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James Burnham

Their Government

(17 February 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 8, 17 February 1939, p. 4
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

While we draw up our final accounting of the Civil war in Spain, resolved that no bitter lesson of the staggering defeat shall be left unlearned, we must not forget to leave open a column for the record of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, you will have noticed from the papers, is soon to be leading us on the crusade to wipe fascism off the face of the earth. Before we put ourselves wholly into his hands, it would be circumspect to know as much as we can about our leader.

“A State of War” ... China and Spain

Shortly after the Spanish civil war began, Roosevelt, acting under the authority granted to the President under the provisions of the Neutrality Act, clamped down a governmental embargo on the shipments of munitions to either side. This step was in no way required by the Neutrality Act. The Neutrality Act states that an embargo must be applied when “a state of war exists”; but it leaves to the President the definition of just when that may be. It might seem absurd to argue over whether a “state of war” existed in Spain; but parliamentary language is often an absurdity.

The proof that responsibility for the embargo rests directly on Roosevelt, that his action was not required by the Neutrality Act, is furnished, of course, by the fact that so far as he is concerned no state of war has to this day existed in China, and consequently no embargo has been imposed on the Far Eastern combatants.

The effect of the embargo on Spain is notoriously known. It cut munition shipments to the Loyalists virtually to a smuggled minimum, since no nations except Mexico and occasionally on a small scale France would carry out their trans-shipment from the United States. When it was discovered that a few airplanes and machine guns were reaching Madrid through Mexico, suits were immediately instituted against the shippers in this country.

But the Embargo Did Not Hurt Franco

Trans-shipments to Franco, in contrast, were an everyday occurrence. Boat after boat sailed away from U.S. ports, paid a legalizing courtesy call to a Portuguese, Channel or North Sea harbor, and discharged their loads in Franco territory. Especially numerous were the neat black bombs which, taking off from Baltimore, ended their journeys among the mangled bodies of the women and children of Valencia or Madrid or Barcelona.

When the volunteers began leaving this country on a large scale to join the International Brigade, the comment of Roosevelt’s State Department was a declaration that all American citizens fighting in a “foreign army” would have their passports cancelled and would lose their citizenship, and that non-citizens would not be permitted to return. Only the pressure of mass opinion compelled this threat to lapse into passivity.

American Consuls Protected ... Property

During the war the U.S. consular officials have remained on the job. Their chief assignment has been to keep a careful eye on American property – International Telephone & Telegraph’s monopoly, the plants of General Motors ... They have made clear to the Loyalists that whoever was to win the war, the U.S. corporations intended to guard their own; and thus they contributed to the sabotage and elimination of workers’ ownership and control, the weakening of which so irretrievably undermined the anti-fascist struggle.

In short, with respect to the Spanish civil war Roosevelt has played exactly the same part as Chamberlain and Blum-Daladier. He is merely one other sworn member of the gang. Through his telegraphic and diplomatic intervention, Roosevelt was as fully present at Munich as if he also had sat around the green table, and he participated as directly in the bloody deal. In the same way he was a member with full if not formalized rights in the infamous Non-intervention Committee through which imperialism did its strangling and choking of the Spanish workers and peasants. Wherein did his policy differ from that of Chamberlain? Only in the slightly different brand of demagogy used to put it across.

Roosevelt Did Not Betray His Own Interests

Was Roosevelt, then, one of the “betrayers” of the Spanish workers? Let us not be naive, or hypocritical. A man can betray only his own cause; when he helps defeat the enemy he is not a betrayer but a good soldier. And Roosevelt’s cause is not the cause of the Spanish workers.

To Roosevelt, “the defense of democracy” quite correctly means, when translated into more concrete language, the defense of the interests of U.S. imperialism. Faced with the actual choice in Spain, U.S. imperialism – like every other imperialism – and Roosevelt as its governmental director preferred the victory of Franco as the lesser evil. They did so because, in spite of what Browder and Norman Thomas and The Nation tried to tell them, they knew that the only alternative to a Franco victory was not a victory for the bourgeois-democratic government of Negrin but the victory of the Spanish proletarian revolution. And anything, anything whatever, is for imperialism, for any imperialism, preferable to the proletarian revolution.

As always in serious matters, not words or ideals, but the class criterion proved to be decisive.

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