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Writing World War II



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About The Author

Sylvie Murray

Sylvie Murray teaches American history at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia.  Robert Johnston is a professor of history at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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EXCERPT

Writing World War II (Chapter 1)1In The Name of National Security

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a committed internationalist and a humanitarian, but he was also a realist, a pragmatist, who knew full well the limitations imposed by congressional and public opinion. His abiding faith in Christian and humanitarian ideals was expressed, for instance, in his annual message to Congress on January 4, 1939: "There comes a time in the affairs of men when they must prepare to defend, not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments and their very civilization are founded." Two years later, as he was about to embark on his fight for congressional approval of the Lend-Lease bill, he offered in a stirring speech to Congress the memorable vision of "a world founded upon four essential human freedoms"--the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear--that he pledged to secure "everywhere in the world." But these idealistic calls for action, along with the humanitarian ideals that motivated them and the commitment to international responsibility that they required, took a backseat prior to U.S. involvement. As noted by the historian Lawrence Levine, in the Four Freedoms speech, the president "was clearly endeavoring to supplement the nation's practical need for security against Axis aggression--which thus far had been his emphasis--with a vision of the kind of world 'attainable in our own time and generation.' It was still another attempt to persuade the American people to see the current wars in Europe and Asia in larger perspective." The "narrower" perspective that dominated the pre-Pearl Harbor period was more pragmatic than idealistic. As summarized by the historian Michael Sherry, "Throughout 1940, Roosevelt stressed the nature of modern warfare more than the evil of fascism or the virtue of nations resisting it. Issuing little uplifting Wilsonian rhetoric, he instead offered a drumbeat about the cold realities of the world."1 In Roosevelt's public addresses, as in the country's response to the atrocities committed by the fascist and militarist regimes abroad, national security and the national interest occupied center stage.

Cognizant of the strong congressional determination to avoid multilateral entanglements, the president steered a cautious course on international matters. The Senate's refusal in 1919 to join the League of Nations--the centerpiece of Woodrow Wilson's idealistic vision of international cooperation--set the tone for the independent foreign policy carried out by the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. During Roosevelt's first term in office, Congress reasserted its intention not to get dragged into another European war. In 1930, the award-winning film All Quiet on the Western Front (based on the novel written by a German veteran, Erich Maria Remarque) had vividly recalled the brutality and senselessness of the Great War of 1914-1918. The 1934 bestselling exposé Merchants of Death, and sensationalized congressional hearings chaired by the North Dakota senator Gerald Nye in 1934-1936, had drawn attention to the role of profiteering bankers and munitions makers in drawing the United States into the conflict. Mistrust for multilateral commitments was fed by the inability of European countries, in the midst of the economic recession, to pay their World War I debts. As a result, Congress passed in 1934 the Johnson Debt Default Act, which prohibited the extension of private or public loans to countries in default on their debt payments. The Neutrality Laws adopted in the second half of the 1930s--which banned the sale of arms (1935) and the extension of loans (1936) to nations at war, and required belligerents trading with the United States to pay cash for the goods they purchased and to transport them on non-U.S. ships (1937)--imposed significant restrictions on the nation's ability to intervene, indirectly, in international conflicts. Hence, as tensions abroad mounted, and as Congress was determined to avoid repeating the "mistakes" of World War I, the president found himself on the defensive and incapable of exercising the strong leadership on which he had thrived in his first years in office.2

In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria; in October it occupied western Czechoslovakia, followed by the rest of that country in March 1939; and it invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. After France and Britain declared war on Germany two days later, Roosevelt sought to build up America's military capability and assist the European powers struggling to stop Hitler. This dual goal took on renewed urgency when the German mechanized land forces, supported by the tactical aircraft of the powerful Luftwaffe, rolled through Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940, then through Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France in May. In a stunning succession of events, the Allies withdrew their troops (principally British) from the European continent in an emergency retreat at Dunkirk, France, in the last days of May; Italy entered the war on June 10; and France capitulated on June 22. After the fall of France and during the crucial year before Hitler turned against the Soviet Union in violation of the nonaggression pact he had signed with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in August 1939, Britain, under the leadership of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, stood alone among the European powers to bear the brunt of German aggression. It was also during this year that the United States both lent its support to Britain--its European friend and "neighbor," as Roosevelt liked to say--and clung firmly to its nonbelligerent status. Repeal of the arms embargo in October 1939 was a critical first step toward striking that balance (belligerents could now purchase arms as well as other supplies on a cash-and-carry basis). Roosevelt's appointment of two ardent interventionists and prominent Republicans to his cabinet in June 1940--the former secretary of state Henry L. Stimson as secretary of war and the 1936 vice presidential nominee Frank Knox as secretary of the navy--signaled his determination to win bipartisan support for a course of action that remained extremely controversial. While the exchange of American World War I destroyers for British naval bases in August 1940 was mostly symbolic, the passage of the Lend-Lease Act has rightly been seen as a turning point in allowing Roosevelt to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the Neutrality and Johnson acts. As Roosevelt explained in a radio broadcast in December 1940, when he first suggested the idea, the unorthodox measure would allow the country to provide war material to the Allies unobstructed by "the dollar sign." Its adoption in March 1941 sealed the United States' commitment to the Allies.

