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America at War

February 8, 1918 — La Société des Conférences, Société de Géographie, Paris, France


Ladies and gentlemen,

There is a profound difference, a fundamental difference, between the French and Americans: a difference of language. Do not scoff at this, I beg you. Commonplaces are sometimes worth repeating. There is a profound, a fundamental, difference between us, I say — a difficulty that simply does not exist to the same extent between races of Latin origin whose languages draw on a common linguistic fund. When an Italian or a Spaniard needs to translate his ideas into your language, he finds an equivalent, or even a synonym, far more easily than we do. I am sure you know why I mention this difference at the beginning of my talk: I want to remind you that for the person of purely Anglo-Saxon origin who has the honor of speaking to you, there is, apart from the difficulty of pronunciation, that of finding exact equivalents in French for her American thoughts.

I call your attention to this obstacle not merely to beg your indulgence. In truth, I feel quite sure of it. Rather, it is because I was invited to speak to you of my country and because one of the most delicate questions concerning the relations between our two peoples is precisely the problem caused by the difference between our languages. If the United States and France were near neighbors, this obstacle would be less troublesome, but our countries are almost five thousand kilometers apart and we are obliged to converse through the intermediary of the press and government statements. Each time I see the translation of a speech or an official American government statement in a French newspaper I fear a misunderstanding — albeit a good-natured one.

May I give you an example? When he arrived in Paris, Mr. House made a speech before the Press, a simple, modest and dignified speech — provided it was read in English. Mr. House began by saying, “America is already mobilizing her millions in the factories, the fields and the trenches.” Now, the genius of the English language is that it is essentially elliptical. We leave a great deal out, we imply words, whole phrases even, which could never be omitted in the French. (It is hard to imagine just how long some English novels would be if we did not enjoy such a privilege!) So Mr. House did not say her millions of men, since the word men was implied by the meaning of the sentence. Anyone who knew English well could not possibly have misunderstood. But there is always someone who does misunderstand in cases like this, and that someone too often happens to be the translator. In fact, many French newspapers reported that Mr. House had said, “L’Amérique a déjà mobilisé ses millions dans les usines, etc.,” which of course can only mean one thing in French: her millions of dollars. Thus poor Mr. House, who could hardly be more gentle and reserved, was recast as an oncle d’Amérique clinking the dollars in his pocket as he arrived at your doorstep. 

A small but very typical example, which I call to your attention to show you how difficult it is to translate us since in this particular case the interpreter followed the original to the letter. As did the translator of Mr. Lloyd George’s speech to the Trades Union Congress. Thinking, apparently, that “to demand” in English was the equivalent of “demander” in French, he had the English Prime Minister say that France requested — timidly, unobtrusively — the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine, whereas in fact, France and all its allies demand its restoration. No indeed, “demand” in English does not mean demander” in French, but “exiger,” just as “respectable army” does not (as the official translator thought) mean “armée respectable,” but “armée considérable par le nombre.” There is no more dangerous trap for an interpreter than identical words that conceal a sometimes profoundly different meaning. You might object that, where there is a community of feeling, misunderstandings like these, between two peoples of different origin, are always cleared up in the long run. I mention the problem nevertheless, because lexical discord is so often a sign of moral discord. Although they may have a common origin, words undergo mysterious changes as soon as they are absorbed by another language and these changes affect the soul, so that the emotions too are altered.

Our language is elliptical and sometimes our manners are too. We are in the habit of taking shortcuts and byways, whereas you wisely tread the paths traced by a long and glorious tradition. To understand this difference, the source of so many misunderstandings, you must never forget that we take shortcuts simply because we are the grandchildren of pioneers in the New World. For more than a thousand years, you have had the use of wide roads, traced by the Roman Empire all over France, whereas our forefathers — barely three hundred years ago in the eastern states, and only a hundred years ago in the west — had to cut down trees and clear the dense underbrush in the virgin forests. That analogy is a fairly exact symbol of the moral condition of our great-grandparents. Most of them, at least those who influenced the American character most deeply, were weary of well-trodden paths, of old institutions, and most of all, of old abuses. They left Europe to give their ideas a free rein — ideas that were not very interesting in themselves, since they remained within the narrow scope of theological quarrels. These people were, to put it bluntly, fanatics, the kind of boring, nasty, insufferable people that nature seems to produce from time to time in order to set in motion a widespread popular movement or to clear the land of a whole continent — because, of course, amiable, reasonable people never change anything in the order of the universe.

