According to his own official statements, repeated on many occasions, and with special emphasis when the presidential election of 1940 was at stake, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy after the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939 was dominated by one overriding thought: how to keep the United States at peace. One of the President’s first actions after the beginning of hostilities was to call Congress into special session and ask for the repeal of the embargo on the sales of arms to belligerent powers, which was part of the existing neutrality legislation. He based his appeal on the argument that this move would help to keep the United States at peace. His words on the subject were:
Let no group assume the exclusive label of the “peace bloc.” We all belong to it … I give you my deep and unalterable conviction, based on years of experience as a worker in the field of international peace, that by the repeal of the embargo the United States will more probably remain at peace than if the law remains as it stands today … Our acts must be guided by one single, hardheaded thought — keeping America out of the war.
This statement was made after the President had opened up a secret correspondence with Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and later Prime Minister in the British government. What has been revealed of this correspondence, even in Churchill’s own memoirs, inspires considerable doubt as to whether its main purpose was keeping America out of the war.
Roosevelt kept up his pose as the devoted champion of peace even after the fall of France, when Great Britain was committed to a war which, given the balance of power in manpower and industrial resources, it could not hope to win without the involvement of other great powers, such as the United States and the Soviet Union. The President’s pledges of pursuing a policy designed to keep the United States at peace reached a shrill crescendo during the last days of the 1940 campaign.
Mr. Roosevelt said at Boston on October 30: “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.”
The same thought was expressed in a speech at Brooklyn on November 1: “I am fighting to keep our people out of foreign wars. And I will keep on fighting.”
The President told his audience at Rochester, New York, on November 2: “Your national government … is equally a government of peace — a government that intends to retain peace for the American people.”
On the same day the voters of Buffalo were assured: “Your President says this country is not going to war.”
And he declared at Cleveland on November 3: “The first purpose of our foreign policy is to keep our country out of war.”
So much for presidential words. What about presidential actions? American involvement in war with Germany was preceded by a long series of steps, not one of which could reasonably be represented as conducive to the achievement of the President’s professed ideal of keeping the United States out of foreign wars. The more important of these steps may be briefly listed as follows:
- The exchange of American destroyers for British bases in the Caribbean and in Newfoundland in September, 1940. This was a clear departure from the requirements of neutrality and was also a violation of some specific American laws. Indeed, a conference of top government lawyers at the time decided that the destroyer deal put this country into the war, legally and morally.
- The enactment of the Lend-Lease Act in March, 1941. In complete contradiction of the wording and intent of the Neutrality Act, which remained on the statute books, this made the United States an unlimited partner in the economic war against the Axis Powers all over the world.
- The secret American-British staff talks in Washington in January-March, 1941. Extraordinary care was taken to conceal not only the contents of these talks but the very fact that they were taking place from the knowledge of Congress. At the time when administration spokesmen were offering assurances that there were no warlike implications in the Lend-Lease Act, this staff conference used the revealing phrase, “when the United States becomes involved in war with Germany.”
- The inauguration of so-called naval patrols, the purpose of which was to report the presence of German submarines to British warships, in the Atlantic in April, 1941.
- The dispatch of American laborers to Northern Ireland to build a naval base, obviously with the needs of an American expeditionary force in mind.
- The occupation of Iceland by American troops in July, 1941. This was going rather far afield for a government which professed as its main concern the keeping of the United States out of foreign wars.
- The Atlantic Conference of Roosevelt and Churchill, August 9-12, 1941. Besides committing America as a partner in a virtual declaration of war aims, this conference considered the presentation of an ultimatum to Japan and the occupation of the Cape Verde Islands, a Portuguese possession, by United States troops.
- The orders to American warships to shoot at sight at German submarines, formally announced on September 11. The beginning of actual hostilities may be dated from this time rather than from the German declaration of war, which followed Pearl Harbor.
- The authorization for the arming of merchant ships and the sending of these ships into war zones in November, 1941.
- The freezing of Japanese assets in the United States on July 25, 1941. This step, which was followed by similar action on the part of Great Britain and the Netherlands East Indies, amounted to a commercial blockade of Japan. The warmaking potentialities of this decision had been recognized by Roosevelt himself shortly before it was taken. Addressing a delegation and explaining why oil exports to Japan had not been stopped previously, he said: “It was very essential, from our own selfish point of view of defense, to prevent a war from starting in the South Pacific. So our foreign policy was trying to stop a war from breaking out down there…. Now, if we cut the oil off, they [the Japanese] probably would have gone down to the Netherlands East Indies a year ago, and we would have had war.”
- When the Japanese Prime Minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoye, appealed for a personal meeting with Roosevelt to discuss an amicable settlement in the Pacific, this appeal was rejected, despite the strong favorable recommendations of the American ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew.
