Just What Is Aggression?
Bruce Barton on the semantics of conflict (Oct. 1951)
“History is largely the record of aggressions, some cruel, some mild, but all representing a certain degree of coercion. The urge for aggression ... can never be entirely eradicated.”
In an often violent, insecure world, continually fixed in ‘crisis mode’, one common denominator is inescapable: the persistency of human aggression.
Internationally and politically, aggression manifests itself in various forms: imperialism, militarism, colonialism, racism, extremism and of course . . . terrorism.
Be it guerrilla warfare or psychological warfare, economic sabotage or brute militancy, all are merely different expressions of the same destructive impulse.
Invasion, occupation, internment, slavery, genocide and “ethnic cleansing” are all prime historical (or current) examples of this base instinct. And no matter what era one lives in, it’s always something—territorial disputes, coup d’états, competition over prized natural resources, assassinations, threats, blackmail, exploitation, broken treaties . . . peace and quiet is never long for this world.
Though seldom enforced, acts of aggression happen to be illegal under international law. The very first statement of the United Nations charter states that its purpose is:
“To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace...”
Nations have been accusing one another of “aggression” for generations. Back in the day, “resisting aggression” became a familiar political catchphrase. And for those nostalgic for the good old days of the Cold War or the war-torn Depression Era, the practice seems to be trending once again.
By the first half of the 20th century, planet Earth had endured two devastating World Wars, immediately followed by that epic global contest known as the Cold War, which dragged on for most of the second half of the century.
One of the last remnants of World War II involved Iran: the Azerbaijan Crisis of 1945-1946. The allied occupation of Iran by Great Britain, Russia and the United States had been intended as a temporary measure to repel Nazi German aggression in the region. Yet after the war, the Soviet army, to the consternation of Iranians, stubbornly remained, attempting to seize further “concessions” and drape at least some of its enormous Iron Curtain over the country. Iran took its case to the United Nations Security Council, and in 1946, the Russians were finally ejected for good.
By 1951, Iran became engaged in a bitter showdown with the British Empire. After she nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Britain not only pondered but openly threatened a military response. As with the former Russian confrontation, the explosive issue was soon submitted to the UN Security Council. The Abadan oil crisis, it was said, was a grave threat to world peace which could even lead to World War III.
While Premier Mohammad Mossadegh and entourage were still in the United States to defend Iran’s position, the following column by a Tennessee-born, redheaded, blue-eyed conservative Christian ad executive was published.
Bruce Fairchild Barton (1886–1967), was a pioneering advertising tycoon, best-selling author, syndicated columnist and former New York Congressman (1937-1940) who had once delivered the keynote address at the Republican State Convention, even considered a potential contender for President.
In this age of fear, jingoism and simplistic reasoning, Barton’s sage column addressing the subject of aggression in world affairs is, sadly—though not quite surprisingly—still as relevant as ever.
October 21, 1951
Perhaps you remember the ultra-patriotic physician of World War I who wanted to change the name of German Measles to Liberty Measles. He was one of the many victims of what Stuart Chase has called “the tyranny of words.”1
The Tyranny of Words
By Bruce Barton
We are all potential victims of that tyranny. In times of tension words can whip us into fear and frenzy. Words like fascist, communist, pacifist, isolationist cease to be tools of intelligent communication and become merely blunt instruments for batting opponents over the head.
I suggest a critical re-examination of one of today’s most notable tyrant words, to the end that it may be more precisely and guardedly defined. That word is aggression.
Just what is aggression?
Aggression is what we white Americans did to the American Indians. We fought them, we made solemn treaties with them, we broke the treaties again and again. All this I learned in horrifying detail, in Congress, as a member of the Committee of Indian Affairs.
If the U.S. were now to repent of its aggressions, and seek to restore everything acquired by force, it would shrink to a fraction of its present size.
The British were not invited into Hong Kong. They forced their way in because they need a port through which to ship their products in to China, including vast quantities of opium raised in India. Opium, said Governor Warren Hastings of India, was “a pernicious article of luxury which ought not to be permitted but for the purpose of foreign commerce only.” In other words, it should not be sold to Englishmen, it could properly and piously be forced on the Chinese.
The French and the Dutch likewise fought their way into the Orient, and are now soliciting our aid in blood and money to keep them from being thrown out. History is largely the record of aggressions, some cruel, some mild, but all representing a certain degree of coercion. The urge for aggression, like the appetite for drink, can never be entirely eradicated. We Americans are quite properly determined to resist aggression at whatever point it seriously threatens our own safety, or the safety of allies who are honestly willing to defend themselves.
But to announce that we will “resist aggression all over the world”—meaning that we will shed the blood of our boys in every civil war, every boundary dispute—that we will, in short, guarantee forever the status quo—such a promise is a pledge of self-destruction.
For the sake of the boys we are drafting (have you studied their set, solemn, resentful faces?), let us take another long and prayerful look at this terribly tyrannical and dangerous word.
1 Stuart Chase (1888-1985), economist and author of The Tyranny of Words (1938), a book on semantics.
October 26, 1951 — lead editorial
Adman Bruce Barton in a short column examining the “tyranny of words” thesis brings up a very interesting and pertinent point concerning U.S. foreign policy. The word “aggression” is a word which today requires some sober reflection rather than casual acceptance.
The Daily Plainsman (Huron, South Dakota)
“Aggression” Is Not “Change”
“Aggression” in the science of semantics is what people would define as a “bad” word, standing for a “bad” concept. Conversely, then, if one takes a stand against “aggression” he usually gets credit for opposing a concept that is “bad.”
But what do our leaders mean when they firmly declare that the U.S. will “resist aggression all over the world”? If that declaration means that the U.S. will guarantee that the U.S. is going to step in with or without the United Nations in every civil war and every boundary dispute, then we are in for a mess of real trouble.
Because if that is what we mean then we are resolving to fight to maintain things as they are all over the world, to “freeze” political and economical boundaries. That will not work.
Change is not synonymous with progress, but the world is always in a state of change and constant fluctuation. Resisting aggression all over the world is not a wise objective of foreign policy, if it is going to mean resisting any change.
Is War “Christian”? — Bruce Barton on God & War (1951)
U.S. Foreign and Domestic Policy Brilliantly Explained By Satirist (1977)
McKinley Sims: Bring U.S. Foreign Policy Into Phase With Its Moral Philosophy (1951-52)
Proud Brit Upholds “British Firmness” in Scoring Iran Oil Deal (1954)
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”