Our Foreign Policy


By GENERAL ROBERT E. WOOD, Acting Chairman, America First Committee, President, Sears Roebuck & Co.

Delivered before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, October 4, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VII, pp. 130-133.

IT is one of the beauties of a democracy that in time of peace, at least, men are free to express their opinions and honest men respect opposing opinions if those opinions are sincere and free of ulterior motive, and now is a time for all honest men to express their convictions.

This country is on the eve of momentous decisions. The results of these decisions may be so far reaching that they may have an effect for good or bad on the life of this country for at least a generation. I am at the stage of life when I do not care as to the effect on myself or my own generation. I do greatly care what the effects will be on my children and grand-children and their generation.

There are two schools of thought in this country on the subject of our foreign policy. They may be termed "Interventionists" and "Isolationists." These terms are not exactly descriptive, because all interventionists are not extreme interventionists and most isolationists are only isolationists as to Europe and Asia, but not isolationists as to the balance of North America and South America.

I except from my discussion those who have ulterior motives—anything except the welfare of our country. That would include the Communists who really desire to destroy our Government; the Nazis and members of the Bund who put the interests of Germany above those of this country; some ultra-pacifists who forget the interests of their country in their desire for peace at any price; a limited number of extreme Anglophiles who put the interests of Great Britain above those of their own country.

These schools of thought are in violent opposition, but there are certain points of agreement among all classes except perhaps what may be called the lunatic fringe of our population.

These points of agreement are:

First—The necessity for a strong defense—a strengthening of our army and navy and air force. Our people are practically unanimous on this subject—the only differences are on differences of detail. It is obvious that the richest nation of the world, in a world of force, must make itself impregnable.

Second—The belief that no foreign nation must obtain possession of any part of the two Americas and that the United States must be prepared to defend the North American continent, and at least that portion of the South American continent as far as the Equator. There is some difference of opinion as to whether military and naval protection should go as far as Cape Horn.

Third—Access to our great industrial plant by Great Britain within the limits of the neutrality law—that is, unlimited right of purchase by Great Britain of planes, tanks, munitions of war, raw materials from private manufacturers, provided she can pay for them and provide her own transportation. And this I may add is a very great aid.

Without this aid now being given, England could not long carry on the war, for her supplies of raw materials, her steel making capacity, munitions and plane plants are insufficient for a long major war. Without the production facilities of the United States she would be crushed. Theoretically, Germany is entitled to the same privilege—actually, on account of the British blockade, she cannot use our facilities, but she has no right to complain. I believe the overwhelming majority of the citizens are in accord with these three principles. I know I am.

But it is when we get beyond the third point that opinion diverges sharply. The present administration in power, probably the majority of our editors and columnists, a very influential body of public opinion as represented by the Committee to Defend America by Aiding Britain is in favor of our government turning over some of our flying fortresses, more destroyers, more planes, and merchant ships. Others, even more extreme, favor an outright alliance with Great Britain and a declaration of war on Germany.

Now what are the fundamental arguments for this point of view? They may be reduced to three principal reasons:

First—The totalitarian state with its ideology, with its record of persecution, is repugnant to our ideals and should be destroyed, even if we have to enter a war to accomplish this result.

Second—Our own protection depends on Britain as ourfirst line of defense, and if she falls, we are exposed to the onslaught of a totalitarian combination. Per se, it follows that we must give England all the aid we can, even at the risk of entering the war.

Third—If Britain is defeated, it will be impossible for a free competitive, unorganized and unmanaged industrial system to compete with a totalitarian system.

As to the first reason, you cannot destroy an ideology by waging war on it. The conditions created in Europe by the Versailles Treaty were largely responsible for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi philosophy. The history of Europe for the last 100 years is a story of cruelties, persecutions, injustices. No government was more repugnant to our ideals and ideas than the old Czaristic regime of Russia—it had over many years a series of pogroms, but we remained on friendly terms with Russia. Up to 1917 we had always remained true to the principles of foreign policy laid down by the founders of our country: the policy of keeping aloof from the quarrels of Europe and Asia.

The Communistic regime of Russia under Lenin and Stalin was equally opposed to our principles and was detested by the majority of our people. Nevertheless, we have maintained our relations with Russia, and we have certainly had no idea of making war on that country.

A notion cannot be a knight-errant. It must be realistic. Great Britain, during her entire history, has been coldly realistic, and her success in building up her Empire has been due to her realism. As individuals we can give vent to our generous impulses or even to our pet hates, but our statesmen, our editors, our moulders of public opinion must consider that it is not their individual fortunes and lives that are to be considered, but those of 130,000,000 of their fellow citizens.

