World War II Isolationist America and President Roosevelt September 1939-December 1940)

Figure 1.--These very fortunate Jewish refugee children, enroute to Philadelphia aboard the liner "President Harding", are waving at the Statue of Liberty in 1939. Notice that they are not so much waving as saluting. We are not sure about what hand salute they are using. We suspect that they are German Jewish children and that was how one saluted in Germany. (Actually at the time that same salute was used in many Ammerican schools.) Mrs. Roosevelt believed passionately in assisting refugees. The problem President Roosevelt faced was that he needed Congressional allies for his efforts to aid the Allies and then after the fall of France to save Britain. There was considerable Congressional opposition centered around the isolationist Republicans to aiding Britain and to rearm. Tragically there was also oppsition to raising immigration quotas to allow more refugees into America. The President's political assessment was that pushing to raise immigration quotas would threaten his efforts to aid Britain and rearm. Many of the President's important measures passed by very narrow Congressional margins.

Against thie background of war in Europe, President Roosevelt who did see the dangers from the NAZIs and Japanese militaists, with great skill and political courage managed to not only support Britain in its hour of maximum peril, but with considerable political skill managed to push through Congress measures that would lay the ground work for turning American into the Arsenal of Democracy, producing a tidal wave of equipment and supplies not only for the American military, but for our Allies as well in quantities that no one especially the AXIS believed possible. President Roosevelt saw American national interest differntly fom most Americans who determined to avoid involvement in another world war. From the onset of war in Europe, President Roosevelt set out to transform America from an isolationist neutral nation into a technically non-beligerant country waging an undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic.


President Roosevelt is generally considered one of the three greatest American presidents. There are many reasons for this, but the primary reason is his performance in the early years of Wprl;d War II before America entered the War. His leadership was especially extrodinary because he faced reelection violating the "no third term Principle set by Washington and appealing to an electorate that was against America's entry into the War. The new was afrom Europe was a steady stream of terrifying reports beginning with the NAZI Blitzkrieg in Poland (September 1939). Then the Soviets joined with the NAZIs in carving up Europe with not only its own invasion of Poland, but actions against Finland and the Baltics. Then the NAZIs invaded Denmark and Norway (April 1940). The most shocking news was the NAZI invasion of the Lowlands and the fall of France (May-June 1940). Italy joined Germany in the War (June 1940). The next minth the NAZI air assault on Britain began (July 1940). Even though this period was a steady stream od disasters, little noticed at the time was that against bitter resistance from the Isolationists and their mostly Republican allies, President Roosevely laid the foundation for eventual llied victory. Roosevelts policies included aseries of decisive actions: 1) the beginning of American rearmament, 2) The first steps toward the development of the atomic bomb, 3) the creation of a credible American army with the first peace-time draft, 4) the begininning steps toward forging an alliance with Britain, arguably the most importance alliance in history and 5) the conceptualization of Lend Lease. While the NAZI victories in Europe dominated the headlines. It was these actions by President Rodsevelt that would prove decisive in the War and key to the defeat of the dictators. Impressively these were steps that President Roosevelt was able to muster in the face of a public intent on avoiding war. No more astute use of the instruments of presidential power and leadership was ever achieved with the exception of President Lincoln.

No Black-Out of Peace in America (September 3, 1939)

Britain and France on September 3 declared war on NAZI Germany in respnse to the NAZI invasion of Poland. That evening, President Roosevelt spoke to the nation in one of his Fire Side Chats. Americans frightened by development in Europe sat around their radio after dinner to hear the familiar voice of President Roosevelt, "My fellow Americans and my friends: Tonight my single duty is to speak to the whole of America. Until four-thirty this morning I had hoped against hope that some miracle would prevent a devastating war in Europe and bring to an end the invasion of Poland by Germany." It was clear that while America would be neutral, there was no suggestion that the beligerant powers were morally equal. He expressed outrage at aggression that would become increasingly strident as the NAZI tide spread over Europe. For the time being, however, peace was the dominany theme, "Some things we do know. Most of us in the United States believe in spiritual values. Most of us, regardless of what church we belong to, believe in the spirit of the New Testament—a great teaching which opposes itself to the use of force, of armed force, of marching armies and falling bombs. The overwhelming masses of our people seek peace—peace at home, and the kind of peace in other lands which will not jeopardize our peace at home." He pointed out that, "This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind to his conscience." Secretary Hull advised the President agains this last sentence, telling him that it would make it more difficult to convince Congress repeal the Neutrality Act and give amunition to the isolationists insisting that the President was trying to drag the country into the War. [Morgan, p. 512.] The President closed with an assurance that America would not enter another european war, "I have said not once, but many times, that I have seen war and that I hate war. I say that again and again. I hope the United States will keep out of this war. I believe that it will. And I give you assurance and reassurance that every effort of your Government will be directed toward that end. As long as it remains within my power to prevent, there will be no black-out of peace in the United States."

Neutrality Proclamation (September 5, 1939)

President Roosevelt on September 5, 2 days after the British and French declaration of war, issued the neutrality proclamation required by the Neutrality Acts. He then imposed an embargp on all arms sales to beligerant powers also as required by the Nutrality Acts. The delay was an effort to allow arms to be shipped th Canada ans Allied ships laoded with arms to leave American ports. He had hoped to delay the proclamation a few more days, but complaints fro isolationosts in Congress forced his hand.

Bi-partisan Foreign Policy

The New Deal effort during the 1930s to fight the Depression required a major shift in the role of the American Federal Government and policies toward social wlfare. This and the electoral success of President Roosevelt made him the most controversial president of the 20th century. The Republicans deeply resented the President's populrity and their inability to seriously comntest elections. The President saw from the onset of war in Europe that to confront the NAZIs and Japanese militarists that he wuld have to achieve a bi-partisan foreign policy--a major challenge for a president despised by the Republicans. Without bi-partidsan support, there could be hope of revising the Neutrality Acts. Republican support would also be needed for increased appropriations for rearmament. The President moved away from the social reforms of the New Deal and Congressional Republicanns slowly moved toward the President's foreign policy.

