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Franklin Roosevelt Administration: Message to Congress Urging the Arming of Ships Engaged in Foreign Commerce

(October 9, 1941)


It is obvious to all of us that world conditions have changed violently since the first American Neutrality Act of 1935. The Neutrality Act of 1939 was passed at a time when the true magnitude of the Nazi attempt to dominate the world was visualized by few persons. We heard it said, indeed, that this new European war was not a real war, and that the contending armies would remain behind their impregnable fortifications and never really fight. In this atmosphere the Neutrality Act seemed reasonable. But so did the Maginot Line.

Since then-in these past two tragic years-war has spread from continent to continent; very many nations have been conquered and enslaved; great cities have been laid in ruins; millions of human beings have been killed, soldiers and sailors and civilians alike. Never before has such widespread devastation been visited upon God's earth and God's children.

The pattern of the future-the future as Hitler seeks to shape it-is now as clear and as ominous as the headlines of today's newspapers.

Through these years of war, we Americans have never been neutral in thought. We have never been indifferent to the fate of Hitler's victim. And, increasingly, we have become aware of the peril to ourselves, to our democratic traditions and institutions, to our country, and to our hemisphere.

We have known what victory for the aggressors would mean to us. Therefore, the American people, through the Congress, have taken important and costly steps to give great aid to those nations actively fighting against Nazi-Fascist domination.

We know that we could not defend ourselves in Long Island Sound or in San Francisco Bay. That would be too late. It is the American policy to defend ourselves wherever such defense becomes necessary under the complex conditions of modern warfare.

Therefore, it has become necessary that this Government should not be handicapped in carrying out the clearly announced policy of the Congress and of the people. We must face the truth that the Neutrality Act requires a complete reconsideration in the light of known facts.

The revisions which I suggest do not call for a declaration of war any more than the Lend-Lease Act called for a declaration of war. This is a matter of essential defense of American rights.

In the Neutrality Act are various crippling provisions. The repeal or modification of these provisions will not leave the United States any less neutral than we are today, but will make it possible for us to defend the Americas far more successfully, and to give aid far more effectively against the tremendous forces now marching towards conquest of the world.

Under the Neutrality Act, we established certain areas as zones of combat into which no American-flag ships could proceed. Hitler proclaimed certain far larger areas as zones of combat into which any neutral ship, regardless of its flag or the nature of its cargo, could proceed only at its peril. We know now that Hitler recognizes no limitation on any zone of combat in any part of the seven seas. He has struck at our ships and at the lives of our sailors within the waters of the Western Hemisphere. Determined as he is to gain domination of the entire world, he considers the entire world his own battlefield.

Ships of the United States and of other American republics continue to be sunk, not only in the imaginary zone proclaimed by the Nazis in the North Atlantic, but also in the zoneless South Atlantic.

I recommend the repeal of section 6 of the act of November 4, 1939, which prohibits the arming of American-flag ships engaged in foreign commerce.

The practice of arming merchant ships for civilian defense is an old one. It has never been prohibited by international law. Until 1937 it had never been prohibited by any statute of the United States. Through our whole history American merchant vessels have been armed whenever it was considered necessary for their own defence.

It is an imperative need now to equip American merchant vessels with arms. We are faced not with the old type of pirates but with the modern pirates of the sea who travel beneath the surface or on the surface or in the air destroying defenseless ships without warning and without provision for the safety of the passengers and crews.

Our merchant vessels are sailing the seas on missions connected with the defense of the United States. It is not just that the crews of these vessels should be denied the means of defending their lives and their ships.

Although the arming of merchant vessels does not guarantee their safety, it most certainly adds to their safety. In the event of an attack by a raider they have a chance to keep the enemy at a distance until help comes. In the case of an attack by air, they have at least a chance to shoot down the enemy or keep the enemy at such height that it cannot make a sure hit. If it is a submarine, the armed merchant ship compels the submarine to use a torpedo while submerged-and many torpedoes thus fired miss their mark. The submarine can no longer rise to the surface within a few hundred yards and sink the merchant ship by gunfire at its leisure.

Already we take many precautions against the danger of mines-and it seems somewhat incongruous that we have authority today to "degauss" our ships as a protection against mines, whereas we have no authority to arm them in protection against aircraft or raiders or submarines.

The arming of our ships is a matter of immediate necessity and extreme urgency. It is not more important than some other crippling provisions in the present act, but anxiety for the safety of our crews and of the almost priceless goods that are within the holds of our ships leads me to recommend that you, with all speed, strike the prohibition against arming our ships from the statute books.

There are other phases of the Neutrality Act to the correction of which I hope the Congress will give earnest and early attention. One of these provisions is of major importance. I believe that it is essential to the proper defense of our country that we cease giving the definite assistance which we are now giving to the aggressors. For, in effect, we are inviting their control of the seas by keeping our ships out of the ports of our own friends.

It is time for this country to stop playing into Hitler's hands, and to unshackle our own.

A vast number of ships are sliding into the water from American shipbuilding ways. We are lending them to the enemies of Hitlerism and they are carrying food and supplies and munitions to belligerent ports in order to withstand Hitler's juggernaut.

Most of the vital goods authorized by the Congress are being delivered. Yet many of them are being sunk; and as we approach full production requiring the use of more ships now being built it will be increasingly necessary to deliver American goods under the American flag.

We cannot, and should not, depend on the strained resources of the exiled nations of Norway and Holland to deliver our goods, nor should we be forced to masquerade American-owned ships behind the flags of our sister republics.

I earnestly trust that the Congress will carry out the true intent of the Lend-Lease Act by making it possible for the United States to help to deliver the articles to those who are in a position effectively to use them. In other words, I ask for congressional action to implement congressional policy. Let us be consistent.

I would not go back to the earlier days when private traders could gamble with American life and property in the hope of personal gain, and thereby embroil this country in some incident in which the American public had no direct interest. But today, under the controls exercised by the Government, no ship and no cargo can leave the United States, save on an errand which has first been approved by governmental authority. And the test of that approval is whether the exportation will promote the defense of the United States.

I cannot impress too strongly upon the Congress the seriousness of the military situation that confronts all of the nations that are combating Hitler.

We would be blind to the realities if we did not recognize that Hitler is now determined to expend all the resources and all the mechanical force and manpower at his command to crush both Russia and Britain. He knows that he is racing against time. He has heard the rumblings of revolt among the enslaved peoples-including the Germans and Italians. He fears the mounting force of American aid. He knows that the days in which he may achieve total victory are numbered.

Therefore, it is our duty, as never before, to extend more and more assistance and ever more swiftly to Britain, to Russia, to all peoples and individuals fighting slavery. We must do this without fear or favor. The ultimate fate of the Western Hemisphere lies in the balance.

I say to you solemnly that if Hitler's present military plans are brought to successful fulfilment, we Americans shall be forced to fight in defense of our own homes and our own freedom in a war as costly and as devastating as that which now rages on the Russian front.

Hitler has offered a challenge which we as Americans cannot and will not tolerate.

We will not let Hitler prescribe the waters of the world on which our ships may travel. The American flag is not going to be driven from the seas either by his submarines, his airplanes, or his threats.

We cannot permit the affirmative defense of our rights to be annulled and diluted by sections of the Neutrality Act which have no realism in the light of unscrupulous ambition of madmen.

We Americans have determined our course.

We intend to maintain the security and the integrity and the honor of our country.

We intend to maintain the policy of protecting the freedom of the seas against domination by any foreign power which has become crazed with a desire to control the world. We shall do so with all our strength and all our heart and all our mind.

Sources: ibiblio