Moral Clarity of the Past [With Comment by John]

Scott reminded us this morning of Winston Churchill’s notice of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, suggesting that we ought to take seriously the statements of murderous purpose whether they come from a seemingly implausible Austrian-born corporal, or a soon-to-be nuclear-armed Iranian ayatollah. Of course, Mein Kampf was mostly ignored in the 1930s or dismissed as the unimportant or irrelevant thoughts that Hitler would discard once he assumed the “responsibilities” of high office.

As background research for one of my longer writing projects currently under way I have been reading old issues of the American Political Science Review from the late 1930s to see how the rise of European fascism and specifically German Nazism was treated. The majority of the articles and book reviews are either stupid, trivial, or superficial, i.e., they examine institutional changes and administrative structures in the value-free way typical of social science that can’t bring itself to consider making moral judgments. Hitler’s regime is treated as more or less normal (ditto the Soviet Union, of course). From these treatments a serious student would learn almost nothing important about politics. These blinkered assessments remain the case even after the Reichstag fire, Kristallnacht, the Anschluss, the investment of all of Czechoslovakia following the Munich agreement, and even the outbreak of open war in 1939. While there were some clear voices about the deeper significance of what was taking place—one thinks of Hermann Rauschning’s 1939 best-seller The Revolution of Nihilism: Warning to the West—you typically didn’t find such clarity and depth among academic political scientists.

There are a few notable exceptions. One of them was Robert C. Brooks of Swarthmore College, who was president of the American Political Science Association in 1940. His presidential address at the December 1940 annual meeting of the APSA was entitled “Reflections on the ‘World Revolution’ of 1940,” and you could hardly ask for a more direct and sensible statement of what political science ought to be and to say. He opens by chiding his fellow academics for avoiding “contemporary, controversial political affairs.”

Some representative samples:

[S]ince Nazi Germany is the sole really effective totalitarian state, its overthrow should be the one great desideratum of democratic world politics. Nothing should be allowed to obscure that end. It was the tragic, nay criminal, blunder of Neville Chamberlain that he did not perceive this fact, that he believed in the possibility of gaining concessions from the insatiable Hitler by a policy of appeasement. For Britain, the consequences of this blunder have been tragic beyond all reckoning. Fortunately, in Winston Churchill a prime minister has been found who knows how to keep his eye on the ball. Let us hope that the President of the United States will follow his example.

Incredible as it may seem under such conditions, there are still said to be some appeasers on this side of the Atlantic, gentlemen willing to make a neat little loan—five billion dollars is the figure most frequently mentioned—to Germany as soon as her victory over Europe is complete. This, it is assumed, will soften any ill-feeling Hitler might cherish against us because of our earlier mistaken sympathies for the Allies. Also, poor fellow, he would need the money to buy our goods where with to repair the ravages of war and to feed the starving German people. Of course, once the loan were made, we would be too polite to inquire how much of it was spent, not for butter but for guns, the latter to be used against the United States. If political scientists cannot scotch so obviously ruinous a policy, one may well despair of the future of our profession. What is far worse, one would have to despair of the future of free government. . . [Emphasis added.]

Political scientists must be realists. As such, we know that if Britain is crushed, the only kind of peace we can hope for will be an armed peace—and that probably of short duration. . .

Combined attack by dictator powers upon America may result in our defeat or in our victory. In the former event, democracy will be dead upon this planet for a period of unpredictable length. Even so, let us hope that we might inflict wounds upon despotic aggressors from which they would not soon recover. This is not set down in malice; rather it would appear to be the only hope of future resurrection for our political principles. If democracy fighting for its life proves to be spineless and cowardly, why should any future generation wish to revive it? On the other hand, if it goes down fighting gloriously to the last ditch, it will not lose the power to fire the hearts of some future generation. Once more, as at the end of the eighteenth century, a race of rebels may be born of the sons of men.

Finally, the conclusion, which evokes the spirit of both Churchill and the famous words of Lincoln:

In the end, it is certain that Americans will not submit tamely to such a fate. They will not enter the door marked “Appeasement”: they will go out through the opposite door marked “Defiance.” I do not pretend to like the sort of future that confronts us. It may bring with it the heaviest burdens, the most cruel sacrifices. In all probability, things will get worse before they get better. It may fall to the lot of an American President to say, as did Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that he has “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Not liking a future, however, is no reason for not facing up to it. There is a deep satisfaction in resoluteness, through all perils, regardless of the outcome. Let us give thanks also that we are done with roseate illusions; that we are ready to deal with grim realities. Peace and justice may not be for our time, but we have the privilege of risking everything that they “shall not perish from the earth.”

For this Prof. Brooks gets posthumous induction into the Power Line 100 roster of Best Professors in America. Can anyone imagine a president of the APSA speaking in these tones today? Not likely. (And now that James Kurth is retired, is there anyone remotely like Brooks at Swarthmore today?)

(There is no public Internet access to the complete article unfortunately: You can only get it if you have a JSTOR account. It appears in the February 1941 issue of the APSR.)

JOHN adds: Wow. This is a brilliant observation that I don’t think I have seen before:

If democracy fighting for its life proves to be spineless and cowardly, why should any future generation wish to revive it? On the other hand, if it goes down fighting gloriously to the last ditch, it will not lose the power to fire the hearts of some future generation. Once more, as at the end of the eighteenth century, a race of rebels may be born of the sons of men.

At the moment, our democracy is spineless and cowardly. Self-government has given way to the administrative state without firing a shot, real or metaphorical. In 1940, it was a sound prediction that “Americans will not submit tamely to such a fate.” Today, it appears that Americans will submit tamely to just about anything.

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