Franklin D. Roosevelt

Press Conference

February 09, 1940

THE PRESIDENT: I only have one thing of importance. I shall give you the mimeographed copy of this [indicating typewritten sheet in his hand]. It is being put on the mimeograph now. [Reading]

"At the request of the President, the Under Secretary of State Mr. Sumner Welles will proceed shortly to Europe to visit Italy, France, Germany and Great Britain. This visit is solely for the purpose of advising the President and the Secretary of State as to present conditions in Europe.

"Mr. Welles will, of course, be authorized to make no proposals or commitments in the name of the Government of the United States.

"Furthermore, statements made to him by officials of Governments will be kept in the strictest confidence and will be communicated by him solely to the President and the Secretary of State."

I think, just as a tip, that you had better just stand on that language. That is all there is to say. Using the same old phrase I used before, do not try to break it down by impossible questions. The thing states the actual fact, the whole of the actual fact, and there isn't anything more. That is really the whole thing. It is right there in those three paragraphs.

Q. Will you name those countries again?

THE PRESIDENT: Italy, France, Germany and Great Britain.

Q. Will there be a possibility of including Finland in those?


Q. You have information from these countries and from the Diplomatic Service right along, I presume?


Q. And while that does state the case, the question arose in my mind—well, it sounds rather brusque—isn't your information satisfactory up to date? I mean, do you need a new reporter?

THE PRESIDENT: You may put it this way: Suppose three or four of you were each in a separate country, an entirely separate country. Probably, although you were getting everything that there was in a very excellent way from the country that you were in, it might be a good thing to get somebody to see all the conditions in all the countries so that one mind would be able to cover the situation instead of having four separate minds reporting on separate things. . . .

Q. Have these countries been approached?


Q. How long will Mr. Welles be gone, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: As long as necessary to go to those places.

Q. Is it a presumption that Welles will seek an audience with Herr Hitler?

THE PRESIDENT: I do not know; I do not know; it is a pure guess.

Q. How long do you expect Mr. Welles to be gone?

THE PRESIDENT: As long as it is necessary to go around to those four places.

Q. You have no time in mind?


Q. When will he depart?

THE PRESIDENT: Shortly. I do not know, honestly, when or which way he is going.

Q. Have you advised the Congressional leaders of Mr. Welles' journey?

THE PRESIDENT: No, it is purely a matter for the President and the Secretary of State.

Q. Will his office be filled by someone else here during his absence?


Q. When is Myron Taylor leaving, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: I think he is going—the seventeenth, isn't it? I think so.

Q. Well, he said yesterday, sir, that you would tell us and also if there was any other—he indicated there was something else in connection with his visit that might be news, leaving it to you. Do you recognize that?

THE PRESIDENT: I do not think so. I cannot think of anything, no. [Pausing in reflection.] No, I gave him a letter, that is the only thing I can think of. It is just a personal letter from me, asking him to go, with nothing else in it.

Q. It may be that the date was in mind.

Q. Mr. President, will Mr. Welles have with him any general message of any kind?


Q. Will he have any staff with him?


Q. What do you think of the Congressional proposal to lend Finland the money which she has paid on her debt to this country, that money to be paid for the purchase of munitions, arms or anything she may wish?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know how many different proposals there are on the Hill. I sent a message up there, and they are still talking about it. And it has been, what? Three weeks nearly—it has been just about a month.

Q. Will Mr. Taylor go directly to Rome or to Florence?

THE PRESIDENT: I do not know. I suppose he will go to Rome.

Q. Will Mr. Welles be in a position to discuss informally and without any binding, your personal view or the views of this Government on a possible peace?

THE PRESIDENT: There you go. Now, do not get didactic. You have to stand on this statement: "for the purpose of advising the President and the Secretary of State as to present conditions in Europe."

Now, I have no idea, any more than you have, whom he will talk to, and what he will say, and what they will say to him. Now that is the whole thing. It is all in one sentence and probably anything you add, any of you, columnists or anything else, to enlarge on this, will be wrong ....

Q. The Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor, I believe, telegraphed you yesterday, asking you to make public the replies of the C.I.O. and the A.F. of L. to your latest peace gesture?

THE PRESIDENT: The very simple thing is that on October third I got an official telegram from Bill Green, from Cincinnati, Ohio. The important part of it is— of course there is a whole lot of other stuff in here: [Reading]

"As a partial reply thereto—"'

That is to my letter to the convention [Reading]

"—I am mailing you copy of report of Executive Council American Federation Labor to convention upon negotiations carried on by committees representing American Federation of Labor and C.I.O. during past year. I especially direct your attention to last paragraph in said report which reads as follows: 'Our Committee still stands clothed with authority to function ready to resume negotiations when it is accorded an opportunity to do so. We have opened the door of the American Federation of Labor wide and completely. We have invited those who left the American Federation of Labor to return: we have urged them to come back home and settle differences within the family of labor in a sensible, honest, and fair way. In doing this we have been inspired by a genuine desire to establish here in America a solid united labor movement through which the economic social and industrial interests of the workers of the nation can be fully and completely served.'"

Well, I did not have any official or formal reply from the C.I.O. but-I cannot give you the date, sometime last—I guess it was before Christmas—I asked John Lewis about the reconvening of the Committee and he said at that time mind you, this was before Christmas, I cannot tell you the time—he said at that time that he did not think any useful purpose would be served by a meeting of this joint committee at this time. Now, that is pretty old news. What has happened since then I do not know. That is as of some date before Christmas. . . .