Now as to the second reason—our military defense in the event of a German victory. Our country has gone through a curious transformation of thought since May 10th. From an underestimate of the military and economic strength of Germany, it has gone to the opposite extreme of overestimating that strength. From some of the remarks heard on the Eastern seaboard in June, we would have thought that New York and Boston were in imminent danger of being bombed.

Now the events in Spain, Poland, Belgium and France showed the major importance of the air arm when supported by tanks, infantry and a modern army. But Spain showed that bombing of cities, unsupported by an army, cannot win a war or even shake the morale of a population if the nation is of tough fibre like the Spanish and English peoples.

Apparently the Battle of England is demonstrating the same principle. Unless an army can cross the Channel, the German air force cannot impose a decision on England. Casualties and material damage—yes. The 15,000 casualties in London so far are but a drop in the bucket for a nation of 45,000,000 people; more casualties were incurred in single days of the Verdun, Ypres and Somme offensives. The destruction of apartment houses, stores, public buildings do not constitute a blow to the military strength of a nation. If the docks, railroads, power plants and munitions plants are put out of commission, it does affect the military effort, but unless it is done on a gigantic scale the nation cannot be subdued, and all evidence is to the effect that military damage thus far has not been of such a serious character as to severely impair the island's defense.

As for an invasion, at the great risk of being called a false prophet, I doubt whether any invasion will ever be made, and if it is attempted, it will be decisively repulsed.

To land 250,000 Germans in England, with mechanized equipment, ammunition and necessary supplies, would be a gigantic operation. Once landed, that force would have to face 1,500,000 Englishmen under arms, fighting on their own island behind strong defenses. And to land those 250,000 Germans means practically complete mastery of the air, blocking off the English fleet, complete control of the Channel—none of which objectives have yet been attained after more than a month of intensive effort. To sum up, I doubt whether the island can be conquered, and I am quite sure the British fleet cannot be put out of commission.

Now we come to our own danger of invasion and the perfectly fantastic hysteria that pervaded this country after the battle of France. I think any competent military or naval expert, certainly the vast majority, will tell you that there is absolutely no danger of an invasion of the United States even if Germany is completely victorious, and I doubt whether she will be. The amount of shipping required for the transportation of even 250,000 men of a modern mechanized army with their ammunition and supplies over 3,000 miles of ocean is colossal and it is to be presumed that our own navy and air force will not be idle.

If it is impracticable or at least exceedingly difficult for an army to cross 25 miles of Channel, what valid grounds are there for supposing that a large army can cross 3,000 miles of ocean to invade a continent?

Some will inquire—why should it not be possible for Germany to seize bases in Mexico or Central America and attack from those countries. Again, that presupposes an overwhelming sea power. But even if that sea power were present, there would again be the same difficulties of a 3,000 mile long line of communication for an invading army. And an army once landed must cross an exceedingly difficult terrain before ever arriving at the Texas border. I think that hypothesis may be safely dismissed.

Now we come to the favorite bogey—air attacks. I quote from Major Al Williams' recent speech reprinted in the Congressional Record—"Oceans and extended lines of communications are still vital factors in modern warfare. President Roosevelt's panicky flight schedule for the air invasion of America is ridiculous, worthy of Hollywood and certainly not of the White House. To support my argument against the President's wild flight schedule for a foreign air invasion of the United States I offer a single incontrovertible reason. With all their air power the Germans could not attack and subdue England from air bases 300 to 500 miles distant. Instead they seized air bases on the north coast of Holland, Belgium and France 20 to 100 miles distant from the coast of England. Each and every stage of the fantastic itinerary for the air invasion of America would have to be conquered for the establishment of major air bases for the enemy attempting the job. The President must know this—but apparently the pattern is panic first, and then war."

All of this presupposes a completely victorious Germany, ready at the end of a long and costly struggle, to immediately embark on a new and perilous adventure across 3,000 miles of ocean against a nation of 130,000,000 people. The present war represents seven years of preparation on the part of Germany. So-called total war represents a prodigal expenditure of labor, money and effort. Steel is rapidly consumed, aircraft and mechanical equipment are rapidly worn out, reserves of all kinds are exhausted, not to mention the wear and tear on human beings. A nation that for seven years has been given guns instead of butter is apt at the end of this war to demand more butter from its leaders.

So on every count it seems inconceivable to me that Germany at the end of the war, even if aided by its allies,who will be in a worse condition of exhaustion than Germany itself, will attack the United States. And if this country with its 130,000,000 people and its two great natural ocean barriers cannot defend itself unaided by Britain or anybody else, it does not deserve to survive. The great nation that has to trust to others for its defense is on the downward path to destruction.

