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The People Always

Howard Fast, the author of "Citizen Tom Pain" and other historical novels, shows how the exercise of democratic rights in the past paved the way for great events.

This war can be won on the battlefield, yet lost here in America; but if we win here in America, this war cannot be lost on the battlefield. I know as well as anybody how hard it is to fight outside of a uniform. There's little reward and no glory--yet I know that the fight here at home is as important as, and in a sense more important than the campaigns in Italy and the southern Pacific.

The very nature of this war, a people's war, makes that a truism. This is not the first people's war America has fought. The American Revolution was a people's war, and the Civil War was too; and in both those wars, as I propose to show you, decisive actions were fought on the home front as well as on the battlefield. And in some cases, a battle was decided many miles from the sound of the guns.

Why is it important that the government of a democracy must respond to the will and the pressure of the people? When that is stated as a bare fact, it seems to have almost mystical content; but there is nothing mysterious about it. The very nature of a democracy makes the government an instrument of the people's will; and if the government should try to go counter to that expressed will it must face one of two alternatives, electoral defeat or revolution. In the course of our history, both these possibilities have occurred.

In 1775, a Continental Congress sat in Philadelphia. The people let their desires be known; the Congress did not respond. Whereupon in Concord, in Massachusetts, the people's committee of action created a revolutionary situation which Congress was forced to acknowledge. A year later, in May of 1776, Franklin was still able to say, "Independence is dangerous and unnecessary." John Adams thought, "Independence would be a most badly calculated move." And even Tom Jefferson said, "I do not see a pressing need for independence." Yet two months after, in July, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by Congress.

Once again, it was the will of the people, as summed up by Tom Pain in Common Sense, that forced the government to move. The very fact of the huge circulation of Common Sense proved the temper of the people in regard to the independence question, and the government realized it must either bow to the people's will, or give way to another government.

Jefferson was the first American president who clearly realized that he could move no faster and no slower than the will and support of the people indicated. He had that peculiar sensitivity to the people that allowed him to coordinate his actions with their desires; and thereupon he established a great tradition for America, for the presidency, and for democracy. This tradition came to its fine fulfillment in the person of Abraham Lincoln. Of him, in regard to his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Negro historian DuBois says:

"This national right-about-face had been gradually and carefully accomplished only by the consummate tact of a leader of men who went no faster than his nation marched, but just as fast; and also by the unwearying will of the Abolitionists, who forced the nation onward."

I would like to repeat that: "A leader of men who went no faster than his nation marched but just as fast."

The question then was emancipation of the black slaves in the South. Lincoln knew, as so many knew then, that upon that single question depended victory or defeat for the United States--indeed the very survival of the democratic ideal in the civilized world. Yet Lincoln did not move; Lincoln could not move for emancipation until the will of the people became so insistent, so well organized that he was forced to act not as a dictator of the masses, but as an instrument. If he had moved prematurely, he would have failed.

Let me make even clearer the parallel with today. In the same tones as they condemn Lincoln as a dictator, some people today condemn Roosevelt. Confused liberals by the hundreds are joining the reactionaries in attacks upon the president. They ask: "What has he done about Giraud? What has he done about Badoglio? What has he done, here at home, about the poll tax, about the second front?"

Roosevelt has, as Lincoln had, only one problem--to win this war in the shortest time. Roosevelt knows, as well as you and I, that appeasement has failed, that the poll tax is a weapon of our enemies, and that a second front must be opened. But Roosevelt is not a dictator. He cannot act--indeed, he must not act--unless we support him with overwhelming pressure. And if we organize that pressure, and when that pressure becomes great enough, Roosevelt must and will act. Roosevelt has not betrayed us. The liberals who attack him have betrayed us, for they have taken their strength from the basic issues and turned it against the man who can only be an instrument of the mass will of the people.

We have, as citizens of a democracy, a great power. If we use this power, and use it correctly, as it was used so often in the past in times of crisis, we will win this war on the home front and save God knows how many thousands of lives on the battlefield. If we do not use this power, then we have failed and we have betrayed every man who died fighting fascism.

There is no room for cynicism, for doubt, for a feeling of futility. That is only a sop to our conscience. For we are not futile, and our kind in such meetings assembled were never futile.

Let me make a historical point once again. Our Civil War practically stopped the export of cotton from the South to England. The mills in Manchester, in Nottingham, and in Liverpool closed down, and the British industrial workers suffered such hunger and misery as is almost beyond description. Yet through this, a vast majority of them supported the cause of the Union.

In early spring of 1863, the Union cause was hard hit--and it was at that time that the Tory government in England decided to recognize the Confederacy and declare war against the United States. But on March 26, 1863, a monster mass meeting of British workers was held at St. James Hall in London. John Bright and John Stuart Mill spoke for the cause of democracy in America, and these hungry, unemployed British working men shook the hall with their applause. And it was directly the result of this meeting and other similar meetings that prevented Britain from either recognizing the Confederacy or declaring war on the Union.

Those British workingmen, three thousand miles from the battlefield, not only preserved democracy in the New World, but sustained the cause of the Union and saved thousands of American lives.

I could go on with many more examples of how British and American citizens have exercised their democratic right to put pressure on their governments and force them to do their will. But there is neither the time nor the need. The facts are plain. If we want the poll tax repealed; if we want an Anglo-Soviet-American coalition; if we want a second front--the whole responsibility lies with us, with people who think our way. If we make our voices loud enough, we will be heard.

There is no glory, and if we succeed, there will be no personal reward. But God help us if we fail, for then history will mark us with the blackest color in its book.

We failed once before--when Spain fought for its life. If we had been united then, if our voices had been loud enough, history would have been different. Thousands who are dead might be alive. And the failure was ours, because while we saw a little, we did not see enough, while we did a little, we did not do enough. God grant that we don't fail again.

Howard Fast 

The above is an address delivered by Mr. Fast at a recent meeting on the Anglo-American-Soviet coalition, sponsored by the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.