This article is excerpted from John V. Denson’s A Century of War chapter 5, “Lincoln and Roosevelt: American Caesars” (2006).
It is interesting to compare Lincoln and his treachery in causing the Southern “enemy” to fire the first shot at Fort Sumter, resulting in the Civil War, with Roosevelt’s similar manipulation causing the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a well-known American “court historian,” has written the definitive defenses for both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt regarding their reprehensible behavior in causing their respective unnecessary American wars. He clearly documents the unconstitutional behavior of both and offers great praise for the same. He attempts to justify the actions of both presidents on grounds that they were acting during a “crisis” pertaining to the “survival of the American government,” and that their unconstitutional actions were thereby made “necessary.” Schlesinger has stated that “Next to the Civil War, World War II was the greatest crisis in American history.” His defense of these two “great” presidents is as follows:
Roosevelt in 1941, like Lincoln in 1861, did what he did under what appeared to be a popular demand and a public necessity. Both presidents took their actions in light of day and to the accompaniment of uninhibited political debate. They did what they thought they had to do to save the republic. They threw themselves in the end on the justice of the country and the rectitude of their motives. Whatever Lincoln and Roosevelt felt compelled to do under the pressure of crisis did not corrupt their essential commitment to constitutional ways and democratic processes.
Schlesinger, however, recognizes the terrible precedents that were created by these presidents’ violations of the clear constitutional restrictions on their office:
Yet the danger persists that power asserted during authentic emergencies may create precedents for transcendent executive power during emergencies that exist only in the hallucinations of the Oval Office and that remain invisible to most of the nation. The perennial question is: How to distinguish real crises threatening the life of the republic from bad dreams conjured up by paranoid presidents spurred on by paranoid advisers? Necessity as Milton said, is always “the tyrant’s plea.”
Let us add to John Milton’s statement a more specific warning by William Pitt in his speech to the House of Commons on November 18, 1783: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants.”
Finally, it is instructive to compare the circumstances for Lincoln at Fort Sumter with those for Roosevelt at Pearl Harbor. In neither case was there an actual “surprise” attack by the enemy. In fact, there was an extended period of time, many months prior to the “first shot,” in which both Lincoln and Roosevelt had ample opportunity to attempt to negotiate with the alleged “enemy,” who was desperately trying to reach a peaceful settlement.
In both cases, the presidents refused to negotiate in good faith. Lincoln sent completely false and conflicting statements to the Confederates and to Congress – even refused to talk with the Confederate commissioners. Roosevelt also refused to talk with Japanese Prime Minister Konoye, a refusal that brought down the moderate, peace-seeking Konoye government and caused the rise of the militant Tojo regime. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt repeatedly lied to the American people and to Congress about what they were doing while they were secretly provoking the “enemy” to fire the first shot in their respective wars. Both intentionally subjected their respective armed forces to being bait to get the enemy to fire the first shot.
Also, a comparison of circumstances clearly shows that both Lincoln and Roosevelt had ample opportunity to present their arguments and the question of war to Congress as the Constitution clearly required them to do. In fact, Congress in both cases was desperately trying to find out what the presidents were doing, and in both cases the presidents were hiding evidence from them. In Lincoln’s case, Congress probably would not have declared war for either the real reasons Lincoln went to war or for those he used only for propaganda. Similarly, Roosevelt could have presented the question of war to Congress and attempted to persuade Congress and the American people that we needed to join Soviet Russia and Great Britain to fight tyranny in Germany.
This might have been embarrassing to the Roosevelt administration in light of the fact that Congress may not have wanted to declare war and join with Soviet Russia, which was already one of the greatest tyrannies the world had ever known, while Germany was Russia’s main enemy. A majority in Congress surely were aware of the dangers of Communism, while Roosevelt never seemed to grasp the total evil of Stalin or Communism. Roosevelt gave Stalin everything he wanted throughout the war and referred to this mass murderer as “Uncle Joe.” The wartime conferences at Teheran and Yalta clearly demonstrated Roosevelt’s complete and secret capitulation to Communism in Russia and China.
Before World War II started in Europe in 1939, it was widely known that Stalin had already murdered more than ten million innocent, unarmed people, three million of whom were Russian peasants he killed between 1928 and 1935. Communism believed that private property was the main source of evil in the world, and therefore he took the privately owned land from these self-sufficient people.
Also, in the period from 1936 through 1938, Stalin murdered millions more during his reign of terror after the “show trials,” purging from the Communist Party those he thought were disloyal. Hitler, on the other hand, before 1939, and primarily from June to July 1934, had murdered fewer than one hundred in his purge of the Storm Troopers. This is not to defend Hitler, or to deny that he was evil, but a comparison of these two murderers and tyrants (as Stalin and Hitler were known in the period from 1939 to 1941), shows that Roosevelt could hardly have asked Congress to declare war and to join with Stalin and Communism yet still argue that he was fighting a noble war against tyranny.
Private Enterprise Compared with Free Enterprise
Another interesting comparison of the situations affecting the decisions of Lincoln and Roosevelt is that economic interests of an elite few played a major role in the decisions of both presidents to instigate a war. It is doubtful that either Lincoln or Roosevelt would have wanted to disclose the influence of these economic interests to the public in a congressional hearing where the question of war was to be decided upon. The study of the history of wars indicates that economic factors have always played a major role in starting wars, but rarely are these economic factors disclosed to the public as the reasons.
Many businessmen and bankers believe in private enterprise but do not believe in free enterprise. In Lincoln’s case, the private-enterprise capitalists wanted Lincoln to have a war in order to prevent the South from establishing a free-trade zone with a low tariff. They wanted Lincoln to protect their special interests by keeping the tariff high, while still forcing the South to remain in the Union to pay the tax.
