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1: Before Pearl
SEPTEMBER 1939–DECEMBER 1941
There has probably never been a time of such
confused prophecy, no time when the nation
has been led so frantically in so many
directions at once.
—THE NEW YORKER, JUNE 1940
When the war in Europe began in September 1939, it seemed unlikely that the conflict would provoke dramatic changes in American society. Americans were united in their desire to avoid involvement in the fighting; public opinion polls revealed that more than 80 percent of the nation’s voters opposed entry into the war—a number that would remain remarkably stable over the following two years.
In fact, many Americans had spent the past two decades resolutely ignoring the rest of the world. “Throughout most of my childhood there had always been war,” recalled Russell Baker, then a teenager growing up in Baltimore. “Dimly, I had been aware through all those years that worlds were burning, but they seemed far away. It wasn’t my world that was on fire, nor was it ever likely to be, or so I thought. Sheltered by two great oceans, America seemed impregnable. I was like a person on a summer night seeing heat lightning far out on the horizon and murmuring, ‘Must be a bad storm way over there someplace.’ It was not my storm.”
Americans’ views of the European conflict also were colored by memories of the nation’s participation in the First World War. Anyone over thirty years old could remember when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, an experience that most Americans came to regard as a mistake. Widely publicized congressional hearings in the mid-1930s strengthened the popular perception that the Wilson administration had entered the war at the behest of bankers and arms merchants eager to protect their loans and profits; accordingly, between 1935 and 1937 Congress passed a series of measures known collectively as the Neutrality Acts, which prohibited American citizens from selling “arms, ammunition, or implements of war” to belligerent nations, or making loans to their governments, or traveling on ships of nations at war.
In the autumn of 1939, the embargo on American arms sales clearly favored Nazi Germany, which possessed an impressive advantage in military hardware over France and Britain. Most Americans, however, favored the Allied cause, partly because they believed that a victorious Hitler would sooner or later launch a war against the United States, but also because they had no illusions about the brutal nature of the Nazi regime. “There are few save propagandists and crackpots,” observed the Baltimore Sun, “who regard the ethics of Herr Hitler and his entourage with anything but a contempt which frequently becomes loathing.”
To redress the balance, Roosevelt asked Congress to repeal the ban on arms sales. The president had promised the American people that there would be “no blackout of peace” in the United States, and strengthening Britain and France seemed to provide the best chance of keeping the United States out of the war. In mid-September 1939, more than 60 percent of Americans supported arms sales to the Allies—on a cash-and-carry basis, to avoid endangering American lives, ships, and investments—largely because they hoped the increased production of war material would give a boost to the American economy, still plagued by high unemployment and sluggish economic growth despite six years of New Deal initiatives.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s proposal to repeal the arms ban ran into the determined opposition of a vocal minority of congressmen (primarily from the Midwest), who warned that selling weapons to the Allies would drag the nation into the war by provoking retaliation by Germany. “I frankly question,” said Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, “whether we can become an arsenal for one belligerent without being the target for the other.” They were backed by a well-organized lobbying campaign that flooded legislative offices with letters, petitions, and telegrams, including a single-day record of 487,000 pieces of mail (mostly from women and clergymen) on September 19. Protests on Capitol Hill grew so impassioned that the Department of Justice dispatched a half dozen FBI agents to protect pro-repeal congressmen against demonstrators.
While Congress debated cash-and-carry, news of the war brought the world suddenly very close at hand to Americans. Newspapers carried page after page of the latest dispatches from Europe. Radio, which had been in its infancy in 1917, became a constant companion—“the box we live in,” wrote one observer—and reports of the Wehrmacht’s crushing victories in Poland gave rise to a new and disturbing form of entertainment known as a radio sandwich: “two bars of music with an ominous voice in between.” Even programs of Muzak in elevators interrupted the usual soothing selections from Victor Herbert with bulletins on the war.
As Americans grew increasingly aware that events abroad could become the determining factor in their immediate destinies, a brief moment of panic ensued. Housewives began to hoard food, especially sugar. Towns up and down the East Coast reported sightings of submarines, and one group of fishermen two hundred miles off the coast of Massachusetts swore that “a big, gray plane with swastikas on its wings had circled their fleet twice before putting back for Europe.” In department stores, mothers snatched toy pistols and soldiers out of their children’s hands, and substituted footballs or a Wizard of Oz doll instead.
“We try to reconcile the cheerful and familiar details of our life with news that may well mean the end of all of them, but it is too soon,” noted the New Yorker. “The ten million men who will die are still an arbitrary figure, an estimate from another war; the children who will be starved or bombed belong to people we can never know, the bombs themselves will fall only on strange names on a map.” In fact, a Rand McNally spokesman reported that in the first twenty-four hours of the war, the company sold more maps in the United States than it had since 1918; Macy’s book department in downtown Manhattan sold more maps than in any week in the store’s history.
On Wall Street, investment firms encouraged their customers to buy shares of steel companies. “The machines of war are being continually destroyed,” one financier observed, “and replacements use up tremendous additional quantities of steel.” Others predicted similar opportunities amid the wartime dislocations of trade. “Unquestionably, war is going to require a lot of imports into England and France,” noted one New York businessman, “and that’s going to mean business here and all over the United States. Factories are going to boom and smoke’s going to come out of stacks. That is, if we’re allowed to ship.”
And they were. In early October, three weeks of congressional debate ended with both houses approving repeal of the arms embargo by margins of nearly two to one. By that time, any sense of urgency had vanished as the fighting in Europe slowed to a standstill. For the next six months, military operations paused while the German high command completed its preparations for the invasion of western Europe. Americans relaxed. “The fatalistic feeling that if a great war came we would inevitably be drawn into it has subsided,” reported columnist Ernest Lindley.
Then the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg tore through Europe. Norway and Denmark fell in April. In May, German troops slashed through the Netherlands and Belgium. (“The terrible geography lesson goes on,” murmured one American journal.) Day after day in that nightmare month, radio networks in the United States delivered “the brisk, cultivated voices of studio announcers giving us a few hints of the end of the world between dance tunes,” until weary listeners came to believe that “the only good radio is a dead radio.”
“It was like a newsreel of history which should have marched at a sober pace so that men everywhere would know what was happening,” recalled journalist Marquis Childs, “and instead it whirred crazily through the cosmic projector.… It was like standing in a familiar house that has had one side blasted away. Everything is normal, or almost normal. Life goes on.… But nothing is the same nor ever can be again. The light falls in the familiar rooms in a new harsh way so that what has been safe and comfortable now looks naked and unprotected.” The almost contemptuous ease with which German forces rolled over, around, and through the British and French armies surprised everyone—in both Europe and the United States—and forced Americans to confront the possibility that they might have to face the Nazi war machine alone if the Allies collapsed. “Only a miracle,” wrote columnist Walter Lippmann, “can now prevent the European war from becoming a world war.… Our security is gravely jeopardized.”
Suddenly the condition of American defenses became the most vital topic in the nation. “Congress and the country,” reported Time magazine, “had no eyes nor ears for anything but Defense.” Bipartisan majorities in both houses hastily passed or even increased every emergency defense spending bill Roosevelt lay before them. In the space of a few weeks, Congress approved over $3 billion in additional military appropriations, far surpassing defense expenditures in any fiscal year in the nation’s history. At one point, the House gave the Roosevelt administration a virtual blank check, voting 391–1 in favor of “an unlimited expansion of Army warplane strength and unlimited funds for speeding production of munitions and supplies.”
