President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering Fireside Chat number six, September 30, 1934.
Public Domain / Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

In our century and a half of national life there have been outstanding periods when American leadership has influenced the thought and action of the civilized world towards international good will and peace; and there have been moments—rare ones, fortunately—when American policy either has been negative and sterile, or has earned for us dislike or fear or ridicule.

I believe many millions of citizens in the United States share my conviction that the past nine years must be counted on the debit side of the ledger.

Since the summer of 1919 our country has had to face the charge that in a time when great constructive aid was needed in the task of solving the grave problems facing the whole earth, we have contributed little or nothing save the isolated Naval Conference of 1921. Even here the ground gained was not held. The definite sacrifices we made were not productive because we assumed that a mere signature was enough; no machinery was set up to finish the work. This is a negative charge. On the positive side, we must admit also that the outside world almost unanimously views us with less good will today than at any previous period. This is serious unless we take the deliberate position that the people of the United States owe nothing to the rest of mankind and care nothing for the opinion of others so long as our seacoasts are impregnable and our pocketbooks are filled.

An analysis of our own history disproves the accusation that this selfish spirit is the real American spirit. In the debates during the war of the Revolution and in the long discussions immediately preceding the adoption of the Constitution it was plain that careful thought was being given to every conceivable form of government in the hope that what the United States finally adopted might serve as a pattern for other peoples, especially in regard to the spirit that should govern the relations of one state with another. The words of the Declaration of Independence itself invoke a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

Through more than twenty years of European turmoil following the French Revolution our course was a pacific one, marked by a growing understanding of the old-fashioned evils of privateering, impressment and interference with neutral commerce by belligerents. It is worth while to remember that the modern "economic boycott" had its ancestor in the interesting if premature "embargo" and "non-intercourse" laws of Jefferson.

After the general peace of 1815, the newly-won independence of the Central and South American nations provided frequent opportunities for reconquest and disturbance; our response was the Monroe Doctrine, a policy aimed not only at self-protection but, in the larger sense, at continental peace. Promulgated by a Democratic Administration, it was our counter-move against the desperate attempt of the Holy Alliance to curb the rise of liberalism by interfering in the internal affairs of government and by crushing revolting colonies desirous of setting up democracies. Here again the thought of America was not solely selfish, but was influenced by an ideal.

As the years passed, American foreign policy, through ups and downs, showed a broadening tendency towards settling disputes peacefully, helping sister nations, and gaining the world's respect and good will. With Canada, our nearest neighbor, the Maine and Oregon boundaries were permanently adjudicated and the whole frontier was disarmed. In the Far East our attitude of respect for Chinese national integrity, the Perry Expedition, and the visit of Townsend Harris to Japan were, in comparison with European habits, founded on peaceful methods not on naval bombardments. The settlement by arbitration of the Alabama claims and later of the Fisheries and Behring Sea controversies were further milestones on the same road.

Those of us who remember well the war with Spain, will agree that, in spite of the slogan "Remember the Maine," the country's deep-seated approval of the war grew out of a desire for the liberation of the people of Cuba from a stupid and antiquated Spanish yoke. It was not a war of revenge, but the offer of a helping hand. It took the elder statesmen of Europe ten years to believe that we had no intention of annexing Cuba.

So also the useful if unsuccessful agitation by the "Anti-Imperialists" helped to fix it as a national policy that we should educate the Filipinos with a view to their ultimately being ready for self-government. This was the precursor of the "Mandate" theory of the League of Nations.

In China the policy of John Hay in behalf of the "open door" had much to do with preventing the despoiling of the falling empire of the Manchus, and the United States later increased its moral ascendancy in the Far East by refunding for the cause of Chinese education its share in the Boxer indemnity monies.

