Front Page Titles (by Subject) 6: Road to War: The Atlantic - America's Second Crusade
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6: Road to War: The Atlantic - William Henry Chamberlin, America’s Second Crusade 
America’s Second Crusade (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Amagi, 2008).
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Road to War: The Atlantic
Roosevelt was elected President for a third term by the votes of isolationists who trusted his dozen or more specific pledges to stay out of war and of interventionists who did not believe he meant what he said. The latter had far more reason for satisfaction. Once assured of four more years in the White House, Roosevelt set the ship of state on a much more militant course. But the double talk, the carrying out of steps which logically pointed to full belligerence to an accompaniment of soothing “no war” assurances, continued almost until Pearl Harbor.
One man who was not deceived by the double talk was the former Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy. He had supported Roosevelt in the campaign. But on November 18 he indicated a change of attitude and made two significant and correct predictions in a press interview. One was that Roosevelt’s policies were dragging America into war. The other was that Britain would go socialist after the war.
Immediately after the election there was a political lull. Roosevelt departed on December 2 on a Caribbean cruise with Harry Hopkins as his only guest. The President was apparently mainly concerned with rest and recreation. But on this cruise he received a very important letter from Winston Churchill. In this communication, dated December 8, one finds the final inspiration for the lend-lease idea.
Churchill emphasized two points: the serious threat of the submarine war and the approaching exhaustion of Britain’s financial assets. He suggested that America should protect its shipments to Britain with warships. Realizing that this was probably too much to expect, he suggested, as an alternative, “the gift, loan or supply of a large number of American vessels of war.” Another proposal, which was soon to bear fruit, was that the United States Navy should “extend its sea control of the American side of the Atlantic.”
Churchill warned that the moment was approaching “when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies.” After receiving this letter Roosevelt, according to Hopkins, came out one evening with the whole lend-lease scheme, the delivery of munitions and supplies free of charge to Great Britain and the other anti-Axis belligerents.
“He didn’t seem to have any clear idea how it could be done legally,” Hopkins observes. “But there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that he would find a way to do it.”
After returning to Washington, Roosevelt outlined the principle of lend-lease at a press conference. He used as an illustration the case of a man lending his garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire.
In the course of his “fireside” chat to the American people on December 29 the President painted a dire picture of the peril that was supposedly hanging over the Western Hemisphere.
Never since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has American civilization been in such danger as now. . . . If Great Britain goes down, the Axis powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the high seas—and they will be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere. It is no exaggeration to say that all of us in the Americas would be living at the point of a gun—a gun loaded with explosive bullets, economic as well as military.
Yet along with this melodramatic scare note, which was to be struck again and again and again during 1941, there were soothing assurances that the United States would not get into the war.
There is far less chance of the United States getting into the war if we do all we can now to support the nations defending themselves against the Axis. . . . You can therefore nail any talk about sending armies to Europe as deliberate untruth. . . . We must be the arsenal of democracy.
Roosevelt outlined the plan for lend-lease aid to the anti-Axis powers in his message to Congress of January 6, 1941. This was the longest single stride on the road to war. For it is a long-recognized principle of international law that it is an act of war for a neutral government (as distinguished from private firms or agencies) to supply arms, munitions, and implements of war to a belligerent.
The United States had demanded and obtained heavy damages, by decision of a court of arbitration, from Great Britain because the British Government did not prevent the escape from a British port of the cruiser Alabama, built for the Confederacy, which subsequently preyed upon United States shipping. But Roosevelt brushed off objections based on international law with the off-the-cuff declaration:
“Such aid is not an act of war, even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be.”
The bill envisaged enormous and undefined expenditures and conferred vast and unprecedented discretionary powers upon the President. Its terms were to be effective “notwithstanding the provisions of any other law.” But Roosevelt gave specific assurances that neither the Johnson Act, barring loans to countries in default on earlier obligations to the United States, nor the Neutrality Act, forbidding loans to belligerents, would be repealed.
Here was surely legal confusion heavily compounded. It was obvious that if the lend-lease bill should become law, the United States would have departed much farther from neutrality than Wilson had gone before America formally entered the First World War. Yet legislation enacted on the basis of America’s experience in 1917, designed to keep the country out of war by foregoing neutral rights which Wilson had upheld, was left on the statute books. It was all very confusing; and confusion of public opinion was what Roosevelt needed gradually to steer America into undeclared hostilities while professing devotion to peace.
In his message to Congress of January 6, Roosevelt enunciated the Four Freedoms on which the world should be founded. These were freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. These were to prevail everywhere in the world. The Four Freedoms, together with the seven points of the Atlantic Charter, announced later in the year, were America’s war aims, the equivalent of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. They still furnish a mirror by which the success of the Second Crusade may be judged.
In this same speech, speaking on behalf of a country which was still technically nonbelligerent, Roosevelt banged, barred, and bolted the door to suggestions of a compromise or negotiated peace:
“We are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations of our own security will not permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers.”
