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John West

The War Policy of U.S. Imperialism

Neutrality Laws and War

Pacifism versus Revolutionary Policy

(25 January 1936)

From The New Militant, Vol. II No. 4, 25 January 1936, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A striking indication of the depth of the war crisis is the fact that, during these first weeks of the present session of Congress, the hearings and debate over “neutrality legislation” have received more newspaper space and headlines than any other Congressional news – more even than the potently vote-coralling Bonus. Senator Nye is becoming a name for housewives and ward-heelers to conjure with. Every day brings a juicy scandal from the files of the State Department or Morgan & Co. Carter Glass plays his favorite role of ancient Roman Senator denouncing the desecrators of the temple, and defends the honor of his wartime leader – who was besides, sir, a Southern gentleman – against Nye’s infamous accusations. The resigning monarch of the House of Morgan smokes his big pipe, smiles jovially at reporters, and poses with his inquisitors for the cameramen.

“Neutrality” is hardly a new problem. Particularly in the United States have the conceptions of “neutrality,” “neutrality policy” and “neutrality rights” had a long and checkered career. Around these conceptions have revolved the leading ideas of American foreign policy as a whole. They deserve careful analysis.

“Neutrality” Part of War Policy

The first and essential prerequisite to an understanding of the concept of “neutrality” and any specific neutrality proposals or legislation is to realize that such a concept or such proposals and legislation are a fundamental part of the war policy of the United States (or of any other capitalist state which makes use of them). This basic fact is no doubt obscured by the attitude toward neutrality and neutrality legislation taken by Roosevelt, Nye, the liberals, the Nation, the New Republic, the Daily Worker, the New Leader, and the Socialist Call. But it none the less remains a fact for all that; and it could not be otherwise.

The business of the state is to serve the interests of capital. These interests, from time to time, reach a point of such tremendous conflict that a temporary solution can be reached only through war. Modern war is a gigantic and involved undertaking, and must be systematically prepared for over a long period of years. The most obvious part of the preparation is the building of armaments. But there is more to it than this. Speeches, laws and declarations about neutrality are one vastly important part of the preparation.

How else could they be understood? Undoubtedly, on any account, they have something to do with the problem of war. But, we are told, they are efforts to maintain and secure peace – not at all part of the preparation for war. This, however, could be true only if peace were possible under capitalism. We know that it is not. We know that capitalism leads inevitably to war. We know that the program of every capitalist state is necessarily a war program. For the capitalist state to abandon a war program would be simply for it abdicate, since only through war can it endure. Consequently, neutrality measures can be understood only as part of the war program of the capitalist state.

Who Believes Neutrality Means Peace?

Who is it that doubts this? Who believes that neutrality measures are part of a peace program? It is not Roosevelt. On Friday in his annual message he states that adequate neutrality legislation is the major task of the present session. On Monday he follows with his annual budget providing an increase of $200 millions in the appropriation of the regular budget for military preparation – with no telling how much more will flow from relief funds. As Roosevelt knows, these are simply two sides of the same program. There is no contradiction whatever between them. It is not Hearst. He is a major champion of neutrality (in the form of “isolation.”) And he also, quite naturally, is a major champion of big navies – in order, as he explains, to defend neutrality. It is not the American Liberty League, which, with all its howling for economy, never says a word about military expenditure and thoroughly concurs in the plan to have a “strong” neutrality program. It is not General Smedley Butler. In his speech to the American League at Cleveland he showed the delegates clearly enough – if they had wanted to listen – how neutrality and a modern mechanized army and navy go hand in hand together. It is not Morgan. He and the Nye Committee collaborate harmoniously in the mutual effort to work out a satisfactory neutrality program for this country.

The New York Times, authentic voice of finance-capital, sums the matter up succinctly, Jan. 19th, in an article by Harold B. Hinton: “Neutrality, in the last analysis, must always present itself to this country as a problem in trade relations.” Nor is the problem peculiarly American. Augur, the brilliant director of the Times’ foreign service, somewhat grimly applies the lesson to England: “Britain will arm to the teeth not for war but for the defense of peace.”

These are serious men, who know what they are talking about.

