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The Politicians Cried Peace


ISSUE:  Winter 1941

It is too soon to write wisely about the election; but I shall try to recall some of the highlights and draw some of the conclusions that seem to follow. It is the job of a few hundred journalists to watch the national politicians at their work, to guess as early as possible what crimes they are about to commit upon the much-abused body of democracy. Before the first speech on the first June day of the Republican convention at Philadelphia, we knew what the chief crime of the summer was sure to be.

The Republicans met during the fall of France. They might have shown a seriousness to match the horror of that event, but only if they had been both patriotic and tough-minded. It would have taken patriotism for the party that had bet on a “phony war” to admit that the pillars of our society were falling; it would have taken tough-mindedness for these assembling playboys to see the grim implications of the news. It was clear to the press, long before the temporary chairman spoke his first trivial words, that neither of these virtues was to be dominant at Philadelphia.

Instead of admitting the horror that lay before us, the convention tried to behave like a group of carefree dentists meeting at Atlantic City in 1928. But the effort was unsuccessful. No group of men, no matter how long trained to cynicism, could behave as if the fall of France was comparable to the failure of Detroit to win the World Series. They could not live up to the triviality to which they aspired; they would not live up to the burden placed upon them by history. The result was an almost hysterical retreat from truth. There is no other way of describing the painstaking light-mindedness, the methodical flight from reality, of these men and women who denied the terrible tides of life that flowed around them.

The Decline of the West was being rehearsed on the world stage; but this job-lot of actors pretended it was nothing but a revival of “Charley’s Aunt.” To the watching journalists Philadelphia suggested a Punch-and-Judy booth set up at the gates of Dante’s Hell. My own training in disillusion includes a ringside seat at the World Economic Conference in London; I had naturally expected bad things of Philadelphia, yet my imagination fell short of the truth.

There were honorable exceptions. Men like William Allen White cried out against the wilful blindness to the storms that darkened the American sky. But the applause went to the comedians who talked about peace and high tariffs.

On the night of Mr. Willkie’s triumph the convention had a few moments of honest emotion. Overriding the machine politicians and responding to a nationwide popular demand, the convention believed it was doing something good. But it had already done something so bad that no candidate could atone for it. Before Mr. Willkie was nominated the politicians had shown that they did not think America deserved the truth. By their low peace-mongering they had committed us to a summer of unworthy lies. It remains to be seen whether they also condemned us, here on our own soil, to a bloody and unnecessary war.

The journalists who watched the unfolding Philadelphia story knew, of course, that Chicago was bound to be as bad, and might be worse. It hardly needs to be said that the two parties do not divide on grounds of merit or high-mindedness. The politicians of both parties show the same combination of cunning and backwardness, experience and superstition. As soon as it was proved at Philadelphia that this outmoded type of mind did not dare confess the truth to the people, we all knew what lay before us. If the Republicans talked about peace, in spite of the hoof beats of the Four Horsemen, we. knew the Democrats would meet them, opium-dream for dream. If these benighted charlatans at Philadelphia decided to conceal the truth, we could guess the tone of all the subsequent performance. Little by little the campaign had to degenerate into a contest to see who could promise the most certain and the most painless peace. There is a Gresham’s Law of politics by which lies drive the truth out of the market, as bad money drives good. Once it is established that either party, in a time of utter danger, is willing to promise a lotos-eater’s paradise, it may be assumed that the other party will soon be offering the same drug. The people naturally shun the knowledge that deadly war is directed against them. If either party, during such a crisis, is willing to tell the people that nothing dangerous is happening, the other party will end in the same ditch of dishonor.

Once the tone of the Philadelphia convention was established, once we knew that these men from the four corners of our country had no intention of living up to their trust, the whole dreadful summer could be foreseen. The choice of candidates could make things worse or better; nothing from that time forward could make things good.

II

As so often happens, the Democratic convention at Chicago turned out to be worse than the most pessimistic observer could foresee. Everything was done that man could think of to discredit the democratic process.

First, the President had waited much too long before letting it be known that he would take a third term. He had waited, I am convinced, in honest doubt, in the honest hope that he would find it possible to refuse the burden. Nevertheless, he had waited much too long. His candidacy was then committed to an air of cheapness and intrigue unless he did something spectacular at Chicago to lift it to a high plane. Some of his friends hoped that before the nominations began he might describe exactly his picture of the world tragedy which had led him to let his name go before the convention. He could then add that if the delegates disagreed with the picture, they should not nominate him. If they accepted the picture, they must give him a platform consonant with the somber facts. And they must give him Henry Wallace as Vice-Presidential candidate, because Mr. Wallace is a philosopher of history who knows what is happening to our half-ruined world and who could therefore be a help to the next President.

