Our Foreign Policy and National Defense
THE MOST CRITICAL MOMENT OF OUR LIFE
By SUMNER WELLES, Under Secretary of State
Delivered before the Foreign Affairs Council, Cleveland, Ohio, September 28, 1940
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 15-19
I HAVE been particularly glad to accept the invitation of the Foreign Affairs Council to address you today on the subject of "Our Foreign Policy and National Defense." I have been glad because of my conviction that, so far as the interests of the Nation warrant and the exigencies of their duties make it possible, those who hold responsible positions in the Government involving the conduct of our foreign relations should frequently make such public reports. Even more I hold the belief that in what is probably the most critical moment in our life as anindependent people, every man and woman in the United States should be fully advised as to the course of events upon this tragic international scene—they must be aware of the part which their Government has played in trying to avert the present nature of that course—and be completely cognizant of the steps which it has taken to safeguard the vital interest and the peace of the American people.
I think we all of us have recognized increasingly clearly during these recent years that our foreign policy and our ability to defend ourselves are inextricably woven together. Outside of the Western Hemisphere, the concept of international morality and the authority of international law have ceased to be determining factors. Those nations which have relied upon their neutrality, or which have endeavored to exercise the weight of the prestige they formerly enjoyed, and which did not possess the physical means to preserve their neutrality or to make their influence felt, have found to their bitter cost that a foreign policy, however, righteous, however acutely devised, based merely on morality or prestige, counted for less than nothing against the impact of brute force. The peoples of the democracies have taken a long time to persuade themselves of this truth.
The history of the recent international relations of this country can perhaps be properly divided into two chapters.
The first would cover that period between 1933 and the early months of 1937, when it still seemed unbelievable that the impending calamity could not be averted through resort to reason and good-will. In that period this Government exerted every effort, by offering its full cooperation in the negotiation of equitable and workable economic readjustments, and in the search for agreements for the limitation of armaments, and by urging the peaceful settlement of those political and geographic readjustments in which this country was not directly concerned, to prevent a world catastrophe which must inevitably shake all civilized structures—our own by no means least.
The second chapter is separated from the first by the events of those transition months which culminated in the agreements of Munich.
That was in September 1938. Since then the policy of this Government has been concerned primarily and consistently with the assuring of our own national defense. It has been directed towards the perfection of our means of cooperation with our sister republics of the New World, and towards assisting those nations outside the Western Hemisphere whose continued independence and integrity contribute towards the maintenance of peace, and whose continued freedom to live their own untrammeled democratic way of life constitutes a bulwark for the maintenance of individual liberty in the Western Hemisphere.
The basic reason for this change in objective is illustrated very clearly in a passage in Harold Nicolson's admirable life of his father. In speaking of the years before the World War of 1914-1918, he says, "It was not considered patriotic that one's own country should on every occasion set an example of unselfishness, humanity and intelligence. It thus came about that all but a small minority . . . approached the problem of civilization in a competitive and not in a cooperative spirit. In organized communities this competitive spirit can be controlled by the authority of law. The European community of nations was not an organized community, and for them the ultimate appeal was not to law, but to force."
During the generation after the Treaty of Versailles not only had efforts to organize the community of nations failed but in the early years of the past decade signs were constantly on the increase that even that power of public opinion based on international agreement, known as international law, which had to a considerable extent been a deterrent to violence and moral anarchy, was fast disintegrating and was being steadily replaced by the rule of brute force.
Let me at this point recall to you some of the many attempts which have been undertaken by this country to induce the nations of the world to return to a sane economic order—to halt the armaments race—and to reestablish in international life the standard of morality and law which three centuries of civilization had produced and which alone could make it possible for human beings to raise their standard of living, to know what happiness means, and to pass their natural lives unshadowed by constant fear.
In the field of our economic relations with other countries your Government has never ceased striving to serve the end of peaceful development. In the depths of the depression the economic disorder within each country was attended by the great decline of all international commercial and financial activity. Our own export trade had dwindled, our investors were struck with sudden immense losses in their security holdings. The very solvency of many of our main financial institutions was threatened by their large credits abroad which could not be liquidated as trade everywhere shriveled to incredibly low proportions. What was obviously required was, first of all, to stabilize, and then to bring stimulating recovery to the economy which was suffering from the shocks of past errors and miscalculations.
