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Dwight Macdonald

The Willkevelt Campaign

(October 1940)

From New International, Vol. 6 No. 9, October 1940, pp. 182–183, 185 and 192.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE 1940 PRESIDENTIAL campaign has taken place in the midst of the supreme historical crisis of world capitalism, an era of upheaval unprecedented since Napoleonic times. Since the campaign began, Germany has established its political and military control of the European continent, the British Empire has entered into a life-and-death struggle with the axis powers, Japan has joined the axis to establish a new “world order”, warning the United States that any direct participation in the war in either the Atlantic or the Pacific will mean war in both oceans. These events have stimulated the Roosevelt Administration to bold countermoves which are changing the face of American politics.

The internal development of capitalist democracy, under the tremendous pressure of the overseas crisis, has greatly speeded up in the last few months. Economically, the drift towards state capitalism proceeds faster than ever. Unemployment is still around ten millions, private investment has failed to pick up appreciably even under the stimulus of war orders, bank reserves are as swollen as ever with no profitable outlet, and the rearmament program, despite the combined efforts of the Democrats and the Republicans, is automatically still further extending the control of the State over private business. Politically, parliamentary democracy has received severe blows: the President’s consummation of the destroyer deal with Britain without consulting Congress; the swift passage, under ruling class pressure, of the peacetime conscription legislation in the face of widespread popular opposition; the current breakdown, through Congress’s inability to harmonize the sharp conflicts of class and property interests, of the rearmament program. And, above all, the nature of the presidential campaign itself.

For, in the face of these great developments, both inside and outside the country, we see a campaign in which there are no issues! This is the great dumdee campaign in American history, the campaign in which the electorate are offered a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The meaninglessness of bourgeois democracy in a period like this never came out more unmistakably. There are no issues not because the country is united behind the policies of the Roosevelt Administration – a large section of the population is anti-war and anti-conscription – but because the ruling class is united and because the crisis is much too severe to permit the luxury of a democratic discussion of the issues. Roosevelt and Willkie, the only candidates with a chance of election, stand shoulder to shoulder on all the important issues because the bourgeois interests which use them indifferently as mouthpieces are similarly indivisible today.

Boss Flynn’s Campaign

One of the reasons for the unreality of the campaign is that one of the contestants, Roosevelt, has refused to campaign. With a cynicism which contrasts ironically with his fervent speeches about “democracy”, Roosevelt has refused to carry out the minimum responsibility of a candidate seeking election: to present his view of the issues to the voters. He has taken full advantage of his position as President to identify his official acts with his candidacy, to make Willkie’s criticisms seem to be traitorous attacks on the Presidents office, even to raid the political camp of his opponent for his secretaries of navy and war. By any possible interpretation of democratic procedure, Willkie’s demand that Roosevelt debate him was a reasonable one. (Though Ickes scored shrewdly when he suggested instead a debate between Willkie and his running mate, McNary, on the grounds that Willkie had more basic differences with McNary than with Roosevelt.) But Roosevelt to date has refused even to recognize publicly the existence of an opposition candidate. The points raised by Willkie day by day are answered, not by Roosevelt, but by the obscure political hack. Boss Flynn of the Bronx.

If Roosevelt has felt it beneath his dignity to campaign, his opponent has done enough talking and travelling for both of them. Willkie has talked himself hoarse without saying anything in particular. The one issue he has been able to dig up is – the Third Term! For the rest, his speeches have been full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

A cursory review of Willkie’s speeches reveals that he is definitely FOR the following (1) democracy; (2) profits; (3) national defense; (4) business (“There are, including farmers, over 10,000,000 private businesses in the United States.”); (5) more aid for the farmers; (6) more aid for labor; (7) more aid for business; (8) more aid for all other groups and subdivisions of the population not included under the three aforementioned heads; (9) common sense; (10) Roosevelt’s foreign policy; (11) Roosevelt’s domestic policy (except it should be more efficient); (12) prosperity; (13) peace (unless it is necessary to go to war); (14) the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Abraham Lincoln. On the other hand, Willkie has taken a firm stand AGAINST the following: (1) red tape; (2) inefficiency; (3) high taxes on business; (4) Hitler; (5) an un-balanced budget; (6) unemployment (his remedy: more jobs); (7) the Roosevelt Administration (except for its foreign and domestic policies).

