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James Burnham

Let the People Vote on War!

Why Should Not Those Who Must Fight and Suffer In War
Vote On Whether They Want the War?

(18 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 51, 18 July 1939, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The History of the War Referendum

ACCORDING to the provisions of the Constitution of the United States, the power to declare war against a foreign nation is vested in Congress. The President may not declare war; he may recommend its declaration, but it must be voted by a majority in a joint session of both Houses of Congress.

It is true, of course, that this technical separation of powers is not so decisive as it might seem. The Constitution designates the President as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the nation. Directly and through the subordinate Executive departments, he is in charge of the nation's diplomacy, in the case of the actual signing of treaties subject to confirmation by the Senate. Through this military and diplomatic control, a President may, in spite of the Constitutional limitation, have a share in the war-making power equal to or even greater than that of Congress.

We have been taught since childhood that, in theory at least, Congress is the “representative” of the people. When Congress declares war against a foreign nation, it is supposed to be acting as such a representative, to be expressing the “will of the people.”

People Are Dragged into War

Whatever may be the truth about this in general, history and experience have made clear that in the case of declaring war Congress cannot at all be relied upon to act as the genuine representative of the people. Experience has already shown that the people can be, and probably have been, dragged into wars against their will.

This seems to have been true of the war fought by the United States against Mexico in the middle of the last century. There is not the slightest evidence that the majority of the people of the country favored this ruthless war of aggression. Nevertheless, Congress declared war and called upon the people to support it. In doing so Congress acted not as representative of the people, but of those special industrial, agricultural and financial interests which had something to gain from the Mexican War.

The same conclusion is even clearer in the case of the aggressive, imperialist war fought against Spain at the beginning of this century. The Spanish War was deliberately cooked up by a small handful of big capitalists and bankers, publicists and politicians. The opinions and sentiments of the great majority of the people were contemptuously flouted. The War itself was the occasion for some of the most shameless graft in history. Young workers and farmers were sent out to die from yellow fever and dysentery in order to give a few bankers and industrial privateers control over the sugar and fruit plantations of Cuba and Hawaii and the Philippines.

The Mexican and Spanish wars were, in a sense, minor undertakings in the history of the United States. The lesson they teach, however, is hammered in by the experience of the Great War of 1914-18. The story of this country's entry into the last war has been studied in great detail during the past twenty years. Much of the material is contained in publicly available records of Congressional committees. Thorough and competent historians have completed the analysis.

The Necessary Conclusion

There is no doubt about the conclusions which must be drawn. The needs and wishes of the people were never consulted in connection with the decision to enter the last war. The gigantic loans made to the Allied Powers, the profits of bankers and big corporations, the maneuvers of a small group of financiers, diplomats and politicians, decided the issue, not the will of the people. Once again, in April 1917, Congress declared war not as the representative of the people, but at the will of and as spokesman for the Morgans and Whitneys and DuPonts and Rockefellers.

We thus reach two conclusions about the problem of war as it faces the United States: (1) war is now a totalitarian enterprise, affecting everyone; (2) the method provided in the Constitution cannot be relied upon to carry out the will of the people on the question of war.

Increasing numbers of people in this country have reached these conclusions. At the same time it is clear to all of us that a new world war threatens to break out at any moment. All nations are directing their chief energies to preparation for it. Last year more than seventeen billion dollars were spent on armaments. Tens of millions of men are under arms throughout the world. Every few months a new crisis occurs, each one bringing the world to the very edge of general war.

In the United States, as elsewhere, the armaments are built up. The government intervenes constantly in the various danger spots. Whatever laws are on the books, banks and corporations become entangled through credits and supplies with warring or potentially warring nations. The pattern of the last war seems to be repeating itself. The people do not want war; but more and more fear that the war is coming and that the people of the United States will be dragged into it against their will.

An understanding of the totalitarian character of modern war, a realization that on the question of war Congress cannot be relied on to carry out the will of the people, a fear that the people are going to be dragged into a war which they do not want: these are the sources that have led to a search for some means of protection against the war and the war-makers, and have brought so many in this country to favor the plan for a popular referendum on war.

The proposal for a popular referendum is an extremely simple one. The Constitution would be amended so that war could be declared by the United States government only through a direct vote of the people, a direct popular referendum.

To an ordinary human being, this proposal seems most reasonable, modest and democratic. It is the people and all the people who must fight and suffer from war (they do not fight and suffer by representation). Should not the people themselves, then, decide whether a war is worth fighting and suffering for? The United States is supposed to be a democracy. What could be more democratic than to decide the most important of all questions, the question of war, by a direct vote of the people?

This is, indeed, what the people of the United States think. Authoritative surveys, such as the “Gallup poll,” show that an overwhelming majority, two-thirds at the very least, favor the war referendum. In a democracy, you would think that such a majority would get what it wants.

Why not? What has happened to the war referendum proposal?

(Continued to next issue: The Opposition to the Ludlow Referendum)

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