Mobilizing the Mountebanks

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/January 31, 1916

The preparedness campaign is being carried forward in a manner typically American. That is to say, it is being carried forward chiefly by rogues and mountebanks, each with something to sell. In the front rank of the patriotic host, true enough, one discerns the faces of various earnest, intelligent and even self-sacrificing men and women, but that front rank is only one file deep. Immediately to the rear, whooping, for Old Glory in gurgling, terrible tones, are the fly-by-night munitions dealers with damaged ammunition to sell, and the brave, knightly War Bride stock brokers with lemons to unload, and the dealers in embalmed beef, tin armor, paper shoes and condemned muskets with juicy contracts in sight, and the immemorial caravan of professional job holders with jobs in their eyes. My Washington agent sends me strange and ludicrous tales of the late convention of patriots at Washington, a convention discreetly turned into a Roosevelt meeting by wire-pullers disguised as fire-eaters. He even tells me that the pension agents, suddenly mobilizing, lent aid with their roars—an almost unmatchable instance of democratic delicacy. The thing ended in clown-play, with two great statesmen at fisticuffs on the public sidewalk. A list of the subscribers toward the cost of the buffoonery would tickle the hyphenated kidney.


Whether or not the verein ostensibly behind that grand exhibition was and is the same of which one Philip Roosevelt, a kinsman and retainer of the San Juan Hindenburg, is the chief shouter I do not know, but the two have a very suspicious family resemblance. The latter bears the name of the American Defense Society (or is it League?) and such affecting altruists as the Hon. Charles J. Bonaparte are among its directors. Some time ago, thinking thus to establish a neutral character for it, Cousin Philip invited the Hon. George Sylvester Viereck, the editor of the Fatherland and a quenchless snorter for the Kaiser, to become a director. But George, for all his faults, was this time too much for Philip, and in the course of a brief exchange of letters he jockeyed the latter into a plain admission that the so-called American Defense Society (or League), far from being neutrally American, was actually pro-English. On which, having accomplished his foul purpose, he formally refused to have anything to do with it.

This organization, in brief, is bogus, just as Theodore himself is bogus. It represents the guess to which he proposes to commit himself in his forthcoming guessing match with the Hon. Woodrow Wilson. That guess is that the majority of Americans, by a skillful thumping of the tub-bottom, can be aroused to the point of demanding a share in the war: a consummation obviously to the advantage of a great military candidate, a blood-stained hero, a veteran of vermilion fields. The Wilson guess is that the majority of Americans are against going into the war, but in favor of preying upon those who are already in it. The Wilson guess was better than the Roosevelt guess in 1912. Let us see what happens in 1916.


My own guess—if one may guess about guessing—is that Woodrow will win a second time. He always has the great advantage, in any contest with Roosevelt, of being, at bottom, a far more typical American, and hence more sympathetic to the plain people. Roosevelt, true enough, is the better quack, the better ballyho man, the better fraud, but Wilson is incomparably the better Puritan, the better moralist. His notes to various participants in the war upon their moral duties and responsibilities have plucked and shivered the deepest bass strings in the American soul. They represent, naifly and almost exactly, the American ideal of what is noble, of what is virtuous, of what is indubitably true. For your genuine American, before he is anything else—even before he is a boaster, a waster or an ignoramus—is a moralist. He delights in moral crusades, in the discovery and description of new crimes, in the unearthing and pillorying of sinners. At this sweet national science, although Roosevelt clearly shows some talent, Wilson beats him with ease. Even the notes to England, relatively polite and deprecating though they be, are vastly more solemn and indignant, and hence vastly more satisfying to native connoisseurs, than the best efforts of Roosevelt. Roosevelt is so much the clown that he got a certain fine humor into the most frantic of his Presidential denunciations—e g., of Harriman, of nature-fakers and of race suicide. A Gallic touch was here: the fellow, an admitted mongrel, must have some French blood. But Wilson is as wholly destitute of humor as a Methodist bishop. The world, to him, is a charnel house of sin, with himself and one or two others as its only righteous and trustworthy inhabitants. . . .

I often wonder if mirth will awaken in him during his second term, when he begins receiving the delayed replies to his moral encyclicals. . . .


But to return to the preparedness campaign. Already it produces a copious literature, mostly either plainly dishonest or joyously idiotic. But here and there one encounters a more or less intelligent statement and discussion of the problem, for example, in the little book called “The Writing on the Wall,” by one Eric Fisher Wood. This Wood is a college youth who happened to be in Paris when the war broke out, and who seems to have seen service—just how much, I don’t know—as a messenger for Ambassador Herrick. It is rather hard to believe some of his statements as to his sources of information—for example, he says that “a staff officer of the German Army” gravely discussed with him the means by which America could be invaded!—but these, after all, are details. What remains is a very intelligent and, in the main, very temperate exposition of the difficulties that would confront the country if a first-class power struck along the Atlantic seaboard. These difficulties would be partly due, as young Mr. Wood shows, to our lack of materials of war, but they would be even more due to our lack of competent and honest leaders. While the foe was bearing down upon us, our defense would be in the hands of such stupid and shifty hollow-heads in the Hon. Josephus Daniels and such self-seeking charlatans as the Hon. Theodore Roosevelt; and before they could be cleared away and good men found for their places, the whole region east of the Alleghenies would be conquered and under tribute.