Sometimes Willkie’s speeches sound like echoes of the Hoover-Landon campaigns – the hopeless, moth-eaten, unreal laissez-faire philosophy of “no governmental interference with business” (as though the very survival of business today were not dependent on governmental “interference!”), “a balanced budget”, “lower taxes”, “encourage private industry”, etc., etc. But there is also a new and completely contradictory note: unlike Hoover and Landon, Willkie has put himself on record as favoring the retention of almost all the New Deal social reforms and of its whole program of business regulation, including the SEC and TVA. Apparently, he wants to have his cake and eat it too, as in the following crude attempt to combine both philosophies: “It is my belief that private industry can be so stimulated by encouragement, by the government, that the flow of capital through adoption of new tax laws will reduce the present unemployment to an insignificant amount. I don’t think then there would be any need to abandon any of the social legislation, the minimum wage law or the social security.”

The suggestion that, after the election, Roosevelt will offer a cabinet post to Willkie may not be so fantastic. He would certainly fit in better than either Knox or Stimson. This would be the final turn of the screw in the disintegration of American parliamentary democracy.

There are two major groups of issues in the campaign, on both of which the two chief candidates are in complete agreement. These are: (1) foreign policy – the attitude of the United States towards the rise of Germany and the decline of the British Empire; (2) domestic policy: the devolution of bourgeois democracy into Bonapartism through extension of the executive power and the undermining of the authority of Congress. The two are, of course, closely connected, the bourgeoisie finding that, because of the terrible speed and pressure of the crisis, it can protect its interests only by short-circuiting the processes of democracy. Hence Willkie, agreeing on foreign policy, has been unable to capitalize politically on the domestic issues. Let us look in more detail at how these issues have been sidestepped in the Roosevelt-Willkie campaign.

Willkie, The Blitzkrieg Baby

More than once during the campaign, some of the old-line Republican chieftains have tried to get Willkie to make at least a gesture, however demagogic, of opposition to the more extreme pro-war acts of the Roosevelt Administration. They saw a large body of isolationist votes without any candidate to turn to, and they wanted to harvest them. But Willkie has refused to concede an inch to such counsels, tor he well knew why he was nominated and what the big bourgeoisie – of which he is personally a member as well as a mouthpiece – requires of him.

Willkie got the Republican nomination partly because he had some of the political “it” which Roosevelt has, partly because he aroused a real crusading enthusiasm among stockbrokers and Park Avenue matrons (“the Bryan of the rich”, in Alice Longworth’s phrase), but chiefly because Hitler was winning his Blitzkrieg against France and Belgium in appallingly little time. All through the winter, when the war was in its “quiet” stage, the leading contenders for the Republican nomination played, like their party in general, a demagogic “anti-war” game designed to make political capital out of the powerful isolationist sentiment of the masses. Taft, Vandenburg, and, after considerable fence-sitting, Dewey – all took this line. As a principled and conscious Wall Streeter, however, Willkie had ,from the beginning lined up with Roosevelt on foreign policy. When the Blitzkrieg came, the business community suddenly realized that Roosevelt had been a far-sighted imperialist, and that the threat to American imperialism from the Nazi war machine had become the all-important issue. At the Republican convention, a curious conflict took place between the professional politicians who wanted a more stable and amenable candidate and who were also willing to play around with the war issue in order to keep as many isolationist votes as possible, and their big business backers, who insisted on putting the war issue first. The business forces won out and Willkie was nominated.

