Excerpts from the Press Conference
Q. Mr. President, has our neutrality legislation contributed anything to the peace of the world or contributed anything toward preserving peace?
THE PRESIDENT: The neutrality legislation?
Q. Yes. Wouldn't we be stronger if we did not have any?
THE PRESIDENT: That is a terribly broad general question.
Q. If we went back to where we were before we passed any neutrality legislation—
THE PRESIDENT: [interposing] Now you are making it worse. You are making it an "if" question. If you will confine it to the original question, "Has the neutrality legislation of the last three years contributed to the cause of peace?" If one can answer a question like that with a "yes" or "no" answer, I would say, "No, it has not."
Q. The next question was, "Would we be even stronger if we did not have it?"
THE PRESIDENT: We might have been stronger if we had not had it.
Q. Could we put the reverse on that question, that the existing neutrality laws have contributed to the other direction?
THE PRESIDENT: I should say, in some respects, yes.
Q. What respects?
THE PRESIDENT: I cannot go into detail; of course you under-stand that. I have to answer it generally. . . .
Q. Do you think the defense of this Nation would be impaired by the passage of any legislation calling for a referendum prior to the declaration of war?
THE PRESIDENT: It might, very easily.
Q. Could you expand on that, sir, and point out? The element of time is the important thing?
THE PRESIDENT: The element of time is important and another difficulty is a definition of what is war. It is an extremely difficult thing. Just use a very simple example: Back in Washington's administration we had no navy at all. We had no Navy Department; we had no ships. The last Revolutionary ship was sold just after the peace of 1783.
And then in Washington's second administration, the French Government, which was then under the directorate before Napoleon came into power— in its general war against Great Britain and as a part of its war against the Italian states, sent out a very large number of cruisers and privateers, frigates and privateers, to wage war on British commerce. A large number of these ships went down to the West Indies, which was at that time the principal commercial field of the thirteen states—actually there were fifteen states then. In fact, the whole seaboard was greatly dependent on this commerce of the West Indies and Central America and South America. In order to get to South America you had to go through or past the West Indies.
Beginning about 1796, we began to have our ships captured and our people killed and the ships and cargoes confiscated. That was the origin of the U.S. Navy. Congress set up a Navy Department and we started to build ships. Adams came in, and those original ships were completed, and Congress authorized the Navy Department to buy quite a lot of other ships and convert them into men-of-war.
There was no war declared. It was, of course, actual warfare. This business of carrying on a war without declaring a war, that we think is new, is not new. There are a lot of examples all through history.
By direction of the President, without any declaration of war by the Congress, these twenty or twenty-five ships of the Navy went down there and literally cleaned up that whole area of the sea. They captured, sank or destroyed the French privateers and French men-of-war, actual French Government vessels in the West Indies; and made it possible for the seaboard states to resume their normal trade, upon which they were so greatly dependent.
That lasted from 1798 down to 1800, two years, and if you are interested in it, the Navy Department has completed the seventh volume of a series of documents covering that quasi war against France.
It is just a question—I just use that as an example. Suppose a similar—not the same nation or the same locality—but a similar situation were to arise. Suppose at that time the operations had been conducted against—what shall I say—the coast of what is now the coast of Louisiana, or the lower coast of Georgia. That would have been a direct attack on the defenses of the country. We might not have declared war.
In any Constitutional amendment that goes into effect that uses the word "war," you will have to spend two pages in defining war; and, if you define it, a situation would undoubtedly arise that would not come within the definition one way or the other.
It seems to me it is a general proposition, that the representative form of government provided for under the Constitution should apply to that, just as much as it should to almost any other type of action that is taken by the Government. They are all subject to Congressional action in the last analysis. John Adams could not have started a quasi-war with France if Congress had not given him the money with which to do it. There you are.
Q. I understand that the referendum of Louis Ludlow asks for a referendum on a declaration of war, which would seem to apply in the event of an attack on the Continental United States. I have always assumed, and I ask you if I am not right, does not the Commander-in-Chief have the Constitutional power to defend the Nation without any Congressional action?
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. Suppose a nation were to attack the United States or any part thereof, it is undoubtedly the Constitutional duty of the President to defend without the declaring of war.
Q. I was right then?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes; that is true.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Excerpts from the Press Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209440