Chloroform for the Masses

No, it is not these who doubt that the neutrality policy of a capitalist state is part of its war program, who delude themselves With the myth that it is a “means for ensuring peace.” It is, unfortunately, the masses – too trusting and too desperately eager to grasp at any straw labeled “peace” – who cherish such illusions. And the masses do so, above all, because they are deceived and confused by the horde of false “friends of peace” whose efforts spread the lies and distortions. From within and outside the working class, the pacifists and social-patriots carry forward betrayal. It is they who advise the masses: Support strong neutrality legislation, and strike a blow for peace, which, translated, means: Support the war program of the imperialist state, and prepare for sacrifice in the coming war.

The neutrality proposals prominent at present can be divided into three major types:

“Freedom of the Seas”

(1) The traditional neutrality policy of the United States since its foundation has been the doctrine of “the freedom of the seas.” The theory of this doctrine is that the U.S. wants peace; it wishes to avoid all “foreign entanglements”; it demands only that its nationals shall be left free to carry on trade over the high seas with any customers they may choose.

A year ago Secretary of State Hull made statements in part apparently abandoning this traditional doctrine. And there is no doubt that the publicity given its consequences in 1914–17 has made it fall into a certain public disfavor. Nevertheless it remains a cornerstone of U.S. policy. The Administration Neutrality Bill, when introduced, contained it in a modified form in the clause permitting, (i.e., demanding) “normal trade” with belligerents in all but actual war munitions. Great leeway is allowed for the definition of “normal trade,” and no provision is made to shut off indirect shipment to belligerents through neutrals. It should also be remembered that increased trade with future belligerents begins in advance of actual hostilities, during the period of the rapid accumulation of war reserves – so that almost any amount of trade could in fact be defined as “normal.” Even this, however, was not enough. Under the pressure of Borah and other “traditional” Senators, an amending clause has been inserted to guarantee continued full upholding of the freedom of the seas doctrine.

Profits, Trade and War

This doctrine is consistent and realistic. It is entirely false to believe that American capitalists want war. Like other capitalists, they want profits. They strongly prefer to gain profits peacefully, by “trade.” They know that war is an expensive, hazardous undertaking, and besides they have moral scruples against it. So they ask, in all sincerity, only to carry on their trade in peace. Those nations can do the fighting, and the U.S. capitalists will stick to their profits. The comparative geographical isolation of the U.S. and its immense material resources give a semblance of plausibility to this idea, since the U.S. is not so immediately involved in international political disputes as are European nations.

But – such are the perversities of capitalist society – the laudable aim of the U.S. capitalists runs into a jam. Other nations, struggling for their political lives, cannot permit “freedom of the seas” without destroying themselves. They must have the “freedom,” so far as possible, apply only to themselves, and not to their enemies. Nations fight wars in order to win them. Thus the warring nations are forced to infringe the – entirely “reasonable” – rights of the honest neutral Uncle Sam. who asks only peace and freedom. This is naturally a severe moral – and, incidentally, financial – shock to U.S. capitalists. They can put up with it for a time, and to a certain point. But, after all,the honor of a great nation, and the profits and potential profits of its capitalists, can endure only so much. After all, economics is not everything. When honor is at stake, more vulgar considerations must go by the board.

So, with infinite regret, and a call on all classes for truly patriotic sacrifice, the war to defend the rights of the neutral and peace-loving United States is declared.

The Doctrine of “Isolation”

(2) The second neutrality policy now current, which has also a long history, is the program of “isolation.” This is a favorite of liberals, the avowed theory of Senator Nye and, in a somewhat different form, of Hearst. This doctrine says that “freedom of the seas” must be abandoned, since it got us into the last war and would get us into the next. The U.S. will have to isolate itself rigidly from any war situation, will have to remain in strict financial and economic quarantine,sacrificing the “war profits.”

The neutrality bills now before Congress are on the whole a hybrid of this second type and the first.

The doctrine of “isolation” is a vicious and fatal myth. In terms of historical actuality, isolation for the U.S. is simply a direct impossibility. What could it possibly mean? Even if – which is also impossible – foreign commerce to warring nations could be cut off entirely, it is necessary to remember that U.S. economic enterprise is not at all confined at any time to the geographical boundaries of the nation. American capital owns or is invested in industries of all kinds throughout the world – automobile and airplane plants, oil wells and refineries, transportation and communication systems, mines, plantations, public utilities, railroads, to mention only a few. What would happen to these under the rule of “isolation”? Would U.S. capitalists sit back quietly and allow the warring nations to take them over? Would such industries also (and how?) be“forbidden” to trade with the belligerents?