In retrospect the adoption of the Lend-Lease Act seems to be the most decisive of the series of moves which put America into an undeclared war in the Atlantic months before Japan struck at Pearl Harbor. This measure marked the end of any pretense of neutrality. It underwrote the unconditional victory of Britain with America’s industrial power and natural resources. It opened up the immediate prospect of an appeal for naval action to insure that the munitions and supplies procured under lend-lease would reach England in spite of the submarine blockade. While Congress and the American people were being officially assured that lend-lease was not a move toward war, Roosevelt’s personal envoy, Harry Hopkins, was giving Churchill the following categorical pledge of all-out American aid in January 1941: “The President is determined that we shall win the war together. Make no mistake about that.”1
Yet this fateful measure was not frankly presented and advocated as equivalent to a state of limited belligerence. If one studies the record of the debates in House and Senate, one finds supporters of the bill employing this kind of reasoning:
“The present bill is a peace measure for our people.”—Representative McCormack, of Massachusetts.
“In my judgment there is nothing in this bill which will hasten or accentuate our involvement in the war.”—Representative Luther Johnson, of Texas.
“We believe that this measure offers the surest method by which we can avoid participation actively in this war and at the same time help those nations which are heroically grappling with a universal enemy and preserve the doctrines of our fathers and the aspirations of our own hearts.”—Senator Alben Barkley, of Kentucky.
Leading Cabinet members and high military authorities testified on behalf of the bill and indulged in some very bad guessing. Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, predicted on January 17 a crisis within sixty days. On January 31 he forecast a great air blitz on Britain and the use of poison gas within sixty or ninety days. Stimson saw great danger of an air-borne invasion, and General Marshall predicted an attack on Great Britain in the spring. It is interesting to note that Churchill’s authoritative memoirs do not bear out the alarmist arguments which were employed to push through the lend-lease bill. Describing the situation at the beginning of 1941, he points out in detail how British strength to resist a German invasion had immensely increased and states the following conclusion: “So long as there was no relaxation in vigilance or serious reduction in our own defense the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff felt no anxiety.”2 Recurring to the situation in the spring of 1941, he observes: “I did not regard invasion as a serious danger in April, 1941, since proper preparations had been made against it.”3
Willkie was as quick as Roosevelt to forget his antiwar pledges. He testified enthusiastically in favor of lend-lease. Reminded of his earlier statement that the Administration would put America in war by spring, he airily brushed this off as “just campaign oratory.”
A powerful voice from across the Atlantic joined the chorus of those who insisted that the lend-lease bill would keep America out of war. Winston Churchill, whose private letters to Roosevelt had long been filled with pleas for American warlike action, broadcast this reassurance to the American people on February 9, 1941:
We do not need the gallant armies which are forming throughout the American Union. We do not need them this year, nor next year, nor any year I can foresee. But we need urgently an immense and continuing supply of war materials. . . . We shall not fail or falter, we shall not weaken or tire. . . . Give us the tools and we will do the job. [Italics supplied.]
Viewing this broadcast in retrospect, Churchill frankly observes: “This could only be an interim pronouncement. Far more was needed. But we did our best.”4
On any sober, realistic appraisal of British and Axis strength this was assurance which could not be fulfilled. But it was what many Americans wished to hear. Lend-lease was carried because the minority of all-out interventionists were reinforced by a larger number who hoped, and were given every assurance to this effect by Administration spokesmen, that unlimited subsidies of munitions and supplies would buy America out of active participation in the war.
There were voices of opposition. Senator Taft saw as “the important thing about this bill” that “its provisions in effect give the President power to carry on an undeclared war all over the world, in which America would do everything except actually put soldiers in the front-line trenches where the fighting is.” The Senator could not see (and events would soon bear him out) how we could long conduct such a war without being in “the shooting as well as the service-of-supply end.” Senator C. Wayland Brooks, of Illinois, called it a “war bill with war powers, with the deliberate intention of becoming involved in other people’s wars.” Colonel Lindbergh described lend-lease as “a major step to getting us into war.” The veteran Socialist leader Norman Thomas foresaw as consequences of the lend-lease legislation “total war on two oceans and five continents, a war likely to result in stalemate, perhaps in such a break-up of western civilization that Stalin, with his vast armies and loyal communist followers, will be the victor.”
The bill became law on March 11, 1941. The vote was 265 to 165 in the House, 60 to 31 in the Senate. These were substantial, but not overwhelming majorities. Had the measure been frankly presented as a measure of limited war, which it was, it is most improbable that it could have been passed.
While Congress was discussing lend-lease, important American and British staff talks were taking place in Washington in an atmosphere of extreme secrecy. These talks went on from the end of January until the end of March. The principal American representatives were Admirals R. L. Ghormley and Richmond Kelly Turner and Captains A. G. Kirk, C. M. Cooke, and DeWitt Ramsey, for the Navy, and Generals S. D. Embick, Sherman Miles, and L. T. Gerow, and Colonel Joseph T. McNarney, for the Army. British participants were Admirals R. M. Bellairs and V. H. Danckwerts, General E. L. Morris, and Air Commodore J. C. Slessor.
