While America reeled from the Depression in the 1930s, Germany lay in ruins. After being defeated in World War I, the Germans were forced to make reparations (huge payments) to the allied victors. Inflation struck so hard that the nation’s currency became nearly worthless. The Germans blamed the reparations for their plight.
One German politician took advantage of the discontent. Adolf Hitler was a hotheaded extremist who tried to overthrow the government in 1923. His efforts landed him in jail for eight months. During this time, he wrote a book titled Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”). It detailed his plans for extermination of Jews, communists, liberals, and capitalists. The few Americans who read Mein Kampf dismissed it as the work of a lunatic. Germans, however, increasingly rallied behind him. Ten years after Hitler’s failed overthrow attempt, he became chancellor of Germany.
Hitler built up Germany’s military forces. In 1936, he sent troops into the Rhineland, a demilitarized area of western Germany. This action violated the Versailles Treaty, which Germany had signed at the end of World War I. Britain, France, and the United States, the major allied nations who had defeated Germany in World War I, did nothing to stop him.
The German dictator was not alone in his militarism. Benito Mussolini, Italy’s dictator, sent troops to take over the African nation of Ethiopia. Ethiopian leader Haile Selaisse pleaded with the League of Nations, an international peacekeeping organization, for help. The League did nothing.
In 1931, Japan invaded the northeastern Chinese province of Manchuria. It set up the state of Manchukuo, a government that most other nations did not consider valid. By 1937, Japan had invaded Nanking and had slaughtered one hundred thousand Chinese. The Allies did not try to stop this aggression.
A grisly civil war engulfed Spain in 1936. Rebel forces backed by Germany and Italy, and led by Francisco Franco, moved to topple the liberal government. Among major nations only the Soviet Union openly supported the liberals. However, volunteers from around the world, including American writer Ernest Hemingway, came to their aid. These international soldiers often were great in idealism, but poor in military skills.
The Germans used Spain as a testing ground for their newest weapons. They ruthlessly destroyed Spanish towns and villages. In 1939, Spain fell to Franco’s Fascists.
Britain and France did not fight the conquerors. Instead, the Allies cooperated with them. In 1938, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, the western section of what is now the Czech Republic.
Representatives of Britain, France, Italy, and Germany (but not Czechoslovakia) met in Munich, Germany, to discuss the region’s fate. When the conference ended, the Germans had gained the province without firing a shot. Hitler falsely claimed that he wanted no more territory. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain displayed the Munich Treaty and declared that he had achieved “peace in our time.”1
In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt saw the world events unfolding. He was burdened by the Depression at home, yet Roosevelt was preparing for what appeared to be inevitable world conflict.
“A Neutral Nation”
Many Americans in the 1930s sought to keep America out of world conflicts. They included aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, labor leader John L. Lewis, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Business magnate Joseph Kennedy, father of the future Democratic president, opposed American involvement in a European war. So did Republicans Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg.
So, apparently, did Franklin Roosevelt. “I hate war,” the president said in 1936. “I shall pass unnumbered hours, thinking and planning how war may be kept from this nation.”2
Congress, like the president, appeared to favor neutrality. Laws banned United States ships from war zones and forbade citizens from traveling on belligerent ships. In 1937, Congress instituted a “cash and carry” policy. Foreign belligerent nations could purchase vital products such as oil, steel, or rubber—if they paid in cash and carried them off in their own ships.
Roosevelt, however, saw the dangers of noninvolvement. He asked Congress for increased funds for national defense. Congress refused. He tried to get Congress to rewrite the Neutrality Act after the king and queen of England visited the United States in the summer of 1939. Congress declined to change the act.
While Congress refrained from acting, other countries moved. Germany and Russia signed a five-year nonaggression pact in August 1939. The following month, Germany invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France declared war on the Germans. World War II had begun.
“This nation will remain a neutral nation,” Roosevelt said during a fireside chat on September 3, 1939. He added that he was not asking Americans to be neutral in their thoughts.3 Roosevelt preached neutrality while secretly following a pro-British course. First, however, there was an election to be won.
“Better a 3rd Termer”
The 1940 presidential election proved to be an unusual one. Franklin D. Roosevelt fought tradition as much as he fought any Republican foe.
Republicans fielded three youthful challengers. Ohio Senator Robert Taft represented the party’s conservatives. Thomas Dewey, a New York City prosecutor, won the early primary elections and was the choice of most Americans in polls. Convention delegates, however, chose an unlikely candidate.
