William F. Warde

Roosevelt and the War Crisis

(March 1942)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.3 No.3, March 1942, pp.73-76.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Three months of total participation in the war have brought American capitalism face to face with the gravest crisis in its history. The optimistic chirping about prospects of victory in an indefinite future, the official exaggeration of isolated, insignificant successes, are designed to minimize the tremendous defeats sustained in the Pacific during this period. Further military disasters must inevitably sharpen this crisis.

In order to grasp the real nature and full extent of the crisis of the American bourgeoisie, it is necessary to go behind the current military situation and take a backward glance at the pre-war capitalist world. That world, created by the Treaty of Versailles, was indisputably dominated by the United States, chief beneficiary of World War I. Thanks to their overwhelming superiority, enormous economic resources and political power, the American imperialists were able to reconstruct the war-torn capitalist system more or less in accordance with their design and to rule it on their own terms.

The Yankee colossus compelled the other imperialist countries to fall into line behind it in the exploitation of the globe. England was forced back into second place; a “modus vivendi” was arrived at with Japan in regard to Asia. After German and Italian capitalism had been rescued by American capital, the European continent was placed on rations by the dollar diplomats. The United States did not need to take direct possession of new colonies wrested from the vanquished powers; its rulers so manipulated affairs behind the scenes of international diplomacy and finance that through intermediaries they were able to appropriate for themselves the major share of the profits derived from colonial exploitation. The commanding power, the vast revenues, the stability of American capitalism depended upon the maintenance of this international imperialist structure.

The goal of Germany and Japan is to overthrow this world supremacy of American monopoly capitalism. The destruction of Britain’s imperial power is viewed as the prerequisite for the subjugation of the United States. President Roosevelt first took official cognizance of this threat in October 1937 in his famous speech demanding the “quarantining of the aggressors.” The growing peril to American world hegemony produced by Germany’s conquests in Europe and Japan’s forward march in Asia irresistibly pulled the United States into the second great struggle for the redivision of the planet.

Today, two and a half years after the beginning of that conflict, the rivals of Anglo-American imperialism have converted that threat into a grim reality. The Axis powers have succeeded in destroying a large part of the economic and political structure of the dollar-dominated world between the two wars and are now striking at its very foundations. Europe is under the Nazis with only the island outpost of England and the Soviet Union unconquered. In the past three months the Japanese have taken over the richest sections and main strategic centers of the East Indies. India and Australia are in imminent danger of invasion and occupation.

The fall of Singapore has shaken American capitalism more than the fall of France. The collapse of Britain’s imperial power directly endangers the world supremacy of the United States. England is not simply a military ally; it is one of the principal pillars and agencies of the existing system of world imperialism. The rulers of the United States had hoped to take advantage of World War II to complete the process initiated in 1914 and reduce the enfeebled British lion to absolute dependency. They now find themselves obliged to rescue that lion from extinction in order to save their own skins.

To beat back the onrushing Axis forces and maintain world supremacy, the United States is called upon to exert efforts to the limit of its capacities and to strain its whole organism to the breaking point. The American Atlas is already visibly staggering beneath its burdens. The intolerable weight, the colossal magnitude, the unprecedented complexity of its tasks have already induced many people in high places to question whether the United States and its allies will succeed in solving them or whether the United States will go down to defeat and American capitalism perish in the ruins of capitalism itself.

“The nation needs to understand that it is possible for the United Nations and the United States to lose this war and suffer the fate of France – and that this possibility may become a probability if the present tide does not change.” (NY World-Telegram, March 5, 1942)

Roosevelt’s Report to the Nation

The chief steward of American capitalism and the Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces on February 23rd delivered a “report to the nation” when the significance of this critical situation was penetrating the minds of the American people, despite ineffectual attempts to hide its real meaning and magnitude from them. Roosevelt’s speech was for domestic consumption. Unlike most of those he has made in the past, it was a defensive speech. The Roosevelt administration is on the defensive in national politics because the United States is in retreat on the world arena.

From the first reactions to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it had seemed that Roosevelt was assured of national unity during the first part of the war. That illusion of national unity has since melted away, and the administration is under attack both from the right and from the left. The American masses have become alarmed by the uninterrupted defeats suffered at Pearl Harbor, in Asia and Africa, and are feeling the first consequences of the conflict (rationing, large-scale recruiting, the first casualties, longer working hours, soaring cost of living, etc.). They are beginning to question the conduct of the war and the capacities of its leaders.

