Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference

September 05, 1941

THE PRESIDENT: You will all be asking about the attack of yesterday, so we might as well clear that up first.

There is nothing to add, except that there was more than one attack, and that it occurred in daylight, and it occurred definitely on the American side of the ocean. This time there is nothing more to add except two thoughts I have. I heard one or two broadcasters this morning, and I read a few things that have been said by people in Washington, which reminded me of a—perhaps we might call it an allegory.

Once upon a time, at a place where I was living, there were some school children living out in the country who were on their way to school, and somebody undisclosed fired a number of shots at them from the bushes. The father of the children took the position that there wasn't anything to do about it—search the bushes, and take any other steps—because the children hadn't been hit. I don't think that's a bad illustration, in regard to the position of some people this morning.

The destroyer—it is a very, very fortunate thing that the destroyer was not hit in these attacks. And I think that is all that can be said on the subject today.

Q. Mr. President, there is one thing that occurred to me, and I wondered if you could clear that up: Was the identification of our ship solely by that little flag astern, or were there other ships going with this destroyer? Were there larger ships that made identification much easier?

THE PRESIDENT: She was alone at the time, clearly marked. Of course an identification number was on her, plus the flag. And the fact remains that, as I said before, there was more than one attack.

Q. Mr. President, does that mean more than one torpedo, or—

THE PRESIDENT: (interposing) More than one attack.

Q. On the same ship, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: On the same ship. . . .

Q. Is there anything to account, sir, for the bad aim? Any naval explanation of that? (Laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: That is—that question is a little bit beyond my power to answer. . . .

Q. What did you say, sir, about being on the- you said on the American side of the ocean?


Q. Plainly on the American side?


Q. As one landlubber to a sea expert, is it at all possible for a submarine commander to make a mistake of identification in broad daylight at that torpedo distance? Do you care to answer that?

THE PRESIDENT: I suppose it could be put this way: If a sub-marine had its periscope up above the surface, do you see, there is no excuse for the wrong identification. And, of course, most torpedoes are fired from a visual sight of the objective. That means you have got to have your periscope up above the surface. There is, of course, another way: As you know, every—almost all Navy ships—German included —or Italian- have listening devices, and they can hear the propellers, or machinery, of the other ships at some distance. Therefore, it is physically possible for a submarine to fire at a sound.

Q. Well, is it accurate?

THE PRESIDENT: Of course it isn't nearly as accurate as if you see what you are shooting at.

Q. I see.

Q. Mr. President, how would you class this incident with regard to a shooting war?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, well, those are hypothetical questions. I said that was all there was to be said about it.

Q. As another landlubber, I would like to ask a question here. Is it possible for a destroyer to be on the American side of the Atlantic, and still be within the zone delineated by Mr. Hitler as a belligerent zone?

THE PRESIDENT: Such a zone—of course, in the first place, we have never been notified of it, and in the second place it was said to be a blockade. Well, of course, everybody knows that a blockade is never recognized unless it is effective.

Q. Mr. President, could you say whether the Greer in promptly firing back, or promptly counterattacking, behaved in accordance with its instructions- in accordance with our policy?

THE PRESIDENT: Any information to the contrary—. What would you do if somebody fired a torpedo at you? (Laughter)

Q. Mr. President, can you say whether there was more than one attacker?

THE PRESIDENT: More than one attack, I said.

Q. Mr. President, was the periscope above the water in this case?

THE PRESIDENT: That I can't talk about at the present time. It makes no difference if it was below that they fired at an unknown ship. If it was below the water and they fired at an unknown ship, we would make every effort to discover the identity of the ship. Well, what would you do, again?

Q. Mr. President, is any search of bushes being made out there?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, yes. In other words, I don't go along with the father of those children. You might almost say that the school teacher is searching the bushes.

Q. Who is he?

THE PRESIDENT: (adding) Even where a father wouldn't.

Q. Mr. President, can you say at this time whether any alteration has been made in orders to the naval vessels?


Q. You can't say, or it hasn't been —

THE PRESIDENT: No. Nothing's been done.

Q. Going back to this occurrence at sea. At one time, if a vessel was attacked they were going to tell poppa. They don't do that any more.

THE PRESIDENT: I know it. Isn't that a funny thing? (Laughter)

Q. They don't wait for the parent to say, "Go ahead, boys."

THE PRESIDENT: That's right. Poppa only gets—I mean the schoolteacher only gets burnt on Tuesday afternoon and Friday morning. (Laughter)

Q. Mr. President, what is the schoolteacher going to do if they find this marauder? What can be done? Seriously, can you discuss that?

