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Friday, 24 February 2017

US Naval Nostalgia for a Traditional Enemy

The British White Paper on defence spending provided a pretext for the US Navy to weigh into the debate on US rearmament. Affecting to treat mention of building up the Royal Navy as being aimed at the US, Admiral Leahy publicly asked whether the moment had arrived to match the British building programme. It was still an episode of the cart of armaments was put before the horse of diplomacy. Leahy’s remark only made sense if an Anglo-Japanese alliance against the US in the Pacific was a meaningful risk. It sounded pleasant, though, to US traditionalists. An Anglo-US agreement aimed at Japan was equally improbable; no such thing was even talked about, but in the calculus of diplomacy Japan’s aggressive expansionism threatened the English speaking powers with a force and immediacy, which entirely eclipsed their historic mutual rivalry. The President wisely ducked this aspect of naval rearmament, and instead focused on steering it through the minefields of his own social legislation. The Welsh-Healey Act restricted government contracts to corporations applying a 40 hour week to its workforce. The US steel companies had muttered that this was a deterrent to bidding for contracts and even raised the entirely imaginary possibility that British orders might crowd out the US government. With the CIO labour organization publicly committed to an assault on the steel industry when it was done with the car producers, caution was called for.

After  weeks of attacks the Nationalist attempt to capture Madrid had ground to a halt and General Miaja,  the Republican commander for the city, launched a series of counter-attacks. These boosted morale and prestige, but failed to address the key strategic issue that the Republican government faced. Its military weakness compared to the Nationalists, above all in heavy weapons, did not really support costly, attritional warfare of this kind. The Republican was not going to defeat Franco in the suburbs of Madrid, but it was a harder question as to where a decisive result could be achieved. Options were further constrained because the Basque and Catalan fronts were practically fighting wars of their own.

Baron von Neurath, the German Foreign Minister, paid the country’s first official visit to Vienna since 1930. He was greeted by large numbers of Austrian Nazis, marshaled to clamour for union with Germany. Neurath received a rather less enthusiastic response from Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, who trumpeted friendship with Italy as well as esteem for the western powers notably Britain. He also stated firmly that Austria did not suffer from the menace of communist subversion, so by clear implication had no need of German assistance in combating such a menace. For the time being at least, Austria wanted to remain independent.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Labour Battles in the US, Economic Pain in Western Europe

The US had entered a phase of industrial agitation, almost on a par with the near war conditions twenty years before, when the overtly socialist IWW conducted an almost revolutionary campaign. In 1937 the motivation was far more obviously economic, but the personal ambition of John L. Lewis to establish his Congress of Industrial Organizations into the dominant force in national industrial negotiations also played a major part. Together with its affiliated union the UAW, the CIO was maintaining the pressure against General Motors. The flashpoint was the town of Anderson in Indiana, home to two GM plants, employing more than a quarter of the town’s population. Violence between unionised and non-unionised labour reached a scale, where martial law was declared by the State Governor and 1,000 National Guardsmen were deployed. Lewis publicly stated that next on his list were the Chrysler and, so far resolutely anti-union, Ford Corporation.

The new British White Paper on defence spending made quite plain that the efforts required to rearm Britain went far beyond simple budgetary adjustment. The City had been somewhat unnerved by the announcement of  a new loan of up to £400m for rearmament, but the figures in the White Paper went far further. Most striking of all, was the assertion that it would be “imprudent” to spend less than £1.5bn over the next five years. There was no attempt to spell out in detail the destination of this spending, but air defence was a high priority. Perhaps more telling, was the acceptance that Britain needed to rearm in depth: building reserves of material and expanding industrial capacity. It was painful evidence of the extent to which the mentality that created and maintained the “ten year rule” (that the country would not face a major war for ten years) had weakened Britain as a military power.

