By: Franklin D. Roosevelt
Date: December 29, 1940
Source: Roosevelt, Franklin D. "Arsenal of Democracy" Fireside Chat on national security, December 29, 1940. Reprinted in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Volume: War—and Aid to Democracies. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941, 633–36, 640–43.
About the Author: Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) was born at Hyde Park, New York. Educated at Harvard, Roosevelt was elected to the New York Senate in 1910, and served as assistant secretary of the navy from 1913 to 1920. After losing a bid for vice president in 1920, Roosevelt contracted polio, leaving his legs permanently paralyzed. Returning to politics, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1928, and he defeated Herbert Hoover for the presidency in 1932. Roosevelt was reelected in 1936, 1940, and 1944. The only president to serve more than two terms, Roosevelt led the nation through the Great Depression and during World War II.
World War II began in Europe when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, bringing the Allies, most notably Great Britain and France, to Poland's aid. American popular opinion was against involvement in the war, and officially the United States was neutral in the conflict until after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Prior to Pearl Harbor, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had effectively aligned the nation with the Allied cause. Believing the Nazis and their allies, the Axis powers, to be a long-term threat to the United States, the Roosevelt administration actively sought to aid England and France against Hitler's Germany. After France fell to Germany in June 1940, Roosevelt made the decision to swap "destroyers for bases" with beleaguered England in September 1940.
American public opinion forced Roosevelt to stop well short of his private desire to bring about actual American participation in the war. This precise issue surfaced during his 1940 reelection campaign against Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie. FDR repeatedly reassured jittery voters that the United States did not entertain plans to send American soldiers into any "foreign wars." Most Americans undoubtedly desired a British victory over Nazi Germany, and they were eager to assist the British by providing materiel and financial backing. But Americans drew the line at committing American soldiers to combat. In the words of a popular slogan at the time, the United States should render to England, "All aid short of war."
Roosevelt was an excellent political communicator. He frequently spoke directly to nationwide radio audiences, something no president before him had done. These addresses, called "fireside chats" because of their feel of intimacy with Roosevelt, covered a wide array of topics, and were an important method of communicating policy initiatives during the Roosevelt administration. After winning reelection for a third term, Roosevelt used his fireside chat on December 29, 1940 to outline an ambitious new initiative for 1941. He explained in the radio address that the United States would significantly increase its defense outlays and set unprecedented industrial production targets. By accomplishing these goals, the United States would become the mighty "Arsenal of Democracy" that England and its allies needed to resist Nazi aggression. The following month, Roosevelt sent legislation to Congress greatly increasing military spending and establishing a program of material aid to the Allies that became known as the Lend-Lease program.
This strategy, as with other Roosevelt foreign policy initiatives during the early stages of World War II, was presented to a skeptical public as a means of avoiding active American military intervention in the war. This theory held that by providing the Allies with the supplies necessary to defeat Germany, America could avoid sending its troops into combat. Roosevelt, a veteran of President Woodrow Wilson's administration during World War I, surely recalled that a similar policy brought the United States into that conflict. Wilson stubbornly insisted that American merchant ships be permitted to supply Germany's enemy, England. The American public likely recognized that Roosevelt was not being entirely candid as to why the actions were being taken.
Whatever the true motivation for Roosevelt's proposal, the practical result of turning America into the "Arsenal of Democracy" was a significant increase in defense spending. The United States already had started the task of refurbishing its military, especially after the stunning Nazi victory over France in June 1940. The huge additional defense outlays in 1941 had enormous economic repercussions.
By injecting significantly more government money than envisioned, the accelerated rearmament of 1941 jump-started the long-dormant American economy. Within one year, unemployment in the United States dropped from 15 percent to only 5.2 percent—the fastest and most substantial employment turnaround in American history. The Gross National Product (GNP) for 1941 was the first since the beginning of the Great Depression to surpass the GNP of last pre-Depression year, 1929. The Great Depression in America was over.
Ostensibly a short-term expenditure, high levels of defense spending soon became a permanent policy. Defense spending was astronomical during World War II. Even after the war ended, a high level of defense remained a central feature of the Cold War. Only after the total collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s did America finally revert to a genuine "peacetime" economy.
Primary Source: "Arsenal of Democracy" [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: On December 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered perhaps his most celebrated "fireside chat" in a radio broadcast to the nation. In the address, Roosevelt outlines his intention during 1941 to increase defense outlays substantially and establish ambitious industrial production targets designed to make the United States the great "Arsenal of Democracy." Not only did this bold proposal fit perfectly with Roosevelt's avowed desire to assist England and its allies in resisting Nazi aggression, the enormous projected increase in defense-related spending would help the depressed American economy.
This is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk on national security; because the nub of the whole purpose of your President is to keep you now, and your children later, and your grandchildren much later, out of a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence and all the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours.
Tonight, in the presence of a world crisis, my mind goes back eight years to a night in the midst of a domestic crisis. It was a time when the wheels of American industry were grinding to a full stop, when the whole banking system of our country had ceased to function.…
We face this new crisis—this new threat to the security of our nation—with the same courage and realism.
Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our American civilization been in such danger as now.
