Retain the Arms Embargo


By WILLIAM E. BORAH, U. S. Senator from Idaho

Delivered over radio from Washington, D. C., September 14, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. 5, pp. 741-743.

EUROPE is again in the midst of war. The President of the United States has issued proclamations to the effect that in this war this nation shall stand neutral. But we all realize that laws and statutes and proclamations are not, and will not be, sufficient to maintain successfully a policy of neutrality. Only the united will of the people can accomplish this difficult task.

It is highly proper therefore that we openly and frankly discuss all phases of this question, which bears, and will bear, so heavily upon the great body of the people. I want to associate myself tonight with all those who believe we can and ought to remain neutral. I want to resolve with you that we will in good faith put forth our best thoughts and our best efforts to accomplish that great aim.

If we can succeed as a people, especially in the midst of conditions such as they now are, in establishing here upon this Western Continent a great neutral power, a power standing not for force, not for cruelty and injustice, but for peace, for fair dealing among nations, for reason and justice, we will not only have added honor to our own nation, happiness to our own people, but we will have rendered to all nations and all peoples a service far greater than it will ever be possible for us to render by joining any nation, or nations, in carrying on war.

Force is gradually undermining and destroying freedom everywhere. If we are not going to wholly surrender to a world governed by force, then we must establish somewhere a great power which speaks for and represents in act and deed the things which make for reason and justice.

Whatever may be the discouragements and however great may be the obstacles thrown in our way, let us make the effort, let us unite behind a policy which, if carried through in good faith upon the part of the government and with effectiveness upon the part of the people, will not only shelter our homes from mass murder, our people from poverty and premature graves, but will also go far toward guaranteeing anew the blessing of free institutions. It is an effort worthy of a great and free people.

We are met on the threshold of all debate, of all consideration, of this subject of neutrality with the statement often delivered and with an air of- finality that we cannot be neutral, that Europe is now so near to the United States, owing to modern inventions and the mingling of business affairs, that neutrality is impracticable if not impossible.

This seems to me a spineless doctrine. It is not the doctrine inherited from our forebears. If true, we would be the most ill-fated nation on the earth instead of being, as wehad long supposed, the most favorably circumstanced of any, or all, nations.

How near was Europe, how smotheringly close, was the European system when Washington announced his policy of neutrality and published it to an astonished and enraged Europe? He thought neutrality both wise and practicable; in fact, he believed that such a policy was indispensable to a free America. Yes, how close was Europe to the United States at that time?

The United States was really looked upon by European powers as a part of the European system. Brazil at that time belonged to Portugal. Practically, if not all, the balance of South America was owned, or controlled, by the Spanish crown.

The West Indies belonged to England, France and Spain combined. European countries owned, or controlled, Central America, Mexico, also what was later known as Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico and Alaska.

In fact, this continent might be said to have been at this time geographically a European-controlled continent. Our entire northern frontier was heavily garrisoned by European regulars. The Indians were being used by European powers to harass our people and all Europe mocked at the idea that this young Republic would long remain an independent government.

We were in actual contact, physical, political and spiritual —if I may use such a term in this connection—every day of our lives with Europe and affected likewise daily by the domination of the European system. But Washington said we will be neutral as to those European conflicts. And, had he not so declared and made good, does any one doubt the devastating effect upon freedom, upon liberty, upon this Republic?

But we have no alternative, it is in effect declared, after these 150 years of self-government, we must go in in some way or other into all these controversies, broils and wars of Europe. It is useless, we are told, to try to avoid this fate.

Though these wars are not our wars, though they are wars brought on through the manipulation and unconscionable schemes of remorseless rulers, though their national policies are not our policies, though their crimes are not our crimes, still, we have no alternative, so it is urged, but to sacrifice the wealth, the homes, the savings and the lives of our people whenever the conflicts arise.

Although our people have sought peace and now seek peace, still we must make war because European governmentsmaintain an eternal saturnalia of human sacrifices. Though the law of our land banishes racial and religious persecution from our common country, still, because Europe is "near," we must join in the racial and religious conflicts and sacrifice our people over conditions which our forebears long since rejected.

Though we seek no people's territory, nevertheless, because Europe is "near," we must sacrifice the savings of our people and the sons of our mothers in this endless imperialistic strife. Though we would take no part of the loot which was divided up at the close of the World War, we are now called upon to make sure the title to a vast amount of this loot. What a fateful doctrine to propose! Let us renounce it and make the effort at least to establish freedom from the European system.

