Address Delivered by the Secretary of State Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In an address delivered to the National Press Club, Secretary of State Cordell Hull stated the position of the American government on international affairs, stressing the United States' support of peace and opposition to territorial expansion by force. He portrayed the world as being threatened by a rising tide of international lawlessness, avoiding naming the specific powers involved. Hull set forth a vision of an international community governed by law as an alternative to the “international anarchy” that would inevitably lead to the outbreak of World War II, less than twenty years after World War I.

Summary Overview

In an address delivered to the National Press Club, Secretary of State Cordell Hull stated the position of the American government on international affairs, stressing the United States' support of peace and opposition to territorial expansion by force. He portrayed the world as being threatened by a rising tide of international lawlessness, avoiding naming the specific powers involved. Hull set forth a vision of an international community governed by law as an alternative to the “international anarchy” that would inevitably lead to the outbreak of World War II, less than twenty years after World War I.

Defining Moment

By the late 1930s, the post–World War I international order was breaking up, as rising powers–from minor members of the victorious coalition, such as Italy and Japan, to defeated powers, such as Germany–were increasingly taking an aggressive role on the international stage. For many Americans, the most worrisome international situation was in East Asia. Years of Japanese aggression against China had culminated in the outbreak of war between the two countries in 1937. American sympathies were with the Chinese, and it was the policy of the American government to oppose Japanese expansionism. Friction between the two countries was on the rise. The Japanese even attacked an American vessel in China, the Panay, late in 1937, although they claimed the attack had been a mistake and paid the United States an indemnity.

By 1938, Japanese aggression also fit into a larger global picture of the aggression of militaristic and fascist powers, including Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Under dictator Benito Mussolini, Italy had invaded and conquered Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936, and Germany and Italy together had intervened in the Spanish Civil War to support fascist leader Francisco Franco, while Western democracies had done little or nothing to support the legitimate government of the Spanish Republic. By the time of Hull's speech, the war had clearly tilted toward Franco's Nationalist forces, while the German Anschluss, or annexation of Austria, occurred on the same day as Hull's address. The liberal democratic order established at the end of World War I seemed under threat in both Asia and Europe. However, many Americans were still wary of involvement in “foreign quarrels,” where aggressors did not pose a direct threat to the United States.

Author Biography

Cordell Hull holds the record as the longest-serving US secretary of state, having held the position for eleven years, from 1933 to 1944. Originally from Tennessee, he was active in Democratic politics from his late teens. As a congressman, he was an early ally of Franklin Roosevelt. As president, Roosevelt repaid Hull by appointing him secretary of state, though Hull had continual difficulties with Roosevelt's habit of entrusting foreign relations to White House agents, bypassing the secretary. In East Asia, Hull supported opposition to Japanese imperialism, but not at the risk of war. The ambitious Hull hoped to run for president in 1940, but lost the Democratic nomination to Roosevelt when Roosevelt made the unprecedented decision to run for a third term. He was a leading figure in the creation of the United Nations after the war and received the Nobel Peace Prize as a reward for his efforts. However, he has also been criticized for the State Department's reluctance to help Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Document Analysis

Hull gives a major overview of American foreign policy, focusing on the situation in East Asia but dealing with the rise of aggressor powers in general. To avoid a diplomatic incident, Hull does not name the nations threatening the international order. Germany and Italy are not specifically mentioned at all, and Japan is only mentioned paired with China, with no explicit statement that one power is more to blame than the other. However, given the context, Hull's listeners would have had no doubt as to which countries were to blame for the rise of international chaos.

Hull places the American response to the conflict in China in the context of building an international society based on peace, the rule of law, and the carrying out of treaty obligations. He points out that many nations responded positively to a statement to that effect, which Hull had issued the previous year. By the time of Hull's address, the League of Nations, which the United States had never joined, had been discredited by its failures to effectively oppose fascist powers and could not credibly serve as the foundation for a global order based on law and treaty obligations. Hull does not even mention it. Hull does mention the dissolution of economic barriers to trade between nations, which many countries had raised to protect their economies during the Great Depression. As was common among “free trade” economists in the Anglo-American tradition, Hull believed that the lowering of trade barriers would contribute to peace. He also hints that the lack of an international order contributed to the outbreak of World War I. At the same time, he does not wish to alarm Americans who regret American involvement in World War I and fear involvement in another war. Following a common rhetorical strategy, he positions his recommended course of action as midway between the extremes of “internationalism” (too much involvement in foreign affairs) and “isolationism” (none at all).

Hull somewhat mythologizes American history, showing the United States as a disinterested power, working solely to advance peace and harmony between nations, a picture congenial to many patriotic Americans. He emphasizes the American tradition of honoring treaties. He justifies American actions in China as based not on imperialistic designs on Chinese territory or resources, but solely on the desire to protect American nationals and American interests.

Nonetheless, despite his belief in international law and the fear of the outbreak of another great war, Hull was not a pacifist. Part of the address is devoted to advocating for increased spending on the military so that the United States would be ready in the event of war.

Essential Themes

The hostile attitude taken by the American administration toward the expansionist and militarist fascist powers would continue until the outbreak of World War II, although the United States did not commit itself to military action and would not enter the war until late in 1941. In the late 1930s, US trade restrictions on Japan grew increasingly severe, culminating in the oil embargo imposed on August 1, 1941. This embargo was a profound threat to Japan, which was heavily dependent on the United States for its oil supply, and played a role in directing Japanese ambitions southward, toward the oil-rich Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. This direction of Japanese policy culminated in the surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, shortly followed by the German declaration of war that brought the United States into the European conflict as well.

The hope of a new order also seemed to fail in Europe, where a few months later, Britain and France conceded to Hitler's demands in Czechoslovakia. Lack of backing from the United States was one reason for this “appeasement” policy. Hull's ambition to set up a new global order based on peace and international law materialized only after World War II in the form of the United Nations (UN). Hull won a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work in setting up the UN. However, because of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Hull's vision of a peaceful world regulated by law and treaty remained unfulfilled. Instead, the United States took up the role Hull insisted on rejecting, that of “policing the world.” The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a revival of ideas of a peaceful world order regulated by law and treaty.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Fairbank, John K. The United States and China. 4th ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. Print.
  • Hull, Cordell. The Memoirs of Cordell Hull. New York: Macmillan, 1948. Print.
  • Macdonald, C. A. The United States, Britain, and Appeasement, 1936–1939. New York: St. Martin's, 1981. Print.
Categories: History Content