Address to Congress on the Funding of Debt Owed by Great Britain and Aid to the Merchant Marine
To the Congress:
You have been asked to assemble in joint session in order that I may submit to you the report of the World War Foreign Debt Commission, covering its accepted proposal for the funding of the debt due to the United States from the Government of Great Britain. This report, concluded on February 3, 1923, reads as follows:
The World War Foreign Debt Commission created under the act of Congress approved February 9, 1922, having received the mission appointed by the British Government to consider the funding of the demand obligations of that Government held by the United States, report as follows:
The British Government designated as its representatives the Right Honorable Stanley Baldwin, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Mr. Montagu Norman, the governor of the Bank of England, who have conferred with the commission in Washington and presented facts relating to the position of the British Government. The commission has also met frequently in separate sessions and has given the fullest consideration to the problems involved in the funding of the British debt to the United States.
It became manifest at the outset that it would not be possible to effect an agreement for funding within the limits of the act approved February 9, 1922, and the commission has, therefore, considered the practicability of a settlement on some other basis, and though it has not been able, in the absence of authority under the law, to conclude negotiations, it unanimously recommends for submission to Congress a settlement with the British Government as follows:
Principal of notes to be refunded, $4,074,818,358.44.
Interest accrued and unpaid up to December 15, 1922, at the rate of 4% per cent., $629,836,106.99.
Deduct payments made October 16, 1922, and November 15, 1922, with interest at 4% per cent, thereon to December 15, 1922, $100,526,379.69.
To be paid in cash, $4,128,085.74.
Total principal of indebtedness as of December 15, 1922, for which British Government bonds are to be issued to the United States Government at par, $4,600,000,000.
The principal of the bonds shall be paid in annual instalments on a fixed schedule, subject to the right of the British Government to make these payments in three-year periods. The amount of the first year's instalment will be $23,000,000 and these annual instalments will increase with due regularity during the life of the bonds until, in the sixty-second year, the amount of the instalment will be $175,000,000, the aggregate instalments being equal to the total principal of the debt.
The British Government shall have the right to pay off additional amounts of the principal of the bonds on any interest date upon ninety days' previous notice.
Interest is to be payable upon the unpaid balances at the following rates, on December 15 and June 15 of each year: 3 per cent, semi-annually, June 15, 1923, to December 15, 1932, inclusive; 3½ per cent, semi-annually, June 15, 1933, until final payment. For the first five years one-half the interest may be deferred and added to the principal, bonds to be issued therefor similar to those of the original issue. Any payment of interest or of principal may be made in any United States Government bonds issued since April 6, 1917, such bonds to be taken at par and accrued interest.
The commission believes that a settlement of the British debt to the United States on this basis is fair and just to both Governments and that its prompt adoption will make a most important contribution to international stability. The extension of payment, both of the principal and interest, over a long period will make for stability in exchange and promotion of commerce between the two countries. The payment of principal has been established on a basis of positive instalments of increasing volume, firmly establishing the principle of repayment of the entire capital sum. The payment of interest has been established at the approximately normal rates payable by strong governments over long terms of years.
It has not been the thought of the commission that it would be just to demand over a long period the high rate of interest naturally maintained during the war and reconstruction, and that such an attempt would defeat our efforts at settlement. Beyond this the commission has felt that the present difficulties of unemployment and high taxation in the United Kingdom should be met with suitable consideration during the early years, and therefore the commission considers it equitable and desirable that payments during the next few years should be made on such basis and with such flexibility as will encourage economic recuperation not only in the countries immediately concerned but throughout the world.
This settlement between the British Government and the United States has the utmost significance. It is a business settlement, fully preserving the integrity of the obligations, and it represents the first great step in the readjustment of the intergovernmental obligations growing out of the war.
A. W. MELLON, chairman; CHARLES E. HUGHES, HERBERT HOOVER, REED SMOOT, THEODORE E. BURTON.
In its comments upon the arrangements negotiated the commission itself has said essentially everything necessary to commend the agreement to your sanction. Note that the commission urges that the settlement is on a basis which "is fair and just to both Governments" and "will make a most important contribution to international stability." More important still is the closing observation that "it is a business settlement, fully preserving the integrity of the obligations, and it represents the first great step in the readjustment of the intergovernmental obligations growing out of the war." In these observations I most heartily approve. The call of the world today is for integrity of agreements, the sanctity of covenants, the validity of contracts. Here is the first clearing of the war-clouded skies in a debt-burdened world, and the sincere commitment of one great nation to validate its financial pledges and discharge its obligations in the highest sense of financial honor.
There is no purpose to report that your commission has driven a hard bargain with Great Britain, or to do a less seemly thing in proclaiming a rare generosity in settlement. Amid widespread clamor for the cancellation of World War debts as a fancied but fallacious contribution toward peace—a clamor not limited to the lands of debtor nations but insistent among many of our own people—the British commission came to make acknowledgment of the debt, to put fresh stamp of approval upon its validity and agree upon terms for its repayment. It was manifest from the beginning that Great Britain could not undertake any program of payment which would conform to the limitations of time and interest rates which the commission had been authorized to grant. But here was a great nation acknowledging its obligations and seeking terms on which it might repay. So your commission proceeded to negotiate in a business way for a fair and just settlement.