With the new century we became an increasingly important factor in world affairs. America helped in the organization of the Hague Tribunal and on her invitation Russia and Japan negotiated the Peace of Portsmouth. Our active participation in the Moroccan question and the Algeciras Conference marked the application of moral leadership in what had been wholly the European sphere. Henry White, later appointed by President Wilson as one of the American delegates at Paris, played a very useful rôle in 1906 at Algeciras. His actions there, following the instructions of President Roosevelt, were approved generally by the people of the United States at that time. In this period of strenuous activity in the whole wide range of foreign affairs perhaps the only important event which did not show that finer spirit of which I have spoken was the executive action in recognizing the revolutionists in Panama almost before the revolution was born. The end may have justified the means, but the means stultified our historic position in Latin America and violated the rights which are a weaker nation's safeguard against imperialistic encroachment.

In 1909 began four years which counted as a definite setback in our liberal leadership. "Dollar Diplomacy" as adopted by President Taft and Secretary Knox placed money leadership ahead of moral leadership in the Far East. This policy was extended to Honduras and Nicaragua, and the American Marines who went to the latter country in 1911 as a very definite part of a banking deal have been there almost continuously ever since. To these years also belongs the Panama Canal Tolls legislation, a definite breach of an existing Treaty. It was healed several years later when, at the insistence of President Wilson, the offending legislation was repealed.

We are apt to think of the Wilson Administration's foreign policies only in terms of the Great War. We forget that from its earliest days it marked a restoration of high moral purpose to our international relationships. In 1913 the President threw "Dollar Diplomacy" out of the window by refusing to approve a six-power loan to China. He based his action broadly on the wish to see China retain control of its own resources and not become subject to further dismemberment at the hands of European creditors. Next came the very notable declaration to Latin America in the Mobile speech in October, 1913: "The United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest. She must regard it as one of the duties of friendship to see that from no quarter are material interests made superior to human liberty and national opportunity." President Wilson's policy towards Mexico, ridiculed as "watchful waiting," was in line with the Mobile declaration, and a growing belief among South Americans in our honesty of purpose resulted in the offer of mediation by the "A. B. C. powers"—Argentine, Brazil and Chili. Here was an action which future statesmen can and should turn to great advantage. The problem was a local one; Mexico is at our very doors. Yet we hailed gladly the friendly offer of three other American republics, thousands of miles away, in another continent, to help work out a constructive solution. Only the explosion of the World War prevented the fruitful development of this method of dealing with Latin American difficulties.

It is not possible here to describe in detail the principles that guided American action during the greater part of the World War. Suffice it to say that under grave provocation from without, and under criticism at home not only from sympathizers with both sets of belligerents but also from those who simply loathed our inaction and sought action of any kind, the Administration was guided by two cardinal principles: First, it sought to live up to the obligations of a neutrality which the final verdict of history could not criticize. Secondly, it was determined to insist on the historic American policy regarding neutral rights. Many there are who feel that we turned the other cheek too often, but even they will admit the President's high purpose, and the ultimate good to mankind that came from our final participation in the World War only after we had shown our aversion to war and had established firmly a set of fundamental principles.

Several months before our own declaration of war the President began to unfold a vision of a new relationship between nations. A return, at the close of the most devastating conflict of history, to the old methods of alliances and balances of power would leave the world worse off even than it had been in 1914. Sacrifice, suffering and misery were futile unless they could show the way to a new path. Slowly through 1917 and 1918 the American President brought home to the hearts of mankind the great hope that through an association of nations the world could in the days to come avoid armed conflict and substitute reason and collective action for the age-old appeal to the sword. Just as the four years of the war had produced enormous economic changes in the internal affairs of all nations, so this appeal brought with it an equally great spiritual change. History will show that it was a powerful factor in the collapse from within of the armies of the Central Powers. An old order was indeed changing, giving place to new.

Man proposes. But this is not the place to write a résumé of the year following the termination of hostilities. Even though the Treaty of Peace was harsh and contained, as was perhaps inevitable, echoes of pre-war controversies, President Wilson, with general American approval, succeeded in obtaining world support for a system of coöperation and conciliation to deal with matters of common concern and to eliminate at their source the causes of future wars. Regarded by many as merely an interesting experiment, this league, even without our participation, has in the passing years become for the rest of the world the principal agency for the settlement of international controversy, for the constructive administration of many duties which are primarily international in scope, and for the correction of abuses that have been all too common in our civilization.

