Hal Draper


The Friends of the War Referendum

(October 1939)

From New International, Vol.5 No.10, pp.302-305.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Defend me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies myself.”
– Marechal Villars.

“Thy friendship oft has made my heart to ache:
– Do be my enemy, for friendship’s sake.”
– William Blake, To Hayley.

NOT THE LEAST OF THE obstacles to an effective anti-war struggle are the manifold “friends of peace.” We speak here not only of such eminent peace-lovers as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who announces that “I Hate War” with as great gusto as when he calls for a couple of more billions for the admirals, or appoints Morgan’s men to the War Dictatorship Board.

There is another group of men in Washington who play a different, but as important, a role in side-tracking a real anti-war fight. They appear before the people as sincere opponents of war; they oppose certain of Roosevelt’s war measures; they seek to be recognized as the mouthpieces in Congress of the desire of the people for peace. They are informally grouped as the “isolationist” or “neutrality” bloc in Congress. Their most prominent representatives are Senators Nye, LaFollette, Bone and Clark, and in the other house, Representative Louis Ludlow of Indiana. They are mainly from the West and Middle West. There is no doubt that in their own distorted way they represent the pressure of the popular masses for anti-war action.

There is also no doubt that their activities are objectively an integral part of the preparation of the people for accepting the coming war.

There is no better illustration of this fact than their role in the present movement for giving the people the right to vote in a direct referendum on whether the United States should go to war.

Betraying a Progressive Demand

We raise no question of the honesty of these Congressmen in their proclaimed desire to keep America out of any war, because there is no psychoanalytical data available on this point. It is a question of their politics. Senator Nye (for example), as the chairman of the Senate Munitions Investigating Committee, performed a valuable job in exposing the Industrial Mobilization Plan as a “blueprint for dictatorship”; yet when he introduced his own “take-the-profit-out-of-war” bill in the Senate, he included some of the worst features of that same plan. If the government were so unfortunate as to need higher moral sanction for the M-Day machinery than can be provided by E.R. Stettinius, Jr., the M-Day dictator chosen by Roosevelt from Morgan’s payroll, the Nye bill could be useful to it.

Similarly, starting with the truly progressive anti-war demand for the war referendum, this pacifist bloc has incorporated it into a resolution which guts it completely of its effective content and distorts it into a sanction of rapacious imperialism.

The way this happened deserves closer study, not only because it makes clear that the people cannot rely on the official sponsors of the war referendum for any kind of fight against war, but also because it clarifies the actual process whereby bourgeois pacifism merges into imperialist war-mongering.

History of the War Referendum Proposal

The proposal to let the people vote before the United States enters into a new war goes back at least to the World War; and back in 1924 both the elder LaFollette and the Democratic Party incorporated it as a plank in their presidential platforms. Only in the last years, however, with the visible approach of the new world war at a rapid pace has it assumed major proportions.

Its recent history began when Representative Ludlow introduced his first war-referendum resolution in the House, in February 1935. For two years it remained on ice in the Judiciary Committee to which it had been referred. Then, in December 1937, under the stimulus of the war scare following the Panay sinking, Ludlow sprang a surprise in securing the necessary 218 Congressional signatures to a petition to discharge the committee and bring the resolution to the floor. On January 10, 1938, therefore, a vote was taken in the House – not on the proposition itself, but on whether it should be discussed on the floor. The Ludlow forces lost this vote by a narrow margin. In the intervening month the Administration, which had not previously taken the resolution seriously, rallied all its forces – Farley’s patronage club, a special message by Roosevelt, strong speeches by the House Democratic whips. They also brought up supplementary cannon from the rear in the shape of thunderous pronouncements from the American Legion lobby and from the big newspapers, especially the NY Times.

