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"War Plots" and Politics
By Kenneth G. Crawford
February 11, 1939
Vol. 148, No. 7, p. 167-168
Washington, February 6
To a considerable section of the press, domestic as well as foreign, President Roosevelt marched to the Rhine last week and then beat a hasty retreat back to Potomac: first he authorized the sale of bombers to the French and then repudiated the notion that he had entered into some sort of secret European military alliance that would take the United States down the path to war. That there is a difference between a military alliance and a decision to sell, for cash, desperately needed defensive equipment to one of the menaced European democracies failed to penetrate the intellects in editorial front offices, or if it did, the distinction was deliberately ignored, as it was by leaders of the Senate isolationist bloc. In any event, the public here and abroad was informed by the President at his press conference on February 3 that he was still against entangling all alliances.
Actually, the President's four-point pronouncement on foreign policy changed neither his position nor his direction. He had said in his annual message to Congress four weeks earlier that he proposed to give force to American ideals by action stronger than words but short of war. He had informed members of the Military Affairs Committee at a private conference on January 31 that he intended to sell planes to France. As far back as his Chicago quarantine speech in 1937 this policy had been in process of formulation. Only a few weeks before the historic press conference, it had been invoked in both a positive and a negative senseby the sale of fighting planes to Great Britain and by public exposure of an airplane company which sold equipment to Japan in the face of a request not to. There can be no doubt that the President will go through with the French plane deal, exercising his authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and his constitutional prerogative of dealing with foreign powers. His Senatorial critics may tear their togas to ribbons in protest, but they cannot stop him.
Why, then, the commotion? Most of the explanation emerges from an examination of its sources. Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota was the first to get his breath after the President had given the lie direct to the "boob" responsible for the story that he (Roosevelt) had spoken of the Rhine as our new defensive frontier. Nye was one of the five Senators through whom the story of what went on at that conference leaked out, but he was not responsible for the application of Stanley Baldwin's phrase to the Roosevelt policy. (No one in Washington was responsible. It first appeared in dispatches from Europe giving the reaction to the news of the secret conference.) Nye's somewhat self-conscious answer was the counter-question: Where, then, is our new frontier? It must be remembered that the North Dakota Senator is a professional neutral. He lectures on the subject throughout the country, and it is good advertising for him to jump into every controversy over it. Only once since he made himself famous as the munitions investigator has he abandoned strict isolationism. That was just before his 1938 campaign when he advocated lifting the Spanish embargo, aroused Catholic opposition, and thus created an issue which helped him win reelection.
With Nye stands Bennett Clark of Missouri, a more consistent and able isolationist, who dreams or pushing Roosevelt into a Wilsonian position and riding past him into the White House. Clark seems to be willing to stake his political future on the bet that public opinion, in it showdown, would support isolationism as against cooperation with the democracies to check the Western dictatorships. Third bird in the triumvirate of isolationist leaders is Hiram Johnson of California, who suffers from severe nostalgia for the days when he amounted to something as one of the little band of wilful, finally victorious, battlers against Wilson and the League of Nations. These leaders have gathered to themselves most of the Roosevelt haters, who will join any opposition claque.
William E. Borah of Idaho has been removed from the scene temporarily by illness, a circumstance that accounts in some measure for the confusion on Capitol Hill. George Norris of Nebraska, another survivor of the League fight, one of the two men left in the Senate of those who braved ostracism to vote against war in 1917, has indorsed the President's policy without reservation. Why not equip the French and British to resist Hitlerism at the Rhine? he asks. How better can this country fight the Nazi fire, which he considers far more devastating than the imperial German kind? How better prevent war in the first instance and American entry in the second? His example is having its effect on Senatorial opinion.
Just how public opinion divides no one quite knows, not even the President. While he gave no ground in his press-conference statement of policy, he did give the impression of partial surrender by bowing to the Senatorial demand for clarification of his policy. Contrary to the interpretation some newspapers placed on the affair, there was nothing impulsive about his talk to the correspondents. He was cool and deliberate, particularly in delivering his slurp rebuke to the press, which, by and large, had not been particularly unfriendly to the democracy-arming project. Roosevelt is determined to keep the newspapers in the opposition camp, where they will not be mistaken for neutrals or heeded as non-partisans. He knows they will be against him 90 per cent of the time anyway. Having lost his power over Congress in domestic affairs, he is playing for control in the foreign sphere. At his Friday press conference he was again the leader.
If there was fumbling at the White House, it was in the over-cautious moves leading up to the declaration of policy. The accident which revealed the presence of an official of the French Air Ministry aboard a Douglas bomber imparted an air of secrecy to the airplane deal. This was thickened by the subsequent delay in informing Congress and by circulation of the unverified but generally credited story that Chief of Staff Malin Craig opposed sale of the bomber to France because such a transaction would violate the War Department rule against selling a newly designed military plane to a foreign power until a year after the second of its kind had been produced. Criticism might have been silenced by arguments for selling to France planes of a design that would equal German ships and for giving to Douglas experience in mass production before the start of the American rearmament program. But these arguments were withheld from the public while the isolationists dinned into its ears their charge that France was receiving unprecedented and unjustified preference. (Even the British bought only planes of a type already in production.) The final mistake was in trusting a full Senatorial committee to let the substance of a White House discussion leak out in ungarbled form.
At his press conference the President resumed command of a situation that had got out of hand. There is every indication that he will continue to run the foreign affairs show in his own way. He may change the tempo occasionally to suit public response, but the script, calling for assistance to the democracies in their efforts to arm, will be followed. There will be no quantity sales of aircraft equipment to the dictatorships regardless of how loud the Republicans shout for impartiality. The Senate will have small opportunity at this session to make effective its opposition, however strong this becomes. The President is not likely to court defeat by asking that the Spanish embargo be lifted or that the Neutrality Act be amended to give him more latitude in following his chosen course. He has all the power he needs to cope with the current problemthat of strengthening France and Great Britain in the air in the hope of averting another Munich.