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The President Goes to War

Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld History

01/04/2012John T. Flynn

As I write this, the war in Europe has reached a critical stage for the two great empires, England and France. We know that the overwhelming conviction of the American people is that we should stay out of that war. There are some who would like to help the empires as much as possible without going to war. But they are adamant for not becoming involved.

It is very important, however, to realize the existence of various groups eager for American participation in the war, if it should become evident that our participation is essential to defeating Germany. These people constitute a small minority. They are to be found in certain groups, and everybody recognizes who they are. Some of them are intriguing actively to get us in.

In this situation what must we expect to happen when we pour a set of facts and events like this into the mind of the president? What kind of result may we expect to come out of that mind?

We have merely to remember the president's general state of mind on armaments. Of course the president, like everyone, frequently protests his desire for peace. Everyone does this. And I think we may assume he is quite sincere about it.

But we must keep in mind the president's long, constant attitude toward armaments and military training. He is a lover of arms. He is above all a lover of naval arms. He is one of those men whose mind and imagination are fascinated by battleships and guns. He is also one — as frequently happens in these lovers of arms — who is disposed to be somewhat truculent in his notion of the uses of these arms. Most Americans believe that we should have arms to defend ourselves; defending ourselves means defending our country from invasion. They do not believe that we should establish interests all over the world, follow our traders around with ships and undertake to police the seas of the world for those interests. We have warned Americans to get out of the fighting zones. We have warned our ships to leave the areas of war. We have passed a law to that effect. We have voted to give up the Philippine Islands, which every military man agrees we cannot possibly defend. But the president, whatever he may seem to feel, does not agree with these views. He said, while assistant secretary of the navy,

Our national defense must extend all over the Western Hemisphere, must go a thousand miles out to sea, must embrace the Philippines and over the seas wherever our commerce may be.… We must create a navy not only to protect our shores and our possessions but our merchant ships no matter where they may go in time of war.

This represents his ground philosophy respecting the navy. There is a touch of the Junker in him, the jingo, who, saying, "We've got the men, we've got the ships, we've got the money too," is prepared to assert a nationalist right on every sea. He is for peace as an ideal, but he is one of those lovers of peace who is too ready to choose war as a solution of the problem.

But he goes further than this. If there is one thing that the people of America hate with all their souls it is militarism. By militarism I mean that system of compulsory military training, universal military service and national armies that has made a shambles out of Europe. To escape militarism, millions of European immigrants flowed past the Statue of Liberty to America before the Great War.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is one of the few Americans who has advocated the establishment of a national army and universal military service — conscription during times of peace. During the World War he wrote,

Is it not time that the people of the United States should adopt definitively the principle of national government service by every man and woman at some time in their lives? I hope to see the time when national government service is not only an established fact but also one of the most highly prized privileges of all Americans. I, as a father, look forward to the time when my boys will be able to render service to their country. This means service in times of peace as well as in times of war and means service in the civilian branches as well as the military branches. The day will soon be at hand when the army and the navy of this great republic will be looked upon by its citizens as a normal part of their own government and their own activities.

Because this was written during the war, it may be put down to an excess of patriotic zeal, though he was urging military service in times of peace. However, when the war was over, at a Victory Dinner in 1919, he said,

While a let-down was bound to follow every great national action, I hope that there will still be some kind of training or universal military service. That is the surest guarantee of safety. I think this ought to follow no matter what the result of the peace negotiations.

This after Germany was crushed and at a Victory Dinner after the war to end wars. He was busy trying to organize a naval reserve of 150,000 men all that year. On October 11, 1919, he again proposed universal military training in the army and navy at the New York State Convention of the American Legion.

The simple truth is — though Americans have not realized it — that we have a militarist in the White House who would, if he dared propose it, establish an army, with peacetime conscription, on the European model. And we must be aware of and weigh these facts about him properly before we can understand what the conflict in Europe is doing as it races through his mind.

There is another factor of the first importance — the foundation of the president's whole regime, his spending. At the end of seven years there are still 11 million people idle, and the revival of private investment is as distant as it was in 1933. Suspension, even contraction, of government spending would be followed by an immediate economic disaster while Roosevelt is president.