Public opinion overwhelmingly supported the accelerated defense program. A survey by Fortune magazine revealed that 93.6 percent of Americans favored spending “whatever is necessary to build up as quickly as possible our Army, Navy, and Air Force.” But the consensus broke down over whether the United States should continue to sell arms to Britain and France—in hopes of keeping the anti-German coalition afloat and the war three thousand miles away—or hoard all its weapons at home to construct a (hopefully) invulnerable Fortress America. The debate was no less bitter for the fact that most of the armaments in question were entirely imaginary, since the actual output of American defense plants was still “largely in the blueprint stage.”
Leading Republicans almost unanimously opposed shipping any more arms abroad. New York City district attorney Thomas E. Dewey, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, demanded that the United States concentrate on building up its military forces “to levels which will make this country impregnable to attack.” Former president Herbert Hoover, who was making his own belated bid for the Republican nomination, agreed that “what America must have is such defenses that no European nation will even think about crossing this 3,000 miles of ocean at all.… We want a sign of ‘keep off the grass’ with a fierce dog plainly in sight.” For his part, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh—the second most famous man in America, behind only Roosevelt—told a nationwide radio audience that “we need not fear a foreign invasion unless American peoples bring it on through their own quarreling and meddling with affairs abroad.… No one wishes to attack us, and no one is in a position to do so.” (Listening to Lindbergh’s speech, Roosevelt decided it might as easily have come from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. “I am absolutely convinced,” the president told Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, “that Lindbergh is a Nazi.”)
Roosevelt had no intention of abandoning the Allies, although the surrender of the French armies on June 17 left him to rely entirely upon what one veteran diplomat called “the slow-grinding will power of the British people.” To marshal public support for the president’s policy, publisher Henry Luce used his magazines to illustrate in a graphic way the horrors of Hitler’s bloody march across Europe, and veteran Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White—a lifelong Republican—helped organize the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Among the ten thousand Americans who joined the committee in the first few months were columnist Joseph Alsop, former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, diplomat Dean Acheson, novelist Rex Stout, Wall Street attorney Allen Dulles, and playwright Robert Sherwood, who predicted that unless the rest of the world united against the fascist aggressors, “we are all headed back to the Dark Ages in a hand basket.”
By late June, the ongoing debate and the continual stream of bad news from Europe was taking its toll on the well-being of the American public. Contemporary observers reported a mood of “bleak despair,” of “gloom and terror” among “a nation not sure of its way.” The fall of France struck a particularly heavy blow. “We looked at the faces in the street today,” wrote a reporter in the New Yorker, “and war is at last real.” At a time when most Americans went to the movies at least twice a week, the latest newsreels in theaters displayed in graphic detail “all the horrors of this ‘total war,’” including Nazi bombings of civilian targets such as maternity hospitals. (“SEE the ‘Panzer’ Armored Divisions striking swiftly,” boasted one advertisement. “SEE the helpless refugees fleeing for their lives.”)
Patients whose nerves had been “blitzkrieged by the war” crowded doctors’ offices. Psychiatrists in New York City treated a significant number of new patients who complained of “a general state of ‘jittery’ nerves,” as if awaiting some type of apocalyptic reckoning. At the annual convention of the American Medical Association in June, physicians from all parts of the country reported a surge in cases of “headaches of unexplained origin, digestive disturbances, insomnia, loss of appetite, respiratory ills and aggravation of chronic ailments.” The most likely cause, the doctors agreed, was a “repeated shock to the nervous system from a succession of bad news over the radio and in the newspapers.”
A majority of Americans expected Britain to collapse or surrender; many braced for a German attack on the United States. Pennsylvania officials established a special legislative committee to bolster protection of the state’s factories, mines, and naval yards against enemy air raids. In Chicago, members of the American Police Revolver League joined with several hundred skeet shooters to form the Sportsmen’s Defense Reserve, a model for a prospective nationwide “civilian army of modern minute men.” Middle-aged patriots on the Pacific coast launched a special defense unit composed entirely of men over the age of forty-five, whose official slogan was “Death Before Surrender.” Not to be outdone, the Manhattan chapter of the National Legion of Mothers of America founded the Molly Pitcher Rifle Legion (target practice held once a week) and called for the establishment of women’s rifle corps in every state to pick off German paratroopers. “Enemy parachutists in America,” declared a National Legion official, “will rue the day they first drew breath.”
Reports that “fifth columnists”—Nazi supporters or sympathizers amid the populations of the defeated western European nations—had helped prepare the way for the German blitzkrieg convinced many Americans that they needed to keep a closer watch on the nearly 4 million aliens living in the United States. To help uncover potential saboteurs, Congress voted to require all resident aliens to be registered and fingerprinted. When Attorney General Robert Jackson asked the public to report “acts, threats, or evidences of sabotage [or] espionage” to the FBI’s newly created “national defense investigation” unit, the Bureau’s switchboards were flooded with several thousand tips a day. Throngs of enthusiastic patriots volunteered to spy on their neighbors on a regular basis. Local governments assigned special guards to protect bridges, tunnels, and highways near defense plants, and dropped aliens from their unemployment relief rolls. The Federal Communications Commission forbade amateur radio operators in the United States from maintaining communication with any foreign stations. George Britt’s recently published book, The Fifth Column Is Here—which claimed there were more than a million fifth columnists in the United States, including native-born fascists and members of the German American Bund—soared to the top of the bestseller list, and the meeting places of several German fraternal organizations were bombed (Chicago) or burned down (St. Louis). “America isn’t going to be any too comfortable a place to live in during the immediate future,” wrote Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in his diary. “Some of our super-patriots are simply going crazy.”
Revelations of the woeful condition of U.S. military forces did not ease Americans’ anxieties. Two decades of budgetary neglect by both political parties had left the nation with an infantry that one critic dismissed as “a muleback army hardly large enough for an Indian campaign.” In an extensive critique published in late 1938, Life magazine had concluded that “among the armies of the major powers, America’s is not only the smallest but the worst equipped; most of its arms are outmoded World War [One] leftovers; some of its post-War weapons are already, in the military sense, obsolete; it has developed up-to-date weapons, but has far too few of them for modern war; if America should be attacked, it would be eight months before the nation’s peacetime industry could be converted to production of the war supplies which the Army would need; whether there would be any Army left to supply at the end of those months is disputable.”
Germany’s springtime blitzkrieg made it perfectly clear just how far behind the United States really was. “The coordination between air and ground, tanks and motorized infantry, exceeded anything we had ever dreamed of in the U.S. Army,” recalled Omar Bradley, then an officer serving under Army chief of staff General George Catlett Marshall. “We were amazed, shocked, dumbfounded, shaking our heads in disbelief.… To match such a performance, let alone exceed it, the U.S. Army had years of catching up and little time in which to do it.” General Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps, made a similarly glum assessment about American air power during a briefing to a Senate committee. “The German planes have opened the eyes of the War Department,” reported one senator after hearing Arnold’s testimony. “In the purely combat field, we do not have planes that could stand up against the German fighters.”