And this brings me precisely to the subject I wish to discuss: the origins of my country and its deep roots in the past. I was asked to talk today about “America at war,” about the reasons why we entered the war. These reasons cannot be found in our need to defend a vulnerable border, nor even in the need for military or economic defense. They are to be found in the past. And — if I may be quite frank — since our entry into the war, I have come to realize that many French people have a very imperfect knowledge of that past. What do you know of the American people, of its history and traditions? Of its customs and its ways, of which you so often make fun — entirely well-meaningly of course, without the slightest malice — do you know where they come from and why they are what they are? I will not do you the injustice of supposing that you think all my compatriots are what you call oncles d’Amérique — fat planters who throw around gold by the fistful and, in the last act, solve disputes and misunderstandings with the help of their dollars — although, to be sure, at this particular moment, I can think of no better part for my country to play . . . . But are you really so far from believing that our grandparents went to America mainly to acquire dollars so that their grandsons could spend them merrily in the luxurious hotels of old Europe? Only a few of you have noticed that we also spend those dollars in antique shops and art galleries, and that we pack Fragonard panels, Boucher tapestries, and Rodin bronzes in our Innovation trunks.

“The booty of barbarians,” you might say. But little by little you have formed our taste and we now know where to purchase objects suitable for the decoration of a millionaire’s house; and such is our haste to show that we are worthy to mix with your millionaires, that our eagerness to acquire objects over which a collector of older stock might linger for years is sometimes amusing. In Monsieur Hermant’s charming comedy, an American, just off a transatlantic steamer, already has a Clodion tucked under his arm, and when his French friends ask, “But where did you find it?” he says, “Oh at the station — at Saint Lazare.” That American is barely a caricature. Our impatience to enjoy European refinement is immense, and very childish, but that impatience, which you have observed a thousand times and recorded with exquisite irony, is also the result of our past, of our austere, arduous, and joyless past. It is that past that I wish to attempt to sketch out for you.

North America was colonized by people of different races, and at different times. Colonization, as you know, continues to this day, and over the past hundred and fifty years, we have become a testing ground for democracy. However, the deepest impression on the soul of our country was made by the English. Both the English Bible and English Common Law have nurtured the American soul. The Bible, in particular, has molded us, and my first task here is to help you understand the feelings that animated the Mayflower Pilgrims — the Pilgrims who left old England in 1620 in order to found New England. These people were, as I have already said, fanatics — hard-hearted, cruel, and jealous people, eager to escape the persecution of the English national Church, and perhaps in turn to persecute others. Those who have been persecuted are, alas, all too often the persecutors of tomorrow. Persecution is a disease that spreads quickly and inevitably turns against those who propagate it.

That said, we must not forget that the Puritans of the New World were sustained by perfectly disinterested motives. The colonization of the Atlantic states — especially Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut — was not an economic undertaking. The Puritans did not go there seeking money or honors, nor even to conceal a depraved past. They were narrow-minded but honorable, respectable men, most of whom were fairly welloff, and who sacrificed everything — fortune, honor, friends, and well-being — to go and found a colony, beneath inclement skies, on inhospitable lands, peopled by artful and fierce natives, where each would be free to worship God according to the dogma of his sect, as well as to denounce neighbors suspected of worshipping differently. To achieve their purpose, they abandoned the pleasures of an organized society, certain wellbeing, and all the beloved old ways that in England revolve around castle and church.

And while this theocracy was being founded on the rough stones of Massachusetts, Dutch merchants — all of them prosperous burghers and shrewd businessmen — established a warehouse for furs at the mouth of the Hudson and began to trade with the Indians of the Great Lakes and the North. These intrepid Dutchmen were not at all interested in founding a theocracy. They had come to America in search of a new outlet for Dutch trade — in order to earn money in other words. After a few years of dreadful struggle and terrible discouragement these tenacious merchants managed to establish a stable administration and to increase their fortunes. Their colony was governed by distinguished men, and when England took it over in 1664 the heirs of the old governors remained in New Amsterdam, later renamed New York, and destined to become the main marketplace of New World.

