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Excerpts from the Press Conference

February 03, 1939

Q. Mr. President, some people seem to have some difficulty understanding foreign policy. Have you any intention of getting down to the elementary A, B and C's in a statement, or speech or fireside talk in the near future?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let us do a little analyzing for the benefit of some people. In the first place, the foreign policy of the United States has been thoroughly covered in my Messages to Congress, completely and adequately covered in every way. No. 2, there is nothing new about it. No. 3, a great many people, some members of the House, some members of the Senate and quite a number of newspaper owners, are deliberately putting before the American people a deliberate misrepresentation of facts—deliberate.

I had always supposed, and I still believe, that the foreign policy of the United States should not be involved in either legislative or party or newspaper politics. In other words, I do not think that the 1940 campaign should enter into the problem either of foreign policy or of American defense in the year 1939. All you have to do is to read stories and headlines to realize that pure guesses dressed up have become, in the next step, statements of fact.

I have in front of me, oh, about eight or ten different newspapers. There isn't one story or one headline in all of those papers that does not give, to put it politely, an erroneous impression-not one. It is a rather interesting fact. These things have been manufactured by deliberate misrepresentation of facts, existing facts.

The foreign policy has not changed and it is not going to change. If you want a comparatively simple statement of the policy, I will give it to you and Kannee can copy it out afterwards:

Number 1: We are against any entangling alliances, obviously.

Number 2: We are in favor of the maintenance of world trade for everybody—all nations—including ourselves.

Number 3: We are in complete sympathy with any and every effort made to reduce or limit armaments.

Number 4: As a Nation—as American people—we are sympathetic with the peaceful maintenance of political, economic and social independence of all nations in the world.

Now, that is very, very simple. There is absolutely nothing new in it. The American people are beginning to realize that the things they have read and heard, both from agitators of the legislative variety and the agitators of the newspaper owner variety, have been pure bunk—b-u-n-k, bunk; that these agitators are appealing to the ignorance, the prejudice and the fears of Americans and are acting in an un-American way.

You will also notice that quite a number of them are receiving the loud acclaim, the applause, of those governments in the world which do not believe in the continued independence of all nations.

I think that covers it pretty well.

Q. Mr. President, did the Rome Embassy report to you that the Italian Government is going to change the name of Via Woodrow Wilson to Hamilton Fish?

THE PRESIDENT: All I can say is that that is rather joyous.

Q. Is it possible then, in connection with this, to clarify the differences in interpretations that have been coming from the conferences you have had? In other words, can you now give us exactly what happened there?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't believe I could without asking them on the Hill what they think about it.

Now, on the question of secrecy, that also is 100 per cent "bunk."

Q. In what way?

THE PRESIDENT: In this way: I will ask you a question: Do you think that—suppose I had information which came in through the intelligence service, that such and such things were going on in such and such a country. There are no names, no way of proving the information before a court; and yet it is information which, because it has been checked from two or three different sources, looks to be, as far as we can tell now, reasonably true.

Now, suppose I held a press conference every day and gave out information of that kind to the public. In the first place, we are not definitely sure of it; it would be almost like certain stories that you read—many of them are true, many of them turn out later on not to be true. In the second place, giving out information of that kind would completely 'terminate the possibility of getting future information, because the sources of the information would be immediately blocked.

Now, in that conference the other day, I told them of some things, information of that type, which we at the present time believe to be true but it is not the kind of thing to write a newspaper story about because it may not be true. It is merely our best slant as of today. It may be changed in two weeks or a month from now by other information.

That is the only element of secrecy that has entered into either of the conferences, either with the Senate Committee or the House Committee. I told them both one or two pieces of matters—you would not even call it information—that have been reported to us, which we have reason to believe are true. Now, that is the only element of secrecy in either of those conferences. The rest of the conferences related solely to what I have just given you.

Q. One of the principal items of the conference is that you are supposed to have told some of the conferees that the Rhine was our frontier in the battle of democracies versus fascism.

THE PRESIDENT: What shall I say? Shall I be polite or call it by the right name?

