Labor Looks At International Affairs


By MATTHEW WOLL, Vice President, The American Federation of Labor

Delivered before The Rotary. Club of New York, March 22, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 487-490.

THE military successes on the Western Front and in the Philippines have done much to arouse interest in the inevitable problems we shall all have to face, when peace, comes. This attitude, is quite comprehensible, even though it is difficult to think of the details of reconstruction at a time when the flower of our young manhood is being expended in campaigns where our stake is virtually nothing less than national existence.

In times such as these, it is only reasonable to say that we must first win the war. Of course, we must, and we will win the war. In a total war, however, peace is not something that comes unexpectedly, like a happy ending in a movie. In total war, the concept we have of our war aims are an integral part of the war itself. The kind of peace that people hope for determines, in a large measure, the very nature of the struggle.

Permit me to elaborate on what. I mean. I think a few illustrations from current international politics will make clear what I have in mind.

Winston Churchill, early in the war, announced that he had not come to serve as the King's First Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. That was a frank and honest statement, regardless how one may feel about British imperial policy. In the light of that statement recent British war policies are obvious for all to see. The British are not saying that the over-all war must be won to the exclusion of British interests in the Mediterranean. The British are imperialistic abroad and democratic at home. This dual policy determines British policy in the war.

The same is true of Russia. Russia is a totalitarian power whose alliance with the democracies in this war does not prevent her from pursuing a policy of expansion in the Baltic and Balkan countries; a policy in opposition to all democratic tenets. She pursues this policy regardless of how we or the British feel about self-determination for Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and all the other countries which are to be found on her periphery. Russia sees a postwar world in which human nature will not be altered materially; she thinks, that great powers will always be actuated by considerations of power politics—and she plays her hand accordingly.

Now, I am not suggesting that the United States should take a cynical hand in this international poker game of power politics. But I do suggest that unless we clearly outline our long-range policies, we will be at a decided disadvantage when peace comes. Because peace will not come in a blinding flash, but slowly, with anguish, out of official announcements and declarations—we seem to be drifting along in the tangled world that will emerge after several long years of catastrophic war.

With international trends subject to change without warning, it is hazardous to undertake the role of a prophet. Yet, certain conclusions can be drawn even at this stage of the war. Judging by the brutal struggle for power in eastern Europe and in the Mediterranean, the postwar world will be no millenium. The brotherhood of man, judging from all available data, is far from realization. This may or may not be the century of the common man, but judging by the first forty-five years of the century—and judging by all the record of man's inhumanity to man—we are far from anything resembling the much-publicized Utopia of Vice-President Truman's predecessor.

If British policy is determined by the political and economic interests of the British Commonwealth; and if Russian policy is fixed by the political and economic needs of the industrially crippled Soviet State, the least that Americans can do at this crucial period of world history is to adopt a policy of enlightened self-interest. By this I do not mean that we should compete with Russia and England in the struggle for spheres of interest. We are not an imperialist nation, and we do not desire any foreign territory. And if I interpret American public opinion correctly, the people of this country look with marked disfavor upon any unilateral acquisition of territory, whether it be in Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland, Finland, the Baltic states or in China and other parts of Asia and the Pacific.

We entered this war because our democratic institutions and our political freedom were threatened by the Axis powers. German, Italian and Japanese aggression was on the march and until these powers were crushed on the field and at sea, America stood in mortal danger. It was as simple as that. We shall succeed in our task, of that I am certain. But whether we shall succeed in winning the peace and making our great country an oasis of democracy in a world of regimentation is an entirely different matter.

The kind of America which we shall inherit after the war will depend on what we do now. There is an old American saying to the effect that there is no time like the present. We must plan postwar America today, here and now. We must not wait for the outcome of world conferences or international debates. Churchill is not waiting for the conclusion of the war to determine the nature of postwar Britain. Postwar England is now in the making. And the same is true of postwar Russia. We, too, must lay the foundations of a postwar society that will endure in the difficult years that lie ahead.