The same conflict – with the same results – has cropped up now and then in the campaign, between political bosses who want first of all to win the election, and Willkie, who wants first of all to save American imperialism. Heroically refusing to make “a political football” out of so sacred a matter, Willkie is losing the election for the same reason he won the nomination: because he supports in every detail the Roosevelt foreign policies. With a fidelity to principle worthy of a better cause, he has thrown issue after issue away. Despite the widespread unpopularity of peacetime conscription, he came out for it even before Roosevelt did. He refused to make even minor concessions: although 140 Republican Congressmen voted to delay the draft until an attempt had been made to raise enough men by voluntary enlistment, Willkie, “disregarding strong pressure from members of the Republican organization”, came out flatly for immediate conscription. He had no criticisms to make of the Administration’s South American commitments at the Havana Conference. He endorsed the most audacious strokes of Roosevelt foreign policy – the military alliance with Canada and the trade of destroyers for British naval bases. With the basic elements in Roosevelt’s defense policy – control by business men, “encouragement” of private industry through liberal amortization and war profits tax provisions – Willkie naturally had no quarrel. And even such a development as the Rome-Berlin-Tokio alignment against the United States has found Willkie with nothing much to say, despite the cautious efforts of Arthur Krock of the N. Y. Times to show him how he can find an “issue” there. Willkie can find no issue because the forward policy of the Roosevelt Administration in the Pacific is precisely the one which he, and his Wall Street friends, have long favored.

Thus on the crucial issues of war and conscription our “democratic” political system provides no channel for the expression of the opposition to the Roosevelt policies of a large section of the electorate. Among the farmers of the midwest, among the unemployed, among the industrial workers, among the Negroes there is a deep-rooted, inarticulate isolationist and anti-conscriptionist sentiment. The Negro press, ardently pro-New Deal in general, is the only section of the American press which is still predominantly isolationist. Both the CIO and AFL, as well as the Railroad Brotherhoods, have come out against peacetime conscription.

One ironical by-product of this situation is the remarkable staying-power of the Communist Party. At the time of the Soviet-Nazi Pact, it looked as though the C.P. had once for all committed suicide as a mass party. The effects of the Pact were serious, it is true, but it is now clear that the C.P. is far from through. They still control the American Youth Congress; they have a new peace “front”; the Daily Worker and New Masses still appear, and there is also Friday. Above all, the hold of the Stalinists on influencing CIO unions has not been broken. After the Pact, Lewis began a “purge” of the Stalinists, but his campaign stalled and is now abandoned. In fact, Lewis himself has more or less tied up with the Stalinists, and the CIO seems to be splitting in half on the C.P. issue, with the leadership of such important unions as the seamen, the longshoremen, the transport workers, the communications workers and the Newspaper Guild playing along with the party. Undoubtedly a major factor in this amazing survival of Stalinist influence on the American labor movement is the fact that the C.P. is the only mass party which (for whatever reasons!) speaks against war and conscription.

Taking ‘Politics’ Out Of Politics

When Congress spent a few days debating the question of peacetime conscription, the reaction of the press and of the Administration was that all this talk was “wasting time” and that “delaying action” – an attitude similar to Hitler’s when he speaks contemptuously of “parliamentary chatter-boxes”. For the fact is that when a modern capitalist enters into a crisis as sharp as the present one, the traditional practices of bourgeois democracy become luxuries which the ruling class cannot afford. The more clearsighted bourgeois politicians press to take politics out of politics, that is to make all issues administrative rather than political questions. The line of policy favored by those in control of the State is assumed to be generally agreed upon and the only question is how it can be most speedily and efficiently carried out. Roosevelt has pushed ahead in this Bonapartist direction as rapidly as he dared, as in his unsuccessful attempt early in the summer to get Congress to adjourn. In the campaign he has brushed aside Republican criticisms of the defense program as shabby attempts to “make politics out of national defense”.

