Having enlisted as a volunteer with the first 50,000 Americans to arrive in France in June 1917, Clarence K. Streit would end up returning to America at the end of 1919, like many of his comrades-in-arms, deeply disillusioned and disappointed. But three profoundly interrelated facts bear testimony to an internal transformation which led Streit to become an American sui generis. This internal transformation took as its point of departure a reflection upon the inalienability of the responsibility of the individual conscience, something that was rooted in his religious upbringing. This reflection, which had already begun when Streit was compelled by war to face the necessity of moral choice without delays or evasions, developed into a revaluation of the entire meaning of democracy.
The Baptists' stress on the supremacy of conscience as each person's guide remained, in fact, his lifelong conviction, even if in his late teens he dropped out of the Baptist Church. From this starting point he had two main experiences which were deeply interrelated.
The roots of Streit's principles
On April 4, 1917, the Associated Students of the State University of Montana sent a telegram to President Wilson, expressing their support in whatever he did. Streit was the only one who voted "no" to the telegram. He laid himself open to all sorts of criticisms, but he stood his ground. The next day, he published under his own name an article in the college paper, Montana Kaimin, of which he was editor. He wrote: "To say that we are behind the President in everything he undertakes [...] is to undermine the very foundation of democratic government. It is an indication of mob-mindedness [...]. When the war first began we condemned that very attitude among the Germans. We criticized severely their blind obedience to the Kaiser. [...] We urge (President Wilson) to make the entrance of the United States into the war dependent upon the definite agreement of the allies to establish a league to enforce peace after the conflict is over."
In a sense Streit shared the hopes of his generation, calling for a "League to Enforce Peace." This -- as was stated in the Memoriam to Clarence Streit -- "was the call of the internationalist movement of the time; it was the first attempt ... to find an adequate moral orientation for the growing American involvement in the world." But he immediately linked this call, which by itself was inadequate or even contradictory as a moral orientation for internationalism, to his own individual responsibility as the very guarantee of a democratic system. Implicitly he had already understood the basis of his future call for federalism, that democracy degenerates if the ultimate unit of decision would be transferred on the international level from the individual to the state.
When, after his early independence was nearly misunderstood as pacifism, he enlisted as one of the first volunteers, he faced a second key experience. In his own later recollection of his youthful years, he gave this experience the utmost importance for his future dedication to international federalism. "I learned a profound truth in 1917, while standing guard on a transport... across a submarine infested Atlantic. ... Those men around me were all sleeping in an implicit faith in me... Every man on board was counting on the guard doing his duty... If I quit my post and ran, who would know? Who but I?" And yet they all relied peacefully upon his conscience.
In the final analysis everything had to be measured against the individual conscience, to which the ultimate decision always belongs. War was not "an impersonal drama played by collective nouns," but "man against man." Peace was not an impersonal thing but "man for man." And "whether we are establishing government between tribes, states or nations, the process is the same, the basic unit is still the individual man. The government must operate on him individually and the more directly it depends upon him, and upon his conscience, the more realistic and effective it will be."
In fact it was from here that he later developed his ideas on why enduring peace and liberty require a Federal Union of the Free based on the conscience of individuals not on national governments. On why international organizations that do not penetrate directly the loyalty of the people and don't unite on a man-to-man, conscience-to-conscience basis, wouldn't work. And it was by bringing this logic to its ultimate conclusion that he would later develop his revolutionary concept of the sovereignty of the individual citizen, and his call for an immediate Federal Union of the Free as the way to restore conscience to the position of supreme sovereign.
These two experiences, taken together, encompass in a nutshell the subsequent steps in Streit's political and intellectual maturation, when he realized that international institutions to be able to work would have to penetrate the shell of national sovereignty and reach the core of each citizen's loyalty. And this was not just a mere expedient of political engineering in order to make them successful, it was again also a spiritual conception. "That no community can live withouth a conscience, that we must hitch the community directly to the conscience of the individual." That international institutions in order to work "must hitch their hopes not on hereditary kings or passing Presidents, not on self-perpetuating ruling parties ... but on the least of men and the intangible thing in him: his Conscience."
More about Streit's ideas about a union of democracies:
"Clarence Streit and the Idea of the Union of Democracies." by Joseph Preston Baratta
The Federalist, Year XXIX, 1987, Number 2, Page 125
From the League of Nations to Union Now
It was from the standpoint of the principle of the individual conscience that Streit evaluated the failings that he saw before his eyes at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and later at the League of Nations when he watched its painful collapse in the decade from 1929-1939. In those ten years, when he was the New York Times correspondent at the League in Geneva, he saw how the crisis in the League was rooted in its inability to tap the power of individual conscience. It was this combination of the general principle with the specific problem of the League that led him to the idea of a federal union of democracies.
Streit never played the role of the common journalist who believes that his task is accomplished by a mere recollection of facts. In face of the crisis of the League of Nations he couldn't remain indifferent. He immediately felt the personal responsibility to inquire and analyze the reasons and work out the remedy.
It was in the winter of 1933-34 that the basic concept linking the political and the moral solidly together dawned on him, planting the seeds which would bear fruit in the publication in 1939 of his bestseller, Union Now.
He started to face the political problem through an empirical analysis. As he would later remember, "the widespread assumption then of the weakness of democracy ran counter to my own observations." He decided to compare the relative power of the democracies and the autocracies. The results led him to study "why these democracies did not unite and how they could best unite."
Drawing upon the basic idea of a man-to-man relation, Streit provided the political and strategical framework where it could develop peacefully until it would gradually come to cover the entire range of relations of humankind. He called for a Union of the democracies of the North Atlantic, a Union of their peoples "in a great federal republic built on, and for their common democratic principle of government for the sake of individual freedom." This Union would be designed "to create a nucleus world government capable of growing into world government peacefully and as rapidly as such growth will best serve Man's freedom."
