Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Transcripts of White House Office Conversations, 08/22/1940 - 10/10/1940

1. Roosevelt Talks With Democratic Leaders. Side 1. pt. 1, 0-850. pt. 2, 850-1066. Friday, October 4, 1940.

FDR: And you see, look here now. I know, to be perfectly frank about these things, the prime minister of Japan has just given out an interview, which may or may not be true because they may deny it this afternoon, to Scripps - Howard, or the INS papers, in which he says that Japan would regard it as an act of war if we were to give aid and comfort to any of the enemies of Japan. Now, what d'ya mean? What does the word "attack" mean? I don't know. It's perfectly possible - not the least bit probable - I mean it's a, it's a - Jack Garner would say it's a 'a one-in-ten shot,' that Hitler and Mussolini, and Japan, united, might, ah, feel that if they could stop American munitions from flowing to England - planes, guns, ships, airplanes, ammunition, and so forth, that they could lick England.

Now, they might send us an ultimatum: "If you continue to send anything to England, we will regard that as an attack on us." I'll say, "I'm terribly sorry. We don't want any war with you. We have contracts, and under our neutrality laws any belligerent has a right to come and buy things in this country and take 'em away." They'll thereupon say: "Well, if after such and such a date you are continuing to ship munitions to England - and planes - we will regard you as a belligerent."

All right, what have we got to say on this?...I'll say, "I'm terribly sorry, we don't consider ourselves a belligerent. We're not going to declare war on you. If you regard us as a belligerent, we're dreadfully sorry for you, but we don't. Now, all we can say to you is that, or course, if you act on that assumption - that we're a belligerent - and make any form of an attack on us - we're going to defend our own, not war, we're going to defend our own. And nothing further.

McCormack: Ah, they're trying to stop you from send ah -

FDR: Now if that happens, of course, we'll be, I mean in that situation, we'll say: "We're not a belligerent, we're not fightin' y'ah, we're not at war with y'ah, but we decline to change the laws of the United States, we're going to defend ourselves and our present policy of neutrality." Now, there'll be in this country, if that happens, a great deal of, ah ah, scared feelings - panic. There'll be a lot of people that'll say: "My God, we ought to keep some of these planes back here. We haven't got enough of these planes - to defend ourselves. We ought not to send every other plane over to England. We haven't got enough antiaircraft guns - for Boston, and New York, and Washington, D.C." Sure, it's perfectly true. And there'll be a demand that we pull right in, inside of ourselves, and keep everything we're making for our own defense. And that's just what they want us to do.

Now, this morning, you know, you know the terrible attack on Lehman because of what Lehman said. It's perfectly true that the Axis Powers - there's no question about it - they'd give anything in the world to have me licked on the fifth of November. And the 'Times' yesterday morning comes out with one of those editorials. "Well! What Lehman said! Well, how does he get that? What do you mean that the Axis Powers want to defeat the President? Why, you're insinuating that, ah ah they, they are taking a course of interference in our, in our local affairs, and that they and Willkie have some kind of an arrangement." But, Governor Lehman said, "No, I never said such a thing about they and Willie had an arrangement. I am merely making a statement that they want to plot our defeat..."

This morning, front page of the 'Times,' Herbert L. Matthews, Rome, October 3, wireless to New York Times: "Moreover," - this is about this meeting of Hitler and Mussolini - "Moreover," - and I - this ought to be used and - I don't know, ah Steve, Steve referred to tell ------- about it from the Senate, I don't know who will defend my position - "Moreover, the Axis is out to defeat President Roosevelt, not as a measure of interference in the internal policies of the United States, but because of the President's foreign policy, and because of everything for which he stands in the eyes of the Italians and Germans. The coming United States election is realized to be of vast importance to the Axis. Therefore, the normal strategy for the Axis is to do something before November fifth that would somehow have a great effect on the electoral campaign." Now, if that isn't substantiation of what Lehman said!

Rayburn: The fellow is writing from Rome. ( FDR: What?) He's writing from Rome. ( FDR: Writing from Rome.)

McCormack: They didn't say anything about Landon's statement, where he deliberately accused you. I was surprised at him because I had very high regard for him. I didn't think Landon would stoop so low, even for political reasons, to ah make the statement that - the deliberate statement - that you were going to drag the United States into war. You saw the statement, didn't you, Mr. President?

FDR: (before McCormack is finished) Sure, I know, that was vicious, terrible. You know, ah, I mean that's a damn good thing, because, absolutely, we ought to put the front page of the 'Times' against the editorial page of the 'Times,' which is very amusing. Of course, the trouble with Willkie, as you know, his whole campaign - the reason he's losing - is that he will say anything to please the individual or the audience that he happens to talk to. It makes no difference what he has promised. JPM will come in and say, "Now, Mr. Willkie, please, will you, if elected, do thus and so?" "Quite so!" Then somebody else comes in and he says, "Of course I won't."

McCormack: that's about the easiest thing...when you change from one minute to another.

