Mr. Roosevelt's Magic
But a sober rereading of the speech shows how consummately Mr. Roosevelt displayed his talent for leaving almost all the important things unsaid. Not that the speech lacked importance for what it did say. It was Mr. Roosevelt's first significant and sustained official utterance on the international situation since his ill-starred incursion into the London conference in the mad July days of 1933. It carried on two Wilsonian traditions: that of seeking to distinguish between European rulers and the desires of the people themselves, and that of reading a vigorous lecture on democracy and autocracy. It was, however, Wilson with a difference. Since Wilson's time the national and international scenes have more clearly emerged. It was possible for Mr. Roosevelt to draw a clear relationship between the fascist imperialism of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese militarists and the fascism of the American plutocrats. We may of course be overestimating the clarity with which Mr. Roosevelt sees this relation. Quite conceivably his main purpose was to capitalize on the widespread anti-war and anti-fascist sentiment in the country, and to bolster his failing prestige in domestic affairs by vigorous leadership in foreign affairs.
But generously interpreted, the President's international stand is more than a clever political device. Despite its overemphasis on the personal and ideological factors and its too easy assumption that Europe needs nothing more than an inner conversion on the part of Hitler and Mussolini, it does face the overwhelming reality of today. It is a recognition of the relation between fascism abroad and at home, between fascism and war, between fascism and the economic plutocracy. If the President had meant only to repeat the well-worn distinction between democracy and dictatorship, he would not so studiously have avoided mention of Soviet Russia. That he did so avoid, it is a tribute to his good sense, and proof of his intent to single out the fascist dictators as the imperialist war-makers.
In the domestic field Mr. Roosevelt's message was better as a manifesto than as a preface to legislative action. It was here that the speech became, as Paul Ward describes it elsewhere in this issue, a political rally, with the business of state being transacted under the klieg lights. It was here that the President showed himself complete master of the grammar of vituperation. Never has an American President so clearly attacked the finance-capitalists, the holding-company wizards, the corporation lawyers, and the whole resplendent array of big-business statesmanship. His attack, coming at a period of capitalistic crisis, is the most significant Presidential utterance we have had on the concentration of financial power in a capitalist state. There have been leftwing attacks on big business in abundance. But when an American President who is politically astute, realistic, sensitive to opinion, directs his Presidential message to such a sustained and considered attack, that becomes news--and history. It becomes an official recognition of the strains within our economic system, and of a basic inner cleavage of interest between those who would freeze the structure as it stands, even at the cost of destroying our culture, and those who still hope to take advantage of whatever flexibilities the system offers.
But Mr. Roosevelt must go farther. If he has not entirely shot his bolt, if he is not more adept at showmanship than at statesmanship, he must affix to the speech a real legislative program. This he reveals little intention of doing. The Supreme Court's invalidation of the AAA will force him and Congress into some sort of action on the agricultural issue. But his essential temper will still be that of a cautious administrator seeking to conserve and consolidate the gains he has already achieved, rather than of an aggressive leader pushing ahead with a program well begun.
The President's speech may be called his "standstill agreement." He has gone as far as the economic necessities of capitalist crisis coerced him into going, and as far as the outer limits of his patrician training and character have permitted him to go. By his references to taxation, the budget, and relief, by his very pointed emphasis upon the New Deal as a finished achievement rather than a fragmentary and incomplete program, he is serving notice that he will go no farther. His right foot is not to be budged a step backward, and his left foot is planted with equal firmness against any forward movement. History may find him frozen in his tracks. That is the meaning of his agile bows to both disarmament and a big navy, to a moratorium on taxes and an attack on big business, to a reduced relief budget and unctuously rhetorical questions on our duty to the unemployed. No man has ever shown greater dexterity in facing both ways than Mr. Roosevelt. Whether such a talent will be adequate either in saving the country or winning a campaign remains to be seen. Mr. Roosevelt got the jump on the Republicans; the Supreme Court has now got the jump on Mr. Roosevelt, effective only upon assumption of a contractual obligation to submit to a regulation which otherwise could not be enforced."
Justice Stone in his dissenting opinion, with Justices Brandeis and Cardozo concurring, said that this paragraph meant: "The government may give seeds to farmers but not condition the gift upon their being planted in places where they are most needed or even planted at all.... It may spend its money for the suppression of the boll weevil but may not compensate the farmers for suspending the growth of cotton in the infected areas." But the Administration's legal experts said it meant quite a different thing. They said it meant that all the Administration had to do to keep the AAA alive was to do away with the AAA contracts. If Justices Stone, Cardozo, and Brandeis were right and they, the experts, were wrong, at least their mistake would not be discovered until after November, if then, for by a simple trick they had in readiness the Administration could make the new AAA immune from court attack. In Massachusetts vs. Mellon, they pointed out, the Supreme Court had held that a taxpayer could not ask the courts to invalidate a federal tax unless he could show that the tax injured him individually and specifically. If we finance the AAA out of general revenues, said the legal wizards, no man or corporation will be able to get a foothold in the courts from which to attack it and bring it to the Supreme Court's attention.