Now as to our economic problems. An economic war after the war—the loss of our European, Asiatic and South American trade. I have a high personal regard for Walter Lippmann's brains and ability, but I believe his picture of an unequal contest between a totalitarian economy and a free economy is misleading. After all, when two nations or two continents each have things the other needs trade eventually results regardless of the feelings each may have for the other. Europe needs us more than we need Europe—our materials and products are more important to her than hers to us. True, Germany has reduced largely its purchases from us, but more from necessity than choice. As far as South America is concerned, we can always obtain the lion's share of the trade of Mexico, Central America, Colombia and Venezuela because we buy the metals of Mexico, the coffee and bananas of Central America and Colombia, the oil of Venezuela. In those countries, our geographical location must always give us the edge. We can take the coffee of Brazil but not its cotton; so its trade will naturally divide between Europe and the United States. It is in Argentina and Chile that our troubles come. We cannot take the meat, cotton and wool of the Argentina because we produce those products ourselves. The same applies to the copper and nitrates of Chile. We cannot sell unless we buy and that is a far greater obstacle than all Nazidom.

It must not be forgotten that Germany put on an intensive drive for trade in South America in the period 1936-1938, and if my recollection of the figures is correct, while Germany's percentage of the trade gained somewhat, the gain was not large, and it was largely at the expense of Great Britain; our trade declined only a fraction of one per cent.

No man can foretell the future, but as long as we have products South America can use and above all, if they have products we can use, we will get our full share of the trade. As for Asia, the same remarks pertain as to Europe. Japan needs us far more than we need her. Our trade with Japan incidentally runs between five and six times the trade of China, whom we are making such great efforts to help. Even if Japan gets control of the Dutch East Indies—and that is not assured—she is going to be more anxious to sell us rubber and tin to obtain dollar exchange than we are to buy the products. And if war with Japan comes, we can get Bolivian tin and develop our synthetic rubber. We are certainly as resourceful as the Germans who are filling 90 per cent of their rubber requirements with the synthetic article.

In 1937 Colombia's trade with us was 168,000,000 pesos, with Germany 40,000,000. Of Venezuela's trade, the United States took 12.5 per cent of their imports and furnished 53 per cent of the exports, Germany 13.6 per cent. Of Costa Rica's imports, 42.5 per cent came from the United States, 23 per cent from Germany. Of her exports 45 per cent went to the United States and 19.5 per cent to Germany.

As for lack of organization, if needs be, we can meet fire with fire; we can set up export cartels and mass purchasing organizations and we can do this without danger to our system.

Americans like myself feel that our true mission is in North America and South America. We stand today in an unrivalled position. With our resources and organizingability we can develop, with our Canadian friends, an only partially developed continent like North America and a virgin continent like South America. The reorganization and proper development of Mexico alone would afford an outlet for our capital and energies for some time to come. And while I think we should try in every way to maintain the friendship of our neighbors to the South, I think we should also make it clearly understood that no government in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean South American countries will be tolerated unless it is friendly to the United States and that, if necessary, we are prepared to use force to attain that object.

Instead of what seems to be a sane objective we are on the verge of throwing our treasure and our blood into a European war, with consequences that no one can foretell.

I respect the honest views of honest Americans, no matter how opposed they may be to my own, but there are two matters that I resent: First is the attempt to smear any one opposed to what I might call the majority publicized viewpoint of what we should do in this war. When the editor of a pink New York sheet denounces Col. Lindbergh as the head of the Fifth Column in the U. S., we have reached the summit of mud slinging. You may disagree violently with Col. Lindbergh, you may feel he has made serious mistakes, but you have no right to denounce a courageous, patriotic American citizen as a traitor merely because he disagrees with your views. That is as bad as the Nazis, an attempt to suppress freedom of speech.

The other point I resent is the way the issue is being presented to the American people. We are being edged into the war without the masses' knowledge. We have the anomalous situation of the polls showing a majority of the people favoring a course that is bound to get us into the war, while the same polls show 86 per cent of the same people oppose actual entry into the war. That shows that the minds of the people are confused.

Many of my hearers were adults at the time of the previous war and were familiar with the propaganda that led up to that war. If you want to know the history of that propaganda and its falsity, read a book by Sir Philip Gibbs with the title of "Now It Can Be Told," in which he admitted the outrageous lies that were perpetrated on the American public. And Sir Philip Gibbs was no German but the leading English war correspondent, knighted by his King. The London Economist in a recent issue said it was only a question of time until American public opinion could be brought to the point where we would actively enter the war.

