Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference

February 21, 1941

Q. Mr. President, General Marshall was quoted as having said that we were strengthening our armed forces in Hawaii and perhaps some of the islands we possess south of Hawaii; is that correct?

THE PRESIDENT: Who quoted him?

Q. Various members of Congress, I believe.

THE PRESIDENT: Who was supposed to have said this?

Q. General Marshall.

THE PRESIDENT: In what kind of meeting?

Q. In a secret meeting.

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I don't know why this should be anything more than background; I don't think it needs to be off the record. I read the papers this morning.

Now mind you, it is not important for the people to know whether my left eyebrow is raised or whether my tone of voice is angry—you better cut that out. I am not the least bit angry—I am interested; I am really interested in a problem of ethics that I think the American people ought to be interested in. It does present a problem, and it is interesting, in times of world upheaval.

I will try to put this- what shall I say?—logically; there are certain things in regard to the defense of the United States that it is advisable, for the defense of the United States, should be kept confidential; and that is why, occasionally, before certain committees on the Hill, these matters—which for national safety it is believed ought to be kept confidential—are spoken of by the experts along those lines—are spoken of only in secret or executive sessions of a committee.

There is not very much new in this; I mean, it has been going on, I think, since 1776. It still lives, this problem does; and this morning, when I started my breakfast, I read front page stories in all the papers about the Chief of Staff of the Army who was said to have given certain information to the Senate Committee on Military Affairs; and the stories then went on to say exactly what this Nation was supposed to have done.

Well, you raise two questions, both of which concern ethics, morals, and patriotism in exactly the same way. The first question is, frankly, as to whether members of that committee, ethically, morally, or patriotically ought to disclose to anybody on the outside what was said. I am simply raising this as an interesting problem.

No. 2: If they do disclose what went on in the secret meeting, it is perfectly obvious that any reporter who is worth his salt will try to find out—perfectly all right. If the story is disclosed to him by a member of the committee, either under seal of secrecy or without any seal of secrecy—it is perfectly all right for the reporter to take that story to his office, because that is part of a reporter's business. So I don't think there is any blame attaching to any reporter who carried those stories to his office; but the printing of the story or putting it on the wires by press associations or newspaper offices in Washington presents another very different, very difficult problem: Is or isn't the owner or the manager or the managing editor or the head of the Washington office under the same moral or ethical or patriotic duty not to print a story which has come out through a violation of confidence, out of a secret session of a Senate committee?

That is a nice question—something that ought to be thought about; and, as I say, I don't attach any blame to any of the newspapermen who got these stories—that is a part of your job, obviously—but I do raise the question in regard to newspapers printing a story of that kind.

And, finally, just to close the thing up, I have got in my hand here from the Chief of Staff a story of what he said, that size (holding up a typewritten sheet). It is completely different from any of the stories which actually did appear, second or third-hand, in any of the papers this morning.

Q. Mr. President, in that connection, isn't there a difference between what might be published in peacetime and what might be published in wartime?

THE PRESIDENT: What do you mean?

Q. High officials do give some testimony affecting the welfare of the American people; don't you think it is the function of the press to keep the public informed?

THE PRESIDENT: Do you mean to say that it is the duty of the press to publish what are considered to be military secrets involving the safety of the country?

Q. No, sir, I made that clear; I didn't include that.

THE PRESIDENT: I fail to see exactly what you are driving at.

Q. Can you tell us, in the interests of accuracy, what the facts are?

THE PRESIDENT: Certainly not! That would be what you might call compounding a felony.

Q. Would you consider, sir, that the publication this morning has injured American defense in any way?


Q. The reason I ask that is because you threw a doubt in my mind as to its accuracy.

THE PRESIDENT: It is not correct, in the first place, but a lot of people are going to think it is. . . .

Q. Mr. President, what does constitute a national defense secret?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't think we have ever had any trouble about that before. There has been mighty little that has been kept secret, and I don't think it has hurt anybody. They are things that have been kept secret on the advice or recommendation of the people who are responsible—primarily responsible—for American defense, the Army and Navy.

Q. Mr. President, if the attitude is taken that any testimony given on the Hill in executive session remains secret, isn't the final test what the Government wants to give out and what it doesn't want to give out?

THE PRESIDENT: No, only if the Government didn't give out or held secret things that there was no reason for holding secret.

Q. Then what is the test?

THE PRESIDENT: The test is what the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy thinks would be harmful to the defense of this country to give out.

Q. He is not required to give that to a Congressional committee which leaks.


Q. Then that would be the safest way—not to give it to a Congressional committee.

THE PRESIDENT: It might be the safest way; but of course, naturally, one doesn't like to withhold information from committees of Congress. The best way would be to have no disclosures by members of the committee and no disclosures by publishers.

Q. If there is a conflict?

THE PRESIDENT: Then the second is essential.

Q. The second is a reporter taking it to his office.

THE PRESIDENT: No, the printing of it, I am talking about.

Q. You would not have the second if the first did not arise.


Q. In your criticism of the press—

THE PRESIDENT: (interposing) I am not criticizing the press—haven't been.

Q. May we suggest that you include the radio also?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, quite right. It does raise an interesting question of ethics, morals, and patriotism.

Q. Assuming that these reports endanger the country, do you think we ought to be thinking about the possibility of censorship, without a declaration of war?

THE PRESIDENT: Of course not; that is why I am putting it up to the people of the country.

Q. You think it ought to be done voluntarily?

THE PRESIDENT: There is no question of censorship.

Q. You want the papers to figure on some method of their own?


Q. You have taken it up with the press; do you intend to raise the problem before the members of Congress?

THE PRESIDENT: Let's have a little discussion and see what the Congress does.

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

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