Fourth International, May-June 1951


James P. Cannon

Youth and Foreign Policy

(A Speech to Students of
New York University, April 25, 1951)

Transcribed from tape recording.
Source: Fourth International, Vol.12 No.3, May-June 1951, pp.72-76.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

The subject of our discussion today, the foreign policy of the United States, is now recognized on every side as the burning question of the day. It monopolizes the attention of the statesmen, the generals and the diplomats. It is a sign of the times that the specialists in the art of propaganda, true and false – mostly false – concentrate on this subject nowadays, each from his own point of view and special interest. Through this poisonous fog of slanted propaganda the truth has a hard time making its way.

The people of America, as distinguished from their rulers and misleaders, in their great majority have been traditionally peace-loving, nationally exclusive and self-sufficient, even isolationist, in their sentiments. But they have long since been convinced by the course of events that foreign policy is their greatest concern today and the source of their greatest fears. For they know in their bones, no matter what the statesmen and the propagandists say, that US foreign policy is driving not toward peace but toward war.

Not An Academic Question for Youth

And I believe that of all the elements and age-brackets in the population of the country, those who are most acutely sensitive to this relationship of foreign policy and war are the youth; that is, those who will have to do the fighting and the dying in the ultimate execution of our foreign policy as it is directed today. For the young people foreign policy is no academic disquisition, but a question of life and death.

Therefore, I am glad of the opportunity you have given me to speak to an audience of young university people on this subject today. First of all, I wish to express my appreciation of the spirit of fair play and free speech which has been manifested on so many sides, especially in the student body, and I assume also in the administrative staff, which has made my discussion with you possible.

I believe in free speech. I have fought for it a long time, for others as well as for myself. Free speech is a necessary instrumentality for the dissemination of full information and the clarification of ideas which can lead to correct decisions. In the early days of the pioneer socialist movement in this country and the IWW, with which I was affiliated, we put up many battles, not without hazards and penalties for some of us, for the right of free speech. I first came into collision, and eventually to an irrevocable break, with the Communist Party over this question – over the suppress the rights of a minority faction to which I belonged to present their views and defend them in fair debate. For forty years 1 have been mixed up one way or another in the fight for free speech, either as a defendant under prosecution defending my own rights, or as an active participant in organizations and committees defending the rights of others. I know all about free speech.

“Great Debate” Only Over Tactics

I speak here today on the subject of foreign policy from the viewpoint of Marxist socialism, the socialism of the class struggle. 1 have lived to see the United States take part in two world wars. As a socialist I opposed them both, and I am opposed now to the American intervention in Korea and the program of spreading it into a Third World War. As a socialist I know that capitalist wars are waged not for high moral principles as the lying propagandists say, but for profits and plunder, for territories, for markets and fields of investment. I cannot conceive of a more disgraceful act of self-repudiation for a socialist than to support a capitalist war.

The great debate, so-called, which is proceeding with feverish intensity today in the halls of Congress and in the press, on radio and television, in forums, on platforms and in pulpits, does not in my opinion touch the real problem of war and peace. The differences of Truman and MacArthur, the two protagonists in the debate as it is presently unfolding, are only tactical and strategic, not fundamental. They differ on where to begin, and when to begin, to drop the atom bomb and start the Third World War. But both policies, the policies of Truman and the policies of MacArthur, are imperialistic. They both aim at war and hope to solve the economic problems of the United States by means of war.

Hoover is rather on the side-lines, a third party in the discussion whose influence is declining. The Hoover policy is imperialistic also, but in too limited a way to serve the economic requirements of American capitalism. His conception of a western hemisphere fortress is too small for the present-day world. The New York Times, in my opinion, correctly disposed of the Hoover thesis from the point of view of big finance, with the editorial observation that his program would signify “economic strangulation” for the United States – as a capitalist nation, that is.

