Chaos and Cowardice in Washington

Not now. Maybe later. That seems to be the general idea around Washington. People should be told the truth about the constitutional issue. We ought to stay out of war. Something should be done about relief. Civil liberties must be defended. But not now. This is an election year. After the election, maybe. But not now.

Washington has been completely paralyzed by the fear of doing anything that might lose votes. It has become intellectually and spiritually aimless. Neither the Administration nor its opponents have any program whatever. Not even the Progressives show much sign of life. The American people are considered a set of prize boobs who are too ignorant to be told anything. And the nation's leaders turn to shadow-boxing or simply shirk their duty, fleeing ghosts that don't exist.

The neutrality fight is the most dismal instance of this legislative paralysis. Senators Borah and Johnson, as usual, are for nothing and against everything. Senator Pittman blandly proclaims a one-man war against Japan. John Bassett Moore, three-score-and-tenner, rises from the grave claiming to know everything, offers half a dozen authorities—all being himself—to prove himself right, and rants at any collective action for peace or even any single action for peace. He asks that we do nothing except repeat the errors we made in the World War. And he does all this in a rigmarole of scholastic and cabalistic terminology which would drive any sensible person to distraction. A few leaders of Italian-Americans, speaking darkly of "five million votes"—which don't exist—denounce neutrality. Oil and steel and cotton and shipping groups put the screws on Senators and Representatives and the Administration. The President backs out. The State Department, after weeks of testimony, tapers off into nothingness. And thus we have the stalemate of the neutrality legislation—easily the most dishonest betrayal, spiritually and intellectually, that the Administration and the State Department and Congress have thus far combined to effect. And those who should be leaders and who should know better go running away like a pack of scrub coyotes.

It is hard not to feel hopeless about the whole national political situation. Large numbers of bills curtailing civil liberties and otherwise blocking progress are being seriously considered, while some very good bills suggesting constitutional amendments receive no consideration. The American mind, reeling from an on-again, off-again, Democratic-Republican bombardment, is so punch drunk that it can no longer think about any real problems. No "movement" or philosophy seems to offer relief. Oh, yes. They do talk a good deal about a third-party movement. I remember a friend who said to me, "Why have a third party when you haven't even got the first two?"

In such a time of confusion it may be worth while to get down to a few simple facts and to draw from them a few simple conclusions. Whether my conclusions form even the basis for a program, I do not know. But until such times as the broken parts of our national economy can be pieced together they contain at least some principles that seem to me essential. I want to list four of them.

First, civil liberties must be preserved and any effort to curtail them must be desperately fought by every group that wants to maintain even the appearance of democratic government.

The sniping at freedom of speech and freedom of the press is now greater than in any previous peace-time period in our history. We have before us in Congress the McCormack military-disaffection bill—Senator Tydings has now disavowed it—which includes search-and-seizure provisions and gives you a nice two-year rest in the federal penitentiary for "disaffecting" the soldiers. Then we have the Kramer sedition bill, offering you a five-year rest at the same penitentiary for what might be considered sedition. These bills and others like them represent the worst hysteria of the times. All this is accompanied by a sickening bilge about "communism," which flows from the desperate desire of holding to the status quo. The spearhead of the movement for the suppression of civil liberties is furnished by the "patriotic" societies, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the United States navy—the War Department seems for the time to have withdrawn from this activity—and the heavy industries operating in steel and war materials.

Second, the Constitution is a document written by human beings, and the Supreme Court is a body composed of human beings.

Many Americans have a hazy idea that the Supreme Court is a sort of Ark of the Covenant—a repository of divine wisdom. The first essential is that we should recognize that the Constitution was written by human beings and Americans, and that the Supreme Court is also composed of nine human beings. Next we must understand that nowhere in the Constitution is the court expressly given the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. And despite this the court goes on denying powers to Congress because they are not to be found expressly granted in the Constitution. Thus the unwritten right of the Supreme Court to exercise judicial review is used to blot out the unwritten implications of the written right of Congress to provide for the general welfare. We must, moreover, recognize that all this talk about written and unwritten constitutions obscures the basic issue. The English constitution is unwritten, yet that has not removed the difficulties that block the path of constitutional change. But when there has been a unified demand from the English people, backed by leadership in the House of Commons, that change has always taken place. The same thing can be done in the United States. The Constitution as written should not stand in the way of proper social and economic legislation. If it does, the massed pressure of the people must bring about its change.

Third, we must conserve our natural resources, using public ownership when that is necessary and practical to effect this purpose.

Unless we conserve the natural resources of the country we shall have nothing left to conserve. The country will be so washed away and blown away that the soil will not be able to support the population. And how can we achieve conservation? One of the best ways is shown by the TVA. It has a program for preventing soil erosion, for reforestation, for flood control, and for the generation and sale of cheap power. It embodies a recognition of the fact that the fight for conservation must be carried on not only against the natural enemies of flood and wind but against such man-made enemies as the private ownership of public resources. Surely we have as much right to own our resources as we have to own and operate the Post Office, the Panama Canal, roads, and bridges.

Fourth, we must stay out of war, even at great temporary sacrifice, and we must observe strict neutrality.

The world has not learned from the last war. All the promising efforts toward collective action for peace have been defeated, and the world is back where it started—except that it is in a worse condition than before. Now, when 90 per cent of the American people favor neutrality and peace and are willing to make many sacrifices to stay out of war, the same "leaders" who brought us into the last war are getting ready to bring us into the next. Senators who have blocked every effort at peace still want political isolation. But they are anxious for economic participation in world affairs. The two combined mean a dangerous treading of the road to war. Professors, not personally evil, are none the less writing about "freedom of the seas" and "the rights of neutrality," with vicious consequences. The Administration has run a disgusting shell game of international legalities and cheap precinct politics. As a result of all this America is left with no policies of any kind on neutrality.

I may be accused of talking like a prophet of despair, but it seems to me that the country is existing on wishful thinking. We know that there are at least 11,000,000 unemployed. We know that civil liberties must be maintained. We know that the members of the Supreme Court are subject to human frailties like everyone else. We know that we must conserve our national resources, and that we must adopt a definite and stringent neutrality policy. Yet we do something else. Not now, we are told. Maybe later. I can only say that if we cannot recognize the need for attacking these perfectly obvious national problems, we might just as well pack our government up, put it in cold storage, and let the country go to pieces.

Maury Maverick, The Nation, March 11, 1936

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