But before attempting to outline a plan of a postwar America, perhaps it would not be amiss to take an inventory of our assets, to count our blessings, so to speak. We have seen, during the war, that modern American industry which operates by voluntary action through voluntary groups, has outproduced all the other countries of the world. Both Hitler and Mussolini thought that the solution of the American problem could not be solved. They thought that the enormous pressure of war would cause the American industrial machine to break down. They imagined that the need for profits by ownership and the desire for high wages and decent working conditions by labor would cause breakdowns in our industrial machines. But that erroneous concept hasbeen bleeding to death on the battlefields of France, Bel-gium, Holland and Italy. American management and American labor have delivered every ton of war material that has been asked of them. If there are certain shortages, it is not the fault of American labor and industry; it is the fault of inadequate official planning.

This miracle of production is the result of our economic system of voluntarism—free enterprise, if you will. Our tremendous industrial plant, our vast shipyards, our Pitts-burghs, our Willow Runs, all these are tangible evidences of American free enterprise. And let us never forget that an economic system, like a political system, can never be half-free. Free enterprise means free labor—and vice versa.

The most enlightened section of American industry and management are fully aware of this. Intelligent management knows that modern industrial society can grow only as the result of responsibilities equally shared by management and labor. This means that we shall all enjoy the fullest measure of independence and prosperity in ratio to the measure of the recognition and the granting of the right and privileges of labor. But, it may be asked, if the existing relationship within the American industrial structure is free and voluntary, why must labor constantly insist upon its rights? Organized labor does this for several reasons, but the most obvious is that unless labor is free to demand higher standards of living, improved conditions of work, and greater opportunities for self-development, the inherently progressive nature of our industrial society will be halted. Labor demands these rights because to be free to demand is the very essence of voluntarism. In totalitarian countries like Germany and Russia to demand is tantamount to a request for liquidation.

There are Cassandra voices in America today which declare that our system of free enterprise is doomed. They say that the system of society envisioned by the Founding Fathers is finished, that it has run its course. They say that no one can save it and the road before the American people is bigger and better regimentation. I deny this. It is true that the war has imposed restrictions upon both management and labor. But these, if we are vigilant, will be transitory restrictions. In the long run, the American people will refuse to be hog-tied by over-centralized government They will not tolerate totalitarianism or government by a so-called elite. The American people will oppose these accepts because they are fundamentally un-American and because these foreign ideas, imported as contraband, are essentially fascist in character.

Fascism is not merely repression, concentration camps and goose-stepping troops. Fascism is government by one man's directives, government by a small clique which calls itself the elite: Fascism is that form of society which strangles freedom and relegates to itself increasing power, finally total power.

However much as we may desire freedom—freedom of the individual and freedom of enterprise—unless we think clearly and plan intelligently now while the war is on, we may find ourselves with military victory on our hands but unwittingly encumbered by the enemy's social philosophy. This, at first glance, may appear to be paradoxical, but is true nevertheless.

One of the greatest contradictions of American public life at present is that many so-called liberals and progressives demand the immediate intervention of the government for the solution of every problem that arises. In ever-increasing degrees, the government is called upon to settle difficulties which, in the past, were solved over the conference table or in the give-and-take of democratic public debate. Today, there is a shrinking of democratic processes and acontinual enlargement of the role of the government as final arbiter.

Those who advocate the expanding authority of the government do so in the hope that the government's enlarged scope will forever remain democratic. But as a result of this encroachment of government in all fields of American enterprise, we are in danger of losing our political and economic free will, our independence. Business finds itself hampered by endless decrees and directives; labor cannot organize or demand its fundamental rights unless it receives the green light from a score of government agencies. There are clearances for this, directives for that, and priorities for nearly everything else. But before it is too late, it is time we all demanded a priority on initiative; a priority on freedom and the willingness to think things through without the help of some ghost-writer in one of the countless government bureaus.

