Franklin D. Roosevelt

Remarks to Representatives of National Civic Organizations. Washington, D. C.

August 02, 1940

When I heard that Miss Elliott was going to ask you to come here, representing a great many very important groups and organizations, I said to her that I would like to meet you, to see you before your meeting, and to give you a very brief and summarized picture of some of the problems that we have had to face.

I do not have to go into the dangers of the present international situation because I know you all realize them. I am reminded of an occasion about a year ago when I had the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate here and I made a statement which was promptly twisted out of all semblance to what I said. I said the existence of certain nations-and I mentioned Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and the Baltic States, with Holland and Belgium and France—their continued existence was a very important fact to the continued safety of the United States. They promptly tried to misquote that and alleged that I said that our frontier was on the Rhine, with the connotation that we would promptly send two or three million American boys to the line, which was, of course, merely a political effort on their part to misrepresent. But it was perfectly true that the continued existence of these independent nations of Europe was a part of our defense, and as they have gradually disappeared, it has meant, unfortunately, that dictatorships and aggressions have come closer to us and nobody can tell what the mentality of Naziism and Fascism will ultimately mean to us.

Most people were very smug—most Americans were awfully smug a year ago. They said, "We have three thousand miles of sea." Of course we have learned a vast amount since then, all of us, and we do know that three thousand miles of ocean here are only fourteen hundred miles a little lower down, off the coast of Brazil. A good many people were startled when I said that planes from Mexico could cause a certain amount of damage in Omaha, St. Louis, and Kansas City, and that probably that section of the Middle West would be more dangerous to live in, in case of attacks, than Dutchess County, N. Y. So we have been definitely preparing and, because of the war, people realize that we need more than partial defense. The situation demands total defense, and that means everybody in the country should fit in somewhere and, unless you prepare beforehand to fit them in, you cannot do it after war breaks out.

I said to the newspapermen this morning that there is one lesson people needed. We had an army of four million men started in 1917. We put them together with tremendous effort on the part of the country, without a single attack on the United States during the thirteen and a half months we were putting that army together. There was not a gun fired in the United States against us during that whole period. In other words, we were completely protected for thirteen and a half months by the people who were waging war on the other side. Now, that does not often happen. That was a very lucky fact and we did not put our armies into the action until the twenty-seventh of May, 1918, although we had gone to war on the sixth day of April, 1917. That was merely luck. Therefore we have to think in terms of the defense of the country and we have to prepare.

Instead of going to the Congress this year and trying to get new legislation, we looked up the old statute of 1917 that allowed us to put together an Advisory Commission on defense. When we came down to establishing it, we tried to cover all the elements of American life, because that is another way of saying total defense. Instead of putting just one industrialist or financier at the head of this organization we tried to gather all the component parts of American life that were essential to defense. And, if you will go down the list, you will see what I did. Mr. Knudsen went in there because he was a very successful industrialist in turning out the finished articles. We had to think about the procurement of all the raw materials and we put Mr. Stettinius into that place. We had to think about transportation and we put in Mr. Budd. Yet that did not cover all of American life. We had to remember a lot of other things and one of the important things was the relationship of this industrial program to agriculture. We put Chester Davis in there to handle agricultural problems. Then we had this question of preventing a spiral in prices and costs. Some of us will remember the price fluctuations in 1917, of raw materials, wheat, corn, cotton, and rubber, et cetera. As fast as our raw materials rose in price, then the workers of the country, obviously, said, "The cost of living has gone up and I have to have more money." Then, of course, we had to pay higher wages and when we paid higher wages, it put the cost of products higher. It was this "now you do, now you don't" sort of thing. So we put Leon Henderson on that. That was on the question of stabilizing prices.

Then we got to thinking about the people's pocketbooks, in other words, the consumer end, and I asked Miss Elliott to take that over. It is a vitally important job to see that the people in this country pay fair prices for the necessities of life.

That was the start of Miss Elliott; but then she began to cover a lot of other subjects. We had the problem of housing for these new plants, and she and Sidney Hillman on the labor end have been working on the problem of housing so that when new plants were started there would be adequate places in which the families of the workers could live. That immediately brought up other things, such as education. I remember in the World War that there were many people from all around Connecticut and the Hudson River valley who went over to Bridgeport with their families. Bridgeport was a nice little city at that time, about fifty to sixty thousand people, with enough schools, but when they raised the population to 200,000, there were not enough schools for those children. The next thing that arose was the question of health—there were not enough hospitals or doctors for this new Bridgeport with four times the population it had before. You have several examples. So Miss Elliott has undertaken this new and additional work with Mr. Hillman and the other people on the Commission, with the idea that we are going to protect every element in the community in this big defense program.

There are certain other things that we, frankly, have not had time in the last few months to cover. I have quite a few cousins over in England, American girls who married Englishmen. One question was how they and their children would fit into the picture. Some of them went into practical nursing. They did not have time to become registered nurses, so they went into practical nursing. Some of them went into ambulance work. Some went into the air-alarm system work, but all these women in England were fitted into the national defense picture in their own communities. We have not reached that point but, the first thing to do is to order all kinds of planes, machines and ships, and although it is going to take time to get them delivered, when they are delivered, we have to have organized man and woman power to see that everything clicks, that they fit into the general scheme of operations.

As I say, we have not tackled what we might call community defense as yet. We are gradually working out that part of the program although it does seem as though there is a good deal of delay. I get a lot of letters from all over the country, from men and women, chiefly women, saying, "Where do I fit in? I want to do something." Well, it is awfully hard to fit people in. We have been at this only two months, so if you will bear with Miss Elliott and myself a little longer, we shall do something that is fairly practical and shall give everybody a job to do in practically every community in the United States.

Of course, I think, personally, it is just grand of you to come down here. I am appreciative of it and we are getting the finest kind of cooperation that I have ever seen in this country in time of peace. It is awfully easy in time of war to have everybody come forward and volunteer, but it is a more difficult thing to get people to come forward and volunteer and work and give their time and labor in peacetime, just on the outside chance that we may get attacked in the future.

It is fine to see you and I am very grateful to you.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Remarks to Representatives of National Civic Organizations. Washington, D. C. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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