These types of people want a partnership between private enterprise and the government, which is the essence of fascism and the cause of many wars. In the case of Roosevelt, he was greatly influenced, even controlled at times, by the Anglo-American establishment, which was composed of prominent businessmen and bankers who owned or represented large economic interests, both domestically and globally. They also wanted a partnership with government to protect their private businesses and economic interests, especially from formidable industrial and commercial competitors like Germany and Japan. Today the economic establishment in America is much larger than just the Morgan and Rockefeller interests but is just as active in trying to influence government, especially the foreign policy – primarily through the president to further their economic interests.
Ludwig von Mises made a clear distinction between private enterprise and free enterprise. Mises wanted a complete separation of the economy from the government, just like separation of church and state, which meant no regulation or control by the government but also no partnership with or help from the government, either economically or militarily. In the free-enterprise system, if any business or any bank wants to transact business globally, it must do so at its own risk and without the help of the government.
There would be no foreign aid, especially no aid to prop up dictators in order for them to do business with any particular economic interests. There would be no war in order to create a devastated area like Bosnia or Yugoslavia that needs to be rebuilt by American businesses who have the political influence to get these foreign contracts. Mises thought that separation of the economy from the government was necessary in order to produce peace rather than war.
A major contribution of Mises and the Austrian School of economics is to show that government intervention and regulation of the economy is the actual cause of the boom-and-bust cycles, while a free market is very stable and self-correcting in a short period of time. Furthermore, Mises showed that coercive monopolies are created by government and not by the free market. Therefore, the economy does not need government regulation or control to stabilize it and will function better by being completely separated.
Mises’s other recommendation, seen in the following statement, is to reduce the size and power of the central government in general in order to protect individual liberty:
Durable peace is only possible under perfect capitalism, hitherto never and nowhere completely tried or achieved. In such a Jeffersonian world of unhampered market economy the scope of government activities is limited to the protection of the lives, health and property of individuals against violence or fraudulent aggression.
Mises goes on to state that
All the oratory of the advocates of government omnipotence cannot annul the fact that there is but one system that makes for durable peace: a free market economy. Government control leads to economic nationalism and thus results in conflict.
This complete separation of the economy and the government is what Mises meant by “perfect capitalism,” which promotes peace and prosperity rather than war and welfare.
Foreign Influence – The Anglo-American Establishment
In Roosevelt’s case, a foreign government clearly influenced and literally worked secretly and directly with him to cause the US to enter World War II in complete violation of President Washington’s warning in his “Farewell Address” against allowing the influence of foreign governments to control American policy. This is still a major problem today with America’s foreign policy. American political leaders have not only ignored President Washington’s warning about the dangerous influence of foreign powers, but they have also ignored his excellent advice that we should avoid permanent entangling alliances, such as the United Nations and NATO. Washington advised us to have as little political connection with other governments as possible, while having trade relationships with all and without preferential status. Mises and President Washington are not advocating isolationism; they are advocating global trade with all nations.
President Washington warned emphatically against getting involved in the quarrels of Europe. Under President Clinton, the US readopted the Wilsonian foreign policy of crusading throughout the world as its policeman by disguising imperialism with the term “humanitarianism,” a policy that involves American armed forces in matters which have no relationship to real American interests or the defense of the American people and their homeland. Many members of Congress are now calling for the draft again in order to have enough soldiers to be the world’s policeman.
Charles Beard, the famous historian, warned that we would lose our freedom if we adopted a policy of “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” and it was one of our Founders, James Madison, who warned that, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” War necessarily concentrates political power into the hands of a few – especially the president – and diminishes the liberty of all.
Reclaiming the Dream of Our Founders
If Americans are to reclaim the dream of our Founders and have peace and prosperity instead of war and welfare, we must understand the ideas and institutions that promote those conditions. Americans must appreciate and adopt the free-enterprise system and reject the private-enterprise system. Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have been on a collision course with disaster by following political leaders who got elected and maintained their power through the war and welfare system of politics.
Americans will never reclaim the dream of their Founders if presidents like Lincoln and Roosevelt are held up as examples of “great” presidents. We must impeach those presidents who ignore that the Constitution grants the war-making power exclusively to Congress, and certainly impeach those who mislead Congress into a declaration of war with false information.
Americans need to oppose and destroy the “imperial presidency” because of what it has already done and will do to our country and to our individual freedom. The first step toward that goal is to recognize Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt for what they really were: American Caesars.
 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “War and the Constitution: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt,” in Lincoln, the War President: The Gettysburg Lectures, Gabor S. Boritt, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 174; emphasis added.
 Ibid., p. 176; emphasis added.
 George N. Crocker, Roosevelt’s Road to Russia (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959); and for an explanation of Roosevelt’s delivery of China to the communists, see Anthony Kubek, How the Far East Was Lost: American Policy and the Creation of Communist China, 1941–1949 (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1963); see also Perlmutter, FDR and Stalin.
 R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995), p. 10; see also Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
 Rummel, Death by Government, pp. 111–22.
 Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969), p. 284; emphasis added.
 Ibid., p. 286.
 James Madison, “Political Observations,” Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (1795) (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1865), vol. 4, pp. 491–92; also see further quotations from Madison in John V. Denson, “War and American Freedom,” in The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, John V. Denson, ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1999), pp. 6–11.
Reprinted from Mises.org.
John V. Denson [send him mail] is a practicing attorney in Alabama and an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute. He is the author of A Century of War, and editor of The Costs of War and Reassessing the Presidency.