Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference

November 10, 1939

THE PRESIDENT: Well, what news have you got?

Q. We have a lot of questions, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Somebody think of something?

Q. Can you straighten out the maritime situation for us, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Working on it. That is all I can say.

Q. When may we expect anything?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know; I cannot prognosticate.

Q. Any week-end plans, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: No; staying right here.

Q. Have you made up your plan for tomorrow as far as Arlington is concerned?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, going out to do the regular thing. We shall go out at quarter of eleven and get there for the ceremony and come back afterwards. In the evening I am taking part in the Red Cross appeal, at 10:30.

At eleven o'clock this morning I asked some of the seamen labor union people to come in, the longshoremen, because I am approaching—that is about all I can say about the maritime question—I am approaching it from the human angle as well as the property angle, which a good many people seem to have completely overlooked, callously enough.

Q. Did you say "as well as the property"?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, as well as the property angle. In other words, we have a problem which was created by the statute. There are about—well, it is awfully hard to give any exact figure but I would say, offhand—between twenty-five and thirty-five American flag ships that have been running in between the ports that are now outlawed, in other words, belligerent ports or danger zone ports. As a result of the legislation, they are now tied up or will be by the time they get back from current voyages. Now, that means not only twenty-five to thirty-five ships but also their crews.

There are several things that we are going to talk about at eleven o'clock in relation to the human problem. The first relates to something that cannot be done until the next session of Congress, and that is to try to apply the social security law to the crews of ships as well as to people who work in industrial plants. That would mean the same system as we use in industry, and would cover both old age pensions and unemployment insurance. As far as I can tell now, I shall make a recommendation to cover that, to the next session of the Congress. However, that does not give immediate relief; and I am working now with the Maritime Commission on a project for giving training under the auspices of the Maritime Commission to a portion, not all, of these sailors and officers who have been thrown out of work because of the neutrality law going into effect. We hope that we shall be able to give additional training to a substantial portion of those people who have been put on the beach because the ships have been laid up.

Q. What kind of training, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: Seamen's training—officers' training.

Q. Any naval training, necessarily?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, no. Merchant ship training.

Q. Does that have an income attached to it?


Q. Mr. President, the transfer of ships to foreign flags would not affect the number of American seamen put on the beach, would it?

THE PRESIDENT: No, not a bit.

The third thing which I am working on—I do not want to hold out any hope that it will be effected, but it would be of some assistance in this problem- is the use by the Government of some of these twenty-five to thirty-five ships in order to go and fetch certain materials that the Government is purchasing under existing law for—well, I think we have called it—"stock piles," haven't we?

We are spending a good deal of money to buy various war materials to store up in case of future need. There is $10,000,000 appropriated for that at the present time. We also have, as you know, an agreement which went into effect last summer with Great Britain, by which we do some swapping. We are swapping some cotton for rubber and tin. Now, that rubber and tin have to be sent for to the East Indies; and it will take additional ships to bring it, that is to say, ships over and above the normal commercial needs of that area, to bring that rubber and tin to this country. I believe—I do not know whether the State Department said anything about this or not—I think that there is an agreement, or it is being discussed with the British, by which they will take the cotton from this country to England. Does anybody know if that has been announced?

Q. It has not been announced.

THE PRESIDENT: Of course, obviously, we cannot send American cotton to England in American flag ships.

Q. Mr. President, do you regard the transfer in September, and the Maritime Commission's approval given to the transfer, of fifteen Standard Oil tankers to Panama as, perhaps, setting a precedent?

THE PRESIDENT: No, no. Of course it is perfectly legal. You see, unfortunately, in spite of what some people say, the President of the United States is more or less bound by the law. It is a curious and strange idea which has been challenged in the past few days by people who, in the past, have been most intent on confining the President of the United States to the strict letter of the law. It is one of those anomalies which columnists are very apt to enjoy. Go ahead, you are one.

Q. In the last analysis, wouldn't the interests of these American seamen probably best be served by the maintenance instead of the abandonment of these ships, even if it does involve the transfer to another flag?

THE PRESIDENT: I do not think it makes much difference to the poor fellows who are on the beach anyway. If the ship stays at the dock, they are on the beach; if the ship is transferred or sold to some other nation, they are still on the beach.

Q. But, after the war is over, they can return to American registry and the American seamen would still, theoretically, have these jobs open to them?

THE PRESIDENT: You are doing a bit of theorizing that, after they have been used for war purposes for some time, they will still be worth transferring back to the American flag. I doubt it. They are all on their last legs now.

Q. Could you give us the legal interpretation? You said the transfer of the Standard Oil ships did not set a precedent and that, contrary to what the columnists say, you are bound by the law. Does that mean you interpret that law as saying the ships can be transferred?

THE PRESIDENT: There is no question that the ships can be legally transferred or sold. We are simply trying to work out other methods. That is as far as we can go now. That means transfer with full retention of title in the present owning company.

Q. Any thought of transferring any of these idle ships to the South American and other routes?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, that is a thing as to which the average layman has the happy thought—and a great many of them do these days—that it is a perfectly easy thing. There are a lot of routes—South America, Australia, China and so forth and so on. Why not keep them under the American flag and put them on these other routes? It is a beautiful thought. But a ship goes from one place to another not just for the pleasure of making the voyage. They do it in order to carry goods or passengers or both and, therefore, it becomes a problem of whether there are enough goods and passengers to justify the voyage. You can be quite sure that if there should be enough goods and passengers to keep these ships under the American flag on other routes, they would be kept under the American flag. But, unfortunately, we have a shortage of goods and passengers.

Q. Is there a thought of organizing another company to keep these ships?

THE PRESIDENT: No, not that I know of. I have not heard. . . .

Q. Can you tell us something of the conferences with Lewis and Green, other than on the maritime situation?

THE PRESIDENT: Nothing to tell that you or I could write. Just continuing conversations; that is as far as we got.

Q. Mr. Green intimated very plainly that you asked that the conferences be resumed, and he said his committee was ready any time the C.I.O. was. Mr. Lewis came out and referred us to you.

THE PRESIDENT: I may not have discussed the same thing with Mr. Lewis.

Q. He said it was the same thing.

THE PRESIDENT: I am sure you cannot get a story out of it. I doubt if I could tell you one myself. We haven't got to the point where we can write any kind of a story. Incidentally, the more stories which are not strictly accurate go out, the more it hurts the possibility of getting labor together. That is really the fact. . . .

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

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