R.B. Haldane Haldane.

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| Transcriber's Note: |
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| While the author of this work uses unusual spelling, a |
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Secretary of State for War from December, 1905 to June, 1912;
Lord High Chancellor from June, 1912 to May, 1915.]

[Illustration: _London Stereoscopic Co_.

Funk & Wagnalls Company
New York and London
Copyright, 1920, by Funk & Wagnalls Company
[Printed in the United States of America]
Published in February, 1920
Copyright under the Articles of the Copyright Convention of the
Pan-American Republics of the United States, August 11, 1910


The chapters of which this little volume consists were constructed with
a definite purpose. It was to render clear the line of thought and
action followed by the Government of this country before the war,
between January, 1906, and August, 1914. The endeavor made was directed
in the first place to averting war, and in the second place to preparing
for it as well as was practicable if it should come. In reviewing what
happened I have made use of the substance of various papers recently
contributed to the _Westminster Gazette_, the _Atlantic Monthly_, _Land
and Water_, and the _Sunday Times_. The gist of these, which were
written with their inclusion in this book in view, has been incorporated
in the text together with other material. I have to thank the Editors of
these journals for their courtesy in agreeing that the substance of what
they published should be made use of here as part of a connected




















The purpose of the pages which follow is, as I have said in the
Prefatory Note, to explain the policy pursued toward Germany by Great
Britain through the eight years which immediately preceded the great war
of 1914. It was a policy which had two branches, as inseparable as they
were distinct. The preservation of peace, by removing difficulties and
getting rid of misinterpretations, was the object of the first branch.
The second branch was concerned with what might happen if we failed in
our effort to avert war. Against any outbreak by which such failure
might be followed we had to insure. The form of the insurance had to be
one which, in our circumstances, was practicable, and care had to be
taken that it was not of a character that would frustrate the main
purpose by provoking, and possibly accelerating, the very calamity
against which it was designed to provide.

The situation was delicate and difficult. The public most properly
expected of British Ministers that they should spare no effort for peace
and for security. It was too sensible to ask for every detail of the
steps taken for the attainment of this end. There are matters on which
it is mischievous to encourage discussion, even in Parliament. Members
of Parliament know this well, and are sensible about it. The wisest
among them do not press for open statements which if made to the world
would imperil the very object which Parliament and the public have
directed those responsible to them to seek to attain. What is objected
to in secret diplomacy hardly includes that which from its very nature
must be negotiated in the first instance between individuals.

The policy actually followed was in principle satisfactory to the great
majority of our people. To them it was familiar in its general outlines.
But for the minority, which included both our pacifists and our
chauvinists, it was either too much or too little. For, on the one hand,
its foundation was the theory that, amid the circumstances of Europe in
which it had to be built up, human nature could not be safely relied on
unswervingly to resist warlike impulses. On the other hand, this peril
notwithstanding, it was the considered view of those responsible that
war neither ought to be regarded as being inevitable, nor was so in
fact. It was quite true that the development of military preparations
had been so great as to make Europe resemble an armed camp; but, if
actual conflict could be averted, the burden this state of things
implied ought finally to render its continuance no longer tolerable.
What was really required was that unbroken peace should be preserved,
and the hand of time left to operate.

In the course of history it has rarely been the case that any war that
has broken out was really inevitable, and there does not appear to be
any sufficient reason for thinking that the war of 1914 was an exception
to the general rule. It seems clear that, if Germany had resolved to do
so, she could quite safely have abstained from entering upon it and from
encouraging Austria in a mad adventure. The reason why the war came
appears to have been that at some period in the year 1913 the German
Government finally laid the reins on the necks of men whom up to then it
had held in restraint. The decision appears to have been allowed at this
point to pass from civilians to soldiers. I do not believe that even
then the German Government as a whole intended deliberately to invoke
the frightful consequences of actual war, even if it seemed likely to be
victorious. But I do believe that it elected to take the risk of what
it thought improbable, a general resistance by the Entente Powers if
Germany were to threaten to use her great strength. In thus departing in
1913 from the appearance of self-restraint which in the main they had
displayed up to then, the Emperor and his Ministers misjudged the
situation. They did not foresee the crisis to which their policy was
conducting, and when that crisis arrived they lost their heads and
blundered in trying to deal with it. They did not perceive the whirlpool
toward which they were heading. They thought that they could safely
expose what was precarious to a strain, and secure the substance of a
real victory without having to overcome actual resistance. Had they put
an extreme ambition for their country aside, and been careful in their
language to others, they might have attained a considerable success
without a shot being fired. But they were over ambitious and in their
language they were far from careful. A few unlucky words made all the
difference in the concluding days of July, 1914:

"Ten lines, a statesman's life in each."

