Max Shachtman


In This Corner

(24 October 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 81, 24 October 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Among the many other joints in which the wars of old differed from modern imperialist wars is that our ancestors were not subjected to the influence of the vast and well-oiled propaganda machine for mobilizing the minds of the masses in order that their bodies might be all the more easily mobilized.

Nothing nowadays escapes the war-propaganda machine. If there are no incidents to magnify and distort, they are simply invented. The enemy camp is ruthless; our camp is merciful. The enemy wages war upon innocent women and children, our chivalrous camp spares them and is noble even towards opposing troops.

Take the case of the sinking of the Athenia. For days it held the headlines of the American press. The barbaric Germans had sunk the ship in the dead of night, without warning, and without the slightest show of concern for the innocent passengers – men, women and children – who were sailing for home.

That the courtly Aryan warriors are quite capable of conducting themselves as charged – we do not doubt for a moment. What we are a little doubtful about is the veracity of the charge in this particular case. The Hitlerite war staff would have to be exceptionally stupid to sink a passenger ship like the Athenia, an act which could have no other result than to arouse even greater antagonism to the Nazis in the United States than already exists.

That is just what happened. The war machine got into prompt action in the United States. The press opened up the same kind of campaign that was seen in this country when the Lusitania was sunk in 1916.

Story That Was Not “Played Up”

A few days ago, however, a most important piece of news about the Athenia appeared in the press! Yet it did not get a sensational display on the front pages of the newspapers. It was not headlined in big letters.

The news was the affidavit of one of the Athenia’s passengers, Gustav A. Anderson, of Evanston Ill., which was filed with the State Department at Washington. According to Mr. Anderson who was aboard the ship when she went down on Sept. 3, the hold carried a cargo of guns which was loaded on the ship at Liverpool. Seamen onboard replied affirmatively to his questions about the contents of the cargo. Later, Chief Officer Copeland told him that the arms were to be used for coastal defenses at Quebec and Halifax, in Canada and that on her return trip to England the Athenia was to be fitted out as a raider. Further, said Anderson, there was a shipboard rumor that Germany knew of the presence of the guns.

If Anderson’s story is true (and we shall see in a minute why we have no special reason to doubt it), then the first crime committed was by the British authorities, who failed to warn innocent and non-belligerent passengers of the presence of guns in the cargo and the consequent risk run by anybody traveling aboard. If the Germans through their spies, knew of the nature of the cargo secretly loaded aboard the Athenia, they were just as criminal in failing to make their knowledge public and thereby warning all civilians who contemplated taking passage on the ship.

The imperialist press in the United States did not “play up” the Anderson story for a very obvious reason. It does not fit into – quite the contrary – their campaign of whipping up a chauvinistic spirit, of rallying the people behind the Roosevelt War Deal. It wouldn’t do for a minute you understand, to give too much publicity to the idea that our “democratic” British cousins are capable of endangering the lives of civilians by loading passenger ships with munitions of war from one belligerent, England, to another, Canada.

Such Things Have Happened Before

Why are we quite prepared to accept Anderson’s story as worthy of credence? Because such things have happened before, and most notoriously in the case of the British transatlantic passenger ship, Lusitania. The Lusitania was sunk in 1916 and many passengers, including neutral Americans, lost their lives. To this day, it has never been clearly established that she was sunk by the Germans, although that is of course quite possible. For years it was argued by more than one person that the responsibility for the sinking of the Lusitania rested on the shoulders of the British Admiralty, which hoped to exploit the resulting sensation and indignation to bring the United States into direct and active support to the Allied gangsters.

Only recently, Walter L. Mills, in his The Road to War, not only reiterates this theory, but makes out a powerful circumstantial case for it. The same pirate who was First Lord of the Admiralty at that time, Winston Churchill, occupies that post now.

What is important for the moment, however, is the fact that, four days before the Lusitania sailed, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, according to the late Senator LaFollette, warned President Wilson that the hold of the ship carried a cargo of six million rounds of ammunition, and explosives to boot. He pleaded with Wilson to warn American citizens to keep off the ship, since,under the circumstances, she was a war risk, subject to German attack. Dudley Field Malone, then Collector of the Port of New York, later confirmed the story about the Lusitania’s cargo. But Wilson, who was even then determined to swing the United States into the war, refused to utter a word of public warning, even though a federal statute declared it illegal for any passengers to travel aboard a railroad or a vessel carrying explosives.

Like the Anderson story, the truth about the Lusitania’s cargo never made the headlines. The tragic sinking of the ship was used as a permanent source of reference to the need of a war to Make the World Safe for Democracy. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, it was “Remember the Maine!” In the war that almost broke out some two years ago between the United States and Japan, it was “Remember the Panay!” (especially in Stalinist leaflets). In the World War, it was “Remember the Lusitania!” And nowadays, probably with increasing volume, the warmongers will cry,“Remember the Athenia!”

It would be infinitely more intelligent to remember the criminal liars of the propaganda machine who exploit every noble sentiment of mankind for the ignoble interests of a cynical imperialist ruling class.

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