American Neutrality


By GEORGE W. NORRIS, United States Senator from Nebraska

Delivered over NBC Network, October 3, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 62-64.

EVERYBODY wants to stay out of the war. The American people are unanimous in favor of peace. 4 This statement is true of Congress. It is true of President Roosevelt, I do not doubt the sincerity of Members of Congress, and I have no doubt of the sincerity of the President. We are striving to attain the same end. We are determined to take no step that will bring our country into the pending European war. The struggle going on in Europe is Europe's struggle. Regardless of our sympathies, our likes, or our dislikes, it is a catastrophe beyond our jurisdiction and beyond our domain. There is a unanimity of thought, and that thought is, How can we best keep the United States out of the European catastrophe ? We are united; we are unanimous in the object to be accomplished. That object is peace for the American government, the American people.

There is, however, a difference of opinion, both in the country and in Congress, as to the best and most practical method to attain this much-desired goal.

The embargo act now on the statute books forbids the sale of munitions and implements of war to belligerents. One side to the controversy is in favor of retaining this law as it is. The other side proposes to change the law and substitute for it what is ordinarily known as the cash-and-carry plan. Let us, with perfect candor and without prejudice, examine these two propositions.

In discussing the question, I am assuming the honesty, sincerity, and patriotism of both sides, and I believe this assumption to be true. I question no man's motive. I concede to those who do not agree with my theory, the same honesty and the same conscientious convictions that I claim for myself, and I enter upon the discussion of the question with full and unlimited respect for the opinions and judgments of my opponents.

Under the embargo provisions of the so-called neutrality law, what can be done? What is the practical effect of the enforcement of this law?

Under this law, everything except completed implements of war can be carried in American vessels to the ports of belligerent nations. Under this law, American citizens can travel on ships of belligerent nations. Under this law, we can sell metals and materials to make arms, but we cannot sell the arms themselves. We can sell to belligerent nation copper tubing to be used in explosive shells, but we cannot sell the finished product. We can sell belligerent nations cotton, but we cannot sell gun cotton. We can sell belligerent nations steel for military airplanes, but we cannot sell the airplane itself. We can sell almost any part of any war machine, but if the parts are put together in America and become a finished product, we are prohibited from selling them.

The only difference is, if these parts are put together to form the finished product by American workmen, on American soil, their sale is prohibited under existing law. Whereas, if the parts are shipped separately and put together, by foreign labor on foreign soil, the shipment is allowed.

With the exception of completed munitions of war, this law permits us to sell anything to anybody, and to cany those materials, whatever they may be, across the ocean in American ships, manned by American seamen.

The danger of this situation should be apparent to every body, and the likelihood of such a condition bringing us into the war should be obvious to every American citizen.

It must be remembered, also, that many materials and articles of commerce are practically as important as munitions and implements of war. Have we forgotten the slogan in the great World War which was heralded into every nook and corner of our country—"Food will win the war!"

That slogan was true! Without food, armies cannot fight. Without food, the people behind the lines cannot work; they cannot produce. Without food, no nation can carry on war. It is not only important, but it is absolutely necessary.

Under existing law products of American farms and American factories, with the exception of munitions of war, can be, and, if the law is not changed, will be shipped, in American vessels, owned by American citizens, and manned by American seamen. What will happen when these ships are destroyed and sunk, either by submarine of Germany or by man-of-war of Great Britain? What will happen when American lives are lost at sea because of a torpedo fired by a submarine?

Have we forgotten the sinking of the Lusitania? Do we not remember the outraged feelings of the American people when the news of that disaster came to their knowledge? Can we measure the influence which that terrible disaster had upon the minds and hearts of the American people? Do we not remember many other similar episodes that provoked our people to a pitch of frenzied animosity? Do we want those things to happen again? But unless we change the present embargo law, they will happen again.

We know from experience that such things will inevitably happen, and that when they do happen, the feelings, the emotions, and the sentiments of the American people will be aroused to boiling point. We know that when American ships are sunk and American cargoes lost, the owners will call upon the American government for support, and that such a call will have behind it a propaganda and a force that will be almost irresistible. The property involved will be of the value of millions, and if in these catastrophes American fives are lost, it will be beyond the imagination to conceive fully the influence that will be brought to bear upon the American government to get into the war.

Under existing law, if goods are sold and shipped to one of the belligerent nations, the time will soon come when these American citizens will be calling upon the Government of the United States to collect their debts. This is not a fancy—it is not a dream—it is a mathematical certainty. We know from experience it is true. We remember in the last war American citizens sold war materials and all other kinds of materials, such as food and clothing, to belligerent nations.

