In 1935, as president of France, Pierre Laval banned “weapons of war” and decreed that all firearms should be registered with the government. In 1945 he was tried and found guilty of treason for his collaboration with the German occupation. Between those two years, Hitler built his strong war machine, and in 1940 he invaded and occupied France. Immediately after her defeat, the French government, under the terms of the armistice, agreed to administer the country on the Wehrmacht’s behalf. Among its first steps was to order every gun owner to surrender his weapon to the authorities within 24 hours under penalty of immediate execution. As the government held the records, the order should have been easy to enforce, and for the most part it was.
Even so, less than one third of an estimated three million hunting guns were turned in, and over the next five years those that remained in the hands of French citizens proved a serious problem for the Germans. Many in the Resistance and other French people relied on their firearms to extricate themselves from situations in which their activities had involved them, and the frustrated occupiers resorted to a series of amnesties further to disarm the public. While many citoyens forfeited their lives to their own stubborn bravery, they nevertheless became part of a shadow army that greatly aided the Allies in defeating Germany by facilitating the invasion. The story of course is a significant one in the early 21st century, when the advocates of gun control in the United States are trying to weaken or repeal the Second Amendment, and when what Stephen Halbrook describes as the European Union’s “agenda to disarm the populations to the fullest extent possible” is being pursued in Brussels. Halbrook never belabors the point, but the implications of his story for these present politically unsettled times are clear, and they carry a warning. A very excellent, interesting, and well-written book.
[Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France: Tyranny and Resistance, by Stephen P. Halbrook (Oakland, CA: Independent Institute) 272 pp., $28.95]
When he was contemplating writing this book, Professor Edwards consulted a number of colleagues whose field of study was macroeconomics about the Joint Resolution of Congress of June 1933 that ordered a change in currency relating to the denomination of contracts. To his surprise, few of them were familiar with the details of the story, and some were wholly unaware of the episode. It was a case, Edwards found, of “collective amnesia” regarding a matter of great significance.
In April 1933, one month after he was sworn into office, President Roosevelt issued an executive order requiring people and businesses to sell within three weeks all their gold holdings to the government at the price of $20.67 per ounce. Then on May 12 Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, an amendment authorizing the president to raise the official price of gold to $43.34 an ounce. Unfortunately, nearly all American debt contracts, public and private, included a “gold clause” committing the debtor to paying in “gold coin”—a legacy of the Civil War era, when two currencies circulated in parallel, one backed by bullion, the other the famous greenbacks issued by the U.S. Treasury. On June 5 Congress passed Joint Resolution No. 10 annulling all gold clauses in past and future contracts. Lastly, on January 31 of the following year, Roosevelt raised the price of gold by 69 percent to $35 per ounce.
In response to this series of actions, some holders of securities protected by the gold clause filed suit claiming that the measures were unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress lacked authority to annul the terms of private and public contracts. Four such suits reached the Supreme Court, which decided, by a five-to-four vote the following year, in favor of the government. (Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote the majority opinion.) The dissenters, known as the “Four Horsemen,” formed the resistance that in 1937 caused Roosevelt to try to pack the Court.
Edwards concludes that “Because [the case] was resolved according to the rule of law, following procedures set up by the Constitution, and according to precedent,” the decision was a just one that was eventually accepted as an “excusable default.” As a former graduate student in American history I found his book fascinating. It is an important contribution to the history of America in the 20th century.
[American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold, by Sebastian Edwards (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 288 pp., $29.95]