General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army, and Admiral Harold R. Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, addressed the opening session of the conference and urged the utmost secrecy, in order not to provide fuel for opponents of the lend-lease bill. The members of the British delegation wore civilian clothes and passed themselves off as technical advisers of the British Purchasing Commission.
At the very time when anxious Congressmen were being assured that the lend-lease bill was designed to avoid war, these military and naval experts were adopting a report which took American participation in the war for granted. The principal conclusions of this report were phrased as follows:
The staff conference assumes that when the United States becomes involved in war with Germany it will at the same time engage in war with Italy. In these circumstances the possibility of a state of war arising between Japan and an association of the United States, the British Commonwealth and its allies, including the Netherlands East Indies, must be taken into account.
Since Germany is the predominant member of the Axis powers, the Atlantic and European area is considered the decisive theatre. The principal United States effort will be exerted in that theatre, and operations in other theatres will be conducted in such a manner as to facilitate that effort.5 [Italics supplied.]
The use of the word when, not if, was certainly suggestive of the Administration’s attitude.
Typical of the furtive methods by which Roosevelt edged the country into a state of undeclared war was the noteworthy care taken to conceal these American-British talks (not only their content, but the fact that they were taking place) from the knowledge of Congress. This is made clear by Robert E. Sherwood when he writes:
Although the common-law alliance involved the United States in no undercover commitments, and no violation of the Constitution, the very existence of any American-British joint plans, however tentative, had to be kept utterly secret. It is an ironic fact that in all probability no great damage would have been done had the details of these plans fallen into the hands of the Germans and the Japanese, whereas, had they fallen into the hands of Congress and the press, American preparation for war might have been well nigh wrecked and ruined.6
There could scarcely be a more candid admission, from a source favorable to Roosevelt, that America was stealthily maneuvered into war behind the backs and without the knowledge of the elected representatives of the American people. A study of the Congressional debates and private talks with some members of that body confirm this view. Even members of the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees were kept very much in the dark as to what the President was doing or intending to do. As Nathaniel Peffer subsequently wrote in an issue of Harper’s Magazine:
When, for example, the United States traded to Great Britain destroyers for bases, it was for all practical purposes entering the war. Congress had no voice in that. It was notified later by the President, but then the fact was accomplished. Similarly, when the President ordered the freezing of Japanese assets in this country in July, 1941, he was decreeing a state of war with Japan. And with respect to that act the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had no more to say than a similar number of North Dakota wheat farmers.7
Like the Roman god Janus, Roosevelt in the prewar period had two faces. For the American people, for the public record, there was the face of bland assurance that his first concern was to keep the country out of war. But in more intimate surroundings the Chief Executive often assumed that America was already involved in war.
Consider, for example, the testimony of Dr. Constantin Fotitch, the Yugoslav Ambassador in Washington. He carried away this impression of American belligerence from a talk with the President on April 3, 1941:
The United States was still neutral, yet the President spoke to me about the organization of peace after the victory; about “common objectives, common efforts and the common enemy”; in short, as though the United States were already in the war against the Axis.8
The American Government certainly did everything in its power to push Yugoslavia into war. Sumner Welles on March 24 asked Fotitch to convey to his government the following communication from the President.
In case the Yugoslav Government signs an agreement with Germany detrimental to the interests of Great Britain and Greece, who are fighting for the freedom of all, the President will be bound to freeze all Yugoslav assets and to revise entirely the American policy toward Yugoslavia.
There is a tragic parallel between British policy toward Poland in 1939 and this American policy of pushing Yugoslavia into combat. In each case a high-spirited but industrially backward people was encouraged to enter a hopelessly uneven struggle. As Britain could not help Poland, America could not help Yugoslavia. No American lend-lease arms even reached Yugoslavia prior to the country’s military collapse before the swift Nazi thrust in April 1941. And when the day of victory finally dawned, the Poles and Yugoslavs who were most western-minded, who had placed their faith in Britain and the United States, were abandoned by Churchill and Roosevelt to their fate at the hands of the new Communist masters of those unfortunate countries.
The next milestone on the road to war in the Atlantic was the decision to employ American naval forces to insure the deliveries of munitions and supplies to Britain. There had been much discussion of naval convoys during the debate on the Lend-Lease Act. Roosevelt stated on January 21 that he had no intention of using his powers under this bill to convoy merchant ships. “Convoys,” he said, “mean shooting and shooting means war.”
The Lend-Lease Act as finally passed contained several amendments clearly designed to prevent the President from using it as an authorization for carrying on undeclared war. According to these amendments, nothing in the Act was to authorize convoying by United States naval vessels, the entry of any American vessel into a combat area, or the change of existing law relating to the use of the land and naval forces of the United States, “except insofar as such use relates to the manufacture, procurement and repair of defense articles, the communication of information and other noncombatant purposes enumerated in this act.”
