|This Week in History
Columbus Day, 1944
October 11-17, 1944
President Roosevelt Tells Latin American Diplomats About the New Age of Discovery They Helped To Build
President Roosevelt chose Columbus Day in 1944 to show the representatives of the Latin American republics how the Good Neighbor policy and the wartime hemispheric defense policy were about to be extended to the whole world as the basis for the new United Nations Organization. In his 1933 inaugural address, Roosevelt had declared that "In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighborthe neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of othersthe neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors."
But the American isolationists, and the emerging fascist movement in Europe, had prevented him from implementing his plan across the Atlantic, so Roosevelt built a model of cooperation on a smaller scalewith the sister republics of Latin America. Roosevelt abhorred colonialism, and followed a policy of non-intervention in Latin America, backing up his policy with concrete actions.
Cuba was still a U.S. Protectorate in 1933, and when the Cubans overthrew their government and disorder reigned in the streets, everyone expected the American military to land, as it had done in the past. But Roosevelt called in the envoys from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico to assure them that the warships which he did send to Cuba were only there to evacuate the Americans, which they did. Then he ended the protectorate. The next year, FDR brought the last Marines home from Haiti, which had been occupied by the U.S. since the Wilson Administration. Roosevelt also renegotiated the Panama Canal arrangements with Panama, and refused to collect monies from the Latin American nations on behalf of American bondholders and oil companies.
When Secretary of State Cordell Hull attended the Seventh International Conference of American States at Montevideo in December of 1933, he laid the basis for a reciprocal trade program. In June 1934, Congress passed enabling legislation to expedite imports of tropical products and raw materials that the U.S. did not produce, in return for sales to Latin America of manufactured goods.
By 1936, Roosevelt was convinced that the fascist takeovers in Europe would lead to war, and he therefore took major steps to secure the American continent. He called for an inter-American meeting in Buenos Aires, and travelled to Argentina to personally keynote the conference. There, he stated that the role of the democracies must be to consult with each other on their mutual safety against aggressors, to raise their living standards, to promote social and political justice, and to exchange both commodities and ideas with other nations.
Out of that conference came a number of treaties and bilateral agreements on security, promotion of trade, and cultural exchange. For his part, Roosevelt directed that U.S. orders for raw materials should be directed to Latin America in order to support its developing economies.
Once the Munich agreement betraying Czechoslovakia to Hitler was signed in the fall of 1938, Roosevelt knew America was running out of time. In December, he sent Secretary Hull to Lima, Peru for the International Conference of American States, and included Alf Landon, the Republican Presidential nominee for 1936, in the delegation. The resulting Declaration of Lima provided for consultation in case of a threat to the security of any member nation.
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, trade between the U.S. and Latin America increased enormously. Roosevelt estimated that Latin America had lost 40% of its export trade due to the war, and he attempted not only to remedy the situation, but to greatly strengthen the Central and South American economies. In July 1940, the President asked Congress for legislation to allow the Export-Import Bank to increase its lending authority. The resulting measure led to credits for the central banks of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. Loans were approved "to finance the purchase of commodities, machinery, and services required in connection with the development of these countries, such as steel mills, railroad improvements, highways, and industrial purposes."
Now that France and the Netherlands had been overrun by the German Army, and Great Britain was being attacked, there was great danger that the European powers' defeat would mean that their possessions in the Western Hemisphere would be taken over by Hitler's Germany and used as bases. President Roosevelt therefore called for a Pan-American Conference in Havana in the summer of 1940, and the resulting Act of Havana sufficed to empower the United States to seize islands where there was a change of sovereignty, or the threat of indirect control by an Axis power. That power never had to be used.
In the fall of 1940, Hitler asked his staff to draw up plans to seize Atlantic islands as a first step toward invading Latin America. There was also the threat posed by Vichy-held Dakar in French West Africa, the westernmost African port which could serve as a base to invade Brazil.
