BUT ALWAYS IT SHOULD BE NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH
By ARTHUR KROCK, Chief of the Washington Bureau of The New York Times
Delivered at the luncheon of the Association of the Alumni of Columbia College in the Bankers Club,New York City, November 5, 1941
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 107-109
THE atmosphere of this unhappy world makes a bad climate for speeches. Before the United States entered the war a first-hand observer of the government might usefully have supplemented his daily reports in this manner. And certainly there is no more representative American audience than this one. I am acutely sensible of the honor implied.
But the first battlefield has been drawn on the reaches of the Atlantic. Our country is moving at last to replace words with acts. It is the hour for men of action. The pen must surrender its priority over the sword until the sword can be sheathed in safety.
Despite its classification as B10 by an agency of fate more logical than OPM, the pen, however, still has a function. You have asked me to wire my pen for sound, and I do so with that inferior priority in mind.
Lately the President and Hitler have had another argument.
Some weeks ago the U. S. S. Destroyer Greer was the target of a German submarine torpedo that missed. Then the U. S. S. Destroyer Kearny was the target of a German torpedo that struck, but only wounded. More recently the U. S. S. Reuben James was the target of a German torpedo that killed. The argument is over who "attacked" whom.
An "attack" means an onset, an aggressive initiation of combat, a move which is the antithesis of "defense." Let's face it, Mr. President. Americans are grown up now. In that definition, all three of our destroyers attacked the German submarines. Like the British who went after Fuzzy-Wuzzy in the Sudan, the Navy can say: "Our orders were to break you, an' of course we went and did."
The U. S. S. Greer was informed by a British naval plane that a submarine lay ten miles ahead in her path. The British plane then went back and "attacked" the submarine. The Greer gave chase to the submarine, broadcasting its location on the way. The submarine, when the Greer came in range, then tried its best to sink the Greer.
The U. S. S. Kearny was on convoy duty in the same waters. She responded to a distress signal from a convoy which a pack of submarines had attacked. Her errand was to find the pack and destroy it. While so engaged, a submarine fought back; one torpedo hit the mark and eleven American Navy men were killed.
The U. S. S. Reuben James was with a convoy and went on call to the aid of another which German submarines had engaged. A submarine sank our destroyer, with what loss of American life is yet unknown. I believe the full log will demonstrate that as soon as the Reuben James came into the area infested by the submarines she tried to finish them. She, too, attacked. Certainly I hope so.
The Navy some time ago was ordered by the President to "shoot on sight." The Navy neither misunderstands the orders of its Commander in Chief nor is loutish in executing them.
So, in my opinion, Hitler can throw at us both the dictionary and the facts when he says we "attacked" him. Why should the American Government ever have attempted to obscure it? If the Navy had not done what it did the United States would have been guilty of the most heartbreaking bluff ever made by a great nation.
Yet our government did attempt to obscure it, as the record shows.
In his press conference of September 5 (I quote from New York Times Washington dispatches, and I guarantee their accuracy): "The Executive made clear that he believed the attack on the American vessel (the Greer) was deliberate, and that he considered it no less serious because the destroyer had evaded destruction and answered with depth charges. The attempt to sink the Greer took place in daylight when visibility was good, the President declared, and more than one attack was made by the submarine."
From a Washington dispatch to the same newspaper, Sept. 6: "The Navy Department declined to comment on the German Government's charge that the submarine was merely trying to defend itself. A spokesman called attention to the Navy Department's original announcement: that the initial attack was made by the submarine on the Greer." From Berlin, the same day, had come this: "The German contention is that the sub fired on the Greer only after having been pursued for two hours."
Then on Oct. 14 were disclosed the actual facts as I stated them before: The scout work of the British plane; its return to drop depth charges; the pursuit and broadcast
by the Greer. How were these facts obtained? The Navy did not volunteer them, contenting itself with original statements which can politely be called misleading. They were obtained because a Senate committee demanded them.
On Oct. 17 a Times dispatch carried another statement from the Navy about another destroyer. It announced that the U. S. S. Kearny was torpedoed while on "patrol duty." Three days later members of the same Senate committee that elicited the true story of the Greer told the press the Kearny was not on patrol, but on convoy duty. Seven days later, at a press conference, the President asserted that this was true. The Kearny was on convoy and not on patrol duty at all.
By the time the Reuben James was sunk the government had apparently come to the conclusion that the Navy should no longer be left in the position of obscuring the facts or giving out only part of the story. That time the truth was published at once, in the tradition of the United States Navy. I do not blame that great service for any of the faults of omission I have recounted.
The blame, as I see it, is at the door of the Administration. Perhaps the straightforward account of the sinking of the Reuben James opens a new and worthier chapter in the official book.
That chapter should begin with a clear and candid statement of the case of the United States against Germany. It is a strong case, although I recall no completely honest statement of it by any of the politicians responsible for it being our case. No quibbling over definitions, no misrepresentations, are needed to fortify it. They serve only to weaken the plain story of the record. They provide broad targets for responses from Berlin that unite the German people and confuse and divide our own.
The statement of the case must be official and it must be thorough. Up to now when the statement was thorough it was not official.
