Henry James: Beguiled into thinking war, worst horror that attends the life of nations, could not recur
Member of the Anti-Imperialist League
From Mr. and Mrs. Fields (1915)
If at such a time as this a man of my generation finds himself on occasion revert to our ancient peace in some soreness of confusion between envy and pity, I know well how best to clear up the matter for myself at least and to recover a workable relation with the blessing in eclipse. I recover it in some degree with pity, as I say, by reason of the deep illusions and fallacies in which the great glare of the present seems to show us as then steeped; there being always, we can scarce not feel, something pathetic in the recoil from fond fatuities. When these are general enough, however, they make their own law and impose their own scheme; they go on, with their fine earnestness, to their utmost limit, and the best of course are those that go on longest. When I think that the innocent confidence cultivated over a considerable part of the earth, over all the parts most offered to my own view, was to last well-nigh my whole lifetime, I cannot deny myself a large respect for it, cannot but see that if our illusion was complete we were at least insidiously and artfully beguiled. What we had taken so accurately to believing in was to bring us out at the brink of the abyss, yet as I look back I see nothing but our excuses; I cherish at any rate the image of their bright plausibility. We really, we nobly, we insanely (as it can only now strike us) held ourselves comfortably clear of the worst horror that in the past had attended the life of nations, and to the grounds of this conviction we could point with lively assurance. They all come back, one now recognizes, to a single supporting proposition, to the question of when in the world peace had so prodigiously flourished. It had been broken, and was again briefly broken, within our view, but only as if to show with what force and authority it could freshly assert itself; whereby it grew to look increasingly big, positively too massive even in its blandness, for interruptions not to be afraid of it.
It is in the light of this memory, I confess, that I bend fondly over the age – so prolonged, I have noted, as to yield ample space for the exercise – in which any challenge to our faith fell below the sweet serenity of it. I see by that any measure I might personally have applied the American, or at least the Northern, state of mind and of life that began to develop just after the Civil War formed the wellspring of our assumption. Odd enough might it have indeed appeared that this conception should need four years of free carnage to launch it; yet what did that mean, after all, in New York and Boston, into which places remembrance reads the complacency soon to be the most established – what did that mean unless that we had exactly shed the bad possibilities, were publicly purged of the dread disease which had come within an inch of being fatal to us, and were by that token warranted sound forever, superlatively safe? – as we could see that during the previous existence of the country we had been but comparatively so. The breathless campaign of Sadowa [the decisive battle in the Austro-Prussian War], which occurred but a year after our own sublime conclusion had been sealed by Lee’s surrender, enlarged the prospect much rather than ruffled it, and though we had to confess that the siege of Paris, four years later, was a false note, it was drowned in the solidification of Germany, so true, so resounding, and for all we then suspected to the contrary so portentously pacific a one. How could peace not flourish, moreover, when wars either took only seven weeks or lasted but a summer and scarce more than a drawn-out autumn? – the siege of Paris dragging out, to our pitying sense, at the time, but raised before all the rest of us, preparing food-succor, could well turn round, and with the splendid recovery of France to follow so close on her amputation that violence fairly struck us as moving away confounded. So it was that our faith was confirmed – violence sitting down again with averted face, and the conquests we felt the truly golden ones spreading and spreading behind its back.