William E. Borah on the Necessity for Naval Disarmament, September 1921

William E. Borah

September 1921

Despite her military defeat, Germany, by reason of the shortsighted and blundering policies of the allied and associated powers, may yet secure economic dominance in Europe. Defeat has resulted in Germany’s being deprived of her army and her navy. The burden of armaments has ben forced from the backs of the German people. They may now devote their energies and their talents to agriculture, to industry, to the arts, to the things which constitute the real wealth and strength of a people. Their genius will find expression, not in arms, or on the military field, but in improved machinery and cooperative industry. Every ounce of effort which they put forth will be along lines which produce something, which add wealth to the community, which make for contentment and prosperity to the people, which insure greater physical prowess and a higher brain power.

On the other hand, the allied and associated powers are carrying a vast burden because of their great armies and navies. These burdens are being increased upon a stupendous scale. Hundreds of thousands of their people are to be engaged in lines which produce nothing, add no wealth to the community, make not for health, growth and happiness, but for display, parade and possibly for destruction and death. The German people are compelled to preserve their energies for things which count. The allied and associated powers are burying their people under intolerable taxes, discouraging industry, sterilizing human energy, and breeding discontent through their ever-enlarging plans for increased armaments…

France has an army of 8oo,ooo men. The exact cost for maintaining this great army I do not know, but one can imagine how stupendous it is. The British army and navy combined call for an expenditure much larger than our own. Thus, while Germany has her billions of reparation, the allied and associated powers are spending their billions for their armies and navies–we alone expending as much for our army and navy as the entire reparation claims against Germany.

The business men of this country must realize, more keenly, perhaps, than anyone else just now, what these armament expenditures and the taxes thereby imposed mean to business of the future. There is little encouragement for men of business capacity to plan and strive for success when they realize, as they must, that their profits are to be taken for taxes, and that those taxes, when collected, are to be expended, not for things which make for wealth and development, but for sheer waste and sterility. We shall not enjoy that resiliency and revival in business which we are entitled to experience in this country until taxes are brought within reason. And taxes can not be reduced until expenditures are brought within reason. And public expenditures can not be reduced until outlays for armaments are brought within reason.

All that is being done and said just now about reducing the expenses of the Government in other departments and along other lines will amount to very little so far as lifting the burden of the taxpayer is concerned, unless we also cut most savagely the expenditures for armaments, for there is where the vast sum of money goes.

Neither can we wait, nor need we wait, until all questions about which nations may hold differing views are settled before we begin to limit our armament expenditures. There are now three nations in absolute dominance of the seas–the United States, Great Britain and Japan. These three nations are the only nations which are building vast navies. They are now actually engaged in a naval race. They are building navies with, mad speed and piling taxes upon the people at a rate and to an amount never before dreamed of in time of peace, and seldom in time of war. To say that these building programs shall go forward, that these taxes shall continue to be increased, and the burdens under which the people are breaking shall be augmented until all international questions about which nations and peoples may hold different views are settled, is to say that there is to be no disarmament.

Disarmament should not be postponed, or subordinated, or made incident to the settling and adjusting of all international questions. It should be made the controlling, dominating question. It is the most vital problem in the world today. Unless disarmament is effectuated, there is no possible relief from the economic conditions under which we are now suffering. And any plan, or any program, which makes the question of disarmament a subordinate, or incidental proposition, rather than the main and controlling proposition, will result in the future, as it has in the past, in no relief to the taxpayers and no relief from war.

There are many obstacles to overcome before we can achieve disarmament, or any pronounced limitation of armaments. I do not underestimate the difficulty of overcoming these obstacles. But the obstacle which seems to me the greatest, the obstacle which seems to me the most difficult to master, is one which we will not admit exists, and that is the reliance which we have come to have on force as the only power left on earth with which to govern men.

Mr. Hughes, the Premier of Australia, declared in an interview that we must adjust every question touching the Pacific before we can consider the question of disarmament–that there can be no disarmament until all these questions are amicably arranged and settled. This is to declare in another way that we propose to settle these questions ultimately by force in case we fail to settle them satisfactorily to ourselves through negotiations. It is the old practice attributed to the Kaiser of rattling the sword at the conference table. It is, as everyone under-stands, a threat. In other words, the real reliance for ultimate settlement is upon force and the covert threat of its use is, as of old, at hand. As a conferee thinketh in his heart, so is he.

This is the system which has been tried by the diplomats for three hundred years, and instead of resulting in disarmament, it has resulted in continued and increasing armaments. If all nations having interest in the Pacific would disarm, or limit their armaments to a point of real defense–or, at least, to the point where it could no longer be said that an actual naval race was on–might it not be possible to adjust these questions more satisfactorily, more effectually, and more easily in the court of reason and conscience and under the compelling power of public opinion? Is it necessary to have this threat of ultimate force pronouncedly a part of every conference? Is it wise to have the hammers and anvils going on the outside of the conference to the extent that the din of build¬ing battleships will deafen the voices of the conferees?

The fact is that while we thought we had conquered militarism, it has apparently conquered us. The barbarous creed of Bernhardi has become the accepted rule of the parliaments and congresses and conferences of the new world, as well as the old. The thing which is paralyzing the energies and dissipating the moral forces of the whole human family today and retarding every effort toward peace, driving us to the very brink of chaos and barbarism, is the fact that governments are still worshipping at the throne of militarism. There is to them no God but force. Before the war we had great faith in the commanding influence of justice and the power of public opinion.

I have before me now an interesting editorial in which it is urged that it is useless to talk of disarming until the causes of war are removed. One of the most prolific causes of war is huge armaments. An armed world is a fighting world. Naval competition engenders suspicion, fear, hatred, war. If there should be twenty years of intense naval rivalry between the United States and Japan, any sterile, promontory or irrelevant rock in the Pacific might give rise to war.

There will always be questions of commercial rivalry, matters of difference between nations, and this rivalry and these differences will always lead easily to war when the nations are armed for war. If you wish to make it improbable that differences will lead to conflict, first reduce armaments, which always inspire war, and prevent naval competition which is a daily, ever-present, taunting suggestion of war.

I understand fully that there may be circumstances and conditions in which an appeal to force is not only necessary but righteous. But to deify force, to make it the dominating factor, to have it ever present, to sit at conference with your finger pointing back over your shoulder to your armies and navies, to intrude into every settlement, and to announce to the world that it is your ultimate reliance, is barbaric–and it is none the less barbaric when it is practiced by professedly Christian nations.

For myself, I refuse to concede time-force is the only power left, or that it should be the dominating and controlling power. It cannot be possible. Reason and justice must still have their place in the affairs of the world, and if leaders and statesmen are strong enough to place their reliance upon them, they will go far. I venture to declare, in the face of professional militarists, that no nation can long defy the public opinion of the civilized world–and especially no government can long defy the public opinion of their own people. And if this conference is conducted as an appeal to the public opinion of the world and to the public opinions of the peoples of the respective countries, it will accomplish far more than if it is conducted under the constant threat of dominating armaments…

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