Current read: _Union Now with Britain_, Clarence Streit, 1941

One way to study history is through the writings of the times, including those writings that faded quickly from public notice. An old used bookstore is a wonderful source for these, and I found this one at an antique mall. I gather it’s at least a bit rare.

Streit was an interesting guy. From Montana, he had a passion for democracy as a concept. Might sound a little odd, since until recently the US hasn’t exactly had a large contingent of open fascists, but it’ll begin to make sense later in this post. After serving in WWI and observing the way the League of Nations floundered (usually attributed to us snubbing it), he developed strong feelings about the forward progress of human government. The start of World War II brought those views into urgent focus, and Streit wrote this book in an effort to awaken his countrypeople to a Federal Union of the primarily Anglophone countries: the US, UK, Canada, Union of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

Context is everything, and let’s establish it for this book. It was early 1941. Germany had absorbed Austria and half of Czechoslovakia (the remaining half becoming a puppet state). It had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (puppeting part of it, occupying the rest outright). Of all those, Norway had taken longest. The USSR and Nazi Germany seemed allied, or at least friendly. Nazi warplanes were bombing the UK on a regular basis, and Kriegsmarine submarines threatened to strangle British connections to the Empire’s resources. Italian forces contended with a British Imperial force in Libya. The US was not at war, but had become something of a non-belligerent ally. Japan occupied a substantial chunk of China and was going to have to find petroleum somewhere, or else.

Dark times indeed.

Streit felt he had the solution, which was to escalate the US system up one level. Just as the thirteen original US states had more or less put aside their plentiful quarrels to form a Federal government, Streit felt that a Federal Union of mankind could begin by associating the Anglophone countries as member “states” of a greater whole. If the Germans took Britain and got the Royal Navy, he reasoned, the danger to the rest of the free world would move from severe to mortal. But if all these countries united with the pledge of never quitting until all were free and at peace, Hitler would either have to exit the war or face the mobilizing industrial might of the United States. Membership could then be offered to other non-Anglophone states, including those occupied by the Nazis, with the pledge of “we won’t quit until you’re free.”

Having advocated this solution for years well before the war broke out in Europe, Streit had thought through most of the issues and ramifications. Some he more or less glossed over as “to be dealt with later: A majority of the population governed by these states, perhaps, were not masters in their own houses; he did not propose to end apartheid and the British Raj immediately, and the colonialist chauvinism of the times is present in his outlook. He acknowledges that black Americans were not even nearly on an equal basis with whites, but doesn’t address changing that situation. He felt it quite possible that Hitler would back down rather than face such a Union (not an alliance, which Streit deprecated as temporary and fragile) alone. Japan’s intent was not known at the time, but I think he doubted Japan would square off with a united UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. And if it came to blows, the Union would combine the best of all its sciences, locations, and populations to create a military juggernaut Japan could never overcome.

Was it viable? Perhaps, if one could get people to put aside all their comparatively minor conflicts and some major ones. With Britain standing to benefit most immediately from Union, I think Streit figured that a union with Britain looked attractive to our friendly former colonial overlords, and that the rest of the Empire would follow. He might have been right. In France’s darkest hour, Churchill offered them a political union, but the French rejected it. Churchill was still Prime Minister. Might he have advocated this, in order to assure the survival of the United Kingdom?

That telegraphs the basis of my own doubt: my cynicism about people’s willingness to put aside relatively small matters for the greater good. Every time I go to the grocery store and see a maskhole wearing it below his or her nose, or crowding me in the checkout line, I am reminded just how many people simply do not care about others. I felt that way before the pandemic and I feel more so now. Are some peoples better about it than the ones among whom I must buy food? Perhaps; perhaps not so much. I resist the tendency to imagine that people really differ at heart. Take former Yugoslavia, where not only have the former member peoples broken the country into a half dozen pieces–inflicting enormous damage and death upon each other before the matters became settled–but none of the underlying resentments and angers are gone. In fact, all have obtained new chapters of resentment and grudge. And all could join in shouting me down about it, that I misunderstand how their own people’s grudges are all legitimate and those of all the others so much noise, that I know nothing of their region and the Horrible Things Done Centuries Ago that remain unavenged. Maybe I don’t, but I do know they weren’t killing each other under Tito, and when he left, killing started. I think less killing tends to be a good thing. Prove me wrong.

The most essential key to understanding Streit’s perspective is remembering what had not happened when he wrote the book.

  • Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Singapore.
  • Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were at war.
  • The public had not the faintest idea of the potential in nuclear weapons.
  • No nation had delivered the Nazi military any meaningful defeat.

A year after its publication, three of four of those ceased to be true. That’s how fast things were moving. No wonder Streit felt such urgency.

With outdated books, hindsight is an easy temptation; we have touched on some of it. Streit’s adoration of the US system as the perfect fundamental basis for Federal Union reads chauvinistic. Dismissing nearly 400 million Indians as unready to govern themselves was not calculated to please them, and glossed over the legitimate grievances of an aggregation of peoples who had done just fine until they became a “crown jewel” in someone else’s empire. We know that the war situation was about to change, and that Britain would survive the Blitz, but Streit did not. If one seeks to pick him apart, he’s no longer around to defend his proposal; he passed in 1986.

In any case, it’s worth the read not only for Streit’s take on the political and geopolitical study of it all, but for the view it provides of the way the world looked through one Montana son’s eyes in early 1941.

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