“A Call to Arms -  William James on Militarism and Political Unity”





This paper situates the arguments made in James’s “Moral Equivalent of War” in the context of the history and development American foreign policy.  My intent is to examine the relation between militarism and political unity in a way exposes the relevance of American pragmatism to our current social-political situation.  It proceeds by exploring America’s role in war and peace movements in the 1950s and 1960s, and then proceeds to reframe James’s suggestion that the warrior ethos might be sublimated in a “war against Nature” by examining it in terms of the energy crisis of the late 1970s.  Finally, the paper highlights a complimentary relation between the “Moral Equivalent of War” and the meliorism that is reflected in James’s “On a Certain Blindness.” 


I. Introduction


            In 1906, William James presented the “Moral Equivalent of War” and turned his attention to a question that has repeatedly defined the American political landscape, namely, the question of how to maintain social unity and civic virtue in the absence of an immediate and galvanizing threat.   Today, even in a time of war, this question remains as pressing as it is perplexing.  It seems to warrant a detailed investigation if we are to propose viable and philosophically sound alternatives to the military ethos and the political unity it begets.    In developing alternatives, James suspects that instead of jettisoning this unifying ethic we ought to admit the benefits of some of its aspects while owning up to, and mitigating, its destructive tendencies.   This challenging task seems long overdue in light of the current geopolitical situation. And it seems fair – if only slightly ironic – for American philosophers to initiate this project. 

            This paper aims to revisit several key points in James’s “Moral Equivalent of War” and in his essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”  In so doing, the paper accomplishes two related objectives.  First, it presents James as an overtly social-political thinker, challenging the notion that Cornell West expressed, namely that  “James had nothing profound or even provocative to say… in regard to politics.”[i]  Secondly, and more specifically, it argues that these works shed theoretical light on the related topics of military action, social-political commitment and personal virtue.  In the first three sections of the paper, I show how James’s comments continue to enlighten our political situation with astonishing clarity.  As a brief analysis of Cold War history and international theory exposes, James is surprisingly prescient in identifying the direct relation between perceived threat and the coalescence of social organization.  In the face of an external or internal threat, domestic populations tend to “rally around the flag,” committing themselves to protective and military purposes.    Echoing James,  Randolphe Bourne, a student of John Dewey and Josiah Royce, puts this point nicely in 1918 when he suggests that “war is the health of the state.”[ii]  James predicts that in the absence of imminent danger, the health of states, and the personal virtues of their citizens, will decline.  This point has been born out in several historical cases, but seems to beg the question of whether a healthy political unity might be developed without the disastrous consequences of military assault and occupation.    James begs the question, but leaves it to us to answer it in a thoroughgoing way.  In the last two sections of the paper, I begin to formulate this answer along Jamesian lines.

            In the “Moral Equivalent of War,” James makes the seemingly odd suggestion that individuals might sublimate the warrior ethos by waging a “war against nature,” coordinating their energies in order to counteract the natural dangers and deficiencies that jeopardize our projects and purposes.  I will examine this argument in light of the political context of collective action and environmental stewardship in the 1970s and expose the argument’s strengths and limitations.  This discussion revises the way in which many contemporary scholars read James’s suggestion that we might fight or “war against nature.”  I conclude this discussion by turning to James’s thesis in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” namely, that we suffer from the inability to see and recognize the inner meaning of the lives of others.[iii]  This thesis is at the crux of James’s understanding of political unity and must be brought into dialogue with his 1906 address on the moral equivalent of war.  At first glance, the meliorism of “On a Certain Blindness” and the heroism of the “Moral Equivalent of War”  seem to stand in marked opposition.  I intend to demonstrate the complementary relationship between these pieces, by exposing the way in which a war with nature might restore the sympathetic sight that seems necessary for political unity.  

II.  Good War? – The Loyalty and Vitality of Militarism

            When James presented the speech that would later become the “Moral Equivalent of War,” his audience at Stanford University must have been initially taken aback.  James, the one-time vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, had been invited to give a talk on the prospects for peace in the new century, yet the opening moments of the dialogue resonated with the language of Manifest Destiny.  “Militarism,” James asserts, “is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood and human life with no use of hardihood is contemptible.”  He expands on these ideals, stating that “martial virtues must be the enduring cement (of nations); intrepity, contempt for softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built.”[iv]  These comments are supported by a more basic observation in psychology, an observation that James makes in reference to the San Francisco earthquake of 1896, an observation that motivates his 1907 “Energies of Men:”

                        Most of us feel as if we have lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on                                                              us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in                                                                      reasoning, or firmness in deciding.  Compared with what we ought to be, we                                                      are only half awake.[v]

For better and for worse, events such as catastrophes and wars fully awaken us – as individuals and as loyal communities - to potentialities that silently underpin our habits and customs.  James suggests that it is in these exceptional circumstances where we discover the exceptional depth and radiance of human value.