As soon as the Lend-Lease Act became law Roosevelt characteristically set out to find a means of convoying supplies which could be plausibly called by some other name. “Patrol” seemed to fill the needs of the situation.
The bellicose Secretaries of War and the Navy, Stimson and Knox, had agreed toward the end of March “that the crisis is coming very soon and that convoying is the only solution and that it must come practically at once.”9 However, the plan which Roosevelt finally approved on April 24 was less bold than the open dispatch of convoys, although it achieved much the same purpose. Under this scheme, the American Navy was assigned the responsibility of patrolling the Atlantic west of a median point represented by 25° longitude. Within this area United States warships and naval planes would search out German raiders and submarines and broadcast their position to the British Navy. Roosevelt and Hopkins drafted a cable to Churchill, outlining this scheme and suggesting that the British keep their convoys west of the new line up to the northwestern approaches.10
With typical indirection, Roosevelt, even in private Cabinet meetings, tried to represent this as merely a defensive move, designed to protect the Western Hemisphere against attack. The more candid Stimson recorded in his diary for April 24:
He [Roosevelt] kept reverting to the fact that the forces in the Atlantic were merely going to be a patrol to watch for any aggression and report that to America. I answered there, with a smile on my face, saying: “But you are not going to report the presence of the German Fleet to the Americas. You are going to report it to the British Fleet.” I wanted him to be honest with himself. To me it seems a clearly hostile act to the Germans, and I am prepared to take the responsibility of it. He seems to be trying to hide it into the character of a purely reconnaissance action, which it clearly is not.11
Even before the patrol system had been adopted, the American Navy had been stepping far beyond the bounds of hemisphere defense. The Congressional Pearl Harbor investigation turned up two interesting letters from Admiral Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, to Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the Pacific fleet. In the first of these, dated April 4, 1941, Stark wrote: “The question as to our entry into the war seems to be when, and not whether.” The second is more specific about military preparations on the other side of the Atlantic:
I am enclosing a memo on convoy which I drew up primarily to give the President a picture of what is now being done, what we would propose to do if we convoyed, and of our ability to do it. . . .
Our officers who have been studying the positions for bases in the British Isles have returned, and we have decided on immediate construction of 1 destroyer base and 1 seaplane base in Northern Ireland. We are also studying Scotland Iceland bases for further support of the protective force for shipping in the northward approaches to Britain.
All this did not harmonize with the President’s pre-election promises that “this country is not going to war.” But with no election in prospect, there was no brake on the gradual slide toward open belligerence.
Roosevelt in a press conference on May 16 referred to a subject which evidently appealed to his imagination, since he raised it on several other occasions. This was the presidential right to wage undeclared war, as illustrated by such precedents as the clash with France during the Administration of John Adams and with the Barbary pirates when Jefferson was President. Roosevelt declared that the Germans were really pirates. On the same day Knox announced: “It is impossible to exaggerate the mortal danger of our country at this moment.”
Stimson had already sounded a call to war in a radio address of May 6, which ended as follows:
Today a small group of evil leaders have taught the young men of Germany that the freedom of other men and nations must be destroyed. Today those young men are ready to die for that perverted conviction. Unless we on our side are ready to sacrifice and, if need be, die for the conviction that the freedom of America must be saved, it will not be saved. Only by a readiness for the same sacrifice can that freedom be preserved.
Roosevelt himself on May 27, 1941, delivered a speech which seemed designed to scare the American people into approving warlike measures. “The war,” the President said, “is approaching the brink of the Western Hemisphere itself. It is coming very close to home.” He spoke of “the Nazi book of world conquest” and declared the Nazis planned to treat the Latin American countries as they were now treating the Balkans. Then, according to the President, the United States and Canada would be strangled. American labor would have to compete with slave labor, and the American farmer would get for his products exactly what Hitler wanted to give. Roosevelt outlined a very elastic and expansive conception of defense requirements.
“The attack on the United States can begin with the domination of any base which menaces our security—north or south.”
Old-fashioned common sense calls for the use of a strategy that will prevent such an enemy from gaining a foothold in the first place.
We have, accordingly, extended our patrol in North and South Atlantic waters. We are steadily adding more and more ships and planes to that patrol. It is well known that the strength of the Atlantic Fleet has been greatly increased during the last year, and that it is constantly being built up. . . .12 We are thus being forewarned. We shall be on our guard against efforts to establish Nazi bases closer to our hemisphere.
The speech ended in a bellicose climax:
We in the Americas will decide for ourselves whether, and when, and where, our American interests are attacked or our security is threatened.
We are placing our armed forces in strategic military position.
We will not hesitate to use our armed forces to repel attack.
There was also a declaration of a state of “unlimited national emergency.” However, there was a sense of anticlimax when Roosevelt in his press conference on the following day denied any intention to institute convoys or to press for the repeal of the Neutrality Act.
In the retrospect of years, how well founded was the sense of national mortal peril which the President, the more bellicose members of his Cabinet, and a host of individuals and organizations tried to cultivate in the American people? In the light of the ascertainable facts, which are now pretty well known, one cannot but feel that the picture was grossly exaggerated.
