Getting the Other Side To Fire the First Shot

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Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt

John V. Denson
Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, AL

War or peace?
Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution is firm about Congress
alone having the power to declare war. Yet Article 2, Section 2,
says the President, along with his other duties, also serves as
Commander in Chief of the armed forces. Could this knotty condition
get a President, say Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson or Franklin
Roosevelt, into maneuvering a real or imagined enemy, such as the
Confederate South or World War I Germany or Modern Japan or Nazi
Germany, into firing — if perhaps with the best of intentions —
the first shot, and so forcing the hand of Congress?

Our author
answers — boldly, incisively — Yes. For this is the neat if politically
incorrect thesis of Alabama Circuit Judge John Denson, a history
buff, in this, his third well-documented work and one that could
or should make waves in the current tension on our War on Iraq and
War on Terrorism as well as on supposedly settled historical scenarios
on just how the Civil War and U.S. entry into World Wars I and II,
both already well underway, got started.

At first the
Civil War had little to do with the slavery question. In the North
the big issue was Preserve The Union, which the South rejected.
In the South, the main issue was States Rights, including
the right to secede, which the North rejected. But at the time of
the Mexican War (1846—1848), precipitated by U.S. annexation
of Mexican-designated if secessionist Texas in 1845, then Congressman
Abraham Lincoln hailed the right of secession in 1847, as cited
by Judge Denson, in these ringing and profound, if later antithetical
and embarrassing words:

“Any people,
anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to
rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one
that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right,
a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world.”

The way by
which President Lincoln got the South to fire the first shot on
Fort Sumter on April 15, 1861, and launch the Civil War (which the
South called “the War Between the States”) was shrewd. What Lincoln
did was to order a Union fleet to relieve and reinforce Fort Sumter
in the middle in Charleston harbor and other nearby forts — but
to do so by having a lead vessel merely supply food to hungry soldiers
at Fort Sumter. The move worked. Confederate President Jefferson
Davis, holding that the Union fleet invading Confederate waters
amounted to a declaration of war, ordered the Charleston shore batteries
to fire on Fort Sumter. Our author quotes historian Bruce Catton
that thus Lincoln neatly got South Carolina standing “before the
civilized world as having fired upon bread.”

Our author
notes how President Woodrow Wilson, No. 2 in the Denson trilogy,
ran on a strict neutrality plank in the 1916 Presidential campaign,
as the Great War raged on. One Democratic Party motto was “He Kept
Us Out of War.” But Wilson was meanwhile playing footsie with the
British, whose troops had gotten badly mauled on the Western Front.
In fact, on October 17, 1915 Wilson wrote a secret letter to British
Government leaders offering to bring America into the war on the
side of the Allies so as to enable them to win decisively.

Working all
along on the insatiable ego of Wilson was his primary adviser, Colonel
Edward House, who several times visited Britain in 1914 and 1915
to discuss possible U.S. entry into the war. Meanwhile, Svengali-like
Colonel House privately told Wilson he would become the “Savior
of the World,” the new “Prince of Peace.” By April 1917 the U.S.
was in “The War to End Wars” and would “Make the World Safe for
Democracy.” Yeah, sure.

But Wilson,
the new if vain and outfoxed Savior of the World, didn’t fare well
in the Treaty of Versailles secret parleying. There Germany wound
up saddled with the war guilt clause, which Hitler later exploited.
And, moreover, the U.S. Senate rejected both the Versailles Treaty
and the U.S. joining the League of Nations, “wisely” so adds Judge

Not that a
tired and discouraged President Wilson hadn’t tried in a national
tour to mobilize public opinion against such action, even to the
point of foregoing his previous lofty sentiments on the nature of
the war and discovering an altogether new enemy: foul international
economics. Or as he put it in a speech in St. Louis on September
5, 1919:

“Why, my fellow
citizens, is there any man here, or any woman — let me say, is there
any child here, who does not know that the seed of war in the modern
world is industrial and commercial rivalry? …. This war, in its
inception, was a commercial and industrial war. It was not a political

Our author
tracks similar moves by Franklin Roosevelt to maneuver the Germans
to fire the first shot on Americans. One provocative act was the
Lend-Lease Act of March 1941, which had the U.S. sending 50 destroyers
to Britain to aid the British war effort and provoke the Germans.
Another provocative act was the U.S. claim that its warship, the
USS Greer, has been suddenly attacked off Iceland on September 4,
1941, by a torpedo-firing German sub while the Greer had been merely
carrying U.S. mail to Iceland. But Admiral Harold Stark, chief of
U.S. naval operations, soon admitted that the Greer had in fact
first given three hours chase to the sub which then fired off torpedoes
at the Greer. In any event, Hitler was not taking the bait; he was
avoiding war with America.

But Roosevelt
had what one critic tagged a “back door to war”: Japan, a key ally
of Nazi Germany. The back-door worked (hush-hush, everybody), even
if it did lead to Pearl Harbor. Judge Denson cites work by historian
Robert Stinnett on how Roosevelt adopted the so-called McCollum
Plan, dated October 7, 1940, step by step, eight agent provocateur
steps in all:

  • Arranging
    with Britain for the use of British bases in the Pacific, particularly
  • Sending
    two divisions of submarines to the Orient;
  • Sending
    one division of long-range heavy cruisers to the Orient, the Philippines,
    or Singapore;
  • Keeping
    the main strength of the U.S. Pacific fleet in the Hawaiian Islands;
  • Giving all
    possible aid to the Chinese Government of Chiang-Kai-Shek;
  • Arranging
    with the Dutch for the use of facilities and acquisition of supplies
    in the Dutch East Indies;
  • Insisting
    that the Dutch refuse to grant Japanese undue economic concessions,
    especially oil;
  • And completely
    embargoing U.S. trade with Japan, in collaboration with a similar
    embargo imposed by the British.

Judge Denson
claims that both Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter
Short, the military commanders of U.S. forces in Hawaii, were denied
much critical intelligence on Japanese military strategy and tactics,
even though American cryptographers had broken the Japanese naval
or military code by October 1940.

Our author
reports that former CIA Director William Casey in his book, The
Secret War Against Hitler
, said that even the British sent
word to Washington “that a Japanese fleet was steaming east toward
Hawaii.” But somehow that word never got to Admiral Kimmel or General

War or peace.
One recalls the campaign speech in Boston on October 30, 1940, when
Candidate Franklin Roosevelt, up for a third presidential term,

“And while
I am talking to you, mothers and fathers, I give one more assurance.
I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and
again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

I suppose the
saving word in the above statement is “foreign.” Or is it?

For have we
forgotten the wisdom of President George Washington in his Farewell
Message of September 17, 1796, in which he urged us to utilize and
enjoy foreign commerce but added on the matter of foreign policy:

“Observe good
faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony
with all … ‘Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances,
with any portion of the foreign world … There can be no greater
error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to


11, 2007

Peterson [send him mail]
is an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the
2005 Schlarbaum Laureate.

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