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James Burnham

Pros and Cons Not Far Apart
in Congress Neutrality Act Dispute

The Much-Touted Conflict over the Neutrality Act Is
in The Last Analysis a Disagreement over
the Most Effective Means of Dragging
the People of the Country into War

(8 August 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 57, 8 August 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In almost all of the conflicts between Roosevelt and the anti-Roosevelt opposition in Congress, conflicts which during the present session of Congress have generally led to Roosevelt’s defeat, the bulk of the boss press has to one or another degree supported the opposition. To this general rule there is one outstanding exception: namely, the conflicts over foreign policy. Wherever Roosevelt and some section of Congress have differed on foreign policy, the boss press has overwhelmingly declared for Roosevelt.

The sharp struggle over the Neutrality Act has been a notorious example.

Pro and Con Close Together

The issue here, when all the smoke is cleared away, boiled down to very small potatoes. Roosevelt wanted the power to declare, by executive decree, unilateral embargoes on war munitions: that is, to embargo the shipment of war munitions from this country to another country which Roosevelt would declare was “at war” and was an “aggressor” in the war.

A large bloc in Congress did not want to grant this power to the President. It wished to retain a section of the old Neutrality Act which provides for an embargo on the shipment of munitions to either side, when a “state of war” is defined to exist by the President.

This Congressional bloc, for the time being, came out on top, and the President was forced to withdraw his demand. The boss press, led by the New York Times, condemned the Congressional bloc for sabotage of the national interests of the United States.

In this whole fight, there was a large element of contemptible farce. So far as the question of war or peace goes, the outcome doesn’t make a great deal of difference. Whichever law is on the books, the Sixty Families can still swing their power and resources in the direction where it suits them best – in the direction, that is, where the biggest profits lie. Nowadays “war munitions” are only a tiny part of what goes into a war: coal and petroleum and copper and cotton and rubber and food and iron are in the end more important than guns and military aircraft, both for the warring nation and for the economy of the exporting nation.

Consequently, whether an embargo on war munitions alone applies to one side or to both sides or to neither (as in the compromise “cash and carry” plan which is favored by a number of Congressmen) is not going to decide either who wins the war or how it entangles the United States. Moreover, the government and the bosses can always get around any embargo statutes, if they really wish to, by credit devices, transshipments, etc.

Ganged Up on War Referendum

It is furthermore interesting to note that in the heat generated by Roosevelt, Hull and the members of Congress over the Neutrality Act, all parties to the dispute managed to forget about the proposal for a war referendum, embodied in several bills submitted to Congress, and favored by the huge majority of the people. Can it be that part of the reason for the big argument over Neutrality was precisely to turn public attention away from the war referendum?

Nevertheless, making the proper discounts, a genuine difference between the two sides remains.

Roosevelt’s entire domestic program and policy have collapsed in an utter and complete breakdown. All that he can salvage from the dismal wreck of his once shining armor is his foreign policy. He knows clearly that his foreign policy has the fundamental perspective of a war of imperialist aggression, in which United States capitalism, mortally sick at home, would try to save itself by acquiring unchallenged dominance for exploitation of vast areas in Latin America, the Far East and even Europe.

From this premise comes the Lima Conference, the parade of Latin American dictators to Washington, the notes to Japan, the intervention in Europe, the huge armament increases.

But to carry out his perspective, Roosevelt wants and needs an absolutely free hand. He wants and takes a free hand in spending the armament billions; he closes the State Department files; he negotiates secretly. He does not want any “interference” from Congress; there are always a few Congressmen who are apt to ask embarrassing questions, who like to “investigate,” who might argue when the time for action comes. For these reasons, Roosevelt wants a Neutrality Act which leaves everything up to himself.

Big business has exactly the same fundamental perspective in foreign policy as has Roosevelt. And consequently, big business supports Roosevelt in foreign policy, whether it is a question of armaments or secret diplomacy or discretionary embargoes.

It should not be imagined that Congressmen are any less “patriotic” than the President, or that they will have any difficulty supporting the war when the day arrives. Indeed, many who were against Roosevelt in the Neutrality conflict explained that they took their position only because they didn’t think war was near: in other words, if they thought the crisis serious enough they would change at once.

Congressmen Must Face Constituencies

But two special factors operate on many of the Congressmen. The Republicans use the dispute here, as on other points, for factional advantage – to bring about another defeat in Roosevelt’s growing list, and to get an “anti-war” issue for next year’s campaign. And all Congressmen have got to go home and face their constituents at closer hand than the President. (The legislature is, in general, more subject to popular pressure than the executive.) Now the constituents are, of course, opposed to war; and many of them, especially in the Middle West, have a pretty good idea of the direction in which Roosevelt’s foreign policy is leading. Under such circumstances, a vote against the unilateral, discretionary embargo is highly desirable if the Congressmen want to see a friendly crowd when they gel to the home-town station after their strenuous seven months of serving their country.

The conflict over the Neutrality Act, like other similar disputes in all imperialist governments, is in the last analysis a disagreement over the most effective means of dragging the country into war.

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