Our Heavy Responsibilities to the Nation


By FRANK KNOX, Secretary of the Navy

Delivered at the St. Louis Conference of the United States Conference of Mayors, at St. Louis, Mo., February 20, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 322-325.

PRESIDENT LaGUARDIA and members of the United States Conference of Mayors: When your eloquent and dynamic president invited me to address you, I was more than glad to accept because of the strategic position which you men occupy in the national life of the country. National unity is a first essential in dealing with an international crisis. We are now passing through one of the most grave and menacing international crises in our history. The dangers inherent in the present situation can only be met successfully and victoriously by a united America. To a degree not true of any other group, you men touch the lives of more Americans, intimately and persuasively, than any other single group that could be assembled. Therefore, I hail the opportunity of talking to you, and I come to you in the hope that something I may be able to say will further strengthen and re-invigorate your efforts to discharge your heavy responsibilities to the nation.

In time of great danger that calls for extreme measures of national defense, we must follow a single leader. Under our Constitution, our leader whom we must all support and follow, is the President of the United States. Upon the shoulders of President Roosevelt rests a heavier responsibility for the preservation of human liberty and freedom in the world than ever rested on the shoulders of a single man before in history. We are, indeed, not only the arsenal and the munitions factory of Democracy, but we are also its last and final hope. If we fail, Democracy fails and a new Dark Age of ruthless exploitation of helpless peoples will reign again.

No finer, more moving or more understanding appraisal of the present world situation in its relation to the United States has been made than by President Roosevelt in his last three public utterances—one a Fireside Chat, to which the world lent its ear with consuming interest; the second, an address to Congress which defined the means and measures necessary to implement our purpose of saving Democracy, and finally,an Inaugural address delivered in the morning of the first day of a new term in the Presidency which will find a permanent place in the annals of our great nation alongside those of Washington and Lincoln.

Rallying to the inspiring leadership of our Constitutional Commander-in-Chief, who has courageously and resourcefully undertaken to keep alight the fires of liberty in the world, we can do no other, all of us, in this grave hour than to help create, and participate in, a spirit of national unity which will sweep aside all vestige of personal feelings, of partisan differences, of sectional hatreds, and of class distinctions. If we go into the difficult days which lie immediately ahead as a united nation; if we embrace and champion the high aims and purposes of this hour, we shall succeed together. If, through disunity, we fail, we shall all go down together. We must not fail.

It is our task, in the full measure of leadership we can command, to convince the American people that the Preservation of Liberty and the Future of our Form of Government are really at stake. Once our people are convinced that this is so; that all of the things they hold more precious than life itself; that the form of government which has given us our precious freedom, is in Deep and Grave Peril, there will be no doubt of the outcome. Under the impetus of that conviction, the overwhelming potential strength of the American nation can be swiftly enlisted, and ultimate victory is Certain.

How can any one doubt, in the light of what has happened in the past twelve months, that our form of government and our way of life is challenged? What an impressive role may be called of peoples who Were free, but now are Slaves? How fast has been the success of those forces who haw openly declared without qualification that their system of Government and their Code of Conduct are the Natural Enemies of Our school of conduct and government! Those forces who have openly boasted that their system and our system are irreconcilable I Could we summon the men ofVienna, the citizens of Prague, the dwellers of Warsaw, the Danes of Denmark, the woodsmen and the sailors of Norway, the Burghers of Holland, the craftsmen of Belgium, and the peasants of France, what would they tell us of the ghastly conditions under which they now live, contrasted with the liberties they Once enjoyed? Shall we not take alarm when we look at an Entire continent—and that continent the birthplace of our present civilization—where peoples once free, are now denied Free Speech, the right of a Free Press, the right to worship God according to their own conscience, with no freedom to dispose of their own labor as they choose and no freedom to carry on trade and industry as they please. In these freedoms lie the fundamentals of all freedom. Without these, there is naught but slavery. Can we be blind to what All this implies?

