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Western Front1st August 1941

FDR and the Road to War

Pearl Harbour, the event that forced the US into the war
Pearl Harbour, the event that forced the US into the war

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born at the family house at Hyde Park in New York State, on 30 January 1882, he immediately entered a life of enormous privilege. His parents were rich and well connected - his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, would become the 26th President of the United States in 1901, and his mother could trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower. America may not possess a traditional aristocracy, but Franklin Roosevelt was born to be a Duke, if not a Prince, in all but name.

An only child, his mother drummed into the young Franklin the necessity for the privileged to help the less well off, and in the process helped create a patrician manner in the young man that would last all his life. Then, as befitted a member of his high class, Roosevelt attended both a prestigious school – Groton – and university – Harvard.

Initially, all seemed to be progressing smoothly for this extremely smooth young man. He was elected a New York state senator in 1910, was assistant secretary of the US Navy during the First World War, and was the democratic nominee for vice-president in their unsuccessful challenge for the White House in 1920. But then came disaster. In 1921 Roosevelt suddenly contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease not unlike polio, which would paralyze him from the waist down. And now, in many ways, comes the most extraordinary part of the story of Franklin Roosevelt. Because he simply refused to let his disability alter his career plans or change his deep rooted optimism about life. He completely rejected any self-pity, and remained – as he mentioned to Naval Intelligence officer George Elsey during the war – fundamentally a ‘happy thought’ man.

But Roosevelt was always careful, from now on, to conceal the extent of his disability from the electorate. It was almost as if since he had decided to ignore his paralysis, then the American people should be ‘helped’ to ignore it too. This attitude played perfectly into another key aspect of Roosevelt’s character – his almost pathological secrecy. ‘He is intensely suspicious,’ says Professor David Reynolds, ‘he keeps all his cards close to his chest and he does not confide in anybody else.’

This combination of suspicion and secrecy deep in Roosevelt’s character – masked by his easy charm –  was almost as extraordinary a characteristic as his courage in dealing with his disability. For this desire not to let another human being completely into his confidence came almost to define Roosevelt’s method of conducting politics.

Franklin Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in November 1932 at the age of 50. He immediately tried to reverse the effects of the economic depression by public works – like the famous Tennesee Valley Authority – and other progressive policies. But these were not completely successful and by 1940 – almost at the end of his second term – Roosevelt was not perceived as quite the hero that some imagine today.

‘Roosevelt, but for what happened in the summer of 1940,’ says Professor David Reynolds, ‘would have been a two term President who would have retired in January 1941, and, as such, we would think of him now as a fairly successful President who had done something to get America moving out of the depression; but in 1939 you still have 20 per cent unemployment in the US, the depression isn’t over and it’s the war that ends the depression for America and it’s the war that makes Roosevelt into one of the great Presidents of American history because he presides over the depression and the war and, in a sense, victory over both. But in the summer of 1940 Roosevelt is rethinking everything. Can he run for a third term? He thinks he can, but if he is going to run for a third term then he has got to play this foreign policy thing very, very carefully all through the summer of 1940.’

And in the summer of 1940 Roosevelt was, initially, not certain either about the character of Winston Churchill, or even whether Britain would survive. To begin with, Roosevelt and Churchill – but for the war – would not have been expected to have got along together. ‘They have a bit in common in terms of both being aristocrats in their own countries,’ says Andrew Roberts, ‘but really there is nothing politically to hold Churchill to Roosevelt and vice versa.’

‘Churchill’s reputation,’ says Professor Reynolds, ‘is as a kind of old stager and a bit too ready with the booze. He’s also identified with the reactionary part of the Conservative Party, India, imperialism, all of that stuff.’ Roosevelt was absolutely opposed to the British Empire, just as Churchill had been critical of the interventionist policies of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, so this was, from the beginning, a relationship under much more stress than the cosy propaganda images of the time would allow.

But still, Roosevelt was sympathetic to the plight of Britain and adamantly opposed to Hitler and the Third Reich. However this was never to be a partnership of equals. ‘If Britain wants to carry on the war it’s going to need at the very least large scale economic aid from the United States,’ says Professor David Reynolds, ‘and probably military support as well, an army and all the rest of it. So Churchill, from the time he becomes Prime Minister, really treats his number one diplomatic project as wooing the President of the United States and trying to draw him into the war.’