Thus far Army officials had focused on acquiring new and better weapons, but the fall of France also fueled the movement for conscription, to provide a reservoir of trained manpower the nation could call upon in an emergency. Marshall estimated that the Army would need at least 1.2 million men to defend the continental United States from a direct attack, and several million more to protect the Western Hemisphere. In the summer of 1940, however, there were fewer than 250,000 regular soldiers in the U.S. Army. With enlistments running about 20,000 per month—and a pay scale that began at twenty-one dollars a month (plus food, housing, and health care)—the president’s military advisers concluded that there was no way to reach their goal anytime soon without a draft.
Yet the United States had never resorted to compulsory military service in peacetime. The notion struck many Americans—who shared an inherent suspicion of the military—as undemocratic, a violation of individual liberties, the sort of thing oppressive European governments imposed on their citizens. Even the worldly Washington Post, a strong supporter of aid to Britain, expressed reservations about “the un-American principle of compulsion.”
Opposing conscription was a disparate coalition of groups that Time magazine called “as weird a hash as was ever dumped on Washington”: isolationists, labor union leaders, clergymen, college students, civil libertarians, communists, and pacifists. Most dismissed the prospect of an imminent German invasion as fantasy; “the only emergency,” declared Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana, “is the one created by propagandists who are trying to frighten Congress and the country.” To opponents of the draft, peacetime conscription represented “the use of totalitarian methods to safeguard us from totalitarianism,” and “the opening wedge to pure and unadulterated fascism.” In the Senate, Nebraska Republican-turned-independent George Norris predicted that conscription and an expanded Army would lead to an American dictatorship with a population of men trained in “how to fight and how to kill,” and “women working in the fields to support a huge military machine.” Burton Wheeler foresaw an even more lurid future for the United States once a broad swath of the population had completed military training. “You will have a country of Al Capones. You will have a country where robbery and murder will run riot,” he declared. “Hushed whispers will replace free speech—secret meetings in dark places will supplant free assemblage.”
Congressional mail ran heavily against the draft; anticonscription zealots packed the legislative galleries; women dressed in black veils kept a silent vigil each day outside the Senate chamber; and a group that called itself the Congress of American Mothers hanged a coconut-headed effigy of Senator Claude Pepper of Florida—an outspoken critic of Hitler, Lindbergh, and isolationism in general—on the Capitol lawn. In a less violent protest, an attractive twenty-year-old college sophomore who called herself “Pauline Revere” set out to ride a white horse from her home in Seattle, Washington, to the nation’s capital, bearing a petition against conscription on behalf of the Emergency Peace Mobilizing Committee to Defend America by Keeping Out of War. (The young lady actually traveled most of the way by automobile, disembarking in cities along the way for photo opportunities with local equines.)
But flamboyant theatrics could not overcome the public’s desire for security. Polls indicated a rapidly increasing majority of Americans in favor of conscription—from 39 percent in October 1939 to 66 percent in late July 1940—and on September 15, Congress approved the Selective Service Act, requiring all American men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five to register for the draft. The measure included an amendment, however, that prohibited the 800,000 draftees who would be called in the first year from serving outside the Western Hemisphere, except in territories of the United States.
The past year’s battles over cash-and-carry, conscription, and aid to the Allies had left Americans sharply divided, with a substantial minority fearful that the nation was on the brink of being pulled into the European war. Many of the same citizens were convinced that Franklin Roosevelt—having vastly enlarged the powers of the federal government, and particularly the executive branch during the New Deal—planned to overthrow democracy in the United States and establish a dictatorship by appointing enough judges and hiring enough bureaucrats to quash any threats to his imperial whims. The president’s decision in the summer of 1940 to run for an unprecedented third term only deepened their anxiety.
Although Roosevelt possessed the largest and most devoted following of any American politician of his generation, he also had engendered the enmity of the wealthy classes and a significant portion of the business community. The president had spent much of the past eight years—and particularly his second term—excoriating businessmen publicly (“privileged princes of new economic dynasties”), as well as investigating them, regulating them, taxing them, stripping them of political power, and throwing the weight of the White House behind organized labor’s efforts to unionize American industry. “To many of his own class he was the figure of evil personified,” recalled Marquis Childs, “a personal devil symbolizing the forces that were stirring deeply in American life.” As a result, there existed “in a large and powerful class of our citizens, an almost universal suspicion as to the ulterior purposes of the government.” No wonder that the business community desired “above everything else in the world that some person other than ‘F.D.R.’ were president.”
To challenge Roosevelt in November, Republicans nominated the forty-eight-year-old Wendell Willkie, a former Wall Street attorney and utility company executive who had never run for public office, much less held one. Articulate, charismatic (in a rumpled midwestern sort of way), and exceptionally well-read, Willkie supported much of the New Deal—although he wished to reduce the federal government’s role in the economy—and favored further aid to Britain, particularly since the immediate threat of a German invasion across the Channel had passed by the autumn of 1940. Unable to separate himself substantially from Roosevelt on either domestic or foreign policy, Willkie hammered repeatedly on the third-term issue, hoping to attract Democrats who felt uneasy about the president’s ambitions. Democratic spokesmen responded by pointing to the recent revival of the American economy (unemployment had dropped to 9 percent by October), and reminding voters of the value of Roosevelt’s experience while the nation faced a dangerously combustible situation abroad.
It seemed a rather tame affair until Willkie began to portray Roosevelt as a warmonger who “manufactured emergencies” to scare American voters into reelecting him. “This administration is rapidly pushing us toward war,” Willkie charged in a radio address in early October, “and also is pushing us toward a totalitarian state.” (With his Indiana accent, it came out “totalitairrn.”) Alf Landon, who had lost to Roosevelt in 1936, warned voters that if they returned the president to the White House for a third term, “the bells throughout the country should toll for a people who have lost their liberties of their own free choice.” Labor leader John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and a former Roosevelt ally, warned American mothers that the president—“a man who plays with the lives of human beings for a pastime”—intended to “make cannon fodder of your sons.”
Democrats accordingly lowered their own punches, accusing Willkie of planning to impose “an American brand of fascism” in alliance with Big Business. At every turn, they strove to associate Willkie, whose parents had emigrated from Germany, with Hitler and the Nazi regime. They spoke of Willkie’s “blitzkrieg tactics,” whispered that the Republican candidate was “practically a German,” and assured voters that “Nazi agents in this country have been ordered to work for his election.” A Willkie victory, claimed Democratic vice-presidential nominee Henry Wallace, “would cause Hitler to rejoice.”
As election day neared, the New York Times reported that “American opinion is today moving ‘away’ from the war.… The public demand that this country stay out of the war … is becoming louder and louder.” Willkie responded with a promise “not to send your husbands and sons and brothers to death on a European or Asiatic battlefield.” On October 30, Roosevelt made a similar pledge—one he surely knew he could not keep—when he told an audience in Boston that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
In the end, more voters trusted than feared Roosevelt, although the president’s share of the popular vote was the smallest of any winning candidate since 1916, and at least one post-election poll suggested that voters actually would have preferred Willkie had there been no war in Europe. To columnist Raymond Clapper, it seemed “a return to power voted by many with reluctance and with strong inner doubts.”