But national spending becomes increasingly difficult. Because of the very nature of our government, useful peacetime projects are essentially local in character — roads, parkways, playgrounds, schools, hospitals, clinics, housing, etc. The federal government may build them, but they have to be maintained by the local governments. Today the local governments refuse these kinds of projects. It is costing so much money to maintain those already built that the local governments are at the end of their rope. Most of them are in grave financial difficulties, cannot meet their school budgets, their welfare and highway budgets — are all wrestling painfully with the baffling problem of taxes. The WPA in Philadelphia complains that it has projects that would put 39,000 men to work immediately but that the city of Philadelphia fails to authorize or sponsor these projects. It is the same in most cities and states. Governments that spend soon arrive at a point where resistance to spending becomes imperious. The resistance comes from the conservative groups who fear taxation and inflation, but it comes also from the very difficulty of finding peacetime public enterprises on which money can be spent. That is where the Roosevelt administration is today.

When this point is reached in spending programs, there is always one kind of project left that breaks down resistance — which particularly breaks down resistance among the very conservative groups who are most vocal against government spending. That is national defense. The one sure and easiest way to command national assent from all groups for more spending is to ask it for national defense. The evidence of this is that the Congress and the nation that was howling for economy only six months ago is now talking about military budgets of monstrous dimensions. And the president of the United States can say without a whimper of protest that the manner of raising money for a 7-billion-dollar airplane program is a mere "minor detail."

However, it is not possible to get the people to consent to vast outlays for national defense unless you frighten them, make them fear that enemies are about to assail them, and this is what has now happened.

Put all of these things together — the president's love of military and naval might and display, his truculence about the command of the seas, his well-known sympathies both by blood and sentiment with England, his belief in the doctrine of collective security, his dilemma in finding means to spend money and ways of holding popular approval of spending, the rising tide of political antagonism that was generally recognized before the war began — and you have the conditions that set his mind off in the direction of military adventure.

He has been playing with this subject ever since October 1937, when the severe recession got under way. He, his State Department, his military subordinates are continuously doing and saying things of a provocative character. On October 11, 1937, before Roosevelt made his quarantine speech, he called in his admirals and asked their advice for an economic blockade of Japan in co-operation with European powers. The British shied away from this. The American people knew nothing about it. Then came the quarantine speech in which he advocated international action to quarantine aggressors. If that policy had been adopted, it would have meant that England, France, the United States and possibly Russia would have used military power to strangle Japan and Germany economically. That meant the president was actually talking about war under these euphemistic phrases.

In April 1938 Ambassador Hugh Wilson in Germany warned the Germans that it was conceivable that the United States would come into any future war, and this speech, it was reported, was approved by the State Department. About the same time Roosevelt seized two islands in the Pacific near Australia and hoisted the American flag over them. In May 1938 England and Italy proposed a pact dividing up the Mediterranean and Red Sea between them, and the president issued a statement approving this pact. Later in May, Secretary of War Woodring made a speech denouncing the European dictators. When the gunboat Panay was struck in the interior of China on the Yangtze River protecting three Standard Oil tankers, the most frantic efforts were made to inflame the imagination of the American people against the Japanese. This was done this time, not by Mr Hearst or the yellow newspapers, but by the State Department.

Then came the spy scares. These spy stories were not given out by subordinates but by the president himself in order to give them the greatest explosive propaganda effect. The attorney general of the United States was put in the movies to call on Americans to report suspicious cases — to spy upon their neighbors.

After the present war in Europe broke out, the president began personally, directly from the White House, to give out in his own name statements about submarines cruising along our coasts. All this could be multiplied many times to show the plain purpose of the president to fill the American people with a fear that this country was going to be attacked by Germany; that as soon as England and France were done for, the United States was next on the list, that Hitler and Mussolini were meditating invasions of South America. Assistant Secretary of War Johnson has been going around the country making speeches saying that we should provide arms for a million men and build the world's greatest navy to resist a German invasion of this country, while Senator Neely of West Virginia, speaking for the administration's so-called "neutrality" policy, said that as soon as Hitler defeated England and France "he would come to Canada with the French army in the English navy, build a Siegfried line along the Canadian border, organize Sudeten areas in German cities like St Louis and Milwaukee and reduce the United States to the fate of Poland."