When those debts were not paid, and when it became evident that belligerent nations owing the debts might possibly lose the war, thus making it impossible for the debts ever to be paid, these American citizens and corporations used every instrumentality within their power to push the American government into the war, so that their debts might be secured, and eventually paid. These creditors gave no heed to the terrible sacrifices that would have to be made in order to collect these debts. They did not think of, and gave no heed to, the certainty that American boys would have to die on foreign soil, that thousands of women would be made widows, that numberless children would be made fatherless in America, that these financial obligations might be made good.

These are some of the things that put us into the World War. To a great extent, we made a collection agency of the United States government. These debts had to be collected, even though thousands of American boys had to sacrifice their lives; even though unborn generations had to labor and toil to make these debts good.

When it became evident that the belligerent nations were not able to pay, then the next step taken was to induce the Government of the United States to lend the money of the people to these nations.

Many billions of dollars were thus loaned. It all came out of the pockets of the taxpayers of the United States.

The money was raised by the Government of the United States through the sale of bonds. The promises of practically all of these nations that borrowed the money have been broken. Nearly all of the debts have been repudiated, and still the American people are burdened for the payment of the outstanding bonds that were issued. This great financial influence was brought to bear to bring the American government into the war. These facts are a matter of history. All this brought about our entrance into the war, and, as a result, the blood of our brave boys was coined into gold, to pay the expense of this inhuman sacrifice of human life. This will probably happen again, unless we change the present law.

We remember what happened when American citizens, traveling upon the high seas, lost their lives on account of the depredations of one or the other of the belligerent nations. Based upon such happenings as these, those who for financial or other reasons wanted our country to get into the war were enabled to work upon the emotions and the sentiments of the American people, so that, eventually, they brought about a condition that was one of the greatest factors in forcing our country into that catastrophe.

Let me repeat. All of these things could happen again, will happen again, in my opinion, unless our embargo law is changed.

I have briefly outlined what might occur and what probably would occur, and what I believe must occur, if we follow those who are opposed to any change. It seems clear that unless a change is made in our present law, the chances are we will eventually be brought into the war. The things I have enumerated brought us into the other World War, and it seems logical that they would bring us in again.

No man can tell with absolute certainty whether it is possible for us to keep out of the War. No one can foresee the changes that may occur in the immediate future. The course for us to pursue is the one least liable to get us in; the course to avoid is the one which in all probability would take us into the war.

I desire now to consider what changes are advocated by those who believe some changes of existing law are absolutely necessary, in order to keep our Government at peace.

What is proposed by those who would change the embargo act, and adopt the cash-and-carry plan? And does such a plan offer a greater probability of our escaping the engulfment of our country in war, than existing law offers?

To my mind, it seems so clear the change suggested by the President will be an improvement, that it is difficult for me to understand the attitude of those who are opposed to any change in our embargo law.

It is proposed to make it "unlawful for any American vessel to carry any passengers or any articles or materials" to any port of a belligerent nation. It is proposed to make it "unlawful to export or transport" to a belligerent nation anything of any kind, until title to the property has been transferred, and the goods paid for. Such property, whatever it may be, cannot lawfully be carried to its destination in any American ship.

Therefore, no American citizens will have any interest whatever in the property sold, and, if the property is destroyed on the seas, no American citizen will have any financial interest in it.

It is proposed to make it unlawful for any citizen of the United States or any American vessel to proceed into any combat area upon the seas. It is proposed to make it unlawful for any citizen of the United States to travel on ships of any belligerent nation. It is proposed to make it unlawful for any American vessel engaged in commerce upon the high seas to be armed. It is proposed to make it unlawful for any person within the United States to purchase bonds or securities or other obligations of any belligerent government, or any political subdivision of such government. It is proposed to make it unlawful for any person within the United States to solicit or receive any contribution for any belligerent government.

If, in the present emergency, we are guided, as we should be, by our experience of twenty years ago when we went into the World War, then it seems to me there can be no choice between the two plans I have described. On the one hand, it is proposed that the present embargo act shall not be changed, and, on the other hand, it is proposed to change it and set up all these safeguards I have mentioned, in lieu of the present law. An examination of them will disclose to any unprejudiced mind, that, taken together, these are safeguards against all of the causes that carried us into the great World War. If they had been on the statute books at that time, it seems clear to me our chances of remaining out of that World War would have been greatly enhanced. If these safeguards are now enacted into law, our escape from entering into the present European war seems almost certain.