What was the over-all military picture in May 1941? There was no longer serious danger of a Nazi invasion of England.13 The American and British surface fleets were enormously stronger than the combined Axis naval strength. There was, therefore, not the slightest prospect that German armies could cross the Atlantic in force.
At that time there were constant rumors of German infiltration into French North Africa. A favorite scare story was that Hitler’s legions would move into Dakar (itself a long jump from North Africa) and then move across the Atlantic into Brazil. Commentators who spread these stories never took the trouble to explain how it would be possible to transport substantial forces across the ocean in the face of superior American and British naval power.
And we know now that there was never any factual basis for these rumors. The reports of two American representatives on the spot, Robert D. Murphy, in North Africa, and Consul Thomas C. Wasson, in Dakar, are in agreement on this point; Murphy’s reports show that there were about two hundred Germans, mostly connected with the armistice commission, in North Africa. Wasson informed the State Department that the only Germans in Dakar were a few Jewish refugees.14
The fall of Germany and the capture of the Nazi archives revealed no evidence of any plan for the invasion of North or South America. It is reasonable to assume that a victorious Nazi Germany would have been an uncomfortable neighbor, just as a victorious Soviet Russia is today. But there is no proof that Hitler envisaged the American continent as part of his empire.
And there is a strong element of overheated fantasy in the vision of American labor ground down by the competition of slave labor, of the American farmer condemned to take what Hitler would give. The Nazis could scarcely have made slave labor more prevalent than it is in Stalin’s huge postwar empire. American labor standards have not been depressed as a result. And the level of American farm prices depends far more on the state of supply and on the willingness of American taxpayers to pay subsidies than it does on the character of foreign political regimes.
Unquestionably the war was not going well for Britain in the spring of 1941. The Germans had overrun the Balkans and had seized Crete by an air-borne operation. The reconquest of Europe from Hitler and the crushing of the Nazi regime in its own territory, the obvious war aim of Churchill and Roosevelt, gave every prospect of being a difficult, long, and costly enterprise.
But the suggestion that the Western Hemisphere was in imminent peril can fairly be dismissed as a fraudulent exaggeration. The fraud and the exaggeration are all the greater if one considers that both the American and the British governments were in possession of reliable information to the effect that Hitler’s main military strength would soon be hurled against Russia. The most fevered alarmist imagination could scarcely envisage Hitler simultaneously invading Russia and mounting an offensive against the American continent.
Not all Americans were convinced by the dire forebodings of Roosevelt’s “unlimited national emergency” speech. Senator Taft commented drily in a nation-wide broadcast:
The whole argument of the war party that Hitler can conquer the United States or dominate the seas that surround us has just about faded into the discard. But the President now lays more stress on the danger to our trade. He threatens the American workman that his wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler. . . . What is Japan to do with its silk except sell it to us? We take over half Brazil’s coffee. Even if the Nazis dominated the Netherlands East Indies there would be nothing to do with the rubber except sell it to us. It is utterly ridiculous to suppose that our trade with South America or Asia or even Europe will be wiped out.
Hitler’s attack on Russia gave the war an entirely new character. Now there was a gigantic duel between two dictators for the mastery of a continent from which every other strong military power had been eliminated. From the standpoint of defeating Hitler, Russia was a valuable military asset. But this military advantage was offset by grave political risks. There was nothing in the Soviet political record to suggest the likelihood of respect for the Four Freedoms, or of the ideals later formulated in the Atlantic Charter.
On the contrary, there was every prospect that a victorious Soviet Union would be as ruthless in victory, as eager to expand as a victorious Germany. There was neither moral nor political advantage in substituting Stalin for Hitler.
Curiously enough, it was a man of no experience in foreign affairs who sensed the necessity for a careful handling of the Soviet Union as an associate. Senator Harry S. Truman was quoted in the New York Times of June 23, 1941, as saying:
If we see Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if we see Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible, although I wouldn’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them think [sic] anything of their pledged word.
But the official decision, in Washington as in London, was to go allout in aid to Stalin. There was apparently no thought of requiring, as the price of this aid, that Stalin renounce the spoils of his pact with Hitler and give specific binding guarantees against Soviet annexation of foreign territory.
As soon as Churchill received the news of Hitler’s attack, he went on the air to announce all possible aid to Russia and the Russian people.
“No one,” the British Prime Minister declared, “has been a more consistent opponent of communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle that is now unfolding.”
Sumner Welles struck a similar note as spokesman for the State Department. “Any defense against Hitlerism, any rallying of the forces opposing Hitlerism, from whatever source these forces may spring, will hasten the eventual downfall of the present German leaders, and will therefore redound to the benefit of our own defense and security.”
There was an exchange of notes between Welles and the Soviet Ambassador, Constantin Oumansky, on August 2. The former pledged “all economic assistance practicable for the purpose of strengthening the Soviet Union in its struggle against armed aggression.”