            James initially seems to agree with the “reflective apologists for war” who would prefer to face the horrors of war rather than leave the task of nation-building to the liberal institutions of “associated charities, co-education, and feminism unabashed.”  All of these remarks were anathema to peace movements such as American Quakerism who had developed a form of pacifism that drew on the strengths of precisely these institutions.   James, intent however, is not to echo this peace party’s political line, but to mediate between this line and the bellicosity reflected in the workings of the Roosevelt administration in the early 1900s. [vi]   As Ralph Barton Perry notes, James opposed Roosevelt’s imperialism but admired his robustness, producing an ambivalence that he sought to reconcile in the 1906 address.[vii]  By the same token, he intended to initiate a peace movement that would appropriate and redeploy the robustness, and occasional bellicosity, that had come to define the political and social history of the United States.

            This history provides numerous examples to support James’s assertion that a vigorous form of militarism is integral to the health of the state.  Born in the crucible of international conflict in the late 1700s, the young James looked on as the fledgling United States defined its boundaries in Mexican-American conflict (1846-1848), its domestic policy and economic trajectory in the Civil War (1861-1865), and its imperialist reputation in the Spanish-American War (1898).  As Feinstein and others have noted, this martial vigor stands as an interesting counterpoint to the young James’s emotional and physical fragility, a sensitivity that may have made him inclined to occasionally romanticize the strong military undercurrent of U.S. history.  At the risk of making a similar interpretative mistake, I would claim that James’s comments on war and political unity shed light on the nation’s more  recent history, more particularly, the history of the Cold War.

            In a recent article on patriotism and militarism, Shamsul Haque writes that “the incidence of patriotism and nationalism intensified during the two world wars, the anti-colonial movements, and the Cold War.” [viii]  This broad assessment rings poignantly true in the case of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.  In his speech of 1906, James predicts a war between the forces “for peace” on the one side, represented by the United States and Britain, and the forces for aggression on the other, represented by Germany and Japan.  In 1941, the United States entered this foretold war as one of a handful of powerful states.  It emerged from World War II as a superpower.  Western Europe, once the benchmark of global authority, had, in the word of Churchill, been reduced to “a rubble heap…a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”  The war had different effects on American national identity. Its demands had galvanized the U.S. population around ideals that James might have espoused: individual freedom, self-sacrifice, and loyalty. 

            These commitments would be translated in, and intensified by, the looming conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The U.S. diplomat, Charles Bohlen, commented on the conflict that arose in the aftermath of World War II:  “Instead of unity among the great powers – both political and economic – after the war, there is complete disunity between the Soviet Union and the satellites on one side and the rest of the world on the other.  There are, in short, two world instead of one.”  As James predicts, these worlds coalesced in opposition. 

            This point was reflected in the development of the coordination of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and U.S. domestic policy.   On March 12, President Truman approved military and economic aide packages designed to prevent Turkey and Greece from falling into the Soviet sphere.  Nine days later, he initiated the Federal Employee Loyalty Program that sought to identify “subversives” who might not identify with the aforementioned American ideals.  Conflict abroad necessitated unity at home.  By the same token, the loyalty of its domestic base were purported to enable successful U.S. military operations abroad. Truman repeatedly underscored the need for Americans to wage war against the Soviet Union, but to be worthy of itself in the process.  In his 1950 State of the Union Address he explained:

                        Strength is not simply a matter of arms and force.  It is a matter of economic                                                                growth, and social health, and vigorous institutions, public and private.  We                                                                         can achieve peace only if we can maintain our productive energy, our                                                                   democratic institutions, and our firm belief in individual freedom.[ix]   

Truman’s appeal to growth, health and vigor echoes James’s rendering of what he calls the “competitive passion” that has long served as the foundation of U.S. nationalism and political unity.  Such passions are dramatically enacted in aggressive foreign policy.  Ironically, the President insisted that the preservation of these passions and ideals is necessary in “achieving peace.”  James, however, would qualify this statement by suggesting that ‘“Peace’ in military mouths today is a synonym for ‘war expected’…that ‘peace’ and ‘war’ mean the same thing, now in posse, now in actu.”[x]  His qualification seems appropriate insofar as the Cold War was cold precisely to the extent that it was a war in posse.  Truman’s demand for national and ideological unity may have been intended to maintain peace, but it was equally important in assuring victory in any future military conflict.

