Emily Greene Balch

The Time for Making Peace – April 30, 1915

Emily Greene Balch
April 30, 1915— The Hague, the Netherlands
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Balch gave this address at the International Congress of Women.

There is a widespread feeling that this is not the moment to talk of a European peace. On the contrary there is reason to believe that the psychological moment may be very close upon us. If, in the wisdom that comes after the event, we see that the United States was dilatory when it might have helped to open a way to end bloodshed and make a fair and lasting settlement, we shall have cause for deep self-reproach.

The question of peace is a question of terms. Every country desires peace at the earliest possible moment at which it can be had on terms satisfactory to itself. Peace is possible the moment that each side would accept what the other would grant, but from the international or human point of view a satisfactory peace is possible only when these claims and concessions are such as to forward and not to hinder human progress. If Germany's terms are the annexation of Belgium and part of France and a military hegemony over the rest of Europe, or if on the other hand the terms of France or of England include "wiping Germany off the map of Europe" there is no possibility of peace at the present time nor at any time that can be foreseen, nor does the world desire peace on these terms.

In one sense the present war is a conflict between the two great sets of belligerent powers, but in a different and very real sense it is a conflict between two conceptions of national policy. The catch words "democracy" and "imperialism" may be used briefly to indicate the opposing ideas. In every country both are represented, though in varying proportions, and in every country there is strife between them.

In each belligerent nation there are those that want to continue the fight till military supremacy is achieved, in each there are powerful forces that seek a settlement of a wiser type which, instead of containing such threats to stability as are involved in annexation, humiliation of the enemy, and in competition in armaments, shall secure rational independence all round, protect the rights of minorities and foster international cooperation.

One of the two little realized effects of the war is the overriding of the regular civil government by the military authorities in all the warring countries. The forms of constitutionalism may be undisturbed but as inter arma leges silent so in time of war military power—no less really because unobtrusively—tends to control the representatives of the people. Von Tirpitz, Kitchener, Joffre, have in greater or less degree overshadowed their nominal masters.

Another effect of war is that as between the two contending voices, the one is given a megaphone, the other is muffled if not gagged. Papers and platforms are open to "patriotic" utterances as patriotism is understood by the jingo; the moderate is silenced not alone by the censor, not alone by social pressure, but also by his own sense of the effect abroad of all that gives an impression of internal division and of a readiness to quit the fight. In our own country during the height of tension with Germany, loyal Americans who believed that the case of the United States was not a strong one (and a hundred million people cannot all think alike on such an issue), those who loathe the thought of war over such a quarrel, could not and would not give any commensurate expression to their views for fear that they might make it harder for our government to induce Germany to render her warfare less inhuman.

Everywhere war puts out of sight the moderates and the forces that make for peace and gives an exaggerated influence to militaristic and jingo forces creating a false impression of the pressure for extreme terms.

Of course each country desires as favorable terms as it can get and therefore would prefer to make peace at a moment when the great struggle—which in a rough general sense is a stalemate—is marked by some incident advantageous to itself. Germany would like to make peace from the crest of the wave of her invasion of Russia; Russia and England would like to make terms from a conquered Constantinople. If the disinterested neutrals, who alone are free to act for peace, wait for a moment when neither side has any advantage they will wait long indeed.

But the minor ups and downs of the war, shifting and unpredictable, are relatively much less important than they appear. The grim unchanging fact which affects both sides and which is to the changing fortunes of battle as the miles of immovable oceans depths are to the waves on the surface—this all outweighing fact is the intolerable burden of continued war. This it is which makes momentary advantage comparatively unimportant. All the belligerents want peace, though probably with different intensity; none of them wants it enough to cry "I surrender."

The making of peace involves not only questions of the character of the terms, of demands more or less extreme; it also involves the question of the principle according to which settlements are to be made. There are again two conflicting conceptions.

On the one hand is the assumption that military advantage must be represented quid pro quo on the terms—so much victory, so much corresponding advantage in the settlement. There is even the commercial conception of war as an investment and the idea that the fighter has a right to indemnity for what he has spent.

On the other hand it is assumed that the war having thrown certain international adjustments into the melting pot, the problem is to create a new adjustment such as shall on the whole be as generally satisfactory and contain as much promise of stability as practicable.

Even in a settlement based on such considerations the balance of physical force could not be merely ignored. Gains won by force create no claim that anyone is bound to respect yet while the expenditure of blood and treasure gives no right to reimbursement (and it is to the general interest that such expenditure, undertaken more or less on speculation, should never prove a good investment), nevertheless the arbitrament of war, being an arbitrament of violence, relative power is bound to tell in the resulting adjustment.