SS City of Flint (October 1939)

The Neutrality Laws did not prohbit trade between belligerent powers, only the trade in arms and munitions on board U.S. ships. Foreign countries could buy Americn arms and munitions on a 'cash and carry' basis and carried on foreign-flag ships. The German pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Deutschland seized the American cargo ship City of Flint (October 9, 1939). We are not sure to what extent he was acting on his own with or without direction from the German Admiralty. It was the first American ship taken by the Germans. The ship was carrying a cargo of tractors, grain and fruit to Britain. The German captain declared the cargo to be contraband and the ship a prize of war. The Captain put a German prize crew board the ship to sail the capture ship her back to Germany. [Cressman, "October 9, 1939".] The problem for the Germans was that the Royal Navy was likedly to intercept the captured vessel if they tried to sailit back to Germany. What followed was a months long odessy while the City of Flint was shuffled back betweem Norwegian and the Soviet port of Murmansk. While the Soviet Union was a NAZI ally at the time, the Soviets refused to cooperate with the Germans. They allowed Captain Gainard, who was an inactive United States Naval Reserve officer, to communicate with United States Embassy officials. [Cressman, "October 28, 1939".] The Norwegians upset with the German sinking of the their merchnt ship SS Lorentz W. Hansen, the first of many, became increasingly uncoopertive. Finally using military force, the Norwegians required the Germans to turn the ship back to its American crew and interned the German prize crew (November 6). Cpt. Gainard unloaded his cargo in Bergen and sailed back to America. The City of Flint would ultimately be a caualty of the Battle of the Atlantic. It was sunk by U-575 (January 23, 1943)

Reregistration of American Merchantmen

As a result of the City of Flint incident, the United States Government began encouraging U.S. merchant ships to register under other countries. This would allow them to continue supporting the Allies without violating U.S. neutrality. The Roosevelt administration had begun to seek Congressional action to revoke the Neutrality Acts, but this would take some time. Isolationists had a great deal of support in Congress and they strongly supported the Neutrality Acts. Beligerents could pourchase arms in America on a 'cash nd cary basis. This reflagged American vessels could carry arms to the Allies.

Atomic Bomb Project (October 1939)

American work on an atomic bomb was initiated by President Roosevelt when work done by German physicists led to concern that the NAZIs might build an atomic bomb. Important scientists in 1939 concluded that German scientists had begun to develop an atomic bomb for the NAZIs. Of course the very idea of an atomic bomb was unknown to not only the general public, but even American political and militay officials. Szilard was politically astute enough to know that a group of little known foreign scientists with accents trying to convince America to spend billions of dollars on a project semingly out of Buck Rogers would have little chance of receiving a serious hearing. So Szilard had Teller drive him to see Einstein who agreed to sign a letter to President Roosevelt. Einstein had a reputaion that could not be dismissed. And Hitler's invasion of Poland had convinced the President that strong American action was neded. In this atmosphere, these scientists enduced President Roosevelt to create an "Advisory Committee on Uranium"--the precursor to the American atomic bomb project.

Declaration of Panama (October 1939)

The President on October 3, 1939, issued the Declaration of Panama establishing a 300-mile Security Zone around the Western Hemisphere (October 1939). While American public opinion was leary of steps perceived as moving toward involvement in Europe, issues of hemispheric security were preceived differently, allowing the president to take much more aggressive syeps in this area.

Revision of the Neutrality Act (November 1939)

President Roosevely when war broke out in Europe (September 1939) requested that Congress ease the arms embargo required by the Neutrality Act so that war material could be sold to the democracies (Britain and France) opposing Hitler. The debate over the repeal of the embargo provissions of the Neutrality Act was one of the most bitter since the gret debates over slavery in the 19th century. Roosevelt charged that the words of isolationists like Borah, Johnson, and Fish were being reported on the font pages of the NAZI press. Borah charged, "Our boys would follow our guns into the trenches." [Freidel, p. 323.] After the debate and arm twisting by Roosevelt, the embargo provision was repealed by a new Neutrality Act signed by the President on November 4, 1939. The Neutrality Act still had severe limitations. The Act permitted belligerents to purchase materials of war on a strictly cash and carry basis, but prohibited credit and banned American merchant ships from travelling in war zones designated by the President. Although worded neutrally, "cash and carry" at the time favored Britain and France. Their financial resources and control of the seas enabled them to buy war materials in the United States and transport them in their own ships. It was a marked a shift from isoloation to pro-Allied neutrality and extrenely dangerous politically for FDR withan election only a year away. The conditions were very strict, were to be no U.S. ships in war zone around British Isles, no loans to belligerents, no travel on belligerent ships, and no armed merchant ships. This was the best FDR could do for the Allies at the time. At least arms and munitions as well as other supplies could now be provided the Allies. Hitler hoped that the allies could be defeated before American supplies could make a difference. Here Hitler almost proved right.

Chinese Loans (1939)

A $25 million loan in 1939 allowed the beleagered Chinese Nationalists to buy American planes for the Chinese Air Force. Since the invasion of China in 1937, the Japanese had been using terror bombings of unprotected Chinese cities as a major part of their war effort.