Dilemma of American Capitalism

In the last analysis, the same thing holds true for the programs of Truman and MacArthur and ultimately condemns them both to bankruptcy. The dilemma of United States capitalism arises from the fact that it has come to the apex of its riches and its power, as the heir of bankrupt Europe, in a world that has no room for expanding capitalism, as it still had half a century ago. It is not only the western hemisphere that is too small. Europe and Asia are also too small. In fact, the whole world is too small to meet the demands and needs of American capitalism with its ever-accumulating surpluses of capital and manufactured goods, which cannot be absorbed at home on a capitalist basis.

The Soviet Union, one-sixth of the world’s surface, is closed off to the capitalist world as a market and field of profitable investment. Eastern Europe in the recent period has been closed off. And now China, the great object of the war in the Pacific, the prize for which the war against Japan was waged, has not only been wrested from the control of Japanese imperialism. In the process of war and revolution China has torn itself out of the orbit of capitalist exploitation. And the colonial revolutions have just begun. The world open to capitalist exploitation is narrowing down, while the demands of American imperialism for markets and fields of investment grow ever more rapacious and insatiable. That is the dilemma of a bankrupt social system which “foreign policy” cannot conjure out of existence.

Economic Root of Imperialist Policy

The bankruptcy of capitalism is registered in terms of human poverty and misery for which it is the primary cause. As we here today discuss the question of American foreign policy and the dilemma of American imperialism, just let one simple fact have the floor. There are two billion people in the world which capitalism has ruled so long, and more than one-half of these people never get enough to eat all their lives. This is an established fact, undisputed by anybody. It is a matter of common knowledge.

These hungry people don’t want propaganda. It is the biggest illusion and delusion to imagine that hungry people who number more than a billion are just waiting for somebody to give them the low-down in learned professorial essays. They know what they want. They want bread, and land, and national independence. Capitalism cannot supply them, and has not supplied them. That is the nub of the problem of the world today. Neither Truman nor MacArthur can bomb it out of existence, although that is what their “foreign policy”stupidly aims to accomplish.

The terrible contradictions of American capitalism forbid and exclude a humane and peaceful foreign policy. The narrowing fields for capitalist exploitation on the one hand, and the constantly growing surpluses of capital and goods produced in the United States – this is the economic circumstance determining the imperialist foreign policy of the United States. It is not a matter of bad will or ignorance on the part of one statesman or another, although God knows there is plenty of that. It is an ineluctable contradiction of an economic nature. That is what determines the imperialist foreign policy of the United States and drives it to militarization and to war.

Talk About Peace Is Cheap

These facts are well-known to the decisive ruling circles of this country, those circles who represent the great accumulations of capital for whom the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune speak most authoritatively. They know these facts and that is why they will not listen to any talk of isolationism; or of limitation to the western hemisphere; or of making peace with China and Russia. Not at all. Such proposals do not fit into their policy in any way whatever, except as propaganda to deceive the people. To be sure, they all blandly deny any imperialist aims. They all talk for peace. But talk is cheap. That is the first lesson in politics 1 would recommend to you young men and women, if by any chance you are studying political science in some class or other. Talk is cheap, but facts speak louder. All this talk of peace and denial of imperialist aims is just routine propaganda, belied by deeds everywhere.

The “theoretical justification” for this phony “non-imperialist” and “peace” propaganda of the masters of America has been undertaken by some people, including your professor of philosophy, Sidney Hook, who call themselves “democratic socialists.” They correspond in my opinion – you will forgive me if I unintentionally offend your religious sensibilities – they correspond to the missionaries who were sent out to soften up the native peoples in the colonies for subjugation and exploitation by the great powers in the past.

Shoddy “Theory” of the Neo-Missionaries

I have here a few quotations as samples of this theoretical missionary work, this shoddy attempt to prove on a theoretical basis, the non-imperialist and peace-loving character of the most rapacious imperialist power that ever existed in the world. Here is a quotation from a published document entitled To Our Friends In Europe and Asia:

“The development of American capitalism has not led to imperialism; it does not fulfill Lenin’s theory of imperialism as the inevitable last stage of capitalism.”