The Front Populaire in France was yet again confronted by the dire consequences of its economic policies, which were set to undo the boost to manufacturing profits from the slump in the franc. Inflation had surged to 15% though the deflation caused by the great slump had still to be undone. Predictably Blum’s first instinct was to reach for the tool of price control (yet again), which married so harmoniously with socialist rhetoric. Equally futilely, the government was now striving to control its own expenditure. It was an open question as to whether the word of economic reason – that inflation was driven by shortage of capacity as well as the effect of higher costs such as the 40 hour week - would be heeded. Tariffs on imports were equally destructive.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Forced Rejuvenation of Supreme US Justice and "Voluntary" Physical Training of British Public

Newly re-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to put some flesh on the bones of his scheme to expand executive power at the expense of the judiciary in the form of a proposal to change the membership of the Supreme Court, which had acted as a major brake on his early reforms. Once a Justice had reached the age of 70, this would create space for anew Justice to be nominated. In theory this could have expanded the Supreme Court to 15 Justices. In practice it was intended to dilute the opposition to Roosevelt of the mainly elderly Justices then sitting. Scenting a major Constitutional conflict in the offing, Wall Street fell sharply.

The British government published a White Paper on a scheme to promote a national scheme of physical education. It was the brainchild of Neville Chamberlain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was almost certain to succeed Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister in a few months. It was but a pale shadow of Nazi Germany’s Kraft durch Freude movement. It declaimed any aspiration to compulsory status, although it was clearly presented as something that was highly desirable, worthy of “widespread” adoption.

Another piece of the jigsaw of British appeasement fell in place as Sir Neville Henderson was designated as ambassador to Berlin in succession to Sir Eric Phipps, who was being transferred to the notionally more important post as ambassador to France. Phipps was tough and experienced and had not in any way been deluded as to the character of the Nazi regime or the threats that it posed. By contrast Henderson had held two relatively minor posts (Yugoslavia and Argentina), spoke no German and, most important, deeply concerned to follow the direction of his political masters. Over the next two and a half years, Henderson strove vigorously to execute Chamberlain’s goal of appeasing Hitler.

Friday, 3 February 2017

What Counts as Trotskism or Fighting as a Foreign Volunteer in Spain?

Soviet justice showed its usual promptitude and resolution in passing death sentences – rapidly carried out – on 13 of the 17 defendants in the latest trial of Trotskyists and wreckers and foreign agents in Moscow. Karl Radek was one of the defendants spared, in part because his testimony established the existence of a sinister “third Organization” training Trotskyite cadres to perform its pernicious work. He denounced "semi-Trotskyites, quarter-Trotskyites, one-eighth-Trotskyites, people who helped us, not knowing of the terrorist organization but sympathizing with us, people who from liberalism, from a Fronde against the Party, gave us this help". In Nazi Germany the bar for culpable Jewishness was set at one quarter, Trotskyism was clearly one degree more insidious. Even the US ambassador believed that the trial had been conducted fairly.

Against the background of the sad attempts by France and Britain, to restrain the flood of German and Italian “volunteers” (in reality formed, regular military units) into Spain to fight on the Nationalist side, the Spanish Republican government took the opportunity to make a telling debating point, which was lost in a wave of indifference and unspoken condonement of the Nationalists: the Moorish troops fighting for Franco should be caught by the blanket ban on foreign volunteers promoted by the western powers. The Moors were not, of course, volunteers, but semi-mercenary colonial levies, who contributed vastly to the brutality of the Nationalists’ campaigns, but facing uncomfortable truths about Spain was not a popular activity in Paris or London.

King George VI knighted Walter Monckton, his elder brother’s lawyer, who had played a critical intermediary role in the abdication crisis was now serving the new king in the same capacity as well continuing his task as intermediary between the brothers under circumstances scarcely less delicate. Monckton was entirely straightforward and motivated by desire to do the best for his country and the individuals involved, but his position was emblematic of the extent to which the British establishment had closed its ranks against the former King .