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James Burnham

Their Government

Roosevelt’s War Budget for Whose Defense?

(14 January 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 2, 14 January 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Politicians ordinarily use key words not so much to describe clearly what they mean as for the sake of the feelings the words arouse. Imagine, for example, what a difference it would make in the public attitude if armament expenditures in the budget were listed under the title, “Imperialist Aggression,” instead of “National Defense.”

Now the funds for armaments which Roosevelt has proposed for the fiscal year 1940–41 are worth thinking about. $1,800,000,000 are included for the “regular” expenses of the army and navy. $272,000,000 is asked as an emergency deficiency appropriation for this year; and $302,000,000 for “emergency” items during the coming fiscal year. These, totalling the colossal sum of $2,374,000,000, only begin to indicate the true burden of war on the community.

Interest on the public debt will come to $1,100,000,000. War and armament expenditures during the past twenty-five years have amounted to far more than the entire federal debt; and, since these expenditures serve no conceivably useful social function, it is entirely legitimate to charge the whole interest payment against war. Pensions will come to $1,200,000,000; at least three-fourths resulting from war. Out of the $1,100,000,000 listed for public works, a minimum of several hundred millions will go to war projects. Similarly with the $1,300,000,000 allotted for work relief. The $1,000,000,000 for “regular operating expenditures” includes at least a couple of hundred millions for activities of State, War, Navy, Justice departments that would have no place except for war.

Figured very conservatively, this will give us around: $5,300,000,000 which last week Roosevelt proposed for war – nearly two-thirds of the budget of the federal government. We can say without exaggeration that governments in the modern imperialist world have become, first and foremost, war-making machines.

What is to be Defended?

When the phrase “national defense” is used about armaments, it is designed to suggest certain pictures to the minds of the ordinary honest people of the country. We imagine bombers swarming over the cities, troops landing in California and Florida, tanks storming down from Canada or up from Mexico. And it seems most natural to think: “Should we not have the means to defend ourselves – our homes and children – from the invaders.”

Even if we approached the problem from a purely military point of view, and thought carefully about what the money is being spent for, these pictures would rapidly disappear.

On the new program, for instance, are ten huge battleships either already begun or soon to be started. Two of them are at present designed to be of 45,000 tons displacement – the largest in the world, costing $90,000,000 each. Still larger sizes are being debated.

But battleships are not suited to defend the shores of a country in a literal sense. They operate at a long distance from their bases. Shore defenses feature submarines, mines, coastal artillery, mosquito boats, etc. No imaginable attack against the shores of the United States would require these battleships (though, for that matter, no attack of any kind against the shores of the United States is imaginable).

The truth is that the military expert’s idea of “defensive” and “offensive” is completely different from that of the layman. For the expert, the job is simply that of winning the given war; and he adopts a defensive or offensive strategy, or shifts them, in line with this single objective. He cannot permit himself the sentimental luxury of preferring defense merely because it gives him a better conscience.

And, in the case of a war against another nation or nations, the fighting machine of this country is designed to carry on war thousands of miles away from the shores. It is defensive only with respect to an internal war: that is, to suppress a workers’ revolution.

Those who honestly support Roosevelt’s “national defense” program because they believe its object is to safeguard home and children are, whether they like it or not, upholding a policy of aggressive external war. This can be clearly seen from a military analysis alone.

And Whose Nation?

As always, the military objective is subordinate to the social and political objectives. The government is building ah aggressive military machine, designed for external combat far from the shores of this country, because the government has an aggressive social and political policy.

From this more fundamental point of view, it is correct to speak of “national defense,” just as the armies and navies of France and Germany and England are all part of their national “defenses.” The purpose of the armed forces is to defend the interests of the nation; and “nation” here means the imperialist ‘ government, representative of the big bankers and industrialists, of the Sixty Families.

But defense of these interests requires offense against the interests of the peoples of South America, China, and against rival powers and, above all, offense against the interests of the people of the United States. The new budget shows this last point in the most brazen fashion: in order to achieve funds for “national defense,” the budget takes funds away from the people, from the starving and homeless unemployed. Roosevelt’s first line of “national defense” is his attack on the living standards and rights of the people of the United States.

It is in every way legitimate for the people to wish to defend themselves and their homes and their freedom from any and all enemies. But the chief enemy attacking the people is neither Hitler nor Stalin nor the Mikado, but Roosevelt himself and his government: it is his G-men who are smashing labor and democratic rights, his whip that is slashing relief funds, his party that refuses to establish humanly decent wages’ and hours’ standards, his general staff that is completing its plans to hurl the youth of the country into death far away, for the sake of his program of imperialist expansion.

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