And this policy of ‘wooing’ the Americans did bear some fruit in 1940, first with a deal whereby Britain received several old American destroyers in exchange for leasing a number of military bases to the USA, and then – crucially after Roosevelt had been elected to a third term – with the announcement of the ‘Lend Lease’ policy. This innovative idea seems to have come, virtually fully formed, from Roosevelt’s fertile political imagination. Using the folksy analogy of ‘good neighborliness’ Roosevelt got round the problem that the British were fast running out of the ability to pay for American aid, with the idea that the goods Churchill required would be ‘lent’ to Britain and then either returned after the war was over, or if ruined beyond repair, simply replaced. It was a political masterstroke.

But still, Roosevelt was uncertain about the future of Britain under the leadership of Churchill. And so he employed his typical technique to find out more about the British Prime Minister – the use of intermediaries who operated outside the traditional governmental department systems. And one of his most trusted agents in this respect was a man named Harry Hopkins, who had held government positions in commerce and lend lease but who had no official authority in the arena of foreign affairs – other than the confidence of the President. ‘So in January 1941 Roosevelt sends Harry Hopkins, his right hand man, over to London to try and suss out Churchill,’ says Professor Reynolds, ‘and find out whether it really is true that Churchill is just basically an old die hard, and really just try and get a handle on Churchill. And Churchill is primed about this visit just in time by Brendan Bracken, one of his right hand men, somebody who actually knew something about America and who mattered in America, and Churchill really turns it on for Hopkins. He takes Hopkins everywhere, he takes him to Cabinet meetings, he takes him on tours around the war damaged cities, the docks, and he has him to dinner and then after they’ve had dinner then Churchill says, right, I’m off to do some work and so he’s doing amazing 18 hour days, and on one occasion after one of these, Churchill disappears to do more work and Hopkins just sits back in the chair and says, ‘Jesus Christ, what a man!’ He goes back, absolutely clear, to Roosevelt, that this is the genuine article, he’s in this war till the end and he’s serious about the relationship with America. So it’s a kind of a gradual coming together… So Hopkins plays a very important part in Roosevelt getting the vibes. Roosevelt’s a very feely kind of President, you know, and it’s the vibes about people that matter to him. And Hopkins gives the right vibes in 1940 and 1941 about Churchill and Stalin.’

Possessed with the ‘right vibes’ about Churchill in the spring of 1941, and secure in the knowledge that he was three more years away from a Presidential election, Roosevelt moved step by step to offer more assistance to Britain. And in a speech on 27 May 1941 he outlined what America’s policy should be. It’s a masterly piece of politics, as Roosevelt once again attempted to reconcile his promise in the Presidential elections of 1940 that he would not be sending American soldiers to fight in a ‘foreign war’ with his desire to help the British – in a manner he must have known would most likely lead to America’s entry into the war.

Crucial to this delicate piece of politics was, once again, re-focusing the struggle as one that deeply affected America: ‘what started as a European war has developed,’ said Roosevelt, ‘as the Nazis always intended it should develop, into a world war for world domination... Adolf Hitler never considered the domination of Europe as an end in itself. European conquest was but a step toward ultimate goals in all the other continents. It is unmistakably apparent to all of us that, unless the advance of Hitlerism is forcibly checked now, the Western Hemisphere will be within range of the Nazi weapons of destruction… They plan to treat the Latin American nations as they are now treating the Balkans… They plan then to strangle the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada… The American laborer would have to compete with slave labor in the rest of the world. Minimum wages, maximum hours? Nonsense! Wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler. The dignity and power and standard of living of the American worker and farmer would be gone. Trade unions would become historical relics, and collective bargaining a joke… Nobody can foretell tonight just when the acts of the dictators will ripen into attack on this hemisphere and us. But we know enough by now to realize that it would be suicide to wait until they are in our front yard.’

