Roosevelt Myth - John T. Flynn

War Clouds

While the shadows of the depression were lengthening over America, the war clouds grew darker over Europe. The First World War was the inevitable result of 50 years of European history. It began with the invasion of Serbia by Austria, as the Second World War began with the invasion of Poland by Germany and Russia. But the invasion of Serbia was no more the cause of World War I than the invasion of Poland was the cause of World War II.

In each case the rape of a small country was merely the last step in a long series of accumulating causes that made this last step inevitable.

For 70 years all Europe had been developing along the same lines—(1) extending social services beyond the capacity of the State to support; (2) using militarism as a means of employing men in the army, and in factories to supply the army; (3) paying for all this with vast government debts; and (4) the gradual extension of radical socialist ideas throughout Europe. The First World War interrupted but did not end these drifts. The new European governments moved as fast as possible into militaristic programs. The leftwing parties were powerful in the governments and used that power to develop on a greater scale than ever the Welfare State, committed to jobs and security for all.

In Germany the use of militarism to support the economic system by providing jobs was delayed by the Treaty of Versailles. But Hitler cast off that chain and proceeded to do what all other governments were doing—develop the Welfare State with jobs for all, security for all and an army that would provide a million jobs in the ranks and two million in the factories to produce arms, uniforms and food for the army. Everywhere militarism was the biggest of all the industries. What Hitler did in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Metaxas in Greece and various other dictators in other countries was merely the end result of every attempt to set up the Welfare State. It cannot work under a democratic government because it must have a dictator to enforce its harsh policies. The welfare state cannot operate without the police state.

Everywhere in Europe the armies were drilling; the shovel squads were busy in the forests and the poor and unemployed were getting their handouts from German, Italian, Austrian, Greek, Yugoslavian and other Harry Hopkinses. The arms factories, too, were busy, but the burden of all this upon the people was intolerable. To a degree people could be subjugated to these massive controls and exactions by the police authority of the absolute state, but one other weapon was also essential and that was fear. Neither the people of Germany nor Italy nor any other country could have been subjected indefinitely to the crushing taxation and humiliating controls unless they were kept in a state of fear. Control over the minds of men became as important to the dictator as his armies and police. And as it happened, the European militarist-welfare-police states had at their disposal two of the mightiest instruments of propaganda that the world has ever known—the radio and the motion pictures.

Everywhere the hate campaigns were rolling along. Every population in Europe was being terrified by the radio and the motion pictures with fears of their neighbors. After 1933 nothing could avert war in Europe. It was just a question of how long it could be held off and at just what precise point it would break. It had to come soon. By 1936 Hitler was strong enough to denounce the Versailles and Locarno pacts and send his troops into the demilitarized Rhineland without France or England raising a hand. Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia.

As 1937 opened and Roosevelt began his second term, the smell of war filled the air from four directions—from Spain, Japan, Italy and Germany. The first shadow of the returning depression came in July in America and it was in July that Japan began, at the Marco Polo Bridge, the invasion of Northern China and within a month had taken possession of Peiping and invaded Shanghai.

Early in 1938, when Roosevelt was having so many blue days with his cabinet about the return of the depression, Hitler in a series of swift shocks sent the German columns to seize Austria and declared that Austria had ceased to exist as a nation. He had said there were ten million Germans outside the borders of Germany who must be reclaimed for the fatherland. By the Austrian coup he got seven million. But there still remained three million in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. That became his next objective and he let the world know it.

All through the Spring and Summer of 1938, Hitler was storming at Czechoslovakia. France and Britain began to speak openly about fighting. By April, France made it clear she would live up to her treaty with the Czechs if Germany attacked and by the end of May the Czechs were ordered to their war stations. German armored divisions were moving up to the Czech border and the crisis was approaching. Clashes were occurring on the Czech frontier. Chamberlain and Daladier were putting pressure on Hitler. Hitler demanded the Sudeten. Bomb-proof dugouts were being rushed in Hyde Park and gas-mask stations were being set up in Piccadilly. Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini went to Munich on September 29, 1938 for a talk with Hitler.

There an agreement was reached by which the whole Sudeten area was surrendered to Germany and Chamberlain went back to London with his famous announcement that he brought back "peace in our time." But no one believed it. Hitler immediately resumed his agitation against Czechoslovakia.

