The Neutrality Issue


By ROBERT M. LA FOLLETTE, JR., United States Senator from Wisconsin

Broadcast over a Nation-wide Network of The National Broadcasting Company, Wednesday, October 4, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 59-61.

YOU know that Congress is now debating a change in our foreign policy. It is making a decision on keeping or repealing the prohibition against the shipment of deadly weapons. This is not an ordinary debate. It is one of those times in life when you make a decision from which you may never again be able to retreat. Even if the decision is wrong, we go on suffering the consequences of one grave mistake.

There are times like that. It was like that when the German people voted for Hitler in 1933. Once they had taken that decision they were never given a second chance to go back and change their minds. A man tired of life leans out over the roof of a 10-story building. There is a moment, a brief moment, when he can pull himself back. He decides not to. After that it does him no good to change his mind, to decide he wants to live.

You and I are at the edge of that roof now. For the first time we really feel the pushing of people who want us to close our eyes and jump.

The real issue is not being discussed much. The real issue at stake is our own national interest. Is it to start going into the war? Is it to keep out? I am for keeping the country out. I have been for the arms embargo since it was proposed, and I am still for it. The people who applauded it in 1935 and 1937 and are against it now are the ones who have changed their policy. Some of them have changed it from staying out to risking a little plunge into war, partly for the "fool's gold" it will bring, partly because they are willing to take sides. But you cannot take sides and then pull back. That was the lesson of the last war for us.

Let us not delude ourselves. Once we have taken sides through action by our Government in order to make arms available to England and France, the pressure will be terrific to get us into the war.

Before we take such a step which may ultimately put us in such a situation, let us examine our national interest and determine what course we should follow in order to safeguard it. Our great national interest is to preserve our own democracy and to make it work. I am as much opposed to dictatorship of every kind of description, foreign or domestic, as any living man and my record will show that I have done my share to preserve civil liberties and maintain democracy, therefore I ask the question: Have we any evidence upon which to base the assumption that democracy will be preserved in Europe if England and France win with or without our aid? Our country joined them once before to make the world safe for democracy. You remember the tragic result! Are they prospective allies to whom we canentrust the safekeeping of our national interest and the future of America?

Let us review the record of these partners who will soon be asking us to join them in another waltz of death and destruction. Briefly then, Great Britain and France used propagandaŚmuch of it falseŚbetween 1914 and 1917 to get us into the war on their side; then they pretended to accept our high sounding war aims, such as the 14 points, making the world safe for democracy, etc. At Versailles they pulled out the secret treaties and in wanton disregard of the 14 points and the armistice they proceeded to grab the spoils. In the years after the war they helped to strangle every effort towards democracy in Germany. They thus became the illegitimate parents of Nazi-ism and all the terrible things it has brought with it.

Great Britain backed up Japan when she grabbed the first hunk of China in Manchuria and left us holding the bag when we tried to stop it. Great Britain and France, despite all our efforts to cooperate in checking Mussolini's gobbling up of Ethiopia, finally got together and agreed to let him have it. Then came Munich. Then democratic Czecho-Slovakia, pledged protection by France, was betrayed by them into Hitler's clutches. And now Poland! Is this record from 1914 to 1939 one to inspire confidence and trust? The answer is no!

Today we know as little of the actual war aims of Great Britain and France as we did before the secret treaties were published in the last war. Once more we hear the glittering, high sounding generalities about "saving civilization" but we don't know what lies underneath the surface. We don't know what chunks of other nations' territories they may be offering neutral nations to join their side. If they win, will they write a more terrible treaty than they wrote in 1918? Will Europe be torn to shreds, the swag divided again and this time if we go into the war will we have to maintain an army abroad to stand guard over the wreckage? This would mean universal military training and conscription at home and billions of taxes upon the people of this country for countless generations. It is clear that we cannot preserve democracy abroad simply by taking sides in this war.

It is equally clear that we will destroy it at home if we become involved in the war. Remember that we are the only powerful Nation left where democracy is still alive and working. War is democracy's greatest enemy. It cannot live under war conditions. If we enter the war, our own democracy would be the first casualty. Then we would inevitably have a dictatorship such as we have never seen before. In the very nature of war psychology labor would bevirtually conscripted, collective bargaining abrogated, the farmers would have their prices fixed, business would be regimented if not taken over by the Government, the press and radio would be censored and men from 21 to 45 drafted to right overseas.

