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By a scrap of paper bound

October 31, 2014

Henry Van Dyke arrived Europe in the summer of 1914 as United States Ambassador to the Netherlands.   As he prepared for a  commemoration of the  centenary of the Treaty of Ghent, signed in neighboring Belgium on December 24, 1814, his attention was drawn to the acute contrast between the hundred years of peace shared by the United States and Great Britain, and the fragility of the peace in Europe.

The border between the United States and Canada was undefended, with both nations relying on an observance of the Treaty of Ghent, and a mutual trust and good will.

In Europe, Germany and Great Britain were parties to a treaty to respect the neutrality of Belgium and to come to her aid should she be invaded.

Germany violated this treaty by invading Belgium  in August 1914  and Great Britain declared war on Germany.

In affirmation of the sanctity of a treaty, though at great cost,  Henry Van Dyke wrote a poem that was published on November 11, 1914.

Since Van Dyke represented a government which was then “nominally neutral,”  the verses appeared under the name American Citizen.

 

A Scrap of Paper
by Civis Americanus

Will you go to war for a scrap of paper?
– Question of the German Chancellor to the British Ambassador, August 5, 1918.

A mocking question! Britain’s answer came
Swift as the light and searching as the flame.

“Yes, for a scrap of paper we will fight
Till our last breath, and God defend the right!

A scrap of paper where a name is set
Is strong as duty’s pledge and honor’s debt.

A scrap of paper holds for man and wife
The sacrament of love, the bond of life.

A scrap of paper may be Holy Writ
With God’s eternal word to hallow it.

A scrap of paper binds us both to stand
Defenders of a neutral neighbor land.

By God, by faith, by honor, yes! we fight
To keep our name upon that paper white!”

 

Speaking in Toronto in 1919, following the war, Van Dyke spoke of the reaction of Great Britain to the invasion of Belgium as “better even than the celebration of the hundred years of peace.”

“Thank God, I had the grace given to me to know that it was inevitable that we should stand in this great war against war, in this great fight for peace.”

The ironic symbolism of the “scrap of paper” was adopted by the Quaker Samuel Hill for his Peace Arch project, dedicated in 1921, and was referenced by US President Warren G Harding in a speech in Vancouver in 1923, afterward engraved on the Good Will Memorial in Stanley Park.

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