That is the way that Americans after the war will want to do it. That is the way our soldiers, sailors and airmen, returning from the war will want to do it. The army is regimented—that is the necessary way in which armies are run. But will our returning servicemen and women want a continuation of that sort of thing? I think not. They will want a free America; free from totalitarianism, free from poverty, free from government directives, an America where every man and woman can work out his own destiny in a free society, in a free market—without interference and shouted commands from a corps of civilian top-sergeants in Washington. We have told our fighting men that this was the America they were fighting for.' We told it to them in thousands of editorials, in advertisements, in hundreds of radio programs. And we had better be sure that they get it—or else postwar America will be split by a greater disunity than the most dismal pessimist imagines.

After the war every important element of our country will want a restoration of peacetime freedoms. Industry will insist on the right of the free market without priorities, questionnaires and endless forms to be filled out in quadruplicate. Workers will demand the right to work and withhold their labor, when conditions of work become intolerable without interference from the government. Farmers will want to sell in a free market, receiving a fair return for their labor and investment in land.

Of course, none of us want a return to a completely uncontrolled economic system with its cynical periods of unemployment and want, of fear and breadlines. Nobody wants that, not even the most cautious conservative. And all of us now realize that there is a fruitful, constructive place for government in this scheme of things. When private employment lags, it is the function of the government to initiate a comprehensive program of public works, of road-building, of non-competitive, low-rental public housing and slum clearance.

All this is the legitimate function of government in the fifth decade of the Twentieth Century. We are not going back to the abuses and inequities of untrammeled laissez-faire of the Nineteenth Century. But neither are we prepared to accept without struggle the totalitarianism of Germany, or that of Soviet Russia. The struggle will be long and bitter if any group in the United States attempts to make the American people a nation of feuhrer-worshippers, goose-stepping totalitarian robots.

Back in the 1930's, totalitarianism, whether red or brown, was considered a disease that had afflicted important geographical sections of Europe. All of us were certain that its chances in the United States were slim indeed. But today, despite the allegiance of the overwhelming percentage of the American people to the democratic way of living, there is evidence of a trend toward totalitarianism in small but influential groups. The growing reliance of the Executive on directives and government by decree is but one evidence of this impatience with our traditional, representative method of doing things. Another evidence of this trend is the gullibility with which some respectable sections of the community have accepted the brand of political and economic eyewash sold by the American Communists.

The heroic sacrifices which the Russian people have made in the war—and the Russian people have a long and tragic history of heroic sacrifice—have served to make American communism seem nearly respectable. In the minds of many otherwise estimable persons, Communism is a term associated with our Russian military ally. Of course, communism is no more desirable because of Russian military feats, than British subjection of India is justifiable because of the British stand at Dunkirk and English fortitude during the blitz in 1940, when Russia was tied to Nazi Germany by the Hitler-Stalin pact. Members of the United Nations include monarchies, one-man dictatorships, regencies, global empires on which the sun is reputed never to set, and other forms of government. But we in America are in no way committed to endorsement or approval of either royalty, dictatorship, totalitarianism or empire policy; and certainly our admiration of the Russian soldiers does not constitute approval of communism.

Admiration of communism before the war was confined largely to a handful of party members and its lunatic fringe of intellectuals. Today, the penetration of communism has reached alarming proportions. Labor, unions, church organizations, cultural bodies have adopted the ever-changing party line. But most disquieting is the Communist penetration of conservative business groups. Interests close to some of our largest banking institutions have become fellow-travellers, strange as it may sound.

Today, with Stalin's bait of large postwar orders dangled before the noses of some of our gullible industrialists and bankers, orders which may involve large-scale financial operations, there is a tendency to regard criticism of communism as somehow detrimental to the war effort. This has already been reflected in the softened editorial tone towards Communism in some of our daily newspapers which feel friendly toward certain business groups which hope that they may have a rich market in postwar Russia.

This kind of thinking is far from realistic, Stalin accepts our lend-lease without feeling obliged to approve of our political system, or to soft-pedal any criticism of us which now appear almost daily in the controlled Soviet press. The Russians accept planes, tanks, trucks, food and munitions from us, yet attack us whenever they deem it necessary. Willkie was attacked as a political adventurer in the Soviet official press—there is no such thing as an unofficial publication in Russia. Some of our most reputable journalists have been called liars, literary prostitutes and fascists. The Republican party was charged with an arson plot during the last Presidential Campaign. And still lend-lease kept going to Russia, as it should have done. The same thing is true in reverse, if Russia wants our steel, our machine tools and other heavy industry output, she will take it whether we denounce communism or not.