            The relation between political unity and militarism was made explicit when the Cold War turned hot – when it became war in actu.  In the midst of the Korean War, failure on the battlefield was often attributed to disloyalty on domestic front.   The perceived expansion of the Communist threat in Korea and Eastern Europe fueled anxieties that American values were vulnerable and that its domestic policies were under attack.  More specifically, military shortcomings were interpreted as being the result of what James calls a “degeneration” of the nation’s moral fiber, woven with the strands of “fidelity, cohesiveness, tenacity, heroism, conscience, education, inventiveness, economy, wealth, physical health and vigor.”  Many historians have observed that as the war intensified so too did the movements to rally around the flag and rally around its moral fabric.[xi]  Truman’s advisor, George Kennan, stated that the United States must give “the impression of a country…which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.”[xii]

            It is interesting to note that Kennan’s moderate position, one that James might have supported, was hyperbolized and amplified to a fever pitch by Joseph McCarthy who underscored the unifying ethos of militarism by heading the anti-Communist campaigns of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  The elision of nationalism and bellicosity is reflected in his comment that “McCarthyism is just Americanism with its sleeves rolled up.” Leading with his fists, McCarthy demanded loyalty to his cause and to his understanding of “American ideals,” and, at least for a time, he got it. The young senator’s zealotry benefited from, and contributed to, an atmosphere defined by imminent threat and armed response.  As historian Robert Griffith noted, “Republicans (like McCarthy) concluded that American failures in the Far East had been self-inflicted.  From this conclusion it was but a short step to charge treason and betrayal within the government itself.”[xiii]   As the conflict in Korea wound down and the memory of the Great War faded, however, McCarthy’s grasp on the moral imagination of the nation began to loosen: without an imminent threat to motivate it, the rhetoric of loyalty, heroism, and hardihood lost steam. 

            McCarthy’s partisan politics would have run counter to James’s mugwumpish tendencies.  Indeed, McCarthyism dramatically demonstrated the way in which militaristic loyalties might be high-jacked and abused.  This being said, the senator’s orchestration of collective action on basis of particular ideals and competitive passions seemingly coincides with James’s call for political unity and discipline in a time of war.  McCarthy seems to understand that, in James’s words, martial disciplines “are absolute and permanent human goods” that could, in the case of McCarthy, be redeployed in the pursuit of less-than-ideal ends.   We will examine this claim more closely by exploring the social and political trends that defined the years after McCarthy.


III. The War Against War in the Vietnam Era

            James’s 1906 address makes an astute observation in regard to ambivalence that would come to define military conflict in the 20th century.  He suggests that,                       

                        at the present day, civilized opinion is a curious mental mixture.  The                                                                            military instincts are as strong as ever, but are confronted by reflective                                                                          criticisms which sorely curb their ancient freedom.  Innumerable writers are                                                       showing up the bestial side of military service.[xiv]

This ambivalence characterized the political climate of the United States in the 1960s and gave way to détente and the cooling of the Cold War in the following decade.  The repercussions of this trend on American nationalism will be examined shortly.

            First, however, it seems worthwhile to explain how the military ethos died, but also to note that it died hard.  In January of 1961 in prelude to the war in Vietnam, President John F. Kennedy reinstated the martial-patriotic values of the United States: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”[xv]  The U.S. military involvement in South East Asia, however, demonstrated that the burden of American values could be too heavy, that the price of American liberty would be a price that the country was occasionally unwilling to afford.  The conflict in Vietnam shed new light on James’s comments concerning the value of militarism to the extent that it indicated that only certain types of wars provided the cohesiveness that underpinned political unity and patriotism.   Additionally, the anti-war movement of the 1960s forces us to reevaluate several of James’s assumptions concerning the “peace-party.”    

