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James Burnham

The Declaration of Panama
Roosevelt Drives to War

(10 October 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 77, 10 October 1939, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The energetic young Sumner Welles, under-secretary of State, is now on his way back to Washington from Panama with a juicy present for the Sixty Families in his pocket. The Declaration of Panama, which Welles drove through the conference of the twenty-one American “republics”, against the opposition of a number of them headed by Chile, will go down in history as a very remarkable document indeed.

The Declaration contains many pious references to the solidarity of the American nations, their neutrality, their resolve to aid each other and to keep out of the war. But its key section is of course that which defines the “neutral zone” around the Americas.

Extent of “Neutral” Zone

This neutral zone extends from 300 to 600 miles into the ocean from the shores of America, from the latitude of Canada’s southern border to the last tip of South America.

The zone thus includes all of the Caribbean, the islands both west and east of South America, and even Bermuda. Within this area all “belligerent acts” are to be forbidden. This means that within this area no ships are to be molested by the warring powers, and no military acts of any kind carried out on land or at sea.

Let us see what is involved here:

The zone includes more than a hundred territories and possessions of European powers, chiefly British and French and a few Dutch. All of these are therefore declared to be immune from attack by enemy powers – that is, by Germany.

If submarines or raiding cruisers wish to attack ships transporting goods from an American port to Europe, their best chance is to lie in wait near the port, or, in the case of the Central and Northern South American ports, in among the narrow channels through which the ships must pass in the Carib-bean. In this way it is clearly easier to spot the ships than in the vast reaches of the open sea. But, by the terms of the declaration, ships cannot be attacked within the neutral zone.

War Aim of U.S. Imperialism

Here, too, the declaration is aimed primarily at Germany,and in several senses. Ships with goods for Britain or France would sail with safety to the edge of the neutral zone, half way across the Atlantic, and would there be taken up by convoys. The British squadrons now compelled to do duty within the area would be released for work elsewhere. The U.S. navy would be in effect, convoy to French and British ships to the edge of the zone. Ships for Germany, on the other hand, would not appreciably benefit, since Germany has no large surface fleet, and since they would still have to pass the almost insurmountable blockade of the Channel, the North Sea and the Baltic.

But it is of the greatest importance to understand that, though the declaration, like so many other of Roosevelt’s acts, is primarily an intervention against Germany, it is also directed against Britain. We cannot repeat too often that the war aim of United States imperialism is not to bail out the declining British Empire nor to bring aid and succor to the “democracies”, but to gain decisive world dominance for United States finance-capital against all rivals. This is openly indicated by the Panama Declaration.

Policeman of the Americas

Washington has not let the grass grow under its feet. It has utilized the “distraction” of the very first stage of the war to announce, through the Panama Declaration, that all of Latin America is its province. It proposes to monopolize economic, social, and, indirectly at least, political control of the two continents of the New World.

Who is going to enforce the declaration? Not Ecuador or Bolivia or Columbia or Nicaragua, naturally, but the United States fleet and air forces. Already U.S. bombers are patrolling the Caribbean, along with the Atlantic squadron of the fleet. Reserve destroyers are being re-conditioned by the scores to go on active duty.

United States imperialism will be the policeman of the Americas; and, by the terms of the declaration, no one else will be allowed to operate within its precinct.

Putting the declaration into effect will not be so simple as Sumner Welles perhaps imagined. The belligerent powers must first “accept” it; and, when they do in words (as they doubtless will), it must then be seen whether, under the pressure of their necessities as belligerents, they do so in fact. And what will happen to warships which, when pursued by the enemy, cross the line into the zone where belligerent acts are prohibited? And what about the many German ships now in American harbors? Will they be free to carry on coastal trade among American ports, guaranteed against molestation by the British?

Washington Holds Whip-Hand

Such difficulties, by the nature of the case, are unavoidable. They will be settled not by legalisms or logic but in subordination to the main direction of U.S. policy. The present declaration is designed to carry out, crudely and brutally, one essential step in this policy: to establish unchallenged dominion over Latin America.

The conference in its concluding session set up an executive committee to continue the task of “coordinating” the efforts of the American nations. In the old days, the United States might have indulged the hypocritical luxury of allowing this committee to have its headquarters at Lima or Rio or even Panama, to show that everyone was “equal” in the new world. But you have to act fast in war-time. So the committee will be located where it belongs – in Washington. Then it won’t be necessary to telephone or cable to give orders. The boss can call the boys into the office, and no time wasted.

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