American communism can thrive best in a totalitarian atmosphere. Every move to concentrate greater power into the hands of government meets with a chorus of American communist approval. And since it is generally agreed that Big Government is the enemy of economic voluntarism orfree enterprise, and since communism in America today is completely behind the growing tendency toward total control over the nation's industrial enterprise, those in business who soft-pedal communism are, in effect, digging their own graves.

In this unprincipled and dangerous business, the American Federation of Labor has never participated. We know that totalitarianism means the death of free enterprise, whether that totalitarianism be bureaucratic or communist. The end is the same. Newspapers and radio stations which permit the skillful penetration of pro-communist columnists and commentators are unwittingly preparing the day when their properties will be completely controlled, if not owned, by the growing, ruthless bureaucratic elite whose ultimate goal is nothing short of total control.

When that day comes—and please God may it be never!—we will look back: and remember what might have been done to prevent the disaster, but then it will be -too late. Too late, as it was in Italy, in Russia, in Austria, in all the other countries that have been crushed by the totalitarian boot.

I grant you that this is hardly an optimistic picture. But it must be remembered that -this is not a prophecy, but a warning. It can happen here—but it needn't. I have said earlier that I believed that the American people will not tolerate a postwar totalitarian America. I am certain they will not. I believe this, first, because I am an incurable optimist concerning America's destiny, and second, because the objective circumstances for a continuation for a free, democratic America are greater than ever, provided there is no slackening of vigilance.

I believe that at is possible for our postwar era to be a period of healthy reconstruction and national creativeness such as we have never seen. Despite the seriousness of the problems which confront us, I have a profound faith in American common sense and American, democratic ways of thought and life. I believe that the dangers upon which I have touched can be avoided, if all sections of our country meet and confer with each other in an open and friendly democratic way. I believe that American industry will prosper and attain undreamed of heights of productivity, if ownership, management and labor join together out of a desire for greater usefulness.

I am not so despairing of mankind as to believe that bloodshed and strife—whether on the battlefield or in the field of labor—are the only ways left open to us. As never before in the history of the world, humanity longs for peace, for the right of men to live together in friendship and peace. The world is tired of conflict. It is tired of being ordered and kicked around. It prefers the free exchange of opinion and the reciprocity of ideas, to the hot clash of battle. It clamors to its leaders to find free ways in which men can live without resort to arms.

It demands of its business leaders to see that the terms "Profit" and "unemployment" are not synonymous. It demands of its labor leaders that the status of the worker shall constantly be given more dignity and a greater opportunity for personal development and spiritual richness. It demands of its government plans for social security, for decent housing, for better roads, laws for the protection of the weak against the economically powerful.

In the long history of the world, men have tried varying systems of government. At first, all commodities were produced under slavery; then came feudalism with power vested in the feudal lord. There were absolute monarchies, republics and dictatorships; but in all the thousands of years in the painful history of man, no one had successfully demonstrated that slavery was more efficient than freedom, that serfs were more productive or happier than free men, that there is any enduring substitute for voluntary action with the greatest good as the common goal. And when you get right down to it, that's what democracy is—a community is action with the greatest good as its goal-It is to this concept that the American Federation of Labor is dedicated. That is why the American Federation of Labor, during all its sixty-odd years of existence, has been the staunchest advocate of the American system of economic voluntarism. That is why the American Federation of Labor has been a consistent opponent of all forms of totalitarianism, and that is why we have always exposed and fought against the encroachment of communism in our unions, in our government, and in the community generally. It is this concept—and this concept alone—that will enable postwar America to become a nation truly worthy of its returned heroes. Remembering this at all times—as we fight the war and as we plan for the days ahead—I am supremely confident of the future—the destiny of free workers, the destiny of a free people.