Life-Blood of Imperialism

But what an absurdity to suppose that even commerce could be shut down. In an imperialist nation, foreign investment and trade (however small a percentage of total turnover they may represent) are essential to the functioning of capitalist economy. Without it, imperialism collapses. No class can allow the system which supports its social position to collapse without a struggle. Uncontrollable forces would wedge through any conceivable isolationist scheme. Anyone who doubts this need only glance over recent monthly foreign trade reports during the period of operation of the temporary isolationist neutrality legislation adopted last summer.

What then is the function of isolationist neutrality propaganda? It too has a basic part to play in the war program of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. does not need to enter the coming war at the outset. The probable strategy will be to wait until the opponents are to some extent exhausted, and then to step in holding the decisive position (though a “preventive” war against Japan is not excluded).

Consequently, the rulers of the U.S. can afford the luxury of a more indirect long term preparation for the war than is possible to the hard-pressed European nations. Preparation for war means not merely building armaments, collecting reserves of material, and organizing industry. It also means, especially in the present era, the psychological and moral preparation of the masses for war. The masses must be led to see the war as “just.” To accomplish this, they must be systematically deceived as to the true nature and cause of war. In such deception in this country, the doctrine of isolation plays a great part, creating the grossest pacifist illusions. By its falsification of the real position of the U.S., it hinders the development of the genuine fight against war, and directs the energy of those seeking peace into the harmless chase after a will-o’-the-wisp.

(3) The third current doctrine of neutrality is the American counterpart of the theory of “sanctions”. Secretary Hull has flirted with this from time to time, but its foremost supporter in this country is the Communist party together with the organizations under its influence. This is the doctrine of Litvinov, applied by the C.I. Sections within capitalist nations in the same way that Litvinov applies it as spokesman for the Soviet State.

The basic prerequisites of neutrality legislation according to this theory, as given by the Daily Worker, Jan. 2, are:

“(1) Recognition of world collective action to maintain peace; (2) branding of an aggressor; (3) lifting of arms embargo against the victim of aggression, tightening it against an AGGRESSOR; (4) arms embargoes to be extended not only to financial aid to an aggressor, but to include the MOST VITAL war materials of today – oil, cotton, copper, iron, and such other raw materials in which American supplies are decisive.”

The “Aggressor” and Status Quo

This type of neutrality legislation is the most openly of all an integral part of a war program. Since the question of who is the “aggressor” is purely juridical and moral in character – all capitalist nations being equally involved in the international system which inevitably breeds wars – such a doctrine is merely a formulation of one possible way in which nations to whom on the whole, maintenance of the status quo is desirable, can plan to secure such maintenance. This applies above all to the Stalinist bureaucracy. The status quo is also, on the whole, desired by British and French imperialism, but they find acceptance of the extreme theory of sanctions too risky. They advocate it therefore in a diluted form.

The U.S. also wants for the time being, the status quo. But the U.S. does not so imperiously need to take dangerous steps to gain this end, nor does the. U.S. isolationist tradition make a “sanctions” doctrine easy to come out with openly. However, even the present proposed neutrality legislation, nominally applying equally to all belligerents, contains something of the “sanctions against an aggressor” idea: in effect it works out to aid one or the other side, just as “freedom of the seas” in the last war acted in part as sanctions against Germany. Later on the need of U.S. imperialism to smooth the way for the declaration of war may require more openly sanctionist legislation or declarations. Roosevelt’s annual message, with its attack on autocratic war-making dictatorships foreshadowed such a possibility, which would make it easy for a moral mobilization of the nation in a war against the “aggressor”, against fascism, tyranny and militarism.

* * *

An examination in the concrete of proposed forms of neutrality legislation only serves to establish more unquestionably what is clear enough in general to begin with: Neutrality legislation of any sort whatever on the part of a capitalist state is and can be nothing else than one aspect of its war program. Different types of neutrality legislation are only different theories of what best serves the long-run interests of the basic war program.

What, then, are we to conclude? We can and must conclude that advocacy and support of neutrality legislation is necessarily advocacy and support of the war program of the imperialist state. Such advocacy and support within the working class, therefore, is a form of betrayal on the question of war. It must be exposed, fought against and eliminated.

There is only one struggle against war: the revolutionary struggle against the system that breeds war, the struggle for world socialism. Let us put an end to the deadly myth that the war makers – the capitalist states – are going to be the ones to do away with that through which alone they endure. The struggle against war is nothing other than the class struggle for workers’ power.

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