BY THE FALL OF 1940, it was apparent that Adolf Hitler could not defeat Great Britain. Operation Sea Lion was postponed, and the German machine turned its attention to the East. It was equally apparent that at least for the foreseeable future Great Britain could not beat Hitler. Britain did not quite stand alone; she had the resources of the Commonwealth and Empire behind her, but these were not significant enough to make any substantial difference. As the Anglo-Axis war shifted to the Mediterranean, a kind of equilibrium had developed. The same sort of balance was being achieved in the Far East, where the Japanese had all but defeated China, but lacked the resources to carry their fight to a definitive conclusion.
Two great powers remained uncommitted, the entry of either of which might overturn this delicate balance; the first was Russia and the second was the United States. There were permutations in this; the United States was highly unlikely to join in on the side of the Axis; her ultimate entry into the war could only be on the side of the Allies. But Russia might go either way. She was already allied with Nazi Germany, and the alliance, if it was a bit uneasy, had worked fairly satisfactorily. Both partners had derived territorial and economic advantages from it. A Hitler-Stalin agreement to divide Europe and the Near East was no more unthinkable than some of the arrangements Europe had already seen. On the other hand Russia and Germany might fall out, and this is of course what did happen. Yet when Hitler did invade Russia, in June of 1941, he very nearly overran her as he had done France and all the other continental states, so that even Russia’s entry into the war did not destroy the equilibrium created in late 1940. There was the further complication of Russo-Japanese relations, which were at a low state in 1940 and 1941, and a Russo-Japanese war was not entirely out of the question.
Russo-German relations were crucial to the subsequent course of the war. The American diplomat George F. Kennan has pointed out that in 1941 the dictators were more powerful than the democracies, and if they had all managed to hang together—Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union, plus all their satellites—they would almost certainly have won the war. As it was, with Russian power remaining an imponderable even after she entered the war, the question came back to the United States. Hitler did not know a great deal about the Americans, and did his best to ignore them. Churchill was immensely conscious of the United States, and consistently wooed her good opinion. Long before Pearl Harbor, American attitudes and policies were a vital factor in the war.
As the war hovered over Europe, the United States had been determinedly neutral. The passage of the Neutrality Acts showed the depth of American distrust of the European scene: that had been in 1937. In 1938 at Lima, the Americans had led the other Western Hemisphere states in reaffirming their opposition to foreign intervention. Affairs overseas could not be totally ignored, however, and after Munich the United States became increasingly conscious of its military weakness.
In January of 1939, President Roosevelt went to Congress to get money for defense measures. The American military leaders were especially worried about the security of the Panama Canal, and the government made extensive plans to fortify the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and the Pacific approaches to the Canal as well. Congress voted $552,000,000 for defense measures. As the year wore on, the President became more and more overtly sympathetic to the democracies. In April, he wrote a joint letter to Hitler and Mussolini asking them to refrain from aggression against specific states and suggesting reduction of armaments. He was either cold-shouldered or treated to contemptuous harangues.
Unfortunately, the Neutrality Acts were couched in such a way that they did not distinguish between aggressors and victims; all belligerents were put in the same class, and this simplistic lumping together of all foreign states tied the administration’s hands when it came to encouraging the democracies. Nonetheless, the United States government permitted the French and British, particularly the former, to place large orders for aircraft with American manufacturers. To a very real extent the initial expansion that has enabled the American aerospace industry to dominate the world ever since 1941 was financed by French government contracts. Ironically, only a small portion of the orders was completed by the time of the fall of France. Some Curtiss fighters reached France, where they worked very well, and a few bombers got there; most of the orders were subsequently taken over by British purchasing commissions. The American government itself began placing orders for new aircraft. Yet in mid-summer, in spite of presidential pressure, Congress refused to modify the Neutrality Acts, and this weakened whatever effect Roosevelt’s pleas and strictures to the European powers might have had as they went to war. On September 5, 1939, the United States declared its neutrality in Europe’s new war.
From the outbreak of World War II, there began in the United States an increasingly heated debate on what role the country ought to play. Generally speaking, Americans were at least mildly sympathetic to France and Great Britain, but definitely not enough to get involved in the actual fighting. There were really three extremes: those few people who thought the United States ought to go to war on the side of the democracies; those even fewer people who thought the U. S. ought to support Germany—there was a minuscule American Nazi Party—and a much larger group who thought the United States ought to avoid any war under any circumstances. In newspapers and magazines there was a tremendous debate over the catchwords of the time: neutrality, isolation, intervention, America first, and all shades and colorations in between. There were quite violent divisions of opinion. William Randolph Hearst and the Hearst newspapers were isolationist and influential; Charles Lindbergh, one of the great heroes of the thirties, had been very impressed by the Luftwaffe and his treatment in Germany and was at least mildly pro-German. Most people were passively pro-British and pro-French and they tended to assume, with an ill-placed complacency, that Britain and France would win—without any help from them.
