Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference

September 23, 1941

THE PRESIDENT: I just got word from the Navy Department that that ship that the State Department told you about this morning was sunk on Friday last, at 23 hours and 25 minutes G.M.T. (Greenwich Mean Time) on Friday night, which of course, if you work it out for the position of the ship at the time, was Saturday morning, obviously—23:25, for those of you who don't go on a 24-hour day, means 11:25 P.M. And G.M.T. means Zero time, or Greenwich time; which translated into the position of the ship would be two or three hours' difference in time. I am wrong on that—it wouldn't have been Saturday morning, it would be early in the evening [Friday] at that time.

Q. Nine o'clock.

THE PRESIDENT: The latitude was 61 (degrees) 36 (minutes). North. The longitude was 35 (degrees) 07 (minutes) West. And for those of you who haven't got maps, it was about 275 miles northeast of Cape Farewell, which is the southern tip of Greenland.

Q. Northeast?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Obviously it could not be northwest, because then it would have been the other side of Greenland. . . .

Q. What was that longitude?

THE PRESIDENT: Thirty-five (degrees) 07 (minutes).

Q. Mr. President, any indication as to what happened to the crew?

THE PRESIDENT: No word as to whether there are any survivors or not. The only information we have is that it was a submarine attack, and the ship was in company with a Canadian escorted convoy.

Q. Was the ship bound for Britain, or for Iceland, Mr. President?


Q. How did you get the word on this?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't think I can tell you that.

Q. Mr. President, was it a general cargo, or any specific cargo?

THE PRESIDENT: General cargo.

Q. Mr. President, do you think that these ships that are being sunk so rapidly, should be provided with some measures of self-defense?

THE PRESIDENT: That is a pending question. In other words, this whole thing—if we look at it from the point of view of each little detail, aren't we rather greatly overlooking, or tending to overlook the main objective, which is national defense? And by going into the details of this, that, or the other thing, aren't we drawing a "red herring" across the objective of national defense?

It has been made perfectly clear what is happening in this world today. The world is facing the most outrageous movement in all history, literally all history of the world up to the present time- recorded history.

A certain group of people is trying to dominate the whole world, and we are trying to defend the Americas against that attempted domination.

Congress has made it perfectly clear that a part of that defense is to try to help, in every way we can, those people who are conducting active war against this attempted domination of the world. It is part of our work. We are doing all we can to help them and, incidentally, to prevent the dictators from gaining footholds, or acquiring positions where they could immediately and directly threaten us. That is why we have American troops in Iceland today. That is why we are keeping the lanes open. That is why we are trying to get stuff over to England safely, for their use- munitions, and foodstuffs to keep them going in this battle.

I don't think that there is much argument that is justified—with honesty—in trying to obscure the main objectives, by talking about whether the ship was in convoy, or was not; whether the ship was armed, or was not; whether the ship was carrying the Panama flag, or the United States flag. They are just "red herrings" drawn across the trail of the main purpose of this hemisphere. Thank you. That's all for today.

Q. You can always squelch a poor reporter. If it is a matter of details, suppose we look at some of the details. Isn't it easier to defend the Administration's position, and the United States, with guns on the ships than without?

THE PRESIDENT: I think it is.

Q. Is that a fair question?

THE PRESIDENT: I think you are right, and I think probably that we are heading toward the arming of American merchant ships, and possibly the providing of arms to the merchant ships of—let us say—other American Nations. This particular ship [Pink Star] did carry a gun. Panama registry. American ownership.

Q. May I ask a question of fact? In history, on this thing, the arming of merchant ships was an ordinary affair, under international law, was it, or not? Under a plain principle of international law, but before we had the Neutrality Act?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, absolutely and clearly. Now, you take the examples that I have used of the so-called quasi-war against France in 1798. Nearly all of our merchant ships were armed, and a great many of them, because of their armament, beat off French privateers. Same way in the War of 1812; a great many of our merchant ships were armed, and in accordance with, as you say, international law beat off the attacks of British privateers. And there were a great many cases of privately owned American ships, that were armed for voyages into the Mediterranean, which beat off the attacks of Barbary corsairs. There isn't any question about that. According to present law that is forbidden.

Q. Mr. President, if we are going to arm merchant ships, we have got to amend the present Neutrality Law, that is right?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, that is right.

Q. Then is it going to be piecemeal repeal on that from now on, or are you going-

THE PRESIDENT: (interposing) Well, that's the thing that's under consideration at the present time, but there probably won't be any decision on it until next week.

Q. That's bigger than a "red herring"?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. In other words, the problem is how much we will ask in the way of repeal.

Q. Mr. President, while we are on the subject of merchant ships, have you anything to say regarding the seamen's strike?

THE PRESIDENT: The seamen's strike is being certified this afternoon at the request of the Maritime Commission, and by the Department of Labor, to the National Mediation Board. . . . Of course it is perfectly clear that those ships have got to move. They simply can't be kept tied up.

Q. Would it be possible then, Mr. President, for the Maritime Commission to take over the majority of the merchant lines?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't think we can go into that at the present time. I don't think you can go into method or detail at the present time, but you can use the statement that I said that the ships have got to move. They can't be kept tied up because of labor disputes. And at the same time, the trouble is being referred to the National Mediation Board, to see if it can be amicably settled.

Q. And the ships have got to move?

THE PRESIDENT: But the ships have got to move.

Q. Mr. President, to refresh our memory, when you were in the Navy in 1917, were merchant vessels armed by a fiat of the Government, or did it go to Congress?

THE PRESIDENT: No, there was a filibuster up to the fourth of March. Then, when the special session began, and almost immediately afterwards—

Q. (interposing) In the meantime, President Wilson said he had the power. Could he do it?

THE PRESIDENT: He did it. And more than that, I remember distinctly that beginning about the fifth of February, when I got back from Haiti and Santo Domingo, with the approval of Mr. Daniels [Josephus Daniels, then Secretary of the Navy] we went ahead ordering the guns with which to arm the ships.

Q. Mr. President, that was between the fourth of March and the seventh of April that we went ahead with it.


Q. Congress convened around the fifth or sixth of April.

THE PRESIDENT: I think that's right.

Q. Mr. President, have you already ordered the guns for arming our merchant ships?

THE PRESIDENT: The answer to that is that we are building every type of gun that is useful—that can be used- as fast as we can do it, under the present appropriations and orders. . . .

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

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