Vae Victis!

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Vae Victis!  (1917) 
by Henry Watterson
Awarded the 1918 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, first published in Louisville, Kentucky on April 7, 1917.

'Rally round the flag, boys'—Uncle Sam's Battle song'
'Sound the bold anthem! War dogs are howling;
Proud bird of Liberty screams through the air!'
                  —The Hunters of Kentucky.

It is with solemnity, and a touch of sadness, that we write the familiar words of the old refrain beneath the invocation to the starry banner, the breezy call of hero-breeding bombast quite gone out of them; the glad shout of battle; the clarion note of defiance; because to us, not as to Nick of the Woods, and his homely co-mates of the forest, but rather as to the men of '61, comes this present call to arms.

We may feel with the woman's heart of Rankin of Montana, yet repudiate with manly disdain the sentimental scruples of Kitchin of North Carolina.

There are times when feeling must be sent to the rear; when duty must toe the line; when the aversion brave men have for fighting must yield to the adjuration, 'Give me liberty, or give me death!' That time is now upon us.

Unless Patrick Henry was wrong—unless Washington and the men of the Revolution were wrong, that time is upon us. It is lie to pretend that the world is better than it was; that men are truer, wiser; that war is escapable; that peace may be had for the planning and the asking. The situation which without any act of ours rises before us is as exigent as that which rose brefore the Colonists in America when a mad English King, claiming to rule without accountability, asserted the right of Kings and sent an army to enforce it. A mad German Emperor, claiming partnership with God, again elevates the standard of right divine and bids the world to worship, or die.

From the beginning the issue was not less ours than of the countries first engaged. Each may have had ends of its own to serve. Nor were these ends precisely alike. At least France—to whom we owe all that he have of sovereignty and freedom—and Belgium, the little David of Nations—fought to resist invasion, wanton, cruel invasion; to avert slavery, savage, pitiless slavery. Yet, whatever animating purpose—whatever the selfish interests of England and Russia and Italy—the Kaiser scheme of world conquest justified it.

In us it sanctifies it. Why should any American split hairs over the European rights and wrongs involved when he sees before him gim and ghastly the mailed figure of Absolutism with hand uplifted to strike Columbia where these three years she has stood pleading for justice, peace, and mercy? God of the free heart's hope and home forbid!

Each of these three years the German Kaiser was making war upon us. He was making war secretly, through his emissaries in destruction of our indstries, secretly through his diplomats plotting not merely foreign but civil war against us, and, as we now know, seeking to foment servile and racial insurrection; then openly upon the high seas levying murder upon our people and visiting all our rights and claims with scorn and insult—with scorn and insult unspeakable—at this moment pretending to flout us with ignominy and contempt. Where would the honest passivist draw the line?

Surely the time has arrived—many of us think it was long since overdue—for calling the braves to the colors. Nations must e'en take stock on occasion and manhood come to a showdown. It is but a truism to say so.

Fifty years the country has enjoyed surpassing prosperity. This has over-commercialized the character and habits of the people. Twenty-five years the gospel of passivism, with 'business is business' for its text, has not only been preached—indiscriminately—oracularly—without let or hindrance, but has been richly financed and potentially organized. It has established a party. It has made a cult, justifying itself in a fad it has called Humanity—in many ways a nost spurious humanity—and has set this above and against patriotic inclination and duty.

Like a bolt out of the blue flashed the war signal from the very heart of Europe. Across the Atlantic its reverberations rolled to find us divided, neutral, and unprepared. For fifteen years abody of German reservists disguised as citizens have been marching and counter-marching. They grew at length bold enough to rally the support of a pan-German scheme of conquest and a pro-German propaganda of 'kultur,' basing its effrontery in the German-American vote, which began its agitation by threatening us with civil war if we dared to go to war with Germany. There followed the assassin sea monsters and the airship campaign of murder.

All the while we looked on with either simpering idiocy or dazed apathy. Serbia? It was no affair of ours. Belgium? Why should we worry? Food-stuffs soaring—war stuffs roaring—everybody making money—the mercenary, the poor of heart, the mean of spirit, the bleak and barren of soul, could still plead the Hypocrisy of Uplift and chortle: 'I did not raise my boy to be a soldier.' Even the Lusitania did not awaken us to a sense of danger and arouse us from the stupefaction of ignorant and ignoble self-complacency.

First of all on bended knee we should pray God to forgive us. Then erect as men, Christian men, soldierly men, to the flag and the fray—wherever they lead us—over the ocean—through France to Flanders—across the Low Countries to Köln, Bonn and Koblenz—tumbling the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein into the Rhine as we pass and damming the mouth of the Moselle with the débris of the ruin we make of it—then on, on to Berlin, the Black Horse Cavalry sweeping the Wilhelmstrasse like lava down the mountain side, the Junker and the saber rattler flying before us, the tunes being 'Dixie' and 'Yankee Doodle.' the cry being 'Hail the French Republic—Hail the Republic of Russia—welcome the Commonwealth of the Vaterland—no peace with the Kaiser—no parley with Autocracy, Absolutism and the divine right of Kings—to Hell with the Hapsburg and Hohenzollern.'


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1921, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.