President Roosevelt's effort to convince the nation, and Congress, that aid to Britain was in the American interest can be traced through his public speeches and addresses.3 As Michael Sherry has rightly pointed out, the development of air power, and what the president perceived as the "annihilation of time and space" brought about by new technology, was crucial to his conviction that the oceans no longer provided "adequate defensive barriers." In a message to Congress on May 16, 1940, he urged the building of at least fifty thousand planes a year. The realist tone of his public warnings reflected a keen sense of American vulnerability and a concern that his compatriots were oblivious to the danger. That Roosevelt's preoccupation with national and hemispheric security overshadowed his humanitarian impulse is especially noticeable in radio addresses delivered at key moments in the unfolding European war, on September 3, 1939, and May 10, 1940. The first was a Fireside Chat, the second a broadcast speech to the delegates of the Pan American Scientific Congress assembled in Washington. The right of self-government, the protection of small nations, and the restoration of peace and democracy abroad, which would figure prominently in the joint declaration of war aims that Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were to adopt in August 1941, are noticeably absent from these addresses. Rather, it was imperative to "keep war from our own firesides," as the president stated in September. Likewise, on May 10 he warned against the danger that "forces of arms" present to democracy.

FDR's emphasis was on protecting the Americas, now "the guardian of Western culture, the protector of Christian civilization," from potential aggressors. "The inheritance which we had hoped to share with every nation of the world is, for the moment, left largely in our keeping: and it is our compelling duty to guard and enrich that legacy, to preserve it for a world which must be reborn from the ashes of the present disaster." A potential attack on the Americas represented a new historical possibility, he stressed. Speaking "in terms of the moving of men and guns and planes and bombs, every single acre--every hectare--in all the Americas from the Arctic to the Antarctic is closer to the home of modern conquerors and the scenes of the attacks in Europe than was ever the case in those episodes of history that we read about." The same themes--"the dangers which confront us," the need for "national protection," the "lightning attacks [that] are a part of the new technique of modern war," and the imperative "to face the facts realistically"--dominated the president's address to Congress as he requested (and was granted) appropriations for national defense in the following days. Still, in his Fireside Chat of May 26, all that the president could offer to the civilian populations of Europe who "are now moving, running from their homes to escape bombs and shells and fire and machine gunning, without shelter, and almost wholly without food" was compassion, and a Hooverian call for Americans to give to the Red Cross. This humanitarian appeal was, according to FDR's biographer Kenneth Davis, "a last-minute tacked-on preliminary to his prepared text," which, like all others from this time period, addressed the need for Americans to ensure their national and hemispheric security, not to assume international responsibility.4

In the summer and fall of 1940, President Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented third term. During this unusual campaign, Congress adopted the nation's first peacetime draft, which Roosevelt's Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, also supported. The Selective Training and Service Act, which passed by just one vote in the House of Representatives, was a limited measure and a defensive one: compulsory service was limited to a maximum of one year, and draftees were to serve in the Western Hemisphere or in U.S. territories only. These restrictions would be lifted only after the country entered the war as a belligerent. For now, it was necessary to "fend off war from our shores" and "prevent our land from becoming a victim of aggression," stated Roosevelt on September 16. "It is a program obviously of defensive preparation and of defensive preparation only," emphasized the president in a radio address delivered on the first registration day, October 16. This statement was in line with the pledge he made in his Boston campaign speech of October 30--"Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars"--and it was reflective of public opinion, which was still deeply ambivalent about intervention abroad, even if indirect.

