This is perhaps the most famous letter calling for peace negotiations ever published. It appeared in the Daily Telegraph of London during the nadir of WW1.
The writer was a very accomplished peer of the UK who notably served successively as Governor General of Canada, Viceroy of India, Secretary of State for War, and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
He was also Minister without portfolio from 1915 to 1916.
It may be edifying for those who are curious how letters to the editor regarding topics of the highest importance used to sound like. Or for those who are curious what the likelihood of an early end to WW1 was.
LORD LANSDOWNE’S LETTER
FULL TEXT OF A FAMOUS DOCUMENT
To the Editor of the “Daily Telegraph.”
We are now in the fourth year of the most dreadful war the world has known; a war in which, as Sir W. Robertson has lately informed us, “the killed alone can be counted by the million, while the total number of of men engaged amounts to nearly twenty four millions.”
Ministers continue to tell us that they can scan the horizon in vain for the prospect of a lasting peace. And without a lasting peace we all feel that the test we have set ourselves will remain unaccomplished. But those who look forward with horror to the prolongation of the war, who believe that its wanton prolongation would be a crime, differing only in degree from that of the criminals who provoked it, may be excused if they too scan the horizon anxiously in the hope of discovering there indications that the outlook may after all not be so hopeless as is supposed.
The obstacles are indeed formidable enough. We are constantly reminded of one of them. It is pointed out with force that, while we have not hesitated to put forward a general description of our war aims, the enemy have, though repeatedly challenged, refused to formulate theirs, and have limited themselves to vague and apparently insincere professions of readiness to negotiate with us.
The force of the argument cannot be gainsaid, but it is directed mainly to show that we are still far from agreement as to the territorial questions which must come up for settlement in connection with the terms of peace. These are, however, by no means the only questions which will arise, and it is worth while to consider whether there are not others, also of first-rate importance, with regard to which the prospects of agreement are less remote.
Let me examine one or two of these: What are we fighting for? To beat the Germans? Certainly. But that is not an end in itself. We want to inflict signal defeat upon the Central Powers, not out of mere vindictiveness, but in the hope of saving the world from a recurrence of the calamity which has befallen this generation.
What then, is it we want when the war is over? I know of no better formula than that once made use of, with universal approval, by Mr. Asquith in the speeches which he has from time to time delivered. He has repeatedly told his hearers that we are waging war in order to obtain reparation and security. Both are essential, but of the two security is perhaps the more indispensable. In the way of reparation much can be accomplished, but the utmost effort to make good all the ravages of this war must fall short of completeness, and will fail to undo the grievous wrong which has been done to humanity.
It may, however, be possible to make some amends for the inevitable incompleteness of the reparation if the security afforded is, humanly speaking, complete. To end the war honorably would be a great achievement; to prevent the same curse falling upon our children would be a greater achievement still. This is our avowed aim, and the magnitude of the issue cannot be exaggerated.
For, just as this war has been more dreadful than any other war in history, so we may be sure would the next war be even more dreadful than this. The prostitution of science for purposes of pure destruction is not likely to stop short. Most of us, however, believe that it should be possible to secure posterity against the repetition of such an outrage as that of 1914.
If the Powers will, under a solemn pact bind themselves to submit future disputes to arbitration; if they will undertake to outlaw, politically and economically, any one of their number which refuses to enter into such a pact, or to use their joint military and naval forces for the purpose of coercing a Power which breaks away from the rest, they will indeed have travelled far along the road which leads to security.
We are, at any rate, right to put security in the front line of our peace demands, and it is not unsatisfactory to note that in principle there seems to be complete unanimity upon this point.
In his speech at the banquet of the League to Enforce Peace, on May 28, 1916, President Wilson spoke strongly in favor of: “A universal association of nations … to prevent any war from being begun either contrary to treaty covenants or without warning and full submission of the cause to the opinion of the world.”
Later in the same year the German Chancellor, at the sitting of the Main Committee of the Reichstag, used the following language: “When, as after the termination of the war, the world will fully recognise its horrible devas- tation of blood and treasure, then through all mankind will go the cry for peaceful agreements and understandings which will prevent so far as is humanly possible, the return of such an immense catastrophe. This cry will be so strong and so justified that it must lead to a result. Germany will honorably co-operate in investigating every attempt to find a practical solu- tion and collaborate towards its pos- sible realisation.”
The Papal Note communicated to the Powers in August last places in the front rank: “The establishment of arbitration on lines to be concerted and with sanction to be settled against any State that refuses either to submit in- ternational disputes to arbitration or to accept its awards.”
This suggestion was immediately welcomed by the Austrian Government which declared that it was conscious of the importance for the promotion of peace of the method proposed by His Holiness, viz.. “to submit international disputes to compulsory arbitration,” and that it was prepared to enter into negotiations regarding this proposal.
Similar language was used by Count Czernin, the Austro- Hungarian Foreign Minister, in his declaration on foreign policy made at Budapest in October, when he mentioned as one of the “fundamental bases” of peace that of “obligatory international arbitration.”
In his despatch covering the Allied Note of January 10, 1917, Mr. Balfour mentions as one of the three conditions essential to a durable peace the condition that – “Behind international law and behind all treaty arrangements for preventing or limiting hostilities some form of international sanction might be devised which would give pause to the hardiest aggressor.”
