From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 6, August 1948, p. 167–171.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberately set out to engineer the entrance of the United States into the Second World War. He deliberately set out to provoke a “sneak attack” by Japan. He did this behind the backs of the people and in the face of his own hypocritical peace promises.
When socialists made this accusation from the left, the victims of the Roosevelt myth felt free to shrug it off as calumny. When anti-Roosevelt hatemongers like the Chicago Tribune or John T. Flynn made the same accusation from the right for their own purposes, the Roosevelt worshipers were content to point to the shady connections of these characters with the fascist underworld.
Such ad hominem refutations will no longer do. The indictment has been drawn up, the evidence marshaled, and the case proved by no less eminent a scholar than “the dean of American historians,” Professor Charles A. Beard.
Beard’s recent book  collects and evaluates all the information available relating to the pre-war diplomacy of the U.S. It is a work of enduring value for the student of foreign affairs and the serious analyst of imperialist politics. Beard has dealt a devastating blow to the propagandists of platitudes about the “peace-loving democracies” and “aggressor nations,” to all those who prattle: “We didn’t choose to fight – we were attacked.”
Beard, in fact, accomplished even more than he intended. For this work is not merely a revelation of Roosevelt’s political methods – not merely “muckraking.” It is in its effect a scholarly, documented and closely reasoned support of the socialist thesis that the last war was an imperialist struggle for empire, resources and power; fought without an atom of concern for the miserable humanity of the earth whose bodies it trampled and whose blood it poured so generously.
Beard’s method guarantees the accuracy of every fact presented. It is the most painstaking presentation of revealed fact covering any pre-war period. He began collecting material for this book the day war was declared. It was a task that continued throughout the war and its aftermath. Even now the record is incomplete but enough is established to make this a work of monumental importance.
There is a special and peculiar relationship between propaganda and the real politics of war. In an earlier and almost forgotten decade, liberals and revolutionaries were united in the belief that the peoples of the world were fundamentally peaceful. Wars, it was felt, were waged by governments against the people’s will. If the latter understood the reasons for war, if they knew the real facts and motivations behind a war, they could not be induced to fight. This principle was accepted and proclaimed by such men as both Randolph Bourne and Lenin.
Lenin, writing in 1917, said:
It is argued that in America there is democracy, that there is a “White House” there. I say: slavery was abolished half a century ago; since then billionaires have sprung up. They hold the whole of America in their financial grip ... and will inevitably go to war with Japan over the partition of the Pacific. Preparations for this war have been going on for several decades already. A heap of books have been written on the subject. And America’s real object in entering this war is to prepare for war with Japan. The American people enjoy considerable freedom, and it is difficult to believe that they will tolerate conscription and the creation of an army for aims of conquest, for a struggle against Japan, for example. The Americans can see from the example of Europe what this leads to ...
Beard has substantiated Lenin’s thesis in the deeds and
documents of Roosevelt and his cabinet.
Roosevelt was committed to a war policy, and had made this perfectly clear in his “quarantine the aggressor” speech of 1937. In effect, this policy had as its primary aim the defeat of any power capable of challenging the might of the U.S. Hence, for example, his “neutrality” on Spain. Allies would be taken wherever they could be found, and in the fluid situation prior to the actual outbreak of war, it was at times difficult to know who would be an ally and who an enemy. One thing, however, was clear. No continental power or Asiatic power would be permitted to gain dominance without a struggle.
While this was the real policy of Roosevelt, he was at the same time the leader of that party which was most committed to a peace policy. Throughout the ’30s and in the 1940 campaign platform Roosevelt insisted he was following the road to peace. The great majority of Americans were opposed to entry into foreign wars. This attitude to war ranged far beyond our own socialist opposition, including isolationism, pacifism, the student peace movements and simple provincialism.
It was so powerful a sentiment that it was officially recognized in the Democratic campaign platform of 1940: “We will not participate in foreign wars” – and to this was added on Roosevelt’s insistence the five fateful words: “except in case of attack.”
That clause then became the key to Roosevelt’s diplomacy: so to maneuver that we would be attacked. Throughout 1941 Roosevelt acted secretly in various theaters of war, seeking an attack. It was almost a trial-and-error method, for his haste was feverish; an attack had to be found, no matter what the cost or the consequences.
The passage of the Lend-Lease Act took this country a long way into war, but it was not presented as such to the American people. It was a policy of defense. To make this clear there was written into the act certain clauses forbidding the convoying of ships: “Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize or to permit the authorization of convoying vessels by naval vessels of the United States.”