            James suggests that that war provides us an outlet for our natural pugnacity, but perhaps more importantly, fosters particular ideals and determines our personal and collective histories.[xvi]   At times, however, he seems to suggest that wars, like ideas, are to be judged by their consequences – ideological, historical and personal -  and in light of these consequences have waged for particular purposes.  When armed conflict fails to take up noble causes or to produce the cohesive histories that came to define the adventures of Ajax, Napolean and Eisenhower, war is reduced to the type of horror without purpose that Vietnam became.   Defined by its length, its abstract purpose, its lack of any decisive victory, and its high casualty rate, the war in Vietnam came to face an anti-war movement the likes of which James could have scarcely imagined. 

            The anti-war movement bore out two of James’s points in the “Moral Equivalent of War.”  First, it demonstrated that a “war against war is going to be no holiday or camping excursion,” but also that “in modern eyes, precious though wars may be they must not be waged solely for the sake of the ideal harvest. Only when forced upon one, is a war now thought permissible.”[xvii]  Firm in their belief that the war in Vietnam was unnecessary and morally reprehensible, ordinary citizens employed a wide array of tactics to express their opposition.  As Thomas Powers notes, using demonstrations, teach-ins, petitions, public fasting, and electoral politics a broad-based movement created a very serious crisis in the U.S. political sphere in 1967 and 1968, necessitating President Johnson’s shift from escalation to disengagement in Southeast Asia.

            Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan elaborate on Powers analysis by underscoring the way in which the protests received broad domestic support and how it has been mischaracterized as a marginalized counter-culture and anti-American movement.  Indeed, they argue that it was a unique protest to the degree that it was the first time in the nation’s history in which “so many citizens had freely told their government that it was pursuing the wrong policies in wartime.”[xviii]  They suggest that the movement survived precisely to extent that it found its origins in a sense of national duty; its members saw themselves as patriots acting on behalf of the national interest.  In an odd reversal of James’s thesis, individuals who opposed the war saw themselves as fighting against forces that posed an imminent threat to the cohesiveness of American ideals.    Prior to Vietnam, anti-war movements were explicitly not defined by their patriotism and nationalism, but rather movements that sought to dampen the effects of these ideological tropes.  As opposed to these earlier movements, several scholars  make the comparison between the cohesiveness of the opposition to Vietnam and the abolitionists of the nineteenth century who saw themselves as preserving the nation’s moral fabric. 

            It is worth noting that this situation is only a partial reversal of James’s position on war and political unity.  The domestic communities who protested the international conflict were galvanized and coalesced in the face of what their members considered a real and present danger to the safety of their communities.  This was the danger that the U.S. government posed to its constituents, a danger which jeopardized the social contract that underpinned the nation’s history.  That is also to say, as Charles DeBeneditti and Charles Chatfield do to an impressive degree, that these communities were more anti-war than they were pro-peace.  Instead of relying on the utopian ideals that often motivated the small and unified peace party of James’s day, the movement that arose in the 1960s was highly variegated and achieved temporary coherence only in the effort to protest misguided governmental policies.  The decade witnessed the sporadic growth of this movement from a few dozen organizations in its early years to more than 1,200 loosely organized groups in 1969.  These organizations did not have a common “peace-party” mentality and, as DeBenebetti and Chatfield observe, failed to foster “a single directing agency, common leadership or ideology.”[xix]   This failure may begin explain why the anti-war community disbanded in the early 1970s.   It is more likely, and more in line with James’s thesis, that this community found common ground in facing the threatening policies of the Johnson administration, but lost this unifying project when the war came to an end.  As the process of Vietnamization continued to allow U.S. troops to come home, David Levy notes that fewer individuals were willing to protest the war.[xx] 


