For the first three years of the Great War in Europe, from 1914 to 1917, Germany had fought France and England in the west and Russia in the east. Although Russia withdrew after the Soviet revolution, Hitler was convinced that the demands of this two-front war had contributed to Germany’s eventual defeat. Wanting for the moment to concentrate his military attentions on the west, in August 1939 he had his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, approach his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, to arrange a non-aggression pact. The deals that were signed that same month had three components: a relatively straightforward economic segment that would exchange Russian food and raw materials for finished goods from Germany; a ten-year agreement that the two countries would not attack or intervene against each other; and a third, top-secret protocol that allowed each country to expand its sphere of influence. Thus Poland lay divided, its western two-thirds under the heel of Germany and the rest in Soviet hands, along with the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And on the last day of November 1939, the Soviets took the next step and invaded Finland. The Red Army faced surprisingly fierce resistance from the Finns until the latter finally capitulated. But while British planes were blanketing Germany with anti-Nazi leaflets, western Europe remained free of ground war while Hitler bided his time through the winter and into the spring of 1940. The lull of that first winter brought from Senator Borah, ever the isolationist, the opinion that this new war was a “phony war.”
During this period, Roosevelt bided his time in declaring whether he would seek a third term. There was nothing in the Constitution to prohibit it, although no president of the United States had ever done so. These were unusual times, however. A strong majority of Democrats wanted him to run again. Hopkins’s presidential ambitions, realistic or not, had succumbed to a combination of opposition from both conservatives and party regulars, who saw him on one hand as too liberal and on the other as politically inept, and his increasing frailty. He was unable to function in the role of commerce secretary, and it took a return visit to the Mayo Clinic to restore him to reasonable health late in 1939.
Three other hopefuls remained: the vice president, John Nance Garner; the secretary of state, Cordell Hull; and the postmaster general, James Farley. Each had displayed some degree of opposition to Roosevelt and to his commitment to New Deal liberalism. Garner, from Texas, had long since distanced himself from the president, beginning with the effort to pack the Supreme Court. He embraced the South’s traditional antipathy to organized labor and to legislating wages and hours, and he opposed deficit spending. Relations between the two men had deteriorated to the point where Roosevelt hoped he would stay away from cabinet meetings. Farley was Garner’s antithesis, a garrulous New York Irishman whose skill at political fixing and manipulating had served Roosevelt well when Farley was the manager of his 1932 and 1936 campaigns. But he was also the essence of a big-city machine politician, and Roosevelt was convinced he would always choose expediency over principle in deciding what policies he wanted to pursue. From Roosevelt’s standpoint, Hull was the least objectionable of the three, although like Garner, the Tennessean had a southerner’s reflexive suspicion of the New Deal’s big-government cornerstones.
Farley was the most nakedly ambitious of them all. At fifty-one, he was the youngest and could conceivably accept the vice presidential nomination with an eye on a presidential bid four years later. But he could not run with Roosevelt because the Constitution bars presidential and vice presidential candidates from the same state. Garner was hale at seventy-one, but having broken with the New Deal, he was less interested in becoming president than in denying Roosevelt another term. Roosevelt had encouraged Hull, sixty-eight, to believe he was his chosen successor, just as he had Hopkins before him, but Hull believed that campaigning for the nomination was unbecoming for a secretary of state. Besides, all three were effectively prevented from launching a campaign until Roosevelt made his intentions clear.
This the president refused to do. He spoke of wishing to return to Hyde Park to plant trees and tend the land and write, but he certainly did not want an opponent of the New Deal to end up in the White House, and he feared the effects of an isolationist Congress if the progress of the war began to turn against America’s British and French allies.
Then for all intents and purposes Hitler made the decision for him. The winter lull of the so-called phony war ended abruptly on the morning of April 9, 1940, when the German army drove north across the border of Denmark and simultaneously the German navy torpedoed Norwegian gunboats and landed troops who within two days captured Norway’s main ports. The shaken western Allies parried the German thrust ineffectually and then withdrew.
One month later, German forces were on the move again. Hitler now took aim at western Europe, and on May 10, tanks, armored troop carriers, and infantry crossed the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands while 16,000 paratroopers descended from the skies and screaming dive-bombers pummeled military airfields. This would be no war of attrition between two static dug-in armies, as the first war had been. The assault combined speed with overwhelming force and inscribed the word blitzkrieg, German for “lightning war,” into dictionaries of military terms from that day forward. Half a million Allied troops moving to counter the attack in Belgium were outmanned and outmaneuvered. No longer could it remotely be believed that the German dictator could be appeased. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who had gone that route, resigned, and Winston Churchill, the primary critic of Chamberlain’s pre-war policies, formed a new coalition government in London.
In both looks and attitude, Churchill embodied the fighting spirit of the English bulldog. On May 13, in his first address to the House of Commons as prime minister, he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering. You ask, What is our policy? I say: It is to wage war, by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength that God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terrors. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
One of Churchill’s first communications as prime minister was to Roosevelt. The two had met briefly and unmemorably during the first war, when Churchill served as first lord of the admiralty and Roosevelt was an assistant secretary of the navy. They had begun to correspond in 1939 after the German invasion of Poland, when Roosevelt invited Churchill to keep in touch through sealed diplomatic pouch “with anything you want me to know about.” Now Churchill wrote him of the swiftly darkening scene in Europe, of the smaller countries being smashed “like matchwood,” of the likelihood that Mussolini’s Italy would join Germany in the fighting. And even as he was writing, the Allies’ situation worsened. Hour by hour, the Germans drove the French and British backward toward the sea and in the waters of the North Sea and the English Channel inflicted heavy losses on the vaunted British navy. Britain, Churchill wrote, needed ships, planes, steel, and anti-aircraft guns and ammunition.