But, friends, the problem of maintaining neutrality under present conditions lies closer home. Let's go direct to its discussion. It is presented by this proposal to repeal the Arms Embargo Act. To those who are advocating repeal, I submit this question: Is it not your main purpose in securing repeal to enable us to furnish arms, munitions and implements of war to one group of nations and to deny them to another group of nations, which groups are now in mortal combat?

Is not this laying the foundation for intervention—in fact, is it not intervention—in the present European war? Is it not your purpose to take sides through the authority which will be available when the embargo law is repealed?

And if the purpose of repeal is to do these things, and we do them, is not neutrality broken down, destroyed, and are we not thenceforth by every rule of international law, by every dictate of common sense and common honesty, parties to a European conflict?

I further submit to those who hear me: Do you think the time has come when for reasons of humanity, or of national defense, we should take our place in another European war? I feel we are really considering in this debate the broad question of whether we are justified as a people in intervening in this conflict and meet the issues as they are being presented upon the battle fields of Europe, for we cannot escape that destination if we move along the lines now proposed.

Let me review a brief and recent piece of history. Four years ago there began an earnest discussion in this country of the subject of neutrality. It was taken up in Congress and fully debated. Every phase of it was presented. It was discussed in the open arenas of the nation.

Learned men in all walks of life brought their contribution to the consideration of the subject. Our people wanted, above all things, to cut out the sale of arms to warring nations. It was felt it would help to keep us out of foreign wars.

Finally, in 1937, we passed a law which prohibited the sale of arms, munitions and the implements of war to any nation, or nations, engaged in war. This law met the approval of both houses of Congress, almost unanimously. It met the approval of the executive department. It met the approval overwhelmingly of the great majority of the American people.

At the time this law was passed and this policy of neutrality established, there was no war of any moment anywhere. Germany and Britain were upon comparatively friendly terms. Both as a matter of moral and as a matter of international law, as a sovereign right, we had the undoubted right to establish this policy of declining the sale of arms, munitions and implements of war to any nation engaged in war.

It is now proposed to repeal entirely this provision of the law. It is proposed to repeal it to enable this government to furnish arms to one side and to withhold them from theother. The proposal for repeal is based upon the program of taking sides in this  furnishing of arms.

Undoubtedly, as I say, we had a right to pass the law and, undoubtedly, we have a right to repeal the law. But when we couple the repeal with the announced and declared program of furnishing arms and munitions to one side and withholding them from the other, such program will unquestionably constitute intervention in the present conflict in Europe.

It may be said to repeal the law is not unneutral. I think under the circumstance it is. However, let's not discuss technicalities. But when it is said to me as a Senator: I want you to carry through a program, the first step of which is repeal, the second step of which is the furnishing of arms and munitions to one side, openly, persistently and continually declared, then I know I am voting for intervention, I am helping to take this nation into a European war.

I cannot hide behind the fact that they are two different acts because both are a part of one plan, and that plan includes the furnishing of arms, which is beyond question intervention. All any one need to do to know that this is the real, the controlling, purpose of repeal is to read the literature on repeal down to the last forty-eight hours.

The talk here in Washington is no longer that of merely furnishing arms. It is said: We must prepare to fight. One of my colleagues, a most able and sincere Senator, declared a few nights ago publicly: "Let us give up this dream of impartiality, therefore, of neutrality. It is better," said he, "to take sides and fight."

He was speaking out boldly what is now heard from the same sources from which came the agitation of furnishing arms. And, if in a few months we can tear up the law which a nation almost universally approved, how long do you think it will take to put across the proposition of sending our young men into the trenches once we have intervened?

They may say to me: You cannot be sure that intervention will send our young men to Europe. Of course, I cannot be sure. But I cannot be sure that it will not. I say that would be the logic of the movement. But suppose I cannot be sure, I ask: Why risk it? Why trifle with foreign war? Why bring the American boys to the precipice where any incident of war may kick them over?

The plan now presented by the advocates of repeal is that the democracies of Europe are imperiled, that we must go to their rescue, that civilization is threatened, that we cannot ignore the problem presented. But, if the war continues and the imperiling of democracies and the threatening of civilization increase, what can we say, having once put our hand to the plow? Will we turn our backs to the whole situation?