- Final step on the road to war in the Pacific was Secretary of State Hull’s note to the Japanese government of November 26. Before sending this communication Hull had considered proposing a compromise formula which would have relaxed the blockade of Japan in return for Japanese withdrawal from southern Indochina and a limitation of Japanese forces in northern Indochina.
- However, Hull dropped this idea under pressure from British and Chinese sources. He dispatched a veritable ultimatum on November 26, which demanded unconditional Japanese withdrawal from China and from Indochina and insisted that there should be “no support of any government in China other than the National government [Chiang Kai-shek].” Hull admitted that this note took Japanese-American relations out of the realm of diplomacy and placed them in the hands of the military authorities.
- The negative Japanese reply to this note was delivered almost simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor. There was a strange and as yet unexplained failure to prepare for this attack by giving General Short and Admiral Kimmel, commanders on the spot, a clear picture of the imminent danger. As Secretary of War Stimson explained the American policy, it was to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot, and it may have been feared that openly precautionary and defensive moves on the part of Kimmel and Short would scare off the impending attack by the Japanese task force which was known to be on its way to some American outpost.
Here is the factual record of the presidential words and the presidential deeds. No convinced believer in American nonintervention in wars outside this hemisphere could have given the American people more specific promises than Roosevelt gave during he campaign of 1940. And it is hard to see how any President, given the constitutional limitations of the office, could have done more to precipitate the United States into war with Germany and Japan than Roosevelt accomplished during the 15 months between the destroyer-for-bases deal and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Former Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce found the right expression when she charged Roosevelt with having lied us into war. Even a sympathizer with Roosevelt’s policies, Professor Thomas A. Bailey, in his book, The Man in the Street,admits the charge of deception, but tries to justify it on the following grounds:
Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor … He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good … The country was overwhelmingly noninterventionist to the very day of Pearl Harbor, and an overt attempt to lead the people into war would have resulted in certain failure and an almost certain ousting of Roosevelt in 1940, with a complete defeat of his ultimate aims.
Professor Bailey continues his apologetics with the following argument, which leaves very little indeed of the historical American conception of a government responsible to the people and morally obligated to abide by the popular will:
A president who cannot entrust the people with the truth betrays a certain lack of faith in the basic tenets of democracy. But because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests. This is clearly what Roosevelt had to do, and who shall say that posterity will not thank him for it?
Presidential pledges to “keep our country out of war,” with which Roosevelt was so profuse in the summer and autumn of 1940, could reasonably be regarded as canceled by some new development in the international situation involving a real and urgent threat to the security of the United States and the Western Hemisphere.
But there was no such new development to justify Roosevelt’s moves along the road to war in 1941. The British Isles were not invaded in 1940, at the height of Hitler’s military success on the Continent. They were much more secure against invasion in 1941. Contrast the scare predications of Secretary Stimson, Secretary Knox, and General Marshall, about the impending invasion of Britain in the first months of 1941, with the testimony of Winston Churchill, as set down in his memoirs: “I did not regard invasion as a serious danger in April, 1941, since proper preparations had been made against it.”
Moreover, both the American and British governments knew at this time that Hitler was contemplating an early attack upon the Soviet Union. Such an attack was bound to swallow up much the greater part of Germany’s military resources.
It is with this background that one must judge the sincerity and realism of Roosevelt’s alarmist speech of May 27, 1941, with its assertion: “The war is approaching the brink of the western hemisphere itself. It is coming very close to home.” The President spoke of the Nazi “book of world conquest” and declared there was a Nazi plan to treat the Latin American countries as they had treated the Balkans. Then Canada and the United States would be strangled.
Not a single serious bit of evidence in proof of these sensational allegations has ever been found, not even when the archives of the Nazi government were at the disposal of the victorious powers. The threat to the security of Great Britain was less serious in 1941 than it was in 1940. There is no concrete evidence of Nazi intention to invade the American hemisphere in either year, or at any predictable period.
One is left, therefore, with the inescapable conclusion that the promises to “keep America out of foreign wars” were a deliberate hoax on the American people, perpetrated for the purpose of insuring Roosevelt’s re-election and thereby enabling him to proceed with his plan of gradually edging the United States into war.
The following article was written by William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969). He was an American historian and journalist. He was Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Moscow, 1922-1934, and Far Eastern Correspondent for the Monitor, 1939-1940. He contributed important reports and articles to leading American newspapers and periodicals, and for a time wrote a regular column for The Wall Street Journal. Among his books were Soviet Russia (1930), Russia’s Iron Age (1934), The Russian Revolution , 1917-1921 (in two volumes; 1935), Japan Over Asia (1939), The European Cockpit (1947), and America’s Second Crusade (1950).