Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference

March 17, 1942

THE PRESIDENT: I have got quite a lot of things, and I will start with those in lighter vein and come to the more serious things later.

You know, the only thing that overburdens my shoulders, I being popularly supposed to be overburdened, are some of the dear, "happy thought" people, commentators and editors—not you news people—who bring in hundreds of letters to me just because of some slip of the pen. I suppose I have got two or three hundred letters because of an editorial in one of our more solemn papers, which stated: "Now that Admiral King has been given authority in the Navy comparable with that already held by General Marshall in the Army, it should create a joint general staff in charge of the duty of directing, under the President, all naval and military operations."

Well, it has been a perfect headache. It must have taken a couple of hours of my time in answering letters that were based on that completely false statement. Because, of course, we have had a joint staff for a good long time, not once a week, or something like that, but several times a day. And lots of things like that come up. Well, I figured it out, being of an historical turn of mind, that probably some poor devil had gone through this process of annoyance in past years, some previous time in history, so I went quite far back and I found a very nice thing because we do need to restore our sense of proportion sometimes.

I think this comes from Book 44, Chapter 22, of a great historian by the name of Livy, who wrote about Lucius Aemilius, a Roman consul who had been selected to conduct the war with the Macedonians, B.C.. 168. That's not A.D.—that would be an entirely different matter. This is B.C.—168. He went out from the Senate into the Assembly of the people and addressed them as follows- it sounds as if it were written in 1942:

(Reading): "In all public places where people congregate, and

actually—would you believe it!

"—in private parties—"

Doesn't that sound just like Washington? (Laughter)"

— there are men —"

Of course today could be added women.

"—who know who are leading the armies into Macedonia, where their camps ought to be placed, what strategical positions ought to be occupied, when and by what pass Macedonia ought to be entered, where the magazines are to be formed, by what mode of land and sea transport —"

—and to that we might add today air —

"— supplies are to be conveyed, when actions are to be fought, and when it is better to remain inactive. And they not only lay down what ought to be done, but when anything is done contrary to their opinion they arraign the consul as though he were being impeached before the Assembly.

"This greatly interferes with the successful prosecution of a war, for it is not everybody who can show such firmness and resolution in the teeth of hostile criticism as Fabius did; he preferred to have his authority weakened by the ignorance and caprice of the people rather than gain popularity by disservice to the State.

"I am not one of those who think that generals are not to be advised; on the contrary, the man who always acts on his own initiative shows, in my judgment, more arrogance than wisdom. How then does the case stand? Commanders ought first of all to get the advice of thoughtful and far-seeing men who have special experience of military affairs; then from those who are taking part in the operations, who know the country and recognize a favorable opportunity when it comes, who, like comrades on a voyage, share the same dangers.

"If, then, there is any man who in the interests of the commonwealth feels confident that he can give me good advice in the war which I am to conduct, let him not refuse to help his country, but go with me to Macedonia. I will supply him with a ship, a horse, a tent, and with his travelling expenses as well. If anyone thinks this is too much trouble, let him not try to act as a sea pilot whilst he is on land." (Laughter)

Isn't that a classic? (More laughter)

"The city itself affords plenty of subjects for conversation, let him confine his loquacity to these; he may rest assured that the discussions in our councils of war will satisfy us."

I think it is rather nice. I think that ought to be printed. Be sure you make it B.C., not A.D.—168. . . .

Well, to come down to more serious things than that, you have read the good news about General MacArthur.

Of course, immediately—we all know that, because we are accustomed to that sort of thing—there is going to be Axis propaganda that will appear this afternoon on their shortwave, and tomorrow morning, about how this is the abandonment of the Philippines, and that General MacArthur's leaving the Philippines is nothing more than another Van Mook having to get out of Java, et cetera. And of course we know what they will say.

On the other side of the picture, put it this way: he will be more useful in Supreme Command of the whole Southwest Pacific than if he had stayed in Bataan Peninsula, where of course the fighting is going on. . . .