Beard proves that immediately after this act was passed, Roosevelt
secretly ordered convoys for the supplies going to Britain. He
further ordered the navy to hunt out and destroy German submarines
found in the vaguely defined patrolling zone of the Atlantic. Nor
would Roosevelt permit anyone to delimit this patrolling zone. It
could be any area, extending if necessary to the shores of Europe.
While secretly engaged in war, Roosevelt and his cabinet members asserted the contrary – their activity in the Atlantic was completely proper, gentlemanly and constitutional. Navy Secretary Knox was bitterly indignant in denying newspaper stories that naval vessels were depth-bombing German submarines. Finally, badly pressed by a congressional committee, he admitted “that depth-bombing had taken place,” but there was “no other evidence a German submarine was there. The equipment echo might have been received from a whale or a large fish, or a cold current, instead of a submarine.”
Thus while the American navy on Roosevelt’s orders was busily engaged depth-bombing whales, large fish and cold currents, the intended effect of this policy was achieved. Two navy ships were counterattacked. In both instances these ships had hunted submarines, broadcasting their position to nearby British ships and planes, and depth-bombed. Announcing these attacks, Roosevelt asserted that we had been attacked, and that the Germans “fired first.” Note the words – a hypocritical and pious refrain framed to fit the theme song of the 1940 campaign platform: “except in case of attack.”
When Roosevelt announced the news of the attack upon the destroyer Kearny (September 1941), he said:
“History has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman and child in this nation.”
In his own opinion, he was now ready to ask for a declaration of
war. But congressional investigations and newspaper reports on these
attacks had put them in so dubious a light that Congress, if it had
granted his request, would have taken this country into war angry and
divided. The tragic comedy had to continue.
In August 1941 there took place the famous and infamous Atlantic Conference between Roosevelt and Churchill. Like the notorious Atlantic Charter, which was first broadcast joyfully to suffering humanity and later revealed to be a diplomatic fiction (there was no such document), much took place at this conference which was concealed from Congress and the people.
Returning from this conference, Roosevelt felt witty and uncommunicative. No new commitments had been made, he assured Congress and the people. As the New York Times reported after the the press conference, Roosevelt said that he and Churchill “had discussed the situation on every continent. Every continent you ever heard of, he added facetiously.”
This little joke and the non-existent charter were all he reported. The full facts later disclosed by years of congressional probing are astonishing. No other American statesman had dared until that time to go as far as Roosevelt in making secret military agreements.
First, a reorientation of American policy with respect to Japan: “Parallel and ultimative action in respect to Japan” (Beard summarizing Sumner Welles’ memoranda).
Second, “an agreement as to the occupation of the Azores by the armed forces of the United States in cooperation with British armed forces.”
The agreement on the occupation of the Azores was a military maneuver to launch this country into war, since it was understood by both Roosevelt and Churchill that such a move would provoke German attack. In that event Churchill agreed that British forces would act as a screen for the American army. While the Azores agreement never became a reality, extensive military preparations were undertaken in that direction.
The agreement on Japan was to have fateful consequences. It .was a turning point in American policy. Since 1932 the United States had had at various times the opportunity to change its policy to that associated with the name of Secretary Stimson. The Stimson Doctrine was a simple one: Stop Japanese expansion by embargoes, by curtailing credit and by drawing a line across the face of the globe and stating that if Japan went beyond this line the United States would fight. This idea, when presented to Herbert Hoover, was rejected and continued unused for almost a decade.
Yet at the Atlantic Conference Roosevelt decided to draw the line
in the Pacific. The understanding was reached that the United States
would fight not only if American possessions were touched but if any
of the colonial possessions of the other friendly powers were in
danger. Roosevelt’s fever to get into the war brought the Stimson
Doctrine to life; and when the Japanese ambassador was handed (a
diplomatic note, he also reached the same conclusion, although the
note avoided the word “war.”
There was a double criminality in the application of the Stimson Doctrine in 1941. In the first place, there was the secrecy of the warning to the Japanese government that if it moved into the southwestern Pacific against any of the assorted colonial possessions of the various powers, the United States would consider its interests at stake. This was a clear war ultimatum which, were it known to the public, would hardly get sufficient support to justify the threat it contained. On the surface nothing was happening, but relations with Japan got progressively worse immediately following the Atlantic Conference. So it must have seemed to the man in the street, who knew only what he read in the newspapers and never suspected that Japan had received an ultimatum.
In the second place, this change in policy occurred precisely at the moment when there is now every reason to believe that war with Japan might have been delayed for a considerable length of time. While it remains true that, so long as a capitalist America and Japan existed, such a war was ultimately inevitable, the possibility of a considerable delay is more than a trifling matter – not only to the men who met their bullet sooner rather than later, but also to socialists who looked forward to the intervention of the people’s third camp against the war makers.
