Statement by the Secretary of State Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, October 21, 1941


The progress of events, and particularly of military and naval of operations beyond and on the seas, makes it advisable and urgent that the Congress grant full authority to take certain measures which are plainly essential for the defense of the United States. It is imperative now to exercise what Elihu Root in 1914 called "the right of every sovereign state to protect itself by preventing a condition of affairs in which it will be too late to protect itself".
Such a condition of affairs now impends. Unless it is promptly dealt with, efforts at self-defense may come too late.

The paramount principle of national policy is the preservation of the safety and security of the Nation. The highest right flowing from that principle is the right of self-defense. That right must now be invoked. The key to that defense under present conditions is to prevent Hitler from gaining control of the seas.

On October 26, 1940, I said:

"Should the would-be conquerors gain control of other continents, they would next concentrate on perfecting their control of the seas, of the air over the seas, and of the world's economy; they might then be able with ships and with planes to strike at the communication lines, the commerce, and the life of this hemisphere; and ultimately we might find ourselves compelled to fight on our own soil, under our own skies, in defense of our independence and our very lives."

In the year which has ensued, Hitler and his satellites have extended their military occupation to most of the Continent of Europe. They are already seeking control of the sea. They have attacked American vessels, contrary to all law, in widely separated areas; particularly they are now trying to sever the sea lanes which link the United States to the remaining free peoples. Hitler under his policy of intimidation and frightfulness has in effect given notice that American lives and American ships, no less than the lives and ships of other nations, will be destroyed if they are found in most of the north Atlantic Ocean. In the presence of threats and acts by an outlaw nation, there arises the right, and there is imposed the duty, of prompt and determined defense. Our ships and men are legitimately sailing the seas. The outlaw who preaches and practices indiscriminate, terroristic attack in pursuit of world?conquest is estopped to invoke any law if law-abiding nations act to defend themselves.

The conviction that the Atlantic approaches to the Western Hemisphere are under attack no longer rests on inference. The attack is continuous; there is reason to believe that it will steadily increase in strength and intensity.

When the Neutrality Act of 1939 was passed, we went far in foregoing the exercise of certain rights by our citizens in time of foreign war. This was for the purpose of avoiding incidents such as those that confronted our Government during the first World War as a result of unrestricted German-submarine warfare. But there was no waiving of our right to take the fullest measures needed for self?defense on land and sea if the tide of conquest should move in our direction.

The tide has so moved. The course of the present war has altered the picture completely. Certain provisions of the existing legislation under the changed circumstances now handicap our necessary work of self-defense and stand squarely in the way of our national safety.

The Congress has recognized the change in circumstances and has passed the Lend-Lease Act. It thereby determined that the efforts of those nations which are actively resisting aggression are important and necessary to the safety of the United States. It approved, as a necessary measure of defense, the fullest support to nations which are in the front line of resistance to a movement of world-conquest more ruthless in execution and more hideous in effects than any other such movement of all time. An indispensable part of our policy must be resolute self-defense on the high seas; and this calls especially for protection of shipping on open sea lanes.

One of the greatest mistakes that we could possibly make would be to base our policy upon an assumption that we are secure, when, if the assumption should prove erroneous, the fact of having so acted would lay us completely open to hostile invasion.

When American ships are being wantonly and unlawfully attacked with complete disregard of life and property, it is absurd to forego any legitimate measures that may be helpful toward self?defense. It is especially absurd to continue to tie our hands by a provision of law which prohibits arming our merchant vessels for their own defense.

I repeat, the highest duty of this Government is to safeguard the security of our Nation. The basic consideration is that measures and methods of defense shall be made effective when and where needed. They are now needed especially on the high seas and in those areas which must be preserved from invasion if the full tide of the movement of world-conquest is not to beat at our gates.

It would be little short of criminal negligence to proceed on the hope that some happy chance or chances will save us from a fate like that which has befallen so many other countries in the world. We cannot run away from a situation which can only be dealt with by the firm measures of a people determined and prepared to resist. It is worse than futile to read the war news from overseas and conclude that each temporary check to the would?be world-conqueror relieves us of the need to provide fully for our own national defense.

I am convinced that in the interest of our national security the passage of the pending bill to repeal section 6 of the Neutrality Act is both urgent and important. Inasmuch as section 2 is not under consideration I will offer no comment except to say that in my judgment section 2 should be repealed or modified.


Source: U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 765-66


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