Wells Mission (February-March 1940)

After the sucessful invasion of Poland (September 1939) the Phony war settled in on the Western Front. The Allies were not goung to invade Germany. The Germans planed and delayed their offensive several times. The Roosevelt Administration was aiding the Allies, but no one knew what the outcome of the War would be. There was a fear that America might have to learn to live with the NAZIs. President Roosevelt announced that he was sending Under-Secretary of State Sumner Wells to meet with the principal European powers (Rome, Berlin, London, and Paris) (February 9, 1940). The announced purpose was to inform the President on the situation in Europe. [NYT] The Wells mission has been the subject of considerable historical discussion. [Hilton] Wells met with Hitler and rported back to the President that here was little liklihood of peace. Hitler at the time was preparing for the invsion of Denmark and Norway in poreparation for the great Western Offensive.

American Public Opinion

American public opinion significantly contrained President Roosevelt's options. American by a wude margin saw Hitlerv as odious. Americans were generally sympathtic with the Allies, but by a very wide margin wanted no part of the War in Europe. Few Americans saw the German actions in Europe as a security threat. And more than anything else wanted no part of another war in Europe. Gradually as the Germans inveloped one country after another, American opinion swung gradually more and more toward Britain. There was, however, no willingness to enter the War. One matter that Americans did begin to see more clearly was the need to have ager and better armed military. Roosevelt with finely tuned political sense realized that rearmament was an issue he could move on.

President Roosevelt Increases Defense Spending (May 1940)

President Roosevelt addressing Congress as the Panzers advanced toward the Channel, asked for an increase in defense spending (May 16, 1940). He asked for an expanded Army, although there was no request for araft. He also asked for major expansion of the Army Air Corps--a staggering 50,000 new aircraft. THe thoughtwas that a poweful airforce could avoid the staggering infantry losses experienced in World War I. While the public was still against participation in the European War, there was support for an expanded defense effort. This support only grew with the fall of France. Congress approved a billion dollar tax increase to pay for the arms program (June 1940). Congress apprived a $37 billion defense appropriation to build new ships for thev Navy and tanks and other arms for the Army (July 1940). These were massive increases ober previous appropriations, but still only a part of what was needed. America would be unprepared for the War, but without these expenditures, America would have been a much m,ore difficult position after Pearl Harbor.

Evasion of the Neutrality Act (May 1940)

The NAZIs launched their long awaited Western Offensive on May 10 and from the onset scored impressive successes. FDR wanted to help, but was restrained by the Neutrality Act which among other provisions by flying assembled air craft to Brirain ready to fight. The sollution was to fly aircraft to the Canadian border. Push then accross the border and then fly them on to Newfoundland where they could be loaded aboard ships for the British. This was not publicized at the time. American public opinion was still strongly isolationist and most Americans were convinced that the country should stay out of the War. Thus actions like this were done at great political risk.

American Firsters

One of the charges made by FDR opponents was that the New Deal was dominated by Jews. As war approched in Europe, some charged that it was the Jews that were trying to drag America into the War. Charles Linburg delivered some especially ugly speeches. After the fall of France, the principal issue became whether America should aid Britain. Most Ameeicans supported increased defense spending. Opinions over Britain differed and here the American Firsters focused their criticism of the President.

Danger to America (May-June, 1940)

Americans watched as the NAZIs in vaded Denmark and Norway (April 1940). Then the storm broke in the West. The Germans launched their long awaited Western offensive (May 10). They quickly defeated the Dutch and then struck in the Ardennes. They crossed the Meuse (May 12). And then begun the drive to the Channel. Even during the battle for France, the islationists still fought to prevent any American involvement in Europe. What is very clear to us today, was not to large numbers of Americans who refused to see the danger of Hitler and the NAZIs. By mid-May it was becoming increasingly clear that France was unable to hold back the Germans as they had done in World war I, By the end of the month with the Panzers closing in on the BEF, it looked like Britain might be lost as well. The French Arny and the British Fleet had been a bulwark protecting American in connection with the American fleet. Now the French Army was desintegrating. There was the further danger that if France and Britain capitulated that the Germans could gain access to their fleets including British carriers--fleets which combined with the German surface and U-boat force would exceed the strength of the American fleet which also faced the Japanese in the Pacific. Here Churchill made it clear that if Britain fell, the British fleet may well fall into German hands. [Lash, p. 149.] The American army at the time consisted of a mere 80,000 trained but not well equipped men. American planners estimated that it would take the Germans about 6 months to seize and man the captured fleets. [Freidel, pp. 333-334.]

Dunkirk (May 1940)

The surrender of the Belgian Army left the BEF seriously exposed. The British fell back on the Belgian port of Dunkirk, but the BEF was within Hitler's grasp. Then Hitler stopped the Panzers, allowing the British to evacuate their men and many French. The Panzers had been only a few klometers south of Dunkirk and facing no serious opposition. Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt. Some believe that he hoped this gesture would help convince the British to comes to terms, other believe that is was just as it was described at the time, aneeded pause to regroup and prepare for a more coordinated assault. [Davidson, p. 408 and Fest, p. 630.] What ever the reason, this 48-hour respite allowed the British to organize a defensive perimter around Dunkirk and begin an almost miraculous withdawl. The Belgians had surrendered, but the surronded French First Army continuing to fight occupying key German forces while the British evacuated. The resistance of the French First Army was critical in the success of the Dunkirk evacuation. Nearly 340,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk, including French and Dutch sholdiers. This is even more important that it sounds as akmost all if the British sholdiers were regulars and would form the corps of the future British Army that would play such an important role in the War. All of the BEF's equipment, however, was lost. Paris soon fell and the French signed a NAZI imposed armistace.

Fall of France (May-June 1940)

The sudden quick and surprising fall of France to the NAZIs in June 1940 shocked most Americans. Some wanted to support Britain, convinced that America could no longer remain neutral and allow Hitler to conquer Bratain the rest of Europe. Others like Lidburg, in awe of the mighty Luftwaffe, felt that the NAZIs had already won the War and it would be suisidal for America to challenge the Germans. President Roosevelt was convinced that Hitler and the NAZIs should not be permitted to dominate Europe, but was unsure that Britain would continue to fight.

