Peace by Incantation: A Study in International Folly
Harper's
May, 1928

Certain Siberian tribes believe in secondary local gods, and in the power of thepriesthood to influence them. When something unusual turns up in the order of nature, such as the outbreak of a plague, for instance, the people expect the shaman to rise to the occasion with his regular formula of noisy incantations. There is no record, I believe, of the efficacy of this method, but one may say without irreverence I think, that it is in some respects open to criticism. As far as one can see, it takes no account of the possibility that a plague may have physical causes largely in control of the laity themselves, or that certain physical circumstances, also controllable, tend powerfully to keep a plague going. Second, there seems no natural relation of cause and effect between the incantations and the results they are supposed to produce. Third, the system seems presumptuous. Assuming the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs, as one easily may and most of us do, it seems very cheeky to keep on with the mere routine of invoking divine intervention against a fresh plague without having opened one's mind to the lessons taught by the last one.

On the other hand, the conveniences of the system are considerable; they are quite enough to account for its persistence. First, the people do not have to think; they merely assent. The shaman himself does not have to think; he merely goes through certain stated motions. This is a great gain. What is a little run of plague once in a while compared with the comfort of emancipation into a completely stagnant mind? Even if the plague carries off a great many people, what of it? Most of them, if they had free choice, would rather die than think. Again, by simply trusting things to the shaman, the people can roll all responsibility off themselves, and we all know how sweet that is. They can continue in their gladsome plague-breeding, plague-fostering habits, and when the plague returns look to the shaman to get out his kettledrums and charms and go to work again. This is easy when the alternative is the terrific job of living all the time in intelligent decency. Finally, plagues are not continuous, but recurrent, and after one has burned itself out there is always a chance that the next one may lie a long time on the lap of the gods.

II

Certain aspects of what in our modesty we agree to call civilized society make it appear that the heathen in his blindness has a good deal to say for himself. I can discern absolutely nothing in the foregoing that is not a bedrock characteristic of our civilized approach to the problem of international peace. Some projects for peace-by-fiat have lately been put before us by Senator Borah and others; and their only actual merit is their witness once more to the mighty truth that superstition dies hard. Mr. Borah's method with war is like his method with whiskey-selling — forbid it; make it a criminal offense, unjustifiable under any circumstances, and substitute a codification of international law, with compulsory recourse for arbitration to an independent international court. On the strength of experience, one may only observe that there is quite as much to be said for his method with war as for his method with whiskey-selling. Senator Capper has taken a leaf out of the late Mr. Bryan's commonplace-book, and would dispose of war by a set of international agreements not to fight, quite as if the world were not already littered up with noisome vestiges of all manner of international agreements. The French Foreign Minister has held out an olive-branch of this kind to Mr. Kellogg; and as I write this there is a great deal of newspaper-talk about Mr. Kellogg's willingness to accept it, and even to go farther by inviting similar arrangements with Great Britain and other nations. Well, one tries hard not to be cynical, but one simply cannot help remarking that there is an election coming on, and that a gesture of this kind would beckon out a good many votes. It is no disparagement of Mr. Kellogg's interest in peace to say that if I were in his place I should make this gesture at this time, and so, I fancy, would any reader of this magazine if he were similarly situated.

As an old Scots metaphysician said of an opponent's arguments, Mr. Borah's proposals and Mr. Capper's are only "cauld kail made het again" except for a fantastic rider attached to Mr. Borah's, to the effect that every nation should be encouraged to bind itself to indict and punish its own international war breeders and war profiteers! One rubs one's eyes at this and asks oneself if Arcadia can possibly be located somewhere in Idaho. Mr. Burton of Ohio, too, comes out with a somewhat analogous proposal of closing the American munitions market to any nation that breaks its agreement not to go to war, leaving to the President the uncommonly delicate task of determining which nation is the culprit in any given instance! Ten years puts a mighty strain on any politician's memory, yet if Mr. Borah and Mr. Burton made a great effort, might they not be able to see how these naive suggestions look in the light of conditions preceding the entry of the United States into the late war? Surely no other criticism of them would be needed.