Early in 1933 the depression and unemployment prevalent in most countries, including our own, was so severe as to require far-reaching measures for relief and recovery in each country. This made it impossible, tragically enough, for the governments that met in London in 1933 to agree upon international measures that would serve satisfactorily the pressing needs of all, but the United States during the succeeding years assumed the leadership in trying to make effective the purpose which the 1933 conference had been summoned to achieve.
In undertaking to rebuild our trade with the rest of the world, it was necessary to convince unwilling minds that the policy pursued by this country during the 1920's of constantly increasing barriers to trade had brought injury to ourselves as well as to others. Under the Trade Agreements Act this Government negotiated 22 trade agreements with other nations, each of which enlarged commerce and employment in this and other countries without doing material injury to any branch of American production. By so doing, we created a renewed realization that in the interest of an increase in the standard of living, in the interest of renewing employment, in short, in the interest of recovery itself, commercial intercourse with the rest of the world was as necessary to our country as it was to other countries.
The recovery in both internal and international affairs that took place for a few years after 1933 for some time gave reason for hope that the world would gradually attain some new and more satisfactory economic balance. This hope spurred on the efforts of this Government to keep before its own people and before other peoples the principles of an international program of mutual economic benefit. Hardly a day passed without some effort on our part to bring other countries to join with us in the adoption of this program through gradual elimination of policies contrary to it.
I am convinced that those efforts might have succeeded if it had not become evident that certain powers had determined that all economic policies for the adjustment of human welfare would be subordinated by them to policies of seizing by force what they themselves desired. An ironic situation was thus patent. Many nations thereupon feared that if they extended their economic relations, they would
strengthen their potential enemies. They feared that if they exchanged advantages with others they might inevitably become dependent upon others. The resulting discouragement to trade, investment, and other economic activities necessarily increased the disposition to seek relief by predatory action under desperate leadership; it prepared the way for war.
That was the course which this Government had so clearly foreseen and which we had so often tried to offset, not only by warnings and appeals, but by the example which we ourselves held up.
Believing as this Government does, that one of the surest safeguards against war is the opportunity of all peoples to buy and to sell on equal terms and without let or hindrance of a political character, we have never ceased to offer our full participation and cooperation in such a general economic program.
The oncoming of the war and the complete dislocation of international trade have necessarily left that program in suspense, but the determination of your Government to resume it when the opportunity again occurs remains unaltered.
Meanwhile, our economic policy has been adjusted to safeguard and to serve our security in many vital relations.
Let me turn now to the subject of our armed defense. During the first years of this administration we participated in conferences designed to bring about an international agreement on the limitation and reduction of armament. Time after time this Government expressed our readiness to join with other nations in a common effort to bring about an effective agreement.
While the Government was making efforts for arms limitation, our national defense was not neglected. Ever since he assumed office, President Roosevelt has worked unceasingly towards an adequate national defense. In 1934 steps were taken to bring our Navy up to treaty strength. Shortly thereafter, provision was made for replacing and improving Army equipment, and for a very substantial increase in enlisted strength.
The aim of this administration has been to make our national defense adequate and efficient on land, on sea, and in the air. The definition of an adequate national defense, of course, is bound to change with changing international situations. It has been our policy to make no increase in our own armament unless other powers by increasing theirs make increase by us necessary to our national safety.
By the end of 1936 it had become apparent that under existing conditions there was no possibility of a general international agreement for a reduction in armament. Instead, there was a recrudescence of the military spirit, resulting in the expansion of standing armies, in naval construction, in enormously increased military budgets, and in feverish efforts to devise new instruments of warfare.
During this period the administration repeatedly pointed out the dangers in the international situation. As early as January 4, 1935, President Roosevelt stated in a message to Congress, "I cannot with candor tell you that general international relationships outside the borders of the United States are improved. On the surface of things many old jealousies are resurrected, old passions aroused; new strivings for armament and power, in more than one land, rear their ugly heads."
Towards the end of 1937 the Nation was warned that international lawlessness was spreading; that the situation was of universal concern; and that the peace, freedom, and security of 90 per cent of the population of the world was being jeopardized by the remaining 10 per cent who were threatening a break-down in all international order under law.
