Alfred E. Smith Has A Few Words About Neutrality – October 1, 1939 – Past Daily Reference Room
Alfred E. Smith – a name which has been very much in the news the past several days, but a name which many people have no idea who he was or what he represented. Dubbed “The Happy Warrior”, Alfred E. Smith was a very popular 4-time Governor of New York, he was a Progressive Democrat who succeeded in breaking up many of the corrupt political lobbies prevalent in New York politics at the time – his watchword was “Let’s Look At The Record”. His 1928 bid for the Presidency was defeated simply on the grounds of his affiliation with the Catholic Church – an issue that would surface again in 1960 in an attempt to dislodge the candidacy of another Catholic; John F. Kennedy. Although he was very much a supporter of FDR, he broke with the President over his New Deal policies, but was an ardent supporter of FDR in other aspects, including his position on the Lend-Lease program at the outbreak of World War 2. After losing another bid for President in 1940, Alfred E. Smith went into the private sector, but remained a visible figure in politics until his death in 1944.
In support of that policy, Alfred E. Smith delivered a nationwide address on October 1, 1939 on the subject of Neutrality. here is the text of that address:
Alfred E. Smith:”At the outset of my remarks, let me first say that I do not know of anybody—I have never even heard of anybody—in the United States of America who wants this country to go to war. Certainly I do not—for I have three sons of the fighting age; the oldest of them is already in the army and would be among the first to leave this country in the event that the United States was brought unto the European struggle. So, therefore, the argument, as far as I am concerned, resolves itself into this: What should we do that is best calculated to keep us out of war? In the discussion of this there is no room for personalities, parties, classes or creeds— all differences must be wiped out in this hour of challenge. Personal interests must be subordinated to the common good. We must be selfish, not for ourselves, but for the whole nation.
I was brought up in a tough political school where facts counted for more than theories. My training has been to distinguish between high-sounding principles and actual results. My experience has taught me not to ask, “Has it alofty purpose?” but to demand an answer to the question, “Does it work?”
The present Neutrality Act does not work. The theory back of it seemed excellent. The principle upon which it rested appeared sound when the act was passed. In the absence of any severe test, the purpose which it contemplated could not have been successfully criticized. But all this has changed. The act has now been tested. It has not met the test and in the coming state of world affairs it can’t possibly meet the even more drastic strains of the future. It has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
I am not the least bit interested in the language of any of the acts so far suggested, nor for that matter in any act that may hereafter be suggested, as to its details. What I am interested in, however, is that course which is best calculated to keep us from being drawn into the European war.
This is no time for technicalities. We should have a prompt decision by Congress on the merits of the question. I don’t mean to discourage debate. There is a real question to be argued. What I do advocate, and I am sure the overwhelming majority are with me, is that the debate shall be on the real issue and not on obscure or minor considerations.
Personally, I am not interested in the argument as to whether or not we should return to so-called established principles of international law. I am not a student of law but I am ready to defend the proposition that there is no respect for international law at this time.
Similarly, I take no stock in quibbling over constitutional questions in connection with the proposed substitute for the present Neutrality Act. Apparently there are some learned people who think we should give a lot of time to a discussion of whether the Constitution of the United States permits Congress or the Senate, as well as the President, to decide that a foreign war exists. What is the difference? The President’s decision would be based on conferences with congressional leaders anyway and would be subject to review by Congress. In a crisis there is no time for legalistic hairsplitting.
Let Congress go straight to the real issue and let Congress decide it, because, after all, Congress speaks for all the people of the country; that is my understanding of democratic, representative government.
“The Neutrality Act as it stands today prevents the sale to a belligerent nation of any completed implements of war, but it allows the sale of many types of uncompleted implements of war, as well as all kinds of general materials and supplies.” These words are taken from the speech of the President of the United States when Congress convened last week.
He further says that the present law allows such products of industry and agriculture to be taken in American ships to belligerent nations, and he concludes that therein lies the definite danger, not only to our neutrality but to our peace. I am unable, in the light of history, to understand how that statement can be successfully disputed.
Let us go back into history, or, as I have many times said, let’s look at the record. Many reasons were advanced as the cause of our entering the World War twenty-two years ago.