Therefore, Roosevelt argued, powerful measures had to be taken to protect ships crossing the Atlantic with goods bound for Britain: ‘We have, accordingly, extended our patrol in North and South Atlantic waters. We are steadily adding more and more ships and planes to that patrol. It is well known that the strength of the Atlantic Fleet has been greatly increased during the past year, and that it is constantly being built up.’

It was a bravura performance from Roosevelt. He had managed to make measures which were likely to take America into the war – since it was inevitable that U-boats would target, albeit by accident, American ships sailing alongside British ones in the Atlantic – sound like measures designed to keep America out of war, by helping the British take on Nazism by proxy. Once again, Roosevelt had shown his unparalleled ability to use the media of the time for his own political ends.

‘Franklin Roosevelt was probably the premier politician we had in America throughout the entire 20th Century,’ says Professor Robert Dallek. ‘He was brilliantly manipulative and he used everyone who came into his circle for his own designs and purposes. This is not to suggest they were necessarily malign purposes, but he was self-serving, to promote himself, to promote the Democratic Party and to assure the national well-being, so he’s very calculating and he’s brilliant at using language to bring people to his side. He’s highly effective at manipulating the press in the United States. Now, newspaper owners despise him, they do not like him one whit. But the journalists love him because he’s so charming, he’s so effective in these press conferences that he holds, inviting the press in to stand around his desk in the Oval Office and he chit-chats with them and he says, boys, there’s no news today, and then of course he tells them what he wants to tell them, so that he can get front page news that hopefully will influence public opinion. Yes, he was a brilliantly manipulative, shrewd and effective politician.’

But Roosevelt was still not moving as fast towards committing America to war as Churchill would have liked. And though the two of them did meet at the Atlantic conference in August 1941, little of real substance came from the meeting. Roosevelt chose to focus on ‘eight points’ which represented their combined ‘hopes for a better world’ – these were playing to the President’s ‘touch-feely’ side, and mentioned, for example, the desire that the world ‘must come to the abandonment of force’. This was clearly a deliberate attempt on Roosevelt’s part to keep the American public focused on the moral issues involved in – potentially – fighting Nazism, whilst avoiding the kind of absolute commitments that Churchill clearly wanted. ‘What he [Roosevelt] understood,’ says Professor Dallek, ‘was that before you can fight a war in which you’re going to sacrifice blood and treasure to the extent which would be required in this global conflict, you needed to have a stable consensus in the United States for the fighting, you needed to have a rock bed commitment on the part of the public to fight this war.’

Meantime, whilst his focus was primarily on the war in Europe, Roosevelt also had to deal with a crisis in Asia. In July 1941, the Japanese – who had been fighting a war of aggression in China since 1937 – had moved into southern Indo-China. As a result, the Americans had imposed sanctions on the Japanese, and an impasse between the two countries was developing. ‘Roosevelt, I believe, was very eager to keep Japan at bay,’ says Professor Robert Dallek. ‘He did not want to see a war with Japan. He was afraid it would be a terrible distraction from the war in Europe, and he did not want to get into a war with Japan. On the other hand, he felt he could not let Japan run wild because the sentiment in the United States about the fighting fronts was much more anti-Japanese than it was anti-Germany. People were much more preoccupied with what the Japanese were doing in Asia than they were with what was happening in Europe. And so Roosevelt feels he has to do certain things in order to demonstrate to the public that he is taking a firm stand, because people are very sympathetic towards China… China is America’s favourite ally in World War Two, there’s this kind of sympathy; China’s never been an imperial power like Britain… And so there is this sense that Japan is a prime enemy and most disliked in the United States, so Roosevelt needs to put on certain embargoes; public opinion is never far from his mind. Now, he also does want to punish them for the kind of aggression they’re committing in China, there’s no question about it.’

Roosevelt exhibited a certain complacency in his dealings with the Japanese, leaving the actual negotiations to others, particularly his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. It was Hull who, in November 1941, wrote a letter to the Japanese saying that they must agree not only to withdraw from Indo-China, but also China itself – something that the Japanese were never likely to do.

Then, on 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. Four days later, on 11 December, Germany also declared war on the United States. And now, partly as a result of Roosevelt’s careful politics, America was at the centre of the Second World War, with most certainly, ‘a stable consensus in the United States for the fighting.’