“There was a sense of relief that a bitter election was over,” reported Time, although some observers feared the hardening divisions among Americans would prevent the public from uniting behind the president. “Men have been wondering,” noted one writer, “whether campaign eggs would turn into bricks and bricks into bombs.” To speed the process of reconciliation, William Allen White suggested that partisans on both sides dump all of their campaign literature and buttons into huge piles and set them alight, turning them into giant bonfires to exorcise the passions of the election. (At least one town—Salina, Kansas—took him up on the suggestion.) On every print of new motion pictures, Hollywood studios appended a plea for Americans to transcend partisan animosities and come together. And in New York, a bipartisan group calling itself the Council for Democracy held an “America United” rally at a sold-out Carnegie Hall, with politicians, columnists, labor leaders, and entertainers delivering speeches broadcast over a nationwide radio network. “We have all had our say,” concluded novelist Booth Tarkington, but “when the strangers with guns begin to surround a house it is time for the family inside to stop arguing.”
And for a brief moment they did. Britain’s stubborn survival permitted Americans to breathe a sigh of relief in the final months of 1940. They relegated war scares to the back burner for the holiday season, replacing them with more measured talk of defense and preparedness, and sought comfort in patriotic symbols. Christmas gifts promoting “Americanism” dominated the department store shelves: jewelry with red, white, and blue stones; children’s balls, kites, and drums decorated with eagles, American flags, or the Liberty Bell; and scenes of American landmarks everywhere. Crowds thronged Bedloe’s Island in New York Bay to see the Statue of Liberty in person; attendance in November 1940 was up 42 percent over the previous year. “They keep hearing ‘God Bless America,’” explained a guard at the site. “That sends them over here.” Unlike ordinary times, however, many of the visitors were native New Yorkers. Instead of asking how to get to Sing Sing, or whether the Hudson River runs into Hudson Bay, they gazed at the Manhattan skyline and talked about harbor defenses and bomb shelters.
Hostesses eschewed previously popular entertainments such as “headline parties”—where guests dressed up as world leaders—or war games with elaborate military costumes. “Older folk are rather fed up with playing at war,” reported a New England newspaper. Instead, they wanted “something that could insure a few hours off … to shut out the great conflicts in the world.” Sales of hobby kits soared; others preferred to relax reading the latest adventures of Superman, the comic book character who had taken the nation by storm in 1938. The widespread desire to escape, concluded one cultural critic, represented “a determination to cling to sanity”: “It is next to impossible to be entirely aloof from the war in such a time as this. It is, however, very necessary to have some sort of bomb shelter for the mind.”
And yet reminders of war—and the growing military presence in American life—appeared with increasing frequency. The draft was easily the most visible. More than 16 million men (including Henry Ford II, Winthrop Rockefeller, actors Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and three Philadelphians named Rudolph Valentino) had registered for the draft in October without protest, an accomplishment that demonstrated just how far the nation had traveled during the past year. “Had some forecaster of say June, 1939, predicted that on October 16, 1940, the United States without going to war would be registering its young manpower for selective military training, he would have been set down by most people as a dreamer,” observed the Boston Globe. “Such a measure seemed utterly remote from the American way.”
By December the first group of draftees was on its way to camp, and a second draft call was set for the end of the month. Men in khaki uniforms began to appear in advertisements, standing on a firing range while comparing the length of their cigarettes. (“Pall Mall is over 20 per cent longer.”) Hollywood launched production on a new genre of films that came to be known as “service comedies,” beginning with Buck Privates, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Somehow Army life seemed less threatening when a group of inductees was greeted by the Andrews Sisters singing “You’re a lucky fellow, Mr. Smith / You really should be shouting with joy” for the privilege of being drafted. (The film went on to become Universal Studio’s top-grossing picture in 1941.)
High schools expanded their vocational training offerings, often with assistance from federal officials, to better prepare boys for the Army or defense work. Often their courses proved so popular that schools stayed open on a twenty-four-hour basis, with afternoon and night shifts for adults who wanted to learn how to be aircraft mechanics or sheet metal workers. Colleges and universities established flight-training programs; the University of Chicago doubled the size of its indoor rifle range and offered informal instruction in marksmanship; and Harvard established special “war libraries” across campus with specially selected volumes to deepen students’ understanding of the war.
Although American industry’s defense production remained sluggish—most disconcertingly, the manufacture of airplanes was running more than 30 percent behind schedule—enough new jobs were created to reduce unemployment to 8 million by the end of the year. Spurred by defense contracts, the steel industry set new records for production in 1940. The construction industry celebrated its best year in a decade, and oil companies reported a substantial increase in earnings. Cosmetics sales also skyrocketed, especially among young women looking toward 1941 with considerable trepidation. With several hundred thousand conscripted American males essentially out of circulation, Contemporary Modes magazine predicted that the competition for the remaining men “will be something fierce.”
Despite increasing Army purchases and rising civilian demand, food supplies for holiday feasts remained plentiful. “If this isn’t the heartiest and altogether most appetizing Christmas you and your friends ever tasted,” proclaimed the New Yorker, “it won’t be the fault of the food shops around town.” There were pheasants and grouse and ducks, and Smithfield hams, and cranberry-fed turkeys from Cape Cod, although French wines were growing harder to find—not a single bottle had been shipped to the United States since France surrendered in June. Americans who wished to show their solidarity with England could dispatch food parcels from their local department stores “to brighten London’s Christmas.” Others preferred to donate money, or knit warm clothing for British soldiers, sailors, and airmen through the “Bundles for Britain” program.
Knit woolen caps were one thing; the weaponry of modern war was quite another. If Britain was to survive another year, it needed American guns and planes, but by December the British Treasury had nearly exhausted its credits and would no longer be able to purchase arms from the United States. Moreover, the British navy desperately needed American ships to help convoy supplies through the U-boat squadrons that infested the Atlantic; in the last three months of 1940 alone, more than 130 merchant vessels and over 700,000 tons of shipping had been lost to German attacks.
Since neutrality legislation still prohibited loans to belligerents, Roosevelt elected to ask Congress for authority to lend ships and planes to England instead of money. Introduced in the House on January 11, 1941, the Lend-Lease bill gave the president virtually unlimited power to sell, trade, transfer, or give outright an initial appropriation of $1 billion worth of defense material (defined so vaguely as to include anything from tanks to corned beef sandwiches) to any foreign government if the president believed the transaction would benefit the national defense. Opponents denounced the measure as yet another Rooseveltian bid for dictatorial power, “a blank check book” that “would bring an end to free government in the United States and would abolish the Congress for all practical purposes.” They also warned—again—that shipping still more military supplies to Britain would provoke Germany into attacking the United States.
Two months of congressional hearings featured protests by women who brought miniature coffins to isolationist rallies and hung signs on them that said BUNDLES FROM BRITAIN. Female shock troops of the Paul Revere Sentinels and the Women’s Neutrality League paraded in front of the British embassy in Washington, where they hung a grotesque effigy of President Roosevelt upon the gate with placards that read MOVE OVER, UNKNOWN SOLDIER and BENEDICT ARNOLD HELPED ENGLAND, TOO. But when the hearings ended, polls showed that somewhere between 54 and 60 percent of Americans favored the Lend-Lease proposal. Most appeared to agree with a Virginia voter who reasoned that “if another fellow and I have a row, I’d far sooner have the mess in his backyard than in mine.” By early March, both houses of Congress had approved the bill by comfortable majorities.
