Defend America First


By GENERAL HUGH JOHNSON, Political Commentator and former Director of N.R.A.

Delivered over the N.B.C. Network, September 5, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 763-765

THIS country is united as never before on national defense. The people have been ahead of their leaders. The leaders let defense lag shamelessly. The people demanded action. The leaders hesitated to increase taxes for defense; the people insisted on total defense at any sacrifice.

We need waste no words arguing on unity for defense; it is now complete.

But there is a very great and dangerous difference of opinion on what national defense means.

There is a committee in this country called Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Since there are no longer any Allies that means defend America by defending England. There is another committee called Defend America First. That is my ticket.

The Defend England Committee announced yesterday that of England's two million man army, one-quarter of them, or 500,000, are armed with American army rifles, that 100,000 tons of arms and explosives have been taken from our defense and sent to Britain, 80 machine guns, 700 field artillery guns, mountains of ammunition, all shortage items with us.

This committee wants to send from our army its flying fortresses, tanks, 250,000 more rifles, and the marvelous American secret bombsight. It wants to use our flying fields to train pilots for Britain and thinks we ought to detach a lot more ships from our Navy.

The same day's news discloses that our own army has less than 300 first-line combat planes and only 59 heavy bombers. We have ordered only 1,500 modern fighting planes, only 176 heavy bombers—many of them won't be delivered for over a year. We have not enough modern equipment for an army of 100,000 men. We have not even, to use a famous weasel word, "on order" equipment for the number of men we now- plan to conscript. I don't know just how much of this helplessness and delay is due to defending America bydefending Britain, but I know that a lot of it is due to that alone.

America's Sympathies

There are very few Americans who do not hate Hitler and hope that Britain wins. Our sympathies are all with England, but modern war is not risked by any wise nation, as George Washington was careful to tell us, for any reason other than its own defense or some other absolutely compelling cause. That is the reason why our friends who want us to take part in this war call their committee Defend America and add "by Helping Britain."

They have gone a long distance with that slogan. Their argument is that our peace depends upon the British Navy. They go a lot further than that. They say that our peace, our Monroe Doctrine and the tranquility of the Americas always has depended on the British Navy. Therefore, they say Britain is fighting our war, Britain is fighting to defend us. We owe it, ought in gratitude in our own defense, to help Britain; so they want to strip our army, navy and air power of their ships and guns and ammunition and by various blind pig loopholes in our own statutes, our treaties and international law, bootleg these hundreds of thousands of tons of lethal weapons to England.

First of all, let me say that if that argument is true, we would cut a fine figure in history and in our own conscience and common sense and for our own defense to be satisfied to pay so great a debt and do so great a duty by a lot of undercover gun-running and international hypocrisy. If our peace and defense have depended and now depend on England and England is at bay, we ought to go to war with everything we have. Once again we ought to adopt a war dictatorship as our form of government and once again pour out the full measure of our blood and fortune on foreign shores to the shattering of our own domestic economy and the possible destruction of the nation we have known and loved.

Of course, it is nonsense to say that the British have defended us. As for the Monroe Doctrine, it has been seriously threatened only twice in its existence and England had something to do with both attempts—once in Venezuela when we threatened war and stopped her from seizing territory, and as an original party to landing European troops in Mexico when we were tied up with the Civil War. She is the only European nation that has actually taken additional American territory since Monroe, and in defiance of that doctrine, and she did it twice, once in Honduras, once in the Falkland Islands.

For her own purposes England has commanded the seas, not only the Atlantic but all oceans; but setting her navy aside for a moment, there has never been a time in the past forty years when any other nation was in a naval position to challenge either our country or our Monroe Doctrine in the face of our own fleet.

Now this is no time to rake up old wrongs against Britain, but in view of the arguments that are made to edge and jostle us into this war, it certainly is high time to explode all these old errors in this regard. Quite aside from all that, this country should have seen enough of what is going on in the world today to know that any nation which must rely for its own peace and its own defense on the strength of any other nation is lost. We can't rely on any other power but our own, Great Britain or any other. We can rely on nothing on this earth but the strength of our own right arm, our own resources, and the patriotism, valor and fidelity of our own people—and thanks be to God, it is enough.

Those Who Relied on Britain

In the past three years Europe has been strewn with the wreckage of nations that relied on other nations for their defense and some of them relied on Britain. France had full power when Hitler started in 1933, full power to stop him there in his tracks; but she preferred to rely on her alliance with the little nations in Central Europe, called the Cordon Santiaire. They relied on her as she relied on them and all relied on British sea power in the background. Austria so relied. They stepped aside and saw her swallowed. Czechoslovakia so relied. They went to Munich and tossed her to the wolves. Earlier Britain had relied on France to help keep Mussolini out of Ethiopia and France wanted Britain to help keep Hitler out of the Rhineland, which would have kept the peace of Europe in this good day. But each reliance failed. Both nations were tying their shoe and looking in the other direction.