Indiana-born Wendell Willkie had never held public office. A Wall Street lawyer and president of a utility company, Willkie was a delegate to the 1924 Democratic convention. The 1939 edition of Who’s Who in America listed him as a Democrat. Local electric power companies, many of whom feared government companies would put them out of business, were strong Willkie supporters. Willkie secured the Republican nomination on the sixth ballot.
Who would run for the Democrats? Roosevelt, if he ran, would be unbeatable. But if he ran, he would be breaking a 150-year-old tradition. Since the days of George Washington, no American president had served a third term in office. When former President Theodore Roosevelt sought a third nonconsecutive term in 1912, voters rejected him.
Franklin Roosevelt did not announce plans for a third term. At the same time, he did not choose a successor. Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins was his closest cabinet ally, but his health ruled him out. Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, sought the presidency. Roosevelt, who never liked Garner much anyway, refused to support the Texan. James Farley, FDR’s postmaster general and former campaign manager, sought the presidency for himself. His boss refused to recommend him for it.
Roosevelt carried the suspense to the Chicago stadium. Then a groundswell of support for him began. Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly ordered a worker to lead cheers for the president. Suddenly a voice came over the stadium’s loudspeakers shouting, “We want Roosevelt! Illinois wants Roosevelt! America wants Roosevelt!” The delegates took up the cry, and Roosevelt once again swept to the Democratic nomination.
Republicans criticized Roosevelt for seeking to break the two-term tradition. An editorial in the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune commented, “The Democratic convention has nominated for a third term a man who almost established a dictatorship in his second.”4 The Democrats countered, “Better a 3rd Termer than a 3rd Rater.”5
Another factor influenced the election. Germany overran Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands in early 1940. By midsummer, France had fallen. Many Americans voters felt it was no time to change political leadership.
Roosevelt did not wait for the election to take action on the war. In September 1940, he struck a deal with Britain. The United States delivered fifty World War I-era destroyers to Britain in return for leases to British bases in the Western Hemisphere.
The November vote followed economic lines. Willkie generally did well among middle- and upper-income voters, but Roosevelt swept the low-income votes. Willkie did better against FDR than either Hoover or Landon, but Roosevelt still carried 55 percent of the popular vote.
“Air Raid . . . This Is No Drill”
With the election over, Roosevelt shed any pretense of neutrality. During a December 29 fireside chat, he called for factory owners “to put every ounce of effort into producing . . . munitions swiftly and without stint.” The conversion to a wartime economy was vital, he said. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”6
Even before the election, Roosevelt started a military buildup. He authorized twelve billion dollars in defense spending in the summer of 1940—four times as much money as the government had allotted for relief and public works during any preceding year.
Guns and tanks, not consumer goods, rolled off assembly lines. Chrysler spent $33.5 million to build tanks. General Motors and other companies made more than one hundred thousand machine guns. Roosevelt called for the construction of fifty thousand warplanes. Most of these weapons went to the British war effort against Hitler’s Nazis. Roosevelt kept the United States out of combat, even after the German navy sank American ships.
However, the military buildup did not bring an instant end to the Depression. More than 5 million people—nearly 10 percent of the workforce—still were unemployed in 1941. That unemployment, however, would not last. Workers began toiling around the clock building ships, tanks, and planes. Army bases grew up throughout the country to house soldiers preparing for combat. These bases provided other jobs to nearby residents.
At 8:00 a.m. on December 7, Captain Logan C. Ramsey telegraphed a message: “Air raid . . . Pearl Harbor . . . This is no drill.”7 A tidal wave of more than three hundred fifty Japanese warplanes was shelling America’s Pacific fleet at the Hawaii naval base. The Japanese hit eighteen United States ships, destroyed or damaged more than two hundred aircraft, and killed more than twenty-four hundred Americans.
Now there could be no neutrality. The next day Roosevelt declared that “December 7, 1941” was “a date which will live in infamy.”8 Moments later, Congress declared war on Japan. Similar declarations would follow against Germany and Italy.
Thousands of young men and women volunteered for the armed forces after the war declaration. In just months, millions of other young men would be drafted into the military. Any able-bodied adult not in uniform was needed for work in the nation’s defense plants. Roosevelt called for seven-day weeks in every war industry, including the production of raw materials. New plants would be built, and old ones enlarged.
The Pearl Harbor raid and the start of World War II helped put an end to the Great Depression. A new, deadlier, and even grimmer challenge now faced Americans.