THE PRESIDENT: I suppose eliminate him. Try to.

Q. That's the idea.

THE PRESIDENT: "Eliminate" is a reasonably good word.

Q. I am confused as to who is the schoolteacher.

THE PRESIDENT: I am the schoolteacher. Call "poppa" some of these people that are saying, "Forget it. The children were not hit."

Q. Mr. President, what were the conditions of light? . . .


Q. Good daylight?


Q. No fog?

THE PRESIDENT: Good visibility. Put it that way.

Q. How about it?

THE PRESIDENT: Now, let's see, what else have we got? Oh, yes, here's one thing I want to talk to you about, because I think it's a pretty good illustration. . . . I suppose we had better make this off the record entirely, not even background, because it is something between us.

Several months ago, the Malaya came into New York Harbor on Sunday morning, in broad daylight. Well, Frank Knox was talking to some of you over at the Department about not publishing ship movements, and they did a stupid thing in having the Malaya come in, and five million people see it. And there were certain newspapers in this country who said, "Why should we live up to the request of the Secretary of the Navy about ship movements? Everybody knows it—a lot of people see ships moving around."

And it was explained very carefully at that time that if there were German spies in this country, and everything is published in the newspapers, all the "head fellow" has to do is to sit at his desk and read all about everything from the papers. He doesn't have to hire anybody. He gets the whole thing right there. In other words, all he is is a clipping bureau. And he is able to receive the information at no cost which he gets through the American press.

Well, we all understood that at that time. And since that particular episode, there have been a lot of British, and some Canadian, and some other ships that have come in here for repairs, and the press has been just one thousand per cent good about it. They have been perfectly fine in not listing these ships.

Well, we all knew that the Illustrious was down at Norfolk, and we didn't say a word about it, except a few—one or two types of papers—until this young fellow Mountbatten went down the other day, and the Navy Department said it was perfectly all right, so long as it had been general knowledge for several months, to mention the fact that the Illustrious is at Norfolk.

Now, when it comes down to the other question of the turnout of certain supplies, like planes, if we give out a monthly statement, the German fellow behind the desk can get it all from the paper. And as you know, we have given it out through the O.P.M. on planes, but we haven't given out other figures on things like depth charges, and machine guns, and so forth and so on. It has been pretty well kept.

Yesterday I had a very interesting talk with the Attorney General, and Edgar Hoover, and they showed me—I have it in my hand—some German information—that is to say it's a German request of some of the German agents in this country, showing that things that you and I know about are still not in the possession of the German Government, except through very careful search- in other words, the hiring of spies to find out what the production is, and where it's going.

They have sent out certain requests to their agents in this country—asking for a breakdown of the total number of airplanes produced during a given month; how many of this type of pursuit plane; how many of that type; how many this type of bomber; how many the other type of bomber; how many training planes. And then a second series of questions sent to all their agents: Where are they going? What is the destination of these planes? Is it American Army? Is it Great Britain? Is it Canada? Is it Africa? Is it Near East? Is it the Far East? They all want to know.

And from our point of view, I think we all recognize that if we hand out all this information every month, not only planes but tanks, and so forth and so on, it makes the German information task vastly easier. And that is why the question is an important one. It helps Germany, if we give out all the details and figures.

Now I am not shutting down on certain totals at this time, but the question is going to arise as soon as we know that the increase in planes during the month of August was about-what was it?—390?

Q. Three hundred ninety-four.

THE PRESIDENT: Three hundred ninety-four—four hundred planes more than the previous month. Now there are a lot of people who know they can get the stuff around, fairly well, even to the breakdown. You can probably—by snooping around in a perfectly legitimate way—get that breakdown, find out how many planes there were of different types, how many training planes; how many big bombers; how many small bombers, etc. And if it is published it is going to be of definite aid to the Axis powers.

Now, there is no particular reason why those figures could not properly be given to the Committees of the Congress, with the understanding that they will not be made public.

Now, off the record that is rather a difficult job, but nevertheless, the legislative branch of the Government is entitled to certain information in working out new appropriations, and if there is any leak from up there, well, it certainly isn't the fault of the administrative branch of the Government.

Neither would it be the fault of the press, if the press did not publish it, and that is why I am going just to throw out the suggestion at this time- without anything like a formal request—the suggestion that we consider pretty carefully publishing in the press figures of production in this country, on the ground that it would be definitely of aid to the Axis powers. O.P.M.'s been giving that out. I think probably that the Army ought not to give out any statement about tanks. Actually, and again off the record, the number of tanks produced this past month has shown a very, very great rise over the figure of the previous month, and the month before that. I think it's a mistake to aid the Axis powers by giving the actual figures.