So right from the beginning of the seventeenth century, you had, side by side, dark and fanatic Massachusetts, founded in 1620 to establish “the reign of the spirit,” and the state of New York founded seven years earlier to establish the dominion of the dollar. On the one hand, democratic equality, scorn for material wealth and aversion for any reminders of the titles and privileges of old Europe; on the other hand, a society both mercantile and patrician, descended from an oligarchy founded by the Dutch West India Company, which had divided up vast territories among certain early colonists who became “patroons,” that is “lords” with feudal privileges, authority in basse justice, and the right to appoint representatives to colonial assemblies. Thus, side by side, were two groups representing the two principal motives of human action: the will to sacrifice everything to intellectual and moral convictions and the desire for wealth and the enjoyment of life. I, who am a descendant of the Dutch merchants and of their English successors, confess that I am glad not to have been brought up in the shadow of the gloomy theocracy of Massachusetts. Nevertheless, I must admit that those who sacrificed everything for their ideas are the ones who shaped the soul of my country most profoundly, more profoundly than those who faced similar dangers for material gain. 

New York and the trends associated with New York — a fondness for profit, respect for rank and fortune, a taste for lavish meals and the comforts of rest beneath an eiderdown — provided a useful corrective to the somber ideology of the Puritans by contributing the healthy enjoyment of earthly goods to our national outlook. But it is written that the ideas that survive are always those that are born in disinterested sacrifice and it was the handful of fanatics thrown onto Plymouth Rock by the “Mayflower” that has served to remind us of our national feeling at each crisis in our national history.

Picture them, less than a hundred disappointed and distraught men, women and children, desperately hanging onto a rock lashed by the Atlantic Ocean. They had left home heading for balmy Virginia, where the crown had granted them land, and it was only by cruel ill luck that a storm had cast them down on the bleak New England coast. Picture them facing cold, hunger, and Indians, without the help of a government, struggling alone, yet able not only to defend themselves and to resist, but also, even before they had even landed, to establish a plan for municipal administration, which was the first known written constitution in the history of the English speaking peoples. And what sort of society did they create? The product of a violent reaction against the power of the Anglican Church, it was nevertheless an ecclesiastic organization, for at the time it was almost impossible to conceive of a regime that was not closely associated with the Church. Yet the settlers, whose ideas about government mostly harked back to earlier times, were innovators where municipal organization was concerned and many a democratic idea that had been smothered by the laws of the mother country prospered rapidly in the soil of the New World. In the wilderness, where each band of settlers formed an isolated center, cut off from their neighbors by forests inhabited by enemies, the only conceivable political unit was the “township” — a group of hamlets roughly corresponding to the French commune. The energetic English who created Massachusetts drew up a plan for their municipal administration. According to their charter, the township was to be governed by magistrates and divines, and every freeman — that is every man admitted as a member of the colony — had the right to take part in govt, and more particularly in the sharing out of taxes. This plan resulted in the famous town meetings — community assemblies that were at the origin of municipal liberties in Massachusetts.

In fact, all the ideas that found local government in the United States were contained in this charter — all except the idea of religious freedom, which New England achieved only after a terrible struggle against the power of an uncompromising Church. The settlers had left England in order to be able to worship God as they saw fit, but the ministers thought that they alone could decide what was fit. The ministers had rallied to the Presbyterian sect — the implacable sect of John Knox — and, subduing the magistrates with the threats of that dreadful doctrine, they took power, and persecuted or killed all freemen whose orthodoxy was not entirely free of suspicion. A few citizens attempted to join other sects, perhaps just as narrow but less strict. The frightened magistrates opposed them. And what did those rough Mayflower Pilgrims do then? They simply transferred their communities to neighboring territories, which the power of the Church had not yet reached. Thus the citizens of Dorchester, which had been founded in Massachusetts in 1630, packed up their belongings five years later and left for the wilderness, later called Connecticut, where their itinerant community took the name of Windsor. Other communities in conflict with the representatives of the crown soon came and joined the founders of Windsor. And so the future states of Connecticut and Rhode Island were born.

