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Romain Rolland: America and the war against war


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts


Romain Rolland: Selections on war


Romain Rolland
Free Voices From America (1917)
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul



Those who resist the war madness constitute a little Church where persons of all parties make common cause, Christians, atheists, Quakers, artists, socialists, etc. Hailing from all points of the compass, and holding the most conflicting ideas, they share only one article of faith, that of the war against war.

The modern state has broken everything that resists its power; it has made around itself a void, an abyss wherein it will perish. Militarism is the modern state’s instrument of oppression, just as dogma was the instrument of the church.

Since the apostles of peace are few in number, since they are oppressed, they have all the more right to demand the esteem of the world. Everything rages against these bold men: the formidable power of the armed states; the baying of the press; the frenzy of blinded and drunken public opinion.


I have often deplored that during the war the Swiss press has failed to play the great part which was assigned to it. I have not hesitated to express my regret to Swiss journalists of my acquaintance. I do not reproach the Swiss periodicals for their lack of impartiality. It is natural, it is human, to have preferences, and to show them passionately. We have all the less reason to complain seeing that (at least among the Latin Swiss) the preferences are in our favour.

My chief grievance is that, since the beginning of the war, our Swiss friends have failed to keep us fully informed of what is going on around us. We do not ask a friend to judge for us; when we are carried away by passion, we do not ask him to be wiser than we are. But if he is in a position to see and know things that are hidden from us, we have a right to reproach him if he leaves us in ignorance. He does us wrong, for through his fault we are likely to fall into errors of judgment and are likely to act wrongly.

Neutral countries enjoy an inestimable advantage. They can look the problems of the war in the face, in a way that is utterly impossible to the belligerent nations. Above all, the neutrals enjoy the advantage of being able to speak freely, a piece of good fortune which they fail to esteem at its true value. Switzerland, in the very centre of the battlefield, between the fighting camps, with inhabitants drawn from three of the belligerent stocks, is peculiarly favoured. I have had occasion to perceive and to profit by the wealth of information at the disposal of the Swiss. Hither, from all parts of Europe, comes an abundance of news, evidence, printed matter.

Yet the Swiss press makes little use of this abundance. With few exceptions, Swiss periodicals are content to reproduce the official bulletins from the armies, and the semi-official statements issued by agencies that are open to suspicion, statements inspired by the governments or by the occult forces which to-day have far more governing power than the nominal heads of governments. Rarely do we find that the Swiss papers subject these interested statements to critical discussion. Hardly ever do we find contrasted views; hardly ever are we enabled to listen to independent voices from the opposing trenches. Thus official truth, dictated by the powers that be, is imposed upon the masses with the potency of a dogma. Thought concerning the war has a catholicity which will not permit heresy to exist. Such a development is strange in Switzerland, and above all in this republic of Geneva, whose historic origins and whose reasons for existence were free opposition and fertilising heresy.

I do not propose to study the psychological causes of the suppression of thoughts which conflict with official dogma. I am inclined to think that partisan feeling is of less effect in this matter than, in some, ignorance of the facts and lack of critical faculty, and in others, really well-informed persons, failure to verify alleged facts, or an unwillingness to correct the errors of an overwrought public opinion — errors which, quite unknown to themselves, they really desire to believe. It is easier, and at the same time it is safer, to rest content with the news supplied from house to house by the great purveyors, rather than put oneself to the pains of going to the fountain head in order to revise or to supplement current information.

These errors and these lacunae are serious, however they originate, as the public is beginning to realise. It is perfectly natural that the ideas of this or that social or political party, in one or other of the belligerent nations, should conflict with the ideas of this or that journal in a neutral land. No one need be surprised that such a neutral journal should openly express its dissent. Vigilant criticism would be equally in place. But it is not permissible that a neutral journal should ignore or distort everything of which it disapproves.

Is it not intolerable, for example, that we should know nothing about the Russian revolution except from news items issued from governmental sources (non-Russian for the most part), or from hostile partisans eager to calumniate all the forward groups? Is it not intolerable that the great Swiss periodicals should never give an open platform to the persons thus vilified, not even in the case of such a man as Maxim Gorki, whose genius and intellectual candour are the glory of European letters? Once more, is it not intolerable that the French socialist minority should be systematically left out of the picture, should be regarded as non-existent by the journals of French-speaking Switzerland? Is it not monstrous that these same journals, during the last three years, have maintained absolute silence concerning the British opposition, or, if they have referred to it at all, have done so in the most contemptuous terms? For we have to remember that those who voice this opposition bear some of the greatest names in British thought, such as Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw, Israel Zangwill, Norman Angell, and E. D. Morel; we have to remember that its views find expression in vigorous periodicals, in numerous pamphlets, and in books some of which excel in value anything that during the same period has been written in Switzerland and in France!

