Franklin D. Roosevelt

Press Conference on Board President's Train En Route to Washington, D.C.

September 03, 1940

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, good people, how are you? This was an easy trip for you, an awfully easy trip with no news. Why, there is old Fred [Mr. Essary]. Fred, who let you come?

Q. [Mr. Essary] I did not ask anybody's permission. I just came.

THE PRESIDENT: You just came. Gosh, I am glad that somebody got up to give the lady [Miss Fleeson] a seat. Fred, you have become a trouper again; it is all right.

Q. [Mr. Essary] So I have.

THE PRESIDENT: Sit on the floor, Felix [Mr. Belair]; you are too big to stand up.

Q. This is the first train Press Conference since Germany moved into Denmark.

THE PRESIDENT: I guess that's right.

Q. We had a big talk with you at that time about. Iceland and Greenland.

THE PRESIDENT: You are learning geography. There was another Press Conference where we talked about the Celebes Islands. (Laughter)

Q. We were clear to the Cocos before we knew. (Laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: I have today nothing for you as news from here, although I have something for you for your own information. It is a Washington story that will be out there in twenty-two minutes, so the story will come from Washington. I cannot add to it, but you ought to know about it because you will probably get all kinds of flashes, "For God's sake, get some news." Well, there isn't any news.

In twenty minutes there is going to the Congress the following message, which I am going to read from the only copy I have, which is a rough copy, so there is no use taking it down.

MR. EARLY: The text will be released there [in Washington].

THE PRESIDENT: It is probably the most important thing that has come for American defense since the Louisiana Purchase. [Turning to Mr. Essary] That goes back before you and me.

Q. [Mr. Essary] That is quite far.

THE PRESIDENT: How far? About 1803?

Q. [Mr. Essary] About.

THE PRESIDENT: (reading)


"I transmit herewith for the information of the Congress notes exchanged between the British Ambassador at Washington and the Secretary of State on September 2, 1940:" —in other words, that is yesterday—(Reading) "under which this Government has acquired the right to lease naval and air bases in Newfoundland, and in the islands of Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia—"

Q. [interposing] What is that last one?


Q. How do you spell it?

THE PRESIDENT: S-t. L-u-c-i-a, period. Now, I am not fooling on those. These are real places. (Laughter) [The President continued reading]"—Trindad, and Antigua, and in British Guiana—"Get out the map. We haven't even got an atlas on board. That is terrible. (Reading)"—also a copy of an opinion of the Attorney General dated August 27, 1940, regarding my authority to consummate this arrangement."

Q. [interposing] What was the date?

THE PRESIDENT: August twenty-seventh. And also (reading)

"The right to bases in Newfoundland and Bermuda are gifts—generously given and gladly received." Mind you, all these places being mentioned are what they call Crown Colonies.

Q. Are these ninety-nine-year leases, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. (Reading)"The other bases mentioned have been acquired in exchange for fifty of our over-age destroyers."

Q. This is breaking out of Washington? (Laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: This is breaking out of Washington. This is nota Press Conference; just a little information conference.

Q. No connection between those bases and the destroyers?

Q. Which of the bases are being leased?

THE PRESIDENT: They are all ninety-nine years, but Newfoundland and Bermuda are gifts. In other words, there is no exchange in relation to them.

Q. No quid pro quo?

THE PRESIDENT: No quid pro quo on those at all. You see the point? . . .

Q. The release clause applies also to the two gifts?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. (Reading)

"This is not inconsistent in any sense with our status of peace. Still less is it a threat against any nation. It is an epochal and far-reaching act of preparation for continental defense in the face of grave danger.

"Preparation for defense is an inalienable prerogative of a sovereign state. Under present circumstances this exercise of sovereign right is essential to the maintenance of our peace and safety. This is the most important action in the reinforcement of our national defense that has been taken since the Louisiana Purchase. Then, as now, considerations of safety from overseas attack were fundamental.

"The value to the Western Hemisphere of these outposts of security is beyond calculation. Their need has long been recognized by our country, and especially by those primarily charged with the duty of charting and organizing our own naval and military defense. They are essential to the—

"a lot more geography for you—(Reading)

"protection of the Panama Canal, Central America, the Northern portion of South America, The Antilles, Canada, Mexico, and our own Eastern and Gulf Seaboards. Their consequent importance in hemispheric defense is obvious. For these reasons I have taken advantage of the present opportunity to acquire them."

That is all.

Q. Mr. President, when will the destroyers be sent to Great Britain?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, some of them are—I don't know; reasonably soon.

