Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Hawaii and Sea-Power

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The constant growth of this republic in all the essential elements of power is causing in Europe a vague uneasiness, which occasionally finds voice in the press, as well as in the utterances of public men. Of late the proposed annexation of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States has been interpreted as a symptom of an aggressive spirit threatening to play an arrogant part in the affairs of the world. However that may be, the alarmists on the other side of the ocean need not fear that this annexation would prove a material addition to our strength, unless at the same time we increase our naval and military establishments to an extent hitherto not thought of. A rapid survey of the situation will make this clear.

It is a well-known fact that in our intercourse with foreign nations we occasionally say or do things which, if they were done or said by any other government, would be quickly resented by the powers interested, but which, coming from this republic, are submitted to with remarkable meekness. We hear sometimes of sullen growls, and even of schemes of hostile combinations against us, but such things regularly pass over without serious consequences and are soon forgotten. We should certainly have no reason to be proud of it if we were simply permitted to play among the nations of the world the pranks of a raw youth, whose conduct, however provoking, did not in fact mean much offence. We should, however, on various occasions, have met with a more resentful and even defiant spirit, did not foreign powers see peculiar reasons for avoiding a quarrel with the United States with especial care. It cannot be that they are afraid of our standing army or navy, for, excepting the period of our civil war, our military and naval establishments have never been considerable. But whenever a foreign power considers the chances of a serious conflict with the United States, it finds this state of things: We are a people of seventy millions or more, intelligent, energetic, vigorous, and intensely patriotic. We occupy a part of the American continent capable of sustaining with its products a much larger population. We have no neighbors strong enough to do us much harm, even if they were hostile. We are in some respects the richest nation in the world, with vast resources still untouched, and would therefore in a conflict have a very superior staying power. If a great naval force attacked us to-day, unprepared as we are, it might bombard some of our seaboard towns, ravage some of our coasts, and sweep our merchant fleet off the sea. Such harassments would, indeed, be very vexatious, but they would by no means disable us. They would only fire the temper of our people and excite them to greater efforts. It would soon become evident that the enemy could not strike at a vital point. He could not get a foothold on any important part of our continent and keep it, for on land the immense superiority of our forces would quickly overwhelm him. In order to take and hold any valuable point on our territory he would have to fight where we are strongest. He could therefore not expect to achieve, through his superior readiness at the beginning of the war, a quick success of importance sufficiently great to give him a lasting advantage that might be of decisive benefit to him in the eventual peace arrangements.

Thus a war with the United States must, under present circumstances, appear to foreign powers as one in which quick decisions cannot be achieved — aye, in which not even advantages of great consequence can quickly be won; in other words, as a war of resources in men, material, and money, a long and exhaustive war, in which the power capable of holding out longest will have by far the best chance of final success. And during such a long war not only would the enemy's maritime commerce suffer its share too, but he would also be exposed to the probability of unfriendly neighbors seizing the opportunity presented by his embarrassments to kindle a fire in his rear in co-operation with us — a consideration which the jealousies existing between European nations make a very cogent one. It is no wonder that, under such circumstances, European powers not only do not seek quarrels with this republic, but rather go to the extreme of politic forbearance to avoid them; and nothing could be more preposterous than the hysterical outcries of our Jingoes that foreign enemies are constantly lurking in ambush to insult our flag, or to deprive us of our rights, or to interfere with our commerce, and that we can baffle them only by standing sleeplessly on guard, armed to the teeth.

How would the annexation of Hawaii affect this situation? It could not make us more secure than we are now. It would rather be apt to present to hostile powers a vulnerable point which we do not now present, and the absence of which is so discouraging to the foreigner who may wish ill to us. The Hawaiian Islands are 2000 miles distant from our nearest coast. If we acquire them, we cannot let them go again without great humiliation, for, after all that has happened, they will appear as an especial object of our desire, to be held at any cost. In their present unfortified condition they would be an easy prey to any hostile power superior to us in naval force. But even if well fortified, their defence would oblige us to fight on a field of operations where the superiority of our land forces would be of no avail, unless we had a navy strong enough to protect the communication between our western coast and Hawaii against any interruption. Our situation would be somewhat like that of Russia during the Crimean war. The allied armies would have had little, if any, chance of final success had they attempted to invade the interior of Russia. But, forcing Russia to a fight at an exposed point, the communications of which with the interior of the empire were at that time so imperfect as seriously to impede the use of Russia's vast resources, they succeeded in forcing Russia to submit to a humiliating peace. For similar reasons the possession of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States would not serve to deter a foreign power from attacking us, but rather be calculated to invite attack, for it would offer to a foreign enemy the possibility, not now existing, of forcing us to a fight on ground on which we cannot bring the superiority of our resources into play, and of gaining by a rapid stroke at the beginning of a war an advantage extremely embarrassing to us. In this respect we shall by annexing Hawaii simply acquire a vulnerable point.

It may, indeed, be said that, if annexed, Hawaii would not remain in an unfortified state. That is true. But, as the history of our harbor and coast defences shows, it will require years to put those distant islands into a reasonably secure condition. And then it will require a big war fleet to make those fortifications really tenable, and to keep the communication between Hawaii and our continent safely open in case of war. Such a big fleet we can build, too. We can do these things. If the people are willing to pay the bills and to endure the effects of that sort of policy, we can do this, and much more. But is not the really important question whether as a sensible people we should do it? Should we adopt a policy obliging us to do it, instead of maintaining the safe ground on which we now stand?

So far it has been our proud distinction and our boast, not that we had big armies and navies, but that we did not need them. And we uttered that boast, pitying the heavily burdened nations of the Old World that do need them. Do we need them now? It is admitted that we should have a navy sufficient to do our share of the police of the seas. For this purpose our navy is very nearly, if not entirely, large enough now. We are told that we need many more war-ships to protect our commerce. Our merchant marine on the high seas is small. When it was largest, our navy was almost ridiculously insignificant compared with those of other powers. Was our commerce not safe then? Is it not safe to-day? Is there the slightest reason for thinking that it will not be safe in the future? Can a big fleet make it safer than it has been, the period of our civil war excepted, since the war of 1812? Mr. Roosevelt, the most bellicose of our public men, who advocates a big navy “in the interest of peace,” recently said that three times we had come near getting into a war because our fleet was not large enough. Do not such instances prove that without a large fleet peace with honor can be maintained if things are wisely managed? And is it not probable that in those instances peaceable arrangements would have been less assured if we had really had a big fleet at hand ready for a fight?

Thus we are to throw away that invaluable privilege of being secure without wasteful armaments, and of being powerful without risk or cost, in order to acquire a group of far-away islands, with a most undesirable population, while every well-informed person knows that the benefits for which we are to pay such an incalculable price — commercial advantages, coaling stations, and all that — may be had without annexation and the tremendous responsibilities it involves just as well as with it. Are we to descend to the condition of the heavily burdened nations of Europe without the slightest necessity, and even without a real inducement?

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1897-11-27 - Hawaii and Sea-Power.PNG