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Keep America Out of War

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

Whatever others may contend, the United States is not presently neutral in the European war. Neutrality means a strict impartiality of attitude and conduct.

Public discussion of the problems of neutrality and of our relation to the present European war has diminished considerably since the passage of the so-called Neutrality Act. Our determination to stay out of the current phase of Europe’s wars has not been weakened; on the contrary, the belief that we can keep out has been strengthened by events in Europe. Adequate consideration, however, is not being given to our present position and the problems inherent in it.

We have accepted the Act as being definitive of our status and have felt more secure on the assumption that we were neutrals because it declares that we are. But a French correspondent has acutely observed that the fundamental error in the debate on the so-called Neutrality Act lay in the fact that no one was neutral or wanted to preserve neutrality. The objective was to prevent the United States from being accidentally embroiled in the European conflict. This correspondent asserts that the possibility of accidental involvement is slight, and classes this country as a non-combatant belligerent.

While one may disagree with the definition of neutrality that underlies his observations, there is a startling degree of truth in the point that he makes. It curiously underlines President Wilson’s admission to a secret session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that we would have gotten into that conflict even if Germany had not committed any act of war or injustice to our citizens. Few who study the record with reference to the development of our policy of loans to the Allies in that war can avoid the conclusion that we were “non-combatant belligerents” from the early part of the war although then, too, we designated ourselves as neutral. Candor compels us to acknowledge that we are moving in the same direction in the present conflict.

It must be conceded that on the basis of current operations on the various fronts, active military participation on our part seems remote. Nor is military participation likely if the British and French win in a comparatively short time. Nevertheless, the issue we face and the decision we must make cannot be based on either of these hypotheses, nor can it be made on the consideration of immediate active military participation. The danger is not one of accidental embroilment but of emotional and economic involvement that would irretrievably enmesh us in the present phase of Europe’s age-old problem. We must not commit ourselves to the major burdens of the war while trying to safeguard ourselves from some of its minor manifestations. We must not be falsely assured by deceptive words and slogans.

The real peril of the war lies not in military defeat but in the fact of war itself. To us, active military participation is of minor consequence when compared with the economic disruption that follows any form of active participation in war. While the last war cost us 350,000 lives and twenty-two billion dollars, its catastrophic effect on our economy is still felt, after twenty years, in unemployment, agricultural impoverishment, and industrial maladjustment. The productive forces of our national life were unleashed to respond to the needs of destruction, and we still count the cost in lawlessness, distrust, disillusionment, and the countless ills that follow from shattered morality and shaken religious faith.

There are those who urge that we would profit by a war boom, They say if war came our unemployment problem would vanish. It is well that this false but generally accepted notion has been punctured by events in England and France. Both of these countries have found that they are faced with an unemployment problem in the midst of a war. Samuel Grafton, writing in The New York Post, recently said:

A fact which hits out like a slap is the bland announcement that there are 1,400,000 unemployed adults in England today. They are not needed. Even the strain of immense wartime production doesn’t require their services. A nation which is saving bits of old rubber tires, scraps of bone and waste paper to win the war has no use for 1,400,000 human beings. . . . England’s unemployment is the most shattering fact in Western civilization today. It roars louder than the war.

From England’s experience it appears that our own jobless could not be absorbed in war work or in the army itself. Worse still, war would cost labor dearly in hard-won rights and privileges.

Moreover, the cost of the war machine will not, in the final analysis, be borne by the foreign belligerents. Already the fallacy underlying the cash-and-carry provisions of the so-called Neutrality Act has been exploded. Responsible governmental authorities now admit that the United States will have to finance the cost of peace. Proposals have already been advanced to “de-sterilize” our vast gold hoard to provide capital when a financially bankrupt Europe is once again at peace. Obviously, then, cash-and-carry is but a deceptive phrase. It hides the fact that the United States will be called upon to give back the European credits which are now being employed to finance their war purchases. We have already begun to pay for World War II—just as surely as if the cost were a part of our national budget.