Q. Could you clear up, sir, what was discussed and what was agreed on in this conference of the labor people today?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, perfectly well, because I think that some of you people need a little clarification in words, and perhaps some of the people who are not here need a little clarification in words, because I am sure none of us wants to give the country a false impression.

We talked about certain false impressions. Well, for example, I have had five letters in the past week from editors of small papers in different parts of the country—I happen to know all five of them; they are grand people- and they asked me why it was—mind you, they had got their information from reading the papers in small towns—and they asked me why it was that nobody was allowed by law to work more than forty hours a week.

Now of course you and I know differently, but they had received that impression either from things they had read, or in speeches they had heard in the Congress and elsewhere, and wanted to know why people weren't allowed to work more than forty hours a week.

Well, that is an amazing state of public misinformation. Of course we all know that there is no limit to forty hours a week anywhere at all—never has been. Plain never has been. We also know that in most of the munitions plants, I think almost all of them, they are working a great deal more than forty hours a week. A few plants are working forty hours, and some are working thirty hours, some are working twenty hours a week. Why? The approximate cause is because the materials are not coming into the plant to work on. I think it is a fair thing to point out the whole story, and not a part of the story.

Now there has been a rule in this country for a great many years. It has been almost, you might say, a national standard in industrial plants, and that is that you pay for more than forty hours a week. You don't restrict it to that. You pay time and a half for overtime. Well, we talked about that, and we talked about the desirability of having that known through the whole country, just that simple fact, on which there is a good deal of misinformation.

Then there was another question that we talked about, which I haven't agreed with some of the labor leaders on at all, and that is that there should be double pay for Sunday. But on the other hand, we should try to do two things as a national policy. The first is to stagger the days of work, so that we would have a six-day week; and let people off for one day a week, not necessarily Sunday, but one day a week. That means that you get Sunday operation of a plant.

However, to work out there must be some term for it. I don't know what it is. Suppose you want to work seven days a week. The only way I can discuss it is this way: One-seventh would take Sunday off. One-seventh would take Monday off. One-seventh would take Tuesday off, and so on through the week. Well, you get a thing which has been the law of the land in almost every State. I think it was my bill when I was in the State Senate, and I got it through—the "One Day Rest in Seven" bill—very strongly backed by almost everybody in this country, the "One Day Rest in Seven."

Now we ought to keep it up, but we want to keep the plants open every day in the week. You can do it by staggering the shifts. It is a practical thing to do. And so I said let's forget about this double time for Sundays.

And I told them an amusing story: that I was talking to a Britisher—they have been plagued a good deal by that rule, and they are getting away from it. They have had the double pay for Sundays over there, with the net result, in some plants, that a great many more people reported on Sundays than any other day in the week. See how it works?

$o the idea is that we could continue, as has been the custom in Britain and here for a great many years, to pay double time for the seventh consecutive day of work, but to try not to have a seventh consecutive day of work, except in some emergency we have to get some particular job out in a hurry.

Q. They have agreed to that part?

THE PRESIDENT: That was my suggestion.

Q. But they agreed to do it?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, silence sometimes gives consent. I think they will take it. (Laughter). . .

Q. You said a few minutes ago there was an amazing state of public misinformation about that. I wonder if we could put quotes around that phrase?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, that's all right. Well now, for instance, you know the number of people that have been on strike. Oh, I saw in one of the press association stories that at some little bit of a two-by-four place, that frankly I had never heard of before, fifteen men went out. Well it made all the metropolitan dailies in this country. That's the kind of thing that I call creating misinformation.

Q. What were they making in those plants?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I haven't the faintest idea.

Q. That might be important?

THE PRESIDENT: They may have been baking bread for the soldiers, or some cake, for all I know. I don't think that makes an awful lot of difference, because you can't take a list of things that are absolutely essential. If you did that you would have to list them in about 24 categories, and in priorities of essentiality. You can't do it. I mean it will just become a stunt that wouldn't be quite fair.