There was talk, in Chicago, of such a redeeming gesture. The convention, much as it would have loathed being exposed to the truth, would probably still have nominated Mr. Roosevelt. For by this time there was no one else. And the act of putting the truth on record before the nomination, thus making the nomination depend on an acceptance of the truth, might have saved the President from some of the worst squalors of the campaign.

As usual, the daring idea was dismissed as amateurish, and a compromise was made. These endless compromises are supposed to be the hallmark of the professional; but it is worth noting that they are also a main reason for the decay of our world. The idea that no man with sufficient experience to reach high office would ever be so amateurish as to say exactly what he thinks, is not an idea that makes for confidence in democracy.

The compromise in this case was that Mr. Roosevelt waited until after an evasive platform (flatly dishonest on the war question) had been drawn up, and until after the Presidential nomination; then, when his views could affect neither the mood nor the actions of the convention, he made a fairly strong statement of his opinions on the world danger, The difference between this and a similar (or stronger) statement before the platform or the nomination, is the difference between a routine compromise and the inspired daring with which Winston Churchill has remade British morale.

The lowlight of the Chicago convention was the symbolic sewer-man in the cellar, howling his lungs out for Mr. Roosevelt in the name of every state and region and class.

III

The conventions launched us on a campaign in which both parties were committed to ignoring the world-revolution as far as possible, to keeping America forever out of “foreign wars,” and to doing everything for Britain except anything which might inconvenience or endanger us. Yet this farrago of concealments and inconsistencies was the main issue of the campaign.

There were no decisive domestic issues, except a few between Mr. Willkie and Senator McNary. The Republican candidate accepted, one by one, all the major reforms of the New Deal and promised to maintain them. The attack on New Deal extravagance and debt could never get going, because the country knew that spending for defense had taken the place of deficit financing, and that for the time being the budget could not be balanced in any case. A few people thought the third term was a danger to our liberties; but there were not enough of these people to turn the election in any state.

There was nothing left but the war. Yet the rank-and-file politicians of both parties had promised the people that the war was not dangerous to us, that England would win, that if she didn’t win it wouldn’t matter, that we were doing marvels for the British, that nothing we were doing for the British could possibly involve us in trouble, that we stood eternally for freedom and against the dictators, that only flighty or war-loving people would speak rudely of Mussolini. Out of those dishonorable promises came a campaign that will stand forever as a classic picture of the Gresham’s Law of politics.

By early September two things were clear. First, because of the forthrightness of many of Mr. Roosevelt’s past statements on the war, all the appeasers, all the peace-mongers, and all the outright pro-Nazis were gathering about Mr. Willkie. This was not Mr. Willkie’s fault in the first place; but it was to prove his undoing. Second, since there was no domestic issue that interested anybody (unless the feeling on the part of many labor groups that Mr. Willkie wouldn’t live up to his liberal promises could be called an issue), and since the appeasers were gathering in the Republican camp, Mr. Willkie was bound to be subjected to enormous pressure to make an issue of war versus peace. Nothing could be more false than such an issue. Nothing could be more dangerous to the national welfare. Yet it was in the cards from those first ugly days at Philadelphia that October would see us bandying false promises about an impossible peace.

Unless Willkie had been the great man that his friends described in the pre-nomination period, there was nothing else he could do. Slowly the appeasers gathered in his camp: Hoover, Lindbergh, Ford, General Wood, Hiram Johnson, McNary, Joe Martin (who opposed the repeal of the embargo). Slowly the sad truth became clear: Willkie didn’t have a chance to win on domestic issues. He clearly couldn’t win by promising a more dynamic foreign policy than the President’s. So the only thing left him was to promise peace. Historians may have trouble in deciding whether to honor Willkie for holding out as long as he did, or to dishonor him for giving in at the end.

Anyway, he did give in. The last weeks of the campaign were made horrible by the Republican attempt to prove that a vote for Willkie meant a vote for eternal peace, whereas a vote for Roosevelt meant a vote for sending “our boys” to far-off battle fields. The final ignominy came when Roosevelt fell into the trap and began promising that he, too, would see to it that Americans never touched a foreign war.

Most people knew that neither candidate, if elected, would have a free choice between peace and war. The choice would be determined by events three thousand miles away. Most people knew that neither candidate was a big enough fool to believe what he was saying on the war-and-peace issue. But the deep dishonesty of the conventions, the refusal at that time of any national leader to speak out boldly and clearly, meant that during the last passionate and crazy weeks of the campaign the country could not save itself from this unworthy peace-mongering.

