Our Foreign Policy


By THEODORE ROOSEVELT, JR., Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1921-1924; Governor General of the Philippine Islands, 1932-1933

Delivered at Institute of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, July 6, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day
, Vol. 5, pp. 620-23

NO living man can remember a time when conditions in the world were so desperate. Indeed there is no parallel short of medieval times. A bloody war is raging in Asia, another has just finished in Spain. The nations are bristling with arms. Persecution, intolerance and murder are common. The ordered peace of the early days of the century has vanished and again "We hear the word that sickened earth of old, no law except the sword, unsheathed and uncontrolled."

Our foreign policy therefore is vital. One false move may well destroy our nation. We must keep our head and think straight.

This is particularly difficult because of our internal conditions today. The shock of the last war with its subsequent terrible economic dislocation has bred hysteria and blurred our vision. We are torn by many emotional, ill-considered opinions.

We must halt, take stock and make up our minds just what we should do. The yardstick we should use in forming our judgments is the interests and welfare of our own American people. It is to them that our first duty lies. No man has the right because of any feelings he personally may have to urge a course of action on this country, the price for which will be paid by the women and children of the whole nation.

Any foreign policy we adopt today may lead us into war, because the threat of war underlies the whole scheme of so-called power politics.

As this is the case, our people should be pondering now the broad lines of the ideals and interests which they are prepared to protect with force of arms.

Clearly the first thing for which we are willing to fight and must fight is the preservation of our free institutions and our representative democracy. Our representative democracy is our Ark of the Covenant. No sacrifice is too great when it is in danger.

Next we must fight to protect our own territory.

Finally, we must fight to preserve the Monroe Doctrine. This in its essence means that we must be prepared to ally ourselves with any of the South American nations who may be threatened by aggression from either Asia or Europe.

The western hemisphere so far has not been dangerously affected by the virus that is devastating Europe and Asia. We must keep it isolated.

Beyond these three contingencies that I have stated I would not go. It is of course conceivable that some other situation might arise where our vital interest would be so affected that we would feel war on our part was a necessity. I cannot envision it, but should it come, the American people should be the judge thereof at the time, not any individual or small group.

None of these three vital interests of the American people are threatened today. Therefore we should not permit ourselves to be entangled in any of the current disputes that might lead us into war.

The stake in war is too desperately high to face it except is a last resort. The truth is that nobody wins a war. The victor pays as well as the vanquished. The best that can be said for war is that at times a nation may lose less by fighting than by refusing to fight.

It is twenty-two years now since we entered the last great war. In company with hundreds of thousands of young Americans I enlisted. We were told that we were going to fight "a war to end wars," "a war to make the world safe for democracy." We gave all that we had. My brother Quentin was killed. Theoretically we won that war, and returned to this country in triumph. One look at the world today is sufficient commentary on the value of our victory. For over two years Spain was torn by a bloody revolution in which other nations have taken part. China and Japan are locked in a death struggle. Two-thirds of Europe is in the hands of dictators. The world is farther from democracy that it was in 1914, not closer to it.

Not only is this the case, but our own country has suffered acutely from the effects of that war. Our whole system of life has been upset. Men and women have been thrown out of employment. Youth has had to face a world In which it had no chance. We have been forced into methods of livelihood which will leave permanent scars not only on those who have been subject thereto, but upon our government and method of political thought.

We may have been titulary victors in that war, but no one can say we gained by it.

Indeed, the only nations in Europe who can be said to have come through the last struggle comparatively unhurt and to have strengthened their democracies in recent years, are the Scandinavian countries, and they did not engage in the war.

I feel, therefore, that the United States should beware of wax, for she can but lose by it.

There is one great and overwhelming reason for this. Our Ark of the Covenant in the United States is our representative democracy, which assures minorities of their rights, provides for free speech, religious toleration and liberty of the individual. I do not believe it could survive the strain of another war. It was gravely shaken up by the last war. The first interest of all our people is the safeguarding of this democracy.

These troubles that are shaking Europe and Asia stem in large measure from the last war, and its climax, that thoroughly iniquitous Treaty of Versailles, begotten of revenge and greed. That Treaty prepared the ground for Hitler in Germany and bred the rancorous sense of injustice that makes so many of the nations believe that their only resort is war. The ancient doctrine of spoils lies at the root of the trouble. Some nations wish to fight to regainwhat they lost; others will battle to retain the spoils they won. At this moment we are continually subject to propaganda from interested foreign groups who are trying to persuade us to espouse or tolerate their ideas or causes. The great modern means of communication, such as radio, have made this easy. There are hundreds of organizations here preaching intolerance and un-American doctrines, and hundreds more demanding that we embroil ourselves in world crusades for some of their theories.

We are constantly being urged in specious fashion to pull chestnuts out of the fire for one or another nation.

Here in this country are thousands of American citizens, born in some other country, whose relatives are still in that other nation. They tend to feel that the United States should back up the nation of their birth. This is human nature, but nevertheless it is wrong. Our problems must be decided from the standpoint of the United States. We must not permit ourselves to be turned into a polyglot boarding house, no matter what the motives may be. Today also there are many in America who are saying "We must be prepared to go to war to defend other democracies in order to defend our own." They argue that a defeat of the other great democracies would destroy our democracy here.

They are wrong. If we engage ourselves to defend England and France it will mean the death knell of our democracy, for as I have said it will not survive the strain of another war. The result will be merely that our democracy has been destroyed as well as theirs.

If we remain aloof I believe we will preserve it. Bulwarked by two oceans we can guard ourselves. Our front lines of defense are not in France, but on the shores of this hemisphere.

