711.00 Pres. Speech Oct. 5, 1937/3½

Memorandum by the Under Secretary of State (Welles)1

The situation in the world today and the imperative need for the peace loving nations to endeavor to take common action to secure the establishment of foundations for the maintenance of peace could not be better described than by these sentences from the President’s Chicago speech:2

“The peace loving nations must make a concerted effort in opposition to those violations of treaties and those ignorings of humane instincts which today are creating a state of international anarchy and instability from which there is no escape through mere isolation or neutrality.

“Those who cherish their freedom and recognize and respect the equal right of their neighbors to be free and live in peace, must work together for the triumph of law and moral principles in order that peace, justice and confidence may prevail in the world. There must be a return to a belief in the pledged word, in the value of a signed treaty. There must be recognition of the fact that national morality is as vital as private morality.”

No one can today affirm that such a thing as international law exists or that there is any common agreement on the part of the so-called civilized nations of the world upon the fundamental standards which should and must govern the relations between nations if world order is to be restored.

Is it not possible that before any definite progress can be made towards the solution of the innumerable and grave ills with which the world today is afflicted—and by this I mean the solution of all of the pending political, armament, financial, and economic problems which must be solved if world peace is to be attained—that an attempt should be made to secure general international agreement as to the fundamental norms which should govern international conduct?

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If such bases were to be agreed upon by common international consent, is it not likely that that agreement upon common standards will both expedite and facilitate the practical agreements necessary to reestablish peace in the world?

I therefore suggest for the President’s consideration that he inquire of the other governments of the world whether they will be willing to take part in a world conference which he will be prepared to call because of the reasons above indicated for the purpose of attempting to achieve a common agreement upon the following questions.

The basic principles which should be observed in international relations (as, for example, noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations).
The laws and customs of land warfare.
The laws and customs of naval warfare.
The rights and obligations of neutrals both on land and at sea, except in so far as they may be restricted by existing international agreements.
The right of freedom of access on the part of all peoples to raw materials.

The first of these five points covers by implication the whole field of international law. I do not suggest that any attempt be made at the conference proposed to undertake the codification of international law. This might well be delegated by common agreement to expert committees appointed for that purpose. What I do suggest is that this first point embrace those principles which are of primary and present importance.

If this suggestion is given consideration, it should be made clear beyond any doubt that the proposal envisages solely the reaching of a common agreement upon standards of international conduct and does not embrace either political, economic, or financial adjustments.

On this basis I should assume that the non-dictatorial governments would be willing to cooperate. I should likewise assume that Germany and Italy would find it to their advantage to cooperate. Under present conditions it would appear improbable that Japan would take part.

From the standpoint of an improved world psychology it would appear to me that a very great advance would be attained if the overwhelming majority of the nations could reach an agreement upon such principles because of the inherent need for the reestablishment of those principles, and that, in addition thereto, the mere fact that the nations of the world today could by concerted action agree upon anything of vital importance would in itself be a material step forward.

  1. Photostatic copy obtained from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N. Y.
  2. October 5, 1937; Department of State, Press Releases, October 9, 1937, p. 275.