“I wish to dwell for a moment on the subject of America,” said Bertha von Suttner in her acceptance speech for the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize. “This land of limitless opportunities is marked by its ability to carry out new and daring plans of enormous imagination and scope, while often using the simplest methods. In other words, it is a nation idealistic in its concepts and practical in its execution of them. We feel that the modern peace movement has every chance in America of attracting strong support and of finding a clear formula for the implementation of its aims.”
Bertha had every reason to be optimistic about both the United States and its role in the global peace movement. During a three-week trip to America in 1904, she met with various leaders of the pacifist movement and came away especially impressed by the forward progress of women on such issues as suffrage and the abolition of slavery. On a subsequent visit in 1912, she told a large audience in San Francisco, “When people speak to me of the future, I tell them, ‘Go to America and look at the future, for there it has already arrived. They are fifty years ahead of us ethically.’”
Bertha compared the United States of the early 1900s to Europe and saw stark contrasts. “Alarm is general everywhere,” she said of her home continent, “and no one can give a rational cause. In America, the reverse is true.” She noted achievements in welfare and civil rights before observing that “in my city (Vienna), they are putting guns into the public schools and making the curriculum less and less liberal, more and more militant.”
Sadly, the United States today more closely resembles Europe in those anxious years prior to the start of World War I. Patriotism and militarism go hand in hand, and every national holiday now seems like an excuse to exalt the armed forces and celebrate physical strength over moral and ethical spirit. The lust for vengeance supersedes rational justice; guns are a fetish. Political parties work toward their own preservation, often at the expense of the people’s will.
Today, July 4, is Independence Day in the United States, a commemoration of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. In essence, it signaled the birth of a new nation and a radically different form of government. “If the United States has a mission,” Bertha observed in 1912, “it is to develop the principle of the Brotherhood of Man into a living, palpable force.” True to her lifelong calls for disarmament, she ventured a step farther. “The one half of humanity that has never borne arms is today ready to blaze into this living, palpable force. Perhaps the Universal Sisterhood is necessary before the Universal Brotherhood is possible.”
On this Independence Day, I find myself, like Bertha as she approached her 70th birthday, still clinging to the promise of a better world. The greatness that she once saw in America seems, sadly, almost unrecognizable now, especially in light of recent events that threaten to reverse the country’s progress on human rights. The struggle for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” continues to be just that—a struggle. Even so, I find strength in her enduring spirit and in her faith in the American dream. Our work toward its realization continues.