Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference

August 02, 1940

THE PRESIDENT: I do not think I have any news today. I expect to—put it the other way, I hope to go up to Hyde Park tomorrow sometime—when, I do not know—for a few days, and have no definite plans about what day I shall come back.

Q. There is a very definite feeling, Mr. President, in Congressional circles that you are not very hot about this conscription legislation and, as a result, it really is languishing.

THE PRESIDENT: It depends on which paper you read.

Q. [Mr. Essary] Well, I read my own, which I believe in. (Laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: Now, Fred, you know I was thinking—I was thinking the other day. It is just one of those things— nothing new—it has been going on for about twelve years. I am in a definite position: I am damned if I do, and I am damned if I do not. In other words, I am bound to be criticized whatever I do. Now, on this particular bill, everybody knows that if I were to come out and send up to the Hill a particular measure, what would you boys do, most of you? You would say that the President is "ordering Congress." "Old Mr. Dictator, he is just ordering Congress to pass his bill."

Well, of course, the actual fact was that back in 1933, when we were in the middle of a very serious crisis, with all the banks closed, et cetera, in that hundred-day session and in a very few cases in the 1934 session, we did send up ready-made bills, all ready-made, and they were put through, most of them, without hearings; and, of course, afterwards they had to be amended and so forth and so on. It was a hurry job. There was no rewrite man, there was no copy desk that went over those bills. It was an emergency, we had to put them through; and, believe me, I got panned, didn't I? I got terribly panned for sending up ready-made legislation and ordering Congress to pass it. Of course I did it; it was a convenience to the Government and a convenience to the Congress. However, I got beautifully panned.

So, somewhere around 1934, I got pretty careful. I am just talking to you, I might say, from the heart, and very, very simply. I got pretty careful and we did not send up ready made bills. We were asked on many occasions, by Committees, to submit some form of tentative draft, and we did it at the request of the Committees, whereupon one of you boys, or several of you, invented the word "must" legislation; and I got panned on that.

Well, of course I have tried to be absolutely scrupulous in my relations with the Congress; and I said—I got tired of saying it after a couple of years—that literally there was no such thing as "must" legislation. There never had been.

I would recommend certain policies, certain objectives, but from that time on we never sent up a ready-made bill with the request that that bill be passed.

Now, I was reading a couple of editorials this morning. One of them said, "It is an outrage; it is a terrible bill, a perfect outrage. We are in the middle of a crisis. Congress has got to do something—quick—quick—quick." And the other one said, "My Lord! why rush this thing? This is a very big subject. We ought not to pass things without due consideration."

So, there you are.

Now, the very simple fact is, as I have stated, the lessons of this war do show very clearly that defense necessarily means total defense. Well, under modern circumstances-and we have learned a lot in the last year—that means a great deal in the way of new machinery and equipment of all kinds, which we haven't got. We are beginning to get it. As Knudsen said to me yesterday, we have either let contracts or the work is proceeding without contracts—because a great many of these companies are proceeding with their work without actual contracts having been signed, and that applies in various cases to planes, armor, tanks, et cetera. We are actually proceeding with the building of a billion, eight hundred million dollars' worth of materials. That is quite a figure; quite a figure. . . .

Q. What are some of the items on that, tanks?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, everything; everything.

That is the material end. Now, we also learned from the European war that the people who have not had the trained man power to use those machines have been in a bad way.

England, for example, had no trained people to run their machinery a year ago; and even eight or ten months after they got into the war they only had a trained armed force of about 350,000 or 400,000 men, most of whom were caught in Flanders. Well, today—two months or three months later-they have a better figure, they have 4,000,000 men in England. Of course they cannot have been as thoroughly trained as they should be. You can't train 4,000,000 men in two or three months.

I always go back to the same old thing I harped on in 1917, when we built up an army of 4,000,000 men. . . .

We built up an army of 4,0000,000 men, and they did not go into action for 13 1/2 months. It was not until the twenty-seventh day of May, 1918, that that fighting force was able to fight. In the meantime, during those 13 1/2 months, remember that no shot was fired against us over here. We were completely free from any attack. Now, that will never happen again in the history of the United States. As far as I can see that was just a bit of sheer luck. In other words, you have got to have trained men.

O.K., and I will go back and repeat this: What is an army? An army consists of combat troops, supply troops, transportation troops, all of them in uniform. It consists of all kinds of mechanics, still in the army.