It was attacked unsuccessfully in 1940 by General de Gaulle with British backup, and did not enter the Allied camp until December of 1942. But the foremost threat was Nazi fifth column activity in Latin America, which actually did aim at an attack on the U.S. through Mexico.*
To counter these possibilities, Roosevelt had the Chiefs of Staff of both the Mexican and Canadian military establishments come to Washington to participate in joint defense studies. The President also sent FBI teams to Latin America to train their police and army in tracking down fifth columnists and saboteurs.
During the course of World War II, the Latin American republics, with the exception of Argentina, cooperated with the United States against the Axis. In September 1943, Roosevelt reported to Congress that "The policy of Good Neighbor has shown such success in the hemisphere of the Americas that its extension to the whole world seems to be the logical next step."
Thus, Roosevelt addressed the Chiefs of Mission of the Latin American republics on the occasion of Columbus Day in 1944: "Today is the birthday of the new world. The peoples of the American Republics are joining in paying tribute to the courage and vision of Christopher Columbus, whose name we honor and whose adventurous spirit we perpetuate.
"The survival of that spirit is more important than ever, at this time when we are fighting a world war, and when we are building the solid, durable foundations for future world peace.
"The little fleet with which Columbus first crossed the ocean took ten weeks for the voyage. And the crews of those three ships totalled approximately ninety men.
"Todayevery daymany times that number of men and many tons of cargo are carried across the ocean by airthey go across in a few hours. And by sea transport, an entire division of some fifteen thousand men can be sent across the Atlantic in one ship in one week....
"Thus the margin between the Old World and the New Worldas we have been used to calling the hemispheresbecomes constantly narrower. This means that if we do not now take effective measures to prevent another world war and if there were to be a third world war, the lands of the Western Hemisphere would be as vulnerable to attack from Europe and Asia as were the Island of Crete and the Philippine Islands five years ago....
"The Fascists and the Nazis sought to deceive and to divide the American Republics. They tried not only through propaganda from across the seas, but also through agents and spies and fifth columnists, operating all over the Western Hemisphere. But we know that they failed. The American Republics were not deceived by their protestations of peace and friendship; and they were not intimidated by their threats.
"The people of the United States will never forget how the other American Republics, acting in accord with their pledges of solidarity, rallied to our common defense when the continent was violated by Axis treachery in an attack on this country. At that time Axis armies were still unchecked, and even the stark threat of an invasion from Dakar hung over their heads.
"We have maintained the solidarity of the Governments of all the American Republicsexcept one. And the people of all the Republics, I think without exception, will have the opportunity to share in the achievement of the common victory.
"The bonds that unite the American Republics into a community of good neighbors must remain strong. We have not labored long and faithfully to build in this New World a system of international security and cooperationmerely to let it be dissipated in any period of postwar indifference. Within the framework of this new world organization that we have heard so much of latelythis world organization of the United Nations, which the Governments and people of the American Republics are helping to establish, the inter-American system can and must play a strong and vital role.
"Secretary Hull has told me of the conversations he has had with representatives of our sister Republics concerning the formation of a world security organization. We have received important and valuable expressions of opinions and views from many of these Governments. And I know that Secretary Hull, and Under Secretary Stettinius who led the United States delegation at Dumbarton Oaks, are looking forward to further exchanges of views with our Good Neighbors before the meeting of the general conference to establish the world organization. We must press forward to bring into existence this organization to maintain peace and security. There is no time to lose. And this time I think it is going to work....
"Like the Constitution of the United States, and of many other Republics, the Charter of the United Nations must not be static and inflexible, but must be adaptable to the changing conditions of progresssocial and economic and politicalall over the world.
"So, in approaching the great problems of the futurethe future which we shall share in common with all the free peoples of this Earthwe shall do well to remember that we are the inheritors of the tradition of Christopher Columbus, the Navigator who ventured across uncharted seas.
"I remember that when Columbus was about to set forth in the summer of 1492, he put in the beginning of his log-book the following words: 'Above all, it is very important that I forget sleep, and that I labor much at navigation, because it is necessary.'
"We shall requireall of usthe same determination, the same devotion, as we steer our course through the great age of exploration, the age of discovery that lies before us."
*For a study of the Nazi strategy in the Western hemisphere, see the definitive series on Synarchism in the Americas, published in EIR Nos. 27 and 28, July 2004.