The four years' agony is over and it is the business of all of us to see to it that never again, so far as human precautions can make it certain, should civilisation have to face such an ordeal and the human race inflict upon itself such horrible sufferings.
For years now we have all been discussing the probable and the ideal terms of peace, and all who have a care beyond tomorrow have welcomed their gradual approximation. There is no fear now that the Peace Congress which ends this war will, as its predecessors have done, ignore both the root causes of war and the fundamental aspirations of men. The lesson has been learnt. We have had a war which has cost perhaps twenty-five million European lives, which has devastated whole countries, which has involved an expenditure of tens of thousands of millions and an orgy of hate and ferocity such as our Continent has not known since the dark ages. Its origins were too obvious, its issues too plain, to be ignored; every man who goes to the Peace Congress, whatever his temperament or his old predilections, goes convinced of the fatal results of robbing nationalities of their birthright or treating people as pawns.
We have got rid of the autocracies. The three Empires which divided Poland and alternately propped and menaced each other have gone; the imperial armies, the noble military castes, the ministers who were personal secretaries of their monarchs, have disappeared. Whatever, after the interregnum of trouble and uncertainty, may take their place, we may be sure that the governments for the future in Eastern and Central Europe will not be dominated by men or castes of the old jack-booted, sword-clanking type, and that the dynastic illusion has died. Moreover, as a result of the war, not only have the mental atmosphere been cleared and the romantic militarists and despotic dynasties been discredited and deposed, but many actual or possible causes of war will have been removed.
The war is traceable in part to the existence in Europe of suppressed nationalities which were always hankering for liberty and which usually enlisted the sympathy of kindred powers. If the map of the future is drawn as, thank God, it seems likely to be drawn, no considerable population in Europe will remain under alien rule. Rumania and Italia Irredenta are to be joined to the parent countries; the Southern Slavs and the Bohemians have obtained independence; the crime of the Polish partitions is to be undone; Alsace-Lorraine has been wrested from the hand of the robber; and even Danish Schleswig is to be restored to its rightful owners.
But no territorial readjustments and no local changes in government can remove the possibility of disputes, or even the chance arrival of malevolent cabinets. There will still exist questions on which states cannot agree; misunderstandings will arise; national sensitiveness and popular passion will not have been abolished; quarrels will occur in which points of national honour will be involved.
The choice is clear and simple. Either we do nothing, or nothing genuine, and return to the status quo ante and the certainty of a war more hellishly cruel and ruinous than any yet known, or we deliberately set ourselves to construct machinery which will make public armaments and war as antiquated as private armaments and the civil feud.
It has often been observed that had Germany known that England and America would come into the war she would never have begun it. The contention may be true; though we are unwilling to define the limits of the lunacy of the Hohenzollerns and their generals. At all events, what we have to ensure is that any power which breaks the peace in future will know that in the ensuing war there will be no neutrals, that the whole weight, economic and military, of the civilised world will be thrown into the scales against it.
Peace is always the interest of the great majority of men and nations, and it is obvious that once we have established a League of Nations, that League will become very rapidly cemented and will efficiently operate. Many questions as to its constitution and subordinate activities remain to be settled. But its grand aim is the preservation of the peace, and once it becomes obvious that it can bring instant and overwhelming pressure to bear against any would-be breaker of the peace, we may be assured that national jealousies will progressively decline, and national armaments - beyond such as may be deemed necessary as sections of the international police - will disappear.
We are masters of our future, and the politicians at the forthcoming Congress are our deputies. Their instructions must be unqualified. Should they fail, they will return to their native countries to face the heaviest accusation ever levelled against men. They hold the lives of our sons, the happiness of our daughters, the whole development of the world in their hands.