Twenty years ago, every few days, the American people read of some American ship being sunk on the high seas or captured by a belligerent nation and taken into a port of that nation. They read of American lives being blotted out because of some act of a belligerent nation. These catastrophes, often horrible beyond description, excited the minds and emotions of the American people to such a degree that millions of our citizens became enraged, even frenzied, in their helplessness.

The result was the building up of a sentiment that could not be resisted, and Congress, by an almost unanimous vote, took the fatal step that brought misery and suffering to thousands of our innocent citizens, that heaped upon the backs of our taxpayers a debt we are struggling now to pay.

The action I have outlined is one which our nation has a perfectly legal right to take. There is no dispute anywhere but that, under international law, we have a right to provide by law for all the things I have enumerated.

So far, I have been considering the question upon a strictly legal basis. I have ignored the question of sympathy, of moral right, of our belief in religious freedom and liberty. So far, I have suggested no action based upon emotion or a love of humanity. Basing our consideration entirely on cold legal deductions, we must reach the conclusion that it is far safer to enact the provisions I have enumerated than it would be to permit the embargo act to remain unchanged. From this cold-blooded legal consideration of our rights we must be brought to the conclusion that it is far better for our peace and security and for the happiness of our people, to repeal the embargo act and enact in its stead the provisions of the proposed law.

Indeed, to me there is but one choice, and I am led inevitably to the conclusion that these changes in our embargo act are absolutely imperative if we are to avoid, as far as humanly possible, being drawn into the existing war.

In addition to our having a strictly legal right to do the things I have outlined, there is another compelling reason why we should take the step proposed. It is fair to say that our people do not believe in dictator governments, or in the barbarous and inhuman methods that are used by these dictators to increase their power and their dominions. The methods that Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin have adopted to further their unholy ambitions are barbarous, inhuman, uncivilized, unjustified, unmerciful, and murderous. We have no sympathy with the principles of such conquests, or with the methods used to attain them. Therefore, our sympathies,our hopes, our prayers, are all with the British and French governments in this conflict.

It is self-evident today that England and France, fighting with their backs to the wall, are fighting not only the battle of humanity and civilization, but they are faced with foes ruthless and murderous in their dishonorable and unjustifiable procedure.

Hitler and other dictators are representatives of paganism, and are fighting to destroy religion, and to establish upon the grave of human freedom a despotism greater, more cruel, and more inhuman than any that has ever existed in the history of the world. They go on the theory that they are not bound to respect the rights or liberties of anyone, and that they have a right to capture and take by force any nation they are able to conquer. Their theory, if carried to its logical conclusion, means the destruction, the end, of our present civilization.

It is said by those who are opposed to any change in our embargo law the course I have outlined will be favorable to England and France. But it is equally true, if we fail to take the course I have outlined, and the present embargo law is kept intact, such action will be favorable to Hitler and other dictators. It is plain, therefore, that whether we enact the proposals I have described, or whether we permit the embargo law to stand unchanged, our action will result in helping, in a degree, one side or the other in the war.

It is fortunate, therefore, that in following our legal rights as universally recognized, we are able to enact a law which will more likely keep us out of the war and at the same time puts us on the side of humanity and civilization.

We have a legal right to take either course. We decide our course on a perfectly legal proposition. If we decide to pursue the path most likely to keep us out of the war, we should be gratified to know such a course will help the right, rather than the wrong. Should there be any doubt or hesitation on the part of anyone who believes in liberty, who loves humanity, who loves his family, who wants to preserve civilization, as to the course we should pursue? How, under the circumstances, can we possibly hesitate?

I fervently believe the course I have advocated will keep us out of war, and that such a course offers the greatest probability that our nation may ride through the troubled waters in peace and honor.

One of the impelling reasons that took us into the World War was to make good the losses of American ships that occurred in the combat area. Another reason was to insure the payment of money loaned by American citizens. Another reason was to protect the right of American citizens to travel upon ships of belligerent nations. Another reason was that we permitted materials, such as food stuffs and clothing to be transported to belligerents' ports in American vessels, manned by American seamen.

All of these activities are prohibited by the administration bill now pending in Congress. None of these activities will be prohibited, if we permit the embargo law to stand as it is.

At the beginning of the World War, on the floor of the United States Senate, I said our entry into that war was, placing the dollar sign on the American flag. For this speech, I was denounced as a traitor; I was burned in effigy; a prominent federal official in a public address said I ought to be put against a wall and shot; I became an outcast in my own country. I believe that time has vindicated the position I then took.

When we entered the World War, we made the greatest mistake in the history of our nation. We put the dollar sign on the American flag, and went into the war. Now, twenty years later, let us keep the dollar sign off of the American flag, and stay out of the war.