For it is a fact, now established beyond possibility of dispute, that Prince Konoye, premier of Japan in 1941, was anxious to avoid war with the United States. He was more than willing, in the interests of Japanese imperialism to be sure, to make the necessary concessions which would have avoided war.
This is proved by Ambassador Grew’s letters to Roosevelt and
Secretary of State Hull. While Konoye appealed for a conference in
the Pacific, similar to the Atlantic Conference, Roosevelt
deliberately stalled and made new demands. First he asked for
agreement on general principles prior to the conference, and when
this was secured demanded prior agreement on specific detail.
Since Konoye was surrounded by a suspicious and hostile military clique (called by one American correspondent “a government by assassination”) such specific agreements could not be given in writing prior to the conference. Rut there is every reason to believe that such specific agreements could have been reached. Beard writes: “Grew solicitously advised President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull to accept the offers of the Japanese premier to discuss the situation directly, especially since the premier had taken steps in showing evidence of good faith.”
Aware that in negotiations with the Japanese ambassador in Washington, President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull were insisting upon further explorations of the Japanese proposal and that more than a month had passed in these “exploratory” operations, Mr. Grew warned them against this procedure. He told them that if the United States expected or awaited “clear-cut commitments” which would satisfy the United States “both as to principle and as to concrete detail,” the conversations would be drawn out indefinitely and unproductively “until the Konoye cabinet and its supporting elements desiring rapprochement with the United States would come to the conclusion that the outlook for an agreement is hopeless and that the United States is only playing for time.” In this case, the ambassador continued, the Konoye government would be discredited. “The logical outcome of this will be the downfall of the Konoye cabinet and the formation of a military dictatorship which will lack either the disposition or the temperament to avoid colliding head on with the United States.”
If Premier Konoye was sincere in his intentions, why could he not give President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull clear-cut commitments as to details before the conference? To this central question Ambassador Grew gave serious attention and provided for the president and the secretary an answer based on his knowledge of the critical situation in Tokyo. Mr. Grew knew that a liberal government in Japan, or indeed any government inclined to keep peace with the United States, was beset by the militarist and chauvinist press, always engaged in frightening and inflaming the Japanese public by warmongering. He knew also, what had recently been demonstrated many times, that the head and members of any such government were likely to be assassinated in cold blood by desperate agents of the “patriotic” societies. He (Grew) knew and so did Prince Konoye that Axis secret agents and Japanese enemies of peace with the United States were boring within the Konoye government and watching with Argus eyes every message or communication sent from Tokyo to Washington. In other words, Prince Konoye could not be sure that any note he dispatched to Washington, no matter how guardedly, would escape the vigilance of his enemies on every side in Japan.
All this has a tragic import in view of the documented evidence that Roosevelt was working to “maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot.” It must have set him only more firmly in his course, since unlike the Atlantic war this one promised a quick harvest.
Grew’s predictions were correct to the last punctuation mark. The Konoye government collapsed and was replaced by Tojo. The aggressive and military expansionist appetites of the new government were apparent.
Roosevelt knew that war was imminent, and so did his cabinet members and military advisers. Early in November this was clear to all of them. But they found themselves in an embarrassing position, in this the very moment of their triumph. It was dangerous to sit back and quietly await attack. Where would it come, and with what force?
Even more, there was the question of their military responsibility
to so advise the military machine and the people. But if extensive
preparations were undertaken, if the population in the dangerously
situated areas was forewarned, the immediate effect would be a storm
of criticism and a deluge of questioning. Worse, the idea of a
“sneak” attack would seem idiotic.
Roosevelt deliberately chose silence, despite the risks it entailed, plus some warnings to the military sufficiently ambiguous to quiet the criticism he anticipated. Above all, these warnings had to be so worded that the military machine would continue in its’ routine without alarm.
The military warning of November 27 to General Short contained the following peculiar wording:
Negotiations with the Japanese appear to be terminated to al1 practical purposes with only the barest possibilities that the Japanese Government might come back and offer to continue. Japanese future action unpredictable’ but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot, be avoided the U.S. desires that Japan commit the first overt act ... Prior to Japanese hostile action you are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary but these measures should be carried out so as not, repeat not, to alarm the civilian population or disclose intent. Limit dissemination of this highly secret information to minimum essential officers.
One must sympathize with the painful predicament of General Short during those trying days. Make preparations, he was told, but don’t tell the officers. Get ready for war but don’t alarm anybody. Let Japan get the first shot, but be careful.
Little wonder, then, that General Short slept late and soundly that Sunday morning of December 7. Sleep, the psychologists say, is a way out of an impossible situation. Nor are there many human beings who have had an entire government and all its resources working to make the situation impossible for them.