After the November election, Roosevelt assumed a more aggressive posture and pushed Americans to a fuller embrace of their responsibilities to their British "neighbors," namely, through the Lend-Lease Act. In the December 17 press conference, when Roosevelt first discussed the program, the rationale he gave was clearly emphasizing the "selfish"--a term he used three times--interest of the United States in "doing everything to help the British Empire to defend itself." This theme is echoed in his "Arsenal of Democracy" radio address of December 29, Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat following his reelection. He first pressed upon his audience the "undeniable threat" posed by the expansionist and belligerent Axis states: "The Nazi masters of Germany have made it clear that they intend not only to dominate all life and thought in their own country, but also to enslave the whole of Europe, and then to use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world." Then he insisted that indirect intervention through aid to Britain would increase the likelihood the United States could stay out of the war. Throughout the battle over the Lend-Lease Act, Roosevelt continued to press its critical importance for national security rather than international responsibility.

In July 1941, in the introduction he wrote to Samuel Rosenman's published collection of his papers and addresses, the president was blunt about the relative importance he attributed to self-interest in his program of aid to Britain. In words that echoed his May 27, 1941, radio address announcing an "unlimited national emergency," he explained: "The course that the American people have now taken for themselves in their 'all-out' aid to Great Britain and other nations resisting the aggression of dictators, is a course prompted fundamentally by hard-headed self-interest and self-concern. Our policy is not based primarily on a desire to preserve democracy for the rest of the world. It is based primarily on a desire to protect the United States and the Western Hemisphere from the effects of a Nazi victory upon ourselves and upon our children."5

 

As Roosevelt was penning these words, the effects of Nazi occupation were brutally felt by European populations, and especially by the European Jewry, who had been singled out for annihilation by Hitler. Although the "Final Solution" policy of mass extermination would not be officially adopted until January 1942, Jews under Nazi control suffered escalating violence. During the pogroms of the "Night of Broken Glass" (Kristallnacht) on November 9-10, 1938, Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses were destroyed, ninety-one Jews were murdered, and twenty-six thousand were arrested and deported to concentration camps. Many Jewish families subsequently sought refuge beyond the borders of Greater Germany, which by then included Austria and Czechoslovakia. The Nazi brutality intensified after the invasion of Poland in September 1939 with the forced relocation of Jews to ghettos and labor camps where death by starvation, disease, and beatings took the lives of thousands. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, special killing squads began their gruesome work, and by the fall, secret experiments were conducted to devise efficient methods for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands, eventually millions, of Jews. During the critical period between the escalation of violence in 1938 and the fall of 1941, when the Nazi regime stopped issuing exit visas to the Jewish population under its control, the question of how to respond to the refugee crisis posed itself to the rest of the world with pressing urgency.

"The high point of American generosity toward refugees," noted the historian David Wyman, was in the eighteen months between the annexation of Austria in March 1938 and the beginning of the war, when the United States fully used its German and Austrian immigration quotas and provided haven to sixty thousand refugees.6 On March 25, Roosevelt had called for an international conference on the refugee crisis. Although no substantial action came out of the gathering of thirty-two nations in Évian, France, in July, the president had then pledged to accept refugees up to the quota limits, and despite the unemployment crisis and pressures from restrictionist groups, he momentarily kept his promise. In mid-November, a few days after Kristallnacht, the president also announced in a press conference his administration's decision to renew the visitor's visas of approximately twenty thousand Germans who were in the United States at the time. The event offered a rare instance when the president publicly spoke of his humanitarian obligation to act on behalf of Hitler's victims. "I don't know, from the point of view of humanity," he told reporters, "that we have a right to put them on a ship and send them back to Germany under the present conditions...It would be a cruel and inhuman thing to compel them to leave here." More typical of his response to the refugee crisis was the note he scribbled in the margin of a memo asking for his position on the Wagner-Rogers bill for refugee children in June 1939: "File--No Action." The bill, which would have allowed entry to ten thousand Jewish children outside the quota limit in 1939 and again in 1940, died in committee.7

