Congress Then and Now

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. When we look at some of the folks populating Congress today, we can take some small comfort in the fact that today’s bunch is likely neither better nor worse than past Congresses. I give you this assessment of Congress, taken from an editorial entitled ‘Total War Postponed’ in the July 4, 1942, issue of Time Magazine. The magazine’s editors excoriate Congress for postponing critical legislation until after the November 1942 elections – at a time when the U.S. was getting the hemispheric snot kicked out of it.

Fighting Youth? A third major postponement is the decision to draft 18- and 19-year-olds for war service. Both the sentimental and the humanitarian instincts of the nation are against sending such boys to the battlefields of World War II.

The realistic but ugly fact faced by the War Department—but by few other people in the nation—is that Hitler has some 300 divisions, plus innumerable non-divisional organizations, and that the U.S. cannot raise an army of comparable size without drafting boys of 18 and 19; that such boys make the best combat troops. They have the stamina to stand hardship. Drafting such boys produces the least possible dislocation of war production, because few have acquired skills or jobs.

Still it is repugnant to the U.S. to ask its children to fight. Neither the Administration nor Congress had the courage to ask the people—before the elections—to do anything so repugnant to peacetime thinking habits.

Cost of Delay. These decisions are not political issues. Realistic men in Washington believe that they are already decided by circumstances—that there will be a sales tax, that there will be national gas rationing, that boys of 18 and 19 will be drafted to fight. A great many of today’s patriots who go to celebrate the Fourth in village greens and city parks know the same things in their hearts.

Some are already willing to face the ugly necessities of war. But others cannot yet believe in anything so ugly.

All will cheer when the orator recalls that John Paul Jones, standing on the quarterdeck of the Bonhomme Richard, with all but two of her guns destroyed, with several holes on her water line and fire smoldering near her magazine, shouted at the enemy: “We have not yet begun to fight.” Honest orators will have to tell them that the U.S.—with Egypt tottering, Russia fighting in desperation, China already three-quarters gone, and American ships sinking everywhere—is now making a very different kind of answer, saying in effect: “We have not yet begun to fight—we want to wait until after the elections.”

Let’s see. It’s World War II. It’s seven months after Pearl Harbor. It’s weeks after the Bataan death march. German submarines are slaughtering our shipping up and down the east coast and decimating convoys in the North Atlantic. The Japanese advance in the central and south Pacific has been stopped – barely – at Coral Sea and Midway. After foot-dragging and delays, the blackout has finally been enforced on the coasts. Britain and Russia – our allies – have their backs to the wall. One month from the date of this editorial, the U.S. will be forced to commit shoestring forces to Guadalcanal and the Solomons, thereby beginning six months of attrition during which our navy will suffer one humiliating defeat after another at the hands of the Japanese.

And the Congress can’t decide that the country’s in a total war. President Roosevelt didn’t sign the draft bill until November 23, 1942 – after the election and nearly one year after Pearl Harbor.

I leave you, dear reader, to ponder today’s Congress in silence.