All this is not being done by the munitions makers, by the war-craft builders or the economic royalists. It is being done by a Democratic administration supposedly in possession of its liberal wing and by a man who was elected to office on a platform that denounced the huge appropriations for defense by the Republican administration, then less than a billion dollars.1

The president has now thrown off all pretense of neutrality. But he is still trying to make people believe that the Germans can invade the United States by airplane — a proposition so preposterous that he cannot get a single military man to support it. He asks Congress for 50,000 planes. And here we see about to blossom a plan for universal military training. General Arnold, chief of the army air service, says 50,000 planes would cost $7,000,000,000. But this would require, in addition, equipment in the way of fields, hangars, repair and supply stations and quarters for a million men. This would cost another billion dollars at the very least. The naval estimate for maintaining planes is 30 men on the ground for every plane in the air. It asks 300,000 men for 10,000 planes. It would require at this rate 1,500,000 men for 50,000 planes. This does not include 100,000 pilots. Add all this to a regular army of half a million men — and they are talking about 750,000 in Washington — and you have a peacetime force of over 2,000,000 men. What this would cost, no man can say. But it is certain that this country cannot get a peacetime army of 2,000,000 men without conscription. It has the greatest difficulty in keeping its present small army enlisted to its authorized strength. The average American will hardly be able to get the full force of all this. But the president of the United States — who believes in a national army and universal military service — has actually asked Congress for an air force that will necessarily entail this.

Our only protection, perhaps, is that it is impossible. I have inquired among experts on this subject, and it is as certain as anything in this world is certain that we cannot produce 50,000 planes in a year and will be quite lucky if we can produce 10,000. This being so, why does the president ask for this fantastic number? A year and a half ago Boake Carter, radio commentator, broadcast the fleet maneuvers and described how the airplanes were demonstrating their superiority over the battleships. Roosevelt summoned Carter and gave him a "dressing down." He said the admirals complained. And he made it clear that the admirals were right. He did not share these novel notions about planes. The president is an admirals' man. He is an amateur admiral himself. He is a lover of battleships — with an old, deep sentimental passion about them like those British sea lords. He has been pouring all the preparedness money he has gotten into battleships. Now he wants planes — not some reasonable number that can be produced, but some fantastic number that cannot be produced. All this was done without very much consultation with the military chieftains who were quite at sea about it all when questioned by a congressional committee. The president has been sold this new and dramatic idea of fifty thousand planes just as he had been sold the Warren gold plan in a short conversation, just as he had been sold the vending-machine plan to put an end to retail clerks.

And then an election approaches. Americans are thinking of the 11 million people still unemployed, of the farm problem unsolved, of the utter paralysis of private investment, of the mounting public debt, of the scandals in Washington and local political machines and a score of other counts in the indictment by Roosevelt's political foes. And the war, the menace to our security, the call to national defense — all this will take the minds of our people off the failure to solve our own problems and will furnish a new excuse to spend another 10 or 15 billion dollars to return his party to power.

What is more serious than all this, of course, is that the president has been "meddling in" on the European situation for two years, and is increasing his meddling. While proclaiming himself the true neutral, he has been inching the country more and more toward active support of the two great empires. He is now the recognized leader of the war party. There is not the slightest doubt that the only thing that now prevents his active entry on the side of the Allies is his knowledge that he cannot take the American people in yet. He has said privately that he does not want to send men, will, in fact, never do it. If he went in, it would be merely with naval and air forces and with munitions and supplies. This, of course, is another example of the president's method of halfway thinking. Imagine this country going to war and then refusing to supply men to do the fighting!

  • 1. The Democratic platform of 1932 declared, "For a navy and an army adequate for national defense, based on a survey of all facts affecting the existing establishments, that the people in time of peace may not be burdened by an expenditure fast approaching $1,000,000,000 annually."

John T. Flynn

John T. Flynn was a journalist, author, and master polemicist of the Old Right. He started out as a liberal columnist for that flagship of American liberalism, the New Republic, and wound up on the Right, denouncing "creeping socialism." What is unusual about Flynn is that instead of being seduced by the New Deal and the Popular Front into supporting the war, Flynn was led by his thoroughgoing antiwar stance to challenge the developing state worship of modern liberalism. Flynn's essential insight — that the threat to America is not to be found in any foreign capitol, but in Washington, D.C.

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