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James Burnham

Let the People Vote on War!

(21 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 52, 21 July 1939, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Opposition to the War Referendum

SEVERAL years ago, Representative Ludlow of Indiana put the war referendum plan into a resolution which he introduced in the House of Representatives; and last year his resolution came up for a test vote in the House. From association with his name, the plan is often referred to as the “Ludlow amendment.” It should be noticed that Ludlow’s original bill did not embody the plan in its simple and direct form. He attached a proviso: the popular referendum was not to be held if the mainland of the United States were invaded.

Ludlow has re-introduced his resolution, with several more provisos, at the present session of Congress; and a similar resolution has been sponsored in the Senate by a group of Senators headed by LaFollette of Wisconsin. In both of the current resolutions, the referendum would not operate if either the mainland of the United States or any of its territories and possessions or any part of Latin America were invaded or immediately threatened by invasion. In other words, the present Ludlow and LaFollette resolutions provide for a referendum only in the case of a war conducted by the United States in Europe, Asia or Africa. Congress would otherwise retain the present Constitutional right to declare war.

What Is Behind the Opposition?

It might be supposed that these sweeping provisos – about which I shall have something to say in the next section – would remove all the “objections” to the plan. Does not everyone from Roosevelt down assure us that the United States will never go to war for “aggressive” purposes, that the young men of this country will never again be sent to fight abroad, that the armament of the United States is being built up for purely defensive purposes? What possible objection can they have when the people ask to vote, not on all wars, but just on those obviously and blatantly aggressive wars which they say the United States will never fight?

Nevertheless, the fight against the war referendum plan, in any and all of its forms, has from the beginning been as powerful and bitter as the strength of its opponents can bring to bear. Through every channel of public opinion, speech and newspaper and magazine and pulpit, the attack has been conducted.

What lies behind this fierce opposition to this plan, approved of by more than two-thirds of the people? The people have the right to know.

Among the sharp opponents of the war referendum, we discover: the heads of the Democratic Party, including Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull; the heads of the Republican Party, including Herbert Hoover, Alfred M. Landon, and the influential Henry L. Stimson, Hoover’s Secretary of State; the Liberty League, and the American Legion officials; all of the most powerful newspapers, particularly the most reactionary newspapers such as the New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune; all of the most widely read of the big-shot columnists, especially Walter Lippman, General Hugh S. Johnson, and Dorothy Thompson; and the Communist Party.

For the most part, the attacks on the war referendum plan are in a tone of hysterical frenzy; all supporters of the plan are denounced as “unpatriotic” and it is suggested that they are influenced by paid propaganda agents of foreign nations: the lack of real arguments is covered by heavy flag-waving and big adjectives.

Arguments Hold No Water

When we examine the arguments which some of the opponents try sometimes to put forward, they boil down to three: (1) the referendum would be contrary to “our representative theory of government” established by the Constitution; (2) holding a referendum would show other nations that “the country is divided”; (3) the requirement of a referendum before entering a war would “hamper” the government in its foreign policy.

Each of these arguments is a complete absurdity from the point of view of genuine democracy.

Granted that the United States has a representative form of government. But what is the government supposed to represent? The will of the people, presumably. No question could be more important than that of war. If those who claim to be representatives of the people believed that the nation should enter a war, then a popular vote on the issue could only help to prove whether they were in truth representatives. If a freely conducted popular vote went against the war which they proposed, that would prove that they did not really represent the will of the people; if it went in favor of the war, they would be strengthened as the genuine representatives.

Similarly in the case of the other two arguments. If the people are in fact divided on the question of the war, do they not have the right to say so ? What if in a division, a majority were against the war? Do the “representatives” want to fight the war in any case, against the will of the majority? The argument against the referendum on the grounds that it will disclose a division of opinion indicates indeed that those who will be for the war when the time comes intend to suppress all contrary opinion. The same argument of course applies to anyone who will express opposition of any kind to the war, quite apart from a referendum. Again, the referendum could hamper U.S. diplomacy only if the diplomatic maneuvers were going in a direction contrary to the will of the people. If the diplomacy were in line with the will of the people, the referendum would strengthen and reinforce the diplomacy.

Under the barrage of the opposition, on January 10th, 1938, the House of Representatives voted down the Ludlow motion. Earlier in that same week, the Gallup poll had shown that 72% of the people favored the bill! Could there have been a more striking demonstration that on the question of war the Congressmen are not the “representatives of the people”, that the people are correct in distrusting the President and Congress, that the President and Congress do not express the people’s will!

Lurking behind the fake arguments which the opponents of the referendum use on the surface, we can find the real meaning of their fierce opposition. By their attitude they are proving that in reality they are against democracy and democratic processes of government, and that their aim is to drag the people of this country into a war of imperialist aggression and conquest for the sake of profits. What other real reason could they possibly have? If they actually believed in true democracy, if they were fully and sincerely against any war except perhaps a war of honest defense, they could only welcome the plan for a people’s referendum.

It is because they are planning a war for the benefit of the banks and the big corporations, for the Sixty Families, that they oppose the referendum so bitterly. They dare not let their plans see the light of day; they dare not submit them to the verdict of the people. They plot behind the backs of the people with secret diplomacy, closed-door meetings, secret treaties and military agreements. And, when they are ready, they prepare to whip the people into line and to plunge them into mass slaughter. In the eyes of Roosevelt and Stimson and Browder and Lippman and Hoover, war is not an issue for the people to decide. It is for the people, like slaves and cattle, to obey the orders of the masters, to suffer and to die in order to make the world safe for the Sixty Families.

(Continued in next issue: The Referendum and the Fight Against War)

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