Another suggestion is the rather indefinite one that the United States should formulate for itself a constructive foreign policy based on co-operation instead of on force. Its advocates complain that our present foreign policy is "nebulous" — which, considering their own proposal, seems one of the oddest charges they could bring — and that while we talk a good deal about peace we decline to co-operate with the rest of the nations "in a common effort to make world peace secure." In reply, it is quite sufficient to observe that the United States is the one country in the world which is estopped by its Constitution from having a foreign policy which is either constructive or continuous. Our foreign policy is in the hands of our representatives and our Constitution provides that these representatives must reside in the districts which they represent. Therefore, as politicians, they cannot formulate a foreign policy with reference to the nation as a whole; they must keep a careful eye on the local interests of their districts. Senator Borah, for example, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but he keeps his seat in the Senate only by grace of the votes of the people of Idaho; and this ties his hands. If he represented an English constituency which disagreed with him on some point of foreign policy, and ousted him, he could at once hunt up some other constituency anywhere in the United Kingdom that he could find one likely to agree with him, and stand for re-election. If Idaho ousts him he must either recant or stay ousted.

Thus our foreign policy may not perhaps be so well described as nebulous — though it is that -- as improvised. It is a series of improvisations, and under our constitutional system it cannot be anything else. Complaints against it on this score, therefore, are nugatory. A letter written to President Roosevelt in 1903 by Senator Lodge, a predecessor of Mr. Borah on the Foreign Relations Committee, shows exactly the principle on which our foreign policy is and must be constructed. It was at the time of the collision of imperialist economic interests in the Far East, especially (as far as American interests were concerned) in Manchuria and Mongolia. "I have been thinking a great deal about Manchuria," Mr. Lodge wrote. "Our trade there is assuming very large proportions, and it seems to me we ought to take very strong grounds....I have had letters from Lawrence, where some of the mills make cotton goods which go to Manchuria, urging the strongest possible action, and then that a fleet be sent."

III

One can see at a glance how completely all these plans, projects, and suggestions correspond with the theory and practice of shamanism in the three essential particulars laid down at the outset of this paper. One sees the same correspondence in the work of all the endless societies and associations for the promotion of peace. The Carnegie Peace Foundation is as shamanistic as Senator Borah himself. All these peace movements and peace proposals persistently shirk the causes of war and the conditions that promote war, persistently shirk the relation of their plans to those causes and conditions, and are persistently presumptuous in pretending a possible efficacy of their plans against future wars, while showing no semblance of having opened their mind to the most patent and obvious lessons taught by preceding wars.

One of our newspapers presumably well informed, says that what Messrs. Borah, Capper, and Burton really want is general public discussion of the policy of the United States in respect to war, not only in Congress, but in the press and at public meetings. This statement is what has heartened me to say my humble say about their peace plans; and I hope it is true. Nay, I believe that it is true, provided the discussion be carried on within the well-established limits of a strict shamanistic orthodoxy. No doubt these gentlemen would gladly welcome, and the press gladly publish, any discussion that did not impugn the essentials of shamanism or the specific value and appropriateness of shamanistic practices. I am not quite clear about their willingness to go beyond this. A liberal-minded Eskimo tribe might welcome a free discussion of the merits of one set of incantations over another. Even the shamans themselves might take a hand. But if someone showed cause for the thesis that no sort of incantations amounted to anything against a plague, and that the way really to get at the matter was quite different — well, one is not so sure. If he went farther, if he put it to the Eskimos that, in the premises, their faith in shamanism was a great disservice to their own interests, and that a pretense of efficacy for really inert practices was of dubious morality, it is ten to one that he would be treated to the "one plain argument" with which Lord Peter surmounted the skepticism of his brethren in Swift's Tale of a Tub; which, being far from books, I quote from memory, " 'To convince you,' cried Lord Peter, holding up the crust of bread which he declared had been miraculously transformed into a shoulder of mutton — 'to convince you, I will use but this one plain argument: I say, it is natural good mutton, as any that was ever bought in Leadenhall market; and if you do not believe it, God damn you and yours to all eternity!' Such a thundering proof as this," concludes Swift, dryly, "left no room for further objection."

Lord Peter's sense of logic is, in fact, vividly recalled by the discussion of disarmament at Geneva last autumn. The Russian Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Litvinov, appeared before the League of Nations with a proposal for complete and simultaneous universal disarmament. This, of course, would of itself not end war; Litvinov never pretended that it would. Plenty of peoples have gone to war with homemade slings and arrows, and they could do so again; they could go to war armed with flatirons and hoe-handles for that matter. But it would be a substantial expression of the much-advertised desire for peace, and a considerable guarantee of good faith; and Litvinov represents, it is said, the second largest army in Europe. Was his proposal discussed? It was not. The great majority of press opinion the world over contented itself with rehearsing Lord Peter's "one plain argument" in different keys. One of our newspapers, for instance, which makes some dubious pretensions to editorial character, said summarily that "the Russian proposal reeks with hypocrisy....Litvinov was obviously playing a game." Well, but if one can be as sure of Litvinov as all that, and really concerned to make other people equally sure, why not rap for a show-down on his little bluff? This is as convincing a procedure in diplomacy as it is in draw-poker. Merely blackguarding the Russian proposals butters no parsnips; showing them up would butter all the parsnips there are.