In a message to Congress of January 28, 1938, the President declared that as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States it was his constitutional duty to report that "our national defense is, in the light of the increasing armaments of other nations, inadequate for purposes of national security and requires increase for that reason."
A few months after the Munich agreement President Roosevelt reported to Congress that although a war which had threatened to envelop the world in flames had been temporarily averted, it had become increasingly clear that peace was not assured. In this message of January 4, 1939, he pointed out that the world had grown so small and weapons of attack so swift that no nation could be safe so long as any other powerful nation refused to settle its grievances at the council table; that weapons of defensive the only safety from any highly armed nation which insists on policies of force; that we had learned that survival cannot be guaranteed by arming after the attack begins. One week later the President submitted to Congress the program required by the necessities of defense.
With the outbreak of war in Europe in September, 1939, the President increased the strength of the Army and Navy within statutory authorizations. In January, 1940 he submitted a budget to the Congress which included estimates for the national defense, amounting to approximately $2,000,000,000, for the fiscal year 1941. On May 16 of this year he asked of the Congress, and the Congress approved, a tremendous increase in appropriations for the national defense. And subsequently requests have been made to bring our defense forces to a point capable of meeting any emergency.
The recent agreement with Great Britain for a chain of naval and air bases extending from Newfoundland to the South American Continent, and the agreement with Canada on defense, are of immeasurable assistance in providing effectively for the defense of the Americas.
From this brief summary I think you will agree that the administration has been fully aware of the dangers in the international situation, that it has informed the country thereof, and that through the years it has been vigilant in preparing our national defense against any possible threats to our security.
To serve that program of defense, a far-reaching effort is being carried forward to acquire adequate supplies of all essential and critical materials, and we are keeping under close supervision the export of all American products that we may need for an emergency.
In reviewing the ever increasingly tragic history of the international relations of the past seven years, there is just one bright picture of constructive achievement that stands out. I refer, of course, to the recent history of the relations between the 21 American republics.
I doubt whether the people of the United States even remotely appreciate the vast changes which these past seven years have brought about in the relations between the United States and its neighbors in the New World. A short eight years ago, it is an understatement to assert, suspicion of the motives of the United States existed throughout the major portion of the continent. Where open resentment did not exist because of some act of high-handed intervention on the part of this Government, or hostility smolder because of the assertion by this country of its power to dictate, there existed at least in many quarters, a very natural resentment because of our insistence, through the Tariff Act of 1930, upon closing our markets to our neighbors.
Today, that condition, fortunately, has vanished. It began to disappear after the Inter-American Conference of 1933when Secretary Hull, in the name of this Government, made it clear that the United States would no longer intervene in the internal affairs of the other American republics. It was still further dissipated when this Government, through the provisions of the Trade Agreements Act, made it evident that the United States was not only willing but anxious to trade with its neighbors on terms of mutual advantage; and thus the way was prepared for the holding of the Conference for the Maintenance of Peace in Buenos Aires in 1936 in a spirit of nascent understanding and mutual reliance by all of the American republics.
Few of you probably recall today that the suggestion for the holding of this Conference was made by President Roosevelt so long ago as on January 30, 1936, through personal letters which he addressed to the Presidents of all of the other American republics.
The war clouds over Europe were steadily darkening, and the President foresaw clearly that in the event of a new world war, no greater assurance could be offered to the nations of the New World that the peace of the Western Hemisphere would be maintained and that in the event that any aggression against the American Continent threatened, the United States could count upon the loyal friendship of her American neighbors, than through the perfection of agreements between them which would reduce the possibility of hostilities between themselves and afford a common policy in the event of danger from abroad.
That suggestion was made four and a half years ago, and it is now well worth while to remember that at that Conference there was for the first time proclaimed by the 21 American republics in unanimous accord the great principle that any threat to the peace of any one of the American republics affects the peace of them all.
Since that time there has been held the Inter-American Conference of Lima in 1938, which strengthened notably the earlier acts of the Conference at Buenos Aires, and which indicated still more clearly the intention of the American republics to assume a common front against any threat of aggression to the New World. As a result of machinery there set up, there have also been held since the war broke out two consultative meetings at Panama and at Habana.
Three important achievements at the Panama meeting are worthy of special attention.
