Defend Our Seas With Our Navy


By HENRY L. STIMSON, Secretary of War

Over radio from Washington, May 6, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 450-453

LADIES and gentlemen of the radio audience: You will excuse a word of preface as to the personal position from which I speak. Today I am being called a warmonger by some of those who oppose our present efforts at national defense. As a matter of fact, for many years after the great war, both as a private citizen and as Secretary of State, I labored with my full strength for the establishment of a reign of law among the nations, under which their controversies should be settled by judicial methods instead of force.

There was a time when such a movement seemed full of hope. Today that time has passed—temporarily, we trust—and our hopes of peace have been dashed by international aggression. The world is facing so great a crisis that all of our efforts must be turned toward the defense of our nation's safety. For that reason tonight I am speaking of that crisis and of our defense in meeting it.

In 1933 a group of men under the leadership of Adolf Hitler obtained possession of the government of Germany and overthrew the German republic. Mr. Hull our Secretary of State, has recently well described the methods of those men as the methods of barbarism. Both within and without Germany they have set back the clock of time more than five centuries. They have embarked on a scheme of conquest which is avowedly intended to be world-wide.

Might Based on Forced Labor

For that purpose they have built up in secret an immense military machine based on the forced labor of Germany. They have already attacked, conquered and occupied Austria, Czecho-Slovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, and have reduced the people of these thirteen countries to a condition of semi-slavery to the Nazi despotism.

They have attached to their Axis as vassals two other nations dominated by the same purpose of military conquest—Italy, guilty of unprovoked attacks upon Ethiopia, Albania and Greece; and Japan, guilty of a similar attack upon her neighbor, China. By this conquest they have destroyed the Western civilization which has been slowly building up in Europe ever since the Dark Ages.

We are so close to these sudden happenings that we can hardly yet realize the havoc which has thus been wrought both within and without the national boundaries of that unhappy continent.

For example, for many centuries humanity has slowly been building up the rule of individual freedom in all its various manifestations; freedom of the person, including the abolition of serfdom and chattel slavery; freedom of the mind, including the freedom to think and to talk and to write with our fellows freely; freedom of enterprise in our business and commerce; freedom to travel about the world with evergrowing liberty; and, finally, the crowning freedom of all, political freedom in respect to the choice of our governments.

This growth in freedom had been so long and so steady that we had come to believe it was soon to be the recognized system of the whole world. All at once it has been dashed aside and trampled on by these Nazi rulers who are proposing to establish a world order in which they shall be the masters and the people of all other nations their slaves.

Rule of the Gestapo

They have left no such thing as individual rights of liberty within their territory or international rights of independence without their territory. Both domestic and international law have gone down under their blows. For the rule of law they have substituted the rule of the Gestapo, that secret police under whose malign terrorism no vestige of personal freedom is safe.

This is the new, the so-called new order which we face today. It has openly announced its hostility to us and to out order. It has been steadily encircling our Western World.

Its advance agents are already busy among the republics to the south of us building strategic airlines through vital portions of that continent and creeping up toward our Panama Canal. Its armed forces are threatening West Africa, looking toward a jumping-off place within easy reach of the Brazilian coast. Its propagandists are already vigorously active among our own population.

Hitler and his military associates have seized their opportunities with uncommon skill. They have used their power to inculcate into the plastic minds of a whole generation of youth the abhorrent and reactionary doctrines of racial intolerance and hatred of other men. They have taken advantage of modern science to develop in secret, while other nations slept, a mechanized striking force of unprecedented power. They have used every method of duplicity and of propaganda to surprise their victim nations with sudden attack. They now arrogantly confront the world, including ourselves, with the alternative of abject surrender or uncompromising forceful resistance.

Now, I cannot recall that the United States throughout its history—even when it was small and weak—has ever yielded to such a demand. Let us see whether there is any need of changing our policy now.

In the first place, this so-called new order of Hitler is not new; and it has not and never will create order in this world. Hitler's regime of brutal lawlessness is merely one of those temporary reactions which have occurred at intervals during all of man's long history of progress upward. Since his origin millions of years ago ambitious men have many times attempted a world-wide conquest over the liberties of their fellow-men. But they have never permanently succeeded, and they never will.

Hitler has taken advantage of the discontent of a troubled post-war period to impose his rule upon a docile-minded nation which has more than once temporarily yielded its love of liberty to an efficient autocrat. His rise has been facilitated by many an accident which might easily have been prevented. Many an unwary sentinel of liberty has been caught napping at vital moments.