Such a settlement had to take into consideration the approximately normal interest rates payable, as the commission suggests, "by strong Governments over a long term of years," with a temporary interest rate and suitable options adjusted to the tremendous problems of readjustment and recuperation. Your commission went so far as it believed the American sense of fair play would justify. Even then the British Debt Commission did not feel justified by its instructions to accept the proposal. Only after submission to the British Cabinet was the proposal of your commission accepted, and I bring it to you with the earnest recommendation that it be given, so far as legislation procedure will admit, a cordial and prompt approval.
A transaction of such vast importance naturally has attracted widespread attention and much of commendation. It is a very gratifying thing to note the press and public have uttered substantially unanimous approval. It means vastly more than the mere funding and the ultimate discharge of the largest international loan ever contracted. It is a re-commitment of the English-speaking world to the validity of contract; it is in effect a plight against war and war expenditures and a rigid adherence to that production and retrenchment which enhances stability precisely as it discharges obligations.
It can not be unseemly to say it, and it is too important to be omitted, the failure of the British undertaking would have spread political and economic discouragement throughout the world and general repudiation would have likely followed in its wake. But here is kept faith—willingly kept, let it be recorded—and a covenant of peace no less effective than it would be if joint British and American opposition to war were expressly agreed Upon. It is a covenant of peace and recuperation, of respect and cooperation. It is a new element of financial and economic stabilization, when the world is sadly needing a reminder of the ways of peace. It is an example of encouragement and inspiration, when the world is staggering in discouragement and bowed with the sorrows of wars that were and fears of wars which humanity is praying may be avoided.
Ordinarily I should be reluctant to add this question to a Congressional program which is already crowded, in view of the short period remaining of your session. But it is of such outstanding importance to us and to the world that I should be remiss if I did not invite your sanction even amid crowded calendars and pending problems of great importance. And I hope you will be glad to approve. If the debtor nation could decide to assume the great obligation, in two Cabinet sessions, in the face of enormous financial and economic difficulties, surely the deciding authority of the creditor nation will be ready to approve in a spirit appropriate to the great transacion and with a promptness which will convey befitting appreciation.
I am not unmindful of the disposition to pledge the application of anticipated payments in giving sanction to the settlement. It is not necessary to remind the Congress that the use of moneys secured in the repayment of war loans has been pledged by the very grant of authority to make the loans. The repeal of that commitment is always within the authority of the Congress if such a repeal is deemed wise, but it will best comport with the importance of such an international transaction to give a frank, exclusive, and direct decision, uninvolved by any disposition of the moneys which the funding program ultimately will bring to the federal Treasury.
Nor am I unmindful of the importance of pending legislation with which any prolonged consideration of the debt settlement might come in conflict. Knowing there is abundant time for ample debate, I would be recreant to my belief in the urgency of a decision on the Merchant Marine Bill if I did not renew the request that it be brought to a final disposition. I venture the allusion because it has been threatened that the Merchant Marine Act shall not be allowed to come to a vote.
Today you have a debt settlement which is to bring the Treasury something more than a hundred and fifty millions a year, and we rightly appraise it a notable accomplishment. On the other hand, the executive branch of the Government is charged with the operation of Government-owned shipping, which is losing the federal Treasury $50,000,000 a year. It is as important to avoid losses as it is to secure funds on debts or from taxation sources.
I have detailed the discouraging situation with regard to our shipping to Congress, and have suggested what is believed to be a remedy, not only to put an end to the losses but to upbuild an American merchant marine to meet our cherished aspirations and further our commerce abroad. In inviting your support, I frankly urged that if Congress would not approve, it should submit some alternative remedy. I am unwilling, the public is unwilling, to continue these appalling losses to the public Treasury when we know we are operating with no prospect of relief or of ultimate achievement.
Congress owes to itself, to the executive branch of the Government, and to the American public some decisive action. Mere avoidance by prolonged debate is a mark of impotence on a vitally important public question. I plead for a decision. If there is a favorable majority, the bill should be enacted. If a majority is opposed, defeat will be decisive. Then, if Congress fails in providing the requested alternative measure, the executive branch of the Government may proceed as best it can to end the losses in liquidation and humiliation.
I speak frankly, because the situation demands frankness. I am trying to emphasize a responsibility which can not be met by one branch of the Government alone. There is call for Congressional expression, not mere avoidance. I am not seeking now to influence the Senate's decision, but I am appealing for Some decision. There is time, abundant time, for decisive action on both these tremendously important questions. I have brought up the shipping bill because I can foresee the possible conflict for right of way, but it ought and can be avoided. There is time for essential debate of both, and each carries its own appeal. Either is fit to be recorded a chapter in great achievement, both will mark a signal triumph. Both are inseparably related to our good fortunes at home and our high place in the world.
Warren G. Harding, Address to Congress on the Funding of Debt Owed by Great Britain and Aid to the Merchant Marine Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/329327