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James Burnham

Their Government

Roosevelt’s War Moves Since the Last Congress

(7 January 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 1, 7 January 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There was no recess in the war moves of the Roosevelt administration after the close of the Special Session. Repeal of the arms embargo was a major step in freeing the hands of the war-makers for intervention, but they did not rest on their oars. Nor will they rest until this country takes its place as a full-fledged belligerent. I want here to review a few of the landmarks of recent weeks in the trail toward war:

1. Two days after the scuttling of the it was revealed that the United States had played the decisive role in forcing the German ship to leave the docks at Montevideo. The legal rights under international law, in this case as in all others, are obscure. The result is obvious: a unilateral blow was struck at Germany, one of the belligerent powers.

2. A British cruiser chased a German freighter into Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The evidence of eyewitnesses indicates that the cruiser violated not merely the “safety zone” established by the Panama Conference but the territorial waters of the United States. This violation was supposed to be “investigated”. The investigation has quietly dropped out of the news. Anyone who still thinks that Roosevelt is neutral might well ask himself what would have happened if a similar circumstance had taken place with the battleship German and the freighter British.

The Law Is What You Make It

3. In connection with the war in Finland, Roosevelt has been discovering the beauties of the device which he calls a “moral embargo”. There is no sanction whatever in law or tradition for these moral embargoes. They are, in fact, directly counter to the avowed intentions of the various laws on neutrality which have passed Congress; and, indeed, are counter to the whole professed theory of American government, since they are actions taken solely by the executive without any control or check whatever from Congress or the Courts.

According even to the Roosevelt Neutrality Act, which passed the Special Session, no credits can be granted to warring governments; transfer of title on all goods for such governments must be completed before shipment from this country; and ships of U.S. registry cannot sail to ports of such governments.

When Roosevelt argued in public for his law, he made the people believe that it would keep the U.S. free from involvement in the war. When war began in Finland, presumably the Neutrality Act should have been invoked at once. But it was not: Roosevelt has not found that a “state of war” exists in Finland – apparently having the same view on this point as the Kremlin. Consequently none of the provisions of the Act apply: credit can be extended to the belligerents, U.S. ships can sail to their ports, and so on. The ground is laid for a whole series of those “incidents” from which the people were told that the Neutrality Act would guarantee avoidance.

But not merely has the law of the land been suspended. Roosevelt has, through the invention of the “moral embargo”, a grandiose new law of his own. The moral embargo, proclaimed by Secretary of State Hull, prohibits shipment of airplanes, airplane parts, bombs, airplane gasoline and gasoline refining equipment and several other types of munitions to – not both belligerents, which would have , been in line with the older neutrality law – but to one, to the Soviet Union.

It might be thought that a moral embargo is merely a Platonic gesture or at most a propaganda measure (which latter of course it also is). But the truth is that the moral embargo is a hard and fast kind of sanction. It is enforced by confidentially telling armament manufacturers that if they break it they will no longer get U.S. government orders.

War Birds on Top of the Roost

4. Last week Roosevelt appointed Charles Edison Secretary of the Navy. Edison is a plain-speaking-man, who has broadcast his opinions. He favors a “two-ocean navy”, big enough to smash everything else afloat, and he believes, as he puts it, in protecting this country by carrying the war as far as possible away from its shores: that is, by sending U.S. soldiers to fight in Asia and Europe.

For some months Louis Johnson, though still rated as Assistant Secretary, has been running the War Office. Johnson is of exactly the same war-mongering breed as Edison, and has among his other accomplishments the distinction of perfecting the M-Day plans for the war-time dictatorship.

Putting these two men in charge of the war machine is a complete answer to those scoundrels who try to “excuse” Roosevelt’s “errors” as being due to the influence of “bad advisers” who have managed to worm their way into the administration. Johnson and Edison take their rightful place alongside of Colonel Harrington, in charge of WPA, and Colonel Fleming, now running the Wages and Hours administration. Roosevelt, for all his smiles, deliberately picks for key positions those men who can and will carry out his own ruthless policies.

5. Taking advantage of a loophole in a law, “competitive bidding” on armament orders has, during the past few months, been dumped. Competitive bidding was, it is true, often enough a farce, but now and then – when there was genuine rivalry among the companies concerned – it did serve to cut somewhat the armament profits. Now the companies can write up their costs virtually to where they please, and get a 10 per cent profit added for good measure, with no chance for a rival concern to put in a lower bid.

6. The bold and unprecedented act of sending Myron Taylor (ex-Chairman of the U.S. Steel Corporation, by the way) as diplomatic representative to the Vatican can only be understood as a means of mobilizing Catholic opinion for “national unity” in preparation for war. The Catholic hierarchy, because partly of its leaning toward fascism and the tie-up between the Vatican and Rome, is rather shy about Roosevelt’s coming war – and the Catholics are the most powerful and best organized of the religious groups. Roosevelt’s gesture – which cost a few demurrers from Protestants – seems to have taken them 100 per cent into camp.

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