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Debating Intervention, September 1939 to October 1940

With Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the declaration of war by Britain and France, debate erupted in the United States. Roosevelt called Congress into special session, and on September 21 he spoke in favor of remaining neutral but for amending the Neutrality Act in order to aid the "non-aggressive belligerents." The invasion of Poland sent the sale of newspapers soaring. Isolationism was losing ground. Most Americans now saw Hitler as a great danger to the world. Crowds overflowed at the galleries of the Senate and House of Representatives. Congress was changing with the change in public opinion. On October 27, after much debate, the Senate voted 63 to 30 to amend provisions in the Neutrality Act, and the House of Representatives voted its approval a few days later.

Those still against sending arms to Europe became more strident. Senator Wheeler was aghast. He cried that sending aid to the Allies would lead to the plowing under of "every fourth American boy." He asked whether the last war, World War I, had proved worthwhile. Why, he asked, should we pay for war materials for Great Britain when they still owed us money from the previous war. He complained that Congress had given power to the president to send all of the nation's "fighting aircraft and warships" to Britain. He complained of "warmongers and interventionists" controlling money in the US and of their controlling most of the avenues of propaganda, including the motion picture industry.

In the spring of 1940, while Hitler's armies took Norway and rumbled through Denmark, Holland and France, Churchill was complaining in private that the United States was giving Britain too little help, and isolationists in the US were continuing their campaign against involvement abroad.

Americans were surprised by Hitler's move westward, especially against peaceful Norway. Americans became concerned that German forces would now move into Greenland – territory of Denmark and near the United States. In responding to Hitler's new invasions, Roosevelt spoke of America's anger. And on the day that Holland quit fighting, he again denounced isolationism.

Charles Lindbergh was leading the movement to stay out of the war, and he countered Roosevelt by declaring that the United States must stop the "hysterical chatter of calamity and invasion." The United States, he said, cannot be invaded. He spoke of the danger of the US becoming involved in the war in Europe because "powerful interests in America" wanted it. "They represent a small minority of the people," he said, "but they control much of the machinery of influence and propaganda."

By now, Congress was more concerned with military readiness. In June, Roosevelt signed bills that allowed construction for the Navy and an expanded air corps. Roosevelt chose to send some World War I weapons to Britain, to help Britain's Home Guard and to replace a fraction of the artillery Britain's army had lost on the continent – his first shipment leaving the United States on June 24.

In July 1940, the Battle of Britain began. In the United States an aroused public rushed to buy flags. "God Bless America" began being sung at sporting events, school meetings and at gatherings for bingo. In September, Roosevelt delivered 50 destroyers to Britain in exchange for bases at eight points on the Atlantic coast, from Newfoundland to British Guiana.

Concerned about the prospect for war, Congress passed the Selective Service and Training Act, and Roosevelt signed the bill into law, establishing the first peacetime military service draft in the United States. In late October the Roosevelt administration began drafting men into the military. And from Congress the Navy won authorization to double the number of their combat ships. Also the production of aircraft was being readied for the Army Air Corps.

Worried about steps toward war, isolationists had formed what was called the America First Committee. Members argued in favor of Fortress America – that intervening abroad would weaken the nation's ability to defend itself at home. Democracy at home, it claimed, could only be preserved by keeping out of Europe's war. In it were senators Nye and Wheeler, Henry Ford, Chester Bowles, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Eddie Rickenbaker (the World War I flying ace), Kathleen Norris, Lillian Gish, the historian Charles Beard and Father Coughlin. General Robert E. Wood, chairman of the board of Sears & Roebuck, served as the committee's national chairman. The America First Committee began organizing petitions, lobbying and letter writing to Congress. And the Committee dismissed Henry Ford from its membership in order to reduce charges against it of anti-Semitism.

Charles Lindbergh continued to campaign, drawing on his popularity as a national hero and his expertise in aviation. Speaking at Yale in October, Lindbergh claimed that the United States could fight a successful war against Japan but only if it stayed neutral concerning Europe. But if the United States became involved in another war, he said, "life as we know it today would be a thing of the past." If the United States defeated Germany, he said, it would result in "the downfall of all European civilization, and the establishment of conditions in our own country far worse even than those in Germany today."

The historian Nell Irving Painter, in her History of White People, writes of Lindbergh's friendship with the industrialist Henry Ford. She quotes Ford: "When Charles comes out here, we only talk about the Jews." note49

Dr. Painter writes of Lindbergh's article in the Reader's Digest, where he wrote of the "barrier between the teeming millions of Asia and the Grecian inheritance of Europe." Lindbergh wrote of a coming war that "will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race." Instead of war, according to Lindbergh, it was time "to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again."

In 1940 the Republican Party pushed the Liberty League and its isolationists aside and chose as their candidate Wendell Wilkie, a businessman from Indiana and an internationalist. Roosevelt won 27.2 million votes, and Wilkie 22.3.

In January, a lend-lease bill was making its way through Congress – a bill that gave the president the power to transfer war material, including ships, to Britain or any other power. Isolationists fought the bill, but the bill passed into law in March.

On April 4, while the air war called Battle of Britain was coming to an end, Roosevelt agreed to allow the British Navy to repair and refuel its ships in the United States, and he notified Britain that the US was extending its defense zone eastward in the Atlantic – as far as Iceland and the western coast of Africa.

In secrecy, the US had notified the British that they were breaking Japanese coded messages, and in April the British reciprocated, notifying the Americans that they were breaking German code. Through the British, the Americans learned of orders to German submarine captains to avoid incidents with US forces. Knowing this, Roosevelt, it is assumed, believed that an incident leading to war involving German submarines was not likely. Roosevelt, it is said, gave orders to shoot on sight any German submarine – not to create an incident but merely to scare the submarines away.

Secrecy aside, in June, 1941, the world got another big surprise, a surprise especially for Stalin: Hitler set aside his pact with the Stalin and sent his armies into the Soviet Union. Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri announced that the US ought to help the Soviet Union when Hitler was winning and Germany when the Soviet Union was winning.

By now the US government was spending without concern for deficits. National security was at stake. It was believed that the money could be paid back later. Spending was finally becoming big enough to lift the United States out of the depression, without bringing the economic disaster that some thought it would. Millions were going to work in what was called the defense industry. Others were joining the payroll and upkeep provided by the government to members of the armed services. Labor unrest and strikes were in decline. Americans were becoming more unified, and they were enjoying it.


FDR: A Biography, by Ted Morgan, 1985

Voyage of the Damned, by Gordon Thomas and Max Witts, 1974

Luce and His Empire, by W A Swanberg, 1972

Road to War, by Walter Millis, 1935

Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg, 1998

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker, 2008

Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.