The fall of Poland came as a shock. Few people in the United States were very concerned about Poland, but the speed and ruthlessness of the Blitzkrieg proved alarming. Roosevelt responded by calling Congress into special session and asking it to amend the Neutrality Acts so that arms and ammunition could be sold to Britain and France—officially to all “belligerents,” but as Britain and France controlled the seas, unofficially only to them. The session became a bitter six-week-long debate on neutrality, but in the end the Neutrality Acts were modified to the extent that belligerents could buy war materials if they paid cash for them and carried them on their own ships. “Cash and carry” became a halfway house to “lend-lease,” but no more than that; Congress was determined not to acquire a financial stake in an Allied victory that might subsequently have to be redeemed.
Through the winter of 1939-40, the European scene was relatively quiet. Correspondents groused about the “phoney war,” and there was a surge of interest in and sympathy for Finland. All Americans remembered, and were frequently reminded, that Finland alone had paid off her war debts to the United States. It was not until the spring of 1940 that the war came home with a jolt. The stunning German victories in Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and above all, France, raised the specter that the Allies might not win after all.
On June 22, as the French government was surrendering to the Germans, Congress passed a National Defense Tax Bill; they raised the ceiling on the national debt to what was then an unprecedented $49 billion and introduced taxes to produce almost $1 billion a year. A month later Congress voted $37 billion to produce a “two-ocean navy,” guns and tanks for the army, and planes for the army air force and the navy. It was more money than the entire American cost of World War I. Meanwhile, Roosevelt was nominated for an unheard of third term as President.
Critics charged that Roosevelt wanted to be President forever, and rather more realistically, that he was dragging the country into war. Yet the hard facts were on the side of the growing number of interventionists. Americans watched fearfully as the Luftwaffe took on the Royal Air Force, and the support for Britain grew apace in the United States. Organizations sprang up to help the British, and the British government itself carefully played on American popular opinion. Both those who wanted to get involved in the war and those who wanted to keep out of it now agreed that the best way to achieve their ends was to bolster Great Britain. Thus, when Roosevelt traded Britain fifty overage destroyers for ninety-nine-year leases on base sites in the Western Hemisphere—an act that was technically illegal—there was not as great opposition as might have been expected.
It became increasingly obvious that just helping Britain might not be enough. In September of 1940, after lengthy and acrimonious debate, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act, the first peacetime draft in the history of the United States. “Selective Service” was just what the name implied; it was not a universal conscription such as was known in France or Germany. The act called for the registration of all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six, and the training, for one year, of 1,200,000 soldiers plus another 800,000 reserves. In October, 16,000,000 men registered, and at the end of the month the first draftees were inducted. For a while the army was short of everything but bodies, but slowly the gears began to mesh. The Americans were slow to arm, but once they hit their stride, there would not be another country in the world capable of touching them, and American industrial and military might became one of the key elements in the entire war.
Roosevelt was re-elected in November. In January, he presented his annual State of the Union message to Congress, and it was at this point that he enunciated the famous “four freedoms”—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—that were ultimately to become the guiding principles for which the still-neutral United States and its future allies would fight the war. Like most Utopian ideals, they were neither fully honored nor attained, yet that made them no less worth fighting for, and Roosevelt, like Churchill, was concerned that the war be perceived not as another sordid game of power politics, but as a struggle between good and evil. Only later on, when the victorious Allies got to the concentration camps, would they fully realize just how evil that evil had been.
During the last winter of peace in America, the government set up most of the machinery to administer the war. A huge number of agencies and offices began to transform the United States into what Roosevelt had asked for, the “arsenal of democracy.” Aid to Britain became more overt, and was denounced by the Germans as “moral aggression.” It was not in Germany’s interest to bring about a war with the United States, however, and the Germans eventually put up with considerable provocation and ultimately, overtly belligerent acts without a declaration of war.
In March of 1941, the United States took another step forward, when Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act. Britain could not indefinitely afford to “cash and carry”; the new act empowered the President to lease or provide goods and services to any nation whose defense he thought vital to the defense of the United States. This was almost but not quite a declaration of war. Through the spring the pace accelerated. Axis ships in American ports were seized at the end of March. A week later, the United States government announced it was taking over Greenland as a caretaker for Denmark, whose territory it officially was. The next day, the government allowed American shipping into the Red Sea, making it easier for American goods to reach the British fighting in Egypt. In May, fifty oil tankers were transferred to Britain, and ships belonging to Vichy France were seized. In May 21, a German U-boat torpedoed the freighter Robin Moor, and a week later the President proclaimed a state of unlimited national emergency. Axis credits were frozen, and consulates were closed in June. In July, American troops replaced the British garrison in Iceland.