Ludlow’s unexpected coup of December 1937 projected the war referendum among the first rank of the war questions before Congress. In 1938 the arena shifted to the Senate where – again under the stimulus of a war scare, this time Hitler’s grab of Czechoslovakia – a group of Senators headed by LaFollette and Nye introduced a new draft of the war referendum. A hearing [1] was held by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in May 1939.

Progressive Capitulation

During this period the supporters of the war referendum in Congress made great personal capital out of it for themselves. Ludlow himself, running for re-election in November 1938, staked his entire campaign upon it, and won handily. At the above-mentioned hearing Congressman after Congressman referred to the pressure in their own districts in explanation of their support of the proposal. Fullmer of South Carolina, for example, prefaced his remarks with: “I went back home some days ago, and practically everybody I met wanted to know: ‘Are we going to be forced into another war?’ ” In general the Congress bloc for the referendum have their ears very close to the ground and are distinguished mainly by their greater sensitivity to and utilization of the mass anti-war feeling.

But while the mandate of the people is clear on the issue, the official sponsors of the war referendum idea have done nothing but retreat in haste before the attack of the Congressional and Administration warmongers, until they occupy the same ground as their opponents, differing only verbally.

This progressive capitulation of the “progressive” Ludlows and LaFollettes is sufficiently documented by the texts of the successive versions of the resolutions which they have introduced.

The Three Incarnations of the Ludlow Resolution

Ludlow’s original draft provided that a war referendum shall be held “EXCEPT in the event of an invasion of the US or its territorial possessions and attack upon its citizens residing therein.”

Now any realistic understanding of history would show that this exception by itself negates the presumable purpose of the resolution. No American government need lack a pretext for eliminating a referendum in a war crisis when it can claim that Guam, or the Aleutian Islands, or the Panama Canal has been invaded – Ludlow will not have a chance to send an investigating comittee down to find out before the war machine is in motion, assuming he would want to. Even without the passage of a resolution, the government would not neglect to construct a similar pretext.

But even this version (which we shall call Version I) lasted only as long as the whole proposition was ignored in Congress.

Version II appeared in the middle of November 1937, just before the controversy broke out in the House. It was introduced by LaFollette in the Senate, and by this time the “exceptions” had grown to include several more lines of the resolution and a larger slice of the earth’s surface:

EXCEPT in the event of an invasion of, or military expedition against the US or its territorial possessions, or attack by a foreign military force upon its citizens residing therein, or invasion of or a military expedition from abroad against any other North American or Caribbean nation ... (The new exceptions are italicized.)

A referendum could now be dispensed with if the President claims knowledge of an expedition aimed at the US or at Canada, Alaska, Cuba, Venezuela, etc. The provisions which made invasion and attack upon citizens the necessary condition (a provision against which the NY Times, for example, had especially aimed its fire) is changed to: invasion or attack. And a slice of the Monroe Doctrine is included, not covering however the Latin American states south of the Caribbean Sea.

This draft was only a stepping-stone. By December 23, Nye was in favor of including all of South America, swallowing the Monroe Doctrine complete. By January 7, three days before the test vote in the House, Ludlow was in a panicky flight: a meeting of his supporters was called, and Ludlow proposed postponing the whole business and delaying the vote – for a month or so, he said. This was voted down at the caucus, and instead the resolution was ripped open and its provisions rubberized.

The new exceptions made were: (1) the whole of the Western Hemisphere was included, and (2) a provision to “extend Congressional freedom (to declare war) to protection of American shipping.” (NY Times, Jan. 9, 1938.)

The House vote of Jan. 1938 took place on this resolution, the second new provision being included in a hypocritically concealed form, as we shall explain. Thus Version III was born, and it is this version which is now before the Senate as the LaFollette resolution for a war referendum (S.J. Res. 84.) It reads:

EXCEPT in case of attack by armed forces, actual or immediately threatened, upon the United States or its Territorial Possessions, or by any non-American nation against any country in the Western Hemisphere, the people shall have the sole power by a national referendum to declare war or to engage in warfare overseas.

