Roosevelt’s quarantine speech had been an attempt to alert and educate the country. It was, he conceded, less successful than he had hoped, but he also believed that events would bring the public around to his point of view.
In November 1937, the month following the speech, Italy, Germany, and Japan formed the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. While not yet the formal military alliance that would be created by the Tripartite Treaty in 1940, formation of the Axis was a declaration of mutual interest and opposition to the democracies.
Nor had there been any letup in the aggression of which the president had spoken in Chicago. Indeed, it had increased and, in one instance, targeted America. Japan’s Imperial Army, having invaded China that summer and taken Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangtze River, was occupying large chunks of Chinese territory. By early December, two months after the Chicago speech, Japan was at the gates of Nanking, the Chinese capital, located 150 miles farther up the Yangtze, and China’s Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek advised Americans to leave the city. Embassy staff, foreign correspondents and photographers, and American businessmen retreated to an American gunboat, the Panay, anchored in the river. When the Panay was loaded, her crew weighed anchor and moved upstream away from the Japanese lines, anchoring again near three American tankers. All the vessels assumed that the treaty designating the Yangtze as international waters meant they were safe from attack. Moreover, the gunboat was well marked, with American flags painted on its hull and superstructure and its location known, the American embassy in Tokyo having informed the Japanese that it was standing by for a rescue mission, specifically to prevent an accidental attack. But on December 12, Japanese dive-bombers swooped down on the gunboat and tankers, as well as on a British gunboat in the same area, sinking the military vessels and two of the tankers. Then the warplanes strafed the lifeboats heading to shore. Two of the Panay’s crew and one of the civilians were killed, and many were wounded. Film taken during the attack clearly showed it was deliberate. The isolationists, however, argued that the gunboat had provoked the attack because it was escorting the tankers. Afterward, American opinion stood two to one in favor of getting out of the Far East altogether, meaning missionaries and doctors as well as diplomats and business representatives. Indeed, it was the Panay incident that brought Ludlow’s referendum-to-declare-war amendment out of committee onto the House floor to be debated. In view of such sentiments, Washington demanded $2 million in reparations and accepted the money along with Tokyo’s “profound apology.”
When Nanking (now Nanjing) fell, for the Chinese, soldiers and civilians alike, the consequences were far worse than America’s loss of lives and property. Japanese commanders unleashed their troops in a bloody orgy lasting over a period of six weeks, in which nearly 370,000 civilians and prisoners of war were killed and as many as 80,000 women and girls raped. American newspapers and magazines carried reports of the atrocities, yet rather than shaking the grip of isolationism, these reports seemed to reinforce it. The stories emerging from Nanking were too terrible to be believed.
Furthermore, to the extent that it focused on foreign matters at all, American attention was fixed on Europe, although there, too, evidence of the brutality to come was being dismissed or ignored. Through 1937, Hitler’s war against the Jews had been largely a matter of marginalization and harassment. The Nuremberg Laws, passed in 1935, had reduced German Jews from citizens to subjects. They were prohibited from teaching Germans, could not work as dentists, doctors, or accountants, and had to file papers with the government describing the businesses they operated and register lists of their assets and property.
But it was not until November 1938, shortly after the midterm elections in the United States, that the campaign escalated from official contempt to sanctioned violence. When a Jewish teenager in Paris reacted to his family’s expulsion from their home in Hanover by assassinating a minor official with the German embassy, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels blamed it on “international Jewry,” and unleashed gangs of Nazi thugs. They smashed and looted Jewish businesses and synagogues across the country and attacked and murdered Jews in a two-day rampage that was fully endorsed by authorities. Reinhard Heydrich of the SS, the black-uniformed enforcers of Nazi purity known for their intolerance and cruelty, sent a memo to local officers that included these instructions: “Only such measures are to be taken as do not endanger German lives and property (i.e., synagogues are to be burned down only where there is no danger of fire in neighboring buildings). Places of business and apartments belonging to Jews may be destroyed but not looted.” The violence demolished 101 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses, 91 Jews died, and 27,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The pogrom, which came to be called Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” signaled the onset of genocide.
Yet even as the fascist ascendency continued in 1939, with Germany swallowing Czechoslovakia, Italy occupying Albania, Franco taking Madrid in March to end the Spanish Civil War and bring fascism to Spain, and Japan continuing its rampage across China, most Americans still considered domestic matters their prime concern. Moreover, even as they evinced a desire to turn away from what George Washington had called “the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” the home-front waters were being roiled by many of the same ugly hatreds that lay behind these events occurring overseas.
The would-be Nazis of the German-American Bund were the tip of the iceberg, and what festered beneath the surface rendered the Bund members, goosestepping in their storm trooper uniforms, pale by comparison. William Dudley Pelley was a homegrown anti-Semite from Lynn, Massachusetts, who formed his Silver Legion in the wake of Hitler’s ascension to power in Germany. By 1939, he claimed 100,000 members, the “flower of Protestant Christian manhood,” who trained in far-flung American camps for the coming worldwide fascist revolution and called themselves Silver Shirts in an echo of Germany’s SS. Father Coughlin returned to the airwaves in a new guise: he no longer emoted about social justice, but spoke in favor of the Christian Front, an Irish Catholic equivalent of the Silver Shirts, and at a rally in the Bronx he told his followers, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.” The Christian Front and the Citizens Protective League, American Patriots, Inc., the Ku Klux Klan, Defenders of the Christian Faith, the Knights of the White Camellia, and various other more or less organized groups—some 800 of them, according to Survey Graphic magazine—stirred a potent brew of isolationism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Communism that boiled over into hate speech and violence. Anti-Roosevelt extremists railed against the “Jew Deal.” Youths lurked on New York subway platforms to insult girls they decided were Jewish and provoke their escorts to retaliate so they could beat them up. A Christian Front camp in Narrowsburg, New York, in the Catskills on the Pennsylvania border, had a rifle range where shooters fired at targets made to look like the president.