Presidential Leadership (May-June 1940)

President Roosevelt had hoped that with American material support, its World War I Allies (Britain and Frabce) could stop Hitler and the NAZIs. The Deutsche Whermacht proved him and others terribly wrong. The President and the American people were shocked. Perhaps this explains his description of Mussolini's attack on France as a 'stab in the back' (June 10). This did not help him with Italian Americans. As France was falling, the President iniitiated a series of measures. The President was limited in what he could do. The powerful Isolaionist Movement was attacking him stridently for what he was akready doing to aid the Allies. Ahd the Anerican people were still dead set against participating in another Europan war. What he did do, however, would lay the ground work for America's World War II victory. They were not fully appreciated by the Axis powers because they did not involve moving military forces to confront them. In actuality the President did not have military forces in being to do this or the support of the American people. What he did do would mean that Anmerica would have the ability within only a few months of the Pearl Harbor attack to launch the first American offensives. These were acts of presidential leadership, in many cases ahead of public opinion and surprisingly reversing 8 years of New Deal anti-capitalist social policy. These decesions were taken without regard to public opinion, but only on the basis of what the security of the United States required. And while they were necesarily because of public opinion enough to so enrage the the Axis powers that they acted irratiionally. Japan struck at the United States, initiating war that it could not win and Hitler followed suit a few days later, adding the United states and its emense resources to the anti-NAZI colition.

Harnessing Free Market Capitalism

Hitler launched the long-awaited Western offensive (May 10). President Roosevelt had hoped that the Allies would be able to stop the Germans with American material support. The Deutsche Wehrmacht proved him terribly wrong. Within only 5 days the Netherlands surrendered May 15). And the Dutch Army was about the same size as the U.S. Army. General Marshal told President Roosevelt that if the Germans landed five division in America, there would be nothing the U.S. Army could do to stop them. Belgium surrendered 2 weeks later (May 28). The Belgians who had effectively resisted the German at the start of World War I, surrendered 2 weeks later (May 28). Atvthe time the british and French were attempotung to ecape at Dunkirk. At first it looked like few of the men could be brought off the beach. In that enviroment, President Roosevelt picked up the phone and made certainly the most important telephone call of the War. And he made it to a very unlikely person--Willian Knudsen. Knudsen was an ardent Republican who had opposed the President for 8 years and the very embodiment of the individuals who the President had called economic royalists. To the credit of both men, the put aside partisan differences and cooperated to save not only America, but the the Free World as well. The United States had the greatest industrial potential of any country. But potential had little practical meaning in the current crisis. American industry was not geared for war. The United State was not even manufacturing tanks despite what had trspired in Europe. And there was not realistic plan for converting American industry for war. Nor was there any expertise in Washington for beginning the effort. This is why Roosevelt called Knudsen. And the team of other Roosevelt-hating Republicans that Knudsen put together accomplished the most remarkable industrrial trnsformation in history. By the times Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, American arms production had equaled that of NAZI Germany--and that was just the begginnig of the American industrial transformation.

Emergency Arms Shipments to Britain (June 1940)

After Dunkirk Britain saw itself as fifgting alone. This was not entirely stood. The Dominions stood with her. And she had a steadfast friend in the White House. The British Army had escaped at Dunkirk, but had been stripped of its arms. Almost ll of its heavy equipment had been left on the rads to Dunkirk and on the beaches. The Canadian 1st Unfantry Dividion was the only fully equipped division in Britain. Within days of Dunkirk, however, ships from America with sailed for Britain with no fanfare with the arms that could be scraped together. They at first had to be carried on British ships because of the American Neutrality Acts. Most of the equipment were small arms, machine gun, and mortars along with amunition. There were few heavy weapons. But that was what the pitifully small American Army had. General Marshall opposed the shipments and the trainees arriving in camps after Congress passed the Dfraft Bill would be faced with shortages throughout 1940 and 1941. [Leighton and Coakley, pp. 33-34.] President Roosevelt ordered the shipments. It was an act of political courage and probably illegal. It was done by presidential lorder. The U.S. Sterl Corporation handled the tranactions for both legal and political cover. The President at the time underfire from the Isolationists. If details had leaked, it would have ignited a political firestorm, probably making a third term (which the President had begun to consider) impossible. And it was done at a time that most military experts expected Britain to fall within weeks. The arms were a pitifully small contribution compared to what was needed and what was to come, but the President sent what he could. The rest was up to the British.

Public Opinion (June-September 1940)

With the fall of France, support for rearmament continued to frow. One poll indicated thattwo-yhirds of Americans favored a draft--the first peacetime draft in American history. The20-year return to trditional isolationism was now eroding under the hammar blows of the Deutsche Wehrmacht. Admiration for Britain grew auded by Churchill's inspiring words. "Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious appratus of NAZI rule , we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end ... we shalldefend our islans, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beeches, we shall fight on the landing grounfds, we shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a minite believe, this island or a large part of it were subjected and starving, then oue Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberatiion of the Old." [Churchill, June 4, 1940.] American opinion shifted substantially toward rearmament and now direct military assistance for Britain. And importantly with the fall of France, two-thirds of Americans now favored a peace-time draft--an unprecedented development inAmerican hiostory. What did not shift substantially was a very strong believe that America should stay out of the War, even if it meant losing a vital ally. This set the parameters for what the President could and could not do. And developments in Europe continued to undermine isolationst sentiment The Luftwaffe's blows on Btitish cities made thenature of Hitler and the NAZIs crystal clear tomallnut thev most committed isolationist. American news reels carried powerful messages as did Edward. Murrow's live broacasts during the Blitz.

