Press release, Navy Department
Address Delivered by the Secretary of the Navy (Knox) at Providence, November 11, 1941
Armistice Day this year is an obvious anomaly. It was established a legal holiday to commemorate the beginnings of peace with Ger‑
many. Now, twenty‑three years later, we gather not to celebrate peace with Germany, but to dedicate one of the greatest air bases on the American Continent—the air base in neighboring Quonset. That great base, and many others like it, have been created and equipped to meet a threat to our security which proceeds from the same Germany which signed the Armistice in 1918.
This time, Germany does not fight alone. This time, she has allies and associates. The Axis powers have been for years engaged in conquest, by force, of neighboring states. Their moves of conquest have been characterized by methods that have violated every principle of honor, justice and righteousness. Gradually, this movement of conquest has broadened until it has produced hostilities in all parts of the world save only the Western Hemisphere.
It was instinctive and inevitable that the sympathies and the support of the American people should have been extended, from the outset, to the victims of this plan for world‑wide dominion by force of arms. At the beginning of the war, the American people, while reprobating, instinctively, those who were responsible for plunging the world into the horrors of war, hoped that we might escape involvement. We sought in every way open to us to give aid to those who strove to prevent an outbreak of war, both in the Far East and in Europe. We employed every ounce of persuasion and influence we possessed to halt the unmistakable trend toward hostilities. When, nevertheless, hostilities began, the American people, both unofficially and officially, through their elected representatives, disclosed unmistakably, our sympathy for the nations whose rights were trampled under foot by ruthless, would‑be conquerors, and our hatred of both the methods and acts of the aggressors.
Almost from the outset, it became plain that the world was confronted with no mere local war involving the extension of the boundaries of the aggressor nations at the expense of their neighbors, but rather, what we were witnessing—what was actually in progress, was a well defined plan and purpose to establish, by force of arms, a worldwide dominion to be shared by the three major powers that comprised the Axis. As affairs progressed and this purpose became more plain and obvious, alarm grew among our people and we moved from mere expressions of sympathy to measures of actual aid to those nations which were fighting the Axis and striving to preserve their independence. This change was initiated by the repeal of the Arms Embargo, a feature of the so‑called Neutrality Act. This enabled us to sell supplies and munitions to those who could come to our ports
and pay cash for their purchases. This step met with the instant and overwhelming approval of the public.
A few months later, when the submarine sinkings threatened Britain with starvation and defeat, we exchanged fifty destroyers for a half-dozen island bases in the Atlantic. This action met with the instant approval of the American people.
The war went on, and nation after nation fell before the armored might of the conquering Nazis, until England stood almost alone in all of Europe, and China driven from her coat to the deep interior, fought desperately against frightful odds. Then, to our everlasting credit, and because of our growing alarm, we decided to erase the dollar sign from our help to these two gallant survivors of world‑wide blitzkreig, and prompted by the President and supported by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, we placed the whole resources of our huge industrial plant on a lease or lend basis primarily to England and China, but also to other nations fighting the cause of Freedom. This likewise met with instant popular approval, and Congress swiftly implemented the Lease‑Lend Act by the appropriation of billions of dollars.
By the terms of the Lease‑Lend Act, we also opened our shipyards, both government owned and privately owned, for the repair of British Men‑of‑War.
China came to us in her need and we first loaned her millions of dollars, and then made available to her supplies under the Lease‑Lend Law.
Finally, as the piratical activities of Axis submarines came nearer and nearer to our shores, we expanded our Atlantic bases to include Greenland and Iceland. Again, in an unmistakable way, the American public indicated its approval.
From this point on, both by word and by act, the Axis powers made plain that the scope of their conquest included not alone the lands of Europe and Asia, but control of the high seas as well. To emphasize and implement this purpose, attacks began to be made upon our ships at sea, and, acting under the most obvious necessity for self‑defense, we provided our merchant ships with naval protection against this form of piracy, extending that protection as far as Iceland in the Atlantic.
Here, we have the general outlines of the picture presented on this 11th day of November, Armistice Day.
The national House of Representatives has already repealed the provision of our Neutrality Law which forbade the arming of our merchant ships. The Senate of the United States last Friday, not
only repealed that same section of the Law, but likewise, repealed the provision that forbade us to enter belligerent ports or combat zones on the high seas. Within forty‑eight hours, it is confidently expected that the House will concur in the Senate action. Thus, at last, we will have freed our hands. For what? For self‑defense! Self‑defense, a primary instinct of men and nations alike!
We are facing a group of nations who are endeavoring to divide the earth among themselves. They have made it plain that if we are to live in the world that they are trying to create by the most ghastly methods that men have ever employed in conquest, we must adjust our methods of living, our way of life, to theirs. They have left no doubt that if we are to live in the midst of this world ruled under this new order of Totalitarianism which always means by military force, we must do business on terms which they will dictate by such military force. The whole thing is not only repugnant to every instinct we possess, but acquiescence in such a demand would destroy the institutions of government and the principles of self rule which we hold dearer than life itself.
