The 'Good War' and Defend America First

Garet Garrett was the most eloquent opponent of U.S. involvement in World War II. Unlike his jeremiads against the New Deal and the Cold War – "The Revolution Was" and "Rise of Empire" – he did not put his arguments against intervention into a book. They appeared as the anonymous editorial voice of the Saturday Evening Post. Week after week in 1940 and 1941, Garrett, the magazine's chief editorial writer, thundered against the foreign policy of Franklin Roosevelt.

"This country now goes where it does not look and looks where it does not go," Garrett wrote in the issue of Sept. 7, 1940. "If it should come awake one morning to read in the newspaper headlines, or hear by the radio, that it had walked backward into war, it would take it no doubt as having been somehow inevitable from the first, and yet nobody would be able to say quite how or why it happened."

Fifteen months later, on Dec. 7, 1941, it did happen in just that way – and not without many warnings.

My new collection of Garrett's war editorials, Defend America First, tells much of the story of how Pearl Harbor happened – not the secret plottings, but the plottings in the open, the things obvious to anyone listening to the radio and reading the newspapers at the time. Much of it amounts to thinking on the meanings of words and acts, and arranging them with a sense of history. It is not the history of hindsight, but of what was known at the time, mostly things that have been forgotten in the 60 years since.

The first editorial in the series is from the issue of April 8, 1939, dated five months before the German and Russian invasion of Poland. (The dates are about one month after the pieces were written.) Garrett writes:

"Never was a stranger thing than that the American people should be inviting themselves to another world war before it happens.

"At frequent intervals those who sample the waters of public emotion heave their questionnaires into the stream – such as, u2018If England and France were attacked by the dictators, will this country have to do something about it?' or, u2018Shall the democracies of the world at any cost, stand together?' – and when what comes up is put through the sieve that separates the ayes and noes, the tabulated result shows the steady onset of the idea that we shall have to save the world for democracy again. But you do not need the statistics. You can feel it. There is all at once an intellectual cult of interventionists. The feet of many pacifists are running in the paths toward war."

Garrett's style is not modern, and may take some getting used to. You have just read a sentence of 86 words, which in the hands of most writers would turn the reader blue in the face. Garrett does it with grace.

He was a self-educated man. Born in the 19th century on a horse-powered farm, he dropped out of grammar school and learned from reading books. He left home by jumping a train. By 1900 he was a financial journalist on Wall Street and by World War I was on the editorial board of the New York Times. In 1922 he began writing for the Saturday Evening Post, which was the most influential voice to the American middle class. In the 1930s he attacked the Roosevelt government's economic quackery and sabotage of the Constitution in many Post articles, some of the best of which are included in my first Garrett collection, Salvos Against the New Deal (Caxton, 2002).

Garrett came to the preliminaries of World War II believing that World War I had been a total loss, and that the U.S. Treasury loans to Britain and France during that war and to Germany afterward had been a futile exercise in saving Europe. The course of wisdom in a European fight was to stay out of it. That did not make Garrett any kind of pacifist. Just after the fall of France, for the issue of July 20, 1940, he wrote:

"It is too late to debate whether our foreign policy shall be that of the turtle or the bald eagle. The eagle is our symbol. A solitary people, devoted to peace, yet dangerous to any degree."

He would have liked the yellow Gadsden flag with the motto, "Don't Tread on Me."

To Garrett, the question was not whether Hitler was dangerous. That was obvious, and Garrett argued that German militarism justified a compensating military buildup. America had to get ready for a possible war with Germany. The question was whether there was any need to go to Europe and pick a fight with Germany.

In the issue of Sept. 7, 1940, he wrote:

"Who is going to put the German thing back? The British? They are not able.

"Shall we do it? Unless we are willing to go to Europe and destroy it there, we may as well make our minds up now that we shall have to live in the same world with it, maybe for a long time, whether we like it or not. None the less, for that reason, only all the more, we should, we must, create on this continent the incomparable power of defense. After that we shall see. For after that we shall be again what we were, safe and free and dangerous."

Safe and free and dangerous. That is much different from the cowering image one absorbs from the word "isolationist," which is the word Roosevelt and the war party flung at people like Garrett (and which is flung today upon

Roosevelt's idea was involvement by salami-slice. The first slice was that America should help the British and French by measures greater than words but "short of war." That came early in 1939, the last year of European peace. To Garrett, this was taking sides in a war about to erupt. If we would take sides, we would get drawn in. Also, the policy was Roosevelt's personally, done as a challenge to Congress to do anything about it. Today's reader might say, "Of course war is the President's policy." But the republican tradition was stronger then.