For, on September 27, 1940, by an agreement signed in Berlin, three powerful nations, two in Europe and one in Asia, joined themselves together in the threat that if the United States of America interfered with or blocked the expansion program of these three nations—a program aimed at world control—they would unite in ultimate action against the United States.
The Nazi masters of Germany have made it clear that they intend not only to dominate all life and thought in their own country, but also to enslave the whole of Europe, and then to use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world.…
[If Great Britain falls] We should enter upon a new and terrible era in which the whole world, our hemisphere included, would be run by threats of brute force. To survive in such a world, we would have to convert ourselves permanently into a militaristic power on the basis of war economy.…
There is no demand for sending an American Expeditionary Force outside our own borders. There is no intention by any member of your Government to send such a force. You can, therefore, nail any talk about sending armies to Europe as deliberate untruth.
Our national policy is not directed toward war. Its sole purpose is to keep war away from our country and our people.
Democracy's fight against world conquest is being greatly aided, and must be more greatly aided, by the rearmament of the United States and by sending every ounce and every ton of munitions and supplies that we can possibly spare to help the defenders who are in the front lines. It is no more unneutral for us to do that than it is for Sweden, Russia and other nations near Germany, to send steel and ore and oil and other war materials into Germany every day in the week.
We are planning our own defense with the utmost urgency; and in its vast scale we must integrate the war needs of Britain and the other free nations which are resisting aggression.
This is not a matter of sentiment or of controversial personal opinion. It is a matter of realistic, practical military policy, based on the advice of our military experts who are in close touch with existing warfare. These military and naval experts and the members of the Congress and the Administration have a single-minded purpose—the defense of the United States.
This nation is making a great effort to produce everything that is necessary in this emergency—and with all possible speed. This great effort requires great sacrifice.
I would ask no one to defend a democracy which in turn would not defend everyone in the nation against want and privation. The strength of this nation shall not be diluted by the failure of the Government to protect the economic well-being of its citizens.
If our capacity to produce is limited by machines, it must ever be remembered that these machines are operated by the skill and the stamina of the workers. As the Government is determined to protect the rights of the workers, so the nation has a right to expect that the men who man the machines will discharge their full responsibilities to the urgent needs of defense.
The worker possesses the same human dignity and is entitled to the same security of position as the engineer or the manager or the owner. For the workers provide the human power that turns out the destroyers, the airplanes and the tanks.
The nation expects our defense industries to continue operation without interruption by strikes or lock-outs. It expects and insists that management and workers will reconcile their differences by voluntary or legal means, to continue to produce the supplies that are so sorely needed.
And on the economic side of our great defense program, we are, as you know, bending every effort to maintain stability of prices and with that the stability of the cost of living.
Nine days ago I announced the setting up of a more effective organization to direct our gigantic efforts to increase the production of munitions. The appropriation of vast sums of money and a well coordinated executive direction of our defense efforts are not in themselves enough. Guns, planes, ships and many other things have to be built in the factories and arsenals of America. They have to be produced by workers and managers and engineers with the aid of machines which in turn have to be built by hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the land.
In this great work there has been splendid cooperation between the Government and industry and labor; and I am very thankful.
American industrial genius, unmatched throughout the world in the solution of production problems, has been called upon to bring its resources and its talents into action. Manufacturers of watches, farm implements, linotypes, cash registers, automobiles, sewing machines, lawn mowers and locomotives are now making fuses, bomb packing crates, telescope mounts, shells, pistols and tanks.
But all our present efforts are not enough. We must have more ships, more guns, more planes— more of everything. This can only be accomplished if we discard the notion of "business as usual." This job cannot be done merely by superimposing on the existing productive facilities the added requirements of the nation for defense.
Our defense efforts must not be blocked by those who fear the future consequences of surplus plant capacity. The possible consequences of failure of our defense efforts now are much more to be feared.
After the present needs of our defenses are past, a proper handling of the country's peace-time needs will require all the new productive capacity— if not more.
No pessimistic policy about the future of America shall delay the immediate expansion of those industries essential to defense. We need them.
I want to make it clear that it is the purpose of the nation to build now with all possible speed every machine, every arsenal, every factory that we need to manufacture our defense material. We have the men—the skill—the wealth—and above all, the will.
I am confident that if and when production of consumer or luxury goods in certain industries requires the use of machines and raw materials that are essential for defense purposes, then such production must yield, and will gladly yield, to our primary and compelling purpose.
I appeal to the owners of plants—to the managers—to the workers—to our own Government employees—to put every ounce of effort into producing these munitions swiftly and without stint. With this appeal I give you the pledge that all of us who are officers of your Government will devote ourselves to the same whole-hearted extent to the great task that lies ahead.
As planes and ships and guns and shells are produced, your Government, with its defense experts, can then determine how best to use them to defend this hemisphere. The decision as to how much shall be sent abroad and how much shall remain at home must be made on the basis of our over-all military necessities.
We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.
Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Martel, Leon. Lend-lease, Loans, and the Coming of the Cold War: A Study of the Implementation of Foreign Policy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1979.
Nelson, Donald M. Arsenal of Democracy: The Story of American War Production. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946.
"Arsenal of Democracy." Available at http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Quarters/5433/arsen.html (March 3, 2003).