This is the somber outline of what the world looks like twenty‑three years after we celebrated an armistice that we hoped would end all war and usher in a lasting era of peace.
My friends, we meet here in the presence of grave dangers. It is impossible to overemphasize them or exaggerate them. We are not only confronted with the necessity of extreme measures of self‑defense in the Atlantic, but we are likewise faced with grim possibilities on the other side of the world—on the far side of the Pacific. Just what the morrow may hold for us in that quarter of the globe, no one may say with certainty. The only thing we can be sure of is that the Pacific, no less than the Atlantic, calls for instant readiness for defense. In the Pacific area, no less than in Europe, interests which are vital to our national security are seriously threatened.
In an hour of great danger, the American people expect and deserve a frank disclosure of pertinent facts relating to any such danger that threatens. The very act of facing the truth—the courageous confronting of the facts, unadorned—is itself a great steadier. Honest facing of facts, pleasant or unpleasant, creates courage and fortifies resolution. Evasion of the facts, or refusal to face the facts, is the greatest corrupter of courage and resolution.
In the last few years, the efforts this government has made to maintain amicable relations with the Japanese have been long‑suffering and patient to a degree almost unmatched in the history of international relations. We have cooperated with every liberal and peace‑loving
element in Japan, and we are still ready to cooperate with those elements. We have been patient while, repeatedly, our rights have been violated. We have continued to permit supplies to go to Japan although we could very well have stopped them on the just and truthful ground that we needed such supplies for our own defense. We have felt that in the interests of peace we must be tolerant and take risks. But there comes a time in the life of every man, and every nation, when principles cannot be sacrificed, and when vital and essential rights can no longer be ignored; a time when to go further would mean that our liberality and forbearance would be misunderstood. We are moved and actuated in the Pacific, no less than in the Atlantic, solely by considerations of self‑defense.
Our people must understand that grave questions are about to be decided—that the hour of decision is here. There must be clear realization that we will not shrink from or seek to evade the staggering responsibilities of these days. Our country has been made what it is by the courage, the resolution and the sacrifice of our forbears. We shall meet the danger of our times as they met theirs: with heads up, shoulders squared and eyes straight to the front, seeking only to protect that which is our own and coveting not one thing which is another's.
I have every confidence that we shall not fail in this hour of trial.
If I had ever had any doubts they would have been swept away by such achievements as you Rhode Islanders have accomplished at Quonset. This huge base will be one of the most important links in our chain of air defenses. It was planned and built in record time—a fine example of American skill and initiative. Only the close cooperation of the builders, the workers and government made such an achievement possible. Quonset stands today a symbol of the American spirit. It is a symbol also of the ever increasing importance of air activity to sea power. Yesterday it was enough if our fleets ruled the surface of the seas: today we must control the air above the oceans as well. Quonset and our other bases will ensure that we do so.
But we must look beyond our present preparations. Indeed we must look beyond the victory which we all know lies ahead. In the last great struggle we won the war but lost the peace. We must make sure that this does not occur again. And there is no better time for us to consider how we can avoid the mistakes of the past peace settlement than Armistice Day, when our thoughts inevitably turn back to the sacrifices made twenty‑three years ago.
What then are the conditions upon which we can hope to build an enduring post‑war peace settlement? First of all, it must not be a peace of revenge.
In our treatment of individuals we have learned that punishment of the erring is not enough. Today we try to reform the criminal and, what is even more important, to remove the conditions which led him to a life of crime. If this is good logic for the relation of society to the individual, it is even better logic for the relation of international society to individual nations which have been led into criminal activity.
But we have less altruistic reasons for not imposing a peace of punishment. Vengeance breeds revenge. The loser in each war plots vengeance against the victor; and in his turn, when he becomes the victor, imposes harsh punishment upon the conquered. Thus the vicious circle continues. War breeds vengeance. Vengeance breeds hatred. Hatred breeds revenge. Revenge breeds war. The circle must be broken if peace is ever to come either to Europe or to any other part of the world. The whole weight of the United States must be thrown upon the side of making a peace, not of revenge but of justice and righteousness.
But it is not enough merely to avoid the colossal error of a peace based upon revenge. We must take positive action to build a world free of the forces which drive men to war. This action should be both political and economic.
Political autonomy must go hand in hand with economic unity.
Many of Europe's post‑war difficulties arose from the fact that in freeing the minorities of the Austrian‑Hungarian empire politically we broke up the economic unity of the Danube Basin. The succession states were allowed to set up a multitude of trade barriers which hindered the free interchange of goods between the manufacturing and agricultural sections of Eastern Europe. In doing this, the succession states were merely following the example of the great powers of the world. Indeed, the post‑war era saw economic nationalism grow to the point where it undermined the economic structure of the world.