Then, along with this destruction of Individual rights has gone a parallel destruction of Political and International doctrines to which we adhere. Our great Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, the other day, inventoried these principles. I quote from his recent testimony before congress:

(1) "We advocate peace and the limitation of armaments.

(2) We support law and order—justice and morality, and the non-intervention by one nation in the affairs of another.

(3) We seek to promote sound economic methods and relations between nations, based on equality of treatment.

(4) We support and seek to practice the fullest practicable measure of international cooperation, and

(5) We are devoted to the security, the solidarity and the general welfare of the western hemisphere."

In contrast, the powers that now threaten liberty around the world, foster war and hold it out as the most admirable occupation in which man can engage!

They have made the production of armaments the Primary and most Important industry within their borders!

They have substituted for a system based on law and order, and justice and morality, a ghastly form of Terrorism and Cruelty that knows no slightest sense of Justice or Morality!

They have sought to reduce sound economic methods and fair relations between nations, to rule by Naked Force, given effect by overwhelming Military Power!

They support a system which conceives its Own race to be the Masters of the world and all others their Abject Slaves!

You can readily imagine what type of international cooperation could rest upon That base!

Our aspiration to promote the security, the solidarity and the general welfare of the western hemisphere, They hold in contempt!

Summed up, the whole world is in the throes of a contest between the peoples who believe in and promote personal liberty and individual freedom, and those who regard the rights of the State to be superior to the rights of the Individual.

This is the age-old struggle between human liberty and human slavery!

It is an Irreconcilable Conflict!

The progress of the human race is achieved wherever and whenever liberty wins! It is retarded wherever and whenever men are enslaved!

Men who do not feel this deeply—who disagree with the point of view I have just expressed, are asking, "How does this all touch us? Must we undertake to police the world? Why should we make immense sacrifices and imperil the lives and property of our citizens by any participation in what is transpiring on the other side of the Atlantic, or on the other side of the Pacific?" That is a proper question and deserves a frank answer.

To understand the background for the correct answer to that question requires that one recognize the critical importance of sea power to our country and to our entire western world. We have long been prone to regard the great oceans which stretch on either side of us as adequatebarriers against hostile invasion. They have been such, but only because of sea power—sea power exercised by two great nations, Great Britain and the United States. It has been solely because of the sea power exercised by Great Britain in the Atlantic that our western hemisphere has been safe against any aggressive designs by European nations, and likewise, it has been because of sea power exercised by our fleet in the Pacific that danger has never threatened from aggressive nations on the far side of that ocean. For a century and a quarter, British sea power has stood sentinel at the three exits into the Atlantic through which an European aggressor's fleet must come if it sought to attack us. These three exits are the channel north of the British Isles, the English channel, and the straits of Gibraltar. Our western world has been safe from attack because the British Fleet controlled these exits, and the British nation has accepted the principle of the Monroe Doctrine and consistently aided us in its enforcement. That has sufficed to make the Atlantic safe for us.

The struggle now in progress is essentially, and at its base, an attempt by Germany to seize control of the sea from Great Britain. This is why our interests in the war are so vital. Who can doubt that if Britain continues to control the Atlantic, the condition which has lasted for a century and a quarter will not continue indefinitely, but, if British control of the Atlantic should pass to Germany, Germany then would be free to send her army into other parts of the world to lay tribute upon those nations who possess the raw materials which Germany needs for the further building up of her powers of aggression. If British sea power falls and Germany becomes free to move across the ocean for the conquest of new territories, she will almost certainly move first into South America, that great storehouse of raw materials and food supplies which Germany covets.

If we do not wish to see the establishment in South America of an aggressive military power, for our own selfish interests, if for no other consideration, we should now lend our help in every way possible to prevent Germany from destroying British Sea Power in the Atlantic.

