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Upton Sinclair: How wars start, how they can be prevented

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

American writers on peace and against war

Upton Sinclair: Selections on war

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Upton Sinclair
From Expect No Peace (1938)

Upton Sinclair

We have a great number of peace societies in America, and in my part of the country they eat many dinners and listen to many speeches full of hope. Yet, for two years there has been a little world war in Spain, with Italy and Germany fighting Russia and France more or less openly; for a year there has been an undeclared war in China, and walking down the street just now I heard a news man on the radio, telling the world that 1,500,000 Germans are mobilized for what may be maneuvers and may be something more. War, it appears, is an underground fire, and nobody knows where it will break out next. As a result the nations are spending on military preparations nearly twice as much as they were spending prior to the last smashup.

Our scientists have been exact in measuring the trajectory of shells and the pull of bombing-plane propellers, but they have been slower to understand the forces which drive modern nations into war. Yet these events, too, have their laws, and it becomes more and more important to find out what they are. Upon them may depend the lives not merely of your children and grandchildren — but your own. You may be planning to stay at home during the next war; but now it appears that the war may be brought to you, and the next time you go down town on a shopping trip, you may meet the fate of the residents of Shanghai and Barcelona and be scattered in fragments over the street.

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The most sinister fact about modern armaments is that they get out of date so fast. It used to be a matter of ten years; now, with the speeding up of industry, it is a matter of two or three. On the practice fields of Spain Germany makes the painful discovery that her airplanes are outclassed by those of Russia; straightway Germany has to build new planes — no one can say how many, but as many as she can. In a race the other day the French flyers found they were outspeeded by the Italians; so France has to start all over. We are selling planes and other armaments to cash customers; so airplane profits increased 462 percent in one year (Business Week, Nov. 21, 1936), and so each year we have another billion dollars’ worth of gold to store in the underground vaults at Fort Knox, Ky.

In the development of each nation there comes some moment when those in power judge that they have achieved superiority over some rival nation. If they wait until next year, they may lose that lead. They have a store of munitions which will deteriorate and lose their explosive power if kept for a year. When the next war begins it will be because of a situation such as that; and the trouble with all peace programs is that the peace advocates won’t know anything about it until they hear the planes droning overhead and the bombs exploding in the next block. You and I, plain ordinary citizens, are not permitted to know any more about the intentions of governments than we knew about the intentions of John Dillinger and Al Capone. We went about our own affairs until one day we picked up a newspaper and read that some millionaire had been kidnaped, or that a group of beer-runners had been wiped out with machine-guns in a garage. Each nation, of course, expects to come out of the war a victor. If we take the last World War as a model, the winning nations will not repudiate their debts, but will simply fail to pay them; they will reduce their domestic debts by inflation and thus get the means to start on a new spending spree. As for the defeated nations, they will lose their colonies and some slices of their territory; inflation will wipe out their debts entirely, and they will find themselves face to face with revolution.

The correct statement is that modern wars are caused by bad economics, plus bad history and bad psychology. France and Germany are arming against each other, partly because they are commercial rivals for colonies and trade, but also because they have been fighting each other for centuries, and their ruling classes have got the habit, and find what they call “glory” in military action. Because of that mental attitude, it seems impossible that wars can cease between France and Germany so long as those classes control the nation’s affairs.

If it is true that in our day the economic factor is the most powerful, then we must go further and say that a change in political control would not be enough. If it is true that the competitive wage system and the production of goods for profit bring about crises inside every country, and compel it to go out in search of foreign markets, then it will pay us to inquire whether under a collective or cooperative economy an industrialized nation could stay at home and produce for the use of its own people, withholding itself from the trade rivalries and wars of the rest of the world.

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