Young Wood prints a map, alleged to have been drawn by that strangely expansive “staff officer of the German Army,” showing just what territory a hostile invader would aim for. He would first grab the four great ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and then strike inland for the foothills of the Alleghenies. After a short, sharp campaign he would hold a line beginning at the Chesapeake capes, running along the Potomac to its headwaters; thence proceeding to Hagerstown, Gettysburg, Harrisburg, Scranton and the Catskills to the Hudson, and thence past Albany to Lakes George and Champlain and the Canadian border. This line would be 600 miles long, about the length of the present western battle front in Europe, but it would be much easier to defend, for 385 miles of it would consist of deep rivers. and lakes. Young Wood says that this line could be “held by 400,000 trained troops against any army in the world.” Thus in possession of 100,000 square miles of the United States, including the capital, the chief city, three other great ports and the homes of 25,000,000 Americans, the commander of that army could force cruel and crushing terms upon the country, including a demand even for the hides of Judge Ben B. Lindsey, the Rev. Dr. Billy Sunday and the Hon. Oswald Villard Garrison. A sad picture, to be sure!


For the rest, young Wood’s book consists chiefly of arguments for the so-called Swiss plan of universal military service, and solemn warnings against the German plan—and the Germans. So far as he establishes any intrinsic difference between the Swiss plan and the German plan, he merely manages to raise a suspicion that the former would show very serious weaknesses in war. The notion that Switzerland was spared the invasion that Belgium suffered because her army was strong enough to intimidate the invader is, of course, no more than a part of that vast sentimental hallucination which now obscures the whole preparedness question. The Swiss were spared, not because they were invincible, but simply and solely because their country, being chiefly mountainous, presented infinitely greater natural obstacles than Belgium. Anyone who has ever traveled from Switzerland into France knows how difficult it would be to march an army down those abysmal gullies without staggering losses. For the rest, it is surely too early to say that Switzerland is absolutely secure against invasion. She could no more keep out the Germans, if they decided to occupy her soil tomorrow, than the French could keep them out.

What would and all other pro-English tear-squeezers forget is that militarism without the military spirit is not worth much—that the fostering of the military spirit, of the delight in war for its own sake, is militarism’s chief value. A nation that is thoroughly warlike can never be conquered by any means short of actual annihilation. The stupendous achievements of the Germans in the present war—achievements so colossal that the mind can scarcely grasp them—were not made possible by the mere accumulation of materials of war, but by implanting the military spirit in the young German breast. For nearly a year past England has had a much larger supply of materials of war than Germany, and yet England is quite unable to overthrow Germany today, and the longer the war lasts the more plain and humiliating her failure will become.


The fear of Germany so visible in young Wood’s book, as it is in the compositions of all the newspaper-kept patriots and viewers with alarm, is acutely amusing to every American of German blood. Alas, the poor Anglo-Saxon: what a spectacle he makes of himself before the world! How cruelly he is exposed by his so evident trembling and consternation. One discerns in his present paralyzing fear of the Germans a bit of bad conscience—for he will have a hard time explaining his neutrality when the time comes—but a good deal more of mere stupidity and poltroonery. He is afraid, in brief, of what he himself regards as a shadow. On the one hand, he professes a touching faith that England will dispose of the Germans, and on the other hand, he is shaken by a dread that the Germans will be at our gates before an army of defense can be made ready, and that they will pay us up with fearful interest for our shell-making, our thinly disguised submarine building, and our other transparent chicaneries a la Josephus Daniels.

What a mess the United States would be in if her safety depended upon the intelligence and courage of the Anglo-Saxon! Observe him as he quakes in his boots—and then let your native humor play about his notion that God hath chosen him to run the world, and that men of all other races, including especially Americans of German blood, should be glad and proud to absorb his Kultur. . . . He passed from history a tragic comedian. The next twenty years will see him suffer barbarities vastly worse than any his pained imagination has lately conjured up. . . .

Fortunately, the safety of the United States is not dependent upon so grotesque a chevalier. There are the Irish, there are the Scandinavians, there are Slavs and the Jews. . . . There are, beyond all, the Germans. The gorgeous procession of events in Europe has awakened their ancient race-spirit and filled them with the most intense race consciousness and race pride. They are not in favor of a militarism which is a moral parlor sport for college youths and old maids. After the present buffoons and tremblers have departed they will be heard from. . . .


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