The Journal of Historical Review

Will Rogers on American ‘Moral Leadership’ and Foreign Adventurism

‘The More Things Change …’

Until his death in an airplane crash in 1935, Will Rogers delighted Americans with his witty and astute commentary on social and political issues of the day. The following excerpts from his syndicated newspaper columns and radio broadcasts between 1925 and 1935 were compiled by Bryan B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling, who have published eight books and a play about the “cowboy philosopher.” This collection of excerpts first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1996.


Europe has got a thing that America always falls for, and that’s when they tell us they want our “moral leadership.” That’s almost like telling an old man he’s got sex appeal. It’s a line of bunk that this country falls for and always has. Our delegates swell out their chests and really believe that the world is just hanging by a thread.


It has just become almost impossible for a country to have a nice, home-talent little revolution among themselves, without us butting into it. But here we go again. If we ever pass out as a great nation, we ought to put on our tombstone: “America died from a delusion that she had moral leadership.”


Now you can’t pick up a paper without reading where our Marines have landed to keep some nations from shooting each other, and if necessary we shoot them to keep them from shooting each other. America has a great habit of always talking about protecting American interests in some foreign country. Protect them here at home. There are more American interests right here than anywhere. What would we say if the Chinese was to send a gunboat up the Mississippi?

Those little Balkan nations, they are like a mess of stray terriers anyhow, they just as well be fighting. I remember when I was over in Europe in the summer of ’26, why, they were growling at each other like fat prima donnas on the same opera bill. I hit upon a half dozen of those Balkan nations and Yugoslavia. Now did you know they got their two bands of people, called the Serbians and the Croats? Well, the Croats, they say they are downtrodden. The one thing their whole country is united in, is that they hate Italy.


Now Serbia, she don’t want to lose her reputation – they want to go down in history as having started all the wars. You see, the whole mess of 'em, they have no more love for each other than a litter of hyenas. They either lost or gained territory during a war, and they feel – those that did gain – that in another war they could grab off even more, and the ones that lost can’t see how they could possibly make that mistake again. You see, you can’t just sit down and cut out a nation on the map. You don’t know how many people in any country are pulling for a revolution, for they have a great amount of dissatisfied people in them. The more nations you create, the more chances you have of war. That’s self-disintegration of small nations.


You know, we haven’t got any business in those faraway wars. Seven thousand miles is a long way to go to shoot somebody, especially if you are not right sure they need shooting, and you are not sure whether you are shooting the right side or not. You see, it’s their war and they have a right to fight it as they see fit, without any advice from us.


When we start out trying to make everybody have moral elections, why, it just don’t look like we are going to have Marines enough to go Round 1. Why, if it wasn’t for the movies picturing Marines going from one country to another, we would never know what they looked like. I had an unusual experience the other day – I seen a Marine in America.


If we keep our nose clean and don’t start yapping about somebody else’s honor or what our moral obligations are, we might not get dragged into it. But it’s going to take better statesmanship than we have been favored with heretofore.


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 17, no. 2, p. 32.


Published with permission, courtesy of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR).

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