And what sort of life did people lead in those bleak hamlets, which is what the so-called townships of the New World really were? Stranded in the midst of immense forests, built on the edge of a stormy sea, and surrounded by ever-menacing natives, their humble wooden dwellings were buried in snow for six months a year, since the climate was far harsher then than it is today because of the vast expanses of forest. The inhabitants of these tiny hamlets never left home except to go through the snow to listen the minister who ruled over the parish. No one was allowed to miss the sermon, and in the flimsy wooden churches, where there was not even a stove to keep out the cold, everyone was chilled to the bone while the minister spoke for hours on end. He taught that, according to the dogma of the Westminster Confession, children who died unbaptized burnt forever in the depths of hell, that magistrates and ministers were bound to examine the doctrinal integrity of every Christian who attended the service, that any man who gathered firewood on a Sunday would be hung, and that anyone who dared attribute the slightest sin to Lord’s elect would meet the same fate. The ministers would preach for two or three hours running; and the elect prayed aloud for equally long. The abuse grew so serious that the magistrates attempted to find a remedy, and argued that the frequence of the religious services, which took place every day, constantly compelled the settlers to interrupt their work and the women to neglect their domestic duties. The length of the sermons and prayers was such that the poor parishioners more often than not had to go home through the perilous forest in the middle of the night. 

Do not suppose that these protests had the least effect. The ministers responded that there were not enough hours in a day and part of the night to name all the perils of heresy or to publicly condemn the sins of their flock. The magistrates were obliged to yield and the services went on as before. As for the members of the flock, they seem to have responded to the uninterrupted flow of Christian eloquence in different ways. We read in Mr. X’s diary that he attended a six-hour-long service in an unheated church in bone-numbing weather but did not feel the cold thanks to the force of the sermon — for which he praised God. On the other hand, a poor woman named Ursula Cole confessed to having told a neighbor that she would as soon hear a cat meow as hear Reverend Shepard preach, a blasphemy for which she was condemned either to pay a fine of seven hundred and fifty francs or be whipped. She was probably whipped.

The ministers, moreover, in order to impose their doctrine, could and did avail themselves of the rod, shackles, stocks, gallows and stake. You all know what tortures were inflicted on the so-called “witches,” some of whom were merely hysterics, others simply bonesetters such as those that can still be found in the French countryside. Others still were members of the Society of Friends who were disgusted with the tyranny of the clergy and were certain they received their light directly from heaven. In such a climate, informers thrived and private grudges were settled mercilessly — with the church’s blessing. If a regime of this sort had managed to ensure its continued existence, the United States would not have become the great country it is today. I have paid so much attention to the bleakness of this picture because these men of iron, and the women who were their equals in stoic resilience, formed the kernel from which our civilization grew. Among them, right from the beginning, were a few individuals with wills equally strong, but with minds less narrow, who overthrew the all-powerful presbyteries and who founded schools and universities, and thus emancipated thought. A hundred years later, Americans were playing games, going to the theatre, going to the races, thinking about dress, dancing the passepied or the Spanish saraband — and the ministers had begun to make shorter sermons. But long New England winters, fear of the Indians, and continual dread of violent death and eternal punishment, had left a shadow over the American soul. Americans danced, but on a volcano — the volcano of Presbyterian hell.

While New England was developing with difficulty and overcoming endless worries, other settlers, who had arrived a few years earlier, took possession of the vast area that now extends from New Mexico to Pennsylvania. From 1620 onwards, this colony of Virginia, named after Queen Elisabeth, was directly attached to the English crown. It was divided up into large estates and conferred on certain aristocrats and gentlemen who wished to try their fortunes in the New World. The climate was mild, the land fertile, and the new colonies — which later were called the states of Virginia, Maryland, the two Carolinas, Texas, Kentucky and Georgia — rapidly flourished economically. Under the benevolent dominion of the Anglican Church, a civilized society developed there, in comparison with which the New England settlers were like savages in the Stone Age. Alas, one day a Dutch merchant ship landed on the coast and unloaded amid its merchandise a few Negroes, who were sold with the rest. That day, slavery came into being in the United States. That day too marks the beginning of the commercial and political ruin of the southern states. Those poor dazed Africans, like the furies, came bearing the germs of disintegration and death.

As you know, we did not die, and we did not even disintegrate, but our immense federation endured many moments of danger, for slavery introduced one of the elements which contributed, long afterwards, to creating what I will call “Statism” — that is, an attachment to the particular rights of a state rather than to the nation. The conflict came to a head only a hundred and fifty years later with our Civil War, a war that had two causes, one remote and ideal, the other immediate and practical. The remote cause was the desire to end slavery. The immediate cause was the determination to thwart the separatist tendencies of certain states that had usurped the right to withdraw from the Union if their particular interests conflicted with those of the nation. I have often been asked the difference between our two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. The names, I should add, are a fairly recent invention and go back only to the time just prior to the Civil War and the parties themselves are entirely unlike French or English political organizations. They are sometimes thought of as liberal and conservative, but liberal in what sense and conservative of what exactly?