First, the declaration by the American republics that so long as this continent remains at peace the American nations are entitled as of inherent right to have the waters adjacent to their shores, and which they regard as of primary utility to them in their normal relations, free from the commission of hostile acts.
Second, the creation of the Inter-American Neutrality Committee, which is in permanent session in Rio de Janeiro in order to study the problems of neutrality and to formulate recommendations with a view to coordinating action among the American republics.
And third, the creation of the Inter-American Financial and Economic Advisory Committee, which has been in session in Washington since November 15, 1939, and to which have been submitted for study and recommendation a wide range of problems in the fields of banking, shipping, customs procedure, and broad programs of economic development.
In July 1940 there was held at Habana the second consultative meeting. Once more concrete measures were adopted to enable the American nations to cope effectively with new problems. Resolutions were adopted looking towards joint action through coordination of police activity in the combatting of subversive foreign influences, and, in the economic field, the Inter-American Committee at Washington was charged with additional responsibilities primarily with respect to the grave problems of surplus commodities brought about by the disruption of normal markets.
At the same time the Act of Habana was approved providing for the assumption of joint provisional responsibilities with respect to European colonies in the Western Hemisphere in the event that a change of sovereignty of these colonies should threaten as a result of the European conflict.
Today, the governments of all the American republics are cooperating as one in the search for remedies for their common problems, and with a full and reciprocal recognition of their several needs and requirements. They are as one in their determination to preserve their domestic institutions, their ancient liberties, and their independence and integrity; but more than that, they recognize today that the strength of every one of them is vastly enhanced by the combined strength of the rest.
Speaking from the standpoint of a citizen of the United States, I can conceive of no greater safeguard to the national defense of the United States than the realization on our part that we possess the sympathy, the trust and the cooperation of our neighbors of the New World.
Unfortunately it is not possible for me to refer with any measure of satisfaction to the course of events in the Far East during these past seven years.
The policy of this Government in the Far East has differed in no way from the policies of this country in relation to other regions of the world. It is true, of course, that the problems which have arisen in our relations with the countries of the Far East have had certain peculiarities because of the earlier rights of extraterritorial jurisdiction accorded to the nationals of occidental powers, along with various other special procedures adopted with special reference to special situations, but as situations have changed, the United States has by processes of negotiation and agreement voluntarily assented to the alteration and removal of these special features.
From time to time the nations directly interested in the Far East have entered into treaties and international agreements which have created a network of common interests, as well as common responsibilities and obligations.
In essence the primary requirements of the United States in the Far East may be thus simply set forth: Complete respect by all powers for the legitimate rights of the United States and of its nationals as stipulated by existing treaties or as provided by the generally accepted tenets of international law; equality of opportunity for the trade of all nations; and, finally, respect for those international agreements or treaties concerning the Far East to which the United States is a party, although with the expressed understanding that the United States is always willing to consider the peaceful negotiation of such modifications or changes in these agreements or treaties as may in the judgment of the signatories be considered necessary in the light of changed conditions.
The Government of Japan, however, has declared that it intends to create a "new order in Asia." In this endeavor it has relied upon the instrumentality of armed force, and it has made it very clear that it intends that it alone shall decide to what extent the historic interests of the United States and the treaty rights of American citizens in the Far East are to be observed.
As we here well know, many hundreds of incidents have occurred as a result of which the rights of this country and the rights of our nationals have been violated.
On April 15 of this year, as a result of developments in the European war, the Foreign Minister of Japan, in a public statement, asserted that Japan desired the maintenance of the status quo of the Netherlands East Indies. On April17 the Secretary of State made a statement on behalf of the United States expressing the belief of this Government that the best interests of all nations called for maintenance of the status quo in the entire Pacific area. On repeated occasions since then official spokesmen for the Japanese Government have reiterated their desire for the maintenance of the present status of the Netherlands East Indies, and have further specifically declared that this policy applied not only to the Netherlands East Indies, but to French Indochina as well. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding these official declarations, we are all familiar with the events of the past week which have culminated in measures undertaken by the Japanese military forces which threaten the integrity of the French colony.
From the standpoint of reason, of common sense, and of the best practical interests of all of the powers possessing interests in the Far East, there is no problem presented which could not be peacefully solved through negotiation, provided there existed a sincere desire on the part of all concerned to find an equitable and a fair solution which would give just recognition to the rights and to the real needs of all concerned.