It is important, therefore, to consider that, with a given balance of relative strength as between the contending sides, an equilibrium may be expressed in more than one way, as there are equations which admit of more than one solution. The equilibrium of opposing claims might be secured by balancing unjust acquisition against unjust acquisition or by balancing magnanimous concession against magnanimous concession. A neutral mediator or mediating group acting in the interest of civilization in general and of the future might, without throwing any weight into the scale of one or the other side, help them to find the equilibrium on the higher rather than on the lower level.

On the basis of military advantage or on the basis of military costs the neutrals have no claim to be heard in the settlement. The soldier is genuinely aggrieved and outraged that they should mix in the matter at all. Yet even on the plane of fighting power the unexhausted neutral may fling a sword into the scale and on the plea of costs suffered the neutral may demand a voice. It is, however, supremely as representatives of humanity and civilization and the true interests of all sides alike that those who are not in the thick of the conflict can and should be of use in the settlement and help to find it on the higher plane.

The settlement of a war by outsiders—not their mere friendly cooperation—is something that has often occurred, exhibiting that curious mixture of the crassest brute force with the most ambitious idealism which often characterizes the conduct of international dealings. The fruits of victory were refused to Russia by the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Europe forbade Japan the spoils of her war with China in 1895, the results of the Balkan wars were largely determined by those who had done none of the fighting. While mere might played a large part in such interferences from the outside there is something beside hypocrisy in the claim of the statesmen of countries which had not taken part in the war to speak on behalf of freedom, progress and peace.

A peace involving annexation of unwilling peoples could never be a lasting one. The widespread sense of irritation at all talk of peace at present seems to be due to a feeling that a settlement now would be a settlement which would leave Belgium if not part of France in German hands. Such a settlement would be as disastrous to Germany as to any other nation. It might put an end to military operations but it certainly would not bring peace if we give any moral content to that much abused word. Europe was not at peace before August, 1914, nor Ireland for long before, nor Poland, nor Alsace, nor Finland. Any community which, if it could, would fight to change its political status, may be quiet under coercion but it is not at peace. Neither would Europe be at peace with Germany in Belgium.

The question then is what sort of peace may we at least hope for now—on what terms, on what principles?

We may be sure that each side is ready to concede more and to demand less than appears on the surface or than it is ready to advertise. The summer campaign, in which marked advantages are most likely, is nearly over and a winter in the trenches will cost on all sides money and suffering out of all proportion to the advances that can be hoped for. It must be remembered too, that the advantages hitherto gained are not all on one side but that each has something to concede. The British annexations of Egypt and Cyprus may be formal rather than substantial changes but the conquest of the German colonies large and small-South West Africa, Togo Land, Samoa, Neu Pommern, Kaiser Wilhelmsland, the Solomon, Caroline and Marshall Islands, to say nothing of Kiao-Chao—and probably Russian gains at the expense of Turkey in the East—give bargaining power to the Allies. So also, even without success in the Dardanelles, does their ability to thwart or forward the Germans in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.

Friends of Finland and of Poland must see to it that the debatable lands of the eastern as well as of the western frontier are kept in mind. From the point of view of Poland the main thing to be desired is the union of the three dismembered parts—Russian, German and Austrian Poland—and their fusion in some sort of a buffer state, independent or at least essentially autonomous. Something like this appears to be the purpose of both Germany and Russia with the difference that this Polish state would be in the one case under Teutonic, in the other under Russian, auspices. No one knows which would be the choice as between the two of the majority of the Poles concerned. Concessions to Germany in Finland and Poland are at least conceivable and would make the concession of complete withdrawal in the West easier for her to make. Still more important are the concessions in regard to naval control of the seas which Great Britain ought to be willing to make if the safety of her commerce and intercolonial communications can be adequately secured otherwise, and this would seem to be the natural counterpart of substantial steps toward disarmament on land.

But all this is speculation. The fact obvious to those who look below the surface, is that every belligerent power is carrying on a war deadly to itself, that bankruptcy looms ahead, that industrial revolt threatens, not at the moment but in a none too distant future, that racial stocks are being irreparably depleted. The prestige of Europe, of the Christian church, of the white race is lowered inch by inch with the progress of the struggle which is continually closer to the debacle of a civilization.

Each power would best like peace on its own terms. Our common civilization would suffer by the imposition of extreme terms by any power. Each people would be thankful indeed to secure an early peace without humiliation a long way short of its extreme demands.

There is thus every reason to believe that a vigorous initiative by representatives of the neutral powers of the world could at this moment begin a move toward negotiations and lead the way to a settlement which, please God, shall be a step toward a nobler and more intelligent civilization than we have yet enjoyed.

As transcribed in Anderson, J. (1984). Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.