Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Waterway Project


By A. A. BERLE, Assistant Secretary of State

Broadcast over Station WMAL, National Broadcasting Co., Washington, March 22, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 565-566

LAST Wednesday, in Ottawa, the Government of the United States and the Government of Canada signed a pact which is known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence agreement.

Now the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence development is the last great development possible in North America which could compare in importance with, let us say, the Panama Canal.

The St. Lawrence agreement contemplates two huge undertakings.

The first is the building of a dam across the St. Lawrence River near Massena, N. Y., capable of developing 2,200,000 horsepower of electricity. There are also provided additional works at Niagara Falls which will preserve the beauty of the Falls—and incidentally develop a large amount of additional power there. The United States will spend about 110 millions for its share. It is planned to go ahead and develop this electric power immediately.

The second big job is the authorization of a deep-water canal around, and locks to bypass, the dam. This will make it possible for an ocean-going ship to come from anywhere in the seven seas and dock at Buffalo, N. Y.; or Cleveland, Ohio; or Detroit, Mich.; or Chicago, Ill.; or Duluth, Minn.; or any other Great Lakes port. It will connect the whole of the Middle West with the whole of the open sea.

The engineers tell us that under normal conditions it will take about three and a half years to built the dam and about four years to build the canal. This can be speeded up somewhat if we put the job on an emergency basis.

We want to start work on the dam as soon as the Congress approves the agreement and passes the necessary legislation. The sooner the better. We have to move fast on this phase of it. We need the electricity—and we need it now.

The Seaway is arranged a little differently. The agreement calls for its completion in 1948. But Canada and the United States have agreed to watch the situation so that they can push the Seaway at once if circumstances require it for the national defense. Or they can postpone it if in the opinion of experts war efforts call for handling it differently.

There is a story behind both of these projects.

The chapter about the dam and the need of electric power is the most interesting, because it is the most urgent. It is this.

The Lord Almighty so built the continent of North America that most of the water in the northeast quarter of the continent forms streams and rivers which flow into that huge collection of reservoirs we call the Great Lakes. This is an enormous amount of water. All of it funnels out to the sea through a single great millrace, which is the St. Lawrence River. If that water is ever harnessed, it will make the largest and cheapest supply of electricity available anywhere in the wide world.

Seven years ago, President Roosevelt foresaw the need of using this power and urged that a treaty with Canada be ratified so that the two countries could harness and use it. This was not a partisan matter; the treaty had actually been negotiated when Herbert Hoover was President. That treaty was not ratified, principally owing to the activities of the railroad and utility lobby in Washington—a lobby which, incidentally, is still on the job. Opponents of the project said—and many people were simple enough to believe them—that nobody would ever need that much power. The real point, of course, was that they did not want anyone to interrupt a power monopoly which then had things pretty much its own way.

Well, it is now 1941, and here is the situation. We are using all the electric power we can buy or scrape or beg in the St. Lawrence Valley and in the Niagara Valley above it. We are borrowing on temporary agreement all the electricity that Canada can spare for us. We are building our industries on the chance that Canada will graciously go on giving us the power that we need. But we know that Canada bitterly needs that power today for her own national defense.

Still worse, we have American companies begging us to get vast additional quantities of electricity—to borrow it, or buy it, or take it from Canada—although Canada has none to give. I have on my desk now letters from the O.P.M. asking me to get them more power at Niagara; and requests from the Federal Power Commission asking whether we cannot get even more power from Canada for the St. Lawrence Valley. When I asked why they wanted this, I was told that the United States needs aluminum for airplanes; and chemical for explosives; and electric furnaces for the new metals we put into planes and tanks and shells and rifles. I was told that we could not keep up the schedule in our rearmament unless electric power could be found to make the aluminum, to run the plants, to weld the steel, to keep the assembly lines moving.

Even if there had been no European war, and if we had not had to rearm, our figures show that we should have needed all the St. Lawrence power by the year 1948. So we have to start the job in the next two or three years anyhow. Because we have to rearm, and because Canada is fighting, we need the power as rapidly as we can get it—we ought, in fact, to have got started long ago.