The most striking example of this tendency was the famous destroyer deal with Britain. Two years ago the Ludlow Amendment was an important issue: should Congress have the power to declare war or should the people themselves, by referendum, exercise this vital power? The decay of American democracy may be gauged by the fact that today even Congress has become too uncontrolled and democratic an institution to be permitted to vote on such important matters as war or peace. The destroyer deal, which amounted to putting the country into the war on the side of England, was negotiated and consummated in strictest secrecy by Roosevelt and a small clique of Administration insiders. Not until they read the papers on September 4th, did the members of Congress know anything about it. For months Roosevelt had been negotiating the deal with the British authorities, but there was not time for even a week’s debate on it in Congress. (Since such a debate might have imperiled the whole affair – and American imperialism doesn’t play around with matters as important as this.) The gist of the lengthy legal opinion rendered by Roosevelt’s Attorney-General Jackson was that the trade was an “executive” matter and hence of no concern to Congress.

Here was an issue Willkie, as a crusader for “democracy”, might have been expected to seize upon. And indeed he did condemn the manner of making the deal (while approving the deal itself) as ... “regrettable”. A few days later he grew even bolder: the deal, he said, was “arbitrary and dictatorial”. But it was clear his heart was not in his work. He quickly dropped the issue. Speculating rather sadly on the poverty of issues which Willkie had been able to find in the campaign, the conservative columnist Arthur Krock of the N.Y. Times tried to suggest how Willkie could make the heavens ring with denunciations of Roosevelt’s high-handed and disingenuous tactics. “Should Mr. Willkie be able to do this,” he concluded, “and there is a favorable public response, he will have a major issue. But the accomplishment is difficult because Mr. Willkie is also a foe of isolation ...” Krock, however, did not mention the chief difficulty: that Mr. Willkie, as an exceptionally intelligent and conscious representative of the bourgeoisie, recognized clearly not only the dangers of isolationism but also of the usual democratic procedures.

“I’ll Do It Better”

... is the most inspiring campaign slogan Willkie has been able to create. The bankruptcy of the Republican Party is dramatically expressed in this belated revival of the old “put a business man in the White House” slogan which elected Hoover in 1928. A more efficient administration of the same basic policies – that is what Willkie’s campaign platform boils down to. It is not a very exciting slogan, and even here Willkie hasn’t got an issue, even here he has been unable to make political capital out of the glaring defects in the rearmament program undertaken by the Roosevelt Administration.

The target would seem to be wide as a barn door. More and more evidence is appearing that things are not going at all well with the “defense program”, that there is no coordinated centralized control, that the political appointees, Knox and Stimson, are incompetent to run the war and navy departments, that businessmen are delaying production for the Government until they extort better tax and amortization terms, and that, in the years in which Roosevelt was working up the war hysteria ever more openly, remarkably little progress was made in providing the munitions and ships and planes to fight a modern war.

“The armament program is making progress, but more slowly than was hoped and intended,” states the current National City Bank Letter in a section on Delays in the Armament Program. And Leonard P. Ayres, the well-known economist of the Cleveland Trust Co., has written a pamphlet, The Progress of Preparedness, in which he compares with 1917 the speed and efficiency of America’s current rearming, very much to the disadvantage of the latter.

A few sentences are worth quoting:

Our best guides for judging the progress of our present preparedness effort are still the records of what we did 23 years ago in the World War. Probably we ought not to be too much astonished or disheartened if we find that our rate of progress now is a good deal slower than it was then ...

There are two conclusions about which there has been general agreement among those who have testified about our military needs during recent months in the hearings before the House and Senate Committees on Military Affairs. The first is that at present we are utterly unprepared for modern warfare even on a small scale. Neither the Regular Army nor the National Guard has the tanks, scout cars, field artillery, anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns, or even the aviation equipment essential for taking part in the kind of fighting that has been going on in Europe this year ...

The other conclusion is that the creation of the industrial capacities for making munitions is in itself a long and slow process ... It did not take us anything like as long in 1917 and 1918 to make munitions as it seems to take now ... If it would have taken us two and a half years to create a condition or self-sustaining military preparedness at the rate at which we were moving in 1917 and 1918, how long will it take us at the rate at which we are moving now? However that question may be answered, there is another one behind it which asks whether we are likely to be allowed that much time.