Roosevelt addressed a joint session of a cheering Congress on the afternoon of May 16. He called for adding nearly $1 billion to the military budget. To keep the isolationists at bay, he did not mention Britain’s needs and he spoke not of rearmament but of national defense. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans were no longer adequate defensive barriers in an age of air warfare, he said. “If Bermuda fell into hostile hands, it is a matter of less than three hours for modern bombers to reach our shores.” He called for a standing military air fleet of 50,000 planes and for increasing aircraft manufacturing capacity from the current 12,000 to “at least fifty thousand planes a year.” He called for updating and modernizing all the equipment used by the army, navy, and marines, and for ramping up factory output to “turn out quickly infinitely greater supplies.” He had told reporters earlier that he envisioned munitions and matériel sufficient for an army of 750,000. This day’s speech, carried on the national radio networks, won strong public support; Americans were even willing to pay higher taxes to ensure a strong defense, according to a Gallup poll, and the president’s request moved swiftly through the Congress.
On May 26, he delivered a fireside chat in which he spoke of “the approaching storm.” He asked Americans to donate to the Red Cross to help millions of Belgian and French civilian refugees “running from their homes to escape bombs and shells and fire and machine-gunning, without shelter, and almost wholly without food.” He updated his listeners on the state of military preparedness, said the needs of defense were no reason to roll back social gains such as the wage-and-hours law and old-age pensions, and vowed to build the national defenses “to whatever heights the future may require.” And in what was clearly another effort to isolate the isolationists, he called for a sense of national purpose against groups who would cause “confusion of counsel, public indecision, political paralysis and eventually, a state of panic.”
But those groups were not silent. Lindbergh made a radio address the same day, terming the president’s call for 50,000 planes a year “hysterical chatter.” Senator Arthur Vandenberg, running for the Republican presidential nomination, called for an “insulated” America. And indeed, while Americans favored improving the nation’s defenses even at the cost of higher taxes, they remained wary of sending soldiers into an overseas war. Among a flurry of letters and telegrams Roosevelt received in advance of the broadcast was one signed by 167 students at the City College of New York asserting, “YANKS ARE NOT COMING WE WILL NOT DIE FOR WALL STREET,” a version of the “Hell, no, we won’t go” chants to be heard thirty years later during Vietnam. A group from Chicago that included a man called Louis Terkel, the birth name of the WPA Writers’ Project employee and later author Studs Terkel, sent a telegram (with a flourish that smacked of a writing professional), “WE DO NOT BEG FOR PEACE LIKE SLAVES WE DO NOT PLEAD FOR IT LIKE SERFS WE COMMAND IT.”
The president knew he had to proceed carefully. He had told Churchill that the loan of forty or fifty older destroyers the prime minister had requested would take an act of Congress, and the time was not yet right for it. Besides, he noted, it would take several weeks to prepare the ships for service by the British, so he asked Churchill to bear with him. Planes, anti-aircraft weapons, and steel he could provide.
Roosevelt expanded his military request by another $750 million three days later, on May 29. By then, the Belgians had already surrendered to the German onslaught, and the routed Allies were being evacuated from Dunkirk, on the northern coast of France, in a makeshift fleet that included some 800 pleasure yachts and fishing boats along with military vessels, as overhead the Royal Air Force fended off a hail of German bombs and shot down three Luftwaffe aircraft for every British fighter lost. The smallest craft to ferry evacuees across the fifty miles of the English Channel to Dover was an open boat, Tamzine, made of wood and less than fifteen feet long, with only oars and sails for power. More than 338,000 soldiers crossed the Channel to England and safety in the weeklong evacuation.
On June 4, when this ordeal was finally over, Churchill gave a speech to Parliament that was heard around the world. The British army had lived to fight another day, he said. “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight…'in the air. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” American opinion shifted still further toward aiding the British after the speech was broadcast—delivered this time by an impersonator using Churchill’s voice, since he didn’t have time to reprise his performance before Parliament. In its wake, Roosevelt ordered that enough rifles, artillery and shells, machine guns, ammunition, and explosives be sent immediately to England to replace the supplies left behind at Dunkirk.
By now only the remnants of the French army stood between the Germans and Paris. It had taken up defensive positions along the east-west line of the Somme River less than 100 miles north of Paris, and it was to these defenses that the Germans turned their attention. They crossed the Somme on June 5. By June 14, they had taken Paris. France surrendered a week later, and continental Europe was now under German control in an uninterrupted swath from eastern Poland to the Atlantic Ocean.
As Churchill had predicted, Mussolini declared war on both France and England, opening up a front not only at the French-Italian border but also in North Africa and East Africa, where British, French, and Italian colonies stood side by side. Roosevelt characterized Italy’s entry into the war starkly. “On this tenth day of June, 1940,” he said in a radio broadcast, “the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.”
It was indeed a “hurricane of events,” as Roosevelt called it, and in a matter of weeks it radically changed the presidential race, increasing the pressure on the president to make himself available for a third term.