This incident helps to direct the imagination in forecasting what might befall anyone who ventured to carry a discussion of international peace beyond the limits set by a safe and sane shamanistic orthodoxy. Let us suppose a case. We all know the Williams College Institute of Politics. Probably, since peace plans are so much in the air at present, the Institute will devote some part of its sessions next summer to the subject of peace. Suppose it should invite someone to give a thoroughly realistic treatment of the thesis that "nations in general will go to war whenever there is a prospect of getting anything by it." If the speaker did even a moderately honest job, we should be likely to hear a good deal of Lord Peter's "one plain argument " against the economic interpretation of history and against Bolshevist detraction of statesmen's motives. The arcane of shamanism are so sacred, the devotee's faith in them is so anxious, that the merest motion of a finger towards them provokes alarm. Yet, curiously, the parentage of this thesis gives the Institute a clear title to its use. The man who laid it down was of a type that has appeared only two or three times in American public life. He was no half-lettered and incendiary disciple of Marx, but a man of profound learning and the most austere integrity, an aristocrat of the most straitest sect, who held anything like democracy in utter detestation. The basis of his political system, in his own words, was that "those who own the country should govern the country." Surely that ought to be good enough for Williams College and Mr. Baruch. He was our first Secretary for Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Governor of New York, and the best American Englishman whom President Washington could find in the whole country to send to London to negotiate the treaty of 1795, clarum et venerabile nomen, John Jay. But not all this glory and renown, one fears, would save his thesis a single scurrility if it were seriously propounded at Williamstown next summer.

Yet this thesis is fundamental to the question of peace, even though propounding it were ever so subversive of shamanism. There never was a war in human history that did not have its gestation in some project of economic gain at someone else's expense. If Messrs. Borah, Burton, and Capper will name a single exception and prove it I will take back every word I say and subscribe to their peace-projects. Moreover, I am willing to take all chances that the economic intention of any war that may be cited is not clearly demonstrable. I am careful to specify intention, not pretext; for it is a rather significant fact, I think, that no war has ever been fought in America, and none in modern Europe, except upon some pretext that the mere passage of time has differentiated sharply from its actual intention. The barbarian wars, as they are called, were avowedly organized for plunder; no one pretended otherwise; but never a modern war.

The economic intention of our earlier wars has become a commonplace of history; the frontier war the Revolution, the Indian and Mexican Wars, the War of 1861. The intention of the Spanish War and of the informal and private executive wars in the Caribbean and in the Central American regions, such as the one going on in Nicaragua while I write these lines, is unfortunately obvious. We have also become aware, by force of very unusual circumstances, of the economic origins of the late European war, and the economic bearings of our share in it. Lamentable as the facts are, they are not without their humor when seen in retrospect. One would bargain off one's chances of salvation almost, for the sake of attending a decennial reunion of the American war-propagandists of 1917, under the chairmanship, say, of Dr. Henry van Dyke. What would it not be worth to see an assemblage of the clergymen, professors, bankers, three-minute men, publicists, and editors who distinguished themselves so manfully ten years ago; to observe their behavior in one another's presence, and hear what they could find to say to one another? But this treat will not come off; and Messrs. Borah, Burton, and Capper might learn a good deal about the prolegomena of peace by examining into the reasons why it will not come off.

IV

It is useful now to take a brief survey of what is being actually done at the present time in the direction of peace. The French Government has set up a complete ring of military alliances around the remains of the late Central Powers. The last treaty to be signed was with Jugoslavia; it gives the French a military hegemony straight down from the Baltic Sea to the foot of the Adriatic. The astute French Foreign Minister was reported as saying the other day that this treaty was quite innocent, that it was the mere formal registration of a long existent friendship, and conceived throughout in the spirit of Locarno; which last led an irreverent Austrian paragrapher to remark that there seemed to be no reason now why we should not have a good rousing Locarno war. The Italian Government — I think rightly — suspects the French of designs on making Italian influence play second fiddle in the Danube States and on the Mediterranean; so the Italian Foreign Office strengthened its position by a treaty with Albania, which would now play a part in regional diplomacy and in war somewhat like that played by Belgium in the last war.

