Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, January 6, 2017

H.G. Wells on America, American Tourists, & the War (1916)


H.G. Wells
I found the excerpts below in the 1916 work A Forecast of Things after the War by H.G. Wells. The big points Wells got exactly right in this mid-war extended essay were that the war was becoming test of national energy and will, and that, inevitably, the Central Powers would drop exhausted by the wayside one-by-one, with Germany, finally and decisively,  succumbing.  

It's kind of a ponderous read, with lots of socialist Utopianism mixed in with some astute observations. The first section reads like something from The Innocents Abroad and catches somewhat amusingly and accurately important things about the American character of 100 years ago (and maybe still today). In the second, nonetheless, Wells sees recent movement by the U.S. toward a greater involvement in the world, something of a veiled, but accurate, prediction that the Americans might just get involved in the war after all.

At the beginning of this war, the United States were still possessed by the glorious illusion that they were aloof from general international politics, that they needed no allies and need fear no enemies, that they constituted a sort of asylum from war and all the bitter stresses and hostilities of the old world. Themselves secure, they could intervene with grim resolution to protect their citizens all over the world. Had they not bombarded Algiers? [The reference here, is apparently to the Barbary pirates.]

I remember that soon after the outbreak of the war I lunched at the Savoy Hotel in London when it was crammed with Americans suddenly swept out of Europe by the storm. My host happened to be a man of some diplomatic standing, and several of them came and talked to him. They were full of these old-world ideas of American immunity. Their indignation was comical even at the time. Some of them had been hustled; some had lost their luggage in Germany. When, they asked, was it to be returned to them? Some seemed to be under the impression that, war or no war, an American tourist had a perfect right to travel about in the Vosges or up and down the Rhine just as he thought fit. They thought he had just to wave a little American flag, and the referee would blow a whistle and hold up the battle until he had got by safely. One family had actually been careering about in a cart—their automobile seized—between the closing lines of French and Germans, brightly unaware of the disrespect of bursting shells for American nationality. . . 

An American Tourist Meets Some Local Soldiery

Since those days the American nation has lived politically a hundred years...The people of the United States have shed their delusion that there is an Eastern and a Western hemisphere, and that nothing can ever pass between them but immigrants and tourists and trade, and realised that this world is one round globe that gets smaller and smaller every decade if you measure it by day's journeys. They are only going over the lesson the British have learnt in the last score or so of years. This is one world and bayonets are a crop that spreads. Let them gather and seed, it matters not how far from you, and a time will come when they will be sticking up under your nose. 

There is no real peace but the peace of the whole world, and that is only to be kept by the whole world resisting and suppressing aggression wherever it arises. To anyone who watches the American Press, this realisation has been more and more manifest. From dreams of aloofness and ineffable superiority, America comes round very rapidly to a conception of an active participation in the difficult business of statecraft. She is thinking of alliances, of throwing her weight and influence upon the side of law and security. No longer a political Thoreau in the woods, a sort of vegetarian recluse among nations, a being of negative virtues and unpremeditated superiorities, she girds herself for a manly part in the toilsome world of men.

3 comments:

  1. A wonderful post! "I remember that soon after the outbreak of the war I lunched at the Savoy Hotel in London when it was crammed with Americans suddenly swept out of Europe by the storm. My host happened to be a man of some diplomatic standing, and several of them came and talked to him. They were full of these old-world ideas of American immunity. Their indignation was comical even at the time. Some of them had been hustled; some had lost their luggage in Germany. When, they asked, was it to be returned to them?" Really, that attitude has not changed much in 100 years.

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  2. I read that H. G. Wells wrote about what he called "atomic bombs" in 1914 because it was known that far back that there was tremendous energy in atoms. So it was prescient in some ways, but actually what it did was convince people by WWII that splitting atoms was literally science fiction.

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  3. Most of the future is seen as science fiction... until it is invented by people of vision. Then it becomes just the past, as in 'yes, we went to the moon many years ago.' Our mortal enemies are seen in the same way... Germany, Japan, Vietnam are all friends of America now.

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