It is said that the conventions don’t matter, that the platforms don’t matter, that the nominee always makes his own platform in the end. It is true that details of the platform are often changed or ignored by the candidate; but it is not true that the tone of the conventions and the platforms is unimportant. That tone reveals whether on the major issues of the year the politicians are serious or trivial, honest or lying. When the conventions showed they were in favor of triviality and deceit, there was no more hope that America would face her obligations to the world and to the future until after November fifth. Whether that date would be forever too late was a question which depended on Adolf Hitler. If Hitler were successful during the months in which we sank into our political opium-dream, America would have no second chance to save her last ally and to keep the battle out of her own hemisphere. Strangely enough this reckless gambling on the success or failure of other people’s armies is called “practical politics.” The attempt to meet fateful issues face to face, and on time, is called “amateur idealism.” Yet “practical politics,” as the phrase is used in America, has recently led seven nations to the grave.

IV

After the conventions, many of us who had previously supported Mr. Roosevelt found ourselves undecided. The President had missed his dramatic chance for honesty. Mr. Willkie was an unknown quantity; but it was clear that he could win enthusiasm and devotion from those about him. So in early August there were millions of ex-Roosevelt voters prepared to vote either way. By middle September most of us had turned back to the President.

I think there were two main reasons. The first was our disappointment in the quality of Mr. Willkie’s mind. We had been told that here was a man with a philosophy of politics and history, and with a clean, clear mind that saw how America could save her economy and her freedom in the midst of the gathering darkness. What we found (or what we thought we found) during the campaign was a mind of amazing ambiguity and confusion. Mr. Willkie, the amateur, seemed to have less difficulty than the toughest professional in standing on two contradictory propositions at the same time. But he was never able to make us understand the economic structure of his “redeemed” America which would carry forward all the New Deal reforms and at the same time contain all the best features of old-fashioned laissez faire capitalism. This part of his campaign seemed to us either chaos or humbug, and in either case undesirable.

The second reason why many of us returned to Mr. Roosevelt was that the appeasers of all the world, here and abroad, chose Willkie as their champion. This was a disaster which Mr. Willkie did not deserve; yet for part of it he was to blame. He chose McNary and Joe Martin as close associates. He applauded Hiram Johnson and welcomed John Lewis. And he did nothing to rid himself of the increasing burden of Herbert Hoover, who emerged during the summer as the foremost enemy of those who would teach America to save her life and soul while there is still time.

By October it was clear that the defeat of Mr. Roosevelt would mean a victory for appeasement in every corner of the world. It would be worth countless airplanes to Hitler; it would be worth a major military victory. And one of the strangest features of the campaign was that those of us who realized this fact could not in conscience carry the story to the people.

It would have been dishonest and unjust to accuse Mr. Willkie of being an appeaser. It is never a cogent or a fair argument to say that a man should be judged by the worst of the people who gather around him. Yet the truth is that a Willkie victory would have discouraged free men everywhere : sabotage in Denmark would have diminished; Chinese heroism would have weakened; and in the skies and the waters around Great Britain men would have fought less doggedly against their terrible odds. In our own country the Hoovers and the Lindberghs would have gone more hopefully about their task of destroying America’s will to resist.

Yet none of these things could be proved in advance. They are all obvious today, as a result of the reception of the election-news in the rest of the world. To say them in advance would have been to attack Mr. Willkie on grounds where he had not deserved attack and on the basis of a feeling that could not be documented. All we could do was pray that the American people would pick the same vague feeling out of the air, and would vote accordingly. Miraculously, they did so.

By mid-September the people had caught the feeling that Roosevelt was a symbol of world-democracy. An almost united press told them that a third term meant dictatorship and that the New Deal meant socialism. Disliking both dictatorship and socialism, they re-elected Mr. Roosevelt as the best way of showing that they did not want the world revolution to go against democracy. And they did it in almost every state—which is a happy sign that none of the large foreign-origin groups voted as a unit against Mr. Roosevelt, the democracy-symbol.

Yet in spite of feeling strongly that the best man won, I find little comfort in the story of this campaign. If the three-months holiday from serious thinking does not in the end prove fatal to our side in the war, it will be because Hitler’s timetable went wrong in Europe, not because we showed ourselves worthy of freedom here at home. Hitler had presented our system with the final challenge. He chose this summer as the decisive summer in his revolution because he contemptuously assumed that we were too habit-bound to face life soberly during a Presidential campaign. And he proved to be right.

From the first dejecting days before the Republican convention met to the last days of frantic competitive peace-mongering, the American leaders failed of their duty. Most of the American press abetted them; and the people, therefore, were not given a chance.

Fortunately, Hitler, who was so right about our weaknesses, was less right in his low estimate of the British. Because the British fooled our common enemy we have now a second chance, in spite of the election campaign, to face in time the harsh facts of the world around us. But unless our post-election leadership is more bold and honest than that of the previous sickly months, the second chance will go the way of the first.

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