We here had done the best we could, according to our lights, to keep
Germany from misjudging us. It was not always easy to do this. The
genius of our people was not well adapted for the particular task. If
the only question to-day were whether we always rendered ourselves
intelligible to her, she might say with some show of reason that we did
not. She might have grumbled, as Bismarck used to do, over our apparent
indefiniteness. But that indefiniteness in policy was only apparent. Its
form was due to the habit of mind which was, what it always has been and
probably always will be, the habit of mind of the people of these
islands. It was the defect of her qualities that prevented Germany from
understanding what this habit of mind truly imported, and we have never
fully taken in at any period of our history how little she has ever
understood it. Let anyone who doubts this read the German memoirs which
have appeared since the war. But it remains not the less true and
obvious that the purpose of the British Government which fashioned the
policy in question was to leave no stone unturned in the endeavor to
find a way of keeping the peace between Germany and the Entente Powers.
Now success in that endeavor was not a certainty, and it was necessary
to insure against the risk of failure. The second branch of British
policy related to the provision for defense rendered imperative by the
element of uncertainty which was unavoidable. The duty of the
Government of this country was to make sure that, if their endeavor to
preserve peace failed, the country should be prepared, in the best way
of those that were practicable, to face the situation that might emerge.

Impetuous persons ask why, if there was even a chance of a great
European war in which we might be involved, we did not appreciate the
magnitude of what was at stake, and, laying everything else aside,
concentrate our efforts on the immediate fashioning of such vast
military forces as we possessed toward the end of the war? The answer
will be found in the fourth chapter. We were aware of the risk, and we
took what we thought the best means to meet it. Had we tried to do what
we are reproached for not having done, we must have become weaker before
we could have become stronger. For this statement I have given the
military reasons. In a time of peace, even if the country had assented
to the attempt being made, it is certain that we could not have
accomplished such a purpose without long delay. It is probable that the
result would have been failure, and it is almost certain that we should
have provoked a "preventive war" on the part of Germany, a war not only
with a very fair prospect, as things then stood, of a German success,
but with something else that would have looked like the justification of
a German effort to prevent that country from being encircled. Such a war
would, with equal likelihood, have been the outcome even of the
proclamation at such a time of a military alliance between the Entente

Other critics, belonging to a wholly different school of political
thought, ask why we moved at all, and why we did not adhere to the good
old policy of holding aloof from interference in Continental affairs.
The answer is simple. The days when "splendid isolation" was possible
were gone. Our sea power, even as an instrument of self-defense, was in
danger of becoming inadequate in the absence of friendships which should
insure that other navies would remain neutral if they did not actively
co-operate with ours. It was only through the medium of such friendships
that ultimate naval preponderance could be secured. The consciousness of
that fact pervaded the Entente. With those responsible for the conduct
of tremendous affairs probability has to be the guide of life. The
question is always not what ought to happen but what is most likely to

On the details of the diplomatic aspect of our endeavor, and on the
spirit in which it was sought to carry it out, the second and third
chapters of the book may serve to throw some light. The fourth chapter
relates to the strategical plan, worked out after much consideration,
for the possible event of failure. The plan was throughout based on the
maintenance of superior sea power as the paramount instrument. As is
indicated, the conservation of sufficient sea power implied as essential
close and friendly relations with France, and also with Russia. Had
there been no initial reason for the Entente policy, to be found in the
desire to get rid of all causes of friction with these two great
nations, the preservation of the prospect of continuing able to command
the sea in war would in itself have necessitated the Entente. This
conclusion was the result of the stocktaking of their assets for
self-defense which the Entente Powers had to make when confronted with
the growing organization for war of the Central Powers.