Coming to another group, the British Foreign Office would no doubt show proper gratitude if Germany should take on a settled anti-Bismarckian policy towards Russia. Perhaps Germany might get back some "mandated" territory by so doing, maybe a slice of her former possessions in Africa, for instance. A friend of mine in Germany, a banker, remarked to me two years ago that "the time is probably coming when a certain country will need help pretty badly, and then Germany will get a good price for her soldiers." Sir Austen Chamberlain might also do something very decent for Mussolini — something like letting him have a free go in Albania, perhaps — in return for a similar settled anti-Russian policy. This is no mere disagreeable innuendo; in Sir Austen's place, who wouldn't? Politicians are always realistic; there is no politics but Realpolitik; so why should those who observe them not be realistic too?

As for the United States Government, it seems to have started in on about the program for "defense" that was to be expected. It has every valid reason for so doing, and chief among these reasons are two. American production, in the first place, is geared to a large and rapidly increasing volume of foreign trade, which we cannot get and keep except at the expense of other industrial and carrying nations; and we all know what that means. Second, we have an unconscionable lot of debts out, both public and private and their sum represents an economic accumulation that would be quite worth confiscating "on the side."

It is repeated and repeated in many quarters that war with England is "unthinkable." It is not unthinkable, because I can think of it, and if I am the only person who can I want the credit of it. I have heard that kind of talk be fore. I can remember when good-will delegations used to cross between Germany and England by whole platoons, and when all the speeches of all the dignitaries on both sides were pitched to the same key. There was a good show of reason for it, too, because Germany was England's best Continental customer at the moment; but there were other economic considerations that out-weighed this one, or were thought to outweigh it. I agree, I cannot think of England's attacking the United States out of hand any more than in 1911 I could think of her attacking Germany out of hand. But it is no trouble at all for me to think of the United States being suddenly shorn of her outlying possessions by a group of nations acting together, with England either as a silent partner or, if necessary, "coming in"; I can think of American production under a stroke of apoplexy through disorganization of trade-routes; and I can think of a great many billion dollars' worth of debts due to us, public and private, being automatically annulled as an act of war. In fact, the one thing I cannot think of, in the premises is a single good reason for not seeing that the last war left the United States, in the new alignment of nationalist economic interests, exactly in the position that Germany occupied in the old alignment.

I hope my plain speaking will not expose me to the cheap and easy slur that I am a Thompsonite who takes a mean pleasure in twisting the lion's tail. Let me take shelter behind Mr. Tomlinson, whose spirited paper in the December Harper'sI so much admire, and whose sentiments are in every respect my own. Mr. Tomlinson makes no bones of intimating that his Government is the docile bond servant of certain special interests, and I can say the same thing of my own Government without reservation. I ask Mr. Tomlinson, then, to imagine himself in Mr. Kellogg's position, while I try to imagine myself in Sir Austen Chamberlain's. How would matters look to us, and what should we do? The interests behind Mr. Tomlinson-Kellogg wish to hold and consolidate their gains, collect their debts, and extend their markets. The interests behind Mr. Nock-Chamberlain would like to arrange a modus vivendior, as we say, "go in cahoots." Mr. Tomlinson-Kellogg's interests are indisposed to that, owing to an apparent mastery of the economic situation. Well, then, Mr. Nock-Chamberlain would certainly carry forward the traditional Foreign Office policy to cover the case, regarding it as the best and cheapest from the standpoint of the interests that he serves.

This seems to have been the policy that was carried forward in the years preceding 1914, according to the candid confessions of some who had part in it. Can Mr. Tomlinson say that in the view of the interests concerned, this policy would not be again justified if carried out by a combination of debtor nations? I cannot say so. Mr. Tomlinson does not mention noticing that these interests were at all disserved by it in 1914, and in one place he seems to intimate the contrary. Would they be worse served if it were put in force again? The public debt would be annulled by an act of war, and the private debts confiscated as alien property, as England confiscated (and still holds) alien property in the last war. I do not know what these private debts amount to, but they were estimated the other day at over twenty billion dollars, and increasing at a rate of nearly two billion dollars a year. All this would be some gain. Probably enough of our extra-continental possessions could be picked up to make the venture worth while; at least, it would cost us so much to protect them, and at the same time to protect our coast and our trade-routes that it would be money in our pocket, as a matter of military policy, to let them go, though our politicians would undoubtedly not have sense enough to do so. Mr. Tomlinson foresees correctly that we should be very badly off for being set upon by the right combination of debtor peoples; but does his imagination not fail a little when he foresees that our enemies — meaning always the special interests behind the diplomacy and guns — would fare as badly?

