ? We believe that the explanation is a very simple one. President Wilson has made the fatal mistake of letting himself be governed by words, or rather by a word, rather than by actualities. That sounds too simple, or perhaps too subtle, an explanation, and yet we believe that it can be fully justified. President Wilson at the very beginning of the war determined that he would maintain "a strict neutrality." Unfortu- nately, he failed to think out accurately and clearly what was the true meaning of " neutrality." He let the word run away with him. He forgot that fatal power and imposture of words which has so often betrayed statesmen who try to act on reason and on logic rather than on instinct. As so often happens in moral conduct, the distinction between the right and the wrong course seems at the beginning so minute as to be negligible. Yet as the lines lengthen the divergence becomes more and more apparent till at last the false line, fully developed, is seen to be a universe asunder from the true.
President Wilson said that he meant to be strictly neutral. He at once began to interpret this to mean that he must hold the balance so evenly between the contending Powers that the United States Government must never express any opinion which would appear to help or favour one side in the combat more than the other, This would have been a very difficult position for any State to take up. It was an absolutely impossible one for the United States, which holds special views as to the sanctity of Treaties and the need for modifying the rights of belligerents by the higher rights of humanity. It soon became evident that nations, like melt, cannot afford to be neutral on a moral question. A perfectly cynical,perfectly
cold-blooded Government, basing its actions on the prin- ciples of Machiavelli, might conceivably declare that States have nothing to do with moral right or wrong, that there are no merits in a war between nations, and that it is a matter of indifference whether the cause of inter- national morality and freedom is violated or supported by one or other of the contending parties. " The victory of militarism, tyranny, and political cynicism would be just as welcome to us as the victory of civic freedom and international probity." Frederick the Great could have taken up such an attitude. As we have just said, it is an impossible attitude for the Government of the United States. Yet it was inherent in the definition of neutrality into which President Wilson fell uncon- sciously. When he adopted his definition he did not, we may feel certain, see that it led to the reductio ad absurdum that he and the Government at Washington must not dare to speak a word in protest or in indignation against what was happening in Belgium lost he and they should appear to be favouring the cause of those who endeavoured' to protect Belgium or of condemning that of those who did the wrong.
A short parable may perhaps explain exactly what we mean. Jones, coming round the corner of the street, sees a fight going on in which three men (France, Russia, and Britain) are attempting to protect a boy from the clutches of three other men (Germany, Austria, and Turkey). Jones looks on at the fight and determines that it is not any business of his, and that he means to keep out of it. In these circumstances what should we expect Jones to do ? If he saw foul blows given by the men who had attacked the boy, surely he would allow his indignation to have full play. He would say: "Though I am not going to take part in this fight, I am not going to pretend that foul blows are fair, or that those men had any business to attack the boy." What he would not do would be to put his hand to his month and whisper con- fidentially in low tones to a friend in the crowd: "Of course it is a cursed shame to fight like that and to attack the boy, but I should never dream of saying so publicly. If I did I should not be strictly neutral. You must take it from me that officially I regard the fight as perfectly fair and square, and that I have no sort of feeling either way as to how it ought to end. I should be taking sides if I were to let my private feelings be known as to the merits of the struggle or as to the way in which it is being conducted. My business is to be neutral, and a neutral must be prepared in the sacred cause of neutrality even to say that black is white and hitting below the belt or attempting to gouge out people's eyes is fair fighting. To say anything else might be to encourage the other side, and that would be utterly inconsistent with strict neutrality." That is the redsectio ad absurdum which President Wilson has reached owing to his determination to maintain strict neutrality without clearly understand- ing what he means by neutrality.
What President Wilson should have said at the begin- ning was that be intended to maintain peace and not to intervene in the quarrel. He should have added, however, that the United States could not possibly adopt any policy which would involve silence or a neutral attitude on a moral issue. The United States must be free to shape and express her policy during the war as she had expressed it and shaped it during peace—i.e., in favour of war con- ducted on humane and civilized lines ; conducted, that is, with the minimum of suffering and misery for the civil population and for the non-combatants ; in fact, in accordance with the elaborate code of military ethics devised in the Hague Conventions, to which all the combatants in the present war had solemnly pledged their word. "Though we cannot prevent the fighting, and though we shall not in any case take part in it, we will never assent to the notion that the United States Government are bound to be silent on a moral issue led they should appear to be taking sides." That would have been a perfectly practical line, and a line worthy of the United States Government. It would have kept the Administration from falling into the impossible position which they have now adopted: " We must not speak out in favour of virtue, of sound morals, and of freedom lest a neighbour be offended. It is an awful thing, a wicked thing, a thing contrary to the usages of civilized nations, to harry a country as Belgium has been harried, to shoot hostages by the hundred as they have been shot in Belgium, and to give up whole cities to military execution because a few men not in uniform lost their heads and fired at the soldiers who were invading their country. It is worst of all to carry off the populations of whole villages and districts into captivity as did the Kings of Babylon. No worse crimes than these can be conceived, and they are the crimes not of individuals but of a nation acting as a whole. But 'Mum's the word,' for to condemn these things as they ought to be condemned would be in effect hostile to Germany if she did them, and would show that we were not strictly neutral " The great Lord Halifax in one of his wisest and most inspired political writings warned a section of the English people just before the Revolution of 1688 how dangerous it is " to build upon a foundation of paradox." It would have been well for President Wilson and Mr. Bryan if they could have remembered and heeded that teaching. The trouble with theln all along has been that they have been building upon a foundation of paradox—with the result which we see. Paradox cannot be carried further than when it involves neutrality upon a moral issue, and makes you assert that black is white because to say otherwise might injure one of the combatants whose essential con- tention is that in war all talk of black and white is sheer nonsense. To put the matter quite plainly, President Wilson, with the best intentions in the world, both moral and political, has got himself into a perfectly hopeless position. We do not believe for a single moment, as some of our American correspondents have alleged, that President Wilson is a pro-German. On the contrary, we believe just the reverse. We are sure that at heart he is pro-British and pro-Allies. Unfortunately, however. his attitude is that which we have just described—the attitude of the man who whispers in private: "I hope to Heaven the right will win and that there will be no triumph of tyranny and militarism. But not a word of this or I shall appear to be taking sides!" Indeed, President Wilson's attitude can only be described as a tragedy. We do not believe that there was a man more determined than he was when he entered office to conduct his administration on moral lines, and to show the world that morality and politics are not incompatible, and that cynicism need not really be the rule for statesmen. Alas for the President that he did not follow his own natural instinct for the right instead of his reason It would never have betrayed him. Instead, it would have led him on the road which he really wants to travel. It would not in the least have risked involving him or his country in war, and he would have gone down to history as the man who kept his country at peace while at the same time he had the courage to speak out in the name of the Republic on the side of right and justice. The turning-point was his answer to the deputation of Belgian notables who went to the United States at the very begin- ning of the war. President Wilson received them with his finger on his lip lest Germany should be offended. If he had spoken what was in his heart, though it would have offended Germany, there would have been no war between her and the United States. The Germans were not going to send an ultimatum to America because the President had said that good and evil were different things, and that no policy of neutrality could ignore that essential fact.
President Wilson will go down to history as a man on whom fate has been specially hard. But for this war the world would probably have regarded him as one of America's greatest and most high-minded statesmen. As it is, the verdict of the world will be like that of Tacitus on the Roman Emperor. Every one would have deemed President Wilson capable of nobly filling his high office had not he been triad in the fire of a great crisis. Political luck never struck a man harder than it has struck him.