In his latest radio address President Roosevelt informed the American public that he had “issued orders to the navy that all necessary steps be taken to insure the safety of communications in the approaches between Iceland and the United States, as well as on other seas between the United States and all other strategic outposts.”
Mr. Roosevelt, moreover, in the same speech, was quite insistent on the delivery of American-made war materials to Great Britain and their passage through the American defense zones at all costs. And he warned that all axis warships will be fired upon at sight if they are found within these zones. Where these defense zones are to be found and how far they extend is rather vague at present, but it is evident that they are to be determined by Washington only, and that they will surely be extended as far as is necessary to deliver the goods to Great Britain.
The President insisted that this is no act of war, but simply one of self-protection and self-defense. If this should lead to a “shooting war” (which is the same as simply “war” except that it is not formally declared), the blame rests entirely with the axis powers. The latter now have their choice. If they would avoid trouble with the United States they will have to allow unmolested passage to American ships even though they carry contraband.
Practically all commentators agree that by this act the President has taken our country another step, perhaps the last, to actual involvement in the present conflict in Europe.
The occasion for this drastic step, the taking of which Mr. Roosevelt assured us he has contemplated for a long time and even prayerfully considered, is the attack upon our ships, some of which, at least, carried contraband, by the axis powers. The last straw was the attack by a German submarine upon the Greer, a United States cruiser that was carrying mail to Iceland. The President issued further orders that the submarine that launched this torpedo attack is to be hunted down and eliminated.
The chief argument in the President’s address justifying this step was that of the “freedom of the seas.”
It is true, Mr. Roosevelt incidentally characterized the attack upon our ships as an act of piracy. And it would seem quite reasonable and justifiable to sweep the guilty pirates from the high seas. As early as in the days of President Monroe’s administration we are informed a law was passed by congress “to protect the commerce of the United States, and to punish the crime of piracy.”
In this act congress authorized and empowered the President to employ as many of the armed vessels as he would consider necessary to protect the merchant ships of the United States against “piratical aggressions and depredations.” And congress authorized the President to instruct the commanders of the armed vessels of America “to subdue, seize, take and send into port of the United States any armed vessel or boat, the crew whereof shall be armed, and which shall have attempted or committed any piratical aggression, search, restraint, depredation or seizure, upon any vessel of the United States, or its citizens, which may have been unlawfully captured upon the high seas.”
This was in the days when congress was still in rower and had not surrendered the power vested in it to the President.
But the torpedoing of the Robin Moor in the South Atlantic, the bombing of the Steel Seafarer in the Red Sea, the sinking of the Sessa, an American owned ship sailing under the flag of Panama, and the attack upon the Greer, were not acts of piracy.
A pirate is a freebooter, a lawless rover, acting without authority or commission, but the submarines operating under the German flag have their commission from a sovereign state. Their attacks are acts of war, not of piracy.
It seems to me that Mr. Roosevelt’s radio address would have been much more to the point had he clearly and candidly recognized this fact.
President Wilson did so during the first World War. Regardless, now, of the question whether “freedom of the seas” implies that a neutral nation can claim the right of free passage through war zones even when they are carrying war materials to one of the belligerent nations, it must be said in favor of President Wilson’s policy that formally he pursued the right course. After the sinking of the Lusitania in May, 1915, and again after the Sussex affair, in the summer of 1916, the President sent a series of dispatches to the German Imperial Government, protesting mainly on the ground of the “freedom of the high seas.” And when all his efforts failed to persuade the German government to adopt his, President Wilson’s, viewpoint, he did not merely issue a shooting order to the navy, as now did President Roosevelt, but he turned to Congress with the advice that it declare the indiscriminate sinking of our ships to be acts of war against us on the part of the German government. I quote from President Wilson’s address to Congress on April 2, 1917:
“With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragic character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it; and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense, but also to employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war” (The Whir Message and Facts Behind It, pp. 12, 13).
Compare with this course of action the announcement made by Mr. Roosevelt to the nation in his latest radio address: “I have issued orders to the navy that all necessary steps be taken” etc.
No, acts of piracy the sinking of ships by bombing or torpedoing cannot be called. They are certainly acts by the German Government, for which the Government of Germany is responsible. If they are anything at all, they are acts of war.
And if they are acts of war by the German Government against the United States the question certainly should be answered, not by the President alone, but by Congress, whether these acts of war against us are justifiable or not.
And if the Congress concludes that these acts on the part of the German Government against the United States are wholly unjustifiable, so that we have given no occasion for them, the Congress ought to declare that a state of war exists between the German government and the United States, and act accordingly.
Then our Government would, at least, pursue a course which the nation could clearly understand.
As it is now, the President alone decides that attacks upon our ships, even though we openly declare our intention to aid Great Britain, and insist that we will send her all the war materials possible, and though the ships that are sunk carry contraband, is a violation of the principle of “the freedom of the seas.”
But is it true, as the President claimed in his address, that the sinking of our ships when they sail the high seas with the avowed purpose to send aid to Great Britain, is a violation of the “freedom of the seas,” an act of war against the United States for which the German Government must assume all the blame?
It is argued that the principle mentioned is applied to American defense zones only.
Very well; but who determines their scope and how far do they extend?
Does not the President’s speech give reason to conclude that all of the Atlantic and of the Pacific is, or will be included in the defense areas?
The United States occupied Iceland, allegedly because it was necessary for self-defense: the German Government might otherwise establish a base there to invade our country! The result is that the waters between the United States and Iceland belong to our defense zones, and American ships must be permitted free passage, even American warships may freely cruise in these waters.
Actually, the President’s plea for “freedom of the seas” means insistence on the right to carry aid to Great Britain, if necessary by armed force, and whatever may be the cost.
But if this is the American interpretation of that principle, can we blame the German Government if it adopts the same interpretation and applies it to its own needs and benefit? If the American interpretation of “freedom of the seas” demands free passage for American ships carrying contraband? does it not follow that the German interpretation must be that the German Government has the right to sink those ships?
But the American Government repudiated this interpretation of “the freedom of the seas” by its neutrality act.
This act of Congress can, of course, be circumvented and evaded by extending our defense zones.
But it would be a more honest course to pursue if the neutrality act would simply be repealed.
As matters stand now, the issues are constantly being befogged.
It is rather generally admitted by friends and foes of the war policy of the present administration, that there is a conflict between the open and avowed or alleged purpose of Mr. Roosevelt and the actual course in which he is steering our nation.
He pledged himself to keep the country out of war, as far as this was in his power.
But all agree that every step he has taken thus far is calculated to involve the United States in the European conflict on the side of Great Britain,
All are convinced that the last step the President took, the order he issued to the American navy, puts us on the very brink of war, leaving it to the axis powers whether we shall actually be dragged into a “shooting war.”
Some claim that we are in the war already,
What may be the reason for the apparent conflict between the President’s pledges and his actual policy?
I believe that he, too, realizes very well that the American people as a whole are still strongly opposed to our becoming involved in the war, and that all the pleas of interventionists have not been able to persuade them to believe that to enter this conflict is a matter of self-defense.
Personally, I am an enemy of Nazism, and I hope that we may never see the day that its dream of world- dominion is realized.
But I do not believe that Great Britain’s slate is very clean, in fact, I am sure that it is rather dirty. Germany aims at world dominion. Great Britain always did the same thing.
Nor can you persuade me to believe that we are justified before God to fight on the side of Russia, godless, atheistic, communistic Russia, and that we can expect God to smile upon us in His favor if we do.
I believe that it is the calling of our Government to see to it that our nation is well prepared to defend itself.
But we should take no deliberate steps to become involved in the present conflict.
And this we surely have done.