I believe a majority of the people who are advocating "aid short of war" do not desire us to enter the war. But there are others who do desire us to enter the war, who are taking the necessary steps to prepare the American people for active participation, who would enter it tomorrow if they dared, who are today in practical alliance with England, and unfortunately they are the people who are shaping our national policy today. You hear in Washington today that we are now in the war. You hear predictions from men, and men who ought to know, that we will actively enter the war within sixty days after the election.

The American people should think this matter through. The course we are pursuing is bound to involve us in the war. You cannot play with fire and not get burned. You cannot have your government, not private manufacturers, transfer its equipment to foreign powers, you cannot have your government in an unofficial alliance with a foreign power, you cannot be a meddler in Indo-China, berate Italy and Germany without eventually involving the nation inwar, and if war comes I venture to predict that we will repeat the history of the last war. When the declaration of war was made in 1917 originally it was intended to send only the Navy to the assistance of the Allies.

Joffre came over in the spring of 1917, told the plight of the French Army after the 1917 spring Champagne offensive, where whole divisions of the French Army mutinied, and implored us to send over a token force, otherwise France would collapse. We sent Pershing and the First Division, about 30,000 men. Then came the impending collapse of Russia, frantic calls for more men, then the great German offensive of 1918 and the rout of the British Fifth Army, more frantic appeals, until finally we put under arms 4,000,000 men, sent 2,000,000 men to France, spent 20 billion dollars and had 150,000 casualties. I need not refer to our treatment by our former allies after the Armistice. They took the loot, we did not even get thanks.

I do not often agree with the editorials on foreign policy in my friend Frank Knox's paper, but there is a recent editorial with which I am in 100 per cent agreement. The editorial quoted two recent speeches by both Presidential candidates in which both pledged themselves never to send American boys to France. The editorial spoke of both these pledges as political bunk and very truly stated that if we entered the war we would enter it to win, and, if necessary to win, we would send an expeditionary force—and that is the absolute truth.

The issue should be honestly presented to the people. If we aid Britain, short of war and beyond the limits of the Neutrality Act, it ultimately means war and should mean war. If we enter the war, we must enter it with all our strength in men and money. That is the only way to win a war.

If the military reports from abroad are correct, I feel there is no doubt that Great Britain can defend her island, her dominions like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. She may lose Egypt, the Suez and Gibraltar, though this is extremely doubtful. So far the Italians have shown no signs of real offensive strength. There is little doubt that England can make a negotiated peace by which she can keep her fleet and her colonies, but which will leave Germany the economic control of Western Europe. But she cannot decisively defeat Germany unaided. Her statesmen privately admit that, and say that for her to gain a decisive victory we will have to actively enter the war. One of the great mistakes made bythe Allies in this war was that in its first six months they thought they could win a safe economical war, with France sitting behind the Maginot line and England maintaining its blockade, with little expenditure of blood and a minimum expenditure of treasure. For us to actively enter the war means ships, planes, money, men, expeditionary forces. That is the issue that must ultimately be presented to the American people, and it should be presented openly, honestly and squarely.

In deciding this issue, the American people should face the costs. We start with a debt of $50,000,000,000. With the enormous cost of waging modern war, the cost of sending forces over 3,000 miles of ocean, of engaging our navy in the Far East, we would ultimately face a debt of from 100 to 150 billions. Victorious or defeated, we will be faced at the conclusion of such a war with great economic dislocations—the rich would face a capital levy, the middle classes impoverishment, and the masses a lowered standard of living and the loss of most of the social gains so far secured.

Competent observers believe that if the war is prolonged in Europe over one or two years, it will result in Communism in all Europe, and a species of National Socialism in England. If we are involved, it probably spells the end of capitalism all over the world.

I would unhesitatingly say to throw anything we have into a war to defend the United States or our own sphere of influence, which is the North American continent and part, if not all, of the South American continent. I do not think the American people should make these sacrifices to interfere in the quarrels of Europe and Asia, old, sick and over-populated continents with ancient rivalries that cannot be healed. It is up to the American people to decide whether they want to make these sacrifices to preserve not England but the British Empire, and help regulate Europe and Asia. But they should make the decision with all the cards on the table, not misled by artifice and subterfuge.

But if that decision is given affirmatively, I think you will find Americans like myself, who sincerely believe such a course spells disaster to the nation, will be at their posts of duty in the service of this country. I am old fashioned enough to believe in the toast offered by Stephen Decatur back in 1816, "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right: but Our Country, right or wrong."