The key word “invasion” is changed to “attack” – what an innocent-seeming substitution! And the language about a “military expedition” fades into an “immediately threatened” attack.

It would be inaccurate to say that this resolution has some loopholes; it consists of little else.

From National-Defensism to Aggressive Imperialism

In order to get the full import of these qualifying exceptions, and in order to see how the transitions were made, we must now turn to the testimony given at the Senate subcommittee hearings.

Ludlow started off with a single exception: the invasion of the territory of the United States. We are willing to defend our borders (“defend our homes”) – he said in effect – but we refuse to sanction anything beyond that. He thus took his stand in support of the national defense of the capitalist state, in its “pure-and-simple” form so to speak – that is, its isolationist form.

But with the introduction of Version III and by the time the hearings had ended, the Ludlow forces were forced to take three further steps:

  1. Incorporation of the Monroe Doctrine by including the whole of the Western Hemisphere under “national defense.”
  2. Support of war to protect American commercial or financial interests anywhere on the globe, from infringement by other nations.
  3. Support of admittedly aggressive warfare.

We want to emphasize that this transition was not made because the Ludlowites abandoned their original standpoint. On the contrary, it was made because they clung to it and accepted the three other steps as the necessary consequences. Here’s how it was done.

(1) Acceptance of the Monroe Doctrine. – The going over, from national defense of the American capitalist state, to war for the defense of America’s “back yard” in Latin America, was an easy step which the Ludlowites took immediately. The original inconsistency of the Ludlow national-defensists was ably exploited by Maj.-Gen. O’Ryan who spoke in opposition to the referendum. Referring to the changes from the first draft, he said:

At the outset may I say that the bill as it now appears, bears little relation to the hopes induced in the minds of some millions of sincere men and women who saw in the original bill a simple solution of the war problem so far as our country is concerned ... They had not realized that an invasion of Canada was, in military effect, an invasion of the United States, only more effectively so ... They had not realized that the Republic of Cuba, at our doorstep, being; no part of the United States or its territories, might be made the rendezvous for aggression against the United States ... They had not realized how vital to our Navy is the maintenance of the Panama Canal ... I might go on. Suffice it to say that the bill was so amended as to leave with the Congress the power to declare war, if, for example, Patagonia is threatened with invasion ... but is without power to declare war if the civilization of Great Britain or France, which is akin to our own, were at stake ...

Once you accept the principle of national defense, says O’Ryan, you cannot avoid taking the next step.

(2) Protection of American shipping and interests in the Eastern Hemisphere. – The Senators of the hearings committee fastened on the word “attack” in the LaFollette resolution and pushed the witnesses to the next position. Isn’t an attack on an American ship “attack on the United States”? Couldn’t Congress have declared war without a referendum – assuming the LaFollette resolution had been on the books at that time – when the Panay was attacked by a Japanese airplane?

Stephen Raushenbush, former investigator for the Nye Munitions Committee, was on the stand and answered in the affirmative.

Again, in the matter of the Panay. That was attacked, and the President decided that that was not an act of war, although that was a naval vessel ... I think generally that attacks on our naval vessels engaged in peaceful pursuits would suspend the referendum if the President and the Congress both chose to consider an attack as an act of war, really. I do not see how you can get out of that, but the point is, Congress remains the ultimate judge of the definition of what is an “attack.”

Senator Nye likewise went on record on this point.

SENATOR WILEY: Suppose an American warship were sailing in foreign waters, and a submarine, such as we have seen in recent days, attacked that warship, would the ship be justified in defending itself?

NYE: Most assuredly it would.

WILEY: Then that would not be an act of warfare.

NYE: It certainly would be an act of warfare.

WILEY: Then you could not do it without a mandate from the people under this resolution.

NYE: That would be an attack upon us. In that event, the power to declare war would be vested in Congress.” Our emphasis – HD) [2]

According to these admissions, then, even if the LaFollette resolution had been on the books in 1917, Congress could have declared war against Germany without a referendum!