Wrote Garrett in April 1939, of Roosevelt:

"He cannot declare war. Only the Congress can do that. Nevertheless, he can, if he is so minded, provoke war. He can create situations and entanglements such as to make war inevitable."

Which is what Roosevelt proceeded to do. One of his most famous moves was on Sept. 2,1940, two months after the fall of France, when, without asking Congress, he gave the British government 50 destroyers from the U.S. Navy. In exchange he got the use of British military bases in Canada and the Caribbean.

Garrett responded in the Oct. 12, 1940, Saturday Evening Post:

"Measures short of war. What, at first, did you understand that formula to mean? That England and France should have access to the private industrial resources of the United States, which would be internationally lawful, would not involve the Government at all, and would be still a tremendous advantage to the Allies, with Germany blockaded? But your Government understood it to mean much more than that; the British government understood it to mean much more…

"So you see what else your Government does. As it leads the country to war, saying it will keep it out, it tells you only what it thinks it will be good for you to know, and cannot always afford to tell you the truth, because you may not have been enough accustomed to the idea. As, for example, when the news was out that your Government was negotiating with Great Britain for air and navy bases on the fringe of this hemisphere, it told you that this had nothing whatever to do with the fifty destroyers for which the British had put forth a great propaganda in this country. Simply, that was not so."

In November 1940 came the national election, Franklin Roosevelt versus Wendell Willkie. It was a fine time for a democracy to offer the people a choice between peace or war, but it did not do that. It offered two candidates who were eager to be involved but unable to say so. Roosevelt brazenly lied, promising to keep the nation at peace. Garrett recounts how the propaganda for involvement diminished almost to zero before the election, only to come roaring back immediately afterward. Before he could be sworn in for a third term, Roosevelt announced that Britain had run out of credit, and that America's security required legislation that would grant him the power to give any amount of military supplies to any country he wanted.

That was Lend-Lease. To Garrett it was the real declaration of war, and when it was enacted in March 1941, he flatly said that the argument about whether to go to war was over.

In the issue of March 29, 1941, he wrote:

"We have broken with our past. We have thrown away our New World, our splendid isolation, our geographical advantage of three to one against all aggressors, our separate political religion. There is no longer a New World, nor an Old World, but now one world in which the American people have been cast for a part they will have to learn as they go along.

"There is no longer a Monroe Doctrine. In place of it there is an American Internationalism. We do not yet know what this means.

"From now on for us there is no foreign war. Any war anywhere in the world is our war, provided only there is an aggressor to be destroyed, a democracy to be saved or an area of freedom to be defended."

In defining the war as being for freedom – that is, for an ideology rather than the homeland – America, he wrote, would "assume a role in which it must either go on and on until it has gained moral hegemony of the whole world – or fail."

Moral hegemony of the whole world. That was a new thought in the spring of 1941.

Then, in June 1941, came the German attack on Russia. Then it was no longer a question of aid to Winston Churchill's Britain but aid also to Joseph Stalin's Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

And what would that mean? If Stalin prevailed over Hitler, Garrett wrote in the issue of Nov. 8, 1941, "Soviet Russia, in that case, would be the paramount land power of Europe.

"What should we do about that? Having saved the world from Nazism, should we not be morally obligated to go on and save it from Bolshevism?"

All this was written and published before Pearl Harbor.

It is fitting that Defend America First is published by the Caxton Press of Caldwell, Idaho, which used to publish many libertarian and Old Right books, including Garrett's most famous essays, "The Revolution Was" (1944), "Ex America" (1951) and "Rise of Empire" (1952), and the collection of those three essays in The People's Pottage (1953).

Many libertarians, who have old Caxton books on their shelves, assumed the publisher must have gone out of business. It is still there, as may be verified at As Caxton's ownership passed through various members of the Gipson family, its management lost interest in political books, and, apart from Ayn Rand's Anthem, which has been a constant money-maker, and a couple of others, the offerings have tended to frontier tales, ghost towns, Indian stories and other Western Americana. The company's young leader, Scott Gipson, has an interest in political books, and is cautiously entering the field again. Following Salvos Against the New Deal, Defend America First is the second such book.

April 22, 2003


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