Nevertheless, in the long run, the staying powers of the British opposition have got the better of national barriers; the thought of this opposition has made its way into France, where some of the leading spirits are now fully aware of this English work and of these English struggles. With regret I have to record that the Swiss press has played no part in promoting the mutual understanding, and I imagine that neither the French nor the British will forget the fact.

The same thing has happened in the United States of America. The Swiss periodicals have been delighted to publish whatever the powers that be have sent them for publication; but, as usual, the opposition has been forgotten or scoffed at. When by chance a semi-official telegram from New York, meticulously reproduced (unless it has been obligingly paraphrased and provided with a sensational headline), makes some reference to the opposition, it is only that we may be inspired with contempt. It would appear that any one on the other side of the Atlantic who proclaims himself a pacifist, even if it be on Christian grounds, is looked upon as a traitor, as working in the hire of the enemy. This no longer arouses our surprise. The experiences of the last three years have been such that nothing can now surprise us. But we have likewise lost all power of trust. Having learned that those who desire truth will vainly wait for it to come to them, we set out to seek truth for ourselves wherever it may be found. When there is no drinking water in the house, we must e’en go to the well.

To-day let us listen to the words of the opposition in America, as expressed by one of the boldest of the periodicals serving that movement, “The Masses” of New York.

Here expression is given to non-official truth, and this, also, is no more than part of the truth. But we have the right to know the whole truth, be it pleasant or unpleasant. It is even our duty to know it, unless we are poltroons who fear to look reality in the face. You need not search the files of “The Masses” for records of greatness that has been lavished in the war! We know all about this, anyhow, from the official reports with which we are deluged. What we do not sufficiently know, what people do not wish to know, is the material and moral unhappiness, the injustice, the oppression which, as Bertrand Russell points out, are for each nation the obverse of every war, however just. That is why, as far as America is concerned, we must consult the uncompromising periodical which I am about to quote.

Max Eastman, the editor, is the soul of “The Masses.” He fills it with his thought and his energy. The two last issues to reach me, those of June and July, 1917, contain no less than six articles from his pen. All wage implacable warfare against militarism and blind nationalism. Nowise duped by official declamations, Eastman declares that this war is not a war for democracy. The real struggle for liberty will come after the war. In the United States, as in Europe, the war has been the work of capitalists, and of a group of intellectuals, clerical and lay. Max Eastman insists on the part played by the intellectuals, whilst his collaborator John Reed emphasises the part played by the capitalists. Similar economic and moral phenomena have been apparent in the Old World and in the New. In the United States, as in Europe, many socialists support the war. A number of them (notably Upton Sinclair, with whom I am personally acquainted, and whose moral sincerity and idealist spirit I fully appreciate) have adopted this strange militarism. They champion universal conscription, in the hope that after the “war for democracy” “the socialist movement will know how to ’employ such a disciplined army’ in building the co-operative commonwealth.”

As for the men of religion, they have rushed headlong into the fray. At a meeting of Methodist ministers in New York, one of them, a pastor from Bridgeport, Connecticut, straightforwardly declared, “If I must choose between my country and my God, I have made up my mind to choose God.” He was hooted and threatened by the other members of the assembly, five hundred in number; was denounced as a traitor. Newel Dwight Hillis, preaching in the Henry Ward Beecher church, said: “All God’s teachings concerning forgiveness must be abrogated as far as Germany is concerned. When the Germans have been shot I will forgive them their atrocities. But if we agree to forgive Germany after the war, I shall think that the world has gone mad.”

Billy Sunday, a sort of howling dervish, sprung from heaven knows where, brays to huge crowds a militarist gospel. He spouts his sermons like a sewer disgorging filth; he calls upon the Good Old God (who is apparently to be found in other places besides Berlin), buttonholes him, enrols him willy-nilly. A cartoon of Boardman Robinson’s shows Billy Sunday arrayed as a recruiting sergeant, dragging Christ by a halter and shouting: “I got him! He’s plumb dippy over going to war.” Fashionable folk, ladies included, are infatuated with this preacher; they delight to debase themselves in God’s company. The ministers of religion, too, are on Billy Sunday’s side. The exceptions may be counted on the fingers of one hand. Most notable among the exceptions is the pastor of the church of the Messiah in New York, John Haynes Holmes by name, from whom I had the honour of receiving a magnificent letter in February, 1917, just before the United States entered the war. In its July number “The Masses” published an admirable declaration issued by Holmes to his flock. It was entitled, What shall I do? He refuses to exclude any nation from the human community. The church of the Messiah will not respond to any militarist appeal. His conscience constrains him to refuse conscription. He will obey his conscience at any cost. “God helping me, I can no otherwise.”

