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James Burnham

Their Government

(10 November 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 86, 10 November 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Any lingering doubts about the real meaning of Roosevelt’s Neutrality Act, which honest men may have held on the basis of Roosevelt’s own message to the Special Session and the Congressional debate which followed, should have been thoroughly cleared up during these few days since the Act’s passage. Anyone in his right mind should now be able to see that Roosevelt’s message was brazen demagogy, and the debate, on both sides, shameless hypocrisy from beginning to end.

Roosevelt and the Congressmen told us beforehand that they were trying to work out the best program for “keeping the United States out of the war.” After the Act became law, not a single commentator tried to keep up the pretense any longer. All of the discussion centered on the questions of how exactly the Act would affect the war, how many hundreds of millions of war orders it would bring, and how world shipping would be reorganized in accordance with it.

In all of the European capitals the passing of the Act was recognized and proclaimed as a smashing victory for England and France. Paris and London didn’t make any bones about it: they told their people how the Act brought the weight of the United States into their side of the scales.

What the Act Provides

The Act is supposed to establish elaborate restrictions which will prevent this country from becoming “involved.” As finally amended and passed, the important restrictions boil down to little more than this: travel by U.S. citizens and ships to a small zone in the north of Europe is prohibited. Citizens, if they are of the right sort, can always get special permission. This leaves about ninety U.S. ships, heretofore in the north European trade, to suffer handicap. But even these ninety ships will be able to take care of things as some will be transferred to foreign registrations so that the prohibition will not apply to them. Others will take the place of British and French ships normally sailing in unrestricted zones, which will be transferred to the north Atlantic routes.

There a so many loopholes in the alleged provisions against granting credit that they will serve chiefly to make the war commerce as safe and profitable as possible for U.S. corporations.

The original plan to prohibit U.S. ships from all belligerent ports was dropped. With the exception of the small “danger zone,” they can go anywhere and carry anything except arms. There is no restriction on shipment into Canada.

There are no restrictions of any sort on what U.S. business is permitted to sell to the belligerents. An amendment that would have prohibited the export of poison gas and flame-throwers was howled down in the Senate by a four to one vote. This vote was a rather ironic comment on the moral indignation of our democratic rulers over “inhuman methods of warfare.”

One Foot In

With the passing of this Act, the United States has one foot solidly in the war. From now on, that foot will be pulling and straining to drag the other after it.

United States industry becomes part of the armory of Britain and France. Indeed, this is just the way in which the London papers put it.

But the Act is not an isolated event. It fits in exactly with the other moves of the Administration since the war began. The armed forces of the United States are also, in their own way, already in the war. The declaration that the belligerent, Canada, would be defended by the United States against its enemy in effect places a U.S.-manned Maginot Line around Canada. Just as the French Maginot Line, even when no shooting is going on, affects the military balance, so does the declaration on Canada.

Roosevelt’s neutrality is no more genuine than would be that of the biggest bully on the block who, at the beginning of a street fight, would say:

“I am not going to do any hitting, yet. But I am going to supply one of the gangs, with all the rocks and bricks they need. And I am going to keep an eye on my special favorites: they can throw rocks at the other side as much as they want, but if they get any in return, you’ll hear from me.”

How Will the Act Affect the War?

It is generally conceded that at the beginning of the war German aviation was superior to both England and France combined, and Germany’s factories were turning planes out at a faster rate than her enemies. This relation would be reversed if and when the flow across the ocean of U.S. planes – which are probably the best in the world – got into full stride.

The experiences of Spain and Poland, and of Ethiopia and China in a less conclusive way, do not show that superiority in the air alone can win a modern war; but they seem to indicate that air superiority is a vital and perhaps necessary factor in winning a victory which is clinched by other means. At the very least, decisive superiority in the air seems able to paralyze transportation and reconnaissance to such an extent as to weaken vastly the ground forces. Whether planes can win out against sea power is not yet established.

Germany is of course fully aware of the alteration in the balance of air power which the U.S. action can bring.

It seems to me to follow, therefore, that within the next week or two – month or two at the longest – Germany will be compelled to “begin the war in earnest.” This need not mean a mass campaign on the western front. But it would mean actions designed to gain and preserve superiority in the air: air bombardments of strategically important objectives (airfields, factories – especially those connected with plane manufacture – docks, key railroad junctions, etc.), and a big-time campaign on and under the sea.

I consequently expect such moves in the very near future. I do not see how they can be avoided. If they do not occur, only one explanation seems to me possible: that, below the diplomatic surface, really serious negotiations are under way between England and Germany, and that Hitler believes these negotiations are going to get results.

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