Q. Call it by the right name.

THE PRESIDENT: Deliberate lie.

Q. That goes, too, for the French?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

Q. May we quote that?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

Q. Was there any discussion of the manner in which the purchase of planes by France and Great Britain would be financed?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, they asked in both conferences— the question has been asked about ten times before, "Are they going to be paid for in cash?" I said, "Yes." That is all; there is no further discussion.

Q. Will the R.F.C. help them?

THE PRESIDENT: No.

Q. You indicated a moment ago that in these fourteen or fifteen newspapers you have on your desk there was an impression given, erroneously, as I understood it, in practically every paper. Did your reading of those papers go far enough to convince you of what may be the motive of fifteen or more of our newspapers on a given day writing erroneous information—

THE PRESIDENT: [interposing] Oh, Fred [Essary], that is a very long subject. You know perfectly well that a story that starts as a story—"it is learned from reliable sources," that kind of a thing, or "it is believed," "sources close to the President suggested," etc., and so on.

Now, when that story goes out, you are all covered by making that qualification, but the fellow who writes it up the next day, either in the editorials or in the subsequent news stories, leaves out your qualifying phrases. We have all had that happen. There isn't a person here who hasn't had that happen. That is the mechanics of journalism, and that is what happened in this case.

I read, for instance, a compendium or consensus of editorial opinion I have here, and you will find that every one of those editorials put down as facts what you boys had said, "it was learned from so and so but it was contradicted by somebody else," or "it is understood that at the conference the President did this, that or the other thing." Now, in these editorials there isn't one that does not take those qualified statements as facts, and that is one of the troubles with our newspapers today.

The public understands pretty well when it is said that such and such a thing is learned on good authority, or it has been suggested by White House sources, or things like that. They understand that that is not news, it is only a rumor of news. It does not make anybody sore; it is part of our system of a free press; and it is primarily all right and the public is getting more and more discriminatory, which is fine.

Q. The thing that impresses me most about your observation is that the things that we are writing or our editors are writing, and our publishers are publishing, are being applauded abroad. There seems to be something sinister about the way what we are writing is getting foreign applause.

THE PRESIDENT: That follows out the statement that the American frontier is the Rhine. Some "boob. . . . got that off"; I don't think it was a member of the Press. That was applauded in France. There were editorials about it; newspaper stories about this great thing that the President had said, and it was attacked in Germany, and it was attacked in Italy. It was applauded in London. In other words, the attack and the applause are again based on a misstatement of fact. Now, what can I do about it?

Q. Have somebody in the Senate give the correct version.

THE PRESIDENT: No, you have the correct version. I just gave it to you.

Q. Do you doubt that somebody said that?

THE PRESIDENT: I doubt it very much. I would like to have that traced down and find out who it was, and if you can get him, Earl [Godwin], and bring him down here and let me ask him "Did you say that?"

Q. Do you doubt somebody said that to a newspaper man?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I believe somebody did say it, but I would like to have you bring that fellow down here. That would be very good.

Q. Mr. President, do you think that that catch phrase sums up the situation?

THE PRESIDENT: What phrase?

Q. "The American frontier is on the Rhine."

THE PRESIDENT: Of course not.

Q. There is another manner in which that can get into print and that is by somebody in the conference making that remark to you. Could that happen, or did it happen?

THE PRESIDENT: No, the remark was not even made to me.

Q. Are you going to withdraw the name of the Virginia judge? [Meaning Judge Roberts whose confirmation was being held up by the Senate. See Item 28, this volume]

THE PRESIDENT: No. On the Virginia judge, the Senate, of course, has not taken action, but if the Senate should refuse confirmation it is my plan to write a letter to Judge Roberts and that letter, I think, will be quite interesting.

Q. Would that same course be followed in case Mr. Amlie's appointment or nomination were not confirmed.

THE PRESIDENT: I do not know at all; I haven't thought of it.

Q. You are not withdrawing the Amlie nomination?

THE PRESIDENT: No.

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/209363

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