Mark Twain: An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war
Vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, 1901-1910
From Glances at History (1906)
I pray you to pause and consider. Against our traditions we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war, a war against a helpless people, and for a base object – robbery. At first our citizens spoke out against this thing, by an impulse natural to their training. Today they have turned, and their voice is the other way. What caused the change? Merely a politician’s trick – a high-sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads: Our Country, right or wrong! An empty phrase, a silly phrase. It was shouted by every newspaper, it was thundered from the pulpit, the Superintendent of Public Instruction placarded it in every schoolhouse in the land, the War Department inscribed it upon the flag. And every man who failed to shout it or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor – none but those others were patriots. To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, “Our Country, right or wrong,” and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?
For in a republic, who is “the Country”? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant – merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Who, then, is “the Country”? Is it the newspaper? is it the pulpit? is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.
This Republic’s life is not in peril. The nation has sold its honor for a phrase. It has swung itself loose from its safe anchorage and is drifting, its helm is in pirate hands. The stupid phrase needed help, and it got another one: “Even if the war be wrong we are in it and must fight it out: we cannot retire from it without dishonor.” Why, not even a burglar could have said it better. We cannot withdraw from this sordid raid because to grant peace to those little people on their terms – independence – would dishonor us. You have flung away Adam’s phrase – you should take it up and examine it again. He said, “An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.”
You have planted a seed, and it will grow.