Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference

December 29, 1936

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Fred (Storm). Pretty good crowd today.

MR. STORM: Pretty good audience, yes.

THE PRESIDENT: I think Christmas cannot have been so very severe, there are so many.

MR. STORM: They are all on their feet. . . .

Q. Can you say whether you are giving any consideration to legislation that would strengthen the Arms Embargo Act, particularly in the case of civil war?

THE PRESIDENT: Obviously, there should be a further discretion vested in the President with the appropriate penalties to take care of internal strife. I leave out the words "civil war" for the perfectly obvious reason which is illustrative of why no Act can possibly take into consideration every future contingency.

In other words, ask yourself the question, Fred, what is a civil war and you see how impossible it is to define it.

The Confederate States, as I remember it, most of them seceded from the Union in the winter of 1861. Most of them had seceded some time before Sumter. Well, what was the status then? Was it a civil war?

Then, in the late April of 1861, Sumter was fired on. Hostilities were confined at that time to Charleston Harbor. Was there a civil war going on? I don't know. In the North, they called it a Rebellion; in the South, they called it a War between the States.

For a good many years we fought in this country a series of wars with the Redskins. They were recognized as wars because of the fact that special decorations were given to people who fought in them. They were the Indian Wars. Was that a civil war in the United States or not?

Further back, there was a Whiskey Rebellion, soon after the Revolution. Was that a civil war? I don't know.

In other words, civil war means anything or nothing; and the circumstances and the particular case must be decided on by somebody who has authority 365 days of the year. That is about the easiest answer.

Of course it seems obvious that today, in this particular case in Spain, there are two organized groups of armies and the normal person trying to define the Spanish situation would normally call that particular situation a civil war. There isn't much question about that.

In this particular case of the sale of these planes and engines, it is perhaps a rather good example of the need of some power in the Executive. It is, furthermore, an example of cooperation by business. As the State Department has told you, they have had a number of applications from American citizens and firms to sell munitions to the belligerents in Spain, to one side or the other, and the State Department specifically and definitely requested them not to engage in the transaction on two grounds, the first that it was contrary to the Government policy, and the second that it was endangering, even if only to a slight degree, our desire to be neutral in this unfortunate happening in Spain.

Well, these companies went along with the request of the Government. There is the 90 percent of business that is honest, I mean ethically honest. There is the 90 percent we are always pointing at with pride. And then one man does what amounts to a perfectly legal but thoroughly unpatriotic act. He represents the 10 percent or less of business that does not live up to the best standards.

Excuse the homily, but I feel quite deeply about it.

Q. Supposing that the Government would not grant this license, or whatever you call it, for the exportation of those munitions?

THE PRESIDENT: We have to under the law. The law says we must issue them.

Q. There are some persons who say that you have discretion under the law and that it could be refused?

THE PRESIDENT: Couldn't do it. Absolutely not a chance. The law says that this Committee in the State Department shall grant the license.

Q. A mandamus could be obtained?

THE PRESIDENT: Of course, there is the other phase of the case. If legislation is passed extending even the present Neutrality Act to civil wars and I find, by an Executive finding, that a civil war exists in the same way that I would under the present Act that a war between two Nations exists, and that Act should become law within the next two weeks after Congress meets, we could then clamp down on this particular shipment under this particular contract or commission.

That immediately raises the question as to whether this particular individual could go to the Court of Claims and seek damages for the promise which he otherwise would claim he could have made.

The best way of answering that is to ask you to read the Supreme Court's decision in the Neutrality case the other day. There is an intimation in there, only an intimation-nobody can guess how the Supreme Court would rule in a case like that—but the intimation is there to the effect that, it being an act contrary to the request of the Government, and the conduct of foreign affairs being in the Executive, the Courts would not grant reimbursement to this individual for a loss of what he otherwise would have made as being contrary to public policy. But, as I say, you cannot tell until the case is decided.

Q. This manufacturer who obtained this license was quoted today as saying that his planes were not to be used for military purposes at all. He claims he had a perfectly valid right and that he would provide employment for 1,500 skilled workmen. He says they are not to be used for war purposes at all.