Meanwhile Harry Hopkins had rushed to Moscow to press American aid on Stalin. Hopkins was in England on one of his confidential missions in July and suggested a visit to Moscow in a cable to Roosevelt on July 25:
If Stalin could in any way be influenced at a critical time I think it would be worth doing by a direct communication from you through a personal envoy. I think the stakes are so great that it should be done. Stalin would then know in an unmistakable way that we mean business on a long-term supply job.15
Roosevelt approved the trip and Hopkins flew to Moscow with Churchill’s blessing late in July. On meeting Stalin he told the Soviet dictator that Roosevelt considered Hitler the enemy of mankind and therefore wished to aid the Soviet Union in its fight against Germany. Hopkins impressed upon Stalin America’s determination to extend all possible aid to the Soviet Union.
Stalin took a moral tone in his reply. The Germans, he said, were a people who would sign a treaty today and break it tomorrow. Nations must fulfill their treaty obligations, or international society could not exist.16
Here was a moment when Hopkins might well have suggested that the Soviet Government, like the Nazi Government, had been known to break treaties and that a solemn public pledge to restore the independence and territorial integrity of Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states would be a reasonable quid pro quo for American aid. But neither then nor at any other time did Hopkins show any awareness of the bargaining possibilities of lend-lease aid. His whole attitude was that of one who had come to seek a favor, not to confer one. It was not a happy psychological approach to a tough-minded dictator.
Stalin outlined his military needs and gave Hopkins a sketch of Soviet military resources. He suggested that the one thing which would defeat Hitler would be an announcement that the United States was going to war with Germany. He even said that he would welcome American troops on any part of the Russian front under the complete command of the American Army.17
This was an indication of what a grave view Stalin took of the situation at this time when his armies were reeling back under the first shock of the German attack, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were surrendering voluntarily because of hatred for the regime. Later the Soviet authorities displayed the utmost reluctance to permit even small units of the American and British air forces to operate on Soviet soil and barred Allied officers from inspecting the front with a view to determining the needs of the Red Army.
From his conferences with Stalin, Hopkins was flown back to London. Thence he proceeded to take part in the first wartime meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill. This meeting, prepared in the greatest secrecy, took place on warships in the harbor of Argentia, in Newfoundland, one of the bases which the United States had acquired in exchange for its destroyers. Sumner Welles was Roosevelt’s principal political adviser at this conference, which began on August 9 and ended on the twelfth. General Marshall and Admiral Stark, the leading American military and naval figures, met British officers of corresponding rank.
The principal result of this conference was the framing of the famous Atlantic Charter. This was a joint declaration of war aims, although Congress had not voted for American participation in the war. Welles and the British permanent Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Sir Alexander Cadogan, worked out the draft text of the document. Its final form, of course, was approved by Roosevelt and Churchill.
The full text of the Atlantic Charter is as follows:
The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.
First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other.
Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.
Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.
Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment of all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity.
Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing for all improved labor standards, economic adjustment and social security.
Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.
Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.
Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.
Since the principles of the Atlantic Charter were repeatedly reaffirmed not only by America and Great Britain, but by the Soviet Union and other members of the United Nations coalition, it may be regarded as a morally binding statement of the ideals which should have governed the making of the peace. The first three clauses restate a familiar Wilsonian idea: the right of all peoples to choose their national allegiance and form of government.
Clause 4 is a promise of equality in commercial opportunity between nations. Other objectives of the Charter are the promotion of improved social and economic conditions, the insuring of a stable peace, the disarming of “aggressor” nations.
Churchill was later to contend that the provisions of the Charter did not apply to Germany. But this is in contradiction to the plain wording of the document. Clause 4 refers to “all states, great or small, victor or vanquished” (italics supplied), and Clause 6 mentions “all the men in all the lands.”
There were two disagreements regarding the phrasing of the Charter. The qualifying phrase “with due respect for their existing obligations” was inserted by Churchill at the insistence of Lord Beaverbrook, a staunch champion of Empire economic preferences. Clause 6 in its original form included the words “by effective international organization.” These were struck out by Roosevelt because of fear of opposition which might be aroused in the United States.
Another important subject at the conference was American and British diplomatic action against Japan. Churchill pressed for a joint threat of war. From his standpoint it would be just as well if America got into the war in the Pacific as in the Atlantic. So the draft of the declaration which Roosevelt was supposed to address to the Japanese Government, as submitted by Cadogan, contained the ultimate specific threat. It read:
1. Any further encroachment by Japan in the Southwestern Pacific would produce a situation in which the United States Government would be compelled to take counter-measures even though these might lead to war between the United States and Japan.
2. If any third power becomes the object of aggression by Japan in consequence of such counter-measures or of their support of them, the President would have the intention to seek authority from Congress to give aid to such power.
However, on reflection Roosevelt considerably softened this statement. When he received Japanese Ambassador Nomura on August 17 the warning had been watered down to vaguer and more oblique terms:
This Government now finds it necessary to say to the Government of Japan that if the Japanese Government takes any further steps in pursuance of a policy or program of military domination by force or threat of force of neighboring countries the Government of the United States will be compelled to take immediately any and all steps which it may deem necessary toward safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of the United States and American nationals and toward insuring the safety and security of the United States.
