What if?
February 13, 2007 8:32 PM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the phrase: "what if they had ____ and nobody came?"
posted by Krrrlson to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The missing phrase is "a war", and it was a popular anti-war slogan in the 1960's.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:39 PM on February 13, 2007

AFAIK it's a sixties anti-Vietnam-war slogan. Can anbody cite an earlier version?
posted by flabdablet at 8:40 PM on February 13, 2007

Best answer: It was a popular anti-Vietnam war slogan as "What if they gave a war and nobody came?"

It is from a poem usually attributed to German poet Bertolt Brecht criticizing French pacifists (but also attributed to others):

What if they gave a war and nobody came?
Why then the war will come to you!
He who stays home when the fight begins
And lets another fight for his cause
Should take care:
He who does not take part
In the battle will share in the defeat.
Even avoiding battle will not avoid Battle,
since not to fight for your own cause really means
Fighting in behalf of your enemy's cause.
posted by justkevin at 8:53 PM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Interesting that it comes from a pro-war (or pro-bravery) poem, and the intent of the original author of the phrase was forgotten.
posted by lostburner at 9:04 PM on February 13, 2007

Without a cite, I'm not yet convinced.

Could it have been Brecht (if it was Brecht) quoting the first line from pacifists and then providing his own response? In that case, pacifists of the 60's weren't twisting the original context - they were just borrowing from earlier pacifists!
posted by vacapinta at 10:58 PM on February 13, 2007

Best answer: Actually, it appears to be from Carl Sandburg (1936):

"What if someone gave a war & Nobody came? Life would ring the bells of Ecstasy and Forever be Itself again.”

A simple Google Books search will back this up too. A line in the book Brewer's Famous Quotations points out the missatribution to Brecht and adds "philological caution is needed before assigning certain popular expressions to literary figures"
posted by vacapinta at 11:15 PM on February 13, 2007

Oops, I pasted the Ginsberg quote instead of Sandburg. But you can see that for yourself.
posted by vacapinta at 11:17 PM on February 13, 2007

The wrongly attributed Brecht poem by the way is called "Wer Zu Hause bleiht, wenn der Kampf beginnt" which translates as "Who stays at home when the fighting begins?"
posted by vacapinta at 11:21 PM on February 13, 2007

I don't believe that that's a question. Otherwise, it would be "Wer bleibt zu Hause..."
posted by oaf at 12:30 AM on February 14, 2007

Wer zu Hause bleibt , wenn der Kampf beginnt
und lässt andere kämpfen für seine Sache,
der muß sich vorsehen : denn
wer den Kampf nicht geteilt hat ,
der wird teilen die Niederlage.
Nicht einmal den Kampf vermeidet,
wer nicht kämpfen will: denn
es wird kämpfen für die Sache des Feinds,
wer für seine eigne Sache nicht gekämpft hat.

posted by IndigoJones at 11:13 AM on February 14, 2007

Didn't Richard Bach in his book A Bridge Across Forever claim that his ex-wife, Leslie Parrish, coin this phrase as an antiwar slogan in the 60s? Whether this is truth or not, I couldn't say but suspect (from the above comments) it's false.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:31 PM on February 14, 2007

I almost didn't click on this question, because I saw that it had "best answer" checked. But I did and I see that you're all close but not quite. Vacapinta has the authorship correct, but then quotes a line from Ginsburg.

Carl Sandburg's "The Little Girl Saw Her First Troop Parade"

The little girl saw her first troop parade and asked, “What are those?”
“What are soldiers?”
“They are for war. They fight and each tries to kill as many of the other side as he can.”
The girl held still and studied.
“Do you know…I know something?”
“Yes, what is it you know?”
“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”
posted by terceiro at 1:37 PM on February 14, 2007

OK, but Sandburg does NOT say "What if they gave a war and nobody came." Perhaps it's pernickty to note, but the modified phrase still hasn't been given an origin here.
posted by A189Nut at 3:00 PM on February 14, 2007

This article, in German, discusses the very question posed here including the Sandburg and the mistaken Brecht attribution.

It should be noted that the "poem" that justkevin wrote out is of unknown origin. It is not a translation of the Brecht piece.

I also think this thread died an early death because of a premature "best answer" mark. I too almost didnt check it. But when I did, i was a bit dismayed that an urban legend was being perpetuated. Ask Metafilter should be about digging deeper....
posted by vacapinta at 9:51 PM on February 14, 2007

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