But as has always happened before, the progress of man along the path toward freedom will be taken up again and carried forward with new spirit and with fresh knowledge acquired by the unhappy experiences of the past. To be frightened into a belief that Hitler had created a new and permanent world order would be as naive as it would be cowardly.

In the next place, let us examine the strategic conditions which must govern our defense against an admittedly serious danger, albeit it is only temporary.

Control of Ocean Defenses

The people of the United States have been greatly blessed by the geographical conditions of their homeland. Two broad oceans lie to the east and west of us, while north and south there are only friendly nations, of whose intentions and power we have no fear. Thus the instinct of our people in regard to their ocean defense is a sound instinct. There is great possibility of protection in the fact that we have the Atlantic Ocean between us and Europe, and the Pacific Ocean between us and Asia.

So long as those two oceans are under our own or of friendly control their broad waters constitute an insuperable barrier to any armies which may be built up by would-be aggressive governments. But that condition of friendly control is imperative. If it should be lost, the oceans overnight would become easy channels for the path of attack against us.

The development of modern air power greatly intensifiesthis necessity of friendly control of the oceans. It now makes it necessary for us to command not only the reaches of ocean adjacent to our own shores but the entire reach of the oceans surrounding the Western Continent; for, if hostile nations possessing powerful armies and air power can once make a landing on the shores of our weaker neighbor nations either north or south of us, our immunity is gone. It would then become a comparatively simple matter for them to establish air bases within striking distance of the great industrial cities which now fill our country.

And the only way in which we then could prevent this would be the intolerable method of ourselves maintaining armies large enough to command the areas of our continent for thousands of miles beyond our own borders. Such a condition would at once transform the good neighbor relations which now prevail throughout the American republics into the same abhorrent system of forceful domination which we are seeking to keep out of this hemisphere.

In short, to the nations of America, friendly control of the surrounding oceans is a condition of the reign of freedom and mutual independence which now prevails in that continent.

Protection by British Navy

For over one hundred years the control of the Atlantic Ocean has been exercised by the British fleet. By the Washington Treaty of 1922 Great Britain voluntarily consented to parity between her fleet and ours and thus voluntarily admitted us to an equal share in that control of the ocean.

The significant feature to us of this century-old condition has been that a country speaking our language, possessing our traditions of individual and legal freedom, and inhabited by a population from which considerably more than 50 per cent of our own population is descended, has been accepted by us as a dominant factor in the ocean defense upon which our safety and mode of life depend.

During that century we have accommodated our whole method of life to that situation. We have maintained no large standing armies. We have built populous cities upon our seacoast which are easily vulnerable to attack from the Atlantic Ocean. We have, in short, adopted a mode of national life which is dependent upon the continuance of a sea power of which we ourselves feel in no apprehension.

Today that situation is gravely threatened. The British Isles, which have been a fortress against any despotic approach to our shores through the northern reaches of the Atlantic, are threatened both by attacks from the air and blockade from the sea. If their government should fall either from starvation or from attack, the British fleet, if it survived at all, would have no adequate base for its continued operations.

If the British Isles should fall, all of the great shipyards of Britain would pass into the hands of the aggressor nations and their maritime shipbuilding capacity, thus augmented, would become six or seven times as large as our own. Under such conditions our own fleet would manifestly be quite unable to protect the Western Hemisphere from the overwhelming seapower which would then confront it.

Even today its tonnage is exceeded by the combined tonnage of the Axis powers and, with the enormous preponderance in building capacity which they would then have, command of the entire seas surrounding us would in time inevitably pass into their hands.

Furthermore we have only just begun to build up our military and air defenses. At least a year will pass before we can have an Army and an air force adequate to meet the air and ground forces which could be brought against us if the control of the seas passed into Axis hands.

Ten months ago we began to build up those air and groundforces and the progress which has thus far been made has been satisfactory and has surpassed our expectations. But the stubborn fact remains that an adequately constructed and trained air force and Army in a country of this size cannot be created in less than a minimum of two years fit to meet the air forces and army which Germany has been spending six years in producing.

Time is the essential factor, and time cannot be had if sea power is lost; Today the wide-flung forces of the British Navy are threatened in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and in Malaysia. Those thinly spread forces today alone are securing to us that precious time.

None of these facts are new. They have been unfolded before the eyes of us all, if we would take the trouble to read the lesson. They have been the motive of the policy and action of our government thus far, and our people understand them and have approved the course which the government has so far followed.

Not only have enormous appropriations been passed by the Congress for our own defense but a statute, the so-called Lease-and-Lend Act, has been passed expressly for the purpose of furnishing aid to Britain and to those other beleaguered nations whose defense the Congress has deemed to be necessary to our own defense. Under that act $7,000,000,000 more have been appropriated to effectuate that assistance. And all these statutes have been passed by overwhelming majorities.