Q. There has been considerable discussion of the possibility of the S.E.C. taking over that Associated Gas receivership. Would you care to express an opinion as to whether that may be advisable?

THE PRESIDENT: Heavens, no. Isn't that in the hands of the court?

Q. it is still in the hands of the court.

THE PRESIDENT: Don't you think that it might be proper to let the court decide that without an expression of opinion by me?

Q. Mr. President, the papers this morning said you had talked with various Army and Navy people about the sale of surplus arms to Norway and Sweden. Would you care to say anything about that?

THE PRESIDENT: Not just Norway and Sweden, but any neutral countries. What we were talking about yesterday was a check-up on what may properly be considered surplus. They are working on lists of things that can properly be considered surplus.

You know there is always a question about that. I remember back in 1913, the Navy still had tied up some old ships of the Civil War period; and a lot of people said, "Oh, no, don't sell them; don't scrap them; they are not surplus." Well, we did sell them.

And just the other day we dug up about 450 thousand pairs of shoes that the Army had that were bought during the World War. Well, you know I love old shoes, and most people do; but new shoes that are twenty-two years old-I do not know that I would want to buy them, and would not know how long the sewing would hold together. That is all there is. It is a check-up to see what should reasonably be considered surplus or not. We have, for example, some British 75's, which we inherited during the World War, and, of course, even at that time they were not nearly as good as the French 75's. I suppose we could argue for a long time as to whether they should be called surplus or not.

Q. Has there been any request from these neutral governments that we sell these surplus supplies?

THE PRESIDENT: A great many neutral governments have been trying to buy—a great many, not just Norway and Sweden but a lot of others.

Q. In view of the fact that war has not been formally declared, would Finland be considered a neutral country?

THE PRESIDENT: I doubt if we would sell guns directly to Finland, because there is an armed conflict going on. I doubt it very much. I was talking about countries that are at peace.

Q. That would include Italy?

THE PRESIDENT: Italy certainly is not engaging in war, is it?

Q. No.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, that is the answer. . . .

Oh, there was one thing. I got Lauch Currie to check up on those figures that I talked about on Monday at Hyde Park. Of course, the record, the stenographic record, shows that I talked about private debts in with Government, local, State and municipal Government debts. Obviously, of course, that was necessarily so, and the actual figures do prove that the total debt of the Nation as a whole is less today by a few billion dollars than it was in 1932, and therefore there is-I do not think that there is anything very much more to add.

Q. That would include all Government and all private debts?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, of course.

Q. In that connection, the only figures I have found on private debt are those that were put out by the A.A.A., that report which shows the total debt, public and private, is $9,000,000,000 higher today than it was in 1932.

THE PRESIDENT: No, because that report duplicated quite a number of things.

Q. Where can we get a reliable

THE PRESIDENT: [interposing] Oh, ask Lauch Currie about it.

Of course that raises a nice question as to what is debt. What is debt? Well, now, just the simplest thing in the world, and I have used this illustration before, many times, as to the proposition of honorable statement. Suppose you borrow $10,000 and have assets of $100,000. Is it a fair thing for me to go around town saying that you owe $10,000, that you are in debt $10,000? Probably you could not open an account at a new store if that was the only half of the story that was told. Now, that is a very, very simple proposition because it involves a question of honesty. If the total Government debt, the Federal Government debt, is called $40,000,000,000 or $42,000,000,000, is it fair to stop there? It is a nice question. Is it a fair, honorable thing to do? And yet you see it, day after day, in print. Frankly, I do not think it is quite honorable. Now these figures, of course, are based on net debt. They are based on non-duplicating things. It is the same old story. But the fact remains that the population has gone up quite a lot. We shall not know until later on this year to what the population has gone up since 1932, but I imagine it is six or seven per cent, at a guess. Don't you think so?


THE PRESIDENT: The population has gone up six or seven per cent. That means, actually, it is six or seven per cent larger, and yet the total debt of the United States in dollars is less than it was then.

Q. Are you talking about debt or net worth?


Q. What I mean is, when you say debt, are you subtracting from the Federal debt the gold the Federal Treasury has, etc.?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't follow it.

MR. CURRIE: The net Federal debt subtracts the cash on hand and the gold and the proprietary interest, and if you do that also with States and municipalities, and take of[ the duplication of the Federal agencies being covered twice in the A.A.A. figures, you have a three or four billion dollar decrease.

THE PRESIDENT: Three or four billion dollars less debt.

Q. What do you mean by the Federal agencies being counted twice?

MR. CURRIE: It includes both the guaranteed debt owed by the agencies and also the private debt owed to the Federal agencies. It is an obvious case of duplication. These figures are being revised now.

Q. Do you take credit for all the properties owned by cities?

MR. CURRIE: No, just their cash and sinking funds.

THE PRESIDENT: No, not any more than you take credit for the national parks and public lands owned by the Government. You apply the same rule.

Q. Are there any figures available to show how much private debt was wiped out in bankruptcy and similar proceedings during this period?

THE PRESIDENT: I suppose so. I have never seen any of them, have you?


Q. How much money have you collected back from the Government agencies that you mentioned in your Budget? I think it was $700,000,000 that you expected to get back this year. Has that money been rolling in? Can you tell us how much?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I do not think that comes in until the beginning of the new fiscal year.

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

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