The present position of the United States in world affairs dates from 1919, for during the last two years of the Wilson Administration a bitterly hostile opposition in the Senate prevented any constructive action, and further, this nation, free as Europe was not from post-war penury, turned to internal industrial development and did its best to forget international subjects.

When, therefore, the Harding Administration was organized in 1921 it interpreted the temper of the nation as being weary of international leadership and uninterested in further efforts to follow the vision of a new era which it had so enthusiastically welcomed three years before. The new President was in no sense a leader; the Presidency he thought of as essentially a routine political job. So vague were his ideas that his campaign and his years in office gave constant evidence, particularly in the field of international relations, that citizens of diametrically opposite opinions could join in his support and praise. He was given at least lip-service by League of Nations supporters, by the bitterest League opponents, and by those who talked of the creation of some entirely new association of nations. It will always be a regret to fair-minded Americans that, except in one instance, the Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, allowed his great ability and high ideals to be wholly smothered by the caution and smallness of the President's mind and the provinciality and ignorance of most of his professional political advisers.

That exception was the Washington Conference for limitation of naval armaments. By Mr. Hughes's proposal of a bold and concrete program a naval ratio between the principal sea powers applying to battle-ships and battle-cruisers was adopted. This was a definite and practical step, but it must be remembered that the naval agreement covered only capital ships and left much to be accomplished later. Many people assume that Great Britain accepted complete naval parity with the United States, but the whole field of cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and aircraft is left open to a competitive race of the old style. Here was the blemish on Secretary Hughes's otherwise fine performance.

Last year President Coolidge's Administration undertook to supplement the 1921 agreement by calling a naval conference at Geneva. The ground was not prepared. The effort was a failure before it started. France and Italy declined to enter. The representatives of Great Britain, Japan and the United States were in large part naval officers unaccustomed and unequipped to discuss and decide matters of state policy. In the background was the mistake of having allowed competitive cruiser building to get to such a point that backing down became difficult. Our Government seems to have enjoyed from 1921 to 1927 the beautiful dream that all naval questions really had been settled for good and all. It apparently did not even instruct its diplomatic representatives abroad to make the inquiries which would have shattered that placid self-satisfaction. Nor has the State Department dealt conclusively with the increasingly vital problem of the regulation or prohibition of the use of poison gas and high explosives against civilian populations.

When the Geneva conference dissolved into thin air, the Coolidge Administration acted as if we were back in the days of Napoleon. "All right," we seemed to say, "If you can't agree to our proposed methods of reducing war-ship building, we'll show you what we can do. We have all the money and resources in the world. We will build the kind of a navy that no other power can equal." The Navy Department made a solemn proposal to spend $2,500,000,000 on this parade of power. It was so ridiculous that the sum was reduced to $1,500,000,000, then to an even billion, and was finally sent to Congress as an appeal for authorization to build $740,000,000 of ships, chiefly large cruisers, within eight years. This, let us remember, was the official Administration program. It was an open admission, first of the Administration's complete failure to limit by agreement the extent of building, and secondly of the adoption of a new policy of starting to build on an enormous scale. Naval competition is today the result of our bungling diplomacy.

This is perhaps an indictment of the present Administration which may not seem important to the immediate future, but the situation is already serious. We have had a fine record in the past as a nation opposed to large standing armies and navies, and sympathetic to all efforts to decrease their size and cost. Now we are embarked on a program of naval expansion—when our position in the world is unparalleledly secure, in a time of no threatened trouble. In a little over two years, under the terms of the Washington Treaty, the replacing of battle-ships can begin again, and in 1936 the Treaty itself ends. With this record, a similar administration would have a task of extraordinary difficulty either in preventing a resumption of building or of extending the life and the principles of the present Treaty.

The time is at hand to undertake a wholly new approach to the subject. There is, in the last analysis, no real need for much more than a police force on the seas of the civilized world today. Only five nations maintain navies of great size. Many other nations spend useless millions on a handful of expensive ships which serve no possible purpose. Two steps seem to offer avenues of success, and would probably have the support of the "average voter" if presented in non-technical language. The navies of England, Japan and the United States do not exist today for the primary purpose of repelling invasion. The German fleet is gone, and the French Navy reduced by agreement; England, therefore, under present conditions can forget her old fear of another Armada. Only the most excited of the Admirals will seriously consider the possibility of invasion either of the United States or of Japan by sea.