Q. Would it be a fair assumption to say that some are on the way?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I would not say that.

Q. Will the British send crews over to take the destroyers?

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

Q. Where are the destroyers now?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know.

Q. Mr. President, does this require Senate ratification?

THE PRESIDENT: Listen: (reading)"I transmit herewith for the information of the Congress —" these notes and the opinion. And, at the end, I say (reading) "For these reasons I have taken advantage of the present opportunity to acquire them."

Q. Mr. Jackson's opinion?

THE PRESIDENT: It is all over; it is all done.

Q. Mr. President, when might work start on these bases?

THE PRESIDENT: Don't, please, go any further than this. As soon as we can. In other words, I cannot tell anything about it-they are all "if" questions. If you go beyond this, they are all "if" questions, every one.

Q. Can you say which will be naval bases and which air bases?

THE PRESIDENT: That is an "if" question. You will see by the notes that accompanied this that there is to be created, on both sides, a board which will take up the question of the location; and that board either has been announced in Washington, or will be very soon. It either has proceeded, or is about to proceed, with its duty.

Q. Might that be comprised of officers from the services?

THE PRESIDENT: That board is proceeding or will proceed almost immediately on its duties.

Q. How close is the formula that you have used to make this public to the procedure President Monroe used in announcing the Monroe Doctrine? Wasn't there an exchange of correspondence?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that was employed too.

Q. An exchange of correspondence?

THE PRESIDENT: Of course there was no mutuality in the Monroe Doctrine. There is mutuality here.

This has to be for background—it is for your own information, historical, without attribution. In about—I cannot give you the exact dates—about 1803, Napoleon was at war with Great Britain. France was a belligerent, and we were scared pink because France had bought from Spain the whole of the Louisiana Territory, and especially the mouth of the Mississippi. That was the important thing to our defense. France had a very weak army down there in Louisiana. I think they had one regiment, something like that, for the whole of the Territory. We were scared to death that there might be, as an outcome of the Napoleonic wars, some threat or some danger of some power going in there and going up the valley to connect up with Canada, the back part of Canada, thereby confining the States practically to this side of the Mississippi.

There was an awful lot of discussion about it and everybody was yelling, "For God's sake protect us," all over the country, "by acquiring, if you can, this mouth of the Mississippi." Of course in those days they, none of them, realized what they were getting with the Louisiana Purchase, that they were getting that tremendous back country that went clear up to Montana, but they saw it primarily from the standpoint of the mouth of the Mississippi and the control of the main stem of the Mississippi.

So Jefferson sent Monroe and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston over to Paris—

Q. [interposing] One of your relatives, wasn't he?

THE PRESIDENT: Relative, yes. He was my wife's great grand-father. (Laughter)

And they went to Paris and negotiated with Napoleon, who was a belligerent, fighting Great Britain at the time. In fact, he was fighting over most of Europe. They made this deal for the purchase of the whole thing from Napoleon for a price of—as I remember it—what was it, $15,000,000?

Q. Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: And Napoleon, at the same time, verbally agreed that a portion of that money would be spent over here in buying certain naval supplies and certain food supplies that he needed over there for the continuation of his wars. The contract was signed over there in Paris, Monroe and, I think, Livingston hopped the first sail boat they could, and came back to Washington, and announced that the thing had been done. Thereupon there ensued a long session in the Cabinet and every other place, as to whether such a thing could be done. You see, there was nothing said about it in the Constitution.

Q. I thought Jefferson did it—made the Louisiana Purchase?

THE PRESIDENT: But it was Monroe and Livingston who made the actual purchase. They brought back a signed contract to him. He said, "Fine; I accept it", and then there ensued this discussion in the early days when the Constitution had never been tried out very much. There wasn't anything in the Constitution about it, and to put the thing up to Congress would have involved a delay. Now, the main thing was to put our hands on it, to take it, to get it; and Jefferson thereupon, as soon as word came from the two commissioners, proceeded to take over Louisiana. It was a fait accompli. He got the opinion of the Attorney General that he could do it without a treaty, do it for the national defense as Commander-in-Chief, and do it as President, as well, in an obvious emergency.

And, later on, he asked, not the Senate but he asked the Appropriations Committee of the House to please appropriate $15,000,000 to him as an item in an appropriation bill, which was done. There was never any treaty, there was never any two-thirds vote in the Senate, and today Louisiana is about one-third of the whole of the United States.

And we are going back a hundred—about a hundred and thirty-seven years—for our historical precedent and authority. It is a very interesting thing.