Then a fog seemed to settle over the country. Contemporary accounts described the American public in the spring of 1941 as confused, uncertain, distracted. Numerous observers noted the growing tension between the two primary goals of Americans regarding the war in Europe, both still supported by overwhelming majorities in opinion polls: a resolute determination to stay out of the conflict, and a refusal to allow England to be defeated. “Until we make permanent choice between our two wishes,” wrote Mark Sullivan of the New York Herald Tribune, “America will be torn with inner conflict between impulses mutually destructive of each other, the result leading to frustration and futility, a soul-sick country.”
At the same time, Americans increasingly grew resigned to the prospect that the United States would sooner or later be drawn into the European conflict. A year earlier, at the time of the blitzkrieg, polls showed that two-thirds of Americans thought the United States would eventually enter the war. By the end of April 1941, that number had risen to 82 percent, and a month later it reached 85 percent, accompanied by a conviction that the U.S. military would need all the arms the nation could produce.
By any measure, the nation was far from ready for war. Deficiencies in arms production had been obvious for months. At the close of 1940, Time magazine had noted that American industry “was still producing more bottlenecks per week than anything else.” Several months later, filmmaker Frank Capra journeyed to Washington to offer his services to the defense effort and received a rude awakening. “From what I saw and heard,” he wrote later, “we were so woefully unprepared for war that Army chiefs dreaded our possible involvement. They hinted that our troops only slightly out-numbered Washington’s Continentals—and were as badly trained and ill-equipped.”
Numerous obstacles stood in the way, including the administration itself. Roosevelt and his advisers had not yet decided how to allocate the nation’s resources between military and civilian goods. Nor had they approved a coordinated overall plan for defense production, since no one knew precisely whom or when the nation would be fighting; as one critic put it, the United States “was arming to fight Heaven-knows-whom at Heaven-knows-where for Heaven-knows-what.”
Roosevelt tangled the situation further by creating war production agencies whose responsibilities overlapped or conflicted with one another and with the military services’ own procurement divisions. Logjams inevitably ensued. Columnist Westbrook Pegler envisioned businessmen lost in the labyrinth of the federal bureaucracy, “wandering like bewildered bums in a strange railroad yard, reading meaningless numbers on the glass doors of offices in miles of corridors and wondering just what department had charge of the procurement of woolen drawers.”
On the other hand, many American businesses remained reluctant to pursue military contracts, preferring to turn out as many civilian goods as possible until the administration forced them to stop—which it was loath to do, for fear of derailing the economic recovery. Hence the bountiful supply of consumer goods throughout 1941 at the expense of defense production, a situation which Walter Lippmann condemned as “this disgraceful boom.” No more reconciled to the administration than ever, businessmen especially did not wish to convert their factories to military production and then entrust their companies’ future to the unpredictable whims of New Deal bureaucrats, whom one disgruntled executive denounced as a “pack of semi-communist wolves.”
To the American public, however, the main obstacle to full-scale preparedness appeared to be organized labor and the wave of strikes that swept through the defense industry in 1941. Over the past decade, labor leaders had won numerous hard-fought victories—sometimes at the cost of workers’ lives—to win recognition of their unions. Yet a number of major corporations remained adamantly opposed to negotiating at all with labor, despite federal mandates to do so. The most notorious holdout was the Ford Motor Company, whose refusal to engage in meaningful collective bargaining had recently earned it a conviction for violating the Wagner Act. “We will bargain with [the CIO] because the law says so,” grumbled Ford’s personnel director. “We will bargain until Hell freezes over, but they won’t get anything.”
As the nation’s need for skilled labor grew increasingly desperate, unions seized the opportunity to force showdowns with management over long-festering wage and jurisdictional disputes. In late February, there were sixteen major industrial strikes in progress, involving 23,000 workers; more than 468,000 man-days already had been lost on Army contracts. By mid-March, 47,000 workers were out in forty defense industry strikes. In April, 400,000 coal miners walked off their jobs, shutting down the nation’s production of bituminous coal. Within weeks American steel plants were forced to reduce operations by nearly 15 percent.
The public’s mood turned dark; a Gallup poll revealed that 72 percent of American voters wanted to forbid strikes in defense industries. Congress debated measures to curb union activity, and set out to investigate Communist influence in the American labor movement. Representative Hatton Sumners, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that if the crisis grew much worse, he would not hesitate “one split second” to recommend the electric chair for “enemies of this nation, in the factory or elsewhere.”
African Americans had their own grievances against both labor unions and defense contractors. A federal survey in late 1940 revealed that more than half the companies involved in the preparedness program flatly refused to hire African Americans, especially for skilled jobs. Nor did most of the labor unions representing skilled workers admit African Americans. As a result, fewer than 1 percent of the workers in the nation’s aircraft industry were black. In early 1941, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph announced plans to stage a massive rally in Washington to demand equal employment opportunities in defense industries. Fearful of political embarrassment and further disruptions to the preparedness program, Roosevelt agreed to establish the Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate cases of discrimination, but the committee possessed little power to remedy the injustices it uncovered.
At a time when the nation needed a unified effort to prepare for war, American society appeared to be splintering further apart. “I can see we haven’t got the spirit yet, probably because nobody has dropped a bomb on us,” grumbled William Knudsen, the Danish-born former General Motors executive whom Roosevelt had appointed to help lead the Office of Production Management (OPM). Some critics blamed the administration. “The simple truth is that as yet the right kind of spirit does not exist among the people,” concluded conservative columnist Frank Kent, “and the reason is that the right kind of spirit does not exist among their leaders—or at least it is not being displayed by them.” Several cabinet officials—Harold Ickes, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Attorney General Jackson, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox—expressed their own concerns about Roosevelt’s “failure of leadership.” “In every direction I find a growing discontent with the President’s lack of leadership,” wrote the irascible Ickes in his diary. “He still has the country if he will take it and lead it. But he won’t have it very much longer unless he does something.”
Mounting losses of British ships sunk by U-boats and Nazi planes in the Atlantic rattled Americans’ nerves further, raising the question of whether the United States should employ its warships to convoy armaments to Britain. Roosevelt finally responded on the evening of May 27 with a speech that was, in the words of one adviser, “calculated to scare the daylights out of everyone.” It was undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated radio event since the election. At the Polo Grounds, the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers stopped their game for forty-five minutes so fans could hear the speech broadcast over the stadium’s loudspeakers. In Manhattan, traffic in Times Square slowed to a standstill; movie patrons left their seats to listen to the president’s message in theater lobbies; bartenders turned off jukeboxes.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, the president—amply fortified with cigarettes and a half dozen glasses of water—told a radio audience estimated at 65 million Americans that “what started as a European war has developed, as the Nazis always intended it should develop, into a war for world domination.” As a result, Roosevelt promised to immediately strengthen U.S. naval patrols in the Atlantic with as many ships and planes as necessary to guarantee the safety of American defense shipments to Britain. And in hopes of stirring the public’s dedication to the preparedness effort, the president proclaimed that “an unlimited national emergency confronts this country,” which required all Americans “to place the nation and its needs first in mind and in action.”
Minutes later, newspaper switchboards were flooded with calls from puzzled Americans asking what precisely a “national emergency” meant. The president remained vague when reporters pressed him the following day, and actually backtracked when he admitted that he had no intention of actually using “convoys” to escort British ships across the ocean anytime in the near future. “There was no lack of words,” noted one disgruntled journalist. “The deficiencies were all on the practical side.”