There was a great deal of domestic opposition. The Lend-Lease Act especially was bitterly attacked, and isolationists saw it as a blank check by which Roosevelt could take the country into war. The strength of the opposition was clearly revealed in the debate over the renewal of the draft. The Selective Service Act of 1940 had been passed for one year. In August of 1941, it came up for reconsideration; the administration badly wanted it passed. In that month, the Germans were advancing toward Leningrad and into the Ukraine, the Japanese were occupying French Indochina, Roosevelt and Churchill met off Newfoundland to sign the Atlantic Charter—and the Selective Service Act passed the House of Representatives by a margin of one vote.
At Placentia Bay in Newfoundland, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met and agreed on their war aims. Both had former connections with their respective navies, both arrived by ship, the President aboard the U. S. S. Augusta, a graceful, spick-and-span heavy cruiser, the Prime Minister aboard the battle-scarred Prince of Wales. The two leaders hit it off immediately and, in the course of several meetings, produced a basic agreement that Germany was their primary enemy. They also produced the Atlantic Charter, a statement of war aims that eventually evolved into the charter of the United Nations.
The Charter had its intellectual origins in both the old Fourteen Points of Woodrow Wilson, and the New Deal of President Roosevelt; rather more of it was American than British, but it was the Americans who had yet to be brought into the war and who had to be made to see that it must be fought. The two leaders announced that their countries sought no aggrandizement and no territory contrary to the wishes of peoples involved, that they respected the rights of states to choose their own form of government, and that they would restore sovereign status to those countries deprived of it. They favored equality of economic opportunity, access to raw materials, friendly cooperation. They incorporated Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, and ended with an explicit statement that only when the “Nazi tyranny” was destroyed could these things be achieved. The phrase about Nazi tyranny was Churchill’s, and he wondered if Roosevelt would accept it; the President decided that Americans were ready for it, and were coming to recognize that if they wanted the world they said they wanted, they would sooner or later have to fight for it.
It turned out to be sooner. The United States Navy was already at war, though it had not yet been declared. The logic of events was dictating that the United States could no longer stand aloof. If the Americans were going to provide all aid short of war to Great Britain, it made no sense for them to fill up ships with materials, and then see those ships sunk in the Atlantic because the British were critically short of escort vessels. Even before the Newfoundland meeting, the navy was escorting convoys through the Western Atlantic as far as Iceland, where they were picked up by the Royal Navy. This placed the Germans in a considerable dilemma; officially they wished to avoid infringing American neutrality, but on the high seas that became more and more difficult. American destroyers were picking up German U-boats and shadowing them until they could call in British boats for the kill. Some sort of collision was inevitable.
On September 4, the U. S. S. Greer received a signal from a British patrol plane that there was a submarine ahead. Greer picked up the contact and held it for three hours: she made no attacks, but the British plane dropped depth charges on the sub. Finally, the U-boat fired a torpedo at Greer; it missed, and Greer went in to attack with depth charges. They missed too, but now both sides had exchanged shots. The respective governments expressed their indignation, and Roosevelt announced that the Germans were little more than pirates, and from now on American ships would shoot on sight. It is easier to continue fighting than to start it, and public opinion in the United States was on the whole supportive of the tough line, whatever the legal niceties of the matter. On October 16, U. S. S. Kearney was hit by a torpedo in the middle of a wolf-pack attack on the convoy she was escorting, but she made it to Iceland. Then on October 31, the Reuben James, an old four-stack destroyer, was hit and sunk 600 miles west of Iceland.
The Congressional response was an alteration of the Neutrality Acts. By clear, though certainly not overwhelming, majorities, both houses of Congress amended the acts so that American merchant ships might be armed, and declared that they might now sail into war zones. Congress also extended a $1 billion Lend-Lease credit to the Soviet Union.
The German government still chose not to respond to what was in fact American belligerence. Both parties had now committed overt acts of war against each other. In a court of law, the United States would have been declared the aggressor against Nazi Germany, and the U. S. Navy in the Atlantic was on a war footing; in fact, it was doing more in 1941 than it would be able to do in 1942, after it became officially involved, because then almost all its efforts were of necessity thrown into the desperate fight to stop the Japanese.
The United States and Germany were at war, and yet they were not at war. Sailors from the Atlantic convoys came back to a country that still pretended it was at peace. The last six months of 1941—at least until December—were a sort of twilight zone, and it was in the interest of neither party to alter the status quo. Roosevelt was doing all he could, and the domestic opposition had already branded him a warmonger. War industry had brought the United States finally and fully out of the Depression; few people really wanted to go any farther than that. It was extremely unlikely that the American public could be carried into the war on behalf of a couple of sunken destroyers; too many Americans would charge that the destroyers should not have been where they were anyway.
If the United States were to go to war, some massive overt shock was required. But Hitler was deeply embroiled in Russia, with his invincible armies marching on Moscow. In the first week of December of 1941, the Wehrmacht was closing in for the kill in Russia. Americans were concerned bystanders, but most of them still thought it was not their war.