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Book Review 309: Storm on the Horizon
February 16, 2014 - Harry Eagar
STORM ON THE HORIZON: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941, by Justus D. Doenecke. 547 pages. Rowman & Littlefield
The isolationists and anti-interventionists never had a chance even though right up to Dec. 7, 1941, a majority of Americans did not want to go to war against the fascists.
That is the obvious conclusion from Justus Doenecke’s tedious “Storm on the Horizon.” It is not Professor Doenecke’s fault it is tedious. To get to a mere six pages of analysis he has to lay out 322 pages of summaries of anti-interventionist arguments, supported by 170 pages of endnotes.
Before we have waded through a quarter of this, it is apparent that the anti-interventionist cause was too fractured, with too many leaders to form a successful political movement. The interventionists had the supreme advantage of one leader, Franklin Roosevelt, who knew exactly what he wanted although he did not know how he was going to get it.
Doenecke does not like the term isolationist, since that applied to only a fraction, perhaps a smallish fraction of the anti-warriors. The antiwar impulse was strong from 1919 on, but it did not begin to create an effective national organization until less than a year before Pearl Harbor. And even the America First Committee spoke for only a segment of the anti-warriors, who ranged from Christian pacifists to Trotskyites to anticolonialists to Anglophobes to out-and-out Nazis.
They made a lot of noise, tending almost as much to drown each other out as to advance their own positions..
The other thing that Doenecke’s meticulous reading of thousands of statements shows is that few indeed of the anti-interventionists were convinced themselves of the principle that almost all of them repeated, that America had no business with entangling alliances and Old World quarrels. One who did was Garet Garrett, who had the largest or second-largest audience among the anti-warriors as editorial writer for the Saturday Evening Post.
Garrett was a pure isolationist. He did not care what anyone who was not an American did.
Almost all the other anti-interventionists did care. They supported their positions by endless claims to know what the belligerents or neutrals would do. They were wrong about 99.9% of the time. Or they were sure that if America got involved, it would become a dictatorship (or already was one), see its democracy disappear, face economic catastrophe, financial collapse etc. On this side they were 100% wrong.
Most anti-interventionists professed to loathe Hitler and hoped he would not win. But like the first two passers-by in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they did not feel any necessity of getting involved. There was a term of the time for them, used by commies: objective fascists.
That was about right although the communists and fellow travelers, who were for intervention before they were against and then for it again, were in no position to scold others.
Even within the administration, there were skeptics of various degrees; and Roosevelt was almost alone in understanding that Hitlerism represented a new kind of international evil. While others were thinking in terms of the Congress of Vienna and pondering how to distribute colonies or trade zones (either to bait a peace settlement or to wind up a war), Roosevelt was single-minded. (He was as much an anticolonialist as Norman Thomas but he was not prepared to forget Hitler in the goal of dismantling the British, French, Dutch or Japanese empires. He also had to worry about expansionist Japan, something that the Euro-centric anti-interventionists spent few cares upon.)
All this swims to our attention from the ebb and flow of anti-interventionist arguments. Doenecke summarizes them without much comment.
His range is vast but his selection somewhat surprising. Garrett hardy appears, perhaps because his stance never changed, while all the rest were as changeable as butterflies.
Still, Charles Lindbergh, who toward the end was the cynosure of the anti-warriors, does not get quoted all that often; less often, even, than his wife.
And a decidedly fringe participant like Boake Carter is quoted constantly.
Carter is forgotten today except by rightwing radio ranters, to whom he is a hero, and he was losing stature even in 1940. He was a strange duck and in many ways emblematic of the weaknesses of the anti-interventionist movement, if it can even be called amovement.
His qualifications to comment on political affairs derived entirely from the fact that he understood the rules of rugby. He was the prototype for Ronald Reagan, a handsome ignoramus with a pleasant voice who was adopted by big business to produce radio propaganda disguised as news. The prince of publicists, Edward Bernays, who worked with him in his glory years as an anti-New Dealer and the most popular radio commentator in the country in 1936, thought he was crazy then; and Carter was clearly insane by 1940, but Hearst and Mutual continued to give him a tub to thump.
What he understood about political or military affairs could have been printed in large type on the back of a postage stamp, but he is well worth attention in 2014 because he was what Rush Limbaugh or Neal Boortz are, and the sponsorship issue is the same, too.
“Storm on he Horizon” is more a book to be consulted other historians for Doenecke’s valuable work in dusty files than to be read as a holistic account of the anti-interventionist moment. But it is also useful because the surviving narrative was written by the winners of this political dispute, and they have not been eager to recall the underhanded methods they used.
These methods were well-enough understood -- even embellished -- at the time, and Doenecke’s tome (and thorough notes) does provide considerable detail about the Roosevelt administration’s expedient (to say the least) methods; though the story of the interventionists is not to be found here.
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