For the next six months, Americans waited for something to happen. “I wish I knew more than I know,” wrote poet Carl Sandburg. “I go on drifting. The nation drifts. It is written for a while we must drift. By drifting I mean guessing as to where the national ship of state is going and what will happen to it in the end. Just now I am willing to throw in everything to save Britain. Beyond that I agree with anyone who has a headache.”
Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22 muddled the situation further. While Hitler’s gamble took considerable pressure off Great Britain, and thereby rendered American intervention less likely, the notion of an alliance with a Communist dictatorship gave pause to a substantial segment of the American public which had long demonized Joseph Stalin. The Chicago Tribune denounced the Soviet leader as “the greatest barbarian of modern times,” and Charles Lindbergh swore that “I would a hundred times rather see my country ally herself … with Germany with all her faults, than with the cruelty, the godlessness, and the barbarism that exist in Soviet Russia.” The immediate question for the United States was whether it would divert arms from Britain or the lagging American preparedness effort (or, more likely, both) to equip the Red Army. Roosevelt attempted to finesse the issue in his usual offhand style. “Of course we are going to give all the aid that we possibly can to Russia,” he told reporters. Asked to provide specifics, the president replied flippantly, “Oh, socks and shoes, and things like that. What you can get at Garfinckel’s [a department store chain] you can probably get at once.… When it comes to planes and things that have to be made, we have got orders that will take a long time to fill, of course.”
In Tokyo, the Japanese government—taken entirely by surprise—greeted Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union with dismay. Well on its way to establishing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan had swallowed Manchuria in 1931 (in the form of the puppet state of Manchukuo), and launched a full-scale, brutal invasion of China six years later. By the summer of 1941, Japanese forces controlled much of China’s coastal regions, along with most major Chinese cities. But the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government led by Chiang Kai-shek had not surrendered, retreating instead to Chongqing, in the mountains of southwestern China. Frustrated by its army’s inability to subjugate China, and encouraged by the German conquest of France, the Japanese government opted to push southward into defenseless French Indochina, with its valuable resources of rice, minerals, and rubber. Tokyo would then wait for Britain to fall, so it could sweep in and pick up the remnants of the British Empire in East Asia. Germany’s attack upon the Soviet Union threatened to delay Britain’s collapse; nevertheless, Japan’s military and civilian leaders decided at an Imperial Conference on July 2 to proceed with the move into Indochina.
Americans had no trouble choosing sides in this conflict. The American public had long viewed China through a sentimental lens, as the land of The Good Earth, populated by simple, earnest peasants suffering under the weight of rapacious landlords, European exploitation, and Japanese atrocities. By contrast, Americans living on the West Coast had long been hostile to—and suspicious of—the Japanese in their midst, and for decades the United States Navy had trained its officers to regard Japan as a potential enemy. Roosevelt viewed Japanese aggression in Asia as part of a single worldwide fascist assault upon vital American interests, a link strengthened in September 1940 when Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, pledging to cooperate with Germany and Italy in establishing a new order in Europe and East Asia. Even isolationists favored a hard line against Japan’s military ambitions; as Life magazine noted, there was “no fierce emotional resistance to war in the Pacific as there is among many people to war in Europe.”
Japan began moving its troops into Indochina in mid-July. Having broken Japan’s top-level diplomatic code, American officials knew that the Japanese government intended to use southern Indochina as a springboard for future conquests, most likely the Malay States and the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. For the past year, the Roosevelt administration had tried to forestall such an advance by shipping substantial quantities of oil to Japan, a policy that critics claimed had turned “the arsenal of democracy” into “the filling station of fascism.” But events had outpaced American policy.
On July 24, Roosevelt called Japanese ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura to the White House and strongly recommended that Japan withdraw its forces from Indochina. The following day, the president underlined the point by issuing an executive order freezing all Japanese assets in the United States, rendering trade between the two nations more difficult, although not altogether impossible. But when overzealous American officials enforced the freeze more rigorously than the president intended, they effectively cut off all trade between the United States and Japan—most importantly, denying Japan the oil and scrap iron upon which its army relied. Since there was no other source from which Japan could obtain such vast stocks of oil on short notice, State Department planners assumed the militarists in Japan would now refrain from further aggression.
In the summer of 1941, it seemed to Marquis Childs that nearly every story from Washington “reflected the uncertainty in the capital. A fog of confusion lay as thick as a blanket over everything.… The tempo was incredibly slow; like a slow-motion picture taken in a friendly lunatic asylum.”
Weary of the uncertainty of the past two years, many Americans spent the summer searching for escape from talk of national emergencies and preparedness and convoys. “There has never been a summer when it will be so important to relax,” declared a popular sporting goods company. “The deluge is coming.… Dress up and play.” And so Americans put on their white sharkskin tennis dresses or their Bill Tilden–inspired V-neck sweaters and headed to the courts, or to the movies to see Betty Grable in Moon Over Miami or Cary Grant in the melodramatic Penny Serenade. Looking out from his office in Kansas, William Allen White complained that “two-fifths of our people are more interested in the baseball scores than they are in foreign news,” though that probably was a conservative estimate while New York Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio was compiling his fifty-six-game hitting streak from the middle of May into the middle of July.
“Too many Americans have not yet made up their minds that we have a war to win,” declared Roosevelt, “and that it will take a hard fight to win it.” Labor troubles continued to bedevil the preparedness program; in September, union leaders launched 435 new strikes—mostly for higher wages, although a significant minority of work stoppages resulted from union demands for a closed shop. “I can’t for the life of me understand how in a period of national emergency such foolishness like this can go on,” snapped the OPM’s Knudsen. “I am quite frank to confess that with our house on fire we can’t have a strike in the fire department.”
“We grow more like the France that was every day, the France that died fat, unable to walk across the street because she had eaten too much,” muttered disgruntled Washington columnist Samuel Grafton. Poet May Sarton concurred. “We are still sitting placid and smug on the edge of a volcano,” decided Sarton. “Roosevelt has lost a grip on the country.… No one at all will face squarely the fact that we shall someday have to actually fight and send men over to do it. And as long as they don’t face that fact everything is half-baked, half-done.”
At the close of a hectic summer travel season that far surpassed any previous year for gasoline consumption, Americans fled to the beaches for the Labor Day weekend—Coney Island, Atlantic City, and Asbury Park all were jammed with sun worshippers. Others crowded into buses or railway cars to reach their favorite vacation spots; railroads and bus companies reported that virtually every available seat had been sold. To a New York Times reporter, it seemed as if Americans “had put aside their collective worries about the condition of the war-torn world and the rising costs of living and were determined to forget it all in one last fling.”
Then they went back to work, increasingly at defense jobs as the engines of defense production at last began to gather momentum. By the end of November, American industry was operating at record production levels, with nearly 25 percent of U.S. productive capacity engaged in defense work. But prosperity engendered its own problems. Prices for a wide range of consumer goods began to rise sharply, driven by material shortages and swollen paychecks. By November the cost of living was climbing at a rate of slightly more than 1 percent per month. Food prices alone had increased by more than 15 percent over the past year; one grocery chain held special classes to coach employees in how to respond to customer complaints.
