From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 2, 13 January 1941, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
President Roosevelt took two major steps in his war policy this week. He made an “all-out” speech to Congress asking for full military aid to Britain and declaring an undeclared war against Germany. And he appointed Sidney Hillman and W.S. Knudsen as the top bosses, with equal powers, of the entire rearmament program. Both moves were efforts to answer the same tough question: how to get the support of the American masses for a war which is not their war but a war to defend and extend the interests of American imperialism throughout the world?
The appointment of Hillman to co-leadership with Knudsen of the whole “defense” program came as a shock to the conservative press. When the top “defense” body was being shaped a few weeks ago, it was originally proposed – and even announced – that Knudsen would be the boss, a one-man economic dictator like Baruch in the last war, while Hillman, representing – theoretically, at least – labor, was not even to be on the top board. The left New Dealers persuaded Roosevelt to include Hillman as a fourth board member, the other three being Knox, Stimson and Knudsen.’And now we find Hillman made co-leader with Knudsen, while Knox and Stimson take back seats.
It seems clear that the White House is impressed by the militancy with which organized labor has been fighting for its interests of late, and the failure of the flag-waving, red-baiting campaign to prevent strikes in “defense” industries. The Reuther plane-manufacturing plan, the current Ford organizing drive – these are also factors. Hillman’s appointment is thus partly a concession to labor. It is also an attempt to take labor into camp. For Hillman, as the President well knows, is a “safe” and “reasonable” labor leader, who can be relied on to do his best to keep labor in line for war production. When reporters asked what would happen if Hillman and Knudsen disagreed – on giving contracts to Ford, for instance – “the President insisted that the question was silly”. He just couldn’t imagine such a thing.
To persistent questions, Roosevelt replied that he had “only one defense chief” and that “his name is Knudsen-Hillman”. Roosevelt is no amateur in matters of this sort. He and his close advisers have had many months of experience with Hillman and have found him always entirely “reasonable”. It will be Hillman’s job to hold labor in line for the war and to prevent as much as possible strikes and other signs of labor revolt. But because of the very nature of his position and of his background, Hillman will have to yield more to working class pressure than, say, his partner, Knudsen, would have to. It is up to labor to provide that pressure in ever-increasing measure from now on.
President Roosevelt’s speech before Congress went even farther on the road to war than his radio “fireside chat” of last week. He made it clear that, so far as his Administration is concerned, the United States is already at war with Germany. He repeated, in stronger terms, his proposal to send U.S. Army and Navy planes, guns and munitions “abroad ts our friends who by their determined and heroic resistance are giving us time in which to make ready our own defense”. And he added: “We will not be intimidated by the threats of dictators that they will regard it as a breach of international law or os an act of war.” Look at Norway, Holland, Belgium, he said; they trusted in international war and waited for the Nazis to attack first. The implication was clear ...
There was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm in the response of the members of Congress to the President’s fevered oratory. Maybe they were thinking of the seventeen billions they would be asked to vote for as an initial payment on the coming year’s war expenses. I think it more likely, however, they were beginning to wonder just how the Anglo-American bloc was going to be able to drive Hitlerism from the face of the earth – and how they could present the war aims of Churchill-Roosevelt to their constituents.
The feeblest part of the President’s speech was its grand climax – the statement of American war aims. For the first time, Roosevelt ventured to put into itemized forms the aims he conceives Britain and America to have in this war. Here is the best he could do:
“In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
“The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.
“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.
“The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.
“The fourth is freedom, from fear, which translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments ...”
It seems incredible that in the year 1941 the thrice-elected leader of the richest and most industrially advanced nation in the world should talk in these moth-eaten terms of Wilsonianism. They meant little in Wilson’s day, they mean less today. It is as though a witch doctor should try to cure a typhoid epidemic by magic passes and incantations. But there is a reason.
Roosevelt’s first two “freedoms.” of speech and religion, have existed in emasculated form in the capitalist world for a century and a half, without preventing periodic world wars. In actual practice the first of these along with other liberties, is fast becoming a chimera in the United States. For, Roosevelt’s verbal allegiance to democracy notwithstanding, totalitarianism – the abolition of such liberties as freedom of speech – is inherent in the very nature of the war he proposes to wage. (And what an index of the backward and reactionary nature of this so-called ‘advanced’ Administration, to include in 1941 as one of four supreme war aims – the winning of religious freedom! That was once taken, for granted!)
Roosevelt’s last two “freedoms” are faint echoes of liberal-capitalist illusions which have been thoroughly exploded by the course of events since the last war – and by Roosevelt’s own policies! Who still preserves the innocent faith to be able to believe in free trade and disarmament as panaceas for the ills of the twentieth century world?
Roosevelt, however, needs to be given this much credit: he probably doesn’t take his “war aims” very seriously either. But he is in the same spot as the present political leaders of England: he must call the masses into action to defend “democracy” against the totalitarian menace, and yet he must avoid any possible incitement to revolution, any possible implication that fundamental social and economic changes might be desirable. So he talks in what are for him catch phrases, which mean little in the face of reality, and hopes for the best. Though he may speak in mumbo-jumbo, Roosevelt knows witch-doctoring is a fake.
There is nothing in these four points of Roosevelt’s worth the blood of a single American worker. Yes, real democracy is something to fight for. But the Negro who lives under lynch terror, the worker who is threatened not to strike, know how little is the value of democracy in the mouth of a Roosevelt.
A war conducted to defend a socialist America against Hitler, a war in alliance with a socialist Britain, a war to build a new world of economic and social justice based on the rule of the working masses – this kind of a war could be expressed in slogans which would arouse support throughout Europe and make Hitler’s (and capitalism’s) position impossible. This kind of a war would enlist the full support of American workers. Roosevelt can’t fight it because he is defending the present capitalist system – which finds democracy an ever increasing embarrassment. So he has to maneuver around with Hillman and talk the old platitudes about free speech and free trade. It remains to be seen whether this is enough to persuade the working class of America that this is their war.
Last updated: 21.11.2012