Rearmament (May-June 1940)

The events of May-June 1940 dramatically changed American attitudes toward military preparation. The NAZI Western Offensive resulted in a shift in the strategic ballance of breathtaking proportions--posing a threat to America that even many isolationists could not ignore. The isolationist determination to keep America out of the War in Europe meant that Hitler could attack Britain and France with only the limited support Roosevelt could provide. Hitler's strategy in domestic politics was to divide an conquer. He used this strategy to great effect both domestically and in foreign affairs. After the fall of France, however, it was no linger effective, as only the most myopic (which included an amazing number of American isolaionists, could now see clearly his intentions. This in part explains Hitler's effectiveness and why after a series of spectacular successes he then was responsible for a series of equally spectacular failures. THe success of Hitler's war policiesshow a remarkable shift after the fall of France. By June 1940, however, The widely felt isolationist sentiment in America had put the country and actually Western civilization itself in mortal danger. The NAZIs struck in the West (May 1940). The result was the fall of France (June 1940). The French Army had been the backbone of the Western Front in World War I. France's fall meant that America would eventually have to fight NAZI Germany without a French ally. The strength of the isolationists nearly meant the fall of Britain as well. This would have meant that America might have to face NAZI Germany, perhaps united with Soviet Russia and Japan, alone. President Roosevelt launched into what would become the largest armaments program in American history. Events in Europe generated the political support he needed in Congress. He proceeded with the same speed that he had launched the New Deal in Match 1933.

War Cabinent (June 1940)

FDR appointed what was in essence a War Cabinent in June 1940. He appointed two Republicans, Henry L. Stimson as Secretary of War and Franklin Knox as Secretary of the Navy (June 20). With war ranging in Europe and an election coming in November, he wanted to make sure that the American defence program would be bipartisan. It was increasingly clear that America would be at some time involved in the War. The President was determined that if and when America went to war it would be on a bipartisan basis. He not only appointed Republicans to important defense posts, but he also put aside his domestic agenda and liberal reforms. (Ironically War acts such as the non-decriminatory injuction in defense jobs and the GI Bill would play an important role in achieving important New Deal liberal goals.) More frequently leaders use foreign adventures to build domestic popularity. President Roosevelt was using his emense personal popularity and staking his political future on the need to prepare a reluctant populace on the need to prepare for war.

A Third Term

The President like all previous two-term presudents was prepring to leave the White Houe. There was an unwritten trdition begun by President Washington of limiting presidential terms to two terms. e are not sure when the President began thinking of a third term. We believe it was wiuthbthe fall of France. We know that Mrs. Roosevelt had n inkling earlierthatvher husband would run for a third term. This is of course immensly important. In many ways it was the actions that President Roosevelt took before the Japanese attack on Peael Harbor that ensured thecdefeat of the Axis. they included: 1) lauching a massive armaments program, 2) saving Britain, and 3) diverting Japan from joining the German assault on the Soviet Union.

World view

President Roosevelt's assessment of the NAZIs from an early phase was remarkably prescient. He correctly assessed the nature of the regime and refused to buy into the disatrous policy of apeasement. American public opinion, however, restricted his ability to act in any forceful way. And with the disaster in the West and fall of Framnce, he instantly understood the need to aid Britain. At a time when many if not most were writing off Britain, including hos ambassador in London, Roosevelt understood that confronting the NAZI tyranny without Britain was courung national disaster. All of this was amatter of the President's world view and political instincts. Two entirely different but related developments occurred in mid-1940 that gave the President aemarable and detailed understanding of international developments. First the British codebreakers in Bletchely Park began breaking into German Enigma cyphers (April 1940) and slowly increased their initial penetration. Churchill became primeminister (May 1940). He had been secretly corresponding with the President and decided to make the resulting Ultra intelligence available to the President through the British Security Coordination (BSC) unit and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). William Stephenson who headed the BSC was authorized to view raw Ultra transcripts. Churchill allowed him to decide what Ultra information to pass along to the President. A few montha later, American codebreakers cracked the Japanese diplomatic Purple Code resulting in Magic inteligence (September 1940). Thus the President was remarably well informed about the actions and plans of the two major NAZI powers. Thus when there was a lull in German military activity after the fall of France, the President knew that the Germans werre preparing a major assault on Britain. And when Japanese diplmats wer insisting they were seeking poice he knew that their government was preparing for war.

Export Control Act (July 1940)

After the fall of France (June 1940), the question of the Europeans colonies in Southeast Asia arose. The immeduate question was the status of the Dutch and French colonies, both countries having been occupied by the NAZIs. The French in Indo-China recognized Vichy while the Dutch declared alligence to Queen Wilhimina and the Dutch Government in Exile in London. Japan decided to take advantage of the German victory by begining its expansion into Southeast Asia. The Japanese demanded that they be allowed to occupy ports in French Indo-China (Vietnam). The Vichy Government was in no position to resist and the Japanese proceeded to occupy several ports, increasing te threat to British base at Singapore. In repose the Roosevelt Administration pushed the Export Control Act through Congress. The President signed the Act (July 2). The Act gave the president authority whenever he deems "necessary in the interest of national defense," to prohibit or curtail the exportation of military equipment, munitions, tools, materials, etc. This was a act of enormous consequences. Japanese industry was dependant on the United States for many important natural resources, including scrap iron and petroleum. The President immediaely invokes his new powers against Japan by prohibiting the exportation, without license, of strategic minerals and chemicals, aircraft engines, parts, and equipment (July 5). Further steps were tken three weeks later. The President invoked the Act and prohibited exportation, without license, of aviation gasoline and certain classes of iron and steel scrap (July 26). This effectively halted the flow of these stratehic materials to Japan. The Act put the United States on a collision course with the Japanese militarists intent on extending the Japanese Empire or Asian Co-Prosperity Group as they called it. It would lead to war, but such was Roosevelt's political genius it was accepted by a public still intent on avoiding war.

