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Albert Goldman

General Johnson Cooks Up New Scheme
to Avoid Popular Referendum on War

(April 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 21, 4 April 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

It was left for General Hugh S. Johnson to concoct the slickest scheme thus far proposed to sidetrack the widespread desire for an amendment to the constitution to give the people of this country the right to vote on war. The General’s proposal is to have Congress retain the right to declare war and grant the people the right to vote on the question whether or not there should be any conscription for overseas fighting.

Ever since last year’s Congressional session, when Representative Ludlow introduced the resolution which would give those who do the fighting and suffering a chance to decide whether they want war declared or not, the “responsible” politicians of the ruling class have been seeking for a way to bury the whole idea.

Not that these “responsible” politicians actually believe that such a thing as a vote by the people would actually succeed in preventing war; they merely refuse to take any chances of having their war plans interfered with in the slightest degree. They know very well that Roosevelt, as Commander-in-chief, can start a war without any formal declaration and they also understand that with the powerful means of propaganda at their disposal they are quite likely to succeed in confusing the masses and get a favorable vote by hook or crook.

Nevertheless, if a proposition to declare war would actually be submitted to a vote of the people, there would be an opportunity for tremendous agitation against the war and that would considerably weaken the war mongers.

The Original Ludlow Amendment

The original resolution introduced by Ludlow provided for a referendum on war “except in the event of an invasion of the United States or its territorial possessions.” The Roosevelt Administration would not even permit a general discussion of it. Mobilizing all its forces in Congress against the resolution, with the aid of prominent Republicans, Roosevelt succeeded in defeating a motion to discuss the Ludlow Amendment by the narrow margin of 209 to 188.

The size of the vote in favor against Roosevelt indicated the tremendous support the idea of a referendum has among the masses of the people. According to surveys made at the time by the American Institute of Public Opinion (the Gallup poll) 70 percent of the voters favored the Ludlow amendment.

The campaign of the war mongers – the Communists were the most articulate and vociferous – against the amendment, scared its Congressional proponents into modifying it so that under the latest form of the proposed amendment the question of war would be submitted to a popular referendum “except in case of attack by armed forces, actual or immediately threatened, upon the United States or its territorial possessions or by any non-American nation against any country in the Western Hemisphere.” The phrase “immediately threatened” is vague enough to furnish Congress with a loophole to escape the necessity of a referendum whenever it would see fit. And to protect the investments of American capitalists in Latin America or Canada, Congress need have no authorization whatever from the people in order to declare war.

The watered-down form of the new resolution is certainly a retreat on the part of Ludlow and other Congressmen who support it. Unfortunately there is not a single Congressman who is militant enough to introduce the proper kind of an amendment which would permit the people to vote on the question of war in all cases without any exception.

Johnson Cuts the Meat Out of It

But poor as the new amendment is, General Johnson’s proposal would completely emasculate the whole idea. It would deprive the masses of the right to vote on the major question, that is, on whether to declare war, and would permit a vote of the people only on the question of conscripting men to fight overseas.

General Johnson correctly surmises that what the people want least of all is to be drafted to fight in Europe or Asia, and he figures that they will be satisfied if they are given the right to vote on that particular issue, leaving the really important decision of declaring war exclusively to Congress.

The adoption of Johnson’s idea would permit a declaration of war by Congress without any referendum, would permit the sending of the navy to fight in foreign waters to protect American investments, would permit the sending of the regular army and all volunteers into service in any part of the world.

The Gallup poll recently announced that a poll resulted in a 61 percent favorable vote for Johnson’s proposal. That does not mean that those who voted for it preferred it to the Ludlow amendment. It was not presented in the poll as a counter proposal to that amendment, but as an independent proposition. The 3-2 vote therefore is an index to the anti-war sentiment of the masses. It is necessary to recognize, however, that the efforts of Johnson and others to confuse the masses may succeed in turning attention away from the Ludlow amendment to Johnson’s phoney scheme.

What the Amendment Can and Can’t Do

We are not fooling ourselves or the workers into believing that any kind of an amendment to the constitution will prevent imperialist wars so long as capitalism exists. Without creating any illusions whatever, class-conscious workers should take the lead in mobilizing the workers behind the Ludlow amendment, demanding that the congressmen proposing the amendment delete from it the exceptions which would give the right to Congress to declare war without first submitting the question to a popular referendum.

To a certain degree, it must be recognized, Roosevelt and his war-mongering supporters have succeeded in winning a section of the population away from an anti-war position. Whereas in 1937 in the Gallup poll the Ludlow amendment received a 70 percent favorable vote, in the most recent surveys the number favoring the plan dropped to 57 percent. The class-conscious workers must redouble their efforts to convince the masses that the war which Roosevelt is preparing to wage is a war exclusively for the interests of the capitalist class.

Supporting the Ludlow Amendment with necessary explanation and criticism affords us a real opportunity to expose Roosevelt, the Stalinists and all other advocates of a war to save capitalist profits.

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