Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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The turning tide: America’s game of empires


THE EU has not been an unmixed blessing, suffering as it does from idealism. The goal of supranational unity and the extension of its benefits to other lands have led the Community to do things in haste and to ignore negative regional economic and social effects; but as I wrote in TCW on Sunday in an article to mark its 60th anniversary, the 1961 Bonn Declaration made clear that it had also taken on a geopolitical role and political philosophy in which the United States was explicitly involved. The game of thrones had become a game of empires.

Practically, Jean Monnet’s project to create a firm partnership between France and Germany, those mighty historic rivals, has been achieved long since and is a monument to Monnet’s heroic tenacity and flexible diplomacy in the pursuit of lasting peace. Yet its precondition was the USA’s Marshall Plan and earlier aid immediately following the Second World War, without which Western Europe faced collapse and revolution.

The path to American involvement was not smooth, because their way is not entirely like ours; and there remains a cultural tension between transatlantic economic liberalism and European statist impulses. It was a tension also at work within the United States itself during Roosevelt’s terms of presidency, and resulted in a sea-change marked by the new Truman administration, with implications not only for his country but for Europe and the world.

FDR rescued the system with his package of measures including the Banking Acts of 1933 which supported banks but also restrained them; the job creation schemes under the National Industrial Recovery Act of the same year, and the Social Security Act of 1935, helping the needy, the unemployed and pensioners. It seems unlikely that he actually saved the nation from Depression-era communist takeover – that tends to come in the wake of total economic chaos or military defeat – but the fundamentalists of the US communist party (CPUSA) opposed the New Deal and abandoned their position in 1935 only in order to unite against fascism (similarly, pure-Marxist China was later to condemn the ‘revisionist traitors’ of the USSR under Khrushchev’s 1956 destalinisation programme).

From the later 1930s, Roosevelt was also resisted from the Right, by the ‘Conservative coalition’ in Congress, an alliance of Republicans and Southern Democrats, who saw the New Deal as not in the American tradition of personal freedom and self-reliance. Even the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, loyal to the Democrats since the mid-nineteenth century, switched to endorsing FDR’s rivals in the Presidential election campaigns of 1940 and 1944. In the latter, given how the Electoral College works, the Republicans’ Thomas Dewey could have won with only half a million more votes in the right areas (p2 here). 

Roosevelt’s failing health, disguised from the public, was becoming obvious to insiders – his doctor had been warned that if FDR ran for a fourth term in office he would probably not live to complete it, though it is not clear who, if anyone, in the party knew of this – and made crucial the choice of running mate in 1944.

Henry Wallace had been FDR’s Vice President during the latter’s third term. He was an anti-segregationist, which would not have played well in the Southern Democrat states mired in the largely British colonial legacy of the slave trade. He was also an advocate of what he called ‘economic democracy’, anathema to fiscal conservatives increasingly fretting about public debt and taxation. With his progressive views and his flaky interest in numerology and Navajo magic, today he might be called a New Ager. At any rate, he was potentially a vote-loser in the changing political climate, and too erratic to be an emergency substitute for the Chief Executive. 

Yet Wallace was popular with the rank and file. At the 1944 Democratic Party Convention he seemed set to secure renomination but while the crowd was chanting for him the chairman adjourned for the day and the party leadership worked hard overnight to secure support for Truman. The next day, Wallace scored more votes than Truman in the first ballot but not enough to win outright; Truman picked up enough second choices in the next ballot to secure victory. The ticket was set for another successful Presidential election campaign, but within three months of FDR’s inauguration Truman was suddenly called on to take over, inexperienced though learning fast; and ready to steer a more conservative course.

In a later piece, I plan to show how the changing tide worked out for the USA, Europe and Russia.

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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