Those who resist the war madness constitute a little Church where persons of all parties make common cause, Christians, atheists, Quakers, artists, socialists, etc. Hailing from all points of the compass, and holding the most conflicting ideas, they share only one article of faith, that of the war against war. This common creed suffices to bring them into closer association than the associations they had with their friends of yesterday, with their brothers by blood, by religion, or by profession. Thus did Christ pass to and fro among the men of Judea, detaching those who believed in him from their families, from their class, from all their past life.

In the United States, as in Europe, young men are far less possessed with the war spirit than their elders. A striking example comes from Columbia University. Here, while the professors were conferring on General Joffre the degree of doctor of literature, the students assembled to pass a unanimous resolution against answering the call of military conscription. This exposed the voters to the penalty of imprisonment. For they manage things with a heavy hand in the classic land of liberty. Many American citizens have been thrown into gaol, and others, we are informed, have been immured in lunatic asylums, for having expressed their disapproval of the war. The recruiting sergeants go wherever they please, even forcing their way into meetings of the workers and maltreating all who resist them. Under the rubric A Week’s War “The Masses” records all the brutalities, all the blows, wounds, and murders, to which the war has already led in America. We may well ask to what extremes of violence these antipacifist repressions will some day be carried. The alleged freedom of speech in the United States would appear to be pure humbug. “In actual fact,” exclaims Max Eastman, “freedom of speech has never existed.” It is by law established. “But in practice there reigns a contempt for law, to the advantage of the strong and to the detriment of the weak.” We have long known this through the revelations of the Italian and Russian socialist press, in connection with the scandalous sentences passed on working men. Do pacifists give trouble? They are arrested as anarchists! Does a periodical refuse to bow to the opinion of the state? It is suppressed without parley; or sometimes, by a more refined procedure, it is prosecuted for obscenity! And so on.

Max Eastman’s chief collaborator, John Reed, endeavours to throw light on the preponderating role played by American capitalism in the war. In an article which adopts as title that of Norman Angell’s book The Great Illusion, Reed declares that the pretence of fighting kings is maudlin, and that Money is the true king. Putting his finger on the sore spot, he adduces figures showing the colossal profits made by the great American companies. Under the bizarre title The Myth of American Fatness, he shows that it is not, as Europe fancies, the American nation which battens on the war, but only two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of the inhabitants of the States are thin folk, and grow thinner daily. During the years 1912 to 1916, wages increased nine per cent, whilst the cost of food increased seventy-four per cent during the years 1915 and 1916. From 1913 to 1917, the general rise in prices was 85.32 per cent (flour 69 per cent, eggs 61 per cent, potatoes 224 per cent! Between January 1915 and January 1917, the rise in the price of coal was from $5 to $8.75 per ton). The bulk of the population has suffered cruelly, and serious hunger strikes have taken place in New York. Of course the European press has either said nothing about these or has ascribed them to German plots.

During the years 1914 to 1916, there occurred an increase of five hundred per cent in the dividends paid by twenty-four of the largest companies (steel, cast iron, leather, sugar, railways, electricity, chemical products, etc.). The dividend of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation rose from $5,122,703 in 1914 to $43,593,968 in 1916. The dividend of the United States Steel Corporation rose from $81,216,985 in 1914 to $281,531,730 in 1916. During the years 1914 and 1915, the number of wealthy persons in the United States increased as follows: From 60 to 120 in the case of those with a private income exceeding one million dollars; from 114 to 209 in the case of those with a private income ranging from half a million to one million dollars; while the number of those whose income ranged from one hundred thousand to half a million dollars was doubled. In incomes below one hundred thousand dollars, there has been no notable increase. John Reed adds: “There are limits to the patience of the common people. Beware revolts!”