Finally, on a pledge of assistance if she would resist, Britain and France pushed Poland into the line of fire. Poland fell; no help came and all of Northern Europe crumbled. Holland relied on Belgium; Belgium on France; France and Norway on Britain. Where are those nations now? All except Britain gone with the wind, and the epitaph of these could read: She relied for her peace and safety on some strength other than her own.

Despite all this, we are still told that we must rely on Britain for our peace and our defense. Now I don't say all this in reproach of Britain or of any other stricken nation. But when the very reliance that ruined them is advanced to us as a reason either for our getting into this war or continuing to rely for our defense on any other nation, then I am very sure that it is a duty, however unpleasant, not merely to point out these simple facts of life, but to make them as emphatic as the English language and the rules of radio permit.

We are told that Hitler is our threat in the Atlantic or might become so overnight if Britain fell; we would have as defense against that threat as fine and strong a navy as sailed the seven seas. Where is it, facing Hitler? Oh, no; it is out in the Pacific, almost half a world away. Why? Is that hemisphere defense of the Americas?

Not Defending America

No professional strategist would say that there is any pending practical threat to our west coast that we couldn't guard against by reasonable bases and a moderate force. Nobody pretends that our fleet is out there to defend this continent. It is out there to give us a dominant voice in Asia, where our material interest isn't worth half a battle squadron and our moral obligation to our flag in the Philippines is something that the Filipinos have asked us to abandon and which we have promised to do in 1946. If that is defending the Americas, somebody has scrambled this good globe of ours up and all geography needs to be turned inside out or upside down.

Now, of course, it is no such thing. We are out there to help preserve the British Empire in Asia. Is that necessary to keep the British fleet between us and Hitler? It may help, but it is a pretty far cry to such a conclusion and the real effect of it is not to keep the American Navy between us and Hitler; it is to rest the peace and defense of America on some force other than our own, and the present indications are that we are in more danger of waking up some morning to find ourselves at war in the Far East seven thousand miles away than of anything that could conceivably happen to us on our Atlantic coast. That would be a war over issues which few, if any, of our people would understand and fewer have any interest in.

Nobody who has studied this rapid trend of ours towardwar to defend America by defending Britain will deny that the further it goes, the more we shall have to give up every attribute of American freedom and democracy and the closer we shall approach a war dictatorship which will be as drastic as anything known in Germany or Italy. We had to do that in 1918, but Woodrow Wilson hated that form of government; he gave up most of those great powers the day after the Armistice.

But this Administration does not hate powers centralized and personalized in the President. It has constantly sought them ever since 1933, and it has never voluntarily surrendered one power granted on the excuse of an emergency. Would this country be willing to trust it with complete war powers, or if it did, would it ever give them up? There is a grave and growing danger there. Our belligerent friends are arguing themselves into a curious dilemma: Keep out of war by getting into war; defend America by defending Britain and Asia; save our democracy by giving up our democracy.

In the meantime what have we been doing to defend ourselves? Before I say anything about that, let me pay tribute to Franklin Roosevelt for building up and perfecting a great one-ocean navy and for his recent stroke in providing a chain of outlying air and naval bases. Both actions have greatly increased our defense at sea and there is no time here to discuss the method by which the latter act was done, more than to say it was unnecessary, highly questionable and ominous.

The Inexcusable Blunders in Our Defenses

Aside from these preparations, however, the delay, the blunders, the lack of foresight in building up our land defenses are tragic and inexcusable. To cover that, the country has been dazzled by appropriations of billions, by misleading progress reports on armament, and by a constant display of rhetorical Roman candles.

Money appropriated is not munitions in hand. We have shifted to England more munitions than we can replace in a year. The necessary equipment for the army and air force is neither on hand nor on order. The contracts that are actually in performance or even negotiated for cannon, real first-line fighting airplanes, engines, tanks, explosives, propellants, shells, automatic rifles, anti-aircraft and other machine and tank guns, are not a drop in the bucket compared with the defense needs.

The bulk of this material in the present blundering program will not begin to flow until '42. The great new naval appropriation won't begin to speak for another year. We have actually gone backward in our strength in all this regard; much of this delay was avoidable and all of it is inexcusable.

If our friends who are so eager for us to take part in war before we are ready for war would devote half the effort and propaganda they are spending to defend America by defending Britain to the single purpose of defending America, by defending America, they would serve a triple purpose. They would keep us out of war not by getting into war but by making us too strong for any nation to threaten or attack, they would save our democracy not by giving up our democracy for a war dictatorship, but by making it do its job.

Finally, they would put us in a position of defending America not by frittering our military and naval strength away all over the globe from Dover to Singapore, but by concentrating it for the defense of this continent, defend us not by first defending the British Empire upon which the sun never sets, defend America by defending America first, last and all the time.