The best explanation for the extent of the disaster at Pearl Harbor can be found in the text of the warning to Admiral Kimmel:
“... Japan is expected to make aggressive move within next few days. An amphibious expedition against either the Philippines, Thai, or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo is indicated by the number and equipment of Japanese troops and the organization of their naval task forces.”
The price of maneuvering the Japanese into firing the first shot was a costly one. But the thesis that it was a “sneak attack” upon an innocent victim is utterly demolished. A more objective description is that two imperialist powers collaborated in spilling some blood.
The reception of Beard’s book underlines its importance, but
from the negative side. Almost universally it has been condemned or
ignored. Arthur Schlesinger, in a New York Times book review,
unable to dispute the correctness of a single fact in the entire
book, is driven to an attack upon Beard’s integrity.
Schlesinger maliciously informs his readers that Beard nowhere
mentions the fact that he (Beard) testified against the Lend-Lease
bill! Truly, it is a monstrous crime to testify publicly against a
bill, and it is a felony thrice compounded to suppress an irrelevant fact.
Elsewhere he reads Beard a lesson in ward politics. He paraphrases Wendell Willkie, paragon of virtue, to the effect that campaign oratory is after all only campaign oratory. Roosevelt’s dishonest mouthings about peace cannot be considered hypocritical because, after all, no intelligent man believes a politician. This cheap Machiavellism comes strangely from Schlesinger only because – believe it or not – it is put forward in defense of Roosevelt’s integrity! The lowest point of the low regions hitherto reached by degenerate “liberalism” is thus attained.
Schlesinger’s dilemma is a painful one. By indirection he admits the validity of Beard’s case and reacts as violently as if he personally were under fire. In this he is completely correct. The Schlesingers fall like fleas before the same flyswatter.
There is, however, one merit in Schlesinger’s article. He asks for an alternative to Roosevelt’s policy:
“If Roosevelt’s policy was wrong, it can only be because there was another policy which would have more successfully protected the interests of American democracy.”
For there is a defect in Beard’s thinking, a defect indirectly touched upon in Schlesinger’s demand for an alternative. Beard thinks like a man of the year 1791. His standpoint is the Constitution and his politics are sf the simpler, uncomplicated age of an agrarian democracy. But though it is a defect today, it has also its virtues. For he can write an indictment of Rooseveltian politics such as Jefferson or Franklin might write if they could come back and observe the decay littering their beloved Constitution.
They too would utter the same cry of alarm and indignation “that the American republic stands defenseless before Caesar.” And their brief against Roosevelt would include the same bill of particulars. For it is true that they designed a constitution which they hoped would be foolproof against the manipulations of an unscrupulous executive power, that they vested the treaty-making power in the Senate, that they opposed secret military agreements which would involve this country in foreign wars.
But a great change has taken place, a change which has altered the dynamics of American democracy. It is obvious that when the Constitution was written the institutions it created, generally speaking, had the support of the then governing classes. The new industrial capitalism which arose on the ashes of the old agrarian democracy, replacing it by force of wealth and power, has subjected the Constitution to unanticipated pressures. And before these pressures the institutions of American democracy have bent like saplings in the wind. In Lenin’s phrase, previously quoted, “Billionaires have sprung up.”
Beard sees that the politics of today bears little resemblance to the politics of 1791. Beard does not recognize, no more than does Schlesinger, that the new politics of capitalism – secretive and conniving – stems directly from the undemocratic character of the governing class, whose will Roosevelt expressed in his war leadership. If Beard could call to arms the dead agrarian democrats of a century ago, he could provide an alternative to Roosevelt’s policy. But agrarian democracy is dead beyond recall.
Capitalism, however, has produced another class, the modern working class, which is fundamentally democratic and anti-imperialist. Whoever calls this class into action at the same time provides an alternative to Roosevelt, to Schlesinger and to Beard.
Roosevelt served the needs of capitalism, and in the final analysis acted exactly as Lenin predicted the representative of capitalism must act. He declared the New Deal dead and increasingly became the advocate of the Right, thereby plumbing the lowest depths of deception and duplicity. Is it not inescapable that these acts are inseparably connected with the character of decaying and anti-democratic capitalism?
Beard’s book is an object lesson in the need for intelligent skepticism. We no longer live in an age when the American government is tied down by the same cumbrous constitutional procedures. The methods of Roosevelt can be learned by Truman or Tom Dewey. Whoever will be up there in the White House will have the task of selling the First Atomic War to the people, of preparing the clandestine collaboration to fire the first shot, of starting the third war of conquest and imperialism behind the backs of the people.
1. Charles A. Beard: President Roosevelt and the Coming of War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities, Yale University Press, 1948, 614 pp., $5.00.
Last updated on 8 July 2017