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FDR and Open Commerce
I’ve been surprised that there has been no mention of a famous speech FDR gave in 1941 when it comes to the crisis we face today in the waters off of Somalia. While I in no way want to equate Hitler with Somali pirates, some of the broader principles hold true, including protecting merchant ships and keeping the waters open for commerce, which is how I tie the subject to finance and Wall Street History.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 11, 1941…Freedom of the Seas Speech
The Navy Department of the United States has reported to me that on the morning of Sept. 4 the United States destroyer Greer, proceeding in full daylight toward Iceland, had reached a point southeast of Greenland. She was carrying American mail to Iceland. She was flying the American flag. Her identity as an American ship was unmistakable.
She was then and there attacked by a submarine. Germany admits that it was a German submarine. The submarine deliberately fired a torpedo at the Greer, followed later by another torpedo attack. In spite of what Hitler’s propaganda bureau has invented, and in spite of what any American obstructionist organization may prefer to believe, I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning, and with deliberate design to sink her.
Our destroyer, at the time, was in waters which the Government of the United States had declared to be waters of self-defense, surrounding outposts of American protection in the Atlantic.
In the north of the Atlantic, outposts have been established by us in Iceland, in Greenland, in Labrador and in Newfoundland. Through these waters there pass many ships of many flags. They bear food and other supplies to civilians; and they bear materiel of war, for which the people of the United States are spending billions of dollars, and which, by Congressional action, they have declared to be essential for the defense of our own land.
The United States destroyer, when attacked, was proceeding on a legitimate mission.
If the destroyer was visible to the submarine when the torpedo was fired, then the attack was a deliberate attempt by the Nazis to sink a clearly identified American warship.
On the other hand, if the submarine was beneath the surface of the sea and, with the aid of its listening devices, fired in the direction of the sound of the American destroyer without even taking the trouble to learn its identity, as the official German communiqué would indicate, then the attack was even more outrageous. For it indicates a policy of indiscriminate violence against any vessel sailing the seas, belligerent or non-belligerent.
This was piracy, piracy legally and morally. It was not the first nor the last act of piracy which the Nazi government has committed against the American flag in this war, for attack has followed attack.
A few months ago an American flag merchant ship, the Robin Moor, was sunk by a Nazi submarine in the middle of the South Atlantic, under circumstances violating long-established international law and violating every principle of humanity. The passengers and the crew were forced into open boats hundreds of miles from land, in direct violation of international agreements signed by nearly all nations, including the government of Germany. No apology, no allegation of mistake, no offer of reparations has come from the Nazi government….
It would be unworthy of a great nation to exaggerate an isolated incident, or to become inflamed by some one act of violence. But it would be inexcusable folly to minimize such incidents in the face of evidence which makes it clear that the incident is not isolated, but part of a general plan.
The important truth is that these acts of international lawlessness are a manifestation of a design, a design that has been made clear to the American people for a long time. It is the Nazi design to abolish the freedom of the seas and to acquire absolute control and domination of these seas for themselves….
This Nazi attempt to seize control of the oceans is but a counterpart of the Nazi plots now being carried on throughout the Western Hemisphere, all designed toward the same end. For Hitler’s advance guards, not only his avowed agents but also his dupes among us, have sought to make ready for him footholds and bridgeheads in the New World, are all known to the Government of the United States. Conspiracy has followed conspiracy….
To be ultimately successful in world mastery, Hitler knows that he must get control of the seas. He must first destroy the bridge of ships which we are building across the Atlantic and over which we shall continue to roll the implements of war to help destroy him, to destroy all his works in the end. He must wipe out our patrol on sea and in the air if he is to do it. He must silence the British Navy….
It is time for all Americans of all the Americas to stop being deluded by the romantic notion that the Americas can go on living happily and peacefully in a Nazi-dominated world.
Generation after generation, America has battled for the general policy of the freedom of the seas. And that policy is a very simple one – but a basic, a fundamental one. It means that no nation has the right to make the broad oceans of the world at great distances from the actual theater of land war unsafe for the commerce of others….
Our policy has applied from the earliest days of the republic and still applies, not merely to the Atlantic but to the Pacific and to all other oceans as well.
Unrestricted submarine warfare in 1941 constitutes a defiance – an act of aggression – against that historic American policy….
No tender whisperings of appeaser that Hitler is not interested in the Western Hemisphere, no soporific lullabies that a wide ocean protects us from him can long have any effect on the hard-headed, far-sighted and realistic American people….
This attack on the Greer was no localized military operation in the North Atlantic. This was no mere episode in a struggle between two nations. This was one determined step toward creating a permanent world system based on force, on terror and on murder.
And I am sure that even now the Nazis are waiting, waiting to see whether the United States will by silence give them the green light to go ahead on this path to destruction….
There has now come a time when you and I must see the cold inexorable necessity of saying to these inhuman, unrestrained seekers of world conquest and permanent world domination by the sword – “You seek to throw our children and our children’s children into your form of terrorism and slavery. You have now attacked our own safety. You shall go no further.”
Normal practices of diplomacy – note writing – are of no possible use in dealing with international outlaws who sink our ships and kill our citizens.
One peaceful nation after another has met disaster because each refused to look the Nazi danger squarely in the eye, until it actually had them by the throat….
No matter what it takes, no matter what it costs, we will keep open the line of legitimate commerce in these defensive waters of ours.
We have sought no shooting war with Hitler. We do not seek it now. But neither do we want peace so much that we are willing to pay for it by permitting him to attack our naval and merchant ships while they are on legitimate business.
I assume that the German leaders are not deeply concerned tonight, or any other time, by what the real Americans or the American Government says or publishes about them. We cannot bring about the downfall of Nazism by the use of long-range invective.
But when you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.
These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic. They are a menace to the free pathways of the high seas. They are a challenge to our own sovereignty. They hammer at tour most precious rights when they attack ships of the American flag – symbols of our independence, our freedom, our very life….
Do not let us be hair-splitters. Let us not ask ourselves whether the Americas should begin to defend themselves after the first attack, or the fifth attack, or the tenth attack, or the twentieth attack.
The time for active defense is now….
This is the time for prevention of attack….
Upon our naval and air patrol – now operating in large number over a vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean – falls the duty of maintaining the American policy of freedom of the seas – now. That means, very simply, very clearly, that our patrolling vessels and planes will protect all merchant ships – not only American ships but ships of any flag-engaged in commerce in our defensive waters. They will protect them from submarines; they will protect them from surface raiders.
This situation is not new. The second President of the United States, John Adams, ordered the United States Navy to clean out European privateers and European ships of war which were infesting the Caribbean and South American waters, destroying American commerce.
The third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, ordered the United States Navy to end the attacks being made upon American and other ships by the corsairs of the nations of North Africa.
My obligation as President is historic; it is clear; yes, it is inescapable.
It is no act of war on our part when we decide to protect the seas that are vital to American defense. The aggression is not ours. Ours is solely defense….
The sole responsibility rests upon Germany. There will be no shooting unless Germany continues to seek it….
The American people have faced other grave crises in their history – with American courage, with American resolution. They will do no less today.
They know the actualities of the attacks upon us. They know the necessities of a bold defense against these attacks. They know that the times call for clear heads and fearless hearts.
And with that inner strength that comes to a free people conscious of their duty, conscious of the righteousness of what they do, they will – with divine help and guidance – stand their ground against this latest assault upon their democracy, their sovereignty and their freedom.
Source: “The World’s Greatest Speeches,” edited by Lewis Copeland, Lawrence W. Lamm and Stephen J. McKenna