To set up the balancing of Powers as a principle was what we in this
country would have been glad to have avoided had it been practicable to
do so. We should have preferred the freedom of our old position of
"splendid isolation." But the growing preparations of the Central Powers
compelled Great Britain, France, and Russia to think of safety for each
of them severally as to be secured only by treating such safety as a
common interest. In the face of a new and growing danger we dared not
leave ourselves to the risk of being dealt with in detail. The first
thing to be done was, if possible, to convince the Central Powers that
it would be to their own advantage to come to a complete agreement with
us, an agreement of a business character, analogous to that which Lord
Lansdowne had so satisfactorily concluded with France, and accompanied
by cessation of the reasons which had led them to pile up armaments.
There were highly influential persons in Germany who were far from
averse to the suggested business arrangement. The armament question
presented greater difficulty in that country, largely because of its
tradition. But its solution was vital, for there were also those in
Germany whose aim was to dispute with Great Britain the possession of
the trident. Now for us, who constituted the island center of a
scattered Empire, and who depended for food and raw materials on freedom
to sail our ships, the question of sea power adequate for security was
one of life or death. We could not sit still and allow Germany so to
increase her navy in comparison with ours that she could make other
Powers believe that their safest course was to throw in their lot and
join their fleets with hers. We were bound to seek to make and maintain
friendships, and to this end not only to preserve our margin of strength
at sea, but to make ourselves able, if it became essential, to help our
friends in case of aggression, thereby securing ourselves. That was the
new situation which in the final result the old military spirit in
Germany had created.

The balance of power is a dangerous principle; a general friendship
between all Great Powers, or, better still, a League of the Nations, is
by far preferable. But that consideration does not touch the actual
point, which is that we did not seek to set up the principle of
balancing that has given rise to so many questions. It was forced on us
and was a sheer necessity of the situation. We did all we could to avoid
it by negotiations with Germany, which, had they succeeded in the end,
would have relieved France and Russia as much as ourselves and would
have prevented the war.

Our efforts to preserve the peace ended in failure. The cause of that
failure was nothing that we failed to do or that France did. It was
proximately Austrian recklessness and indirectly, but just as strongly,
German ambition. A real desire in July, 1914, on the part of the Central
Powers to avoid war would have averted it. That Serbia may have been a
provocative neighbor is no answer to the reproaches made to-day against
the old Governments in Vienna and Berlin. They failed to take the steps
requisite if peace were to be preserved.

People ask why the British Government between 1906 and 1914 did not
discuss in public a situation which it understood well, and appeal to
the nation. The answer is that to have done so would have been greatly
to increase the difficulty of averting war. Up to the middle of 1913 the
indications were that it was far from unlikely that war might in the
result be averted. That was the view of some, both here and on the
Continent, who were most competent to judge, men who had real
opportunities for close observation from day to day. It is a view which
is not in material conflict with anything we have since learned. The
question whether war is inevitable has always been, as Bismarck more
than once insisted, one for the statesmen of the countries concerned,
and not for the soldiers and sailors who have a restricted field to work
in, and for whom it is in consequence difficult to see things as a
whole. Nor does great importance attach to-day to the triumphant
declarations of those who, having chanced to guess aright, take pride in
the cheap title to wisdom which has become theirs after the event.
Still less does respect attach to the small but noisy minority in each
of the countries concerned who in the years before 1914 were
continuously contributing to bringing war on our heads by expressions of
dislike to neighboring nations, and by prophecies that war with them
must come. In the main Germany was worse in this feature than ourselves.
But there were those here whose language made them useful propagandists
for the German military party, to whom they were of much service.

Few wars are really inevitable. If we knew better how we should be
careful to comport ourselves it may be that none are so. But extremists,
whether chauvinist or pacifist, are not helpful in avoiding wars. That
is because human nature is what it is.