Two Ocean Navy Expansion Act (July 1940)

President Roosevelt's Congressional ally, Congressman Carl Vinson, helped pudh through the the Vinson-Walsh "Two Ocean Navy Act". The President signed the Act which authorized a major increase in the U.S Navy (July 19). The U.S. Navy at the time had 358 ships in service and 130 under construction. The Act authorized the Navy to build 200 more ships including 100 destroyers needed for North Atlantic convoy duty. Also important was the construction of carriers, battleships, and crusiers. The importance of the carriers was not yet fully understood in the era before Pearl Harbor. The Act resulted in the construction of the powerful Essex Class carriers that would overwhelm the Imperial Navy when they began reaching the fleet in late 1943. The act authorized over 1.3 million tons of combat shipping as well as 0.1 million tons of auxiliary shipping. It also authorized te construction of 15,000 aircraft. The Two Ocean Navy Act expanded the Fleet 70 percent. The passage of the act was viewed with considerable concern in Japan. As a result of their larger naval construction program, the Japanese hd achieved naval superiority in the Pacific. This was an achievement that was not fully appreciated at the time even within the U.S. Navy. One of the reasons that led the Japanese to strike at Pearl Harbor was their concern that the American building program approved in 1940 would redress the balance of naval power in the Pacific.

Battle of Britain (July-September 1940)

Aid to Britain in July-August 1940 was a dangerous step for America. Churchill had demostrated at Oran by disabling the French fleet that Britain would fight (July 1940). It was still not clear, however, if Britain could hold out against the NAZI onslaught. Hitler had not yet threatened America. Angering the NAZIs if Britain was not going to survive was a very dangerous step. It was over the skies of Britain that the NAZIs suffered their first revorse of the War. The Battle of Britain is commonly viewed in military terms, but the political consequences were also critical. The Royal Air Force's victory not only meant that a German invasion was not possible, but it helped to convince President Roosevelt that Britain was a credible ally in the struggle against Hitler. The images of the Luftwaffe bombing London and Murrow's nightly broadcasts from Londo in had an incalcuable impact in changing American public opinion.

Edward R. Murrow (1939-41)

The story of American broadcast journalists un Europe before america entered the war is an important one. No single correspondent was more important than famed CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow (1908-65). Following the Fall of France, the NAZIs launched the Battle of Britain. Americans listened to Murrow describe the horrors of the NAZI Blitz over London. He broadcast during the height of the Blitz (1940) and into 1941. Britain was alone, but Americans were listening and horrified. Murrow's calm sonorous voice described the outrage of the NAZIs bomb a great city. This only confirmed the opinions that most Americans had about Hitler and the NAZIs. Many of his broadcasts were punctuated with actual air raid sirens or even bomb explosions. CBS offices in London as well as the BBC studios Murrow used for his broadcasts were hit at least once. Murrow made one broadcast from the roof of a building during a raid so that he could provide an eye witness account to the American people. Murrow published some of these broadcasts under the title This Is London (1941). It is difficult to assess the full impact of these broacasts. It is undeniable that they increased sympathy for the British, How many Americans made the connection that a country which invaded France and bombed London would eventually attack America, I am not sure. But those who listenened to these broadcasts were more likely approve of aid to Britain and to expanded American defense spending. Churchill suspected that they would help make the British case and approved the broacasts without any war-time censorship. (Murrow at the time was involved in an affair with his daughter-in-law.) Not only did Britain resist the NAZIs, but in the Battle of Britain delivered the Luftwaffe its first defeat. Radio reports from Britain by Edward R. Murrow and his colleagues built considerable sympthy for Britain in America. This was of enormous assistance to President Roosevelt in his fight with the isolationists.

Private Efforts

Isolationist sentiment was pronounced in America and American attitudes changed only glacially even after the NAZIs pursued their conquests of one European country after another. Isolationism did not disappear as a powerful force until Pearl Harbor. Even so attitides did begin to chsmge especially sfter the fall of France and the beginning of the NAZI Blitz on Britain. There was tremendous sympathy for Britain as the Germans pounded London and other British cities. This was vividly depicted in Edward R. Murrow's CBS broadcasts during the Blitz and weekly newsreel footage as well as captured by photojournalists in Life and other magazines and newspapers. Even among Americans who wanted no part in the War, there was a growing desire to aid Britain. This expressed itself in a number of private initistives to aid the British people. American families took in English children evacuated from London and other cities. One of the most important of these efforts were Bundles for Britain. The Isolationists countetred with counter advertising--Bundles from Britain showing rows of flag drapped caskets. More importantly it provided a firm abd growing foundation for President Roosevelt's expanding efforts to support Britain.

War Material

Although Britain after the fall of France (June 1940) was the only country still in the War against Germany, she was not entirely alone. President Roosevelt had rushed arms to Britain after Funkirk. But thise shipments continued long after the immediate emergency had passed. Even while the bombs fell on London during the Blitz,British merchant men brought a steady flow of weapons, aircraft, munitions, material, and food to the beleagered island. Rarely a day passed wihout a ship leaving an American port for Britain and often more than one a day. FDR was insistent that such help be provided and General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, was concerned about the depletion of militare warehouses, did agree that the British war effort be suported. [Gilbert, p. 328.] This was of course hardly the policy of a neutral country.