Peace times lanes of commerce, which must be held open in time of war, are the principal reasons today for continuing the increase of navies. The first step, therefore, must be a new effort to obtain agreement among the nations as to what shall happen to merchant ships in time of war. Piracy walked the plank two centuries ago. Privateering went sixty years ago. Is there no further step to take? So far, little has been accomplished to settle many of the sea problems left open by the war. There is the broad field of inquiry as to the rights of neutral commerce. This involves the defining of blockades and of contraband, the right of search, and the methods of speedily settling questions between a neutral and a belligerent nation. From these problems of policy arise other problems of practice, such as the employment of merchant ships as cruisers, the arming of cargo vessels, the use of convoy, the methods of submarine attack. We have done nothing with these problems since 1919; it is time a start were made. But it must be pointed out that the whole subject is more or less bound up with the attitude of the United States towards Europe and the League. Until the United States clarifies its general relations, difficult maritime problems will keep cropping up.

As a result of any success in this field will come the second step, the careful preliminary examination and interchange of views—unofficial friendly "chats around the table"—to determine in advance of 1931 what kind of agreement will best extend and strengthen the splendid ultimate ideal of the Naval Limitation Treaty. Perhaps a clarification of the true instead of the supposititious naval needs of England, Japan and the United States will enable us to suggest once more to civilization another step in the cause of peace. But the leadership of the American President and the activity, resourcefulness and far-sightedness of his Secretary of State will have to be of a very different order from what they are today.

Our credit, then, is not at par in naval disarmament. What has happened to other efforts to establish and maintain the principles of peace? The United States has taken two negative steps. It has declined to have anything to do with either the League of Nations or the World Court. It is beside the point at this time to agitate the question of our membership in the League. There is no doubt that a majority of American voters has been opposed to membership on the conditions under which the other nations have joined. We see other great nations making use of the League without loss of national sovereignty, but we are opposed to any official participation in purely European affairs or to committing ourselves to act in unknown contingencies.

Nevertheless we see more and more the great effectiveness of the League in many matters which do concern us—international health work, improvement of labor conditions, aid to backward peoples, the improving of education, the clarification of international law, assistance to world trade. Best of all, it offers a common round table where threats against the peace of the world can be discussed and divergent views compromised. Even without full membership we Americans can be generous and sporting enough to give to the League a far larger share of sympathetic approval and definite official help than we have hitherto accorded.

More and more people here are coming to see that the League has taken a leaf from the note-book of modern industry. A generation ago capital and labor were at each other's throats. Strike or lock-out was the remedy. Today each side realizes that at least there is another side. Today, friendly conference has in large measure superseded riot. Sitting around a table works better than issuing hostile statements. Why does not this rather obvious fact of human nature, first applied successfully to relations between individuals and then to relations between aggregations called companies or unions, apply with equal truth to larger organizations called nations?

We have had "observers" or unofficial representatives at many conferences at Geneva on subjects vital to us. It seems possible that even the Senate would agree to let this nation do officially what President Coolidge in several cases has done unofficially. We should coöperate with the League as the first great agency for the maintenance of peace and for the solution of common problems ever known to civilization, and, without entering into European politics, we should take an active, hearty and official part in all those proceedings which bear on the general good of mankind.

So too with the World Court. There is no doubt in the minds of many that if the President had had the will and the leadership some way could have been found, with the approval of the Senate, by which this nation without loss of any real or even contingent sovereign right could sit with the other nations at the only tribunal of justice which is in practical and efficient operation. "This Court," wrote a contributor to an earlier number of this review,[i] "is the latest institution wrought out by the civilized world's general public opinion against war, for the purpose of giving effect to that opinion. It is an essential and indispensable institution for the effectiveness of that opinion and the proposal that the United States take part in supporting the Court should be welcomed as an opportunity by all the people who have been talking in favor of abolishing war and preventing war and outlawing war, but who have not as yet arrived at any practical steps tending in that direction." These are not the words of a Democrat, but of the most eminent living Republican statesman, Mr. Elihu Root. Perhaps the country will find in the Democratic Party, rather than in the party which has repudiated what Mr. Root stands for, the national leader who, by the application of common sense and the ordinary principles of fairness and good business dealing, will enable the United States to help—instead of clinging tightly to the top rail of the fence.