Another quotation from the same document, a denial, “that American capitalism depends on imperialist expansion for its very life.”

And a third quotation:

“The US had a great internal free trade market and such enormous, natural resources that today she is an exporter of raw materials as well as of manufactured goods. The economic facts of life in America were and are very different from the facts in Europe which led Lenin to formulate his theory of imperialism.”

The signers of this document – among them Lewis Corey, James T. Farrell, Sidney Hook, Upton Sinclair and Norman Thomas – attempt to convince the people of Europe and Asia that the economic laws determining the imperialist character of the old Europe, about which Lenin wrote, do not apply to its successor to the domination of the world, the beneficent United States of America.

The best I can say for this “theoretical” exercise is that it must have been written on the assumption that nobody will read it who ever read Lenin. While it is true that there were certain differences between the line of development of American capitalism into imperialism and a similar development in Europe, the differences all accentuate the imperialist drive of the United States. It is true that American capitalism had, and still has, a great internal market. It had a whole continent to exploit in contra-distinction to the hemmed-in countries of Europe. The development and exploitation of this vast territory provided an expanding internal market for a long time. It also opened up a. widening field for the continuous investment and re-investment not only of the profits of American capitalism itself, but also of billions and billions of dollars imported from Europe in the development of this country. That was the case up to the time of the First World War.

Reality of US Economic Development

Then the situation and the relationship of Europe and America began to change fundamentally. America, which was a debtor nation at the beginning of the First World War has become the richest capitalist nation in the world, and the creditor of the whole world. Meanwhile, the internal market, great as it was and still is, proved in the crisis of the 30’s that it could no longer absorb the products of American industry on a capitalist basis. A slight decline in exports was sufficient to plunge American economy into the most devastating crisis the world ever saw, a crisis which lasted ten years and even then was only temporarily and artificially overcome by war expenditures.

Our theoretical justifiers say that America exports raw materials in contra-distinction to some of the older European countries analyzed by Lenin, and therefore cannot be imperialist by Lenin’s law. That argument wouldn’t even convince Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Did you read Dewey’s speech in answer to Hoover? Dewey’s speech lists, one after another, the strategic raw materials which America needs from foreign sources for its industries and for its armament, including uranium. He points out the various spots around the world where they are located and cannot be had and incorporated into the American industrial process without the Sources being controlled by the United States or its allies.

Facts That Refute Hook and Co.

America exports wheat and cotton, but a great number of strategic raw materials, absolutely necessary for its industry and its war machine, have to be imported at any cost, even at the cost of war. And so great is the power of America over this supply of raw materials, it caused an explosion in the British cabinet just the other day. One of the main reasons for the resignation of Bevan from the cabinet of the Labor Government was that America is cornering the raw material supplies of the world, stimulating inflation in Europe and endangering British economy.

Lenin said the epoch of capitalist imperialism, as distinguished from the epoch of free competition, is characterized mainly by the export of capital. The development of home industry reaches the point where it can no longer absorb the accumulations of profits piled up by the capitalist investors. In addition to the export of manufactured goods they have to find foreign fields where this surplus capital can be invested at a high rate of profit under conditions of political security for the investment.

Urgency of Investment Drive

How does that apply to America? Why, I think it applies a hundred times more than it ever did to England, France and Germany, which were the great imperialist powers before the First World War. All you have to do is look at the figures of the accumulation of capital and the rate and volume of its exportation by America since the beginning of the First World War. These figures do not lie and cannot be lied away. To bring forward the “non-imperialist” argument at the present time, when the bulk of the surplus capital of the entire world is held here in the United States; to say that this country, which has the virtual monopoly of world capital, is not confronted by the imperialistic problem of investing outside its own borders – that is to make a mockery of facts as well as of theory.