The reverses have also evoked the first symptoms of defeatism in ultra-reactionary capitalist circles and produced considerable criticisms of Roosevelt’s policies in the opposition camp. The Republicans are turning these moods to account with an eye to the November elections; the anti-labor coalition in Congress is using them as a pretext for enchaining organized labor; fascist-minded elements are conducting a whispering campaign against the Soviet Union and in favor of a deal with Hitler.

Roosevelt’s speech had a double purpose. It was designed to uplift the depressed morale of the masses, to still their questionings, to calm their fears. It was also intended to answer those capitalist critics who were exploiting the administration’s difficulties for their own aims.

On the occasion of his assumption to power, Churchill promised the British people “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” This is the only promise the Prime Minister has fulfilled. In essence, Roosevelt offered the same prospect to the American people – and he, too, will not disappoint them.

Roosevelt’s Program for the War Crisis

Capitalist statesmen have one unfailing recipe for dealing with crises: unload their consequences and their costs upon the working masses. This is how Hoover sought to counteract the economic catastrophe of 1929. Roosevelt proposes to deal with the current crisis in the same way. The gist of his domestic program is contained in the “three high purposes” he recommended “for every American.”

“1. We shall not stop work for a single day. If any dispute arises, we shall keep on working while the dispute is solved by mediation, or conciliation, or arbitration – until the war is won.

“2. We shall not demand special gains or special privileges or special advantages for any one group or occupation.

“3. We shall give up conveniences and modify the routine of our lives if our country asks us to do so.”

The first point is an unmistakable threat to the trade unions that they must surrender their right to strike and submit to compulsory arbitration. As CIO President Murray “boasted” on March 6th, the no-strike agreement between Roosevelt and the AFL-CIO top leaders has kept work stoppages down to “minor incidents” since the war began. Meanwhile, all kinds of justified grievances have accumulated; the War Labor Board indulges in interminable delays and refuses to render decisions on vitally important issues. Speed-up inside the factories accelerates together with the rise in the cost of living. The workers are growing restless.

Now Roosevelt calls upon labor to abolish entirely the right to strike. The strike weapon can no longer be held in reserve to compel open-shop employers and profiteering corporations to grant the just demands of the workers. The workers are to be hog-tied by governmental regulation and delivered over to the mercy of the bosses.

This “high purpose” of Roosevelt was jubilantly received by the most reactionary sections of the capitalist class, who are far more interested in crushing the trade unions than they are in defeating Hitler. The conservative press suggested that Roosevelt would soon revive Wilson’s “Work or Fight” strike-breaking ukase, whereby men were forced to choose between returning to work on the employers’ terms or suffer induction into the army. According to CIO officials, the Selective Service Administration is already being used to weed militant labor leaders out of industry and to club workers into submission.

The pro-capitalist character of Roosevelt’s program is no less evident in his second “high purpose.” The thin veil of impartiality cannot conceal the fact that his demand for an end to “special gains” is directed exclusively against the workers. Indeed, this former thunderer against the “economic royalists” and war profiteers does not even mention these super-privileged groups by name in his speech. Only the workers beset by the mounting costs of living are impelled to demand special gains. The wealth and monopolistic positions of the plutocrats automatically assure them special advantages and immense profits. Immediately after Roosevelt’s speech, the union-hating Douglas Aircraft Corporation announced earnings of $30.29 per share for 1941. The steel workers, who are requesting $1 a day wage increase, are to be told that they are demanding “special gains” while the steel magnates can well afford to stand pat on their piling-up. war profits.

Under these circumstances the President’s demand for “uninterrupted production” can mean only ceaseless sacrifices for the workers and an uninterrupted flood of profits for the employers.

Roosevelt’s third point officially sanctions the policy of placing the whole burden of the war upon the masses. The “conveniences” the workers are being forced to give up are not luxuries but vital necessities. Increased taxes, rationing measures, higher prices, strike most heavily at the worker and his family, who can buy much less with their meager earnings.

The “sacrifices” of the rich, on the other hand, mean at most the dismissal of a servant or two out of thirty or forty flunkies or the closing up of one of their many homes. While open and hidden taxes subtract a greater share of the workers’ income, the funds of the rich can take refuge in tax-exempt securities or in depreciation reserves, etc.

No strikes, freeze wage levels, lower the people’s standards of living – such is the sum and substance of Roosevelt’s “three high purposes.” His method for overcoming the war crisis is to make the producers and not the plutocrats pay for the war. The main complaint of the big capitalists against Roosevelt is simply that he does not prosecute his campaign against the workers fast or ferociously enough to satisfy them.

The privileged positions of the plutocratic powers who emerged victorious from the first World War and could thereby afford the luxury of political democracy at home also encouraged stagnation, corruption and incompetence in their directing circles. These toplofty regimes came to believe themselves unchallengeable, impregnable, eternal rulers of the world.

