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Increasing Defense Concerns, 1938-39

August 1938, China's government withdrawal to Chongqing. In October Japan's army overran Canton. And, in late 1938, Roosevelt did extend help to the Chinese, granting 25 million dollars to Chiang Kai-shek's government to help continue its war against the Japanese.

Responding to Hitler's speeches, Roosevelt in 1938 decided to speed the development of the US. aircraft industry. He told the Herald Tribune that like other nations the United States would not accept disarmament "while neighbor nations are armed to the teeth." And the US Congress was also more concerned about defense. It passed a bill for expanding the navy, declaring that it wanted a Navy "second to none." Aircraft carriers were in the making. The United States was developing the B17 bomber. The Marine Corps was refining amphibious warfare tactics. And the army was struggling with the development of mobilized warfare, including tanks.

President Roosevelt, in his annual message to Congress in January 1939 spoke of the increase in range and speed of foreign aircraft making necessary advances in "defensive aviation." Not mentioning Germany by name, he spoke of the possibility of North America being invaded by those believing in force. Roosevelt wanted more money for the War Department (not to be called the Defense Department until 1946.) Into 1939 with the break up of Czechoslovakia and Hitler's army moving to Prague, war appeared more likely in Europe, and in the US funds for armored vehicles expanded beyond money for horses, mules and horse-drawn wagons. But the United States was spending less on arms than either Britain or Japan, and less still than Germany and the Soviet Union. The United States had been using World War I equipment, some of which cost more to maintain than the purchase of new equipment. The Marine Corps was not about to receive the material necessary for its amphibious landings, such as Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs). And the United States was lagging behind in research, while nations abroad were making advances in the radar detection of aircraft, aerial mapping, anti-tank weaponry and fire control. And Germany had begun work in rocketry for long range bombing.

In preparing for war, Britain was becoming accustomed to gas masks, while 1939 in the United States was a good year for movies. Gone with the Wind opened in theaters, and the film Gunga Din was released, starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Junior – a popular film based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling about British troops in India in the late 19th Century. It was the year that the movie Wizard of Oz was released, and the year that Mr. Smith played by James Stewart went to Washington and fought for democratic ideals. It was the year that John Wayne appeared in Stagecoach and fought Indians in the nation's southwest. It was also another big year for the New York Yankees, who, with Joltin' Joe Dimaggio, won their fourth straight World Series, in four straight games. And it was the year that the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marion Anderson to sing in their Constitution Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from that organization and arranged for Ms. Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before a large, racially mixed crowd, and the concert was broadcast to millions more who tuned in on their radios.

Hitler, meanwhile, continued to view the United States with scorn and as militarily insignificant. He believed that the landed aristocracy of the United States had been crushed in its civil war and that this had been followed by upstart capitalists in the United States importing "scum of the earth" immigrants from Eastern Europe, resulting in the kind of polyglot urbanization that Hitler had seen in his youth in Vienna. Only a small minority in the United States, Hitler believed, was racially valuable. Jews, he claimed, were too influential in the United States. The U.S. he believed, was the Jewish spirit distilled. He saw Roosevelt as a tool of the Jews. He favored America's isolationists for their keeping the U.S. insignificant, and he believed that the Jews were pushing the United State into conflict with foreign powers. He recognized that the United States was a great economic power, but, he said, it would not be a world power until 1970 or 1980 at the earliest.

In the German press were depictions of the United States as a place of decadence: crime, gangsters, jazz and peroxided women having cigarettes dangling from their mouths – nothing like virtuous National Socialist Germany.

Roosevelt was aware that Hitler was dismissing the United States as of no concern. Regarding the Munich Conference, Roosevelt believed that if the United States had been involved with its former allies, Great Britain and France in an effective alliance against aggression there would have been no appeasement at Munich. Here was Roosevelt not wanting war but wishing to prevent it. With many in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt believed that war was coming, but he was not prepared to say so publicly. More than ever he wished to make the United States a part of a coalition against Germany, and he wished for the increased influence that the United States would have if it amended the Neutrality Act.

The former president, Herbert Hoover, had become the Republican Party's chief spokesman regarding foreign affairs. And, when Hitler sent its troops to Prague and seized Moravia and Bohemia, Hoover declared that no clear and present danger existed for the United States and Britain, France and others in Europe would be able to defend themselves should there be war. Hoover spoke of Roosevelt's "dangerous adventures" and argued that Roosevelt was trying to divert people's attention from his failure to end the Depression. Sounding like Norman Thomas, Hoover declared that involvement in a major war would cause the United States to become "mobilized into practically a fascist government." This, he suggested, would help Roosevelt in his "ambitions to become a kind of dictator." Hoover, however, was accurate on one account: he predicted that another major war would bring Communist expansion.

In June, 1939, came the well-publicized issue of the German ship, the S.S. St. Louis, and its nearly 900 Jewish refugees. The refugees had paid for their passage and expected to stay in Cuba while they waited for their names to rise to the top of a long list of people waiting to be included among the 26,000 people the United States allowed to migrate from Germany each year. The Cuban president, Frederic Bru, dithered, forced the St. Louis to return to sea, and tried to bargain cash payment in return for allowing the refugees temporary stay in Cuba. The president of the Dominican Republic did the same. No help came from the US State Department. Germany's Propaganda Minister, Dr. Goebbels, announced to the world that the plight of the refugees on the S.S. St. Louis was an example of the world not wanting Jews. The S.S. St. Louis was ordered to return to Germany. The German captain of the S.S. St. Louis had sympathy for his Jewish passengers and was outraged. He was able to put some refugees off in Britain. And some refugees went to France. And some eventually would go to the death camps.

In July, Roosevelt asked Congress to revise the Neutrality Act so that he could strengthen those opposed to aggression. The new and more conservative Congress voted into office in 1938 was now cutting budgets, and 775,000 WPA workers were forced into the ranks of the unemployed. And the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations voted 12 to 11 against making any changes to the Neutrality Act.

Not long before news broke of the Hitler-Stalin pact, in late-August 1939, Roosevelt was urging the Soviet Union to align itself with the West against the fascist powers. That month, Europe appeared to be on the brink of war, and the number of people in the US favoring shipping arms to Britain and France increased only slightly – to 39 percent of those questioned. And only one in six of those polled believed that events would warrant the United States joining the war in Europe without the US having been directly attacked first.


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