Right from the beginning, the American Colonies, founded for different reasons by people of diverse races and with different ideas, were naturally suspicious of each other. The Revolution, which united them for an instant against a common enemy, did not put an end to their inevitable rivalry. And so it happened that at each national crisis there were two parties, one defending local interests — the freedom of choice of each state — the other constantly defending the idea that a federation of states cannot last and develop unless it places the interests of the country as a whole above local interests. It was only natural that at first local interests should be represented by the southern states, immersed as they were in the well-being of a quasi-patriarchal existence and unwilling to be disturbed, while the settlers of the northern states — Pennsylvania, New York and New England — who had bought their freedom and their very lives at such a high price, more readily understood the need for national cohesion.

Yes, but why were the patrician planters of the South called Democrats during the Civil War, and why did the North — more plebeian in its ideas if not in its origin — choose a name that rings as though it was meant to disqualify its opponents? It is difficult to answer a question like this in just a few words, but I will endeavor to do so.

For visionary eighteenth-century minds, the federal union harked back to the monarchy, to feudal privileges, and to the power of a national Church. An anti-monarchist tradition remained alive in the South as well as the North and was often exploited to oppose centralizing tendencies. The southern states declared with some justification, “You of the North say you represent the Republic. Yet we are the real democrats since we defend the rights of states, and even the rights of individuals, against the threat of centralized power!” To which the federalists naturally responded with a greater sense of the facts of the matter: “On the contrary, we represent the republic, since we defend the public interest against the selfishness of separatists whose only goal is to make sure their private interests are not harmed.” In short, all that can be said is that in spite of all the distortions that they have undergone with time, the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” still designate two conceptions, or rather two opposing influences: a centrifugal influence, inclined to break up the federation beneath the weight of conflicting state interests, and a centripetal influence, which continually subjects these interests to the powerful attraction of the federal idea, the idea of national unity.

This is, of course, a cursory and very incomplete explanation of the two terms. The political ideas of the two parties are opposed on many other questions that it would be impossible to discuss today; but fortunately, in times of trouble, something else always prevails — the spirit of American patriotism. You can see evidence of this today. As you know, President Wilson represents the Democratic Party, which, when he was elected, had not been in power for over twenty years. As the representative of the Democrats, Mr. Wilson was wary of European alliances and military intervention abroad, and he was naturally influenced by his centrifugal environment. He hesitated to enter the war, and once he had made up his mind to do so, he expected as a matter of course to be thwarted in his efforts by a party that was hoping to see our vast country pursue its peaceful development without the risks involved in foreign intervention. You all know what happened in actual fact. General conscription, voted in a matter of two days and accepted without a murmur. Militarization of the railroads, rationing of food and raw materials, an agreement with the Labor unions which pledged not to strike during the war. Then — an unheard of measure — an order to all factories, except those contributing to the war effort, to suspend work for five days, so as to accelerate the delivery of coal to the Allies — an order which, indeed, will be renewed shortly. Finally, since 28 January, the entire nation has been ordered to follow this scheme: On Mondays: all factories that do not contribute to the war effort, as well as all bars and wine shops, must close, and the sale of alcohol, bread or wheat in any form is prohibited. On Tuesdays: no meat, and all movie houses and theatres must close. On Wednesdays: neither bread, nor flour. On Saturdays: no fresh pork. On Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays: one meal without meat, another without white bread.

That is the record for the time being. For a loose confederation made up of different races with sometimes conflicting interests, it is without question a surprising result. Less surprising for us than for our allies however. For the critical moments in our history have taught us how intense the patriotic spirit is in our country. Two major events have left their mark on our short history. Having shaken off the yoke of a clumsy (but not tyrannical as was once taught) government, we were able to develop, and so became a nation. In order to defend the integrity of that nation we shed the best of our blood and fought against our own brothers. Memories like these cannot be erased. They come to mind each time it is necessary to defend our own independence or the independence of other countries when it is threatened. We know it is our duty to fight for the liberty of our Allies because we bought our own at so high a price.