Q. Did Mr. Jackson, in setting up his opinion saying that you had authority to do that, set forth the Louisiana Purchase as a historical precedent?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that is mentioned in it. . . .

Q. Any value placed upon the destroyers?

THE PRESIDENT: You are thinking in terms of dollars and cents and pounds and shillings and pence and you should, in a great emergency, remove pure figures from your mind. Some people will say, undoubtedly—this is still off the record—that, from the point of view of dollars and cents, it is not a good deal. And others will say, "My God, the old Dutchman and Scotchman in the White House has made a good trade." Personally, you can take your money and take your choice. Personally, I think it is a good trade.

Q. Are we back on the record again?

THE PRESIDENT: No, you are not on the record.

Q. For the record, Mr. President, is it proper to say that these destroyers are released to the British in fee?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, in fee.

I have not finished the story. There is also to be given out in Washington, simultaneously- you will have to leave this off the record as coming from me; make it just pure information—a restatement by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on what he said on the fourth of June to Parliament, and this is a restatement to the effect that the British Fleet, in case it is made too hot for them in home waters, is not going to be given to Germany or sunk.

Q. What is the status of that statement? Are they using it?

THE PRESIDENT: They are using it, I do not know how. In other words, the declaration of June fourth, which was perfectly clear and obvious, is reiterated and restated now.

Q. In this correspondence that will accompany this [release]?


Q. Is that part of the quid pro quo?


Q. Is that part of the deal?

THE PRESIDENT: No, it happens to come along at the same time.

Q. Fortuitously?

THE PRESIDENT: Fortuitously, that is the word.

Q. Can you help us draw conclusions, not as coming from you but for our own guidance? Would that mean moving the Fleet to Canada?

THE PRESIDENT: No, no. Get out your atlas. It might go to whatever place in the British Empire needed it for defense. That is the point. It might be Canada, it might be somewhere else. The Lord only knows.

Q. It might be the Great Bay of Bermuda, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Nobody knows.

Q. Have the British set out in these negotiations exactly where they are to be located, these bases, or—

THE PRESIDENT: [interposing] Well, that is set out. For instance, Newfoundland, as will appear in the notes accompanying this, the Newfoundland base or bases—again you have to know your chart—will be roughly the south shore of Newfoundland, including the Avalon Peninsula, which is a thing that sticks out in a southerly direction and on which St. Johns is situated—

Q. [interposing] Does that include Botwood?

THE PRESIDENT: Take it this way: Newfoundland is, roughly, a square with a long thing sticking up north, that is the Northern Peninsula, and right where the thing sticking up north comes in on the north shore is Botwood. Down on the south shore is the Avalon Peninsula on the extreme eastern end. That is a straight shore line with a lot of fjords in it, and our base will be somewhere on the south shore.

Then, in Bermuda, it will be on the east coast, or on the Great Bay. Of course that is obvious because you couldn't go to the west coast; there are a lot of reefs.

In the Bahamas it will be on the southerly side. Wait a minute, it will be on the—they run—I will have to describe it as this: the Bahamas run on Crooked Island Passage. There are some further over east of it, but the main Bahamas run from northeast to southwest of the entrance to the Crooked Island Passage and probably it (the base) will be somewhere in there. In other words, we are referring to it as the easterly side of the Bahamas.

Q. What I meant is, do we have the right to choose?

THE PRESIDENT: It will be done by the Joint Board.

Then, on Jamaica, it will be on the south shore of Jamaica—which is quite long.

In St. Lucia, it will be on the lee side, which is the westerly. In Trinidad, it will, obviously, be on the Gulf of Paria, because there is no other place; and, in Antigua, it will be in the only harbor, which, again, is on the lee side.

In Guiana, it will be at a point within, roughly, fifty miles of Georgetown, which is the capital.

In other words, there is plenty of leeway as to the actual sites, but the whole thing has been very, very carefully worked out as to general location.

Q. The British Honduras is not mentioned?


Q. Does this understanding postulate the establishment of an agreement?

THE PRESIDENT: No, there is nothing said here.

Q. In other words, would it postulate that—

THE PRESIDENT: [interposing] I would stick to this. You have all this information. In other words, don't say this is the forerunner of this, that or the other thing. You might hit, but the chances are ten to one that you would miss. . . .

Q. Will there be any joint control of the base or will there be sovereignty?

THE PRESIDENT: Nobody knows what sovereignty is. There will be complete American control. That word "sovereignty," you know, went out some years ago.

Q. Did the British lay down any conditions, sir, that the fifty destroyers, including the twenty mosquito boats, must be in condition?