As Hitler's legions rolled into Czechoslovakia, Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles claimed over the radio that Roosevelt had sent a personal message to Mussolini begging him to intervene and that, on this request, Mussolini had done so. As a result, Hitler had halted his soldiers and sent an invitation to Chamberlain to come to Munich. Five days later Secretary of War Woodring made the same claim. And the White House secretariat put out a record of all the messages from the President synchronized with the events in Munich to prove that Roosevelt had turned the scales for peace. Later, in the 1940 campaign, Willkie charged that Roosevelt had boasted of his part in the appeasement. Secretary Hull indignantly denied this and asserted that the President had "never telephoned to Mussolini" as charged by Willkie. However, in Mr. Hull's more recently published memoirs, he forgot that disclaimer and he himself boasted that the President sent a "message to Mussolini" and one to Hitler. He wrote "whether the actions taken by the President brought about these results it is impossible to say. But undoubtedly they exercised considerable influence" and he produced proudly a letter from King George VI to the President saying: "I have little doubt that your efforts contributed largely to the result." Whether they did or not the President's office and his agents were loud in their claims that he had brought about the Munich appeasement.

Every man who followed the course of international affairs knew what Hitler was driving at. He was driving at Russia. Of course he had a claim on Poland for the restoration of the Polish Corridor and it was inevitable that he would fight for that. But that was a minor objective. Hitler had set himself up as the great enemy of Communism, which was becoming a menace all over Europe. But he had far more practical reasons for his Russian ambitions than the mere "defense" of western civilization against Communism. What Hitler really wanted was first to smash the Communist government in Russia and second to seize the Ukraine and the Caucasus with the vast resources of those regions. He intended to rip them out of the Soviet Union and bring them under German control where he would have free and complete access to their vast oil, mineral, timber, chemical and agricultural products. When Hitler would undertake this aggressive enterprise would depend upon his own judgment as to when the German armies were ready and it began to look as if they were pretty nearly ready in 1938.

These war moves were of profound interest to the American people. There was a general feeling that our well-intentioned entry into the First World War had been ill-advised, that none of the grandiose moral objectives had been achieved, that all the tall talk about ending war forever and bringing a reign of peace through the League had been a ghastly failure, that our allies had taunted us with our selfishness for making money out of the war, asked for cancellation of the war debts and called us Uncle Shylock. There was a feeling that we had been drawn into the war through the ill-considered day-to-day decisions made by the administration then in power and that we had been lured in by permitting ourselves to tap the resources of war as an opportunity for business prosperity.

Americans were generally decided that we would not make that mistake again and out of this grew the now famous Neutrality legislation. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, in his memoirs, has denounced the Special Senate Committee Investigating the Munitions Industry, which was headed by Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, for having put upon our statute books this Neutrality Act. It is possible that Secretary Hull to this day does not know how the Neutrality Act came to be passed, since the President was in the habit—as Mr. Hull himself has demonstrated—of carrying out important projects in international affairs without consulting his Secretary of State.

The origin of the Neutrality Act has never, I believe, been made public before. The writer was in a position to know the facts and now states them for the first time. I was acting as one of the advisers of the Nye Committee. On March 20, 1935, Senator Nye brought the Committee into executive session. There he informed the members and myself that he had just received a message from the President requesting him to bring the Committee or as many members as possible with him to the White House at once. I do not recall how many members went with Senator Nye, but they went at once and there the President proceeded to expatiate at some length upon the causes of war, based upon his own personal experiences in war.

He then declared that he thought the wise thing for the Committee to do would be to prepare an act which would guarantee, in the event of a European war, the absolute neutrality of the American people. This was the first proposal for a Neutrality Act and it came from the President of the United States, Mr. Hull's superior at the time. Several senators expressed prompt agreement. The President then said he thought William Jennings Bryan was right in 1916 on this subject. Senator Bennett Clark, whose father had been defeated for the presidential nomination by Bryan's leadership, laughed a little sardonically and said "Well, so far as I am concerned, I have no use for William Jennings Bryan or any of the things he stood for, but I do agree with him on that." This referred to the position taken by Bryan that American citizens should be prohibited from traveling on foreign ships in time of war or on American ships into the war zones.