Bases for Destroyers (August 1940)

Churchill as the Panzers poured into France pleaded with President Rossevelt for assistance. One possibility was mothballed destroyers, sorely needed to protect the North Atlantic convoy routes. The U.S. Navy had "moth balled" 70 destroyers after World War I. In fact FDR as Assisstanat Secretary of the Navy had played a part in this. There were great dangers to America in providing these destroyers to Britain. Not only would it be an act only slightly short of war, but it would weaken the ability of America to rapidly expand its fleet. Even more serious was that if Britain capitualed, the destroyers might even fall into German hands. The President also faced political dangers in that the Republicans could charge him with weakening America's defenses, a serious concern in the middle of the 1940 presidential election campaign. FDR finally agreed on August 14 during the height of the Battle of Britain to provide the British badly needed destroyers for their Atlantic convoys being hard pressed by the U-boats. At this stage of the War any good news was extremely important for the British and Churchill. The executive order was issued August 27, 1940. The United States would trade 50 old Navy destroyers for 99 year leases on British sea and air bases in the Western Hemisphere (most were in the Caribbean and in Newfoundland). The approach was extremely savy politically. It sounded like an actual exchange and involved bases close to the United States. In actuality the British were more than willing to provide America bases. It was also a cold political calculation. It was still unclear as to whether Britain would survive. If there was to be a British Vichy, it would be important to have American bases on the British Atlantic and Caribbean islands. The President also allowed British pilots to train in the United States and British ships to be repaired in U.S. ports. The Flight Ferry Command and Eagle Squadron were created. These were very bold exactions taken by the President without Congressional cover in the middle of the presidential election campaign.

The Draft (September 1940)

The United States in 1940 was still largely unarmed. In particular the U.S. army except for a small professional core practically did not exist. There were still calvalry units and the force that did eist was not armed with modern weapons. The United States in 1940 despite the wars raging in Europe and Asia had an army smaller than that of several small European countries. The American army was smaller than that of Romania. At the Admistration's urging, Congress after an intensive debate, approved the first peacetime draft in American history. President Roosevelt on September 16 signed the Selective Service Act. The first draft had been during the Civil War. The draft envolved men from 21-35 years of age and involved only 1 year of training a military service. The votes in Congress were comfortable majorities as most Democrats and about half the Republicans supported it despite of the upcoming election November election. Undoubtedly the radio bradcasts and newsreel images of London burning under the NAZI Blitz were making an impression on the American people.

Anglo-American Understanding (October 1940)

The Roosevelt Administration, in great secrecy at the height of the American presidential election campaign, committed "to equip fully and maintain" ten additional British divisions (October 24). The President made this commitment at the same time that he was "not going to send American boys to fight in foreign wars, unless we are attacked". Of course equipping British units was a hostile action inviting attack. The President pledged to manufacture the weapons and equipment for these ten divisions in the United States and to provide them so that the divisions would be ready for the 1942 campaign. The Administration pledged to give priority to maintaining these divisions in the field. Arthur Purvis, the head of the British Purchasing Mission in Washington, was told by FDR that the "rule of thumb" would be to make military American supplies availaible to British forces on a 50-50 basis with U.S. forces. [Gilbert, p. 348.]

Election of 1940: The Third Term (November 1940)

The 1940 presidential election is arguably the most important election in American history. The first American President, George Washington, retired after two 4-year terms. This set a precedent that every other president had followed. FDR because of the international crisis decided to run for a third term which became a campaign issue. The national debate over neutrality and isolationism that had been raging since the mid-1930s reached its height. There were powerful spokesmen on both sides. Isolationist groups, such as the American Fist Committee, opposed any risks that could lead to war and shaply attacked the President's policies. International groups and an increasing number of average citizens demanded more active aid to Britain. His Republican opponent was a surprise choice, Wendell Willkie, a wealty busniessman who had swept the Republican primaries. Willkie did not crticise FDR's support for the democracies, by the time of the camapign only England. His nomination was an indication of the shift in public opinion toward intervention. Willkie instead pledged "all aid to the Democracies short of war". He attacked the New Deal on domestic issues, what he referred to as the socialistic policies of the Administration. Roosevelt's foreign policy was, however, an issue in the campaign. The isolationists led by the American First Committee accused FDR of trying to drag America into the war. Speaking in Boston on October 30, the President assured his audinence, "I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." Usually the phrase was "foreign wars" and usually the President added, "unless we are attacked". The election was another victory for FDR, but not the landslide of previous camapigns. Still FDR carried 39 of the 48 states. The election, however, was much closer than suggested by the results. FDR saw his re-election as strong pupblic support for a program of military preparedness and aid to Britain.

Arms Allocations (November 1940)

General George C. Marshall was surely President Roosevelt's most trusted military adviser. They agreed on most matters, but not all. One of these was shipment of military supplies to Britain. The OPresident was determined to save Britain. Marshall ws concerned that American war supplies were being dangerously depleted. He told the President, "The shortage is terrible and we have no ammunition for anti-aircraft guns and will not for six months. So if we give them the guns they could not do anything with them. Antitank guns, the situation is similar...50 caliber, our situation is the same." [Pogue, pp. 50-53.] And the Neutrality Acts prohibited the sale or transfer of munitions and 'implements of war' to belligerent powers. The Roosevelt administration used a loophole in the neutrality legislation, of questionable validity, to make emergency shipments to Britain (June 1940). Marshall pressed the President about further shipments. Presidebt Roosevelt was adament about aiding Britain. It was probably the most serius brech between Mrshall and Roosevekt during the War. Marshall's argument was that committing America’s very meager weapon and munitions reserves risked providing resources inadequate to save Britain while increasing America's vulnerability. [Haglund, pp. 745-760.] Congredd after learning of the President's emergency shipments of arms to Britain, prohibited the sale of additional surplus materiel unless the chief of naval operations and chief of staff (Gen. Marshall) certified that the material was not 'essential' for American defense. This put Marshall in aifficult position. Refusal would undermine the president he served. But if the plan went wrong and Britin fell and America had to go to war without arms, Marshall would have led America into a nationl duisaster. The President constabtly pressed Marshall formore aud to Britain. He even suggested sending every other B-17 be turned over to the British as it came off the assembly line. The legal loophole this time was 'combat testing'. The President allocated half of the expanding American arms productin to beleagered Britain, notably 3 days after his reelection (November 7 1940). The question of arms allocations would not be fully settled until Lend Lease was approved (March 1941).