V

Here at last we are brought in sight of the real trouble with our peace plans. All our prospects for peace are permitted to hang on the works and ways of men who serve, and who must serve, economic interests whose furtherance does not make for peace, but on the contrary, against it. Any major collision of those interests, any interference with them, results inevitably in war, provided there is, or is thought to be, "something to be got by it." Even so admirable and experienced a person as Mr. Arthur Ponsonby loses sight of this when he offers his plan for "disarmament by example," in the Contemporary Review. He says that "no nation, no Government, no statesman, would be a party to" aggression upon a country which had openly repudiated the idea of ever resorting to force. Mr. Ponsonby does not know my country; a country, I regret to say, that has not hit a man of anywhere near its size since 1812. We have carried on a long string of unprovoked aggressions, and are still carrying them on — the papers this morning report a mobilization of our forces in Nicaragua — against utterly defenseless peoples. Mr. Ponsonby has surely heard of Perry's expedition, our Indian and Mexican wars, our annexation of Texas, not to speak of the Spanish War, in which we simply sandbagged a preposterously helpless country out of its valuable insular possessions. As a citizen of the United States I appreciate the compliment implied in Mr. Ponsonby's plan, but I cannot accept it.

The point is, as Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman once said, that it is vain to seek peace unless you also ensue it. Every plan of our politicians, and every demarcheof our peace-societies, contemplates just this impossible thing. It is a plan to have one's cake and yet to eat it; and any pretense that such a plan can succeed, any adventitious prestige given to such a plan, is simon-pure shamanism. But on the showing of Mr. Tomlinson and Mr. Ponsonby themselves, politicians can do no better, and obviously the peace-societies cannot. This is by no means to say that our politicians and peace-propagandists are necessarily scoundrels. If society commissioned Pougatchev, Razin, Dick Turpin, Claude Duval, Robin Hood, and Jesse James to devise a plan for the abolition of highwaymanry, we pretty well know what we should get. Yet this does not necessarily imply that these men are scoundrels, or that they would act in deliberate bad faith. Those who have read Count Tolstoy's novel Resurrection, and who remember his masterly analysis of the prostitute Maslova's view of her trade, and of its place in the social order, will easily understand that such an implication would be gratuitous and unwarranted. Pougatchev and his associates, like Maslova, and like all the rest of us, would necessarily proceed on the one and only theory of social organization that they understood; and hence, whatever plan they devised must fall within the scope of that theory. Our politicians are in precisely the same case.

It is permissible to point out, however, that the social theory held by Pougatchev (who seems, by the way, according to Poushkin, to have been quite something of a patriot) or the theory held by Maslova, is not accepted by the best reason and spirit of mankind as competent; also, that any fortuitous prestige or window dressing given to such a theory is misleading; and finally, that people who labor under the disabilities of that theory are distinctly the wrong sort to be entrusted with the determination of matters upon which that theory may have play. Just this may be said of the efforts of our politicians and our peace societies; it is all that can be fairly said, and it is all that need be said.

The establishment of permanent peace presupposes an entire revision of the purposes and functions of political government. More than this, it presupposes a radical revision of our existing economic system. A pretense for anything short of this is a mere reversion to shamanism; and our politicians and our peace societies are simply incapable of contemplating anything of the kind. That is the sum of the matter. If the idea can be entertained in other quarters, let us hear about it. Perhaps Mr. Tomlinson's loathing of war may move him to look into the matter and broach it for us; I hope so. But at all events, let those of us who dislike war, and who are neither politicians nor propagandists, be realistic about war. If we are unable or indisposed to examine the causes and conditions of war, and to speak in terms of those causes and conditions, let us be silent and leave the subject. If we can not talk sense, let us promote a salutary surcease of nonsense. Whatever may be said about the justice of hauling Admiral Plunkett over the coals for war-mongering, he is miles ahead of his critics in having put his finger firmly on the invariable causes of war; and in this respect, if no other, his utterances were worthy of a very devout consideration.

I close with a parable told me long ago by Lincoln Steffens. This gregarious soul once wandered into the company of some clergymen who were talking about original sin; they were speculating upon the story of Adam and Eve, and trying to make out where sin came from, who was to blame for it, and what could be done about it. Presently they asked Steffens for an opinion, and he said, "I don't agree with any of you. I don't blame Eve or Adam or God or the devil. I blame the apple. If the apple hadn't been there, nobody would have sinned. In regard to sin nowadays, and what can be done about it, I am of the same mind. I suggest taking away the apple. If you take away the apple, people won't sin."


Introducing Nock ||| Biography ||| Bibliography ||| Selected Essays
Challenge ||| Divagations ||| Nockian Society ||| Books in Print

Latest Authorized Area ||| Fulton's Lair

hits since May 16, 1998