Shortages in a wide variety of consumer goods loomed on the horizon, as the federal government increasingly allocated raw materials—especially steel, aluminum, copper, and tin—to defense production. For the moment, there were still plenty of goods on the shelves, since manufacturers and retailers had spent much of 1941 building up inventories. But an OPM decree limited automakers to the production of only 205,000 civilian vehicles in the final month of the year, 34 percent below their output of December 1940. Farmers faced a dearth of tractors. Residential housing construction for nondefense workers already had slowed dramatically, since federal agencies allocated most building materials for military encampments, government office buildings, and housing for defense workers.
Public school systems reported a distressing scarcity of trained teachers, as many woefully underpaid educators decided to quit the classroom for lucrative defense jobs. More than half the nation’s teachers in 1941 earned less than $2,000 a year; the average annual salary of educators fell somewhere between $1,300 and $1,400. In rural areas, most teachers made less than $900. (The most egregious numbers came from Arkansas, where white teachers averaged about $500 a year, and black educators only $275.) Experts projected a shortfall of fifty thousand teachers for the 1942–43 school year, and an even greater gap in the future, since enrollment in teacher training schools had declined by nearly 20 percent over the past twelve months.
The nation could not afford the loss. Sixty percent of adult Americans (age twenty-five or older) possessed only an eighth-grade education or less; the number of adults without even one year of formal education nearly equaled the number of college graduates. The Census Bureau estimated that about 4 percent of Americans remained illiterate, but the American Association for Adult Education put the total of functional illiterates at three times that number. (In the nation’s first draft registration, approximately 340,000 men signed their forms with a cross mark, because they could not write their own name.) While the high school population had skyrocketed in the early twentieth century—there were ten times more high school students in the United States in 1940 than in 1900—educators had repeatedly watered down the curriculum as the student population grew more diverse. Students reportedly spent so much time in English classes reading popular novelists and magazine articles, instead of the classics of British and American literature, that Harvard University found it necessary to introduce a course in reading fundamentals for freshmen. And in late 1941 there were fewer college freshmen and fewer high school students than a year earlier. College enrollment dropped by nearly 10 percent from 1940 as a result of the draft and the attraction of defense jobs, while the number of high school students declined by 3 percent as some of the older boys likewise chose defense work over school.
Women searching for jobs in defense plants faced their own special problems. A congressional investigation discovered that “in most communities there is very real resistance in defense industries to the employment of women.” Aircraft companies proved especially reluctant to hire female workers because they preferred skilled mechanics who could perform multiple steps in the complex process of assembling planes, and women traditionally had been shut out from opportunities to obtain the requisite training. Over the past few months, however, local boards of education had begun to establish industrial defense training programs for women, supplemented by classes sponsored by the federal National Youth Administration, and—as the labor shortage began to pinch—by schools operated by the aircraft companies themselves.
Increasingly, male defense workers were being called into the Army, as military officials discovered that they needed to summon far more men for the draft than originally anticipated. They had expected 5 percent of potential recruits to fail their draft physicals, but in the first year of conscription, draft boards rejected between 30 and 50 percent as medically unfit for service. (This despite a recent War Department ruling that men who were “extremely ugly” or who bore “tattooing of an improper nature” would no longer be excluded.) The leading causes of rejection were bad teeth, venereal disease, and tuberculosis. Those who did not suffer from venereal disease before they joined the Army ran the risk of contracting it afterward from the swarms of prostitutes who set up shop near Army camps. The problem mushroomed so rapidly that authorities from twenty-four states asked the federal government for assistance in combating the epidemic.
Most of the men who failed their draft physical had not been under the care of a physician for years, and many had never seen a dentist. “We are physically in a condition of which we should nationally be ashamed,” charged General Lewis Hershey, director of Selective Service. The Navy fared no better. Enlistments did not keep pace with the expansion of the fleet; fewer than ten thousand men joined the service each month. On December 6, Navy officials announced that they would relax their physical standards to obtain enough recruits.
War Department authorities were still reeling from the multitude of deficiencies revealed by a series of military exercises in the autumn of 1941. In September, the Army staged the most extensive field maneuvers in its history in Louisiana. Lieutenant General Leslie McNair, director of the maneuvers, acknowledged that the war games proved that the United States Army suffered from poor leadership, a lack of discipline, and incompetent junior officers. Specifically, McNair criticized the practice of “sending masses of troops over roads before ascertaining whether they were safe from enemy fire, disregard of blackout orders, spreading forces too thinly over too large a front, inadequate scouting, and the failure to impress troops with the danger of air attack.”
A subsequent series of exercises involving 300,000 troops along the North Carolina–South Carolina border in late November brought fresh criticisms. “Apparently the men are still seriously handicapped by the lack of materiel,” observed the Washington Post. Army officials conceded that ammunition was in short supply, its antiaircraft weapons were obsolete, and nearly half of the antitank “guns” were dummies. Competent leadership of platoons and other small units remained elusive—“The process of weeding out inefficient officers,” mused the Post, “will presumably continue”—and too many soldiers still had not learned how to fight at night. Observers blamed the hidebound Army system of seniority, which had entrenched ineffectual officers in positions of command, and the long-term effects of two decades of “slow starvation” military budgets.
McNair insisted that the Army’s capabilities had improved dramatically over the past twelve months, “but the simple fact is you can’t perfect units in one year’s work and bring them up to the standards of facing anything like the Germans.” Asked if American troops were ready for war, McNair replied that “it is my judgment that, given complete equipment, they certainly could fight effectively. But it is to be added with emphasis that the losses would be unduly heavy, and the results of action against an adversary such as the Germans might not be all that could be desired.”
From September until December, Congress remained in session, often working around the clock as relations between the United States and Japan continued to deteriorate. China remained the stumbling block. The Roosevelt administration refused to concede Japanese control of the mainland, while Tokyo insisted on preserving four years’ worth of hard-won gains. The Japanese government sent one of its most experienced diplomats, Saburo Kurusu (who had an American wife), to Washington to persuade the Roosevelt administration to reopen trade and allow Japan to settle unilaterally what it termed “the China incident,” but to no avail. Focused on the danger posed by Nazi Germany, Roosevelt twisted and turned in search of an acceptable compromise that would postpone an outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific, which he feared would be “the wrong war in the wrong ocean at the wrong time.” Still he found no solution. Chances for a peaceful settlement were dimmed further by American intercepts of Japanese diplomatic cables, which convinced Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull that the government of General Hideki Tojo, who had assumed the office of premier in October, was using the discussions in Washington to mask preparations for war.
In early November, Roosevelt grimly informed his cabinet that war with Japan appeared inevitable. Shortly thereafter, American cryptographers deciphered a message from Tokyo to Kurusu and Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, the Japanese ambassador in Washington, advising them that the army would wait only one more week for a diplomatic solution: “After that things are automatically going to happen.”
On Friday, November 28, Roosevelt boarded a special train for a belated Thanksgiving celebration at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he could swim and relax among the southern pines. The presidential party had planned to stay in Warm Springs for at least three nights. Almost as soon as Roosevelt arrived on Saturday, however, he received a phone call from Hull, who warned that the crisis with Japan was approaching a climax. That afternoon the president listened, distracted, to the Army-Navy football game on the radio (Navy won, 14–6), and then addressed the foundation’s polio patients at dinner. “It may be that next Thanksgiving,” Roosevelt told his guests, “these boys of the Military Academy and of the Naval Academy will be actually fighting for the defense of these American institutions of ours.” Before the evening was over, Hull phoned again and asked the president to return to Washington. As he departed the following morning, Roosevelt paused and told a group of bystanders that “this may be the last time I talk to you for a long time.” While the president’s train sped to the capital, General Tojo announced in Tokyo that “the United States does not understand the real situation in East Asia.”