There was also an agreement during the Roosevelt-Churchill meeting that the United States should occupy the Azores Islands, while Great Britain proposed to take over the Canary and Cape Verde Islands.18 The Cape Verde Islands were to be transferred to American occupation later. This plan never went into effect because the rumored German move into the Iberian peninsula which inspired the design to seize the islands in the East Atlantic never took place.
In view of the agreements about a joint warning to Japan and about military action on the foreign soil of the East Atlantic islands, Roosevelt was not candid when he declared after the conference that there were no new commitments and that the country was no closer to war. To be sure, something had occurred on the last day of the conference which was calculated to impose a brake on a too-headlong interventionist course. The renewal of the Selective Service Act, enacted in 1940 for one year, squeezed through the House of Representatives by only one vote.
Churchill, however, enjoyed the satisfaction of being escorted as far as Iceland by American destroyers. He made good propaganda out of this in a broadcast:
And so we came back across the ocean waves, uplifted in spirit, fortified in resolve. Some American destroyers which were carrying mail to the United States Marines in Iceland happened to be going the same way too, so we made a goodly company at sea together.
Roosevelt’s next move toward war in the Atlantic was the proclamation, without consulting Congress or obtaining congressional sanction, of a shoot-at-sight campaign against Axis submarines. The pretext was an exchange of shots between the Greer, an American destroyer bound for Iceland, and a German submarine on September 5. Roosevelt misrepresented this incident as a wanton, unprovoked attack on the American vessel.
“The attack on the Greer,” he declared, “was no localized military operation in the North Atlantic. . . . This was one determined step toward creating a permanent world system based on force, terror and murder. When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike you do not wait until he has struck to crush him.”
The Greer, Roosevelt declared, was carrying American mail to Iceland and flying the American flag. Her identity as an American ship was unmistakable. She was then and there attacked by a submarine. “I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning, and with deliberate design to sink her.” The shoot-at-sight warning was conveyed in the following words:
In the waters which we deem necessary for our defense, American naval vessels and American planes will no longer wait until Axis submarines lurking under water or Axis raiders on the surface of the sea strike their deadly blow first. The aggression is not ours. Ours is solely defense. But let this warning be clear. From now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril.
Bismarck’s editing of the Ems telegram was a masterpiece of straightforwardness compared with Roosevelt’s picture of the Greer as the peaceful mail-carrier, wantonly set on by a hostile submarine. The Senate Naval Affairs Committee looked into the matter and obtained the following account of the incident from Admiral Stark:
At 8:40 a.m. a British airplane notified the Greer that a submarine was submerged ten miles ahead on the course the destroyer was following. The Greer put on speed and zigzagged its way to the reported location. As soon as its sound detection apparatus picked up the propeller beat of the submarine the destroyer commenced to track the submarine, broadcasting its location for the benefit of any British airplanes and destroyers which might be in the vicinity.
“This,” said Admiral Stark, “was in accordance with her orders, that is to give out information, but not to attack.”
At 10:32 the airplane dropped four depth charges which missed their mark and twenty minutes later withdrew from the hunt. The Greer continued to trail the submarine. At 12:40 the German vessel changed its course, closed in on the Greer, and fired a torpedo, which missed. The Greer counterattacked, apparently without success.
The announcement of the Presidential shooting war in the Atlantic was followed by more serious clashes. The destroyer Kearny was hit by a torpedo with the loss of eleven lives on October 17, and on October 30 the Reuben James, another destroyer, was sunk with a casualty list of 115 members of her crew.
Roosevelt struck a new high bellicose note in his Navy Day speech of October 27:
The shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot. . . .
I say that we do not propose to take this lying down.
Today, in the face of this newest and greatest challenge of them all, we Americans have cleared our decks and taken our battle stations. We stand ready in the defense of our nation and the faith of our fathers to do what God has given us the power to see as our full duty.
But the majority of the American people remained markedly indifferent to these warlike appeals. The contrast between the President’s categorical pledges not to get into war in 1940 (when the danger to Britain was certainly far greater than it was after Hitler attacked Russia) and his present obvious efforts to get into hostilities at any price was too strong.
Some public-opinion polls taken during this period are not very revealing. Much depended on who was conducting them, on how questions were phrased, on which groups in the community were reached. But Congress was a pretty reliable barometer of the mood of the nation. The one-vote majority by which selective service was renewed was one signal of the aversion to the idea of a second crusade. Another unmistakable signal was given only three weeks before Pearl Harbor.
The President had asked for authority to arm American merchant ships and to send these ships into war zones. This amounted to a repeal of the Neutrality Act, which Roosevelt had done everything in his power to circumvent. This proposal was still far short of a declaration of war. But it proved extremely difficult to get legislation providing for these changes through Congress. The bill passed the Senate, 50-37, on November 7 and narrowly escaped defeat in the House, where the vote was 212-194, a week later. A change of ten votes would have given the Administration a severe setback. Very strong pressure from the White House was put on the representatives, including promises of judgeships and other federal appointments where these would do the most good.