The Committee was greatly pleased with the President's suggestion and left the White House in complete agreement with him. Senator Nye later prepared, after consultation with his colleagues, the first draft of the famous Neutrality Act, which generally was along the lines suggested by the President. It was introduced in the Senate and House and passed by very large majorities. It had a time limit of two years and at the expiration of the time limit it was passed again by enormous majorities in both houses.

The President promptly applied the law with a good deal of gusto when Mussolini attacked Ethiopia, and when the Spanish Civil War broke out and the President found the Act did not apply to civil wars but only to wars between countries, he sent for Senator Nye, requested him to have the law amended immediately to apply to civil war, all of which was done and the President promptly declared the Neutrality Act in force as to Spain.

In the 1936 campaign, in the famous address at Chautauqua already referred to, the President described the conditions which bring countries into war. He had said: "Industrial and agricultural production having a war market may give immense fortunes to a few men. For a nation as a whole it produces disaster." He described how war profits had sterilized our farms, extended monopoly, produced unjustified expansion of industry and a price level that dislocated relations between debtor and creditor. And then he said with complete approval: "The Congress of the United States has given me certain authority to provide safeguards of American neutrality in case of war," and he warned the nation that this was not enough unless the President himself was one who was willing to use the authority.

Yet for years writers dealing with this subject have referred to the Neutrality Acts as if they were something that had been imposed on the President against his better judgment and for the purpose of hamstringing him in the conduct of foreign affairs. The whole policy of the Neutrality Acts has been referred to as the "neutrality blunder" as if it were the blunder of the President's critics instead of one in which he had not only shared but which he had actually initiated. This is just one more thing the President did in the field of foreign affairs without consulting Mr. Hull and he probably never confided to him that he had originated the idea.

Roosevelt had said in his 1936 campaign that "the effective maintenance of American neutrality depends today as in the past on the wisdom and determination of whoever at the moment occupies the office of President of the United States and Secretary of State." And he had warned that in the event of war abroad we would have to be on guard against those seeking "fool's gold," those who would find it hard to look beyond, "to realize the inevitable penalties, the inevitable day of reckoning that comes from a false prosperity." We can keep out of war, he promised, "if those who watch and desire have a sufficiently detailed understanding of international affairs to make certain that the small decisions of today do not lead toward war and if at the same time they possess the courage to say no to those who selfishly or unwisely would lead us into war." This is what was called isolationism.

And now war in Asia was a fact—a vast war with a million Japanese soldiers in China. There was a civil war in Spain which had aroused differing elements of our people, and Hitler's legions were mobilized for the inevitable plunge eastward into Poland and then into Russia.

The fatal moment was at hand when the day-to-day decisions of the President of the United States would lead us in one direction or the other and Roosevelt was the President. Already the war orders were coming fast. England had set up a $7,500,000,000 war preparation fund. Germany, France, England, Italy, China, Japan were all clamoring for steel, scrap iron, oil, planes, plane parts. The time was here when "thousands of Americans who, seeking immediate riches, fool's gold, would attempt to break down or evade our neutrality."

What would the President do?

Here he was with a depression on his hands—eleven million men out of work, the whole fabric of his policy in tatters, his promise only a few months old to balance the budget still fresh in the minds of the people and yet the pressing necessity, as he put it himself, of spending two or three billion a year of deficit money and, most serious of all, as he told Jim Farley—no way to spend it.

Here now was a gift from the gods—and from the gods of war at that. Here was the chance to spend. Here now was something the federal government could really spend money on—military and naval preparations.

Obviously, in the disturbed state of the world, something could be said for this. But Roosevelt in 1932 had denounced Hoover for spending so much on the army and navy. Now he promptly set off on an immense program of military and naval expenditures—which was proper and in which Congress concurred—but without making any retrenchment in the enormous outlays he was putting out on all the other New Deal departments of spending, all with borrowed money and more government debt. He simply increased his government borrowing. He was now committed all-out to the theory which the Planners and the Spenders had sold him, that government debt means nothing. He could now spread his wings for a grand flight under the influence of this new theory without troubling his soul about the economic consequences.