And in this folly it must be admitted, to our shame, the United States took the leading part. Looking back at it now, the idea that we could base an economic policy upon a plan of selling as much as possible, while buying as little as possible, seems ridiculous. Its is too much to hope that these delusions will not again find advocates in the future. But we must see to it that they never again are taken seriously as a basis for our economy. Free interchange of goods, free access to raw materials must be the cornerstone of any new world to come. The great powers—and that includes the United States and the British Empire—which dominate the material resources of the earth, must see to it that the rest of the nations get a fair share of
them. This is vital to prevent any future demagogue from preaching a crusade of the "have not" nations against the "haves". And it is also vital for those nations who themselves already possess these raw materials. For if there is one thing the world has learned in the experience of the past twenty years, it is that no enduring world order can survive half poor and half rich. The world is an economic whole. It is as ridiculous to believe that a depression in one country is no concern of other nations as it would be to believe that a cancer in the hand will not eventually concern the legs and the head and eventually the heart itself.
The third basic point on which we must base any new order is the assumption by the United States of the position of world leadership to which its material resources and stable government call it. Nature abhors a vacuum as much in politics as in physics. If‑those to whom leadership would naturally fall evade the responsibility other nations will immediately grasp it. And if we turn our backs on world affairs, what right, will we have to complain if these affairs are not managed to our satisfaction? No world order can possibly succeed if the strongest and richest nation refuses to accept any responsibility for making it succeed.. If those four freedoms of which we proudly boast—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of press—really mean anything to us we have a tremendous responsibility to see to it that the other peoples of the world have an opportunity to share in them.
And, finally, any world order which we attempt to establish after the present war must rest upon more than scraps of paper. To the unthinking it may seem a paradox that a peaceful world must rest ultimately on a basis of force. Actually, of course, the paradox is more apparent than real. All stable society rests ultimately upon force. There will always be those elements who seek to acquire by force, or fraud, those things which they are unable to gain honestly. This is as true of nations as of individuals. In both cases, the more readily all the members of the community recognize their personal responsibility to use force on behalf of public order the less likely they are to be called upon to do so. In frontier days, for example, there was a strong tendency toward personal isolationism. If a man was shot down the street it was none of your business. Naturally, violence became more and more common until it was impossible for the community to endure it longer. The law‑abiding members of the town rose in wrath, fought it out with the criminals, and restored order with a hempen halter. The community was preserved because its members were willing to risk their
lives to suppress those who would destroy it. Once this willingness was established, it was no longer necessary to form mass posses. A single constable was enough to keep the peace. But he could do it only because the full force of the community was behind him ready to back him up should his authority be challenged.
The same is true of nations. Because the great peace‑loving powers of the earth were unwilling in the past to risk a single ship or a single man to enforce peace, they face today the loss of vast armadas and huge armies. In some cases they have lost independence itself and are now undergoing an agonizing reduction to slavery.
We must establish some sort of international order in which the entire community of nations will move as one against any country which deliberately invokes bloodshed to achieve aggressive purposes.
And it is here that the United States will find its place in the world to come after the war. Sea power, the ability to say who shall and who shall not pass over the wide oceans, will be an indispensable element of the force necessary to maintain an orderly world. Here is why the growth of our sea and air power has a significance far beyond the present need. The great air field at Quonset today carries our defenses a thousand miles out to sea. Tomorrow it may be a key point in a world force whose task will be to try to banish war from the earth.
There are those who say that it is too soon to begin thinking about the world to come after the war. 'There are those who will say that the task of helping to establish an orderly world is too great for. America to accomplish. I think they both are wrong. It cannot be too early to begin to plan a world of peace and order. These very plans are vital to our victory. If we are to conquer Fascism we must offer the peoples of the earth some alternative to the recurring terror and bloodshed which have been their lot in the past. We must show that we too can plan for the future—and plan more successfully and more enduringly than any paranoiac of the Nazi brain trust.
And neither do I believe this task too great for America to accomplish. We have always been a nation of dreamers. And our dreams have been the dreams of giants. It was a mad dream which sent Columbus half way across the world, facing unknown terrors to search for a land which all the "hard headed" people of his time knew did not exist. It was a dream of a great united nation in the New World which carried Washington, Jefferson and Adams through the dark days of the Revolution when all the "realistic" observers knew that the settlements in North America could never be more
than a few colonies scattered along the coast. The men and women who crossed the mountains, the prairies and the deserts to build a nation across the length and breadth of the continents—they were dreamers. They were dreamers who built great railroads and vast dams and huge mills. They were all dreamers—but they were all Americans, and they made their dreams come true. We, too, must be dreamers if we wish ever to escape the present nightmare of world hatred, war, cruelty and death. And we must be Americans—willing to work to make our dreams come true. I believe in America. And I believe in Americans. I believe we will not fail to build a better world when the opportunity is offered. We dare not.