The first article in the July number of “The Masses” is a message to the citizens of the United States entitled War and Individual Liberty, penned by Bertrand Russell, the distinguished English philosopher and mathematician. It is dated February 21, 1917, prior to the U.S. declaration of war, but could not be published before July. Russell recalls the self-sacrifice of the conscientious objectors in Britain, and the persecutions to which they have been exposed. He extols their faith (a faith for which he himself suffered). The cause of individual liberty is, he declares, the highest of all. Since the Middle Ages, the power of the state has grown unceasingly. It is now maintained that the state is entitled to dictate opinions to all, men and women. Prisons, emptied of criminals, who have been sent to the front in uniform to take part in the killing, are filled with honest men who refuse to be soldiers and to kill. A tyrannical society which has no place for rebels is a society condemned in advance. First of all its progress will be arrested, and then it will become retrogressive. The medieval church at least had, as counterpoise, the resistance of the Franciscans and of the reformers. The modern state has broken everything that resists its power; it has made around itself a void, an abyss wherein it will perish. Militarism is the modern state’s instrument of oppression, just as dogma was the instrument of the church. What is this state, before which all cringe? How absurd to speak of it as an impersonal authority, to invest it with a quasi-sacred character! The state consists of a few elderly gentlemen, for the most part of less than average ability, for they are cut off from the new life of the masses. Hitherto, the United States has been the freest of the nations. She has reached a critical hour, not for herself merely, but for the world at large, which regards her with tense anxiety. Let America beware. Even a just war may give rise to all possible iniquities. Vestiges of ancient fierceness linger within us; the human animal licks its chops as it watches the gladiatorial combats. We veil these cannibal appetites under highsounding names, speaking of Right and of Liberty. The last hope of our day lies in youth. Let youth claim for the future the individual’s prerogative to judge good and evil for himself, to be the arbiter of his own conduct.

Side by side with these serious words, a large place, in the combat of thought, is given to humour, that bright and beauteous weapon. Charles Scott Wood writes amusing Voltairian dialogues. Here we see Billy Sunday in heaven, filling the place with clamour. He preaches a sermon full of Billingsgate, a sermon addressed to God, represented as an old gentleman with suave and distinguished manners, a little tired, speaking softly. St. Peter is instructed to enforce a new divine ordinance, for God, weary of the insipid company of simple souls, has decided that only persons of intelligence are to be admitted to paradise in future. Consequently no one killed in the war will pass the gate, except the Poles, who claim no merit for being sacrificed, but say they were sacrificed against their will.

Louis Untermeyer contributes poems. A number of excellent book reviews and several columns of theatrical criticism deal with questions of the hour. Among the works referred to, I may mention two of great originality: a book filled with bold paradox by Thorstein Veblen, entitled Peace? An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace; a Russian play in four acts by Artsibashev, War, depicting the cycle of the war in a family and the wastage of souls which it involves.

Finally we have vigorous drawings, the work of satirists of the pencil. R. Kempf, Boardman Robinson, and George Bellows, enliven the magazine with their pungent visions and their cutting words. Kempf shows us War crushing in his embrace France, England, and Germany, crying out: “Come on in, America, the blood’s fine!” The four linked figures are dancing on a sea of blood in which corpses are floating. A few pages further on, Boardman Robinson shows Liberty in the background weeping. In front stands Uncle Sam, wearing handcuffs (censorship) and leg-irons, the cannon-ball of conscription drags at the chain. He is described as being “All ready to fight for Liberty.” George Bellows’ design depicts a chained Christ in prison. He is “incarcerated for the use of language calculated to dissuade citizens from entering the United States armies.” Finally, upon a heap of dead, the two sole survivors are seen savagely cutting one another to pieces. They are Turkey and Japan. The legend runs: “1920: still fighting for civilisation.” This design is by H. R. Chamberlain.

Thus fight, across the seas, a few independent spirits. Freedom, clearness, courage, and humour, are rare virtues. Still more rarely do we find them united, in days of folly and enslavement. In the American opposition, these virtues take the palm.

I do not pretend that the opposition is impartial. It, likewise, is influenced by passion, so that it fails to recognise the moral forces animating the other side. The combined wretchedness and greatness of these tragical days lies in the fact that both parties are drawn to the fight by lofty, though conflicting ideals, which endeavour to slay one another while volleying abuse at one another like Homer’s heroes. We, at least, claim the right of doing justice even to our adversaries, even to the champions of the war which we loath. We know how much idealism, how much intense moral feeling, have been poured out on behalf of this sinister cause. We are aware that in this respect the United States has been no less spendthrift than Britain and France. But we wish people to give respectful hearing to the voices from the other side, from the peace party. Since the apostles of peace are few in number, since they are oppressed, they have all the more right to demand the esteem of the world. Everything rages against these bold men: the formidable power of the armed states; the baying of the press; the frenzy of blinded and drunken public opinion.

The world may howl as it pleases, may stop its ears as much as it likes; we shall compel the world to listen to these voices. We shall compel the world to pay homage to this heroic struggle, which recalls that of the early Christians against the Roman empire. We shall compel it to respect the brotherly greeting of such a man as Bertrand Russell, a new apostle Paul, “ad Americanos”; we shall compel the world to respect these men whose souls have remained free, these men who from their prisons in Europe and their prisons in America, clasp hands across the sea, and across the ocean that is yet wider than the Atlantic, the ocean of human folly.

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