Insulting the Roosevelts was nothing new, of course. Detractors had been hurling slime since the moment the president took office. Some of them could not even bear to say his name; he was “that man” in parlor conversation. But the calumny aimed at the president was mild compared to that flung at Eleanor Roosevelt, owing among other reasons to her unapologetic embrace of black Americans and their causes and her willingness to welcome them regularly into the White House. The vilest whisperers said that she and the president both had gonorrhea that she had contracted from a black lover.
The racial prejudice and fear this foulness signaled swelled even further with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. That one of America’s greatest heroes walked the path of Nazism and anti-Semitism must have granted some license to these feelings. Charles Lindbergh was an international icon, Lucky Lindy, the triumphant Lone Eagle who had flown into history with the first solo flight over the Atlantic in 1927, then as the victim of his baby son’s horrendous kidnapping and death in 1932. Three years later, after a long investigation and a trial in which the accused kidnapper, Bruno Hauptmann, was convicted and sentenced to death, Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, fled to England to escape the relentless public exposure to which they were subjected. In 1937, they moved to an island off the coast of France, where he pursued an interest in the work of the French scientist Dr. Alexis Carrel, who had won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1912. Carrel also had notions about racial superiority, and Lindbergh embraced them. It was during this time that the Lindberghs first visited Germany. The American military attaché in Berlin, who suggested this, wanted an assessment of German airpower, and Lindbergh came away impressed not only with the country’s rapidly developing and technologically advanced air force but also with the energy and vigor he detected in the German people under Hitler.
In October 1938, Field Marshal Hermann Goering, the head of the German air force, gave Lindbergh the Service Cross of the German Eagle, the highest honor Germany could award a foreign national. The swastika-embellished cross was bestowed for his contributions to aviation, and Lindbergh, having received many honors for his solo flight, accepted it as such. (Henry Ford, another American with anti-Semitic views, was also given the German cross in 1938; it was presented by the German consul in front of 1,500 prominent Detroiters gathered at a dinner to celebrate the automaker’s seventy-fifth birthday.)
The deadly rampage of Kristallnacht occurred a month after Lindbergh received the Service Cross. Though he embraced Germany’s notions of its racial and military superiority, the pogrom did dissuade the Lindberghs from their plans to move to Berlin. In 1939, they returned to the United States and Lindbergh joined the ranks of the isolationists. Two weeks after Germany invaded Poland that September 1 and France and England declared war on Germany in response, he spoke on nationwide radio to urge that America remain neutral. A war against some “Asiatic intruder” such as Genghis Khan or Xerxes would be a different story, but war in Europe, he said, was “not a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion,” but “one more of those age-old quarrels within our own family of nations.” Shadowy powers, Lindbergh suggested in a veiled reference to the Jews, were the ones who wanted America to take sides against Hitler: “We must learn to look behind every article we read and every speech we hear. We must not only inquire about the writer and the speaker—about his personal interests and his nationality, but we must ask who owns and who influences the newspaper, the news picture, and the radio station.”
A month later, after Poland had surrendered, he spoke again over the radio, arguing against sending arms to Europe. “I do not believe that repealing the arms embargo would assist democracy in Europe because I do not believe this is a war for democracy,” he said. “This is a war over the balance of power in Europe.”
The White House knew otherwise. “This nation will remain a neutral nation,” Roosevelt had pledged in a fireside chat two days after the German tanks smashed into Poland, and hours after the British and French declared war on Germany. But, he added, “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 or close his conscience.”
And American public opinion, aided by photographs and newsreels documenting the harshness of German occupation, showing Poles being ousted from their homes at gunpoint, had finally begun to shift in Roosevelt’s direction. Sixty percent of Americans polled favored repeal of the Neutrality Act, and 84 percent wanted to see the Allies win, versus 2 percent for the Germans. In Congress, those who held to the strictest interpretations of neutrality were suddenly on the defensive. Counting votes, the president decided it was time to press for an end to the embargo. He called Congress into special session at the end of September.
In November, Lindbergh expanded his views still further in a Reader’s Digest article. Accommodating Hitler, he wrote, would erect a “Western Wall of race and arms which can hold back either a Genghis Khan or the infiltration of inferior blood.” By now his prejudices, ever more blatant, appealed only to a small minority. They went right on hating, but Lindbergh was winning no new converts to his point of view.
Indeed, by the time the article appeared, Roosevelt had all but won the battle. William Borah and his isolationist colleagues fought on, but both the Senate and the House voted for repeal of the old Neutrality Act by substantial margins, and on November 3 its worst restrictions were erased. Some limits remained, but under the Neutrality Act of 1939, America could sell arms and grant credits for arms purchases to nations at war. This meant that the United States could start arming the Allies, and an Anglo-French Purchasing Board set up shop in Washington.