Q. Mr. President, could I ask a question while we are off the record? I would like to get your opinion on this, because it has been advanced by Senator Byrd and other people, that hold that it is more important to drag this—any deficiency, out in the open, at this stage of procedure, and get it corrected, than it is to keep that kind of information, at this stage, from the Germans. Have you- what is your idea on that, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think probably that in those cases of the deficiencies you must depend in the first instance on going to the departments concerned to get their figures. In other words, being accurate in the first instance, getting the real, actual facts.

And that is why—I am still off the record—we are talking about improving our information service in two lines. First, through the public, and secondly for members of the House and the Senate, so that instead of going to one man, and another man, and getting figures that are based on different facts, different methods—as you always can—they will get something absolutely authoritative from one bureau of the Government—that probably would be Lowell Mellett's Bureau—which would get the figures that everybody could agree on.

If you go around—I have often used the example—an airplane may come out of a factory, complete so far as that factory is concerned. Now, some agency of the Government may very easily put that down as a completed plane. All right. Now, suppose there are two other steps. The factory doesn't put the artillery on the plane, and the plane may sit there without any guns. Well, the fellow that is doing the gun work, as soon as he gets the guns onto that plane, he will call it a completed plane. And then there is the navigational instrument fellow, and he will, just as soon as he gets his navigational instruments on the plane- he will say the plane's completed. But, suppose the plane hadn't got any propeller? Now, as soon as the propeller fellow in charge of that has got a propeller on the plane, he calls it complete.

In other words, we have to have a basis to go on, a criterion as to what is a completed plane. And that is why you can get all kinds of different figures, whether you are a member of the Senate or a member of the press. And what we are trying to do now is standardize it, and lay down rules as to what is a completed plane. Well, that has never been done. I think it will help everybody. . . .

Q. Mr. President, is there some way of figuring a standard of measurement on these things? After all, I think the people, certainly the editors and readers, are interested in the comparison.


Q. They don't remember from one week to another how many planes were produced, but they do want to know about any progress.


Q. (continuing) Have you been able to work out either a horsepower or gun-power method, in order to show progress, and still not disclose the type of plane? Or would it be possible that—after this information is known to all, to make it public? We have to guess at figures on bombers because that seems to be the great interest. How many of these planes are trainers which come off like Chevrolets; and how many come off are bombers, which are Rolls Royces?

THE PRESIDENT: Of course, that's the information the Germans are crazy to get.

Q. I was just wondering—

THE PRESIDENT: If we could get the thing explained to the American people—I suppose next month I will go on the air and explain it to the American people.

Let me give you an example: A year ago there was a certain figure that we hoped we would get—had hope we would reach—in other words a line going on up- constantly increased production. Well, those were totals. Let us say, for example, that instead of putting it in total of airplanes, you put it in total of man-hours. Now, that's a much more important thing, and sufficiently difficult to explain, and made infinitely more difficult to explain because there are a whole lot of people- columnists, and so forth- who would want deliberately to leave that end of it out in what they are telling the American people.

If you have last year's figures that were based on—well, it was considering military needs of the time, and the great bulk of the planes were pursuit planes, fighter planes. All right. In the last three or four months all the military authorities here, and on the other side, and our observers said, "You are making too many pursuit planes and not enough bombers." Right.

Now a bomber must take some figure- it is not a correct figure because I don't know what the figure is, but a bomber takes, let us say, three times as many man-hours to turn out as a pursuit plane. Therefore, Q.E.D., if you have the same number of man-hours, you will turn out only one third in bombers as you would have turned out in pursuit planes. Therefore, it throws last year's figures, I suppose, into the discard.

Now, we are increasing, of course, on our bomber output, but it is only in the last five months that we have been changing over, and there is a certain lag on that change-over, of course. You can't simply issue an order Monday and have it start on Tuesday. We are not making as many pursuit planes. We are making more bombers, but with the same number of man-hours. I think people will be able to understand that.

Q. Mr. President, I think you agree we are up against the problem —

THE PRESIDENT: (interposing) Oh sure.

Q. (continuing) For instance, it may be charged in defense production, that if we can't run these figures, we are using-adopting a partisan attitude on it. There is a problem there. Do you agree, sir, on the figures, how difficult it is?

THE PRESIDENT: I do. It's a real problem. You see, I am not asking anything special, except that you recognize that there is a problem. . . .

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

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