World War II: The Last Constitutionally Declared War… (Well, Not Exactly…)

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Freedom Betrayed, by Herbert Hoover

It is often cited by defenders of the Constitution that the last properly declared U.S. war was the Second World War. There are a couple of facts that are pretty solid for those who take this viewpoint. On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war with Japan; on December 11 he asked for a declaration against Germany and Italy. Congress approved these and thus was war declared.

So why question these irrefutable facts? Where is the “not exactly” in these events? I guess it depends on what the definition of “war” is.

Roosevelt took many actions against Germany prior to December 11, 1941. Hoover outlines and documents many of these, even stating that these actions were taken for the purpose of bringing about an attack against the U.S. such that Congressional and popular support would swing toward direct U.S. involvement in the war. Looking backwards from today’s perspective, some of these actions seem trivial when compared to the gross abuses of Presidential power regarding military action. However, in 1941, there were many (including Hoover) who felt the President had gone far beyond his constitutional authority.

With the American people and the Congress greatly opposed to entering the war, our participation appeared unlikely unless some overt act against us was made either by Germany or Japan which would reverse this tide. Certain elements in the Washington Administration seemed to hold this view and undertook measures to bring about such an attack.

A series of activities in the Atlantic were sure to be observed by the Germans.

The President on July 7, 1941, informed Congress of the landing of American troops in Iceland, Trinidad, and British Guiana, saying:

…forces of the United States Navy have today arrived in Iceland in order to supplement, and eventually to replace, the British forces….

Roosevelt justified this deployment by stating that such positions in the Atlantic must be denied the Germans in order to prevent a German attack against the Western Hemisphere (an attack Germany did not have the capability or intent to carry out). This deployment was opposed by some. Senator Robert Taft protested the occupation, saying “I think the President has grossly exceeded his constitutional authority.”

…on July 11, Nelson A. Rockefeller, then a member of Mr. Roosevelt’s administration, announced the black-listing of about 2,000 Latin-American firms and individuals having connections with the Axis. We were not yet at war.

Indeed. If the U.S. was not yet at war, why black-list anyone? Or why not black-list firms associated with the Soviets? Or why not black-list associates of all warring factions? To say nothing of the lack of due process in this action (but that is a topic for another day).

On August 5, I [Hoover] joined a declaration against the current warlike actions….The statement read as follows [portions excerpted]:

Exceeding its express purpose, the lend-lease bill has been followed by naval action, by military occupation of bases outside the Western Hemisphere, by promise of unauthorized aid to Russia, and by other belligerent moves.

Recent events raise doubts that this war is a clear-cut issue of liberty and democracy. It is not purely a world conflict between tyranny and freedom. The Anglo-Russian alliance has dissipated that notion.

American participation is far more likely to destroy democracy in this country and thus in the Western Hemisphere than to establish in Europe. The hope of civilization now rests on the preservation of freedom and democracy in the United States.

On August 9, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland. On August 14, they issued what is known as The Atlantic Charter. This charter was discussed in the Senate

Senator Patrick McCarran called it “tantamount to a declaration of war by this country.” Senator David I. Walsh said that it “goes far beyond the Constitutional powers of the President.”

Others joined in the criticism. Certainly, if members of the U.S. Senate viewed the agreement this way (rightly or wrongly), it should not be a surprise if the Germans and Hitler felt the same.

Yet others provided support:

Senator Claude Pepper declared the statement “magnificent” and “the nearest thing to a declaration of world independence I have ever heard.”

It strikes me that “a declaration of world independence” is somewhat outside of the bounds of Constitutional authority. This doesn’t faze the good Senator. Such a document as this Charter might also be viewed as a belligerent act by those who hold a different view regarding world independence.

What were some of the clauses of this announcement of the Atlantic Charter that cause those who viewed it as an act of war to such an interpretation? Following are some excerpts:

The whole problem of the supply of munitions of war, as provided by the Lend-Lease Act, for the armed forces of the United States and for those countries actively engaged in resisting aggression has been further examined.

Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Supply of the British Government, has joined in these conferences. He is going to proceed to Washington to discuss further details with appropriate officials of the United States Government. These conferences will also cover the supply problems of the Soviet Union.

Discussions regarding providing military supplies to both the British and the Soviets (both engaged in war with the Germans). This certainly seems like a war-like clause.

They [Roosevelt and Churchill] have had several conferences. They have considered the dangers to world civilization arising from…the Hitlerite government of Germany and other governments associated therewith….

Following are some of the common principles that underlie this declaration:

THIRD, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

Note this does not apply to territories conquered by the Soviet Union, only to territories conquered by Germany as made clear above.

SIXTH, after a final destruction of the Nazi tyranny….

I don’t think Roosevelt was thinking of a winner-take-all soccer match….

In reading these words, it is not difficult to see why some Senators felt that war had been declared by the President, and that he did so without Constitutional authority.

Prime Minister Churchill added to the war rhetoric…

…on August 24, in a broadcast, proclaim[ing] that President Roosevelt had agreed to join the war, saying:

…the President of the United States and the British representative in…the Atlantic Charter have jointly pledged their countries to the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny.

Of course, it can be said that much of this is words. Braggadocio is part and parcel of being a great political leader. Hoover sees much more, and continues:

In an address to workers in a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, steel plant…Rear Admiral Clark H. Woodward, U.S.N. (retired), naval representative on the Federal Board of Civilian Defense, expressed his belief that the United States “will be actively engaged in the war in a short time.”

The New York Herald tribune reported the admiral as saying:

As a matter of fact, we are already at war, so there is no use trying to fool ourselves about it.

But why take the word or a retired Admiral?