Such sanction would probably take the form of coercion applied in one of two modes. The “aggressor” would be disciplined either by the pressure of the superior naval and military strength or by the denial of commercial access and facilities. The proceedings of the Paris Conference show that we should not shrink from such a denial, if we were compelled to use the weapon for purposes of self-defence.
But while a commercial “boycott” would be justifiable as a war measure, and while the threat of a “boycott” in case Germany should show herself utterly unreasonable, would be a legitimate threat, no reasonable man would, surely, desire to destroy the trade of the Central Powers, if they will, so to speak, enter into recognisances to keep the peace, and do not force us into conflict by a hostile combination.
Commercial war is less ghastly in its immediate results than the war of armed forces, but it would certainly be deplorable if, after three or four years of sanguinary conflict in the field, a conflict which has destroyed a great part of the wealth of the world, and permanently crippled its resources, the Powers were to embark upon commercial hostilities certain to retard the economic recovery of all the nations involved.
That we shall have to secure ourselves against the fiscal hostility of others, that we shall have to prevent the recurrence of the conditions under which, when war broke out, we found ourselves short of essential commodities, because we had allowed certain industries, and certain sources of supply, to pass entirely under the control of our enemies, no one will doubt, subject, however, to this reservation, that it will surely be for our interest that the stream of trade should, so far as our own fiscal interests permit, be allowed to flow strong and uninterruptedly in its natural channels.
There remains the question of territorial claims. The most authoritative statement of these is to be found in the Allies’ Note of January 10. 1917. This statement must obviously be regarded as a broad outline of the desiderata of the Allies, but is anyone prepared to argue that the sketch is complete, or that it may not become necessary to re-examine it?
Mr. Asquith, speaking at Liverpool in October last, used the following language: “No one pretends that it would be right or opportune for either side to formulate an ultimatum, detailed, exhaustive, precise, with clauses and sub-clauses, which is to be accepted verbatim et literatim, chapter and verse, as the indispensable preliminary and condition of peace. There are many things,” he added, “in a world-wide conflict such as this which must of necessity be left over for discussion and negotiation, for accommodation and adjustment, at a later stage.”
It is surely most important that this wise counsel should be kept in mind.
Some of our original desiderata have probably become unattainable. Others would probably now be given a less prominent place than when they were first put forward. Others again, notably the reparation due to Belgium, remain, and must always remain, in the front rank, but when it comes to the wholesale rearrangement of the map of South-Eastern Europe we may well ask for suspension of judgment and for the elucidation which a frank exchange of views between the Allied Powers can alone afford.
For all these questions concern our Allies as well as ourselves, and if we are to have an Allied Council for the purpose of adapting our strategy in the field to the ever-shifting developments of the war, it is fair to assume that, in the matter of peace terms also, the Allies will make it their business to examine, and if necessary to revise, the territorial requirements.
Let me end by explaining why I attach so much importance to these considerations. We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilized world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it. Security will be invaluable to a world which has the vitality to profit by it, but what will be the value of the blessings of peace to nations so exhausted that they can scarcely stretch out a hand with which to grasp them?
In my belief, if the war is to be brought to a close in time to avert a world-wide catastrophe, it will be brought to a close because on both sides the peoples of the countries involved realise that it has already lasted too long. There can be no question that this feeling prevails extensively in Germany, Austria, and Turkey. We know beyond doubt that the economic pressure in those countries far exceeds any to which we are subject here.
Ministers inform us in their speeches of “constant efforts” on the part of the Central Powers “to initiate peace talk.” (Sir E. Geddes at the Mansion House, November 9.) If the peace talk is not more articulate, and has not been so precise as to enable His Majesty’s Government to treat it seriously, the explanation is probably to be found in the fact, first, that German despotism does not tolerate independent expressions of opinion, and second, that the German Government has contrived, probably with success, to misrepresent the aims of the Allies, which are supposed to include the destruction of Germany, the imposition upon her of a form of government decided by her enemies, her destruction as a great commercial community, and her exclusion from the free use of the seas.
An immense stimulus would probably be given to the peace party in Germany if it were understood:
(1) That we do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a Great Power;
(2) That we do not seek to impose upon her people any form of government other than that of their own choice;
(3) That except as a legitimate war measure, we have no desire to deny to Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world;
(4) That we are prepared, when the war is over, to examine in concert with other Powers the group of international problems, some of them of recent origin, which are connected with the question of “the freedom of the seas;”
(5) That we are prepared to enter into an international pact under which ample opportunities would be afforded for the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means.
I am under the impression that authority could be found for most of these propositions in Ministerial speeches.
Since the above lines were written, (1), (2), and (3) have been dealt with bv our own Foreign Minister at the public meeting held in honor of M. Venezelos at the Mansion House. The question of “the freedom of the seas” was amongst those raised at the outset by our American Allies. The formula is an ambiguous one, capable of many inconsistent interpretations, and I doubt whether it will be seriously contended that there is no room for profitable discussion.
That an attempt should be made to bring about the kind of pact suggested in (5) is, I believe, common ground to all the belligerents, and probably to all the neutral Powers. If it be once established that there are no insurmountable difficulties in the way of agreement upon these points, the political horizon might perhaps be scanned with better hope by those who pray, but can at this moment hardly venture to expect, that the New Year may bring us a lasting and honourable peace.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Lansdowne House, November 23.