In discussing these matters there is no room for bitterness. I do not blame foreigners for doing all that lies within their power to draw us into an alliance to defend their nations. I would do the same were I in their place. Often those who advocate foreign policies which would damage our country irretrievably are actuated by the best motives. It is their reasoning, not their morals, that is at fault. That, however, removes in no way the necessity for battling their opinions, which are cloaked with sentimentalism that carries a real appeal.

In order to stay out of war we must refrain from entangling alliances. Washington announced this principle in his day, and it is as true in the twentieth century as it was in the eighteenth. When we enter into covenants we are apt to look merely at what they signify at the moment, and to neglect to study what their possibilities may be in the future. It is future contingencies that are the most perilous.

It was for this reason that I bitterly opposed our entrance into the League of Nations twenty years ago. If we had joined as a member of that body we would have been bound by Article X. That would have pledged us to sustain all the iniquities of the Versailles Treaty. Worse still, we would have been subject to a jury of foreign nations. What may well happen under circumstances of this kind is clearly shown by the fate of Czecho-Slovakia. A jury of nations, one-half of whom were pledged to support her, passed judgment on her problem.

I trust no man, no matter how able and honest he may be, with the liberties of the American people. By the same token, I trust no foreign nation with the future of our country.

The League is now relegated to the attic of the nations to bear company with the ten thousand other pacts that have been disregarded in the past, but there are those in this country who are still advocating the same principles. This generally takes the form of urging the United States to join with certain other nations for collective security.

I do not believe we should join with other nations in any scheme for collective security. If we do we will soon find that we are furnishing the security and the other nations arc doing the collecting.

I do not believe in wars of benevolent meddling. They rarely if ever obtain their objectives, and they cost dearly the country which embarks on them.

As I do not believe in wars of benevolent meddling, I do not believe in benevolent meddling of any sort. One step invariably leads to another. It is impossible to limit objectives. Again I wish to call on history to prove my point. We disapproved of Germany's actions in 1914, as we disapprove of Germany's actions today. Our disapproval first took the form of aid to the Allies, and we were told it would go no further. Nevertheless, we later declared war. At that time we were assured by President Wilson, who undoubtedly was sincere, that the war would not involve the use of great numbers of troops. Nevertheless we found ourselves eventually with more than four million Americans under arms and half of that number overseas. If you take the first step you must take the last.

I do not believe in bluffing. A bluffer sooner or later is found out and called. Many people have recently said to me, "We would not have had to go to war to stop Germany's advance on Czecho-Slovakia. All we would have had to do was to tell Germany that if she advanced on Czecho-Slovakia we would declare war." Those people approach the problem in wrong fashion. We must never tell any foreign country "if you do thus and so we will declare war," unless we are prepared to declare war. It is only by such a policy that our words will carry weight and we will keep from being involved in war.

Next comes the question of going to the aid of one nation or another in material fashion. This is generally known by those who advocate it as "standing behind" some one or some group of foreign powers. I want to warn our people against embarking on such a policy lightly. For the reasons already given, I am confident that if we do this we may ultimately find that instead of standing behind them we will be standing in front of them.

Should such question as material aid for one nation to the exclusion of some other be under consideration, it must be discussed openly with the American people, not decided secretly.

I want to make clear in all that I have said that I am speaking of our action as a nation. Our action in our capacity as citizens may be entirely different. As private individuals we naturally have sympathies with one or the other side in most conflicts. For example, I personally am shocked at the treatment that is being meted out to the Jews in Germany. It is brutal and barbarous. As a private citizen, not holding public position, I have spoken thereon and worked to alleviate the lot of those persecuted. Again I am in thorough sympathy with the Chinese struggle against the onslaught of Japan. Indeed, as a private citizen I am now chairman of the United Council for Civilian Relief in China. Perhaps I can put my point most clearly by saying that if I were in my twenties, instead of fifty-one, I would be strongly tempted as an individual to enlist in the Chinese army—but though willing to do that, I would oppose with every once of strength I have any declaration of war by our country on Japan. In one case the payment is made by the individual, in the other, by all our nation.

I have noticed often that those who are keenest for belligerent action on the part of our nation are not found at the battle front when the great guns are thundering.

Hosea Bigelow, that delightful old hard-headed American character created by Bryant, said:

"Governor B. is a sensible man—
He stays to his home and looks arter his folks;
He draws his furrer ez straight ez he can,
An' into nobody's tater-patch pokes."

That was good sound advice then, and it is good sound advice now. Idealism, to be of real value, must be mated with common sense. We owe a duty to all humanity, but our primary duty is to the men, women and children who are citizens of our country. We must be practical in our approach for their sake.

An important part of our policy today is the neutrality act that is now under consideration. I do not believe in automatic embargoes. It is impossible to tell what their effects may be, not merely on others, but on our country. I therefore believe that this feature should be repealed. On the other hand, I believe most emphatically that no further powers should be granted to the President. If we grant additional powers to the President we are placing ourselves in a position where his acts may drag us into war.

A great Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson, spoke for "open covenants, openly arrived at." Let us insist that all determinations of foreign policy vital to our well-being be made openly in consultation with our own elected representatives. No man and no small group of men have the right to decide for the American people questions of this sort in secret.

Above all, we must not permit ourselves to be stampeded in our foreign policy. We can best serve our own people and other nations as well by preserving our representative democracy. If we maintain it, not only will our people be served, but also other nations, for we will furnish a beacon towards which they may struggle from the mires of dictatorship and tyranny. If we lose it the light will have gone out not only for this country but for the world.