In 1936, when Mussolini attacked Ethiopia, the President had promptly applied the Neutrality Act. When the Civil War began in Spain, as we have seen he promptly urged the Act's amendment to cover that situation. But in 1937, when Japan invaded China, we were in a depression and this time he refused to apply the Neutrality Act and permitted shipments to China and Japan from this country. One excuse was that there was no declaration of war, which was silly. The Neutrality Act did not require a declaration of war by an aggressor; it merely required the fact of war. The other reason was that we were China's only source of defense materials, in spite of the fact that we were shipping six times as much to Japan as we were shipping to China. What the President's New Deal needed now was that war trade with Japan. The President defied the mandatory provisions of the Neutrality Act because his administration required that at this moment America should get a little of that "fool's gold" from Japan.

In September, 1937 two old gentlemen—Cordell Hull and Norman Davis—put their heads together and decided the United States was getting too isolationist. They decided "some day-to-day decisions" should be made to bring us a little closer to the brawl that was brewing in Europe. They went to Roosevelt and sold him the idea that he should make a speech on "international cooperation." Roosevelt readily agreed. The two of them proceeded to write the speech. Davis undoubtedly did it because Hull could hardly write a decent speech for himself. And this speech Roosevelt delivered on October 5, 1937 at Chicago. It was the celebrated "quarantine" speech which created a sensation. He talked of "homicides raging over the world, destroying all the works of civilization." Then he said:

"If those things come to pass in other parts of the world let no one imagine that America will escape . . . that this hemisphere will not be attacked and that it will continue to tranquilly and peacefully carry on the ethics and arts of civilization . . . If those days come there will be no safety in arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. The storm will rage until every flower of culture is trampled and all human beings are leveled in a vast chaos . . .

"It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease spreads the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients against the spread of the disease . . . War is a contagion whether it be declared or undeclared. It can engulf states and peoples distant from the original scene of hostility. We are determined to keep out of war, yet we cannot assure ourselves against the disastrous effects of war and the danger of involvement. We are adopting such measures as will minimize our risk of involvement but we cannot have complete protection in a world of disorder in which confidence and security have broken down."

Ernest Lindley, a New Deal journalist, at a press conference asked the President if the speech was a repudiation of neutrality. When Roosevelt answered there was no conflict between such a program and neutrality, Lindley replied that they seemed to be at opposite ends of the poles. Roosevelt refused to say what he meant by quarantining an aggressor.

Hull and Davis had not been responsible for the quarantine idea in the speech. The speech went further than they thought it ought to have gone, but not, of course, further than they were willing to go. They were eager for America to get into a war if it came. But they felt the people had to be drawn along a little at a time. They wanted the President to frighten the people a little as a starter. But he increased the recommended dose. The reaction was so violent that they felt it put back by at least six months the purpose they had in mind—rousing America to a warlike mood.

Two months later an American gunboat, the Panay, was bombed in the Yangtse River in China in the heart of the Sino-Japanese war area. Japan immediately apologized and agreed to pay full damages and to punish the guilty officers. Had the President applied the Neutrality Act, as he was in duty-bound to do—this boat would not have been protecting American oil tankers delivering oil in the midst of two warring armies in China. The purpose of the Neutrality Act was to avoid precisely an incident like this. However, following the Panay incident, Mr. Hull began to churn up as much war spirit as possible and through the radio and the movies frantic efforts were made to whip up the anger of the American people.

In January, 1938, I talked with one of the President's most intimate advisers. I asked him if the President knew we were in a depression. He said that of course he did. I asked what the President proposed to do. He answered: "Resume spending." I then suggested he would find difficulty in getting objects on which the federal government could spend. He said he knew that. What, then, I asked, will the President spend on? He laughed and replied in a single word: "Battleships." I asked why. He said: "You know we are going to have a war." And when I asked whom we were going to fight he said "Japan" and when I asked where and what about, he said "in South America." "Well," I said, "you are moving logically there. If your only hope is spending and the only thing you have to spend on is national defense, then you have got to have an enemy to defend against and a war in prospect."

Apparently the best hope of a war at that moment for popular consumption was with the Japs, who had just sunk the Panay, and as there was little chance of arousing the American people to fight around Japan, South America seemed a more likely battleground to stimulate our fears and emotions. There is nothing new about this. Kings and ministers have toyed with this device for ages and convinced themselves they were acting wisely and nobly.