IV. Bad Peace? : In Search of a Moral Equivalent of War

            The Vietnam War demonstrated three illuminating points in regard to or discussion of militarism and political unity.  First, only particular wars foster the patriotic zeal that James describes.  Second, “wars against war” can inspire this zeal but only to the extent that they – like the organization of any military campaign - are purposively active in the face of an imminent threat. Third, genuine “peace-parties,” have not fared well as touchstones for patriotic sentiment.  Indeed peace, or at least the calming of international tensions, often corresponded to a dissipation of these sentiments. As Haque notes, “(T)he last quarter of the twentieth century saw the diminishing significance of patriotic or nationalistic stances, when the process of globalization made national borders less relevant (and) the demise of the Cold War led to the delegitimization of state-centric national security.”[xxi]  This type of delegitimation of national security was underlined by researchers who found that U.S. citizens living in the relative calm of the 1970s tended not to employ the image of “opponent” and “adversary” as the foundation understanding the intentions of actors in the international community.[xxii]  By early 1977, the Soviet Union was not seen in a threatening light. As Jerel Rosati notes, instead it was understood by the Carter administration rather optimistically, “as having a limited capability to affect the environment, constrained by the complexity of the international system and, although occasionally opportunistic, generally cooperative in its intentions.”[xxiii]  This was a dramatic turn in thinking that drew  James’s suggestion concerning the moral equivalent of war to the fore and a turn and had significant effects on the nation’s self-understanding and the formulation of its collective projects.  President Carter’s rhetoric expressed this turn in an address made in April of 1977:  “I remain fully aware that American Soviet relations will continue to be highly competitive  - but I believe that our competition must be balanced by cooperation in preserving peace and our mutual survival.”[xxiv]  A month later, he echoed and intensified this position, stating that, “Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism…”[xxv]   This position resounded with a sentiment that James expresses at the end of the “Moral Equivalent of War,” that, “great indeed is fear; but it is not, as the military enthusiasts believe…the only stimulus known for awakening higher ranges of spiritual energies.”[xxvi]  It is worth noting, at least in passing, that for Carter this optimism was somewhat short-lived: the antagonism between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R intensified as the decade came to a close.  I do not want to dwell on this point, but to examine the philosophical and ideological transition that occurred during the early years of the Carter administration and expose its relation to the position presented in James’s Moral Equivalent of War. 

            In 1976 Carter inherited the legacy of détente, the easing of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, and, in light of this inheritance, began to rethink the necessity and history of American nationalism.  How might the nation’s political unity to be maintained in a time of peace?  At least in the early years of his administration, the President believed that patriotism would be fostered not in the midst of destructive conflict, but in constructive projects that sublimated the nation’s bellicose tendencies.  This belief was highlighted in Carter’s approach to the oil crisis in the 1970s, an approach that took its cues from James’s 1906 address.  In describing his energy policy that sought to restructure both consumption and production he states that, “our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern. This difficult effort will be the ‘moral equivalent of war’ -- except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy”[xxvii]  Carter’s reference to the “moral equivalent of war” has been widely criticized as a misappropriation of James’s concept. I believe that this criticism is largely unwarranted when one considers context and inspiration of the 1977 speech. Admiral Hyman Rickover had been Carter’s superior in the U.S. Navy in the 1940s and in the suggested that the new President employ James’s 1906 address in developing his energy policy.  Rickover, a one-time student at Columbia University, had been a vehement opponent of John Dewey’s ideas on progressive education, but adamantly supported other pragmatic tenets.  James’s understanding of militarism and political unity proved particularly appealing.   In a 1982 congressional testimony, Rickover echoes James by stating that, “Unfortunately limits – attempts to limit war have always failed. The lesson of history is when a war starts every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon it has available.”[xxviii]   

            This being said, Rickover understood in the concrete what James had only understood in theory, namely that the cost of modern war would be a price that would increase exponentially in the 20th century.  The Admiral, often referred to as the “father of the nuclear navy,” was pivotal in developing and employing nuclear marine propulsion in the Navy’s fleet and served as one of the founding members of the Atomic Energy Commission.  This experience led Rickover to hope that the destruction of nuclear holocaust could be avoided if the warring spirit of nations could be translated and redirected in constructive projects that encouraged environmental stewardship or maintained economic stability.  These projects, however, had to inspire political commitment and, therefore, as James observes, had to be couched in terms of the rhetoric of challenge and sacrifice.  This point becomes clear in Carter’s appeal for national support of his energy policies.  Carter, realizing the long-term effects of the trends of U.S. energy consumption, puts these effects in stark terms: 

                        If we wait (to enact more sustainable energy policies) , we will live in fear of                                                   embargoes. We could endanger our freedom as a sovereign nation to act in                                                        foreign affairs…If we fail to act soon, we will face an economic, social and                                                                political crisis that will threaten our free institutions. [xxix] 

In the absence of an imminent military threat, Carter underscored a seemingly less immediate vulnerability, but one that he claimed would eventually jeopardize the sovereignty and free institutions of the United States.  To address these vulnerabilities, Carter insisted that citizens would have to marshal personal and moral resources in order to make painful decisions.  In describing his sustainable energy proposal, he stated that, “It will demand that we make sacrifices and changes in our lives. To some degree, the sacrifices will be painful -- but so is any meaningful sacrifice.”[xxx]  It will be important to note that Carter maintained that these sacrifices would “realistic, necessary…and above all fair.” In short, Carter demanded that all citizens equally cultivate what James referred to as “civic passion” in a “war against nature.”