The threat of a staggering debt and resultant national bankruptcy is fatal to any form of government. But particularly dangerous to democratic processes is the regimentation and dictatorship which are a part of modern war. The Senate Munitions Investigating Committee performed a very real service by laying bare the unhappy behind-the-scenes story of the last war and revealing the plans already formulated for the conduct of the next one. The conclusion reached by the committee and expressed in its report on proposed industrial mobilization plans is significant: “The price of a war may be actual operating dictatorship, under military control, in this country.” The same report quotes the Chairman of the War Industries Board during the last war as saying that modern war embraces “everyone from the soldier in the most forward lines to the humblest citizen in the remotest hamlet in the rear.”

Most of these plans are as dangerous to the principles of democracy as they are to human welfare. Citizens of our country have seen enough of dictatorships in the modern world to look on the creation of a dictatorship in our country —even in wartime—with abhorrence. What assurance can be given that power, once handed over to a few for the duration of a war, will be returned unabused when the emergency is over? War creates dictators, and rarely deposes them. Authorities who have considered the possibility of America’s being drawn into the war all seem to agree that whether we like it or not, participation in another war would mean setting up in this country a dictatorship as absolute as any the world has ever known. With the loss of civil rights, guaranteed by centuries of American tradition, we might easily lose our cherished democratic government.

It may be said that this is painting too black a picture. But already the heads of government departments in Washington have been asked to report their military experience. Already government agencies have been asked to prepare blueprints for action if war should come. Already those in the several information services of the government have been interviewed to determine their fitness to serve on propaganda committees. War measures have been drawn up by which the machinery of military dictatorship could be set in motion overnight.

If we examine our internal economy honestly, we must admit that we are not qualified to offer our solution as an example to the world. We have faced a few, but have avoided many, of our major problems. We still have continuous unemployment, industrial strife, tariff wars between the states, distrust and disillusionment. We have been unable as yet to cope with the problems of the distribution of goods and their adequate and equitable consumption within our own boundaries.

These problems are manifold and pressing. They require our undivided attention. No government can long endure with millions of its people in want. Leaders of other countries have reason to be caustic when they can point to hunger and privation in a land bulging with plenty. The preservation of democratic institutions is dependent upon more than military and naval strength. Employment for the nine to ten million workers who through no fault of their own are without jobs, and fair prices for farm products—these will do more to preserve democracy in the United States than all the armies and navies in the world. So long as nine million people are without work; so long as many more millions of men, women, and children live on relief rations or less; so long as millions have insufficient clothing and live in tents and hovels; just so long have we failed to prove that democracy is the best form of government.

The solution of our domestic problems is the first line of our defense. Give to a people who already enjoy the blessings of liberty and freedom the added opportunity to live in modest comfort and we will need to fear neither foreign aggression nor the penetration of economic and social ideologies. The strength we have and the progress we have made arise not from our size, our resources, our peoples, or our industry, but from the fusing of all of these. The United States, by reason of its geographic location and by reason of its military and naval defenses, is free and can best serve the cause of the powers in Europe, the world, and most important of all, democracy, by achieving true neutrality. At least one nation must preserve its reason, its authority, and its strength for civilization.

“But there is one way above all others in which the United States can aid the European democracies. Let her regain and maintain her normal prosperity. A prosperous United States exerts, directly and indirectly, an immense beneficent force upon world affairs. A United States thrown into financial and economic collapse spreads evil far and wide, and weakens France and England just at the time when they have most need to be strong.”

These are not the words of an American idealist, a pacifist or an isolationist. The author is the Right Honorable Winston Churchill, who is once again Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty. This he believed in December, 1937, and this effectively answers those who would take us into another war “to make the world safe for democracy.”

Now is the time for careful, sensible and sober thinking. Whatever our feelings about the nightmare in Europe, our first positive action must be to set our own economic house in order. We must resolve the challenging paradox of want in the midst of plenty, and we must never forget that it would be worse than the repetition of a tragic farce for us again to attempt to make the world safe for democracy until, as the world’s richest nation, we have demonstrated that democracy is safe for the world.

There is no victor in war. Our contribution can be a long step forward in the solution of these problems and the attainment of a more unified and peaceful economy. Only then, when we have peace at home, will we be able to preach peace abroad.

Karl Marx preached world revolution by force. Thomas Jefferson visualized world revolution through the example to be set by the United States for the people of the world. It is not too late to realize Jefferson’s dream if we but turn our eyes and our minds to our own domestic problems.


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