I repeat, as I stated a moment ago, what we are really considering these days is the broad question: Has the time come when the United States must take a part in this European conflict? Why deceive ourselves as to what will happen once we enter the conflict. Why shut our eyes to the inevitable consequences which must flow?

Time will not permit a detailed discussion of what is known as the cash-and-carry plan. It is based upon the principle that those who want our arms and munitions or raw materials shall come and get them, pay cash and carry them away. But, while I cannot discuss it in detail, I want to take time to say that this plan does not change the situation, as I understand it, with reference to neutrality.

The cash-and-carry plan repeals the embargo law and enables our government to direct the arms and munitions to one side and withhold them from the other. Whatever merits, or demerits, this plan may have, it does not seem to me to bear, only most indirectly, upon the question which I have sought to have you consider this evening.

I am concerned at this time with one proposition, that of avoiding any act, or acts, which will embroil us in a European war. I do not believe the cash-and-carry plan has any considerable bearing upon that point, and I shall therefore content myself with this brief reference.

Friends, I know how deep-seated is the feeling in this country against certain creeds and ideologies prevailing in Europe. I have had ample proof of this feeling in recent weeks. I would not want any of our people to think less of these creeds and ideologies than they do.

They are in conflict with every tenet and teaching of our American civilization. But it is not hatred of another country but love of our own which makes for wisdom and justice in the formation of national policies.

What we are all interested in, I am sure, is what course will most likely bring peace to the United States and contentment and happiness to the American people. Where the welfare of an entire nation and the health and the lives of the people are involved, we can afford to be patient, to be tolerant and, at the same time, determined in our effort to find the right way.

The democratic processes should at all times be kept intact. Free speech, free press, uncontrolled consideration in debate are essential to right conclusions and sound judgments in a democracy. We can all afford to trust our cause to the democratic processes and, when the final judgment is made up according to those processes, we can rest in the belief that the judgment will be a wise judgment.

Twenty years ago we went into Europe to take part in a European war. We went with high hopes and, in my opinion, for ample cause. But even so, how futile the sacrifice we made. Scarcely had the heroic story of our soldiers been written before the so-called peace treaties had set at naught the principles for which our soldiers fought.

Every move in that direction therefore should be subjected to the test of the best thought and the high motives of the entire American people. If the worst should come, and for any reason we should be involved in another European struggle, nothing should be taken for granted as to why the sacrifice must be made.

In conclusion, the President has called a special session of Congress for the purpose of removing the embargo on arms,munitions and implements of war. There are some of us who want to keep the old law—who insist that the sale of arms to all nations engaged in war shall continue to be prohibited. The only question in controversy, the only matter of difference that I know of, is the sole question of whether we shall sell arms or not sell arms.

We see that the supporters of repeal are anxious to put an embargo on ships going to war zones, on loans to all nations engaged in war, anxious to prohibit our citizens from traveling in war areas, all this and more is to be done in the name of neutrality in the effort to keep us out of war.

We most heartily support this entire program. We say in the name of peace: Do these things. Maintain neutrality as to all these matters. But we observe here that there is a sudden break in the embargo—the most threatening and disturbing of all factors, the most calculated to get us into trouble—arms, munitions and implements of war are to be let through. Embargo is not to apply. What is the significance?

We feel sincerely that this is an error. We stand where we stood two years ago, where Congress stood, where the Executive stood, and where the people stood. Why prohibit loans in the name of peace and for the protection of our people but not prohibit arms? Why place an embargo on all these other things mentioned but repeal it as to arms?

That is the sole matter of controversy. What we did two years ago we did in the name of humanity, in the name of peace, to protect our homes, our sons and daughters, and to help keep us out of war. Blame us not therefore if we are slow to surrender our convictions.

What we who oppose repeal are contending for is now the law of the land. It has been and is being enforced under the proclamation of the President. No arms, munitions and implements of war are being sold.

In what possible way can the United States be benefited by permitting the sale? Who is it that is to be benefited? In what respect is this country threatened by reason of the fact no sale of arms is being made? In what respect are the safety and security of the people imperiled?

This is the sole matter of controversy. We urge that the same rule, the same principle, be applied to the most deadly of disturbers, arms, along with the other things prohibited.