Roosevelt thought it all a good idea. So did the AAA and the Department of Justice. If there were any misgivings, they were felt only by the Treasury Department, whose chief, Budget-Balancer Morgenthau, must have shuddered at the expense involved.
There now arose the question of a disguise, for the White House did not dare appear publicly to be thumbing its nose at the august Six-and-Three. One was ready at hand. For several months a committee of experts in the Department of Agriculture had been working up a series of disguises in anticipation of an adverse decision from the Supreme Court. Secretary Wallace picked out a relatively honest one--a simple domino, let us say. But Administrator Davis went out for one with whiskers, cowl, and a floor-sweeping robe, and Roosevelt backed him in that choice. Wallace, whose conscience has been bruised every time he allowed himself to look at the realities of agriculture a la New Deal, wanted to institute a program of scientific farming under which farmers would be bribed to be good farmers. Davis, however, knew that the farmers to whom the AAA caters do not want to be bribed to be good farmers; they want to be bribed to be rich farmers. Roosevelt could understand that, too.
As a result, there was hastily and secretly drafted a bill which perpetuates all the old objectives of the AAA, with only contracts omitted. What were "benefit payments" under the old AAA become "conditional payments" under the new. What was "crop control" becomes "soil conservation." And the c-1 program was given a further verbal twist. Farmers who had been paid for "doing nothing," as the Liberty League would have it, were now to be paid for "doing something," as the Administration would have it. The planter with a hundred acres in cotton, who under the old AAA would have been paid benefits for retiring forty of those acres, would be paid a bounty under the new AAA not for retiring those forty acres but for turning them into pasture, woodland, or fertility-restoring legumes. The result, of course, would be essentially the same--less cotton and a higher price for it. The result also would be the same with respect to the long-suffering share-croppers, except that there would be no contracts with 'cropper-protection clauses to embarrass the Administration.
As soon as the plan had begun to jell, Wallace sent out a call for all the national farm leaders to assemble in Washington. They came rushing, a hundred strong and aptly described by an observant farm journalist who said, "A 'farm leader' is a man who has no followers." I was assured by men of long intimacy with them that to describe them as the Matt Wolls of organized agriculture would be more than flattering. Like most of the high priests of the A. F. of L., these gentry who assembled Friday morning in Wallace's office were all small business men, drawing down fat salaries from the organizations they head and from the affiliated banks real estate, and insurance companies. At least one of the farm organizations represented has been shown by Congressional investigations to have made itself the well-paid tool at one time or another of all the major financial or industrial rackets in the country. The American Farm Bureau Federation, into whose leaders' hands the Administration maneuvered the reins of the conference, has been the servant of the power trust, the ship-subsidy grabbers, and a host of industrial tariff lobbies.
It was to help them maintain that pose and, by helping them, to secure their support for the disguised AAA that the Administration called this motley gang to Washington. The Administration was afraid that these men, unless coddled, would return to their old tricks, sell out to the highest bidder, and go roaring about the country demanding currency inflation, higher tariffs, export subsidies, the McNary-Haugen bill, or any one of half a dozen of agriculture's other traditional panaceas.
So the Administration's bill was kept in hiding, and for two days an elaborate pretext was kept up of "consulting the nation's farm leaders" and letting them shape the Administration's program. Adroit guidance of committee selections--including the selection of William H. Settle, Indianapolis head of a Farm Credit Administration adjunct, as chairman of the conference, and the appointment of Earl Smith, Administrator Davis's old pal from the Illinois Agricultural Association, to the "legislative-committee" chairmanship--insured promulgation of a set of recommendations fitting the Administration's program. To mane doubly sure of organization support, the recommendations were loosely drawn so that those organization leaders whose followers demand currency inflation, or higher tariffs, or export subsidies could claim to have forced an opening for their eventual inclusion when Congress gets the bill.
It was in precisely this fashion that the original Adjustment Act was drawn, and it too included all the assorted farm panaceas, the Administration forces in Congress having managed their acceptance on a discretionary rather than mandatory basis. It is probable that the new bill will follow the same course in Congress, with the Republican minority hiding behind the old McNary-Haugen bill while they inveigh against the Administration measure, only to vote for it in the end. All that remains is to find a way to make the thing work without compulsion or contracts, and to finance its probable cost of half a billion dollars.