The essential inconsistency of the Ludlow supporters was brought out in the open by the further statement of Raushenbush:

We certainly are going here, Senator (he said in closing), to give an awful amount of confidence to the President and to Congress in this thing. Any unscrupulous man, if he were of the character of a foreign dictator for instance, could let false news get around that we had been attacked. They did it in Germany. You remember that at the beginning of the last war there were stories that the French airplanes were over Nuremburg even before the war was declared – a perfectly false story. They got it up. We would simply have to count on two things – an amount of honesty on the part of our Executive, and the ability of Congress to look into these matters and assure the people, whether they are true or false.

The answer of the opponents of the referendum to this is simple: If we eventually have to trust the President and Congress on such things anyway, why not trust them all the way? Professor Gideonse of Barnard, an opponent of the referendum, had a much better appreciation of the meaning of the war-referendum movement when he said: “The fundamental thought behind the agitation for the war referendum is that Congress and the President cannot be trusted.”

(3) Aggressive warfare. – One might think that the Ludlowites had already conceded as much as any jingo could desire. The World War had been justified, the Panay incident had become a suitable pretext for war, and trust in the government was restored. Not satisfied, however, Senator Borah opened another line of attack.

He tried it first with Morris L. Ernst on the stand.

Suppose (he said), we had a situation such as we have in these days, when there are a great many people who actually believe that, as a matter of self-defense, we must first proceed to defend some other nation, for fear they may be destroyed?

Ernst dodged by answering that he “did not want to get into legalisms”!

Borah continued this line with George W. Hartmann of Columbia University on the stand. “Suppose ...”

Suppose ... the situation seems to be such that in order to wage a successful war we must anticipate what this foreign power may do in the way of attacking us, and, as a countermove, attack them. We are defending ourselves ... We cannot wait to make that a domestic war. If we do ,we are at a disadvantage ... That would not be a foreign war, would it?”

Senator Wiley took this up and pressed it.

WILEY: It (the resolution) says “except in case of war actually or immediately threatened.” The words “immediately threatened” would bear upon the situation about which Senator Borah spoke when he started questioning you, would it not? ...

HARTMANN: I believe it is broad enough to cover that.

The Senators did not have to go further than this! Starting with “defense of the territory of the United States from invasion”, the Ludlow national-defensists are driven to accept the idea of preventive aggression – trusting in the President and Congress to keep this aggression pure! Pure-and-simple defensism transforms itself into its opposite, and the shade of Hegel chuckles.

How to Fight for the War Referendum

To pursue the dialectics of bourgeois pacifism a little further, it is worth while pointing out wherein lies the unity of Ludlowism and the open and aggressive imperialism which is represented by Roosevelt. It lies in their common acceptance of the principle of national defense, as applied specifically to the imperialist state of this country. National defense of the “defend our borders” type is not only false in Marxist theory; it is also an impossible straddle in practical life. It is the illusion attendant upon the dream of isolationism, just as aggressive imperialism is the politics behind collective security. And in real life, the two form different sides of the same coin.

That is why the revolutionary Marxists reject all qualification to the demand that the people have the right to vote in a referendum on the war into which the war-mongers propose to hurl the youth and toilers of the United States. In this way can the imperialist designs of the Washington-Wall Street war clique be exposed. In this way can the healthy mistrust of the government, which is evidenced by the popular demand for the referendum, be fostered.

In this way, also, can the Ludlow-LaFollette type of prewar pacifist be exposed in their true role before the workers who still give them their confidence.



1. Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on S. J. Res. 84 (Government Printing Office, 1939)

2. Other examples of such statements may be found on pp.137, 67, and 115 of the report of the hearings. Incidentally, all the witnesses who spoke for the resolution had been hand-picked by Ludlow and LaFollette to represent their views.


Last updated on 11.3.2005