In the years 1934-38 he refined his proposal while desperately looking for a publisher. The international situation became more and more tragic and his plan looked to him like the only hope to prevent a new world war.
He gave his project a high political stature, not only as the distillation of his personal experience, but also by filtering the major political designs of the time through the lens of his conception, in order to find what was constructive in them and place them in an organic context where they could bear fruit.
From the idea developed during the 19th century of an Atlantic System, with the key importance of sea power as bastion for the survival of democracy, and with the realization that there is a kind of community of the free countries along the shores of the North Atlantic -- an idea that in itself had already led to a rapprochement of USA and England -- he proceeded to pioneer the concept of an oceanic regional political organization centered around the North Atlantic. But he overcame the limit contained in the idea of regional unions, bounded to remain closed in themselves, by making his regional union at root an ideological union, open to grow into a world union since it would be based on the sharing of a universal value: individual freedom.
Alongside the idea of the Atlantic System was the call for an Anglo-Saxon leadership of the world, voiced mainly by the English Speaking Union movement, which at the end of the 19th century worked out one of the most rigorous formulation of an international federation among the English speaking countries.
The latest outcome of the idea of the Atlantic System had been the Treaty of Guarantee to France at the end of World War I, which, if it had been ratified, would have squarely placed the world responsibility and the leadership for the survival of democracy upon the shoulders of the alliance that won the war. From these two last political designs he rejected respectively the idea of exclusiveness based upon a common language and the self-limiting system of an alliance of great powers. In them both he rejected the element of closeness, while embracing and elevating the dynamic-unifying element: the idea of federation among nations and the idea of tracing the responsibility for world peace to a group of democratic countries.
These two ideas, combined with the strategic element of sea power and the conception of an oceanic community, provided him the basis to define the countries which would be called to participate in the first nucleus of the future world government: democratic countries, centered around the North Atlantic, united in a federal union.
At the same time, his goal of a universal union must be linked to his experience at the League of Nations. He saw the need to go beyond the sterile universalism of Geneva, by combining universalism with an immediate and practical solution that would save the universal goal and all the moral impetus that came with it.
The impact of Union Now on world politics
The book first appeared in a private edition of 300 copies in 1938. The Czech crisis and Munich quickly won it the attention of publishers, and editions by major publishing houses appeared in 1939. It spread around the world with many editions in several languages, selling over 300,000 copies.
With the plan contained in the book, Streit provided the muscle to transform the hopes of his generation into dynamic action. People responded with such enthusiasm that they spontaneously set up committees for Union Now, committees which were united into Federal Union, Inc. in America, and into sister organizations in several other democracies. They carried out a widespread educational activity, creating the atmosphere in which it was possible for the British Government to propose a Franco-British Union in June 1940.
The movement for Federal Union was the best reward for Streit's lifelong commitment to the cause of peace. "I must say," he would later stress, "that my primary aim has never been simply to stimulate thought and discussion. I favor them as the best means to sound action, but I would never divorce them from action, timely action."
Official circles in the Atlantic democracies gave consideration to the proposal in the first years of World War II. During the winter President Roosevelt himself, who at that time was examining the possibilities for peace, became interested in the idea of Union Now, and invited Streit to the White House. After Hitler's attack on the Western front, Federal Union became the catalyst of forces favorable to the intervention, an intervention where the military element should have been subordinated to the Union's innovative political program. Streit presented Roosevelt a plan to modify deeply the international balance of power in favor of democracies. In connection with the Italian entry into the war, the movement asked that the United States entered the conflict as part of an "indissoluble union."
Federal Union was then the "meeting-point" for men who, for a moment, were able to join forces in support of an extraordinary proposal: to make the United States take advantage of the war so that mankind could take a leap into a new international order, by entering the conflict as members of a Union and igniting a process that one day would have led to the United States of the World. Such was the message published in the New York Times, ten days after Pearl Harbor and signed, among others, by: Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, future Secretary of State in the Eisenhower Administration John Foster Dulles, and Grenville Clark, since 1940 Stimson's counselor at the War Department and later one of the founders of the World Federalist Movement.
Like all great ideas, Streit's idea produced some significant results, however inadequate compared to the hopes of the proponents.
During the war, Federal Union was one of the forces that contributed to defeat isolationism. It worked with various interventionist organizations and counted among its members and supporters men such as William Bullitt, Raymond Gram Swing, Robert Sherwood, Harold Ickes, Lord Lothian, and William Allen White, who strongly influenced Roosevelt's political decisions. Moreover, all those newspapers that were more or less openly pro-intervention showed their interest in the activities of Federal Union.
Before the US intervention, the campaign of Federal Union contributed to the creation of the Atlantic Charter climate.
Unfortunately, in its actual intervention in the war, the United States did not seize the historical opportunity offered by the conflict to take a leap into a new international order. The American help to the allies was carried on, once again, according to the classical model of international alliance against a common enemy, an alliance that would be broken at the end of the war. By putting off the Union until the post-war period, the US let the opportunity pass.
Nevertheless, after the war ended, those who had taken up the ideas of the Atlantic Union movement went on to play leading roles in the initiation of the Marshall Plan and the formation of NATO. They turned the Atlantic System from a loose if potent idea into an organized international regime. Despite all its trials and tribulations and its often painful inadequacies, that regime bears the birthmark of the idea of Clarence Streit. It has transformed the international system, gradually and incompletely, and sometimes dangerously late, in the direction Streit sought. It bears witness to the continuing relevance of Streit's solution.