THE PRESIDENT: Of course that particular plea was made in 1914 and 1915 and 1916, in just the same way. They said that the export of machine guns would give work to Americans. That does not mean it is the right thing to do.

Q. Mr. President, did you see the story this morning that there was a recommendation forthcoming, asking that a Central Press Bureau be established under which all the press relations would be handled?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes. Off the record, the Times Bureau had a brain storm. I never heard of it until I read it in the Times, and I don't want to hear any more about it. . . .

Q. Some of the Senators are complaining that they cannot make recommendations for Judges for the Judgeships that Congress created because of the 60-year age limit. My understanding was that the Department of Justice and yourself would not waive that 60-year age limit.

THE PRESIDENT: That has been an Executive prerogative for four years and I don't think I have sent to the Senate the name of any new judge over 60 years old and I think I shall stick to it. It is a pretty good rule.

Q. Can you tell us what Sidney Hillman dropped in this morning for?

THE PRESIDENT: We discussed a lot of things. Among others, we discussed the breakdown of both the maximum-hour and minimum-wage provisions that we enforced until a little over a year ago. There seems to be a general consensus of opinion and statistics—you might try to get a story out of the Department of Labor on that or out of the Central Statistical Board-showing the breakdown of the child labor provisions and also the minimum-wage, maximum-hour provisions.

There has been very little printed about it, but the fact remains that the breakdown has been constant and increasing.

I had one experience in the campaign- I don't think any of you who were with me saw it that particular day because it was half a mile back, I mean you were half a mile back. It was on that hectic ride from Providence to Boston.

We got into New Bedford and in that park there was the most awful jam. There must have been 20,000 people where there was room for only about a thousand and they were jammed around my car. There was a girl six or seven feet away who was trying to pass an envelope to me and she was just too far away to reach. One of the policemen threw her back into the crowd and I said to Gus (Gennerich), "Get the note from that girl." He got it and handed it to me and the note said this: "Dear Mr. President: I wish you could do something to help us girls. You are the only recourse we have got left. We have been working in a sewing factory, a garment factory, and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week (I think it was $11 a week) and even the learners were getting $7 or $8 a week. Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week. You are the only man that can do anything about it. Please send somebody from Washington up here to restore our minimum wages because we cannot live on $4 or $5 or $6 a week."

That is something that many of us found in the campaign—that many of these people actually think that I have the power to restore things like minimum wages and maximum hours and the elimination of child labor. That was just one example of a good many in the campaign. Of course letters keep coming in all the time which say that just by Executive Order or action I can take care of these individual cases. Of course, I haven't any power to do it. . . .

Q. Do you think something should be done to restore minimum pay and maximum hours by the Government?

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. But don't write any story saying that the President is going to restore N.R.A. That is the easy, sloppy method of writing a story. Anybody can do that. What I would like to have you do is to point out the fact that something has got to be done, and don't go beyond "something." Don't get out on a limb, because you know how often you have sawed off your own limb. Say that something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages. That is as far as I could go. If I were writing the story, I would stick to that.

Q. What did you do with the letter you got in the crowd?

THE PRESIDENT: I sent it to the Department of Labor and I sent a copy to the Massachusetts Labor Commissioner. What happened, I do not know. . . .

Q. Did you send a copy to the Supreme Court? (Laughter)

Q. Can we look for a specific recommendation from you some time early in the Session on this proposal?

THE PRESIDENT; I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet today. . . .

Q. Do you think the situation can be handled by State action without Federal help?


Q. Did Sidney Hillman have a suggestion?


Q. Can a sweat shop, by offering to take men on for jobs paying$7 and $8 a week, force them off the W.P.A. rolls in order to do it?

THE PRESIDENT: That is a difficulty we face in a great many localities. People on the W.P.A. rolls have been offered jobs on such a low weekly or daily wage that we simply, in good conscience, could not throw them off W.P.A. rolls to take what we considered an inadequate daily wage. . . .

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Excerpts from the Press Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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