Is America Prepared for War?


By COLONEL WILLIAM J. DONOVAN, Soldier and Lawyer. Asst. Chief of Staff 27th Div. of the AEF

Before the Sons of Erin, at the Hotel Commodore, Monday Evening, November 27th, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 155-157.

AS I speak, Europe is engaged in its 88th day of war. And this war started with the devastation of Poland— so swift, so sure, so complete that within a week the last remnant of the Versailles peace in eastern Europe was ground to earth.

Then suddenly came a lull. Before Poland we had experienced many false alarms of war. Now we were in for-atense period of false alarms—this time false alarms of peace. We in America began to call this war a "phony".

We were mistaken. Peace didn't come. We know now that it may not come for a long time. The events of the last few weeks have shown us that the so-called diplomatic period was only the smoke screen for a gigantic preparation. England has set up a blockade against Germany. The ironhand of the world's biggest navy is reaching out for her enemy's throat.

Germany rights back desperately. She tries to loosen that grip of the British fleet and, in addition, knowing that Britain too has a jugular vein of dependence on foreign commerce, she is trying to seize it by a blockade of British shipping through air, mine, and submarine attack. It's a war in earnest now—a war to the death. How does this death struggle in Europe affect us? Before the war began we sensed its coming and wrote into our book of laws a policy of strict non-participation. We declared an embargo in order to cut off our supplies of arms to any and all belligerents.

Then war came and we turned squarely about in our tracks. After a long debate, we repealed the embargo. We adopted a policy of selling for export to anyone who came here, paid cash on the line, and took his purchase away at his own risk.

An argument against repeal was that it constituted a step toward war. There was—and maybe there still is—the question noted repeatedly through the Congressional debates. Can we go half-way and stop there?

But this much can and must be said now. The enemies of the embargo were not the enemies of peace. Both sides were determined to keep America out of the war.

There is no war party in America. We, as a people, have not only declared our desire to stay out of war, but in the passage of our Neutrality Act we have expressed ourselves concretely in terms of self-denial. With one swoop, we scrapped a twenty-year policy of developing our over-seas trade and shipping activity. We threw out of work thousands of our own citizens who were dependent upon the maintenance of our Merchant Marine. We made these sacrifices voluntarily to preserve peace. They show in terms nobody can mistake that we do not wish to repeat the attempt to establish our ideals of human liberty upon European soil. We have fought our last evangelical war. Yet, what does this mean for the future? Do we mean to proclaim to the world that in no circumstances and under no provocation would we fight? No self-respecting nation could take that position. Whether we like it or not, we cannot withdraw entirely from the world whether it is at war or peace.

The conflict in Europe warns us that we must be more than ever on the alert to forestall any possible threat to our freedom.

And if we Americans want to be sure to stay out we ought first to be sure that we are facing squarely the problem of adequate national defense for the United States.

The time to consider our policy, therefore, is now, while heads are clear, while emotions are still in check, and while our minds are not yet subject to an urgency and a pressure that is bound to come.

Let's look at our problem as other nations do—from the point of view of self-interest. Let us be guided by experience.

Our memory of our experience in the last war has in fact already had an effect on our national outlook. We have come to cherish more than ever the freedom of the western hemisphere from the hatreds and ambitions which have for countless centuries made Europe a battle-field. And we are determined that this hemisphere must remain forever free to work out its own destiny. We have a definite responsibility in keeping it free.

That responsibility constitutes an important stake in the present European war and in its eventual settlement.

We must bear this in mind when we ask ourselves: "Is America ready for war?", "Is America adequately prepared not merely to fight a war but to forestall the causes of war?"

I'm not an alarmist. I do not think that America is indanger of invasion. Current talk of a victorious Hitler invading the United States or South America tomorrow or following the war, to me is so much nonsense.

modern wars exhaust almost equally victor and vanquished. General Hugh S. Johnson states that Hitler couldn't muster a sea force strong enough to threaten us even if he built warships for 50 years, and that the combined fleets of no conceivable group of nations could successfully land an army on either North or South America, against a well-prepared defense by us.

A major war today must be fought with the entire resources of a nation, economic as well as military.

In this, we are lucky. In addition to our geographic position, we are the only really self-sustaining nation on the face of the earth.

We have the greatest industrial plants—we have more power, more machines, more available raw materials than in any other country. With this industrial machine we are potentially equipped to carry on a war on the great scale imposed by modern conditions. But this machine of ours is geared for peace, not war—and there are many technical requirements of our war and navy departments that are necessary to be met in order to effect the change.

Our real problem is how to convert this industrial plant to wartime needs—industry must be educated in the part it shall play. It must be teamed up with our army and our navy. That is not easy.

Our navy is our first line of defense. As we have grown to be the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth, we have resolved to be content with nothing less than a navy second to none. We haven't got it yet.