On September 1, Mr. Churchill asked Mr. Roosevelt to assign American ships to transport two Commonwealth divisions to the Middle East. This was done, and the 40,000 men duly landed.

This is getting a little closer to home. Providing military escort to troops headed for battle. Sounds war-like. But there is more:

On September 4, the Navy announced that the U.S. destroyer Greer, en route to Iceland with the mail, had been attacked by torpedoes from a submarine, and that the Greer had counterattacked with depth charges. At a press conference the next day the President described it as an attack.

Carrying mail, for goodness sakes. What could be more benign than this?

It turns out the President might have been technically correct in his description, but not quite truthful:

It developed that a British plane had advised the Greer of the location of a German submarine. The Greer had searched for the submarine, located it, and trailed it for three and one-half hours until it turned and fired a torpedo. Having thus been “attacked,” the Greer used depth charges until it lost contact.

Even this much of the truth was provided grudgingly. The Senate demanded to see the log of the Greer, but instead received the above description in a statement from Admiral Stark.

There is more. Roosevelt commented on another American ship, the Robin Moor:

A few months ago an American flag merchant ship, the Robin Moor, was sunk by a Nazi submarine in the middle of the South Atlantic, under circumstances violating long-established international law and violating every principle of humanity….

The ship had been carrying contraband, and the passengers and crew were allowed to leave the ship.

Hoover goes on to list other similar claims by Roosevelt, each a version of “we were minding our own business when, for no justifiable reason and completely unprovoked, our ships were attacked.” In each case, as in the examples above, Hoover explains why the President’s statements are not truthful; in fact the U.S. was taking actions consistent with a nation at war.

On September 16, Hoover once again addressed the nation in a broadcast:

No one will deny that if we keep up this step-by-step policy it will lead inevitably to sending our sons into this war….It is the ultimate end of this road that must be looked at.

In this address, Hoover goes on to outline many of the points previously discussed: let the two tyrants knock each other out; Hitler cannot cross the English Channel let alone the Atlantic, etc. He continues, regarding the de facto war being fought by Roosevelt:

…the President’s policy of edging our warships into danger zones, of sending American merchant ships with contraband raises the most critical of all questions. These steps to war are unapproved and undeclared by the Congress….

Hoover then outlines an October 17 incident with the U.S. destroyer Kearny. The destroyer was convoying ships carrying munitions to England (against the provisions of Lend-Lease). She attacked a German submarine, and the submarine counterattacked, killing eleven men on board.

On October 22, General Robert E. Wood of the America First Committee issued a challenge to the President to go before Congress and ask for a positive vote on peace and war. The President did not make the test.

This Committee has been tainted as anti-Semitic, or a Nazi front organization. I do not intend to discuss these aspects; however it is worth pointing out some background and views of this organization. From Wikipedia:

The America First Committee (AFC) was the foremost non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II. Peaking at 800,000 paid members in 650 chapters, it was one of the largest anti-war organizations in American history. Started in 1940, it shut down after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The AFC gained much of its early strength by merging with the more left-wing Keep America Out of War Committee, whose leaders had included such mainstays of America First as Norman Thomas and John T. Flynn.

AFC was established September 4, 1940, by Yale Law School student R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., along with other students, including future President Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and future U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. At its peak, America First claimed 800,000 dues-paying members in 650 chapters, located mostly in a 300-mile radius of Chicago.

The America First Committee launched a petition aimed at enforcing the 1939 Neutrality Act and forcing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep his pledge to keep America out of the war. They strongly distrusted Roosevelt, arguing that he was lying to the American people.

On the day after Roosevelt’s lend-lease bill was submitted to the United States Congress, Wood promised AFC opposition “with all the vigor it can exert.” America First staunchly opposed the convoying of ships, the Atlantic Charter, and the placing of economic pressure on Japan. In order to achieve the defeat of lend-lease and the perpetuation of American neutrality, the AFC advocated four basic principles:

The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.

No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.

American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.

“Aid short of war” [a Roosevelt policy at this time] weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.

These statements and positions seem quite consistent with the statements of Hoover throughout this book.

As against Roosevelt’s regular claims of overt German acts against the United States, on November 5, Arthur Krock of the Washington Bureau of the New York Times said:

…in my opinion, Hitler can throw at us both the dictionary and the facts when he says we “attacked” him. Why should the American Government ever have attempted to obscure it?…

Yet our government did attempt to obscure it, as the record shows….

On November 7, 1941, Admiral Stark wrote to admiral Hart:

…The Navy is already in the war of the Atlantic, but the country doesn’t seem to realize it….Whether the country knows it or not, we are at war.

When asked by Representative Gearhart if it was because of the actions directed by the President at that time against the Germans that Stark said the U.S. was already at war, Admiral Stark replied:

That is correct.

Technically…we were not at war…because war had not been declared, but actually, so far as the forces operating under Admiral King in certain areas, it was war against any German craft that came inside that area.

Admiral Stark sees it this way. The U.S. was not at war because Congress had not declared war. But actually, the U.S. was at war before Congress declared war. On this point, Admiral Stark should be sufficient authority.

I will end where I began. Technically, Congress authorized U.S. entry into World War II. In reality, Roosevelt was already fighting the war long before this declaration. It was Roosevelt’s desire to get Germany to take the first significantly overt action, in the hope that this would move the American people and Congress to back his desire for war.

This did not work with the Germans. Hitler, it seems, wanted to avoid providing reason to bring the U.S. into this war. Hoover next turns to Roosevelt’s actions against Japan. Of course, Roosevelt was successful in getting the Japanese to take the bait. This is Hoover’s subject, for next time.

Reprinted with permission from the Bionic Mosquito.

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