Home / In The Magazine / Features / Before Pearl Harbor: America’s Responsibility

Before Pearl Harbor: America’s Responsibility

Published: November 17, 2016

This feature is included in Pearl Harbor: 75th Anniversary Special, a print publication highlighting articles, picture galleries, and editorials that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post before, during, and after December 7, 1941. This special edition is available for sale at shoptthepost.com.

The views presented in the Post reflected, and frequently guided, American opinion. As war was declared in Europe in 1939, the Post was ambivalent about intervention. But that perspective began to evolve over the next two years in the face of Japanese and German aggression.

Must America Be the World’s Policeman?

Destiny has an errand here and we are about to keep an appointment with her. We do not know for sure what the business is. We do know it is important and that it behooves us now to steady our minds and think for ourselves.

The event of incomparable human significance, one to which war itself is subordinate, is that the star of world supremacy has passed from the old to the new world. The thought of world supremacy passing from Europe to America was one the European mind could not entertain. It happened and was not believed. American power determined the outcome of the World War, which England and her allies had otherwise lost. Still it was not believed.

Now the World War has been resumed. Again we shall have to decide what to do with our power. The decision we make may alter the history of the world for a thousand years. Twenty-two years ago we were saying to ourselves, and believing, that we had engaged in a war to end war. It sounds ironic now. Nevertheless, it is one of the romantic facts to be written down in history that we had no other purpose. We were defeated. We were defeated because it was not our war. It was Europe’s war, and the peace that was written was a European peace, laying down the lines for the next war.

Neither is the present war our war. We had no spoon in the caldron. Yet what are we saying about it? We hope we shall not be drawn into it. But we should not now be saying of the European war either that we hope to stay out of it or that we are fearful of being drawn into it. Instead, we should know beforehand, and with certainty, under what conditions we would go to war at all. It would have to be our own war, not Europe’s. It would have to be one wherein we were sure who at the end should write the peace, that it might be the American peace, unlike any peace that had been made before.

—“America,” Editorial, October 7, 1939

At What Point Do We Go to War?

How should a great nation go to war, if it goes? The answer is unhesitating. A great nation should go to war in a proud, forthright manner, saying what it does and why it does it, keeping faith at the same time with both its own laws and the laws of the world.

What have the American people and the American government been saying in their moral indictment of the aggressor? They have been saying that the aggressor makes war without declaring war, that he breaks the faith of treaties, that he tramples down the inconvenient law of the world — and this, of course, is intolerable.

But for all its power of moral judgment, how, in fact, does this great, proud nation of ours get into the European war against Hitler? How ready we are to see what is taking place in the world. A moral debacle of frightful proportions. All law between nations breaking down. No treaty worth the paper that has helplessly received the writing except there is on both sides of it equal gun power.

—“On Going to War,” Editorial, October 19, 1940

Reality Check

It would be wonderful if we could defend our own world, save Great Britain, overcome the principle of evil in Europe, rescue China from the Asiatic aggressor, and be at the same time achieving for ourselves a more abundant life. In good American humor we should then erect a monument to Hitler for having obliged us to do it. But we think we are more likely to arrive soon at the peak of our self-limited exertions and come awake on the hard bed of reality with a terrific shock.

—“The Escape Phantasy,” Editorial, January 11, 1941

Are We Dreaming?

By an evolution of American foreign policy, national defense has come to mean defense of democracy and freedom “everywhere in the world.” Thus we find ourselves running two defense programs at once — one of our own and one for all the other people who resist the aggressor. We undertake to be freedom’s arsenal. But to suppose that in a world aflame on both sides of us we can protect our own house and put out the fire — that we can make America the inexhaustible arsenal of democracy, save ourselves, save freedom everywhere in the world, destroy the principle of aggression, and at the same time raise the American way of life to new levels of comfort and well-being, is dream stuff.

—“Dream Power,” Editorial, February 8, 1941

What’s in It for Us?

It is time to realize that this country has assumed an unlimited responsibility for the outcome of the war. We have arrived at that responsibility with no material condition, no bargain, no stipulation beforehand — at least none that the American people are aware of — and, so far as we are informed, with no realistic political forethought.

Is it permitted to ask what America will get back? Do you suppose the liberated democracies of Europe in their gratitude will buy the American agricultural surplus instead of South American grain and meat and cotton at lower prices? Or can you imagine that Europe would say that the rich American people, by providing the only weapons — if that were all — had tried to buy the right to dominate the peace? What if Europe should resent our moral imperialism? And if Europe did that, what could we do about it? Demand our weapons back? Or ask to be paid for them in cash?

We are being neither realistic nor rational. No other people in the world would behave in this manner, or could survive if they did. The world we now undertake to save is one we have imagined. It does not really exist. But for all we have said, and beyond any reason, the spirit of crusade is a noble possession.

—“The New Apocalypse,” Editorial, March 22, 1941

No ‘Splendid Isolation’

Looking back is to say farewell. Misgivings are forbidden, but let us not on that account be mistaken about what has happened. It is not a new chapter of American history that now opens. It is a new book with a new theme. The story that began with the Declaration of Independence is finished.

We have broken with our past. We have thrown away our New World, our splendid isolation, our geographical advantage of three to one against all aggressors, our separate political religion. There is no longer a New World, nor an Old World, but now one world in which the American people have been cast for a part they will have to learn as they go along.

There is no longer a Monroe Doctrine. In place of it there is an American Internationalism. We do not yet know what that means.

From now on there is for us no foreign war. Any war anywhere in the world is our war, provided only there is an aggressor to be destroyed, a democracy to be saved, or an area of freedom to be defended.

We are suddenly staring at the fact that we had assumed ultimate and unlimited liability — moral, physical, and financial — for the outcome of war on three continents, for the survival of the British Empire, and for the utter destruction of Hitler. Anything less or else would be the first American defeat.

—“Toward the Unknown,” Editorial, March 29, 1941

Forward at Any Cost

We have received a great many letters asking us why we gave up the fight to keep the country out of the war.

Our answer is to say to them that a time comes when every American must somehow resolve one simple question: If for anything you could do about it, your country nevertheless becomes involved in war, where are you going to stand?

Many keep saying that time has not come. The clock has not struck. The fatal words have not been uttered in the form of a resolution by Congress. But the American government has proclaimed that Hitler must be destroyed. It has solemnly pledged itself before the world to employ its total resources to bring that result to pass. It has proclaimed that there can be and shall be no peace with Hitler. It has announced that a negotiated peace would be a defeat for democracy and freedom and the American way of life. It has proclaimed that the American way of life cannot exist in the same planet with the German thing. One or the other must die. Trying, therefore, to maintain the fiction that this country is not in the war against Hitler is like running from an earthquake.

We shall have to make up our minds to go on and on at any cost, to reconquer Europe and destroy Hitler there, even with American manpower — or turn back; and if we turn back we shall be remembered forever as the Falstaff nation of the world, boasting of a power it did really possess, boasting of how it would put it forth against the aggressor, and then changing its mind when the night came.

But the peril we speak of does not lie in making the wrong choice. It is there whatever we choose to do. We cannot now escape.

Everyone must be aware of what it will mean to go on. Do we see what it will mean to go back? The peril in that case is no less, may be even greater.

In going on we face the possibility of defeat, whether we can imagine it or not. But to go back is to face the possibility of national death. That is the reality as we see it; that is the reality we accept. The alternative had been to create here on this hemisphere the impregnable asylum of freedom and let tyranny in Europe destroy itself, as tyranny always has done and is bound to do again.

—“The Peril,” Editorial, May 24, 1941

You might also like ...