“Very well,” you might say. For of course a homogeneous nation, with a long tradition of glory and collective effort, knows the meaning of patriotism. But how can a patriotic spirit develop in a country that, according to European ideas, is hardly a country at all, since it is constantly renewed and altered by endless waves of immigration? Two circumstances explain the paradox. The first is our entirely fortuitous geographic isolation, which means that our national pride has developed unhindered, much like a zoological species whose evolution has not been affected by any outside influence. The second source of our patriotic spirit seems to me to lie in our system of primary education. I said earlier that Puritan tyranny was defeated by the founding of schools and universities. Respect for culture has always run deep with us — although it is sometimes demonstrated a little childishly — and we strive to teach all the new citizens who come to us to read. If I am not mistaken, the United States is the country with the lowest rate of illiteracy in the world.

This explanation may seem too simple. There is, of course, much to criticize about primary education in democratic countries, but remember that I merely said, “We teach new citizens to read.” And what do they read? To be sure, often rather puerile newspapers. However, the political articles are often good — and since the beginning of the War even admirable — and they attempt to develop in the reader a sense of his rights and civic duties. That these rights are sometimes misused and the duties often forgotten is all too true, but that does not prove that American citizens are not attached to them. I have heard it said that tenderly loving but unfaithful husbands cannot bear the idea that someone else might pay attention to the wives they neglect.

It may seem unbelievable to you that a country as remote from the scene of the war as ours should have accepted to take part in it for so-called ideal reasons. I admit that the word “ideal” unsettles me somewhat, and that I am not always sure I understand it. When it comes to explaining the motives of human behavior, I do not believe there is really such a difference between the ideal and the practical, or between interested and disinterested motives. We are certainly interested — immeasurably so; but not because we want to take over your industry, nor because, as the Germans say, we want, in payment of our aid, to take hold of a port on the Mediterranean. No, believe me, the real reason was given to me by an American officer, who was touched like so many others by the way you welcomed the American troops, and was sorry not to be able to say so in French. “Tell the French,” he said, “be sure to tell them, that we do not want to be thanked for having entered the war. Explain that we all know that by fighting for France, we will be fighting for ourselves.”

There you have, I think, the truth — clearly grasped by the more intelligent, and obscurely sensed by everyone. The influence of the atmosphere is essential. A young, enthusiastic nation is readily moved by the stimulus of a generous example. In the United States, shirkers can be sure that there is trouble in store and a number of witnesses have given me amusing evidence of this. In an Eastern city, where almost all the young men of military age had enlisted without waiting to be drafted, there was a small group of wealthy young men who had been exempted because of their age, or for some other reason, from the draft — and who did not enlist. Having been dropped by their friends, they kept to themselves and went one evening to dine together at the Golf Club, a fashionable meeting place just outside the town. The dinner began and the rather loud conversation turned to the fools who had enlisted without having to. Suddenly someone noticed that they were no longer being served and that all the waiters had disappeared. The young men rang the bell, raged and clamored for the ma tre d. He finally made an appearance. 

“Well, what has happened to our dinner? What is going on?”

“What has happened sir is that all the waiters have been drafted and will soon be on their way to their barracks. They do not wish to listen to conversations like the ones you have just been having. As for me, both my sons are in the army… so you see… you had better leave.” One of the young men in the group began to lord it over him.

“Just you wait. I’ll make sure you are all fired tomorrow.”

“Oh, no, you won’t, Sir. None of you will want this story to get around.”

And the young men had to leave without their dinner.

Here is another story told to me by a compatriot who had just arrived and to whom I had asked, “Well, is everyone excited over there? Do people know what we are fighting for?”

“Do they know? Haven’t you heard that in all our camps, the soldiers are already singing songs in honor of Joan of Arc.”

“Joan of Arc!”

These soldiers don’t know when she was born or where she lived. All they know is that she was a great warrior who fought for France — and so they sing songs to the glory of Joan of Arc. Apparently some people do not even know that she was a woman. Very recently, in a big Eastern city, the same friend was watching scenes from the trenches in a packed movie house. Towards the end, “A Statue of Joan of Arc” was announced. The audience immediately got to their feet, hopping up and down with enthusiasm, their eyes riveted to the screen, where a brawny figure of heroic proportions soon appeared. It was none other than Lorenzo de Medici, sitting on his tomb in Florence — Michelangelo’s Penseroso, in fact! My friend thought that wild laughter would greet this apparition, but not at all. The audience frantically applauded the Duke, launched into the Marseillaise, and gleefully cried, “Long live Joan of Arc! Long live France! Long live the War!”