The day before yesterday, Acting Secretary of the Navy, Charles Edison, in his second annual report for the fiscal year, 1939, pointed out certain of the deficiencies of the navy. He said that it lacks experienced personnel to provide for the complete mobilization of the fleet should the need arise. Submarines are the only arm of our navy defense which are 100% manned. Battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and auxiliaries are only manned at 85% of their war complement.

Hanson W. Baldwin, the military expert on the New York Times, recently stressed certain other deficiencies in our naval organization. The lack of coordination within our shore organizations; our slow ship-building rate; our excessive expense in building; the lack of new drydocks in our navy yards; the lag in our armor-making and gun-making capacities; the expensive errors in ship design which, as shown in the dispatches from Washington only last month, were incorporated in and discovered too late in twelve new destroyers ordered for the navy.

As to our army. For most of the period since the World War, our army has been an army almost without soldiers and without modern mechanized equipment. More planes are necessary. More mechanization. Particularly, more continuous training. The criticism of the maneuvers by General Drum were criticisms directed particularly at the failure to give our regular army and National Guard opportunity for that training.

The organization and strength of our air force, which is a vital part of both our naval and military defense plans, is another pressing issue which requires clarification before the American people can rest assured of the adequacy of their preparedness. Experts place the minimum requirements of our naval air force at 3,000 planes. Today the total is still well below that figure. The army air corps, which now has a like number of ships, was recently authorized by Congress to build to a total fleet of 5,500, a projected total for both the army and navy of 8,500 planes. The new units projected are primarily short-range ships, useful only forover-seas fighting. There are many who feel that our real defense needs are primarily for long-range bombers designed to carry the fight far out to sea, or for long distances over land. What is the correct view?

Above all, it seems to me we need coordination of defense effort and a planned defense. Too much each service and each branch works in its own air-tight compartment. Often they duplicate. Never has a rounded, integrated program, embracing the needs of both the army and the navy, and looking forward to future time, been presented to Congress. This is the crux of the vastly complex problem of preparedness which challenges our attention today.

Only last week the President of the United States put the issue squarely before us on the basis of our willingness to meet the extraordinary expense of adequate preparedness.

In a press conference the President told reporters that the ever-present threat of war would mean that our current preparedness expense, of $1,760,000,000, in itself a record peacetime program, would have to be increased by $500,000,000.

The country must soon decide, the President said, whether the bill should be met by a Special Defense Tax or by additional borrowing which would put the burden on future generations.

At the present time, the President added, the Administration has not yet decided upon any fixed long range policy for national preparedness.

Ultimate responsibility for the formulation of that policy, he seemed to imply, was up to the American people as a whole. It was they who would have to decide.

Certainly no loyal American citizen can fail to support the President when he asks us to guide the Administration in formulating our own defense program. No other question of government so clearly and directly concerns our personal welfare and security. The President is simply asking us to make up our minds what shall be done about it in these troubled times.

And now we come to the heart of the problem as it concerns you and me individually. How are we, the people, going to decide on the kind of preparedness we want and need unless we are fully and accurately informed on the issues involved?

A clearly thought-out national policy demands that we make up our minds on a number of points which up to now we have never squarely faced. What, for example, are the things for which we propose to fight? And what are the other things for which we do not propose to fight?

Are we willing, for example, to go to war to preserve the territorial and political integrity of Canada or Mexico or any of the South American republics? What, again, is our stake in the Philippines? And, are we prepared to exert armed pressure to enforce the open door in the Far East?

More specifically, do we wish, for example, to fortify the Aleutian Islands and Alaska as air bases? Do we wish to fortify Guam in the Pacific and do we want to enlarge our naval outposts in the Caribbean?

The gravest danger, as Professor Edward Mead Earle of Princeton puts it, is "Procrastination now and improvisation later."

But we must understand the issues before we can meet them intelligently. To enable us to understand them, some means must be found to put them before us, clearly and simply, in a form we can all readily grasp.

To this end I should like to propose here tonight the creation of a civilian body of representative citizens to make an exhaustive study of the problem and to lay its findings and recommendations as soon as possible before the President, the Congress and people of the United States.

The group or committee making such a study should include, in addition to civilians, representatives of all our military departments and of the Department of State.

An inquiry into the underlying facts, the mobilization of these facts, and then an interpretation of them, to my mind is the one effective way to inform and enlighten public opinion. The great issues of our defense policy are now presented to Congress piece-meal in terms of an appropriation for a specific purpose by a particular bureau.

Recommendations by a commission such as I now propose would offer Congress an integrated and comprehensive view from which to judge the isolated defense problems on which they are asked to legislate.

This is what we need today—a whole view of preparedness by the whole body of American citizens.