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Saturday, October 18, 2003
by Richard M. Ebeling, August 2003 (POSTED OCTOBER 15, 2003 )
Defend America First: The Antiwar Editorials of the Saturday
Evening Post, 1939–1942 by Garet Garrett
(Caldwell, Idaho, 2003); 285 pages; $13.95.
It has now long been taken for granted by the American citizenry
that the president of the United States, in his role as
commander in chief, has the authority and power to send American
armed forces into harm’s way anywhere in the world, at any time,
for practically any purpose, and at virtually his own
Americans do not realize how relatively new a power this is for
the executive branch of the U.S. government.
It is true that in the 19th century American forces intervened
in various parts of the world. For instance, in the 1870s
America briefly fought its first Korean War. An American
merchant vessel went aground along the coast of Korea, and the
survivors of the ship were hacked to death by the local natives.
The U.S. government demanded an apology and an indemnity for the
loss of life. When the Korean government refused, an American
naval task force was sent to Korea. The American warships
bombarded the forts at the mouth of the Han River leading up to
the Korean capital of Seoul. Only when the American forces
threatened to advance up the river to the capital did the Korean
government accede to the American demands.
Most of the interventions during the 19th century were at the
discretion of naval and marine officers who had to make
decisions on their own, since they had no way of rapidly
communicating with Washington to ask for formal instructions.
For instance, America’s first intervention in Vietnam was in the
1850s. A French priest was threatened by a Vietnamese mob in the
old imperial city of Hue. The commander of an American naval
vessel that happened to be in the port ordered a unit of marines
ashore to go to the rescue of the priest.
These two examples of American military intervention in foreign
lands, and many others, can all be read about in great detail in
the official history of the United States Marine Corps.
But up through the First World War, it was always taken for
granted that while the commander in chief was responsible for
the execution of war under the U.S. Constitution, it was the
Congress that declared war and formally sent America off into a
conflict with another nation.
This was considered part of the Framers’ wisdom in designing the
Constitution in such a way that the power over war and peace was
not in the hands of a dominating executive.
A president might present the case for going to war before the
American people, but it was the people’s elected representatives
who were constitutionally responsible for deciding whether or
not such a grave course should be followed.
The deliberation over war and peace in the congressional
chambers would, it was hoped, cool any immediate passions and
allow reason to work its power in deciding on such an important
The turn away from these constitutional procedures began in the
years leading up to America’s entry into the Second World War at
the end of 1941.
How this change came about is the theme of the essays included
in Defend America First. The volume contains many of the
articles penned by Garet Garrett in the Saturday Evening Post
from 1939 to 1942.
Garrett was a strong opponent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal
policies during the earlier years of the 1930s. When the winds
of war began to blow on the shores of the Atlantic in 1939, he
challenged the emerging unofficial policies and hidden
strategies of the Roosevelt administration that were moving
America into the European conflict between Nazi Germany and
Great Britain. (Britain and its empire were standing alone
against Hitler after the fall of France in June of 1940.)
Garrett was in no way an apologist for Hitler and his Nazi
regime. Indeed, he believed that Nazi Germany was a threat that
America had to take seriously.
He was not anti-British, in that he considered that the cause of
Britain as a force for freedom was certainly far superior to the
Nazi dream of totalitarian order.
He was not anti-Jewish, in that he wanted to preserve an America
under which everyone was secure in his constitutionally
protected rights to individual liberty, private property, and
freedom of exchange.