The blitzkriegs of the desperate Axis war machines has laid bare the accumulated dry rot within the administrative apparatus of these decaying bourgeois democracies, just as lightning strokes split and expose the rotted cores of apparently sound oak trees. Following the French debacle, the capitalist rulers of England and the United States are beginning to pay the heavy price of blind over-confidence.

Roosevelt’s Foreign Problems

President Roosevelt had the task, in his speech, of explaining to the American people the reversals suffered by the United States and its allies since Pearl Harbor. His explanations were extremely apologetic in tone. To calm the criticism about the situation in the Philippines he stated that US strategists had never planned to hold these islands but only to fight a delaying action and that, in any case, the Japanese encirclement made it impossible to send supplies and reinforcements to MacArthur’s beleaguered forces. He tried to minimize the extent and consequences of the attack on Pearl Harbor. To give an optimistic gloss to disastrous events, the President asserted that more Japanese airplanes have been shot down in three months than had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and that the destroyers damaged there had been repaired and were now better than ever.

The President’s declaration that the war was being fought all over the globe put an end to isolationism as a fact. But the “isolationists” as a native political tendency have rallied into opposition again, reappearing with new demands and slogans. They are insisting that ships and supplies be kept for the western hemisphere. They are suggesting that England is already a dead lion, not worth saving, that the USSR should not be aided to score greater victories, and that it might be wise to come to an agreement with Hitler before all is lost.

Roosevelt complained that, just as the Axis antagonists were aiming to separate the Allied powers from each other by military means, the “Cliveden set” were trying to divide them politically. But the dissension in the ranks of the United Nations is an indubitable fact. Churchill recently attributed the fall of Singapore to the fact that the American fleet “had been dashed to the ground” at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt flatly contradicts this in his speech by charging that “rumor-mongers” and “poison-peddlers” have widely exaggerated “the consequences of the attack on Pearl Harbor.” The Dutch, making a last stand in Java, have bitterly and publicly complained of the non-arrival of promised American aid. The unified command created for the Pacific area two months ago has been abruptly dissolved. Australia and New Zealand turn away from Mother England to beseech the United States for protection. The Indian bourgeoisie also look in their hour of need to Washington. Washington is not unwilling to turn England’s difficulties to its own advantage. Churchill had stated explicitly on September 9, 1941 that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to the Pacific. Roosevelt’s counter-statement, in his speech, that “the Atlantic Charter applies not only to the parts of the world that border on the Atlantic, but to the whole world,” can only be construed as a rebuke to Churchill and a warning to the British Tories to make concessions to India’s possessing classes before the impending revolutionary crisis comes to a head. Chiang Kai-shek, alarmed by Japan’s successes and by Secretary Knox’s declaration that Hitler is the main enemy, had to be mollified and the Chinese bourgeoisie sustained by a half-billion dollar loan.

As for the Soviet Union, Roosevelt, who condemned the Red Army in its fight with Finland two years ago, now “saluted the superb Russian Army on its 24th Anniversary.” The fewer the arms and supplies Roosevelt and Churchill ship to the Soviet Union, the more profuse are their compliments to the Red Army and their flattery of Stalin. Words are the only commodities they can manufacture and dispense in abundance or transport quickly over long distances.

Just as Roosevelt made no specific mention of profiteering capitalists in his remarks on the home front, so he omitted all reference to fascism in the foreign field. Instead of the “fight against fascism,” Roosevelt states: “We and the other United Nations are committed to the destruction of the militarism of Japan and Germany.” This is not accidental but reflects a deliberate policy of placating Mussolini, Franco, and certain semi-fascist South American governments.

Roosevelt’s real attitude toward fascism is like that expressed by Anthony Eden in a radio address on January 4th: “The trouble with Hitler was not that he was a Nazi at home. The trouble with him was that he could not stay at home.” Washington, too, is not worried overmuch about the state of the four freedoms within the realms of other countries so long as their governments do not oppose its foreign policies. A forcible reminder of this fact is the sudden solicitude Roosevelt displays for the freedom of the 24,000,000 Koreans who were ignored before Japan went to war with the United States.

Roosevelt held out the prospect of universal war – but no imminent prospect of peace. Both sides keep prolonging the duration of this terrible conflict. On March 3rd, at the crest of Japan’s victories, Premier Tojo warned a conference of provincial governors that the war still was in its initial stage!

Their mutual outlook of interminable war is a sign of the insoluble difficulties in which all the belligerents find themselves entangled. Their convulsive efforts to alleviate their problems at one point involves them in a worse plight at another point, or at a later turn of events. For example the British bombings of the Paris factories, dictated by military consideration, can prove only a political boomerang by multiplying anti-British feelings amongst the French masses.