V.  Reframing the “War against Nature”

            James concludes “The Moral Equivalent of War” by proposing one:  If warring instincts are not to be extinguished they might at least be transferred in the waging of a war against nature.  His is a call for arms, but arms that would be put to peaceful use.  As George Cotkin writes, “Excitement and the opportunity for heroism remained paramount, but attention would now be focused upon socially useful enterprises.”[xxxi]  According to James, young men might be conscripted into civil service and put to work in collective projects: “To the coal mines and iron mines, to freight trains…to road-building and tunnel making, to foundaries and stoke holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youth be drafted off…”[xxxii]    Instead of controlling other people and other nations, the United States was to undertake the perpetual project of controlling nature, an enemy much more difficult to defeat. 

            Scholars have criticized James’s idea of a conscripted work force in a variety of ways.  James’s suggestion that only socially-elite young men were to be drafted in this heroic service caused Jane Roland Martin to claim that he only re-instantiated the paradigm of imperialism and the predjudice that has historically accompanied it.[xxxiii]  More damning perhaps is the related criticism that the projects of capital and trade only perpetuate the warrior ethos and set the groundwork for larger international conflicts.  Here we might think of a critique that runs along the lines of the postmodern reversal of the Clauswitz’s doctrine that war is merely the implementation of politics by other means. In this reversal, authors such as Foucault suggest that modern society - its political and economic workings - is merely the continuation of war by other means. It remains unclear how victories in a war against nature, often framed in terms of technological or economic progress, might not serve as the preparatory steps in future military campaign.  Today, the nation’s defensive posture and military industrial complex seems to lend credence to these remarks.

            This being said it seems possible to respond to these critical remarks along pragmatic lines if we return to the latter half of James’s 1906 address. On the point that such a  conscription would only apply to young males of the upper class, a few comments seem warranted.  James experienced, first-hand, the way in which the ease of a privileged background could produce a type of moral degeneracy characterized by a set of seemingly disparate dispositions: ambivalence, rashness, romantic idealism, and alienation.  He notes, for this reason, the moral equivalent of war, embodied in civic service, would be particularly difficult for, but also particularly advantageous to, the “Boston Brahmins” of which he was a member.  John Dewey would later deride the moral equivalent of war as an aristocrat’s lame attempt to “keep up the battling nerve” in decadent conditions.[xxxiv]  This derision, however, seems somewhat misplaced if we reexamine James’s stance.  He states explicitly, that the conscription of “the gilded youth” would “get the childishness knocked out of them and have them come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideals.”[xxxv] 

            At least three points can be drawn from James’s suggestion: 1) James was calling the gilded youth to return to their societies.  He was calling them to sacrifice their private concerns and to embrace the risky but meaningful world of communal relations.[xxxvi]  A social and economic gap had developed between the American populace and the “gilded youth” of the early 1900s – a fact that sheds light on both their feelings of alienation and the difficulties they faced in leading their respective communities. 2) This social and economic disparity came hand-in-hand with the inability of privileged individuals to sympathize with the circumstances of disadvantaged persons – a fact that begins to explain why such persons are the first to be committed and sacrificed to military conflict.  3) James had long criticized the less-than-sober ideals that had motivated U.S. imperialism.  While the economically underprivileged fought in military conflict, it was the ideals of the elite that initiated ill-advised campaigns.  “Extravagant ambitions,” according to James, “will have to be replaced by reasonable claims.”[xxxvii]  He cautioned against ideals – liberal or expansionist - that ran unchecked by the social and political realities of the day.  This discussion begins to explain James’s rationale for concentrating on the elite as the one’s who could most benefit from the egalitarian conscription in a war against nature and begins to point to a convergence between the themes of the “Moral Equivalent of War” and “On a Certain Blindness” that will be brought out very shortly.[xxxviii] 