For more than 100 years our one great, firmly established national policy has been the Monroe Doctrine. Again and again our people have indicated their willingness to go to war, if necessary, to maintain this doctrine. It is more dangerously challenged today than ever before. This doctrine which forbids the extension in the Western hemisphere of non-American military and political control was initiated for the purpose of preserving the territorial, economic and social integrity of the United States. Long ago, we saw that this was the Only way we could be safe from aggression, that is, that we had to protect the Entire western hemisphere to be safe Ourselves. Our country, under the Monroe Doctrine, has grown from weakness to strength, and the nations of this hemisphere have been offered an opportunity to develop their own civilization, free from the Fear of Conquest. So long as we maintain, in association with Great Britain, Sufficient Sea Power to prevent Aggressor nations using the ocean lanes for the transport of Military Power, we can be Safe. Once this joint control of the high seas is broken, We are in Danger. It is because of the Close Associations and parallel purposes of Great Britain and ourselves

with respect to sea power that we now enjoy what in effect is a Two-ocean Navy. We Americans now have a One-ocean Navy and are just starting upon the construction of a Two-ocean Navy which it will take Five or Six Years to build. In the meantime, we are Only Safe on the high seas so long as the British fleet continues to Exercise Control over the Atlantic. The Preservation of the British fleet is Imperative while we are still engaged in building up our full naval strength to a Two-Ocean Purpose. The British part of the Present two-ocean navy upon which we rely, is Now In Grave Danger. The British Navy can survive Only if the British Isles Survive. Should the British Isles fall, we can only believe that the British Navy, which never Runs From Danger, will fall at the Same Time. We Need Time to Build Ships and to Train Their Crews. We Need Time to Build Up Our Bases So That We Can Operate Our Fleet as a Screen for Our Continent. We Need Time to Train Our Armies and to Accumulate War Stores and to Gear Our Industry for Defense. Only the preservation of the British Fleet in its fighting integrity can Give Us That Time, and they need Our Help to survive. How deadly important it is that they shall survive can be brought home to you when I point out that if the British Fleet is destroyed tonight, we shall have only 15 battleships to oppose 20 battleships flying the flags of the Axis powers. Of airplane carriers, we would have 6 to their 8. Of cruisers, we would have 37 to their 75. Of destroyers we would have 159 to their 271, and of submarines, we would have 105 to the Axis 284.

That epitomizes in a sentence, how Vital it is that British sea power shall survive, British sea power of Today plus American Sea Power of today is Definitely Superior to the Combined Fleets of the Axis powers, and The Two Fleets actually exercise Control over every part of the Seven Seas.

But, these skeptics say that even if Britain Falls, it will be a Long Time before the Axis powers could reorganize their forces for an attack upon us. To indulge in that kind of wishful thinking is to inhabit a Fool's Paradise. The assemblage of a naval force superior to our own would consume but little time, and an attack, in a few months, could readily be organized to descend upon us From Two Sides. The initial attack need not be directed directly at us. It probably would not be. Such an attack, might have for its objective the seizure of bases in Newfoundland or Labrador, or in Central and South America from whence an attack upon us could descend. Then, the dear, deluded people who cry out against our involvement in a "foreign" war, would be provided with a war on our own soil and our own women and children in our teeming seaboard cities would provide the targets for night-raiding bombers.

There is little chance to escape this peril if England falls. We would have to convert, in that event, this entire nation into an armed camp. We would have to tremendously expand our shipbuilding facilities, and work day and night to build a sea defense that would adequately protect our own sea coasts and harbors. We could not hope to build a navy fast enough to patrol all of the coastline of the western hemisphere against the combined sea strength of the aggressor nations, so we should have to abandon the Monroe Doctrine. To protect our land against actual invasion and to supplement our ocean defense, we should have to build and maintain huge standing armies. Our entire economy would have to build and maintain huge standing armies. Our entire economy would have to be transformed to an economy which puts national defense consideration ahead of all others. Turned in upon ourselves and bereft of all opportunity for over-seas trade, our standards of living and our wage levels would fall and we should be swiftly reduced to a constant daily struggle to preserve our national existence in a world ruled by totalitarian dictators.

In this fight now in progress, characterized by ruthless force employed on a scale never known before, Britain occupies the firing line. This firing line is no longer a narrow strip of territory held by a thin line of armed men, but it is now made up of the whole of the British Isles.