We Democrats, in fine, do not believe in the possibility or the desirability of an isolated national existence or a national development heedless of the welfare, prosperity and peace of the other peoples of the world. The American people never would be willing consciously to handicap the League in its efforts to maintain peace. Yet since the war our attitude is that we do not need friends, and that the public opinion of the world is of no importance. Secretary Kellogg is at the moment engaged in a pre-election effort to make this nation feel self-righteous by a general declaration abjuring war. Words without deeds are not enough.

Two matters of recent occurrence are not germane to this review of official American policy. The able assistance of three Americans in working out the Dawes Plan was carefully disclaimed by the Administration as a wholly private venture before they started for Paris. When they succeeded, many politicians, including President Coolidge and Secretary Hughes, pointed with pride and claimed them for their own.

So, too, the debt settlements seem to be in most part water which has gone over the dam. Most of the war debts have been dealt with by governmental agreement, and it is worth while to speak only of a few results. Our Government loaned to Europe about $10,000,000,000. It will receive in return (over a period of years to be sure) about $22,000,000,000. The other important fact is that these settlements are one of the many causes for the dislike in which we are held among the peoples as well as the Governments of Europe. It is all very well to say that "nobody loves a creditor." True, but every creditor is not a hated creditor. In a time of general poverty and retrenchment our Government has seemed greedy. This is not mainly because we have refused to let considerations of sentiment influence our attitude toward our late comrades in arms, but because while exacting payment we have by our discriminatory and exhorbitant tariff policy made it doubly hard for them to pay. We have wanted to eat our cake and have it too.

Last of all, and in many ways most important of all, is the subject of the Americas. The Wilson Administration started splendidly by eliminating "Dollar Diplomacy," and by the Mobile speech to which I have already referred. It helped the cause of better feeling on the part of the Central and South American nations by its ready acceptance of the offer of Argentine, Brazil and Chili to be of friendly assistance in Mexico. But intervention as we practiced it in Santo Domingo and Haiti was not another forward step. It is not that assistance of some sort was not necessary; it was the method which was wrong. I had a slight part in these actions. As they are excellent illustrations of circumstances which may recur it is worth while to summarize them.

In the case of Santo Domingo we had had for several years by treaty an American Customs Receiver in that Republic, principally to insure the payment of the external debt. Serious political disturbances endangered economic life and threatened anarchy, and when a revolution left the country without a president, a cabinet or a legislature, or even any form of government, American marines and sailors were landed. They remained until last year. Peace was insured, good roads, railroads, sanitation, honest taxes and honest expenditures were introduced, and the government was handed back to the citizens of Santo Domingo after a stewardship of about twelve years. We accomplished an excellent piece of constructive work, and the world ought to thank us.

In Haiti a worse situation faced us. That Republic was in chronic trouble, and as it is close to Cuba the bad influence was felt across the water. Presidents were murdered, governments fled, several times a year. We landed our marines and sailors only when the unfortunate Chief Magistrate of the moment was dragged out of the French Legation, cut into six pieces and thrown to the mob. Here again we cleaned house, restored order, built public works and put governmental operation on a sound and honest basis. We are still there. It is true, however, that in Santo Domingo and especially in Haiti we seem to have paid too little attention to making the citizens of these states more capable of reassuming the control of their own governments. But we have done a fine piece of material work, and the world ought to thank us.

But does it? In these cases the world is really the Latin American world, for Europe cares little about what goes on in Santo Domingo or Haiti or Nicaragua. The other republics of the Americas do not thank us, on the contrary they disapprove our intervention almost unanimously. By what right, they say, other than the right of main force, does the United States arrogate unto itself the privilege of intervening alone in the internal affairs of another Sovereign Republic?