            An issue still remains, however, concerning the tactics that might be used and “foe” that might be confronted in such a conflict.   Ecologists and environmentalists have dismissed out of hand James’s reference to the “immemorial human warfare against nature,” claiming that the antagonistic relationship that he cites is the product of a bourgeoise and capitalist mindset.   As Tadd Ruetenik recently states, “James has little concern for the environment when he talks of doing violence to the natural world in the way that humans formerly did violence to one another.”[xxxix]  James is portrayed as an intellectual godfather of federally organized labor movements that often pitted the demands U.S. industry against increasingly scare environmental supplies.   I believe that this interpretation is partially misguided.  In Pragmatism, James suggests that the relationship between finite individuals and Nature need not be antagonistic but is undisputable precarious.  He states that, “I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying ‘no play.’…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world.  Its safety you see is unwarranted.  It is a real adventure, with real danger, but it may win through.”[xl] 

            As Douglas Anderson notes, it is in this world that human work and human play is to be done.  It is in this sense that nature beckons communities to strive with her, to battle with her.  This odd statement discloses an abiding current of James’s thought – namely that we are to be alive to the challenges and the opportunities that only Nature can afford.  This current carries the two-fold meaning of “striving with Nature.”  Ours is a relationship with nature that is both partnership and struggle.  We are invited, by James, to situate ourselves in a meaningful, albeit painfully temporary, relation with our natural surrounds.  That is also to say that James encourages us to face the challenge of maintaining this difficult and perennial relation, and in the spirit of hardihood, to value rather than to ignore this continual difficulty. 

            James’s proposal concerning a war against nature bears marked similarities between the federally organized labor programs organized by Franklin Roosevelt in the Civilian Conservation Corp (1933), by John F. Kennedy in the Peace Corp (1961), and by Lyndon Johnson in the “War on Poverty” (1964). All of these programs stemmed from the idea that political unity might be engendered to address the deficiencies and vulnerabilities experienced in the U.S. domestic sphere.  In these cases, the nation was not vulnerable to enemy attack, but rather suffered from its own inablility to balance precious natural resources the needs of its citizens.  In addressing poverty, hunger, and unemployment as real and dangerous foes, these policy measures began to undertake a Jamesian war against nature.   With this being said, Carter’s use of the moral equivalent of war seems oddly and beautifully appropriate.  Instead of ignoring the difficulty of environmental sustainability, he encourages citizens to face this difficulty together and hopes that in so doing, they might find a lasting and meaningful answer to the question of political unity.  Carter’s is pointedly a war against nature – or more accurately, a war with nature – that galvanizes a community by underscoring the precarious relationship that obtains between its members and their natural surroundings.  He underscores an imminent threat, the most imminent threat: the threat that these communities pose to their members by way of their short-sighted and destructive policies. 

            Linda Schott claims that the call to arms in “Moral Equivalent of War,” marked by its appeal to “manliness” and “heroism,” demonstrates that James’s sympathies lie with the war party rather than with groups that seek lasting reconciliation.  George Cotkin echoes this sentiment by stating that in his 1906 talk on militarism James jettisons the melioristic thesis expressed in “On a Certain Blindness,” namely that “the blindness in human beings…is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.”[xli]   In “On a Certain Blindness” James states that our failing eyes have led us to overlook the inner lives of others.  I have now laid the groundwork to provide a partial rebuttal of Schott’s claim and an alternative interpretation of these two seemingly disparate pieces in James’s corpus. 

            “The Moral Equivalent of War” prescribes the projects and collective actions that are to restore sight – the capacity to sympathize with the inner lives of others.  As James suggests in the chapter on the emotions in his Psychology, such sympathy obtains in thought only to the extent that it has already obtained in action.  Sympathy is not something pondered, but something done.   By suggesting that the “gilded youth” do the work of “others” in a war with nature, James believes that he struck upon a way of fostering the feeling of community, a feeling that stems from the most personal and individual type of sympathy between individuals.  Cotkin’s criticism overlooks the egalitarian undercurrents of James’s comments on militarism and political unity and, additionally, does not recognize the way in which a war against nature might be reframed to preserve the meliorism that he finds so appealing in a variety of other works. 






[i] Cornell West.  The American Evasion of Philosophy.  p. 60

[ii] William James.  “The Moral Equivalent of War.”  in   William James: The Essential Writings.  Ed. Bruce Wilshire.  Albany: SUNY Albany, 1984.  pp. 349-361. 

[iii] William James.  “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”  in William James: The Essential Writings.  Ed. Bruce Wilshire.  Albany: SUNY Albany, 1984. pp. 326-342.  

[iv] Ibid.

[v] William James.  “The Energies of Men.”  Science 25. no. 628.  321-333.  1907.  p. 322.   