And here is a third story. As you know, long before our entry into the war, and in order to give ourselves the illusion that we were already allies, we voluntarily imposed a number of restrictions on ourselves. I would like to describe one, the implementation of which strikes me as comical. The owners of many good restaurants in New York had agreed not to serve white bread once a week, so as to increase the amount of flour sent to Belgium. A few customers grumbled and to these sybarites the ma tre d. presented a card that he begged them to sign. On the card were printed these words: “In order to hasten supplies to Belgium the X restaurant has pledged not to serve white bread on Thursdays. Nevertheless, I demand white bread.” Naturally, the customer never dared sign — to Belgium’s advantage.

Ladies and gentlemen, you can see why I wanted to describe our origins. I wanted above all to help you understand why our point of view, our ways, and our habits do not always resemble yours. How could it be otherwise? Think that while you were building Versailles, we were cutting down virgin forests, that while Descartes was writing his Discourse on Method, our scholars were drafting books on demonology, that while the King’s players were putting on “Tartuffe” and “The School for Husbands,” the parishioners of Reverend Shepard were beaten for having criticized his sermons, and husbands in Connecticut had to pay a large fine if they kissed their wives on a Sunday. Think that while Saint Vincent de Paul was preaching benevolence to the unfortunate, the clergy of Massachusetts were burning and torturing left and right. Think that while your great-grandfathers were polishing their manners in Madame de Rambouillet’s alcove and in Madame de Sévigné’s beautiful painted salons, ours, in trappers’ huts, surrounded by wild beasts, were doing their best to become laborers and merchants, blacksmiths and lawyers, fur traders or professors of rhetoric. Between these two pasts, one entirely improvised, the other founded on a long tradition of culture, there is no common measure. And yet, out of two such different histories patriotism and the love of liberty brought our two countries together once and has brought them together again now.

The continual stream of immigration has never, since our ghastly Civil War made a nation of us, diluted these feelings. Perhaps the cause is to be found in that powerful instrument forged by our great-grandparents, the Constitution. You must not forget Lincoln’s wise words at the beginning of our Civil War: “It is doubtful that a democracy can conduct a great war to a happy conclusion. . . ,” he said. But it can conduct a great war if the authors of its Constitution have the courage to declare that as soon as the nation is in peril, all power will be placed in the hands of the Head of State, and if the political education of the public is sufficiently advanced for it to accept temporary autocracy without being haunted by the specter of permanent dictatorship. Such is our situation and it explains why we are by your side today.

With the story of our origins, I have tried to explain why patriotic feeling is so strongly rooted in so diverse a people as ours, a people so concerned with material interests, and unexposed to the sort of enemy aggression that fuels love for one’s country. I have no time to tell you about the new America, the conquest of the West, the discovery of gold, the development of industry, of the fabulous moral and economic recovery of the southern states after the Civil war. Allow me, nevertheless, to add a word about that other, larger, homeland — the League of Nations — of which President Wilson has spoken. I know that among our allies some were, for an instant, alarmed by the idea, often considering it to be an impossible vision. A vision it certainly is, but why an impossible one? I, for one, am not afraid of great ambitions. Surely all young novelists dream of becoming a Balzac or a Stendhal and all painters start out hoping to equal Velasquez or Rembrandt, and I doubt that Saint Augustine administered his diocese any the less well for having dreamt of a sublime City of God. If cavemen had been prudent and reasonable people, you may be sure that we would still be living in caves. Luckily they felt the need of a little more safety and wellbeing, and they realized that in order to fulfill that need, it was necessary to get on with their neighbors. Concord among decent people with common interests — that, very simply, is the foundation of the dream of the League of Nations. I am not afraid of utopian visions as long as they are rooted in reality. Once upon a time, neighbors murdered each other in the streets, then whole villages fought each other, then cities. At each stage, progress towards concord was considered a chimera. Distant objects are always called mirages by the shortsighted who cannot see them. Is the League of Nations a vision? Perhaps so, for the moment at least. Does it rest on a conception that is contrary to patriotic and national feeling? No — a thousand times no! No more than religious freedom, no more than freedom of the press or any other freedom that, little by little, and at what price, man has conquered for his grandsons.

We are a young nation, and the young must have their long visions and their boundless ambitions. Meanwhile, we know as well as you do that before dreaming of the end of all wars we have to end this one and we know that the only way to do so is to do what we are doing on the French front.


Translation by Virginia Ricard.



Source: La Revue hébdomadaire, March 2, 1918, pp. 5-28.


Copyright 2021 Virginia Ricard. Used by permission. All rights reserved.