The net result of these instances, and recently of the far less justified intervention in Nicaragua, is that never before in our history have we had fewer friends in the Western Hemisphere than we have today. We are certainly far from popular in Canada; we are slightly better off than last year in Mexico, thanks to the individual efforts of Mr. Morrow and Col. Lindbergh; and in the sixteen Republics of Central and South America the United States Government by its recent policies has allowed a dislike and mistrust of long standing to grow into something like positive hate and fear.

The time has come when we must accept not only certain facts but many new principles of a higher law, a newer and better standard in international relations. We are exceedingly jealous of our own sovereignty and it is only right that we should respect a similar feeling among other nations. The peoples of the other Republics of this Western world are just as patriotic, just as proud of their sovereignty. Many of these nations are large, wealthy and highly civilized. The peace, the security, the integrity, the independence of every one of the American Republics is of interest to all the others, not to the United States alone.

It is possible that in the days to come one of our sister nations may fall upon evil days; disorder and bad government may require that a helping hand be given her citizens as a matter of temporary necessity to bring back order and stability. In that event it is not the right or the duty of the United States to intervene alone. It is rather the duty of the United States to associate with itself other American Republics, to give intelligent joint study to the problem, and, if the conditions warrant, to offer the helping hand or hands in the name of the Americas. Singlehanded intervention by us in the internal affairs of other nations must end; with the coöperation of others we shall have more order in this hemisphere and less dislike.

How the present administration has bungled the Nicaraguan matter is too recent to need description, but how it has wholly failed to advance a single step in our Latin American relations is just beginning to be understood and regretted. It failed dismally in the effort to settle the Tacna-Arica dispute between Chili and Peru. It has only one success to its credit, and that a negative one. The recent Havana conference of the Pan American Nations threatened to bring out not only hostile speeches but definitely hostile action towards the United States. Former Secretary Hughes averted this. That, in the judgment of most people, is about all that can be said.

So the record has been written. The facts are with us. In a period of great international activity in the improvement of machinery to avoid war and to settle all manner of troubles, we must look back on nine gray years, barren of constructive result on our part, if the naval armament temporary pact be expected. Today our Secretary of State is working on a glorified multi-powered declaration solemnly resolving against war. He has rediscovered the Bryan Treaties. He can do no direct harm by these efforts; but if he fails to do concrete good he may satisfy many fine aspirations with something unreal. It is of the utmost importance that this nation realize that war cannot be outlawed by resolution alone. That has failed for two thousand years. Since earliest history nations have entered into treaties of "eternal peace and friendship." Time after time solemn agreements have been signed only to fall under the heat of misunderstanding or the desire for power. The primary cause of failure in the past has been the lack of machinery for the elimination of the causes of disputes before they reach grave proportions. Practical machinery must be erected and kept in good working order. Secretary Kellogg's plan, even if approved by the leading nations, still fails in two points. It leads to a false belief in America that we have taken a great step forward. It does not contribute in any way to settling matters of international controversy.

In the simplest terms, this is the argument for a policy different from that of the past nine years. Up until then most of our history shows us to have been a nation leading others in the slow upward steps to better international understanding and the peaceful settlement of disagreements. During these nine years we have stood still, with the unfortunate effect of earning greater or less ill will on the part of the other civilized peoples. Even a lack of good will in the long run must affect our trade, as we have been shown by a recent concrete example in Argentina. Neither from the argument of financial gain, nor from the sounder reasoning of the Golden Rule, can our policy, or lack of policy, be approved. The time is ripe to start another chapter.

On that new page there is much that should be written in the spirit of our forbears. If the leadership is right—or, more truly, if the spirit behind it is great—the United States can regain the world's trust and friendship and become again of service. We can point the way once more to the reducing of armaments; we can coöperate officially and whole-heartedly with every agency that studies and works to relieve the common ills of mankind; and we can for all time renounce the practice of arbitrary intervention in the home affairs of our neighbors.

It is the spirit, sir, which matters.

[i] "Steps Toward Preserving Peace," Foreign Affairs. Vol. 3, No. 3.

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  • FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1913-20; Democratic nominee for Vice-President of the United States in 1920
  • More By Franklin D. Roosevelt