[vi] George Cotkin underlines James’s apprehension concerning U.S. imperialism, stating,

“James feared that the imperial movement would lead to the domination of abstraction and bigness over the ultimate sublime of the individual.” See George Cotkin.  William James, Public Philosopher.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1990.  p. 124.

[vii] Ralph Barton Perry.  The Thought and Character of William James.  Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996. p. 248. 

[viii] Shamsul Haque.  “Patriotism versus Imperialism.”  Peace Review 15:4.  451-455.  2003. p. 451.

[ix] Harry Truman.  “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union.”  4 January, 1950.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.  See also

[xii] George Kennan.  “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”  126-127. 

[xiii] Robert Griffith.  The Politics of Fear.  Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.  1970.  p. 143.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] U.S. President John F. Kennedy.  Inaugural Address; January 1961. 

[xvi] Mary Whiton Calkins suggests that, contra James, that this pugnacity is not the natural precondition of social interactions.  Instead she states that other “fellow feelings” underpin community relations.  Mary Whiton Calkins.  “Militant Pacifism.International Journal of Ethics 28.  no. 1, 1917, 70-79. 

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan.  Who Spoke Up:  American Protest Against the War in Vietnam.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1984. 

[xix] Charles De Bendetti and Charles Chatfield.  An American Ordeal: The Anti-War Movement in the Vietnam Era.  Syracuse: Syracuse University, 1990. 

[xx] David Levy.  The Debate Over Vietnam.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.  It is important to note that the anti-war movement made the controversial suggestion that U.S. troops ought to withdraw from Southeast Asia prior to any decisive victory.  This suggestion was jarring to most citizens and in the words of Randall Fisher “created so much dissonance for so many Americans that it stimulated every defense mechanism available.”   See Randall Fisher.  Rhetoric and American Democracy: Black Protest Through Vietnam Dissent.  Lanham: University Press of America, 1985. 

[xxi] Ibid. 

[xxii] O. Holsti.  “Cognitive Dynamics and the Image of the Enemy: Dulles and Russia.”  In D.J Finley ed.  Enemies in Politics.  Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967.  and   H. Starr.  Henry Kissinger: Perception of International Politics.  Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984.   

[xxiii] Jerel Rosati.  The Carter Administration’s Question for Global Community:  Beliefs and Their Impact on Behavior.  Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1987.  p. 52.  

[xxiv] U.S. President J. Carter.  “Peace, Arms Control, World Progress, Human Rights: Basic Priorities of U.S. Foreign Policy.”  State Department Bulletin.  April 11, 1977.  p. 329.

[xxv] Ibid.  “A Foreign Policy Based on America’s Essential Character.”  State Department Bulletin.  June 13, 1977.  p. 621.  

[xxvi] Ibid. 

[xxvii] President J. Carter, "The President's Proposed Energy Policy." 18 April 1977. Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XXXXIII, No. 14, May 1, 1977, pp. 418-420.

[xxviii] Economics of Defense Policy: Hearing before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., Pt. 1 (1982)

[xxix] President J. Carter, "The President's Proposed Energy Policy." 18 April 1977. Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XXXXIII, No. 14, May 1, 1977, pp. 418-420.

[xxx] Ibid. 

[xxxi] George Cotkin.  William James, Public Philosopher.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1990.  p. 149.

[xxxii] Ibid. 

[xxxiii] Jane Roland Martin.  “Martial Virtues or Capital Vices” Journal of Thought 22.  pp. 32-44,  1987. 

[xxxiv] As cited in Gerald Myers.  William James: His Life and Thought.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.  P. 602. 

[xxxv] Ibid. 359. 

[xxxvi] Tadd Ruetnik suggests that a similar objective is assumed in James’s “Is Life Worth Living.” See Tadd Ruetnik. “Social Meliorism in the Religious Pragmatism of William James.”  Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19.  no. 3, 2005.  241.  

[xxxvii] Ibid. 

[xxxviii] As Linda Schott notes, the cultivation of sympathetic dispositions and the curbing of boyish ideals rested at the heart of Jane Addams’ understanding of pacifism as presented in the Newer Ideals of Peace.  Linda Schott.  “Jane Addams and William James on Alternatives to War.”  Journal of the History of Ideas.  54.  no. 2.  1993.  249.

[xxxix] Ibid.  244. 

[xl] William James.  Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.  New York Longman, Green, 1907.  p. 290

[xli] Ibid. 149.