I fear that after the war is over we would have a difficult if not an impossible task in trying even to restore democracy here at home. The world would then be in a state of chaos and collapse, revolution would inevitably be rampant. In such a situation plausible arguments would be made to continue the dictatorship. Those political parties and persons responsible for our getting into the war would then hesitate to restore full rights to the people, lest in wrath, disillusionment and suffering the people would punish those they blamed for their dead and their misery.

You know that the slogan makers are busy again. This is to be a war to "save civilization" instead of democracy. The trouble with that cry is that modern war cannot achieve its objective. It cannot do so because it destroys such vast quantities of manpower and wealth. Economic collapse follows in the wake of modern war just as certainly as night follows day. This is one of the tragic lessons we should have learned from the last war. More than three hundred billions of dollars of wealth was destroyed in that war. Great Britain, France and their allies tried to squeeze the last drop from the fruits of victory. They took millions of square miles of territory, billions of marks in reparations payments or in payments in kind and yet despite all they exacted at Versailles, economic collapse seized the victor nations and shook them to their very foundations.

One thing we can be sure of in this war is that the advance of science and invention since 1918 will make the destruction much greater than in the last one. I am convinced that a few months after this war is over, no one will be able to tell the victors from the vanquished. Suffering, chaos and collapse will be abroad in every nation which has taken part in the war. For those reasons I think it is just so much eyewash to say that unless we get into this war and bring about a victory for Great Britain and France that the Nazis will begin to attack nations in this hemisphere. I do not believe any nation or group of nations can arise from the ashes of war's destruction to challenge the most powerful Nation on the face of the globe.

But for the sake of the argument, and in order to try and think the whole thing through, let us suppose that the Nazis win, and that by some miracle they make the fruits of victory compensate for the destruction of man power and wealth they themselves have suffered and let us further assume that they then decide to begin military and naval operations across 3,000 miles of ocean in this hemisphere. I say that in such an eventuality then is the time for this Nation to gird its loins for war. A war fought with this hemisphere as a base, where all the advantage of thousands of miles of ocean would be on our side, where we would be operating from a comparatively sound economic and financial base and, equally important, where we would not be dependent upon allies whose past record does not inspire confidence and trust.

Make no mistake about it, we can have an invulnerable hemisphere. No nation or group of nations can successfully attack it if we but provide the necessary Army, Navy and the bases needed for their efficient operation. This policy requires that we do not permit strategic islands to fall into hostile hands. It means that we interpret the Monroe Doctrine to include the prohibition of penetration by foreign nations through propaganda or otherwise in this hemisphere. The great body of expert opinion on national defense agrees that we can make this hemisphere safe against all comers. The destiny of our Nation should be worked out in this hemisphere and not in Europe or Asia. In the end, our ideals and way of life will be infinitely more secure and it will cost far less than participation in a foreign war. Our great opportunity for service in the cause of civilization is to stay out of this war and thus preserve in this hemisphere a haven of sanity in a world where madness now prevails. We can then concentrate on our own problems and prove that democracy can work in a modern economic environment. Then when the war is over we will indeed be in a position to give the world succor and leadership. We will have kept the lamp of democracy and tolerance alight. We will have demonstrated the soundness of cur way of life and war weary and disillusioned people will see in our example the way to rehabilitate civilization in their own lands.

But if we become involved in war, we will be in no position to help any one, not even ourselves. For we will suffer the same economic collapse which will be abroad in every nation that engages in this war. We will have snuffed out democracy. Intolerance and hate will be rampant in the country, and a staggering debt will be piled on top of the 40 billions now owed by our Government.

But if we want to stay out of war in Europe, and I know most of us do, we must not take steps that will take us into the war. It is one thing for you and me to take sides in our capacity as private citizens; it is a far different thing when our Government takes sides.

In other words, we cannot have our cake and eat it, too. We either make up our minds to stay out of this war in Europe or by a series of steps we will ultimately find ourselves in it.