More could have been done to assist refugees had the quotas been increased, but Congress and public opinion were explicitly hostile to any relaxation of immigration laws. In the period between 1930 and 1938, the German quota had remained underutilized, partly as a response to economic anxieties. A strong nativist sentiment dating back to the turn of the century and a resurgence of antisemitism in the 1930s further explain the fierce determination to close the golden doors to Jewish refugees in those years. As Deborah Lipstadt has noted, the American press responded with increasing outrage and horror to the mounting evidence of German brutality, and the fact that the violence was directed at the German Jews did not escape notice, but it did not mitigate the strong anti-immigration sentiment. The influential New York Times, in spite of its Jewish ownership and readership, buried the news of antisemitic violence in its inside pages.8 Roosevelt was acutely aware of the nuances in public opinion and limited himself to a policy of small gestures. His pragmatic response, wrote Robert Dallek, an otherwise sympathetic observer of the president's conduct of foreign policy, amounted to a failure of moral leadership: "It is difficult to escape the feeling that a sustained call by FDR for allowing Nazi victims to come to the United States in greater numbers might have mobilized the country's more humane instincts. It was something that surely must have occurred to Roosevelt. But his failure to act upon it suggests that the Jewish dilemma did not command a very high priority in his mind." As in the case of his decision to support the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942, saving Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution "required him to take a stand on grounds of principle against prevailing political, military and/or foreign opinion. But this he would not do."9

In late January 1940, responsibility for the State Department's visa section was given to Breckinridge Long when he was appointed assistant secretary of state for special problems. Long, the former ambassador to Rome, was an antisemite who found Mein Kampf "eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of Communism and chaos." He made it a personal crusade to completely halt the trickle of refugees to the United States, and he largely succeeded; in 1940 the quotas of the countries of refugee origin were only 53 percent filled.10 As Nazi Germany extended its control over large parts of Western Europe, a new argument was added to support increased restrictions on the flow of refugees: national security. As explained by the historian Harry Feingold, the remarkable charge that Hitler's victims could pose as his agents abroad had gained widespread currency by then. "Why would the Nazis try to rid themselves of a particularly rich pool of skilled labor during wartime if not for the purpose of infiltrating agents into the receiving countries? This line of reasoning, first heard in London in September 1939, was soon echoed in France, and became, in 1940, the rallying cry of all those opposed to a more active rescue effort."11 It resonated in the American press. "The fall of Europe was attributed to its having been betrayed by those to whom it had offered refuge," noted Deborah Lipstadt. Mainstream publications such as The Saturday Evening Post carried articles about Nazi agents disguised as refugees; The New York Times attributed the fall of Norway to "a fifth column composed of Germans who had been brought to the country orphans after World War I."12 These arguments were used by Long to legitimize the erection, in the summer and fall of 1940, of "paper walls" that made it all but impossible for refugees to leave Europe. It also explained the regulation adopted in June 1941 that denied a visa to any immigrant who had close relatives in occupied Europe. "According to the Department," noted Feingold, "there was evidence that refugees were being coerced to become agents for Germany by holding relatives as hostages."13 These arguments were inhumanely absurd, as pointed out by pro-refugee groups at the time, but they continued to underpin public policy.

The concern for national security was central to Roosevelt's public rhetoric and policies in the critical twenty-seven months following the declarations of war in Europe. It infused Roosevelt's public plea for the nation to prepare itself militarily to block the advance of Nazi Germany should Britain fail at the task. The same argument was also used to tighten refugee policies at a time when the victims of Nazi oppression desperately needed to leave the Continent. Only once did Roosevelt come close to suggesting publicly that he embraced the view that Jewish refugees might threaten American national security. In his May 26 Fireside Chat, he warned against "the Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery." The president probably had in mind here his anti-interventionist opponents, who in the summer of 1940 were vigorously challenging his attempt to secure indirect assistance for Britain. But while his intentions may remain unclear, the fact remains that the two salient issues of the pre-Pearl Harbor stage of the war--the need to stop the advance of Hitler and the refugee question--did not receive comparable attention on the part of the president: the former was considered an executive priority, while the latter went ignored by Roosevelt, who was content to leave it to the State Department.

Roosevelt's vision of what was at stake in World War II, as illustrated in his Four Freedoms speech, no doubt included the noble principles of self-determination and defense of human rights. But the democratic and humanitarian rhetoric that came to dominate official representations of the war's goals in 1942 and afterward was not representative of the president's public pronouncements prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course it should surprise no one that the national interest and security were prominent in Roosevelt's justification of the need to intervene in the European conflict during that time period. Very seldom does a country go to war for altruistic reasons.

WRITING WORLD WAR II Copyright © 2011 by Sylvie Murray

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