The crisis of the American bourgeoisie is a product and an integral part of the universal crisis of the imperialist system of world capitalism. Each of the powers is attempting to overcome this crisis at the expense of the others, whether they are antagonists or allies. All together they hope to emerge somehow, sometime, from this bloody mess at the expense of the Soviet Union, the colonial peoples, the working masses.

They do not know how they will manage to do this. They hope and pray for miracles to save them and their social system from complete destruction. This is the fundamental source of the division, confusion, hopelessness, and helplessness evident in the ruling circles of all the powers – not least in the United States.

Roosevelt and the Labor Movement

Roosevelt was able to drag the country out of the crisis of 1933 and to save American capitalism for a time by making considerable concessions to the labor and farmer aristocracy. Under the New Deal the trade unions obtain certain significant reforms and added strength. The war crisis is threatening all these concessions won through the pressure and struggles of the labor movement. American capitalism, like German capitalism before it, can no longer afford concessions to the masses. It is compelled to take away even those concessions it has made in the past.

This fundamental factor determines the present policies of Roosevelt and the capitalist class toward the labor movement. In order to wage their war for world domination, the government and the capitalists are obliged to conduct an offensive against labor. No matter how much protest and suffering this creates amongst the workers the capitalists are in such a tight corner that they can no longer take these protests into account. As a result, their efforts to solve the international war crisis serves to intensify the crisis at home.

From reliable reports, the workers for the most part have little confidence in this war. They do not believe that much good can come out of it nor do they believe that an enduring peace is possible under the existing system. For the present, they resign themselves to the conflict as a bitter necessity, hoping at least to hold on to some of their advantages.

These hopes are illusory. The war has already begun to drive their living standards toward coolie levels – and these levels must sink ever lower as the war progresses. Price Administrator Leon Henderson recently warned that living standards would soon drop below those of 1932. In 1940, according to Social Security Board statistics, 40 million workers had an average annual wage of $940, which is less than the amount that the government authorities themselves consider adequate to maintain an “emergency” level of living. A worker with a family of two small children, who was required to live on this wage, would be “subjected to a serious health hazard,” says a government health study. As these poverty-line incomes are slashed further and further, the morale, health and working efficiency of these families must suffer accordingly.

The workers are being squeezed as producers no less than as consumers. Priorities unemployment has thrown many hundreds of thousands of workers out of their jobs. The workers know that the “business as usual” corporations are primarily responsible for their idleness. Meanwhile Congress refuses to appropriate the small sum of 300 million dollars to sustain these unemployed workers, an amount about equal to that saved by wealthy families as a result of Congress’ action last year in permitting joint income tax returns. Congress which spends hundreds of billions for the war cannot spare a third of a billion for the victims of the economic dislocation produced by the war.

The bootlickers of Big Business in Congress are supplementing the assault upon the workers’ living standards with a drive against wage and hour legislation. While the big corporations are refusing to run their plants to capacity in order to avoid paying overtime wages, their agents are howling that the workers are holding up production. The Congressional anti-labor bloc is conspiring with the National Association of Manufacturers to abolish overtime pay to swell corporation profits.

The workers support the war in a very different spirit and from a different class standpoint than the patriotic profiteers. They believe that they are fighting to defend their rights, their conquests and their institutions against fascism. They do not as yet see any real alternative to the capitalist war. Yet they see no reason to fight or to sacrifice for this war unless at the same time they can maintain their trade unions, their social gains and their rights, and they are resolved to maintain them and not relinquish them without struggle.

This brings them into continuous conflict with the capitalist rulers who in order to maintain their imperialist profits, privileges and predominance abroad are driven to beat down the working masses at home. The Roosevelt administration is aligning itself far more openly and decisively than ever before with the capitalist class.

The present mood of the workers is one of watchful waiting. They view with anxiety, with suspicion, the maneuvers of the reactionaries, the policies of the administration and the acquiescence of their top leaders in the “no-strike” policies. This tension and unrest in the ranks is being communicated to the secondary leaders of the CIO in closer contact with the workers in the shops. Although they formally agree with the officials’ position in support of the administration’s war policies, they are increasingly outspoken in their criticism of governmental anti-labor moves and measures.

From now on the American bourgeoisie can only stagger from one stage of its crisis to the next. However, the workers will not indefinitely repress their discontent and will inevitably erupt into action in defense of their interests. The administration and its labor lieutenants can no more avert the development of this critical situation than Roosevelt was able to solve the war crisis.


Last updated on: 5.2.2006