It consists of all kinds of factory workers, specialized factory workers, who would not wear uniforms, but who are still essentially a part of the defense forces of the country. They require training just as much as the man with a rifle requires training. And then, there is the final factor we all know, and that is that for purposes of defense we have to have men who are already trained beforehand. In doing that, we save lives—we save human lives. That is the important thing. We all know from experience that in an untrained force or an untrained army or an untrained navy, relatively, the casualties from death and wounds are much higher than they are in the case of the trained army and navy. That is the human element. And that might also be said to apply to the sick in wartime. A trained army has much fewer casualties from disease and accident than an untrained army or navy. It is a case of saving lives.

Now, I have made it perfectly clear many times that you cannot get a sufficiently trained force of all kinds at the front, in the Navy yards and the arsenals, transportation, supply system, and munitions output, you cannot get it by just passing an Act of Congress when war breaks out, and you cannot get it by the mere volunteer system.

That is why we figured out pretty well in 1917 that the selective training or selective draft was the fairest and in all ways the most efficient way of conducting a war if we had to go to war. I still think so, and I think a great majority of the people in the country think so, when they understand it.

There is a debate going on with respect to certain details columns and columns written about the problem, the advisability of registering men up to the age of sixty-five. Well, it doesn't make an awful lot of difference whether you register the people over forty and up to sixty-five or not. It is a good thing to do. We are not going to put rifles in their hands and send them to the front; but it is a good thing to know the capacity of those people.

Well, I will give you a very good illustration: I happen to know a fellow who is volunteering. He is an absolutely first-class mechanic in one of the most highly skilled or, rather, specialized trades that I know of, and he has volunteered because he wants to go to the front as a soldier, with a rifle in his hand. Well, he is so good at his regular skill that he ought not to be allowed to go to the front with a rifle in his hand. There is an illustration, and that is why I have made it perfectly clear that I am in favor of a selective training bill.

When you come down to the details as to whether you are going to register people up to thirty-one or forty-one or fifty-one or sixty-five, that is purely a matter for the Congress to decide. Out of it all, out of all this discussion, I not only hope, but I definitely believe, that the Congress is going to do something about it, because it is very important for our national defense.

Q. There is a very quotable sentence right there, if you will permit it.

THE PRESIDENT: What is it?

Q. That you are distinctly in favor of a selective training bill —

THE PRESIDENT: [interposing] And consider it essential to adequate national defense. Quote that.

Q. Mr. President, would there be any argument in your mind about having the voluntary service first and then the draft?

THE PRESIDENT: It presents just the problem of the young man I was talking about who wants to go into the wrong place by the volunteer method.

Q. Mr. President, do you think that women ought to be trained in service for their country too?

THE PRESIDENT: Not in legislation at the present time. I think probably, as far as we can tell, that when we get to what we call home defense, and possibly without legislation, we shall follow out what has been done of necessity by certain countries in Europe, where the women back home organize themselves into local methods of helping to the best of their ability.

For instance, I was talking last night to Mrs. Roosevelt. We took, as an example, the Town of Hyde Park. We would need, in case of a major defensive war, we would need probably to take quite a lot of trained nurses out of the Dutchess County Hospital. Now, those trained nurses—we do not want to denude the county; their places ought to be filled, possibly not by registered nurses because there won't be enough to go around, but by the- what do they call them?

Q. Practical nurses?

THE PRESIDENT: Practical nurses. Now, that requires a certain amount of organization beforehand, so that if there were ten or fifteen nurses that were taken out of the St. Francis Hospital or Vassar Hospital in the City of Poughkeepsie, their places would be filled locally by local practical nurses. That is merely organizing beforehand, so as to know what to do.

Q. How many men do you think are necessary to be drafted?

THE PRESIDENT: I do not know.

Q. Is that just detail, or aren't there some figures on it?

THE PRESIDENT: I do not know. I could not tell you that, because I am first getting down to figures.

Q. Mr. President, after your conference yesterday with Mr. Herbert Agar, he said he had the impression that you were in favor of the sale of World War destroyers to Great Britain in the present situation. Is that a true impression, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: I do not think there is any news on that at all. . . .

Q. Senator Hiram Johnson is running in the California primaries on the Republican, Democratic and Progressive tickets. Do you regard Senator Johnson as a Democratic candidate?

THE PRESIDENT: No. No, I do not think anybody in his wildest dreams could consider him as being in any way a liberal or progressive Democrat in the year 1940. He is a very, very old friend of mine, dating back—I don't know when-nearly thirty years. He was a grand old liberal and progressive for a great many years. I am still very fond of him. But he certainly has changed an awful lot in the last four or five years. I guess that is pretty generally recognized. . . .

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

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