So we do not have any time to lose. We must get the power and get started right away, and push it through as fast as we can. Meantime, we must use every temporary makeshift we can work out. We will use steam when we can—but you cannot get steam generators in quick time. It would take longer to get steam generators for 2,200,000 horsepower than to build the dam. But we only dare to use makeshifts if we know that at the end of three years, or sooner if possible, we shall have new supplies of electricity coming along to keep the mills going.

You ought to know this story for a very simple reason. You are going to hear it said that there is no sense in building the St. Lawrence dam: it will not be done "in time" to be of use in our national defense. The people who tell you that are the same people who thought in 1934 that you never would need all this power. Today they all agree that it was a mistake not to build the St. Lawrence dam seven years ago—and jump to the strange conclusion that we ought not to do it at all. These people are like the man with the leaky roof. When the weather was fair the leak didn't need to be mended. When rainy weather came, he said it couldn't be mended. Finally, the roof fell to pieces.

This time we must not make the mistake that was made seven years ago. Everybody hopes that the war may be over before three years have passed. But since nobody can guarantee that, we must not take any chances. We thoroughly believe that Great Britain will win this war, but we propose to be fully prepared for defense no matter what happens. We think that there will be total victory for peace-loving nations in Europe. But if there is not, we are going to be set for the total defense of our own country and our own hemisphere. That means having electricity, and plants, and planes, and ships, and guns, enough to do the job. I do not think we can afford to be stopped in our preparedness by any group of interests whose desire is to keep electricity scarce and prices high.

The other end of the story has to do with the Seaway. We may well be in a position in which we will need that Seaway as much, if not more than, we need the St. Lawrence dam and its electric power.

The world needs ships—millions and millions of tons of them in ordinary peacetimes. In time of war, she needs even more. Now this war is less than a year and a half old. Five million tons of shipping have already been sunk. The German Government tells us that the war on shipping has only barely begun; they are going to uncork their really heavy drive to sink ships this spring. If they make this threat good, the ships which are the life line of our commerce and the bridge for the defense of Britain and which make the life of half the world possible will be at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. We are the only nation in the world which can build ships in large quantity today. We are doing so now. Every shipyard on the Atlantic and on the Pacific coasts is already working to capacity. They are building the merchant-ships as fast as they can; but they are also building the two-ocean navy which we know now is needed for our national safety. All these shipyards, taken together, are nowhere near enough to do the job that has to be done.

The logical place to do a great part of that job is, of course, in the Great Lakes region. It is far inland and cannot be attacked. It is near the great steel plants which make the girders and hulls from which the ships are built. It is in the area where the engines which drive the ships are manufactured and where the skilled labor is available.

It will surprise many of you to know that during the World War—the first World War, in 1917—we built ships in the Great Lakes. And, God forgive us, becausewe had never had the brains to dig the St. Lawrence Canal, we cut these ships in two and floated them in parts down to Montreal and then put them together again.

We could lay down a heavy cruiser at Chicago today and have the Seaway open before she could be put into commission and sent out to sea. The moment work begins on the Seaway I expect you will find naval construction beginning in the Lakes—clearing the sea-coast yards for more immediate needs. That is why the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence agreement authorizes the building of this Seaway so that we can unlock the huge resources of the Great Lakes region with its ore and its industry. They are unlocked for use in peace if peace shall come; they are unlocked for national defense if things go badly overseas. You will see why we have to think of this when you remember that the entire American merchant fleet is only seven million tons and that our shipyards can only build a million tons a year—at a time when he Germans have been able to sink half a million tons a month.

Again you will hear people say about the Seaway: "Why do it now? It won't be ready in time." But I should like to ask: Well, suppose we don't do it now; and suppose the time comes when we need it and are not ready? If we fail to fill our industrial lamp now that we can, when we need it most, the light will go out. Statesmanship has to be built on better sense than that.

We have had the most careful and elaborate studies of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence project. They show, pretty conclusively, that the completion of the Seaway, like the completion of the St. Lawrence power, will be excellent business for everybody, all around. If you are interested, you can get those St. Lawrence survey reports from the Government Printing Office.

I believe that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence project is the best answer to dictators who say that democracy cannot act. It is a magnificent undertaking in a great time. Two free nations—Canada and ourselves—here pool their resources in friendship, for their common welfare and their common defense. I hope you will support the approval of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence project as a measure for protection in need, and for production and prosperity when God grants us peace again.