Here, then, is a wide-open issue – and yet one which, on closer inspection, the astute Roosevelt has also managed to shut tight in Willkie’s face. For one thing, when Willkie attacks Roosevelt for “hostility” to business and claims that only a “business man’s” administration of the arms program will get results, his attack draws little blood. For both the war and navy departments are in the hands of the respectably conservative Republicans, Knox and Stimson, while the executives in charge of the armament program are such eminent businessmen as Forrestal of Dillon, Read; Knudsen of General Motors; Nelson of Sears, Roebuck; and Stettinius of U.S. Steel. To Willkie’s charges Roosevelt, via Flynn, retorts in effect: Who would you put in any better? Perhaps you would replace Stettinius of U.S. Steel by Fairless of U.S. Steel? Or substitute Sloan of General Motors for Knudsen of General Motors? Or, indeed, not Flynn or Roosevelt but the businessmen themselves often supply the answer to Willkie, so that we have the absurd spectacle of Knudsen and Stettinius, in defending their administration of the defense program, indirectly defending Roosevelt’s policies against the criticisms of their fellow Wall Streeter, Wendell Willkie.

Even more embarrassing to Willkie, in his efforts to make “national defense” a campaign issue, is the obvious fact that the main outlines of Roosevelt’s policy are entirely agreeable to the business community. As it is finally emerging from Congress, the legislation on amortization allowances of war-materials plants and on wartime profits and taxation is extremely “liberal”, in the businessman’s phrase. Furthermore, much of the delay and confusion in getting the arms program started is due to the refusal of private business to accept war orders until they get the kind of terms they wanted. There is no “issue” for Willkie there. Willkie did make one attempt to pick a quarrel in this sphere, when he objected to the proposal, endorsed by Roosevelt, to give the President power to condemn and seize plants and industries which refused to cooperate on war orders. But since this power had existed in 1917 as well, Willkie’s objections had little effect, and his advisers later had to admit he had made a tactical error.

It is typical of the political impasse in which Willkie finds himself that, after Congress had passed the legislation giving the President wartime powers to “conscript” industry, the all-important rules of procedure under which this power may be exercised were formulated not by Roosevelt, not by Hopkins or Ickes or Corcoran or Cohen but by a member of the Defense Commission named Donald M. Nelson, who is on leave of absence from a top executive post in Sears, Roebuck & Co. How can a hardworking “business candidate” make any headway when his opponent does things like that?

The “Appeasement” Issue

We have seen that Willkie is losing the campaign because he can find no issues, and that he can find no issues because Roosevelt is pursuing a policy both in foreign affairs and in “national defense” which is acceptable to the American ruling class and hence which is identical with the policy Willkie himself would follow if he replaced Roosevelt. Does this mean there is, then, no difference between the two presidential candidates?

There is a difference, but it is not in the candidates nor in their campaign issues, but rather in the social forces behind each of them. Even more than in 1936, this election is splitting along class lines. (An interesting sign, by the way, of the ripening of the social crisis of our capitalism.) Willkie seems to have even less trade union support than Landon had, nor did the working class show its hostility to Landon in any such dramatic form as it did towards Willkie in Detroit, Pontiac, Flint and the Chicago packinghouse district. The press is even more solidly behind Willkie than it was behind Landon. The N.Y. Times has forsaken its traditional Democratic allegiance for the first time in its history to support Willkie. A recent survey by Time showed that, out of 120 of the largest dailies in the country, 78 were for Willkie, with 13 “undecided” and only 9 for Roosevelt.

Since in this country as in France and England, there are strong “appeasement” currents within the ruling class, it is not surprising to find Willkie, despite his foreign policy, getting the support of the appeasers. Henry Ford is for Willkie and is reported to have had a mysterious and highly secret interview with him on campaign matters. Hoover, of course, is in Willkie’s camp, nor has Willkie dared to repudiate Hoover’s frankly pro-appeasement speeches. And there are even more embarrassing supporters. Willkie repudiated Father Coughlin’s endorsement, but his gesture did not dispose of the awkward question why did Coughlin prefer Willkie to Roosevelt? According to the N.Y. Times of August 28, the Bund organs, The Free American and Deutsche Weckruf und Beobachter, has been urging its readers to elect Willkie. (The Times, which is especially sensitive on the score of Willkie’s appeasement following, buried the item on page 14.) When Wallace labelled the Republicans the party of appeasement, he was not too far wrong.

