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After Twenty Years

by George W. Norris

George W. Norris was a well-known and staunch liberal senator from Nebraska during the first half of the twentieth century. This article was published in the Christian Century, March 31, 1937. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


I am the only living man in the Senate who voted against the declaration of war with Germany. In my service of about thirty-five years in Congress I have undoubtedly made many mistakes, but my vote against the declaration of war was not one of them. On that April day twenty years ago when the joint resolution declaring war was under debate in the Senate, I said:

"We are taking a step today that is fraught with untold danger. We are going into war upon the command of gold; we are going to run the risk of sacrificing millions of our countrymen’s lives in order that other countrymen may coin their life blood into money. And even if we do not cross the Atlantic and go into the trenches, we are going to pile up a debt that the toiling generations that come many generations after us will have to pay. Unborn millions will bend their necks in toil in order to pay for the terrible step we are now about to take. We are about to do the bidding of wealth’s terrible mandate. By our act we will make millions of our countrymen suffer, and the consequences of it may well be that millions of our brethren must shed their life blood, millions of broken-hearted women must weep, millions of children must suffer with cold, and millions of babes must die from hunger, and all because we want to preserve the commercial right of American citizens to deliver the munitions of war to belligerent nations.

"I know that I am powerless to stop it. I know that this war madness has taken possession of the financial and political powers of our country. I know that nothing I can say will stay the blow that is soon to fall. I feel that we are committing a sin against humanity and against our countrymen. I would like to say to this war god, You shall not coin into gold the life blood of my brethren. I would like to prevent this terrible catastrophe from falling upon my people. I would be willing to surrender my own life if I could cause this awful cup to pass. I charge no man here with wrong motives, but it seems to me that this war craze has robbed us of our judgment. I wish we might delay our action until reason could again be enthroned in the brain of man. I feel that we are about to put the dollar sign upon the American flag."

Is there any word in that speech which, in the light of all we know today, I shall recall? When I said we were about to put the dollar sign on the flag, I was severely condemned twenty years ago. Yet who can now doubt that we did so? The war hastened the process of concentrating the wealth of this country in the hands of the few; it is a process which has been going on at accelerated pace ever since.

How well do we know today, twenty years after, what some of us suspected on April 6, 1917. We know, for instance, that Germany did not "start the war," although she was culpable. But we know now that Russia, France and Great Britain had a hand in it, and were also culpable. We know that our allies came to us with hands outstretched and wet eyes, murmuring idealistic promises of a new order in the world. Justice was to be enthroned, and the Golden Rule was to supplant the old code of intrigue, deceit and distrust. And we know now that in their hands were rockets, while their own pockets were filled with secret treaties and plans for dividing the swag, which they carefully kept from us. We know this now.

For the thousands of our young men killed and maimed, for our billions spent, for the countless millions of heartaches, we have what? We have political corruption, such as was never dreamed of before. We have a new crop of millionaires such as the world has never before witnessed. We have a crime wave that staggers the imagination of the world. We have gigantic, war-grown combinations of trade and money that are squeezing billions annually out of the people who gave till it hurt. We have a national avariciousness and a sense of grab, grab, grab that cannot be eradicated from the national consciousness for generations to come. This we have. Why? Because the war did what a few of us believed it would do -- it stupefied and paralyzed the moral consciousness of the American people as nothing else could have done. And because it was a war of gigantic commercial interests from beginning to end.

We, with the balance of the world, are still suffering from that unjust and unnecessary struggle. The terrible condition we are now in and the terrible depression in which all classes of our people have suffered would affect us only in a minor degree if we had kept out of that war. It was a war where no victory was possible. The vanquished suffered no more than the victorious. It was a struggle where, so far as Europe was concerned, all parties to it were completely exhausted. We went into it with our allies, and, to a great extent through our efforts and our sacrifices, we were supposed to have obtained a victory. There was no victory. We are realizing every day that victory was only a name.

In that struggle, about one hundred thousand of our noblest and best gave up their lives. Many times that number are crippled and injured so that they are leading a life of suffering and misery. We know now that we will not get out from under the results of that struggle during our lives or during the lives of our children. Unborn generations will yet toil and suffer and sweat to pay for our participation in that catastrophe.

All wars are destructive. All wars are ruinous. But this war was more ruinous, more destructive than any which preceded it. For four years the largest armies ever known were engaged in the destruction not only of human life, but of property. Every student and every economist knows that the destruction of life and property must be paid for by humanity in toil and sacrifice.

I have always been and I am still an optimist. I believe that better days will come; that honesty in government will regain its foothold; that civilization will recover; and that men, women and children will some day be relieved from the struggle and will have the necessities, the comforts and even some of the luxuries of life. But before that day comes, we must continue in our struggle and in our sacrifices, with earnestness and with hope.

We went to war to end militarism, and there is more militarism today than ever before.
We went to war to make the world safe for democracy, and there is less democracy today than ever before.
We went to war to dethrone autocracy and special privilege, and they thrive everywhere throughout the world today.
We went to war to win the friendship of the world, and other nations hate us today.
We went to war to purify the soul of America, and instead we only drugged it.
We went to war to awaken the American people to the idealistic concepts of liberty, justice and fraternity, and instead we awakened them only to the mad pursuit of money.
All this, and more, the war brought us. It is our harvest from what we sowed.


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