President Franklin D. Roosevelt Remembers the Start of World War I
ROOSEVELT PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCES
Number 358 (April 6, 1937)
Q: I hope it won’t run afoul of the previous answer, but today is the twentieth century [i.e., anniversary] of our entry in the World War. Have you any reflections on the general situation today, in contrast?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I was thinking today how much more peaceful I am than I was on the 6th of April, 1917. As I remember it, I got to bed that particular might about four o’clock in the morning.1 I spent most of the day in sending telegrams to every ship and every naval station on every ocean and in putting into effect the contracts that we had made in the Navy for various war materials.
I always remember on particular episode: The Navy, at first under Paymaster General Cowie and then under Paymaster General McGowan2 had started in the previous fall, because they through that things looked like War, and they had made contracts with every known company for supplies and materials of all kinds from steel down to potatoes that we would need in case of war in the Navy.
About four days after the declaration of War, about the tenth of April, I was sent for by Joe Tumulty3 to come over here to the White House. I came and there was the President, Barney Baruch, the Secretary of War, and the Chief of Staff.4 The President said, “Roosevelt, I am very sorry but you, in your zeal, you have cornered the market in a great many essential supplies and you have got to give up 50% of it to the Army.” (Laughter)
The Navy did a great job because actually on the 2nd of April, when the President determined on his message to the Congress, and within a few minutes of the time that we got the flash that he was going to Congress to ask for a declaration of war, we had sent a code telegram to all of these contractors which meant, “Go ahead with that order.”5
So today I am feeling very peaceful compared with twenty years ago.
Source Note: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 25 vols. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), 9, 249-50.
Footnote 1: Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy on 6 April 1917.
Footnote 2: RAdm. Thomas J. Cowie and RAdm. Samuel McGowan.
Footnote 3: Joseph P. Tumulty was the private secretary of President Woodrow Wilson and served as his Chief of Staff.
Footnote 4: President Woodrow Wilson; Bernard M. Baruch, member of the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense who later served as chairman of the War Industries Board; Secretary of War Newton D. Baker; and Joseph P. Tumulty.
Footnote 5: In his diary and memoirs, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels remembers this day somewhat differently. He writes that the war message arrived at the White House from Congress while President Wilson was at lunch. Wilson signed it at the dining room table without fanfare. Immediately the White House usher, I.H. Hoover, pushed a button signaling the President’s naval aide, Lt. Byron McCandless, that the declaration had been signed. McCandless, who was waiting in the President’s Executive Office, rushed to the roof and, using flags, “wigwagged” the message “War” to the Navy Department’s offices, which was then located across the street. “Within five minutes,” writes Daniels, “I caused this message to be sent to every ship and shore station: ‘The President has signed act of Congress which declares a state of war exists between the United States and Germany.’” Entry of 6 April, DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Diary, Roll 1; Daniels. Years of War and After: 39; “Diary of Thomas W. Brahany,” entry of 6 April 1917, Wilson Papers, 41: 557. In his account, Brahany wrote that the news of the signing was “telephoned immediately” to the Executive Office Building and McCandless, upon receiving the message, “rushed at once to the Executive Avenue entrance to the White House grounds” and waved to an officer in the building occupied by the Navy Department. “This was the prearranged signal releasing the wireless and cable messages to see [i.e., sea] Navy vessels announcing this country’s declaration of war.” Ibid., 557-58.