Q. They practically all are?

THE PRESIDENT: They practically all are.

Q. Mosquito boats are not mentioned.

THE PRESIDENT: No, mosquito boats are not mentioned in there.

Q. Will this apply to airplanes as well as ships?

THE PRESIDENT: All it says is, "air and naval bases." I think it is the other way around, "naval and air bases."

MR. EARLY: I think you might explain that the message is going up today and that the House is in session but not the Senate.

THE PRESIDENT: It is primarily a question of synchronization-this is off the record. We had to pick a time which was mutually satisfactory for the British and ourselves. That is about the size of it. And for several days—today was the day decided on, even before the Senate decided to adjourn over until tomorrow. But the House is in session today; and, as you know, very often I send up messages when there is only one House in session. Furthermore, Senator Lundeen's tragic death will probably cause the Senate, when they do meet tomorrow, to transact no business but to adjourn immediately in his memory.

Q. Is Churchill sending a similar message to Parliament?

THE PRESIDENT: I do not know whether he is, or whether he is just making a statement. I do not know even whether Parliament is in session, but there is something being given out at five or six o'clock this evening.

Q. How long have these negotiations been under way?

THE PRESIDENT: I would be afraid to say because I am doing so many things these days. I'd say several weeks. That covers a multitude of sins. That means anywhere from two up.

Q. We cannot deliver these destroyers ourselves, can we?


Q. We cannot deliver these destroyers ourselves, can we?


Q. I mean, take them over?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, no; not over there.

Q. Mr. President, can you tell us anything about your travel plans?

THE PRESIDENT: No, except that I have still got a good many plants, localities to look into. I promised somebody to do the Philadelphia and Camden area some day. I have no plans ahead, literally. I have promised to do the New York and nearer points of New Jersey. And I should do, if I can get around to it, I should do the Pittsburgh area because that is just about—well, it is pretty well within my limit of travel and maybe—I do not know—how long does it take to go to, well, let us say half way down Kentucky and half way down Ohio? I want to stay well within twelve hours of Washington.

MR. EARLY: Overnight.

Q. If you went by air you could go way out to the Coast.

THE PRESIDENT: I am not going by air. The Secret Service won't let me.

Q. Any chance you might go to Wright Field or Dayton, Ohio?

THE PRESIDENT: You will have to give me a check on that. That is within the overnight limit, which is all right.

Q. Sparrows Point and Curtis Bay are not far away?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, no. You can put that in, because I am certainly going over to Baltimore, very certainly. I can do that some afternoon when I have nothing else to do.

Q. Any defense projects in the Middle West—Iowa, Kansas?

THE PRESIDENT: They are all working.

Q. Any you can visit, I mean?

THE PRESIDENT: I cannot because you get beyond the 12-hour limit. Take the easiest example: I have had to spend hours because this particular thing happened to time into the opening of the Great Smokies' Park, consequently I have had to make an awful lot of arrangements to get this message to the Congress today. The thing was decided on Sunday night, when the Secretary came on the train.

Q. What would be the line, the Mississippi River?


Q. In connection with your trip today to Charleston, I believe in the Appropriation Bill there is a $20,000,000 item for the expansion of that plant. Is it the intention of the Navy to go ahead with that?

THE PRESIDENT: Right, there is.

Q. Any thoughts on possible use?

THE PRESIDENT: As I said over the mike [over the radio], it has a sentimental background on my part. Here is something you can write a story on—

Q. [interposing] We have a story.

THE PRESIDENT: You have a story but it is being handled by your Washington office so you do not have to write about it. If you want a real story, today was a sentimental journey because in the spring of 1917 we had this very large building program for battleships and battle cruisers and destroyers, et cetera and so on; and—I can almost say this in my sleep—back in 1917 the productive capacity of the country was too small. There wasn't enough in the way of armor platemaking facilities. There were three companies at that time that could make armor plate, and only three: Bethlehem, Midvale and Carnegie. At the same time, there was a shortage in shell manufacturing.

You see, we already had our orders in for guns before the war began, before we got into the war, which some of us older people remember. I think it was in February, 1917, before we got into the war, that we got a special appropriation for guns to arm the merchant ships; and they were essentially the same type of gun that we were putting on destroyers, so they worked both ways.

But there was this bottleneck—which was a subsequent term—in armor plate and heavy shells. So, with the help and advice of Midvale and Carnegie and Bethlehem, we built this plant out here, and Joe Daniels came out and laid the cornerstone of it, or dedicated it, in August, 1917. The plant was actually operating in nineteen hundred and—I'd say the spring of 1918, the following year; and we were turning out the armor plate and some very heavy shells. You saw today some experimental shells which were built in 1921 or 1922, 18-inch. There has never been a gun made to fit it but there were the shells still there.

