Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Washington and the Hope of Peace (1922)

Wells sailed to the USA to write-up the Washington Naval Conference on disarmament (12 November 1921 to 6 February 1922) as weekly reports for the New York World newspaper. The London Daily Mail also carried his pieces, or at least the first fourteen—they took exception to his criticism of the French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, whom Wells judged a backslider on the question of international disarmament, and discontinued running the articles. I quote some of the things Wells wrote about Briand below. You'll be able to see why the Mail pulled their plug.

Eventually all twenty-nine of his reports were collected in one volume, called Washington and the Hope of Peace in its British edition and Washington and the Riddle of Peace in its American. Interesting distinction, don't you think? War-shattered Europe hopes, but for the more distantly engaged America peace is a riddle. But perhaps the two titles aren't so far apart. Hope is a riddle, after all; and riddles, by virtue of not containing their own answers, look to the future, and so are, even if only in some small way, hopeful.

The book, though, is a strange and rather unsatisfactory thing. Wells doesn't pretend fair or balanced reportage: he is using these essays as platforms to agitate for global disarmament and a World State, and has no interest in even trying to understand any contrary view. So, for instance: his repeated attacks on Briand. The French premier's disinclination to disband his nation's army and navy are, for Wells, evidence of sheer wickedness. France (a nation only a few short years earlier subjected to an unprovoked and four-year-long attempted invasion that killed five percent of its total, and ten percent of its adult male, population, 1.4 million men, leaving many more maimed and invalid) might be forgiven for wanting to retain some degree of defensive military capacity. But for Wells anything short of total disarmament is betrayal. Briand's fears of future aggression are  ‘alarmist’ [13] and ‘humbug’ [15]. Or, worse, they are deliberate distractions. If France be allowed to keep ‘her submarines and Senegalese’, Wells says, she would be in a position to ‘do as she pleased in Europe’ [17].  He accuses France of wanting ‘an awful army to over-awe Europe’ [12] and calls Briand ‘a warlike orator, empty and mischievous, leading France and all Europe to destruction’ [16].

It goes on. Wells refers several times to his frankly paranoid (and wholly evidence-free) theory that France is gearing up specifically to attack Britain: ‘France is maintaining a vast army in the face of a disarmed world and she is preparing energetically for fresh warlike operations in Europe and for war under sea against Great Britain’ [11]. You start to see why the Daily Mail asked him to tone it down and, when he refused, why they stopped publishing his reports. It can't have done any favours for Anglo-French diplomatic relations.

Otherwise the pieces themselves suffer from not being revised out of their chatty progress-report contingency (chapter 12 begins: ‘How are we getting on in Washington? The general mood is hopefulness tempered by congestion, mental and physical’) into something more formed and structured. There's a lot of day-to-day, and a fair amount of repetition between sections, although from time to time Wells does dilate upon ideas. After Wells attends the ceremony dedicating the Tomb to the Unknown American Soldier, he ponders the generic human unknown soldier:
A time will come when these vast personifications of conflict, the Unknown British Soldier, the Unknown American Soldier, the Unknown French Soldier, etc., will merge into the thought of a still greater personality, the embodiment of 20,000,000 separate bodies and of many million broken lives, the Unknown Soldier of the great war ... We could average figures and estimates that would fix such matters within a very narrow range of uncertainty. In race and complexion, I suppose he would be mainly North European; North Russian, German, Frankish, North Italian, British and American elements would all have the same trend toward a tallish, fairish, possibly blue-eyed type; but also there would be a strong Mediterranean streak in him, Indian and Turkish elements, a fraction of Mongolian and an infusion of African blood—brought in not only through the American colored troops but by the free use by the French of their Senegalese.

None of these factors would be strong enough to prevent his being mainly Northern and much the same mixture altogether as the American citizen of 1950 is likely to be. He would be a white man with a touch of Asia and a touch of color. [4]
This, I think, blurs the line between simple fact (that the large majority of military casualties in WWI were White Europeans) and something far more dubious, an unemphatic racism that sees non-White races as barbaric and to-be-controlled, and tacitly places the levers of the World State in white hands. In another of his many francophobic outbursts, Wells insists that France ‘is training great masses of barbaric Senegalese for war, with the view of using them to police white populations and sustain their millennium in Europe. They can have no other use now’ [10]. Indeed, he is not sure whether France itself might not come under control of ‘a black Pretorian Guard ... French-speaking and ultra-patriotic, keeping French Socialists and pacifists and Bolsheviks in their proper place’. [15].

I'm not suggesting that Wells is straightforwardly or crudely racist. He is proud of his friendship with Booker T Washington and insists that ‘educated, highly intelligent colored people’ win his ‘interest and sympathy’ (‘I cannot get up any race feeling about them’). But at the same time he insists ‘Negro Africa is mainly still in a state of tribal barbarism’ [15] and must be governed by Whites, for the benefit of everyone, for the foreseeable future.

Where the Pacific rim is concerned he's a little more nuanced. He concedes that Japan is now a world power, adding ‘our Western world, I am convinced, can work with the Japanese and understand and trust them’ [18] (‘the idea of them as of a people insanely patriotic, patriotically subtle and treacherous, mysterious and mentally inaccessible has been largely dispelled. I myself have tried that view over in my mind and dismissed it’). Japan, he says, should join Britain, America and some other major countries as ‘participating’ members of what he here calls ‘the Association of Nations’, with all other countries being granted ‘non-participating’ status, a kind of observer partnership. But he is optimistic: ‘I think first of a recovered Russia and then of a unified and educated China and a freed and reconstructed India and of many other states which can claim to be of a civilized quality, such as Egypt, gradually winning their way from a non-participating to a participating level’ [18].

He's prescient about the way advances in aerial warfare will bring destruction raining down upon civilian populations as well as the military, and even manages an ahead-of-its-time jab in at the idiocy of Mutually Assured Destruction (‘the citizen of Los Angeles, as he blew to pieces, or coughed up his lungs and choked to death or was crushed under the falling, burning buildings, could at least console himself by the thought that America was so thoroughly prepared that his fellow man in Tokio was certainly getting it worse’ [21]). But there's something flimsily unrealistic, in the end, about his dreaming. His hopefulness cracks its head against the granite impediment of human nature.
Think of a morning when the newspaper has mainly good news, of things discovered, of fine things done; think of the common day of a common citizen in a world where debt is no longer a universal burthen, where there is constant progress and no retrogression, where it is the normal thing to walk out of a beautiful house into a clean and splendid street, to pass and meet happy and interesting adults instead of aged children obsessed by neglected spites and jealousies and mean anxieties, to go to some honorable occupation that helps the world forward to a still greater and finer life. You may say that a world may be prosperous and men and women healthy and free and yet there will still be spites and jealousies and all the bitterness of disputation, but that is no more true than that there will still be toothache. A mind educated and cared for, quite as well as a body, can be healed and kept clean and sweet and free from these maddening humiliations and suppressions that now fester in so many souls. There is no real necessity about either physical or mental miserableness in human life. Given, that is, a sufficient release of human energy to bring a proper care within the reach of all.

This is not idle prophecy, this is no dream. Such a world is ours today if we could but turn the minds of men to realize that it is here for the having. [29]
‘... if we could but turn the minds of men ...’ Yeah. Good luck with that.

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