As the weeks pass, tides of anarchy and of chaos are threatening to engulf the continent of Europe.
We have seen during the past 18 months the disappearance or the armed occupation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia; tile defeat and partial occupation of the great Republic of France; the dismemberment, through the threat of force, of Rumania; and the spoliation, after an heroic resistance, of the Republic of Finland.
Warfare has now engulfed the Mediterranean region and threatens to spread to the Near East.
Alone, the British people, with a heroism which is worthy of the finest traditions of that brave people, are defending successfully their homes and their liberties—which are the same liberties which free men cherish everywhere.
It is the policy of your Government, as approved by the Congress of the United States, and, I believe, by the overwhelming majority of the American people, to render all material support and assistance, through the furnishing of supplies and munitions, to the British Government and to the Governments of the British Dominions in what we hope will be their successful defense against armed aggression.
It is becoming trite to say that what we are witnessing in the world today is not a world war but a world revolution. It is indeed an attempt at world revolution, a revolution in the sense that we are seeing a new manifestation of the age-old struggle of the lowest that is in human nature against the highest, of barbarism against civilization, of darkness against light.
There is no question that the errors of omission and of commission during the years which succeeded the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles and the other treaties arising from the World War paved the way for the vast conflagration which we see today, but there is equally no question that during the five years which preceded the Munich agreements the Government of the United States did everything within its power to avert the final calamity. When the record is ultimately assayed, I believe this truth will be recognized.
There could be no better demonstration of the purposes and of the beliefs of this Government than in the words which the President addressed to the Chiefs of the Governments directly concerned, at the time of the Czechoslovak crisis, on September 26, 1938. He said:
"The fabric of peace on the continent of Europe, if not throughout the rest of the world, is in immediate danger. The consequences of its rupture are incalculable. Should
hostilities break out the lives of millions of men, women and children in every country involved will most certainly be lost under circumstances of unspeakable horror.
"The economic system of every country involved is certain to be shattered. The social structure of every country involved may well be completely wrecked.
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"The traditional policy of the United States has been the furtherance of the settlement of international disputes by pacific means. It is my conviction that all people under the threat of war today pray that peace may be made before, rather than after, war."
In a further message sent to the German Chancellor on September 27, the President said:
"Present negotiations still stand open. They can be continued if you will give the word. Should the need for supplementing them become evident, nothing stands in the way of widening their scope into a conference of all the nations directly interested in the present controversy. Such a meeting to be held immediately—in some neutral spot in Europe —would offer the opportunity for this and correlated questions to be solved in a spirit of justice, of fair dealing, and, in all human probability, with greater permanence."
If the nations directly interested in that controversy, including Czechoslovakia, had sat around the council table in some neutral city, on equal terms, with no single one of them under the threat of aggression, as the President urged, the way might well have been paved for the avoidance of today's calamity.
We as a nation face today as grave a danger as our people have confronted during the century and a half of their independent life. We are confronting the emergency, however, I believe, with vision, with courage, and with determination.
Our security has been vastly enhanced by the relations of confidence and of trust which we have with all of the American republics, and through the strengthening of our traditional ties of understanding with our neighbor, the great Dominion of Canada. Our ability to repel aggression is likewise greatly increased by the naval and air bases which we have now leased from Great Britain, and our rearmament program is being carried on with efficiency and dispatch.
We are profiting by the lessons which we have learned from the experience of others. We must increase our armed strength until the New World is unassailable.
We must, and I believe we will, successfully repel any threat to the peace of this hemisphere.
The lights of civilization are fast dimming in many other parts of the world.
While your Government must continue in the future, as it has in the past, to prepare for all eventualities, this Nation must at the same time be ready, when the time comes, to aid in the construction of that kind of a world peace based on justice and on law through which alone can our security be fully guaranteed.
I shall always remember that day last March, during the course of the mission in Europe with which the President had entrusted me, when I left London by plane on a day of blinding snow. I had with me Carl Sandburg's splendid life of Lincoln, and as I opened the volume my eyes first rested on these immortal phrases of the Second Inaugural: Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away" and "to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."
As we arm with all haste and vigor to guard our New World from threatened danger, I can conceive of no nobler hope and exhortation in our course as a nation than those which are contained in these words.