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James Burnham

Their Government

(May 1940)

From Labor Action, Preview Number, May Day 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When the war began last September, most of the Washington insiders expected that the United States would be in it within a very few months. “War by the first of the year” was almost a slogan during those first weeks. This expectation was shared, more or less, by many political analysts outside of government circles. For my own part, I wrote then that June 1940 seemed an approximate date for United States entry.

Three miscalculations figured in the belief that this country would join the war so quickly.

First, there was the almost universal conception that the war would be fought “all out” from the beginning, that at least continuous mass bombings of the major European cities and most probably also mass war on the western front would start at once. This would have meant an exceedingly rapid depletion of materiel. and a relatively short time for the war to near a decision. Both results would have demanded quick intervention in the full military sense by the United States.

Second, the significance of the thin line that divides war from peace these days was not clearly enough realized.

It was overlooked that the United States could, for some while, function as a key part in one of the warring coalitions without being formally at war and without having soldiers killed. Munitions factories do not have to be located near the front; the United States Navy can – for a while – remain technically neutral and still patrol a large percentage of the seas as effectively as if war had been declared. Moreover, in this war living men are only one among many other equally or even more important mechanisms; and there are still millions of men in France and England and their colonies to be killed. All of these factors combined to make it less urgent for the United States to declare war so soon as was expected. Finally, though everyone knew that the people of this country did not want war, hardly anyone estimated in advance how mighty was the popular sentiment against it. The Gallup polls make a startling record: the latest release shows more than 96% still opposed to entry, unchanged since December, and several percent higher than when the war began.

The War Machine Changes Dates

To imagine that the delay is anything more than a breathing space, that there is any reason to feel that the danger of entry has been removed or even made less probable by what has happened since September 1st would be a most terrible illusion.

Informed Washington opinion now looks forward to a repetition of the Wilson 1916–17 performance. “Keeping out of war” will be the big talk of both parties for the Presidential elections. When the elections are safely under the political belt, the administration will drive ahead into the war by the quickest possible route – in a few months after November, at most.

This prospect is not at all unlikely. But it is not, of course, excluded that the break will come even sooner. After Hull’s statement on the Dutch East Indies last week, backed the next day by Roosevelt, no one would be greatly surprised to find the Navy Immediately in action if Hitler (or Chamberlain) moves into Holland. And how much longer has Holland to live?

Public Opinion in the Making

With the people remembering what preceded entry into the last war, the present Neutrality Act prohibits credits to the belligerent powers, and requires that all goods purchased by them be paid for with cash.

The provision is a genuine difficulty for Britain and France, and irksome to all in this country who regard themselves as allies of Britain and France.

From their side, Britain and France have moved shrewdly. They are confining purchases almost entirely to munitions and a few key goods such as machine tools. In all other fields, they are cutting their U.S. purchases to the bone, cutting them far below the pre-war level. The general boom expected from war buying has never come. On the contrary U.S. producers of many products – textiles and tobacco and fruit and cars and a hundred and one other items – find their chief export markets, in England and France and their empires, drying up.

Two or three months ago, articles began appearing on the financial pages of leading newspapers, and speeches began to be made before business associations, explaining that the credit restrictions “were not working out” as expected when the Neutrality Act was passed.

Now the subject is being brought into the editorial and the news pages. Radio reporters, broadcasting from London, ask with tears in their voices, how long the American people will deny their English brothers what they must have if they are not to be destroyed.

A popular formula has been worked out. Credits will be granted for non-military goods only; munitions will still have to bought for cash – like a drunkard who might say to his grocer: I want credit only for food; I’ll pay cash out of my wages for my liquor.

Preventing credit is not enough to keep out of war. But granting it is one of the surest and fastest ways of getting in. as we learned last time. And the war-makers have put credit grants up near the top of their list. We will hear a great deal about it before the year is over. The war-makers are serious about their plans. They will go through with this one, unless events move so fast that they have to skip this credit stage in order to drive even more directly.

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