Threat to Britain's Lifeline

Now it is becoming every day more clear that all this alone is not sufficient. The lifeline of Great Britain is threatened. The high-water mark of the Nazi effort is at hand in the shape of an attack on the shipping which furnishes Britain with the means and the nourishment to maintain her battle. Not only does the blockade imperil the delivery to Great Britain of the munitions which we are sending to her but the supplies of the food necessary for her population are already becoming gradually impaired. What are we going to do about it?

By the grace of fortune this most dangerous threat on all the threatening horizon is an attack which, if we will, we can successfully meet. While we are struggling to build up an uncompleted army and an uncompleted air force, we have at our hands a naval instrument prepared and ready for just such an emergency in our defense.

Right now at the crossroads of history it is within our power, if we choose to use that instrument, to turn the tide of darkness back from the Atlantic world, and, while it is thus held in check, to gain the means which will preclude it forever from attaining its full purpose.

For many years we have been building and maintaining this Navy. We call it our first line of defense. It has been our pride. In it are serving in the cause of patriotism the flower of our young manhood. If today that Navy should make secure the seas for the delivery of our munitions to Great Britain, it will render as great a service to our country and to the preservation of American freedom as it has ever rendered in all its glorious history.

Can Make All Approaches Safe

Supplementing the efforts of the British Navy, it can render secure all of the oceans, North and South, West and East, which surround our continent. In that way it can help to hold in check the onward rush of the tide of Nazism until the other defense forces of all of the democracies are completed. This would eventually and permanently confine the malign forces of despotism until the virus has run its course and the tide of freedom has begun to rise again.

On the other hand, if our Navy's assistance should be withheld until the power of the British fleet and nation is broken, its own power of execution would at once shrink to but an impotent fraction of what it could do at the present moment. If we should allow the present strategic moment to pass until the power of the British Navy is gone, the power of our own Navy would become merely a secondary power instead of the decisive and winning power in the world contest. Is it conceivable that the American people would allow this to happen?

After the carefully determined course which we have pursued until this moment; after the clear statements and appeals which have been made by our President in respect to the danger which confronts us; after the overwhelming response to his appeals which has been made by the Congress; after we have taken our place definitely behind the warring democracies and against the aggressor nations in the defense of our freedom; after providing for billions worth of munitions to carry on that defense and while we hold in our hands the instrument ready and able to make all these steps effective, shall we now flinch and permit these munitions to be sunk in the Atlantic Ocean?

Our entire history shows no precedent to make such a supposition credible. Neither the government nor people of the United States have ever given occasion to make any one believe that such an act of irresponsibility and indecision would be possible.

Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare

The unrestricted submarine warfare which Germany is carrying on in the North Atlantic, sinking ships without warning and without the possibility of saving the lives of their crews, is not a legal blockade under the rules of marine warfare.

It has never been recognized as such by the United States. America's spokesmen at international conferences have again and again condemned it. It was expressly the violation of law and humanity involved in unrestricted submarine warfare which in 1917 caused the President and Congress to take up arms in defense of the freedom of the seas.

Today Germany by these same illegal means is not only seeking to frighten our commerce and our vessels from the Atlantic; she has extended into the Western Hemisphere a zone into which she has forbidden us to enter. Hitler has not only torn up all the rules of international law but he is expanding his lawless activities into our hemisphere.

Our government is acting with care and prudence. But our own self-defense requires that limits should be put to lawless agression on the ocean. The President has said that we must not allow the steps which we have already taken to become ineffective.

Salvation in Sacrifice

I do not minimize the danger which confronts us. This is an occasion for grave seriousness but not for gloom or despondency. I have studied the military potency of the Axis powers and I do not underestimate the courage of their men in battle. But I also know well the initiative, the ready aptitude and the courage of the men of this country. I have become familiar with the plans which are being made by our military and naval leaders for our defense. Provided that we all act with promptness and a united spirit, I have full faith in the outcome.

But I am not one of those who think that the priceless freedom of our country can be saved without sacrifice. It cannot. That has not been the way by which during millions of years humanity has slowly and painfully toiled upward toward a better and more humane civilization. The men whosuffered at Valley Forge and won at Yorktown gave more than money to the cause of freedom.

Today a small group of evil leaders have taught the young men of Germany that the freedom of other men and nations must be destroyed. Today those young men of Germany areready to die for that perverted conviction. Unless we on our side are ready to sacrifice and, if need be, to die for the conviction that the freedom of America must be saved, it will not be saved. Only by a readiness for the same sacrifice can that freedom be preserved.