Cooler Heads Prevail

By early 1914, the World was on the brink of war. But, as the nations went into full-scale production of combat weaponry, one man was literally melting them down. On this special episode of Faith and Liberty Rediscovered, hear the remarkable story of a man whose incredible efforts at peace demonstrated that diplomacy is, indeed, the art of keeping cool.

By 1914 the world’s European colonial powers were so entangled in complicated treaty alliances that if triggered by a single political incident, they might invariably ignite a powder keg leading to a multinational war. On the stage of international affairs, saber-rattling had become the diplomatic norm, and with the expansion of colonial powers around the globe, these tensions created a very unstable world. Such instability and fear-fueled an arms race with technological innovations to develop the first weapons of mass destruction in history. Was a Great War — a world war — to be inevitable?  There was certainly a clear and present danger to world peace heretofore unseen. In the United States, however, a man who refused to accept the inevitability of war served as America’s senior diplomat. He believed in peace and in the effectiveness of mediation for international disputes. While the world went into full-scale production of combat weaponry, this man was literally melting them down.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” This ancient biblical prospect of peace envisioned by the prophet Isaiah was the inspiration for William Jennings Bryan, the U.S. Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. Byran, a devout Presbyterian was gifted with the art of persuasion and guided by biblical principles of human dignity, peace, and hope. Bryan traveled the world in pursuit of treaty agreements. The Bryan Treaties were a bilateral agreement for the “advancement of peace” and stipulated a conciliation process between signatories.  Remarkably, he was able to negotiate at least 30 treaties with world nations that bound them to pursue honest arbitration before descending into war. With a pearl of salt-of-the-earth wisdom that is so often lacking on the political stage, Bryan simply believed that cooler heads would prevail. Thirty countries agreed. In a day that was rapidly darkening under the encroaching clouds of a world war, to get thirty nations to slow down to leave room for settlement was no small feat. William Jennings Bryan was no small man. 

A moment ago, I mentioned that while the world went into full-scale production of combat weaponry, one man was melting them down. That’s because ahead of his diplomatic efforts in 1913 and ‘14, Bryan asked the U.S. War Department to meltdown decommissioned swords in order to literally turn them into plowshares. Well, mini-ones at least. Bryan, you see, had prepared to give each of the treaty signatories a commemorative paperweight in the shape of a plowshare. It was a gift that would serve as a symbol of biblical peace and a tangible token of hope for the nations. Each paperweight was inscribed with Isaiah 2:4, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” Additionally,  on one side of the paperweight was inscribed, “Nothing is final between friends”, and on the other, “Diplomacy is the art of keeping cool.” 

In retrospect, the infamous Guns of August 1914 prevailed, and a second World War followed after that. Yet Bryan’s efforts for peace were motivated by a faith that guides liberty toward justice. His ideals appealed to what Lincoln famously described as “our better angels.” In calling nations to the biblical prospect of world peace, he raised the sights of the possible. Was his idealism an illusion? Or is it possible for nations to embrace a biblical ideal for peace without illusions? In this fallen world, perhaps, as it has been said, there are times when peace can only be found on the other side of war. Regardless, Bryan was right believing that only the cool heads can know when those inevitable moments are. Bryan’s opposition to America’s entry into World War One led to his resignation as Secretary of State in 1915. But, his influence carried on. Not the least of which was in the form of thirty paperweights that sat on desks of nations — reminders of the prophet’s promise of a better world to come. They were an act of faith guiding liberty toward justice.

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