Nobody can truthfully say, in the light of history, that Woodrow Wilson was anxious to plunge this country into the World War. In fact, he leaned in the directly opposite way. Long before he called upon Congress to declare war against the Imperial Government of Germany, because of the sinking of American ships, there was a distinct feeling throughout the country that we should go to war, to vindicate the dignity and the majesty and the sovereignty of this great republic. In a conversation with his secretary in 1916,after a submarine had sent an American ship to the bottom, he said: “I will not be rushed into the war, no matter if every last Congressman and Senator stands up on his hind legs and proclaims me a coward.”
However, in the latter part of January of 1917, Germany announced to the United States that she was going to begin on February 1 unrestricted submarine warfare in the zone around the British Isles and undertook to specify the route which a restricted number of American ships might take through this zone. When the secretary to the President brought that Associated Press bulletin to the White House and showed it to the President, he said: “This means war. The break that we have tried so hard to prevent now seems inevitable.”
Here we are under the present Neutrality Act facing that exact situation. The law as it now stands allows supplies to a belligerent country to be carried in American ships; supplies which will be needed for the prosecution of the war, although not named in the Neutrality Act.
But all of that seems to me to be entirely beside the question in view of the attitude of the German Government as shown by the destruction of two Swedish steamships. The attitude of Berlin to the sinking of these two ships clearly indicates that the German Government does not recognize any difference between the goods covered by the American embargo and the goods that are not covered by the embargo. That means that anything delivered to belligerent nations in American ships puts the ship in danger of destruction and means the loss of the lives of American seamen.
I believe that we should prevent the transportation in American ships of any goods of any kind, war goods or other goods, contraband or non-contraband, or any passengers to the warring nations. It is undoubtedly the absence of such a law in 1917 that brought us into the World War. There is only one way of avoiding a repetition of this experience, and that is by keeping American ships and American passengers out of trade with belligerents.
The distinction between contraband and non-contraband, war material and non-war material is essentially the bunk. As a matter of fact, the Swedish boats were carrying lumber, and that was declared to be contraband of war because it is used for shoring in coal mines, which produces fuel necessary for the production of war materials.
As I have said, in this war the Germans have already declared there is no such distinction as far as they are concerned. They take the position—if I read the papers aright —that everything routed to the British Isles is contraband of war, and they put it upon the ground that no belligerent can afford to buy anything at the present time that is not absolutely necessary to the prosecution of the war.
In view of this and in the light of the German attitude to the sinking of the Swedish ships, those who oppose amendment to the present Neutrality Act are compelled to take the position—let them sink the ships. Those who desire the Neutrality Act amended take the position that we will not let the ships go where they can be sunk.
The Bible speaks of beating swords into plowshares. By the same token plowshares can be beaten back into swords. Armies travel on their feet and on their stomachs, and therefore shoes and food can be regarded as war material and contraband.
Under these circumstances we should keep American ships and American passengers out of the export business and let the purchasers come and get what they need by paying cash and carrying it away in their own ships.
I read by the papers that the members of Congress are being deluged with letters, the purpose of which is to convince them that we should keep out of the war. Right! The news articles said that most of the letters come from people who do not desire any amendment to the Neutrality Act That is probably because they do not understand it. I would suggest that those who believe, after a study, that amendment is best calculated to keep us out of the war should also write to their representatives in Congress.
Therefore, I repeat, the question before Congress is which of the two measures is best calculated to keep us out of war—the present Neutrality Act or the amendments suggested by the President.
It is because I firmly believe in my heart and soul that the amendments suggested by the President are best calculated to save us from the scenes that we witnessed in 1917 when our American boys were starting for France that I am at this microphone tonight, appealing to the American people to stand solidly behind the President because he is so clearly right, so obviously on the side of common sense and sound judgment of patriotism that only those who lack an understanding of the issue will oppose him. I urge this with all the sincerity I possess, with the profound conviction that I speak for the good of the nation which we all love so much.
Here is that complete address, as it was broadcast on October 1, 1939 – a reminder of who Alfred E. Smith was and what he sounded like for those of you who may know about him, but never actually heard him.