Q. Do you think that any repressive legislation—any antistrike —

THE PRESIDENT: (interposing) Well, there is one thing really—I always have to check a little—I don't know whether it's his language or not—it doesn't sound like his language. What Bill Green said seems to be quoted here in accordance with what happened, but the quote from Phil Murray, we didn't talk about. That's the real answer.

Q. What part of that are you referring to?

THE PRESIDENT: This: C.I.O. President Murray said that voluntary action by labor to yield its right to strike was a much more satisfactory answer to the problem of production, of national unity, than resort to restrictive enactments by Congress. Well, the question of strike did not come up, in this sense: that there is no strike problem today. Now that is the big fact. No agreement was necessary on it, because it is a fact.

Q. May we quote that, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: No. You will have me quoting all over the place.

Practically speaking, there are no strikes today. In England- let's go back and do a little analogy work- in England, labor agreed two years ago not to strike. I think it was just about the same period after they got into the war as it was over here after we got into the war. And they agreed not to strike.

Now they haven't struck except this: that those fifteen men making loaves of bread for somebody have gone on strike in dozens of localities—one today, one tomorrow. And I suppose in England there are—oh, what?—four or five little local strikes. They don't like the foreman, and they walk out—that sort of thing. It's against the orders of the top unions, just as it is here—exactly. But you get fifteen or twenty people who don't like the kind of tobacco that a foreman smokes. They don't like the smell of it. Well, they might go on strike to make him change his brand of smoking tobacco. Now things like that have happened, not only in England but over here. Silly little things. They really don't affect the war effort nearly as much as lots of other things.

Just by way of illustration, I think it probably is true, as I wrote to one of my professional economist friends the other day, he told me that since our war effort began—I don't know what it was- beginning June, 1940, something terrible had happened. We had lost 30,000,000 man-days of work through strikes in a year and three-quarters- well, I didn't check, but assumed he was right—that if we hadn't lost that 30,000,000 man-days of work in a year and three-quarters, Japan never would have declared war on us. We never would have lost the Philippines, or the Dutch Indies, or Singapore. And the dear fellow wrote to me really honestly believing it.

And I wrote him back: I have got something almost more serious to tell you about. This is bad enough what you say, but do you realize that if it hadn't been for the common cold in America today, we would be in Berlin? (Laughter) We would be in Berlin today if it hadn't been for the common cold, because there were 60,000,000 man-days lost in that same period through common colds.

In other words, why don't we in this country get a little sense of proportion and think things through? Well, headlines are responsible for it. Irresponsible people are responsible for it. Somebody has got to write a good lead. I know, I would like to myself, but let us keep a little sense of proportion.

Now on some of these other things, we talked about the fact that there were practically no strikes at present. Second, that labor has agreed not to strike, and that we have machinery—now that is terribly important—fairly new machinery—we have been at war ninety days, and yet this present Labor Board was set up around January some time. And it seems to be working pretty well.

Q. Do you think, sir, then, that we don't need legislation on the question now?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, there is some legislation we might need in time, but don't let us rush things when they are going pretty well. I would rather, for example, I would rather see a few more parades in this country. I would rather have a few more bands playing.

Q. Why can't we, sir?


Q. Why can't we?

THE PRESIDENT: I think we ought to. You can say that I believe it is time for us to wave the flag and get a little more enthusiasm into this. Now there is one thing that some delightful people think can be done. A fellow goes to work, and there are a lot of us who work day by day, and we don't work awfully hard. We sometimes get slack, and we turn out about three-quarters of what we ought to turn out, if we had a little bit more enthusiasm in our work. I think we need more enthusiasm in our work.

And incidentally, Congress can't pass a law to make a man turn out more work in a given time. That is up to the man and not the law.

Gosh, I have given you people enough to write about for a week. (Laughter)

Q. Thank you, Mr. President.

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

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