Getting the Other Side To Fire the First Shot


A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt By 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 Denson.

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 war.”

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 Singapore;
  • 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 Short.

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

“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 nation.”


January 11, 2007