One of the most startling examples of any government's lack of faith in the acceptance of its foreign policy by the people was provided soon after this war began. The Administration at Washington farmed out the account of its stewardship. Two newspaper men were given access to the private records of the State Department. From these, and from the diaries of officials, they wrote the story of events that led up to the adoption of the policy of all-out aid to Great Britain. They sold the story, and they and their publisher made money out of it. They were even permitted to call it "The American White Paper," the only account of this kind, and so named, that any government did not issue on its own behalf.
The authors and the publisher were thoroughly justified in commercializing the government's story of evolving policy since the government was more than willing that they should. But the episode is typical of the timorous hesitation of Washington to accept, admit—yes to proclaim—the whole truth concerning the situation in which we find ourselves.
When Senator Walsh's committee and a few inquisitive newspapermen finally elicited all the pertinent facts about the encounters of the Greer and the Kearny , some of those who seem to think that our foreign policy must be publicly justified by proving an unprovoked German "attack" shifted back to the sinking of the Robin Moor. That sinking was brutally done; those rescued owe their lives to chance, not to the Nazi commander; and certainly the Robin Moor was "attacked." But the attack was not unprovoked. Some weeks before the lease-lend bill had become law. From that moment, whatever the political quibblers may say, we were committed to the military defeat of Germany.
That commitment meant furnishing to the victims of aggression whatever they required to kill enough Germans and destroy sufficient German facilities to win the war. The errand of the Robin Moor was put to some of those requirements into the hands of the foes of Germany. It is idle to argue that the Nazi commander made an "unprovoked attack" on her. We don't need that argument. We don't need to attempt a ridiculous comparison with the Barbary War. No silly Nazi map of Latin America, no "secret document," is required. We got our notice, officially too, in December, 1940.
After France collapsed, and after Dunkerque, it was perfectly obvious that if the United States believed its security would be imperiled in an Axis world the United States must do what it could to assist the British. Since the British were at war, and depended on our armament to sustain that war, it was equally obvious that this assistance must take the form of money and material. It was self-evident also that, should these prove insufficient, and opportunity still remained, men must follow the money and the material.
But even after France fell and Dunkerque became a name of British glory, there were many Americans who did not agree that our security would be imperiled if we stand almost alone in an Axis world. In December, 1940, Hitler did what he could do to undeceive them.
Flanked by cannon, in an arms factory, he made a speech to munitions workers. He put all labor on notice that if Germany wins it must accept Nazi controls or lose the war of economic survival. He put capital on notice that he would make regimental labor the world's currency instead of gold. He spoke of two worlds ideologically at war, our own and his. "One of these two worlds must break asunder," said Hitler.
Now there was an attack which should satisfy any political lexicographer. It wasn't a torpedo fired at a destroyer. It wasn't a shell discharged at a helpless merchant ship. Its range was far longer, its purpose far more shattering, its consequences far more enduring than torpedo, bomb or shell. From that day the United States and its system were under deadly and open attack. Not in the campaign definition of the tricky 1940 party platform: then the people were led to believe the word "attack" meant a physical assault on America. Not in the meaning of the hostile exchanges on the seas about Iceland. Yet this attack is frontal none the less. Its object is—Hitler said so—to break asunder the world that is not the Axis world. Our world.
There remain many Americans—sincere and patriotic as any others—who scorn Hitler's threat, who are confident he cannot carry it out to our own injury regardless of the outcome of the war in Europe. Logically, therefore, thesecitizens oppose the policy of anti-aggressor aid that has brought the United States into a shooting war. They insist that our armament production, if reserved to ourselves and certain neighbors, will assure the security and prosperity of the United States and maintain its democracy.
There are other citizens—sincere and patriotic, too—who believe the President has got ahead of his timetable; that, because of internal conditions and policies, we are not—and for years will not be—physically ready to meet the inevitable military consequences of our actions in the Atlantic and the possible consequences that may come in the Pacific as well. Logically, therefore, these opposed the lease-lend bill and every succeeding step toward the center of belligerency. Because of our internal failures and delays these citizens hold that we must not venture to outstrip our timetable, even though that will oblige us to take the disheartening risk that Great Britain may be beaten or come to a peace that would threaten the United States.
But this government's foreign policy has now reached the point where—if the government intends to follow through—whatever the merits of these views, they have become academic. They continue to be disturbing and confusing to this American people chiefly because of the lack of candor that invested the preliminary steps to action and now invest the action itself.
We were officially told that the arms embargo must be repealed because it was unneutral. The truth was that the arms embargo was favorable to Germany; had it been favorable to Great Britain it would be in force still. But no Administration spokesman ever admitted that.
We were officially told that the exchange of over-age destroyers for bases was not an exchange and not a trade. After it had been accomplished without the loss of the election and with general approval, the President truthfully referred to it as a trade.
We were officially told that the lease-lend bill was a move away from physical involvement in the shooting and that no naval escorts of convoys could conceivably come from its passage. That was credible only to those who believed that Hitler would do nothing to prevent us from arming his foes against him, while claiming a status of neutrality; or credible to those who believed the United States could or would make armament at its own expense to be sunk in the sea.
Now American men are giving their lives that this armament may reach its destination. To their memories, and to their brothers in arms who may die tomorrow, to the grownup American nation they are defending, the Administration and Congress owe a solemn obligation: the truth. In wartime, for excellent reasons, it cannot always be the whole truth. But always it should be nothing but the truth.