Roosevelt arrived at the White House shortly before noon on Monday, December 1, and spent the rest of the day closeted with his top military and diplomatic advisers. Over the next several days, newspaper columnists sounded the alarm. “We are close to war with Japan,” proclaimed Mark Sullivan on December 3. “The odds, as this is written, are strongly in favor of war in the Far East,” agreed Ernest Lindley. Looking back over the long months of diplomatic crises, Walter Lippmann believed that “for the first time the country is now really on the verge of actual all-out war”—not in Europe, as isolationists had long predicted, but in the Pacific. Conventional wisdom still held that Japan would most likely attack Thailand or Burma or the Malay Peninsula, provoking the United States to respond with embargoes and naval blockades.
Despite the furor in the press, most Americans evinced little concern over rising tensions with Tokyo. One journal after another openly questioned Japan’s ability to fight a prolonged war against the United States, and no one suggested that Japan might actually win. “Sane strategists would never permit Japan to start such a hopeless war,” argued the New Republic, while the Baltimore Sun insisted that “our island bases are prepared for any emergency.… Concerning our ability to hold our position against the use of force by Japan there can be no doubt.” A New York Times editorial reminded readers that without vital supplies from the United States, “Japan is facing international economic siege and she is very vulnerable.” The Wall Street Journal concluded that “Japan—economically—is living on borrowed time.”
As Washington waited for Tojo’s government to make its next move, congressmen began to book their plane tickets for the Christmas holidays; after months of meeting without a recess, legislators looked forward to a two-week break. On December 5, Tokyo assured the Roosevelt administration that recent Japanese military reinforcements in Indochina were merely a response to “threatening movements” of Chinese troops across the border, and not a prelude to further aggression. “A bare chance of peace remained—of a kind of peace very close to war but not quite war,” mused Time magazine. “This was the last act of the drama.”
When Roosevelt held a press conference later that day, reporters found him “polite, mildly affable, and completely uncommunicative.” Shortly after four o’clock in the afternoon, the president ducked out of the side door of the White House wearing a light coat and an old gray hat. Accompanied by his Scottish terrier, Fala, he rode around Potomac Park and the quiet outskirts of the city until dark, taking in the scenery. Relaxed and refreshed, the president delegated Eleanor to host a dinner party of over a hundred guests—including Oscar-winning actress Luise Rainer—at the Executive Mansion, while he dined alone off a tray upstairs, working late into the night.
Saturday, December 6: Reports to the State Department indicated that two large Japanese convoys had left Indochina, heading for the Gulf of Siam. Authorities in Singapore ordered all sailors of Britain’s Far Eastern fleet to return to their ships, and the government of the Philippines asked nonessential civilians to evacuate Manila and other danger zones.
Maxim Litvinov, the new Soviet ambassador to the Union States, arrived in San Francisco. “I am looking forward to my work with confidence and satisfaction,” he told reporters in California, “and rejoice in the thought of future talks in Washington with your great president.” Litvinov expected to arrive in Washington shortly before noon on Sunday.
An America First spokesman announced that the isolationist organization would support the election of any congressional candidates who “oppose further steps to involve us in war,” regardless of party affiliation. Rallies were scheduled in twenty cities over the rest of the month, including a speech by Lindbergh in Boston on December 12.
“The old way of life has gone, never to return,” wrote columnist Elizabeth Gilmer. “Never again will any of us now living see the old, pleasant, easy, secure world in which we once lived.… And if this is true of the great world it is equally true of the little private worlds in which each of us lives.… Now when the whole world seems a blackout.… So many terrible things have happened. So many more terrible things threaten us.”
In the Soviet Union, counterattacks by the Red Army continued to force the Wehrmacht back from Moscow, although Russian efforts to break the siege of Leningrad failed. British forces claimed victories in the deserts of North Africa, but Rommel’s Afrika Korps quickly reversed the tide. U.S. naval patrols, with “capture or destroy” orders against German submarines, escorted armed merchant ships bearing war matériel for Britain nearly all of the way across the Atlantic.
“I am proud to report that the American people may feel fully confident in their Navy,” declared Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox in his annual report to the nation. “The fiscal year 1941 witnessed the virtual transition of the nation from a peacetime to a wartime footing, with tremendous industrial expansion for production of war materiel.” As far as Knox was concerned, “the loyalty, morale, and technical ability of the [Navy] personnel are without superior. On any comparable basis, the United States Navy is second to none.”
In a lengthy critique of the preparedness program, the Saturday Evening Post concluded that the American defense buildup had become “an enterprise beyond anything that has ever been measured. In order to perform it, we shall have to change not only our ways of living but our ways of thinking about many things, especially money.… Congress has already ceased to think of billions as money. Just when it did, you cannot say; it could not itself say when.… But let us not be deceived. It will hurt. The disturbances already beginning to be complained of are, as yet, nothing.”
Issues on the New York Stock Exchange traded slightly higher during the customary two-hour Saturday morning session. It was a welcome respite from the recent series of setbacks for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which had been sagging due to the uncertain diplomatic situation in East Asia. At the end of the day it rested only slightly above the “panic low” set when France surrendered to Germany in June 1940.
On Saturday evening, jazz lovers in New England could catch Cab Calloway—leader of arguably the most famous swing band in America—and the Cab Jivers at the RKO Boston. “Mister Calloway is in the groove when it comes to jive,” noted one critic approvingly. “He’s out of this world and his hep-cat swingsters cook with gas.” Moviegoers in Washington could choose between the bedroom comedy Appointment for Love, starring Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer; Two-Faced Woman, the Greta Garbo film condemned by the Legion of Decency as “immoral and un-Christian”; and the heroic but highly inaccurate biography of General George Armstrong Custer, They Died with Their Boots On. At the Gayety Theater, burlesque dancer Rosita Royce performed her notorious “Dance of the Doves,” which employed strategically placed trained birds in what a Washington Post critic termed “one of the cleverest acts in show business.” On a more intellectual level, the Washington Amateur Astronomers Association met in the National Museum and heard a presentation from a Carnegie Institution physicist on recent efforts to smash the atom: “The Annihilation of Matter.”
President Roosevelt spent much of the day working alone with his secretary, catching up on paperwork, and receiving periodic reports of Japanese naval movements off the coast of Indochina. In a last-ditch effort to forestall a showdown, the president composed a personal appeal to Emperor Hirohito, asking him to withdraw Japan’s troops from Southeast Asia. Numerous White House staffers took the day off to catch up on Christmas shopping. That afternoon, a strong Canadian cold front swept across the eastern United States. Roosevelt spent a quiet evening at the White House, dining with a few friends, watching a movie, and looking over his stamp collection. He made vague promises to “take it easy” on Sunday, perhaps allowing himself an afternoon nap and a drive in the Virginia countryside. Before the president retired for the night, a Navy officer handed him a lengthy decoded message from Tokyo that left no doubt that war was imminent.
“So ends our reverie in the twilight,” wrote Raymond Clapper, “over the dear, dead days.”
Copyright © 2019 by William K. Klingaman