It is perfectly clear that if we repeal the arms embargo after the war has started, it will be regarded abroad as an official act of our Government to take sides in this war. In Great Britain and France, they will hail it as they would a great military victory.

They will say in so many words that we are coming in. In Germany it will be equally clear that we have taken sides against them. Senator Van Nuys of Indiana was frank about it Sunday night over the radio when he said in effect that what the advocates of repeal were trying to do was to find a way to wipe Hitler off the face of the earth without our country getting involved in war. But this cannot be done with any certainty. If arms, ammunitions and implements of war on a limited credit-and-carry basis are not enough, then long-term credit will next be provided. The Johnson Act, passed to prevent nations owing us 10 billions since the I last war, from floating any more loans until they pay up, will be repealed, and if this is not enough, the same arguments which are now being made for repeal of the arms embargo will be made for our sending troops abroad.

There has been a lot of confusion created in the public mind over this issue. Speakers over the radio have been leading the people to believe that the Congress and the county] must choose between repeal of the arms embargo and cash-and-carry. This is not the case! Cash-and-carry is not an alternative to repeal of the arms embargo.

If we are determined to keep out of the war we can have cash-and-carry for all other commodities and also maintain the arms embargo. But without the arms embargo, cash-and-carry is a very feeble safeguard against our involvement in war. We can, and should, prohibit American citizens from traveling on ships of warring nations. In short, every safe-guard against incidents which might be the cause of our being drawn into war in the bill pending before the Congress, can, and should, be passed. And at the same time we can keep the embargo against the sale of arms, ammunition and implements of war which is now in full force and effect.

The repeal of the arms embargo will not only be an unneutral act but it will also result in a tremendous expansion of our munitions industry. The present plant capacity ofthis industry is backlogged with orders from our own national defense program. If Great Britain and France can buy arms, ammunitions and implements of war here, it must be either at the cost of setting aside our own rearmament program or hundreds of millions of dollars must be immediately invested in new plant capacity. This will result in a bulging out of our economy to meet the wartime demand. This will, in turn, provide great inducements for the repeal of the Johnson Act once the purchasers are out of cash. Then loans will be floated and we will find ourselves right where we were in 1916 and 1917.

Let me quote from Ray Stannard Baker, President Wilson's official biographer, who certainly is not biased against him:

"* * * by the end of the year 1914 the traffic in war materials with the allies had become deeply entrenched in America's economic organization." Now mark these words:

"* * * and possibility of keeping out of the war by the diplomacy of neutrality, no matter how skillfully conducted, had reached the vanishing point. By October, perhaps earlier, our case was lost."

We not only need to keep the arms embargo to prevent our economy from becoming top-heavy; but we should amend the cash-and-carry proposals now pending in the Senate to limit the war trade in other commodities, and thus prevent it from sidetracking our own rearmament program. We must not let our natural and exhaustible resources be drained away. Only in this way can we make certain that our Nation will not become economically and financially dependent upon the success of one group of warring nations.

Our patriotic course is clear. We should keep the embargo on arms and enact all the other features of the pending bill designed to reduce incidents likely to lead to war. We should limit the trade in other commodities to a strict cash-and-carry basis, not credit and carry. We must restrict this trade so as to protect our resource base and not permit an uncontrolled wartime commerce to develop which will help to drag us into war in Europe or in the Far East.

We should concentrate on making democracy work at home and thus maintain our civil liberties and preserve our way of life. We have a great opportunity to build up an inter-continental economy in this hemisphere. We can provide an Army and Navy to defend it for a fraction of the cost of our involvement in war abroad. We do not have to accept as the solution of our problem the employment resulting from trade produced by slaughter and destruction.

We can utilize our idle man power, productive capacity and idle capital to restore our natural resource base; to rehabilitate and conserve our human resources; to develop our Nation and this great and rich hemisphere. Here is a program that will give us a dynamic America, restore that equality of economy opportunity that characterized the development of our own physical frontier. Here is a program which gives this generation "a rendezvous with destiny" in this hemisphere instead of death in some other.

I put this program up against the program of taking sides, against the program of selling arms, against the program of intervention in a long, weary war which will probably end abroad in revolution and end here in dictatorship.

The decision in Congress depends on which program the people choose.