Interventionists at this time freely admitted and deplored the reluctance of the American people to plunge into the slaughter. The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies took a full-page advertisement to lament the “dreadfully narrow margin” by which the bill authorizing the arming of merchant ships had passed. Walter Lippmann wrote in September 1941 of “the low state of our war morale.” Stanley High, another publicist who favored intervention, commented regretfully on Lippmann’s observation in a letter published in the New York Herald Tribune:
“No, the whole truth about our war morale is not that it is now in a slump. Measured by what we are up against, it was never in anything else.”
An investigation of the alleged attempt of the moving-picture industry to promote a war psychosis was started in the Senate in September. John T. Flynn, one of the active leaders of the America First Committee, accused film producers of “using propaganda to raise the war hysteria in this country, to inflame the people of the United States to a state of mind where they will be willing to go to war with Germany.” He cited Underground as one of some fifty films designed to arouse feelings of hatred and vengeance.
The radio and the press, like the films, were overwhelmingly on the interventionist side by the autumn of 1941. Flynn asserted that in three days he had counted 127 interventionist broadcasts, compared with six on the other side.
And yet, with all the sparks that were being generated, the people failed to catch fire. Hundreds of chapters of the America First Committee pledged themselves to work for the defeat of congressmen who had voted to repeal the Neutrality Act. Francis P. Miller, an extreme interventionist, was defeated by a Republican in an off-year election in Fairfax County, Virginia, in November 1941. This was a district in which a Democratic victory was normally taken for granted.
The autumn of 1941 was a difficult period for Roosevelt. He was under pressure from those members of his Cabinet, Stimson and Knox and Morgenthau, who favored stronger action. He was exposed to a barrage of transatlantic pleas from Churchill. He had stretched his Presidential powers to the limit. He had provoked shooting incidents in the Atlantic and misrepresented these incidents when they occurred. But he had not aroused much will to war in the country.
General Wood, chairman of the America First Committee, challenged Roosevelt to put the issue of a declaration of war to the test of a vote in Congress. This was a challenge which the President could not accept, in view of the close vote on the less provocative question of repealing the Neutrality Act. Robert E. Sherwood tells how gloomy the situation seemed at this time to those who wished to get America into the war:
The truth was that, as the world situation became more desperately critical, and as the limitless peril came closer and closer to the United States, isolationist sentiment became ever more strident in expression and aggressive in action, and Roosevelt was relatively powerless to combat it. He had said everything “short of war” that could be said. He had no more tricks left. The hat from which he had pulled so many rabbits was empty.19
But just when the situation in the Atlantic seemed very unpromising, from the standpoint of speedy full involvement in war, rescue for the Administration came from the Pacific. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by Hitler’s declaration of war, extricated Roosevelt from one of the most difficult dilemmas in which a statesman can find himself—the dilemma of having led his people halfway into war.
The eleven principal steps by which Roosevelt took America into undeclared war in the Atlantic may be briefly summarized as follows:
The first three of these steps were accompanied by loud protestations that they were designed to keep America at peace, not to get it into war. Several of the other measures were taken without consulting Congress in an atmosphere of exaggerated alarmism, secrecy, contrived confusion, and official misrepresentation of facts. The entire record may be usefully set against Roosevelt’s repeated categorical assurances that his principal aim was to keep America out of war. Seldom if ever in American history was there such a gulf between appearances and realities, between Presidential words and Presidential deeds.
[1. ] Churchill, Grand Alliance, 23.
[2. ] Ibid., 4-5.
[3. ] Ibid., 238.
[4. ] Ibid., 128.
[5. ] U.S. Congress, Hearings, part 15, ex. 49, 50, 51.
[6. ] Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, 273-74.
[7. ] Nathaniel Peffer, “The Split in Our Foreign Policy,” Harper’s Magazine, 187 (August 1943), 198.
[8. ] Fotitch, The War We Lost, 86.
[9. ] Stimson and Bundy, On Active Service, 367.
[10. ] Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, 291-92.
[11. ] Stimson and Bundy, On Active Service, 368-69.
[12. ] This fact was doubtless “well known” to the Japanese Intelligence Service and was one consideration which prompted the attack on Pearl Harbor.
[13. ] This point is recognized by Churchill several times in The Grand Alliance.
[14. ] Langer, Our Vichy Gamble, 87.
[15. ] Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, 317-18.
[16. ] Ibid., 328.
[17. ] Ibid., 343. If Stalin felt himself in such dire straits that he was willing to admit foreign troops, under foreign command, on his territory, it is most unlikely that he would have refused at this time a demand for giving up the gains of his pact with Hitler.
[18. ] The Azores and Cape Verde groups belong to Portugal, the Canary Islands to Spain.
[19. ] Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, 382-83.