The women and children of Britain share, with the British soldiers, the dangers of the battlefield. This type of war, carried on with a brutal ruthless indifference to every dictate of humanity, has reduced life in Great Britain for all men, women and children, rich and poor alike, to an existence like that of wild beasts, who live in holes in the ground, and yet, living thus, they support with gallantry and a resolute courage that counts no cost too great, the very principles on which our whole system of free government is based. We, on the other hand, in this critical contest, play the minor part of munition-makers, who provide the weapons and the munitions and the tanks and the planes with which this most critical battle in world history is being fought.

Under such circumstances, we can afford as a nation to be generous to a fault. We cannot retain our self-respect and haggle over the terms with which we will lend our help to the British, to the Greeks, and to the Chinese, when the latter are baring their breasts to the storm of battle. Selfishly, who would not admit the wisdom of freely supplying the arms to another nation actively engaged in war in which we are vitally concerned, while we prepare ourselves for defense in case we should be attacked. Our sole hope of avoiding involvement in the world-wide war now in progress lies in the hope that we may become so strong on land, on sea, and in the air, that the aggressor nations will be afraid to attack While we are thus making ourselves strong, for the sake of our own security, shall we not lend every possible aid to those who are gallantly holding the lines while we prepare.

The President, in what I conceive to be one of the most courageous and statesmanlike proposals in American history, has suggested that we eliminate from our discussion with the the British, the dollar sign, and proceed to lend them, subject to future adjustment, the vital things they need to carry on the war to victorious conclusion. At a time when the very fate of our kind of a world hangs in the balance, we must not let this British lack of dollar exchange halt the flow of material to Britain, so vital to her defense—which is also our defense. We cannot afford to stop now and dicker and trade. We must help—help in material things, but also help in spiritual things. The magnificent fighting spirit of the British, amazing to her friends and devastating to her adversaries, must be maintained. There must be no thought that while they fight with their lives a battle so vital to us, we are thinking in terms of dollars and cents. We can well afford, indeed, our own self-respect permits no other course, to let the future relations between the United States and Great Britain wait for a time when the war has been won, and the danger of dictatorship of the world has been destroyed. Our own defense in a world where force is supreme is dependent upon our speed in production of those things essential to defense. Expanding our production to help the British, directly helps us to achieve that speed in production which is our only hope of safety if Hitler wins in Europe.

I am aware that the picture I present to you is grim. It deals with unpleasant facts, but they are facts that must be faced. To refuse to face them is to emulate the ostrich and bury our heads in the sand. For men charged with public responsibility to tell less than the truth as they see it is to be guilty of cowardly faithlessness to one's trust.

I want peace as much as any American could want peace for his country. I hate war because I know from personal experience as a soldier in the last two wars, what war is, but there are some things I hate worse than war and one of them is surrender of everything that makes life worth living—a cowardly betrayal of the heritage of freedom bequeathed to us by men who loved freedom more than they loved life. I would far rather die fighting Hitler than live under his rule.

Almost literally, America stands at the crossroads. Whether we like it or not, the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty has become our responsibility. We can discharge this responsibility right now by an all-out program for production of supplies and munitions for the use of those who are actually fighting the battles for human liberty in Europe and Asia, and for our own defense. Or, we can shilly-shally and talk and debate and conjure up idle fears that have no basis in fact until those who are fighting are overwhelmed and then, we must take up the burden and fight ourselves, lest the sacred fire of liberty entrusted to our care shall go out. Or, we can adopt still a third choice and fail to help now and refuse to fight later, and then, spend everything we have and that we can produce to build a wall around the United States and live within that wall, armed to the teeth, completely surrounded by totalitarian powers intent upon our final subjugation.

These are the three roads, and the only three roads, that converge at the point where we stand today. In such an hour, if we are worthy of what we have, if we are wise as the trustees of the institutions we have inherited, and finally, if we are merely shrewd and give way only to selfish considerations, we will implement, without delay, President Roosevelt's inaugural declaration: "In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy. We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still. As Americans, we go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God."