Fifty years ago, after one of the most famous debates in British history, the members of the Oxford Union Society voted resoundingly "that this house will in no circumstances fight for king and country."
That "ever shameful" resolution, as Winston Churchill called it in his memoirs, came to symbolize the pacifism and upheaval of the 1930s, a raw idealism that many believe was a factor in allowing Adolf Hitler to rearm Germany and engulf the world in war.
With the winds of pacifism again gusting across Western Europe and under the glare of television lights last night--exactly 50 years after the earlier vote--the Oxford undergraduates and guest speakers exchanged heated views on whether pacifism or strength is more likely to preserve the peace.
History did not repeat itself. This time the members of the elite debating society voted 416 to 187 that they would fight for queen and country. But Radio One, a nationally broadcast rock-and-roll station, asked listeners to phone in for an independent vote on the resolution, and 58 percent of the 10,164 listeners who participated said just the opposite.
The debate illuminates the concerns that grip many West Europeans, particularly young people, in what French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson has called "the critical year" of the Atlantic Alliance.
The threads of the debate--nuclear war, unilateral disarmament and "neutralism"--translate into protests against the introduction of U.S. missiles in Europe and political difficulties for governments that strongly back the United States and NATO.
While the 1933 debate took place in the shadow of World War I, the specter haunting undergraduates in 1983 was a possible nuclear holocaust.
"Is it worth killing 50 million Soviet citizens, who may be innocent, for our traditions and institutions?" asked Malcolm Bull, the student who proposed the resolution.
Another student, Ben Patten, said with acid sarcasm that after another war, "the world would be annihilated, but at least we would have stopped the Russians."
In both 1933 and 1983, the likely enemy in a future war was assumed to be the Soviet Union. Hitler had become chancellor of Germany only 10 days before the original debate.
The countervailing shadow intruding into yesterday's debate was the common history lesson that pacifism and appeasement in the 1930s achieved nothing and tempted Hitler with the appearance of weakness, making the 50 million deaths of World War II somewhat more likely.
Lord Beloff, the writer and intellectual who as an undergraduate in 1933 urged members not to fight for king and country, returned to the debating chamber as a guest speaker with a changed view.
"Those of us who voted for the original motion have perhaps a duty to make atonement and warn against the kind of foolish arrogance to make statements that were factually and morally untrue," he said.
The original resolution was factually untrue, he said, because many of its proponents died fighting in World War II. It was morally untrue because it in some slight way encouraged fascist belligerence by indicating that Britain was too anemic to fight. Beloff noted, however, that no evidence has emerged that Hitler ever knew of the Oxford debate--unlike the Italy's Mussolini, who referred to it several times.
Beloff was one of a cast of famous guest speakers who included Lord Home, who as Sir Alec Douglas-Home was prime minister in the early 1960s, and Douglas Hogg, a Conservative member of Parliament, arguing that students should be willing to fight. Guest speakers on the other side were Helen John, an organizer of the Greenham Common anti-nuclearmovement, the Rev. the Lord Soper, a pacifist peer, and Tariq Ali, a Marxist activist on the Labor's Party's left fringe.
The student speakers urging that queen and country were worth fighting for stressed that if Britain disarmed unilaterally, the Soviet Union might see it not as an example but as an invitation.
"I say to the pacifists, your policy was tried in the 1930s and found wanting," said Simon Clement-Davies. "We seem today on the verge of making the same mistake."
The forum touched not only the issues of nuclear war and unilateral disarmament, but also comparisons of the conduct of the United States and the Soviet Union. John said that Britain was an "occupied country" because of the presence of U.S. bases, and compared U.S. involvement in Latin America with the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and Poland.
Home and other speakers defended the United States, saying that its sins were not comparable to the Soviet Union's.
The debating chamber was packed with students and the atmosphere was charged during the debate, with cries of "shame" erupting when some of the pacifist speakers suggested that past wars had been fought more for profits than principles.
Exercising a right under the debating rules, one student, Geoffrey O'Brien, stood up during John's speech and interrupted, "Madam, behind you on the wall is a list of former officers of this society who gave their lives so that you and the women at Greenham Common have freedom to protest."
When the cheering had died down, she responded, "Those people will have died in vain unless we stop this insanity. I'm sure the queen does not want genocide committed in her name," she added.