America First Committee Speech
By Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT)
c. September 1940
Fellow Americans, I deeply appreciate this timely opportunity to speak to you, the American people. Today, every thinking person realizes that the United States stands on the brink of war. We’re so close to war that on January 30, 1941, the War Department announced that they had contracted for the purchase of 4,500,000 identification tags to be worn by American boys called to order-colors. These tags are not of flesh and blood, they are metal. They will identify those boys that are killed upon a foreign battlefield--if the American people stand for it. On the same day, the War Department also announced that they were seeking bids on 1,500,000 caskets. A million and a half coffins for who? They are not intended for those who would lead this nation into the European war, for few of them will be parachuters, pilots, or gunners. This million and a half coffins will be purchased by the War Department for your sons, and for mine.
But I do not want to speak of identification tags and caskets, I want to discuss House bill 1776—how ironical a designation. Ironical, because in the year 1776, we as a nation gained our independence from Great Britain. Ironical, because this bill would tend to destroy that independence and the republic for which our forefathers fought. Ironical, because the proponents of H.R. 1776 maintain that the safety of the United States, and the preservation of our liberties, are dependent upon Great Britain. Is it any wonder, that in the light of these contentions, a citizen of Montana should write as follows? “Dear Senator: As one of your constituents, I would like to ask you a favor. Would you walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, and see if the American flag still waves over the Capitol?” And another constituent wanted to know if this Congress proposes to undo all that was accomplished on July 4, 1776. I hope no one will lose their temper because these Montanians dared to speak their minds. Thank God we still have freedom of thought and expression in this country.
During the past 8 years, we have gone far down the road toward one-man government. We have granted to President Roosevelt more power than was ever given to any peacetime president in the history of this nation. The American people and the Congress have gratified the president’s every wish in order that he might solve our domestic problems. But now the American people are asked, by H.R. 1776, to give in effect to the president of the United States the power to wage an undeclared war. Not in the defense of our shores, our freedom, or our independence, but in the defense of foreign powers.
Once given such vast powers, there will be no relinquishment. And against the will of the executive, a two-thirds vote of Congress is required to curtail, restrict, or repeal these powers. Further and future appropriations of money by Congress are not necessary to make effective this blanket authority. Last year, the Congress voted billions and billions and billions for defense equipment that can be given away by the president, and then the Congress will of necessity appropriate further billions in the name of American defense, which can again be given away. The power in Congress to appropriate is indeed no check on the powers delegated to the president in H.R. 1776. This bill specifically provides that, notwithstanding any other provisions of law, the president may sell, transfer, exchange, lease or otherwise dispose of any defense article. And this includes any material necessary for the manufacture of guns, munitions, warships, or any other defense article. And the president is given authority to repair any implement of war for one belligerent and deny the same privilege to the other. Military or naval secrets, however vital to American defense, may be given to a foreign power by the president.
In plain language, this bill means that the president can give to any foreign nation our entire navy, our entire air force, all our guns, all our tanks, all our munitions, and all our military secrets can be disclosed to Russia to China to Greece to England or to any other country, though they are cautiously withheld from you, the American people, and your Senators, and your Congressmen. In the name of a so-called crusade for worldwide freedom of speech, press and religion. The Russians can be trusted--if the president says so--but you, and I, cannot be. But this is not altogether a new and unusual procedure. The reports or your ambassadors are carefully withheld from you and me, only to be shown to newspaper columnists who hawk the substance of these papers to the public.
Who drafted this legislation? No member of Congress, no member of the Cabinet. Who are its secret authors? Who placed it in the hands of your representatives for introduction? Was it drafted by a little group of Wall Street lawyers? Or by the Brain Trusters? Without knowing from whence it comes, or where it will lead us, you the American people, are asked to swallow it, in the name of aiding Britain. Do not be misled. I am informed that without this legislation, we have transferred five-sevenths of all combat planes produced in the United States during 1940 to England and to other countries. We have transferred so many that the American Air Force do not have a single, completely modern plane equipped with fighting armor, self-sealing gas tanks, and adequate firing power. We have traded 50 destroyers to England while our own naval strength lags behind the Axis. We have transferred rifles, ammunition, and other military equipment to England, and all without the aid of House bill H.R. 1776.
This bill is not synonymous with aid to Britain. It is synonymous with war. And it is synonymous with loss of your representative form of government. If you taxpayers want to give 1 billion or 50 billion dollars of your money to Great Britain, to China, to Greece, or to any other nation that the president may designate, that is your privilege. But I beg of you, do not demand the abdication of Congress, and above all else, do not be stampeded by the propaganda of England and a few international bankers into sending your boys to fight and die in foreign wars.
We’re hearing strange words and doctrines these days. Washington and Jefferson have gone out of style. It is unpatriotic to avoid the quarrels of Europe. It is dastardly to fight for the preservation of our form of government. However old-fashioned it may be, I expect to continue in the future, as I have in the past, to raise my humble voice and try to tell you people not [?] the truth as I see it from my vantage point here in Washington. The famous English poet Cooper long ago said, and said truly: “When war is a game which were their subjects wise, kings would not play at.”
You the people must not let your government play the game of war. Whether your government plays this game depends on you. You must tell your own Senators and Congressmen and your president how you stand on this bill. Do it now—tomorrow may be too late. This bill is wholly foreign to our conception of government. Its introduction followed months of careful ground-laying propaganda. Every agency of mass communication has been, and is being, utilized to excite the passions and the emotions of the American people. Motion pictures constantly show the horrors visited on one of the belligerents—the one they would have us aid. Paid radio commentators editorialize the news and distort the facts. Newspapers give banner headlines to polls which reputedly indicate that the deep sympathy we all feel for England is about to be translated into open warfare. Despite this deluge of propaganda, and despite these brazen attempts to rush this country into another European bloodbath, a little publicized, but highly significant poll recently indicated that 85 to 90 percent of the American people still oppose a declaration of war.
Are we Americans to eternally dedicate ourselves and our children to the preservation of the British Empire? Are we to be called twice in 25 years to save the British from a Frankenstein of their own creation? Are we, when we know the cost in blood and tears and in dollars, to meddle again in European affairs to satisfy the lust of warmongers? Or are we going to be practical as well as idealistic and build a nation so strong that no force will dare attack us from within or without? Warmongers will label you “appeasers,” but be firm in your resolve to avoid the quarrels of Europe. Be firm in your determination to save you boys from the hell that is Europe and Africa today, and take strength from the words of the Lord: “Put up thy sword into its place, for all they who take the sword shall perish with the sword.”