And he was not a pacifist, in that he actually argued for a
strong national defense, so strong that America would be ready
and able to successfully deter and defeat even a simultaneous
attack by Germany from across the Atlantic and Japan from across
What he was against was the policy of Franklin Roosevelt to use
deception and unconstitutional means to bring America into the
Second World War. As Garrett expressed it in one of his
There is a disaster worse than war. We are concerned only with
how it was done. We are thinking of how your government, instead
of telling the people what it meant to do or what it was doing
until it was done, by indirection, by subterfuge, by cleverness,
by beating the law, uncontrollably pursuing its own will, did
involve this country in the European war it was resolved to stay
He reminded his readers of the many times FDR had promised,
again and again and again, during the 1940 presidential campaign
in which he ran for an unprecedented third term in office, that
he had not made and was not entering into any secret alliances
or agreements to bring the United States into the war. And that
he was determined to see that American boys did not fight in
Yet, Garrett explained, week after week, as events unfolded in
1940 and 1941, Roosevelt was bending the laws, evading the laws,
defying laws, and breaking the laws passed by Congress and
signed by himself that were meant to maintain America’s
neutrality and prevent any course of action that might be
grounds for a foreign power to declare war on the United States.
He made a mockery of the laws prohibiting the federal
government’s directly selling arms to a belligerent power by
“returning” armaments owned by the U.S. military to the
manufacturers so they then could be sold by a “private”
enterprise to the British government. FDR transferred military
equipment and ships to Canada, with whom he had entered into an
informal alliance, so those armaments could be passed on to the
He used a twisted meaning of words and executive power to
undertake the famous transfer of 50 U.S. destroyers to Britain
in exchange for use of British military bases in the Americas,
without informing Congress or seeking its approval. (See the
review of Hard Bargain: How FDR Twisted Churchill’s Arm, Evaded
the Law and Changed the Role of the American Presidency, by
Robert Shogan, in Freedom Daily, August 1995.)
Roosevelt then placed American forces in harm’s way, again in
violation of congressional law, by sending military “patrols” —
“convoys” by another name — across half of the Atlantic to
escort British vessels carrying military equipment and other
supplies to Great Britain.
What Garrett could not know at the time that he wrote these
Saturday Evening Post editorials was the extent to which FDR had
in fact given promises to Winston Churchill and entered into
alliances in all but name with Churchill’s government for
America’s entry into the war against Nazi Germany. He was able
to add these parts to the narrative only in his later works, The
People’s Pottage (1953) and The American Story (1955).
What Garrett was most deeply concerned about in these editorials
from 1940 and 1941 and in his writings after the Second World
War was that FDR’s actions were creating an imperial presidency,
outside the restraint of the Congress and beyond the control of
the American citizenry and their wishes as a free people.
For instance, after Roosevelt successfully pressured Congress to
pass the Lend-Lease Act, Garrett warned that it gave the
president a range of new powers:
Power in his own discretion, on his own terms and as he may see
fit, to conduct undeclared war anywhere in the world. Power in
his own discretion to make friends and enemies of other nations.
Power in his own discretion to employ the total resources of the
country to such ends. Power in his own discretion to make
military alliances with other governments; and to lend, lease or
give to other governments any of the military resources of the
United States, nothing excepted save man power, and that only by
not being specifically mentioned. Power to make by edict such
laws as he may deem necessary in order to carry out his
intentions. Power to command money in any amount. Power himself
to delegate any or all of that power to whom he likes.
Through these expanded powers, some given to FDR by loose laws
passed by Congress at this time and others merely taken by the
president in defiance of existing laws, Garrett argued that by
the early part of 1941 America was, in fact, already at war on
Great Britain’s side against Nazi Germany.
Increasingly unrestrained executive powers in foreign affairs
resulted in the president of the United States leading the
American people into a war that all the public opinion polls
clearly showed a vast majority of them did not want to enter.
The newspapers at the time, Garrett lamented, seemed to take all
this for granted. They referred every day to such developments
as, “the president has decided,” “the president has done,” “the
president has declared,” when all of these things were presumed
to traditionally lie beyond presidential authority without
congressional approval and agreement, as specified under the
The republic was increasingly being whittled away, with nothing
but unrestrained and concentrated power in the hands of the
president being left in its place.
This is what makes these editorials from more than 60 years ago
so relevant and fresh today. They explain the origins and
processes of presidential power that enables the person
occupying the White House to arrogantly take America into wars
in our own time and even to declare his intention to remake the
rest of the world in America’s image through political and
military force. It is all nothing less than the logical outcome
of the road started down by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and
Richard Ebeling is the president of the Foundation for Economic
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