The Conscription of Industry


By WENDELL L. WILLKIE, Presidential Candidate of the Republican Party

Statement made at Rushville, Indiana, August 31, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 714-715

TWICE within the last forty-eight hours I have asked President Roosevelt a simple question—is he for or is he against the Overton-Russell amendment? The President replied that he did not comment on pending legislation or amendments thereto. He has, of course, commented many times on pending legislation and amendments and did so no later than two weeks ago on an amendment to the same bill.

The Overton-Russell amendment was introduced in the Senate by two New Deal Senators. It was supported Friday in the Senate by a large number of other New Deal Senators. It is, therefore, a fair assumption, in view of the President's obvious avoidance and the action of his party leaders, that this amendment is an administration measure.

The consequences of the passage of this amendment will fall heaviest upon American labor and those of small means. You cannot conscript industry without conscripting labor. You cannot conscript industry without stagnating the functioning of our economic life. The arbitrary power to seize our instruments of production is almost as serious as their actual seizure.

This amendment is a cheap political proposal of the kind which brought France to its destruction. It is defended by the catch-phrases of politicians with which the American people are so completely weary.

The politicians of France, by arousing the prejudices of the people, destroyed the effectiveness of French industry, nationalized portions of the productive capacity with the inevitable result of disaster, failure and defeat.

The slaughtered millions of brave French soldiers constitute a tragic monument to such demagogic legislation and the false leadership of politicians who either did not understand or else cared more for office than for their country.

Several years ago these same catch-phrases were used to drive American industry out of the production of high explosives. Today, the United States is without any real productive capacity for the manufacture of high explosives and powder so basically necessary for war.

If this amendment passes, it will be disastrous to the building of an adequate defense in the United States.

The issue is that vital. It would be much wiser for theAmerican people to authorize their government to immediately take over our entire economic life than to thus hamstring, stagnate and render ineffective the functioning of our economic system. I again call upon the President of the United States to state his views.

We in America have two great objectives today. We must prepare ourselves in industry, in agriculture, and in arms, to defend this country from any possible attack. And we must preserve our liberties for ourselves and our children.

So far as I am concerned, I would dread the achievement of one of these objectives without the achievement of the other. The United States must become strong, but it must remain a free land for free men.

In conformance with those objectives we must, in a time of emergency (and I believe that this is such a time), be willing to lend our government enough extraordinary powers to speed up the defense program.

But we must never lend it—much less give it—more power than it needs to help us accomplish that job.

We must not set up a dictatorship to fight the dictators.

The Overton-Russell amendment grants to the Federal government absolute and arbitrary control over virtually our entire economic system without providing any safeguards to our freedom.

An administration that so desired, could, by the use of this amendment, step into any radio station, newspaper, manufacturing enterprise, or any other "facility" and take it over.

The sole pretext would be failure to reach an agreement with the owner.

Anyone, with the slightest knowledge of the modern court interpretations, knows that the term "facility," includes almost every instrument in our economic life, including newspapers, radio, agriculture, etc.

Under the framing of this amendment there is no assurance that there would be true redress in the courts. The courts would have power to fix the compensation due the manufacturer under the condemnation proceedings.

But no machinery is set up to determine whether the "facility" is really needed for national defense, whether the "agreement" sought by the government included a reasonableprice, whether the manufacturer actually refused to accept the "agreement," etc.

From the day the bill is signed, any facility or industrial plant, big or little, can thus be arbitrarily acquired and the business ruined.

It is hard for me to imagine a quicker, more efficient way to undermine American democratic institutions and free enterprise. The amendment is completely analogous to the little subterfuges by which dictatorships have been established in Europe.

It is said that these powers ought to exist for the purpose of holding a club over industry, but that they need not be used.

I am wholly in favor of providing the government with enough power to force a recalcitrant minority of the industrial community to cooperate with our defense program. In my opinion, adequate power already exists.

But if Congress wants to grant more powers, these should be made specific and the people of this country should be protected against their abuse.

For by what token are we to assume that the present Administration will not use these powers to its own political ends?

The present Administration has sought more power at every opportunity. Against the spirit of our form of government it sought to pack the Supreme Court—and was rebuffed. It will be rebuffed today if the present issue is clearly explained to the American people.

It is said that this almost infinite power is needed to speed up the defense program.

In my opinion it will have just the opposite effect. No man with money to invest in new plants—something we desperately need—will risk that money if the government can subsequently confiscate the plant for arbitrary reasons.

The result is that our huge funds of idle capital will remain idle, our unemployed will remain idle and the things that we so desperately need for our defense will remain "on order."

The psychology of business under such circumstances will be the psychology of fear. After eight years of it, we know the effects of the psychology of fear—the unemployment, idle factories, demoralization of industry, agriculture and finance. This is not the way to make ourselves strong.

The secret of industrial productivity is confidence. And confidence will prove to be the secret of our defense.

There is tagged on to this amendment an ingenious sentence which provides that nothing in the act shall be construed as undermining any State or Federal act regarding labor. I believe this sentence should be construed as supporting, among other measures, the Wagner Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right of collective bargaining.

However, Mr. Roosevelt has already said that labor has no right to strike against the government. I fail to understand how the right of collective bargaining can be effectively maintained if the right to strike is taken away.

This provision of the amendment is in fact poor verbiage designed to mislead labor. It pretends to guarantee the right which would in fact be destroyed.

The remedy for this is not to grant labor a right to strike against the government. Such a step would jeopardize not alone the defense program, but the effectiveness of all government. The remedy is to protect all the American people whether manufacturers, workers, or farmers, from the unnecessary encroachment of executive power.

The phrase-coiners and politicians who have sought to drive this measure through by using high sounding words about the "conscription of wealth" have forgotten one important fact.

The conscription of industry is the conscription of labor. The safeguards we are asking for are labor's safeguards, just as much as industry's. They are also the farmers' safeguards.

Under the Overton-Russell amendment, I believe that any farmer who could be described as a "facility" could be taken over by the government.

The question I want to raise, which I believe to be fundamental to the campaign is:

What are the intentions of the Administration with regard to this dangerous amendment and other extensions of executive power?

If the Administration is piqued that the people should entertain grave doubt concerning its intentions, I can only say that it has earned that doubt.

For instance, on June 28 an act was passed (to which the present Overton-Russell amendment pertains) empowering the Secretary of the Navy to seize plants at his discretion without condemnation proceedings and to set the price. This provision was not in the House and Senate bill as discussed and passed.

It was inserted in the conference reports without the authority of the conference committee, which had never discussed it; and it was never discussed after receipt of the conference report on the floor of either the House or the Senate.

When it became known that this provision had been slipped through by such undemocratic procedure, the House immediately provided for its repeal by a rider on an appropriation bill. But the Senate struck out the rider.

I do not believe that we can make American democracy strong by slipping things over on the representatives of the American people. The intentions of an administration that attempts to govern us in that way are necessarily suspected.

It was for that reason that I put the Overton-Russell amendment squarely up to Mr. Roosevelt a few days ago. I wanted to know—and I still want to know—what his intentions are.