Our theoretical missionaries mention the gifts dispensed by the American Santa Claus, the loans and the donations for military purposes to foreign governments, including Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee, Franco and all the other representatives of “freedom and democracy.” What is all this largesse designed for? It is represented in the document I have quoted here as a sign of the beneficence and peace-loving character of the American capitalist government.

Real Aim of American Largesse

Cutting out the buncombe and getting down to brass tacks, permit me to give you another interpretation. These loans and donations are primarily designed to prop up the shaky capitalist structures and create the political conditions for profitable investments. Not even the free-spending United States capitalists want to pour out billions of dollars in investments for the development of backward foreign countries without guarantees that their investments will be secured and pay off. What is necessary for the security of their investments? “Stable political conditions.” And these stable political conditions, as they are understood in Washington and Wall Street, require puppet governments which can suppress revolutions and colonial uprisings and guarantee at all costs that the profits of the investors will be secured regardless of the interests of the exploited people.

There is a second reason why they dole out money so freely. The Marshall Plan, etc. came at a convenient time, when America was threatened With an economic crisis which was due to the overproduction of goods that the domestic market could not absorb. The huge expenditures, creating an artificial market, alleviated and postponed the crisis. Benevolence here was happily married to expediency.

We Marxists interpret the foreign policy of the United States government from economic facts. The capitalists who own the government need foreign markets for their surplus goods. They need secure political conditions for profitable investment in foreign lands. Their demands are insatiable and cannot be restrained. Loans and investments in Russia, Eastern Europe, and now China, are considered unsafe. The policy is not to “contain” the Soviet Union in Russia and Eastern Europe. No, that is only a temporizing tactic. The ultimate aim and imperious necessity is to overthrow the governments in these countries; to open them up as markets and fields of investment under secure political conditions. This is the real goal of American foreign policy, which spells in the final analysis the drive to dominate the entire world. They select their allies to serve that end; “benevolence” and “democracy” have nothing to do with it.

Explains Support of Reaction Everywhere

Just ask yourselves a question, friends. How does it happen that the United States government, implementing its foreign policy, which the priests of spurious theory tell us is so peaceful and so beneficent and concerned so purely with the welfare of the human race – which includes, we presume, the half billion people who never get enough to eat – how does it happen that everywhere American foreign policy, backed up by American military force, supports the capitalists, the landlords, the usurers, the kings and the fascist gangs against the people?

In China they support Chiang Kai-shek whose regime was so corrupt and reactionary that the people rose up en masse to drive him out. America takes sides against the people everywhere: In Spain with its fascist butcher, Franco; in Greece with its monarcho-fascist regime; in Korea with its Syngman Rhee; in Indo-China where the people are struggling for independence against French imperialism and have to fight against the overwhelming might of American financial help and military supplies; in Malaya and the Philippines; in Portugal, Turkey and South America. All over the world, wherever the hungry people are rising in a struggle for land, and bread, and national independence, they confront the United States of America with its money and its bombs.

The people everywhere know these facts because they bring down upon them death and destruction all the time. And because they know these facts, they are not apt to be taken in by the theory of Professor Hook, elucidated in an article in the New York Times Magazine, that the real need of America is a “propaganda offensive.” When people know the facts, it is pretty hard to deceive them by words, especially when they feel the facts on their bodies and bones, in blows and bloody attacks.

The more practical artificers of American foreign policy, as distinguished from their professorial advisors, know that it is a waste of money to try to convince these half-billion people throughout the world by propaganda that America is their friend. The hard-headed statesmen gave an ironic answer to Sidney Hook and his propaganda theory the other day in Congress when they voted to cut the appropriations for the “Voice of America” by 90%. It was a big surprise to many people. But these realistic politicians in Washington have more faith in their guns and their bombs to make the people of the world love them, than in propaganda which belies all facts.

Is Imperialist Policy Realizable

Now a question we should ask ourselves is this: Can our life purpose be committed to the fate of this American imperialist power? Disregarding all moral considerations and all concern for the human race except ourselves and our families, our little circle, can we say, well, America is bound to dominate the world anyway and we might as well go along and serve it and save ourselves? I would say, even from that narrow and morally impermissible standpoint the question does not have an easy and facile answer.