Those who had to make the effort to keep the peace failed. But that
neither shows that they ought not to have tried with all the strength
they possessed in the way they did, nor that they would have done better
had they discussed delicate details in public. There are topics and
conjunctures in the almost daily changing relations between Governments
as to which silence is golden. For however proper it may be in point of
broad principle that the people should be fully informed of what
concerns them vitally, the most important thing is those to whom they
have confided their concerns should be given the best chance of success
in averting danger to their interests. To have said more in Parliament
and on the platform in the years in question, or to have said it
otherwise, would have been to run grave risks of more than one sort. It
is my strong impression that Lord Grey of Fallodon took the only course
that was practicable, and that, had the danger of the catastrophe to be
faced again and for the first time, the course he took would, even in
the light of all we know to-day, again afford the best chance of
avoiding it. He succeeded in improving greatly for the time the
relations between this country and Germany, and but for the outbreak in
the Near East he would probably have succeeded in navigating the
dangerous waters successfully. The chance was far from being a hopeless
one, and subsequent study of the facts has strengthened my impression
that down to at least about the middle of the year 1913 the chances were
substantially in his favor. A sufficiency at least of the leaders in
other countries were co-operating with him, not all the leaders, but
those who were in reality most important. The war when it came was due,
not only to the failure of certain of the prominent men in the capitals
of the Central Powers to adhere to principles to which for a long time
they had held fast, but to the accident of untoward circumstances and
the contingency that is inseparable from human affairs.

Such are some of the reasons which have led me to say what I have tried
to express in the pages which follow. I have never been able to bring
myself to believe that there are vast differences between the ways of
thinking and habits of mind of the great and most highly civilized
peoples of Europe. I have seen something of the Germans, and what I have
learned of them and of their history has led me to the conclusion that,
certain traditions of theirs notwithstanding, they resemble us more than
they differ from us. If this be so, the sooner we take advantage of our
present victory by seeking to turn our eyes from the past as far as can
be, and to look steadily toward a future in which the misery and sin
which that past saw shall be dwelt on to the least extent that is
practicable, the better it will be for ourselves as well as for the rest
of the world.

That world has been reminded of a great truth which had been partly
forgotten by those whose faith lay in militarism. It is that to set up
might as the foundation of right may in the end be to inspire those
around with a passionate desire to hold such might in check and to
overcome it. Democracy is not a system that lends itself easily to
scientific preparation for war, but when democratic nations are really
aroused their staying power, just because it rests on a true General
Will, is without rival. The latent force in humanity which has its
foundation in ethical idealism is the greatest of all forces for the
vindication of right. German militarism managed to fail to understand
this. Let us take pains to show our late enemies that if they make it
clear that they have extinguished such militarism in a lasting fashion,
the quarrel with them is at an end.

I am far from thinking that we here are perfect in our habits as a
nation. We are apt not to keep in view how what we do is likely to look
to others. We are somewhat deficient in the faculty of self-examination
and self-criticism. Want of clarity of ground-principle in higher ideals
is apt to prove a hindrance to more than the individual only. It
generally brings with it want of clarity in the sense of social
obligation. And this sometimes extends even to our relations to other

It leads to our being misinterpreted as a nation. We have suffered a
good deal in the past from having attributed to us motives which were
not ours. The reason was the assumption that the apparent absence of
definiteness in national purpose must have been designed as a cover for
hidden and selfish ends. It is not true. We are indeed very insular, and
what has been called the international mind is not common among the
people of these islands. But we are kindly at heart, and when we have
seemed self-regarding it has been simply because we were not conscious
of our own limitations and had not much appreciation of the modes of
thought of other people. We have paid the penalty for this defect at
periods in our history. At one time France suspected us, I think in the
main unjustly. Later on Germany suspected us, I think of a certainty
unjustly. Now these things arise in part at least from our reputation
for a particular kind of disposition, our supposed habitual and
deliberately adopted desire to wait until the particular international
situation of the moment should show how we could profit, before we gave
any assurance as to the way in which we should act. What has given rise
to this misunderstanding of our attitude in our relations to other
countries is simply an exemplification of what has prevented us from
fully understanding ourselves. It is our gift to be able to apply
ourselves in emergencies, at home and abroad, with immense energy, and
our success in promptly pulling ourselves together and coping with the
unexpected has often suggested to outsiders that we had long ago looked
ahead. This has been said of us on the Continent. It is not so. We do
not study the art of fishing in troubled waters. The waiting habit in
our transactions, domestic as well as foreign, arises from our
inveterate preference for thinking in images rather than in concepts. We
put off decisions until the whole of the facts can be visualized. This
carries with it that we often do not act until it is very late. Our
gifts enable us to move with energy, if not always with precision. To
predict what we will do in a given case is not easy for a foreigner. It
is not easy even for ourselves. We have few abstract principles, and

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Online LibraryR.B. Haldane HaldaneBefore the War → online text (page 1 of 11)