Rayburn: Of course, the people that nominated him...and I say we got him...labor relations... ( FDR: Sure.) because yesterday, (interruption by FDR) yesterday or the day before he said they ah ought to amend the laws ah to pick up this...(FDR sighs).

McCormack: As a matter of fact, this is a comment my wife said to me a couple of weeks ago, she said, "you know what Mr. Willkie reminds me of, "I said, "Well, I'd like to know here," she said, "He reminds me of a carnival barker, one of those men who you know is cheating you, but wants to get you know he's not telling you the truth, in order to get your money in."

FDR: Now, old Sam Rosenman was in this morning. I was fixin' up with him - going over the final draft of a little dedication speech tomorrow at three schoolhouses - and he got off on a very searching remark that I never thought of before. He said that you were right, that Willkie is using the tactics of Hitler, fascism. Hitler's fascism, Naziism, based on the iteration, and reiteration, of the same thing, so often that after a while people are going to believe it. "I'm going to put nine million men at work." That's nice. "I'm going to put nine million men at work." That's very, very nice. And after he's said it thirty or forty times, well then he's made a real issue out of it. (tape here becomes momentarily garbled) "He's going to put nine million men to work. I'll vote for him." It's the iteration - promise, promise, promise, every single morning, noon and night, the same thing. People, after a while get to believe it.

And of course, on the strategical end of things, I said in - about the first of August - I said you watch these polls, you watch the Republican timing of this campaign. I think the polls couldn't possibly make it Willkie. Let them show Willkie, ah, in pretty good shape the first part of August. Then they're going to put him through a bad slump, bad slump, so that I'll be well out ahead on the first of October. And my judgment is that they are going to start Willkie pickin' up, pickin' up, pickin' up, from the first of October on. And you know what a horse race is, it's like, what they're going to do is have their horse three lengths behind, coming around into the stretch. And then, in the stretch, in the first hundred yards, he gains a length, and the next hundred yards he gains another length, and gives people the idea that this fella still can win, he's got time to win, he can nose out the other horse. Now. I don't know (airplanes overhead) whether that's their game, but I'm inclined to think it 'tis. I'm wrong on my dates. They didn't start the first of October. Next Sunday, in the Gallup poll, we'll have a great many - too many - votes handed to us, five hundred. (Airplanes continue.) A great many too many. ( McCormack: What I tell you is - I think - ) They're giving us New Hampshire. They're giving us Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and they'll probably put Connecticut at the bottom of the pile.

McCormack: There's, there's one underlying thought I think you ah focus on. I think the descendants of the early Anglo-Saxons - they're great Americans, don't particularly love England, but they hate Hitler. ( FDR: Yes!) Now, I've found, up our way, a trend among people that never voted a Democrat. They're voting for President Roosevelt. ( FDR: Yes!) They're not voting for any other Democrat. ( FDR: No, no.) we've had men, we've had cases of men who are ah ah lifelong Republicans. They're declaring for the President on his foreign affairs, ( FDR: Yes, I know.) because they know that that that you're the expression of their views.

FDR: Yeah? And right off, and this is perhaps a wish you probably would have thought, but that old Anglo-Saxon element, composed most of the undergraduates of Harvard College, all through New England, I'm hoping they'll offset the Italian defection. I'm speaking on the twelfth of October. (Interuption.) I think it will make a difference. I'm talking on Columbus Day about Columbus being an Italian - splendid nation which contributed so much to all of our civilizations - prime stock, and so forth and so on - like the Latin Americans, the Spanish Americans, and I think they'll begin to come back. (chatter, then tape cuts off.)

pt. 2, Telephone Call From Cordell Hull.

FDR: Hello, hello Cordell. I did, I saw the dispatch itself. What I did, the press asked me about it, the INS man, George Germo. Where I said "I cannot comment, anyway, because I hadn't seen it." It's the easiest way. I said, "as a matter of fact, it may be a little garbled, being a special interview with the Japanese prime minister." The only kind of defense that completes silence is the best is "no comment." Don't you? (tape repeats, then continues.)

( Hull speaks to FDR)

FDR: Yeah, yeah; sure, sure; yeah, yeah; yeah, yeah, sure; yeah, yeah; yup, but we do feel that there is some - two days ago we recorded, which were way down on the bottom of the pages in the papers, doesn't that. The Scripps-Howard papers. They discussed some the president of the Japanese, I think it was the Japanese newspaper association or editorial association, stated their goals to Roy Howard. And, in the dispatch, it said to Mr. Howard that Japan does not want war, but as a condition of staying out of war, is that the United States will recognize the new era in the Far East and that in token of that recognition, ah to prove the recognition, the United States must abandon its bases, military or naval bases, in Guam, ah Midway, Pearl Harbor and Wake. Including Pearl Harbor. That's giving up a load. ( Hull speaks again)

FDR: Yeah, uh-huh, yup, yup,yup, oh, uh-huh, yup, well...(cut off).