Is the United States of America as it is now constituted on a capitalist basis all-powerful? Can she lick the world with guns and atom bombs and impose her will by force everywhere, as some ignorant braggarts and narrow-minded militarists like to say? Can she enslave and exploit the whole world and make good conditions for us, the favored few, within her borders? In my opinion, an objective examination of the real facts of the world situation can only raise the gravest doubts of the capacity of American capitalism to carry out even a small part of the global designs implied in its foreign policy.

Capitalism is an outworn social system. The First World War was the sign of its bankruptcy as a world order. Prior to that, for half a century capitalism had grown and expanded. It had maintained an uneasy peace in the world, except for numerous local wars and colonial expeditions, by which the great powers divided up the world. But things have changed since then. Just consider for a moment how much they have changed, in thirty-seven years since the first shots were fired in 1914. Two world wars, devouring the lives of tens of millions of people, and wounding nobody knows how many more, and destroying so much of the material culture of the world. Two destructive world wars and a terrible world-wide depression with its unmeasured toll of misery and death. And now the mad armaments race toward another world war, the end of which no one can see or prophesy.

Peoples of World Rising Against US

These are the achievements of capitalism in the last third of a century. This system, I say, is bankrupt. This system is in the twilight period of its decline and its decay. The peoples of the world are rising up against it, and especially against its chief representative, the United States of America. The rest of the capitalist world would fall of its own weight without American money and American arms. There isn’t a country in Europe where a capitalist government could stand up for many months without American power and support. That applies to all of them from Greece to Franco’s Spain, to Italy, to France and all the others, except possibly England, and England too would soon follow the others.

The peoples of the Orient, who have thrown off the shackles of the old colonialism, show no disposition to wear new ones. They are not asking to be taken into America’s sphere of influence and exploitation. On the contrary, they are fighting against it with all of their strength and passion.

The victims of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe badly need a political revolution; but they don’t want any “liberation” by the arms and bombs of the United States, and the consequent restoration of the capitalists and landlords, and the splitting up of their countries into colonies for American exploitation.

The workers of Europe, and particularly the workers of Germany, have made it perfectly clear in this last year that they don’t intend to fight the battles of United States imperialism in another war. An expression of that attitude has come like a lightning flash from England this week. The resignation of Bevan from the cabinet throws the Labor government into a crisis and raises the question of the Atlantic Pact, and all the other war plans of the United States. This is a direct expression of the unwillingness of the people of England to be tied, as Bevan said, to the chariot of America. A dispatch from Paris in the Times this morning says that the sentiments of Bevan are echoed in socialist and labor circles all over Europe.

US Labor Will Have Its Say

And finally, the workers of the United States haven’t said their last word yet by a long shot. The foreign policy of American capitalism is united with its domestic policy. The war program carries with it the program of militarizing and regimenting the country, already under way; of stamping out liberties, which is in the design; and of driving down the living standards of the workers, which is in progress with the wage freeze on the one side and skyrocketing inflation on the other. All this in my opinion will meet resistance in the United States. The crisis in the Labor Mobilization Board may already be a sign of the coming storm.

So I wouldn’t advise young people to bet their heads on the victory of American imperialism.

There is an alternative. In my opinion this alternative is to recognize the social reality of our time, to see capitalism as a world system in its death agony, completely reactionary, and beyond salvation by any means. The alternative to support of this doomed social system is to ally oneself with the future; with the socialist and labor movement, and with the great colonial revolutions in process and still growing. The alternative is to work for a union of the world’s workers and the colonial peoples, to put an end to imperialism and open the way for the socialist society of the free and equal. That is the way to secure peace and progress and a good life for all.

Friends, I recommend this alternative program to you. It is better. For it offers you something worth fighting for, with the prospect of victory at the end, a victory for all humanity in which you and your generation will share.

Last updated on: 17.6.2006