Harry Hopkins

The Battle of Britain made a German cross-Channel invasion impossible in 1940. The huge German Army, however, dominatd Europe. The Royal Navy was hard-pressed in the Atlantic. It was unclear at the end of 1940 if the British were prepared to continue the fight. Roosevelt had to know just how determined Britain was. The American Army was still not equipped with modern arms. Should America provide the still limited production of Armaments to Britain before its own military was equipped. Many around Roosevelt, including Harry Hopkins, were unsur how closely Roosevelt should tie American defense to Britain. Roosevelt dispatched Harry Hopkins to assess whether Britain's determination and situation. Churchill did not fully understand just who Hopkins was. Churchill knew that he was close to Roosevelt and informed of Hopkin's WPA work thought him a social worker and began giving him statistics about bathrooms and electrity in British slums. Hopkin's interupted him. ""Mr Churchill, I don't give a damn about your cottagers. I've come over here to find out how we can help you beat this fellow Hitler." Of course nothing could have pleased Churchill more. Churchill rose and said, "Mr Hopkins, come with me," and the two disappeared into Churchill's study. Churchill proceeeded to escort Hopkins all over the United Kingdom, from Scappa Flow in Scotland to the beach defenses in Kent. They spent time together at Chequers. Churchill completely converted him to the British cause. No onereally knew what Hopkins would say in private to Rossevelt when he returned to Washington. At a small dinner party before he returned, Hopkins rose to propose a toast. "I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return. Well I am going to quote to you oneverse from the Book of Books. ... "Whither thou goest, I will go and where thou lodgest I will lodge, thy people shall be by peple, and thy God my God." Hopkins then added in at the ending, "Even to the end." Tears were streaming down Churchill's face. [Goodwin, pp. 213-213 and Meacham] Hopkins would become the aministrator of Lend Lease as well as serve many vital diplomatic missions, especially as a go-between for the President with both Churchill and Stalin.

Arsenal of Democracy (December 29, 1940)

President Roosevelt first used the term "Arsenal of Denocracy" on December 29, 1940 in a radio broadcast to the American people. Her expalined the importance of supplying the people of Europe, at the time primarily Britain with the "implements of war". He said that the United States "must be the great arsenal of democracy". The very day he spoke, a Luftwaffe raid on London severly damaged famous buildings and churches in the city center and engulfed St. Paul's Cathedral in flames. [Gilbert, p. 356.] Hitler feared America more than any other country, but was convinced that Britain could be defeated before America could be mobilized or American industry could be effevtiverly harnassed for the war effort. Neither the NAZIs or the Japanese had any idea just how effectibely American production could be converted to war production. Air Marshall Göring sneared, "The Americans only know how to make razor blades." Four years later with the Luftwaffe in tatters, Göring said he knew that the War was lost when American P-51 Mustangs first appeared over Berlin escoring waves of bombers. The record of American war production is staggering and in large measure determined the outcome of the War.

President Roosevelt Conceives Lend Lease (December 1940)

Britain to the surprise of many fought off the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and stopped a huge Italian army attempting to invade Egypt. The Royal Navy, however, was hard-pressed by the German U-boats in the North Atlantic. A critical point was reached by Britain by the end of the year. It had exhausted its foreign reserves and no longer had the where-with-all to buy arms and war material. Churchill wrote to Roosevelt informing him of this (December 1940). Roosevelt was vacatioining in the Caribbean after his electoral victory. It was at this time that the President (and not his staff) conceived of Lend Lease. President Roosevelt first proposed Lend Lease at a press conference (December 17). It was a step he had been considering for some time. Polls showed that by December, 1940, public opinion had shifted significantly. An estimated 60 percent of the American people had come to favor aid to Britain even if it meant war. Britain was in fact in dire straits. It was rapidly depelting its gold reserves and ability to pay cash for war supplies. The President thus saw the need to in effect "rent" war material to the British. The concept was pure Roosevelt. It sounded like a fair exchange, a loan which America would eventually get back. While to an American public still warry of war it sounded less like participating in war than selling arms. It was, however, a term perfectly suited for the time. Of course it was pure fiction. How could tanks, planes, trucks, bullets, food and other materials used in war be returned. Most would be destroyed or damaged and what good would they be after the War any way? Items like bullets and food would simply be used up. Of course, making America the Arsenal of Democracy would also have no value if Britain would be dnied arms because it had run out of the needed funds.


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Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

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Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Frranklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1994), 759p.

Hahlund, David G. "George C. Marshall and the Question of Military Aid to England, May-June 1940," Journal of Contemporary History Vol. XV (1980), pp. 745-760.

Hilton, Stanley E. "The Welles Mission to Europe, February-March 1940: Illusion or Realism?" The Journal of American History, Vol. 58, No. 1 (June, 1971), pp. 93-120.

Hornberger, Jacob G. "Repatriation: The Dark Side of World War II, Part 1" Freedom Daily (February 1995).

Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-1941. (1976).

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Murrow, Edward R. This Is London (1941).

Pogue. Forrest C. George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope, 1939-1942 (New York: 1966).

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Created: January 1, 2003
Last updated: 2:07 AM 12/25/2017