In one sense, this is all slightly academic at the moment, since there seems to be very little chance of Willkie winning the election. But the appeasement issue will not die even if Roosevelt is reelected. For Roosevelt, though somewhat more independent than they would like, has never resisted the wishes of the business community on any vital issue. And there is already some evidence that these wishes may begin to shift their direction soon after the election. The ultimate joke of this campaign may turn out to be that the foreign policy which both parties united to endorse may need to be changed almost as soon as the votes are counted. The open threat of the Rome-Berlin-Tokio axis to engage the United States on two ocean fronts together with the mounting evidence that the nation’s war machine will not be ready for a modern war for at least two and a half years more – these developments may well set up a strong appeasement tide in business circles. The mechanics of it are peculiar: up to a certain point, the worse the situation of the “democracies” and the more threatening the gains of the totalitarian states, the more imperative it seems to American imperialists to get into the fight. But once England’s position appears so unfavorable as to be almost hopeless while the “have-nots” close ranks on a world scale against their American rival – then those business interests which have been shouting loudest tor intervention and war may “suddenly discover the advantages of temporarily accepting as a fait accompli the new world order – trading with the Nazis on a “sensible, businesslike” basis and hoping to gain time to build up their own war machine with a view to a future settling of accounts.

Even if England holds out all winter, such a shift in ruling class sentiment is quite possible. If England goes under, however, and Hitler definitely wins the war in Europe, then there seems no question at all in which direction this sentiment will shift. The September issue of Fortune contained the results of a poll conducted among 15,000 executives of large corporations. Three of its findings are of special interest here: (1) 88 thought Willkie would handle foreign policy better than Roosevelt, (2) only 2.6% were “definitely opposed” to trading with a Hitlerized economic bloc in post-war Europe; (3) less than half favored a policy directed towards the expansion of foreign trade, while almost a third favored “U.S. contraction towards self-sufficiency”. Thus these big business leaders, almost all of them for Willkie, are for doing business with Hitler if he wins (which of course would only be possible with an appeasement policy) and a large minority of them are for an isolationist economic policy, which would also lead to an appeasement perspective. Fortune’s definition of “the foreign policy of American business” is quite accurate: “economic opportunism”.

As for how Roosevelt would be likely to react if the business community began to press for an appeasement policy, one answer was given at a meeting held a few weeks ago in Washington. Some fifty bankers, economists and New Dealers discussed the question: how to finance “national defense”? There was some technical disagreement as to whether inflation (favored by the New Dealers) or deflation (favored by the bankers) was the preferable course, but when Lawrence Dennis, the quasi-fascist economist, made some cynical remarks about the New Deal “using defense as a WPA program of which the Republicans have to approve”, the atmosphere became heated. The heat came from both the bankers and the New Dealers. Jerome Frank, head of the S.E.C., retorted to Mr. Dennis: “You don’t like capitalism ... You think it is bound to fail and you want to see it fail, and you hate to see a program that will work and preserve capitalism. I think this program is going to preserve capitalism. I think the investment bankers are going to get business out of it.” After Mr. Frank, arose Mr. Benjamin Buttenweiser, a partner in the great Wall Street firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.: “We may quarrel with some of the methods and some of the views of the present administration, but the charge was made that the New Dealers are against capitalism, and that is completely unwarranted. If that is so, I don’t know the meaning of capitalism.”

We may take it for granted both that Mr. Buttenweiser knows quite well the meaning of capitalism, and that he and his colleagues in Wall Street have also acquired by now a fairly accurate knowledge of the nature of the New Deal. If Hitler wins this winter, the rest of the American people will rapidly acquire the same knowledge.


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