Q. Weren't some guns actually made?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't think so. I think there was a 16-inch-gun but not an 18-inch.

Then in 1919 the plant was kept going, and in 1921 came the famous Naval Disarmament Conference and we ceased all operations in building. I have forgotten how many, I think there were six big battleships and cruisers, and we junked the battleships and changed the battle cruisers into airplane carriers and they are still with us, the Lexington and the Saratoga.

'Because of the lack of need, from that time on, of armor plate, the Administration, after that Conference, I think, closed down the Charleston plant entirely and put a lot of grease on its machinery. Two or three years ago the Navy Department wanted to sell the plant, the whole works, and I said, "No. I think some day we might use it."

The world situation was getting worse and worse, and I thought we might just as well keep it, as long as we had kept it that long. Meanwhile we had moved a good deal of the smaller machine tools down to other Government yards; but the structures are all right, and the very heavy press and some of the heavy machine tools and furnaces are perfectly all right. They moved out everything, practically, from the shell plant and kept the armor plate with the heavy machinery in it.

Last June [1939], three months before the European war broke out, we ordered the plant put back into commission-the first part of it which was the armor plate plant- because we are getting a bottleneck on armor plate for this vast program of ships calling for armor. That is actually in operation, and it is going to be expanded and expanded with that $20,000,000. And furthermore, out of it—I do not know whether it is out of the same $20,000,000 or another appropriation-we are starting, as you saw today, under Captain Pfaff, the old shell-making plant, but instead of making shells we are going to turn it to making guns because, at this particular time, we are more short on guns than we are on shells.

Q. Will that be naval guns, sir?


Q. Is it correct to say that you and the Secretary [Mr. Daniels] were influenced, back in 1917, in building this plant because of the fact that the three bidders for armor plate submitted identical bids?

THE PRESIDENT: You are a little bit wrong on your dates. We did have an awful lot of trouble. It is an amusing story. Back in 1913, just after Joe Daniels and I went in there, we found three or four battleships that needed armor contracts. The previous price had been $460 a ton and the new identical price from these three companies was $520 a ton. The cost of construction and the cost of labor had not gone up in the meantime. So old Joe Daniels sent for them. I loved his words. He said, "Gentlemen"—there were three of them —he said, "this, I am afraid, is collusive bidding for you, all three, to arrive at exactly the same figure. I am afraid I have got to throw the bids out and ask for new bids." And one of them stepped forward and said, "Mr. Secretary," with a perfectly solemn face, "Mr. Secretary, it was a pure coincidence." And Daniels said, "Well, the bids are all rejected and we will open new bids at 12.00 o'clock tomorrow. Sharpen your pencils, think it over during the night and don't have another coincidence." (Laughter)

Q. Mr. President—

THE PRESIDENT: [interposing] —which was rather nice. And then came the other part of the story.

About—oh, they came in the next day with identical bids again, still $520. They had the same coincidence in the night. Daniels sent for me and when I came to him he had a newspaper under his hand.

He said, "Do you see who has landed?"

"Who?"He said, "Why, Sir John Hatfield."

I said, "Well, who is Sir John Hatfield?"

"Why," he said, "he is one of the three or four great armor plate makers in England, and makes a lot of armor plate for the British Navy." He said, "Can you take the train right away?"

"What do you want me to do?"

"Go up to New York, see Sir John Hatfield and ask him if he will take this order for this armor at $460 or less," which was the previous year's price.

I went up and saw Hatfield. He said, "Give me the specifications, although I know them more or less offhand, and I will send a cable and let you know tomorrow."

I said, "Wait a minute now. The Secretary and I are using you, quite frankly, we are using you to force down the American price. We do not want to buy this in England if the American producer of armor will come down to $460 a ton."

He said, "I know that; you do not have to tell me that." I said, "In other words, if you bid $460 a ton and the Americans do not come down to the price, you get the order, but if they do come down to the price, we will give them the order."

He said, "It is all right with me."

The next day I got a telegram, "Firm offer making all the armor plate you need for $460."

So we sent for the three gentlemen and showed them the telegram from Hatfield; and Daniels sent them out and the next day we got all our armor plate from them for $460 a ton.

Q. Was there some association between that incident and your present decision to manufacture armor?

THE PRESIDENT: Perhaps we had that in the back of our heads.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Press Conference on Board President's Train En Route to Washington, D.C. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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