19 Weeks: America, Britain, and the Fateful Summer of 1940by Norman Moss
The whirl of events during the spring and summer of 1940 is boggling to contemplate: the astonishing collapse of France, the evacuation of Dunkirk, secret moves for peace, the Battle of Britain, air raids on London, the battle over isolationism in America. While Britain steeled itself for a German invasion, America argued over how to respond to the gathering
The whirl of events during the spring and summer of 1940 is boggling to contemplate: the astonishing collapse of France, the evacuation of Dunkirk, secret moves for peace, the Battle of Britain, air raids on London, the battle over isolationism in America. While Britain steeled itself for a German invasion, America argued over how to respond to the gathering storm in Europe.
In December 1941, Germany and Japan would declare war on the United States, forcing the nation to join the Allied cause. But it was the extraordinary decisions made between May and September of 1940 that signaled America's willingness to emerge from its entrenched isolationism. Those nineteen weeks were, Moss shows, the crucible in which America's interventionist role in the world was forged and which ensured the decline and eventual disappearance of the British Empire. Roosevelt's battle for the hearts and minds of Americans was to have far-reaching consequences that still color the way we live today. Nineteen Weeks recounts the epic tale of these two nations, each confronting the great crush of history. Moss examines this period from the viewpoints of the leaders and policymakers, but also through the intimate experiences of ordinary citizens. A moving, prescient examination of two countries struggling with war, Nineteen Weeks opens important questions about the decline of the British Empire and the rise of America's dominant role in global politics.
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World War One cast a long shadow over Europe in the 1920s and '30s.
Some 615,000 British men and women died between 1914 and 1918, and
many more returned wounded or maimed, constant reminders of the war.
Every village green had its war memorial, and they are there still, usually a
stone or granite cross or slab, bearing the names of the young men of the
village who went away and did not return, often, heartbreakingly, two or three
family names the same. Railroad stations, public buildings, even major
corporations all had and still have on their walls granite plaques with the
names of employees who, as it is said, gave their lives. The two-minute
silence of remembrance was observed solemnly at 11 o'clock on November
11, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Business
stopped and people fell silent to remember the war dead.
The war changed Britain in many ways. Britain entered the war
the world's biggest creditor nation; when the war ended, most of its overseas
assets had been sold and it was in debt to the United States. It was no
longer the world's economic powerhouse. Its empire was larger, for Britain
took over some of the Arab world from the Ottoman Empire, but it was
Other nations suffered even more. France lost 1.3 million men, 27
percent of all men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven, and 7
percent of its territory was devastated. Nearly two million Germans were
killed, and two million Russians before Russia quit the war in 1917.
Its effect on people's minds was all the greater because it came
as ashock. No one knew there could be such a war. The century before
1914 had seen the greatest growth in wealth in history. Populations,
resources, and machine power had all increased many times over. All were
available to be poured into a war not just of armies but of whole nations,
which went until one after another was exhausted.
Nothing had prepared people for the war. There was no
contemporary literature of war to match the realistic memoirs, novels, and
poems that were to come out of World War One. Most images of war were of
patriotic adventure, of brave men in splendid uniforms, of charges and
retreats, of gallant deeds and valiant deaths. When the war came in August
1914, crowds in Berlin and Paris cheered. In Britain, which unlike the
Continental countries had never had conscription and had never maintained a
large army, men rushed to enlist, eager to see action before it was over. The
poet Rupert Brooke exulted at the opportunity for youth to prove itself. "Thank
God that he has matched us to this hour," he wrote.
The war was fought on several fronts and at sea, and for the first
three years the Germans were heavily engaged in Russia. But for the
majority of British, French, Germans, and Americans who took part, the war
was the Western front, two lines of trenches that separated the Allied and
German armies, in which millions of men lived and died in mud and filth for
four years. It was a uniquely static war fought over a small area of France and
The battlefield was a symmetrical one. The trenches on the Allied
side looked much like those on the German side, and the men in them lived
the same lives exposed to the same dangers and the same horrors. This
gave rise to a sense, particularly after the war, that there was another division
besides that of the two armies, a division between those at the front, on both
sides, linked by a common experience, and those back home who had sent
them there, or cheered them on, ignorant of what they were enduring, either
through naiveté or callous indifference.
One of the most widely read war novels was by a German, Erich
Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front. It was a bestseller in many
countries. British, French, and American veterans as well as Germans could
identify with the protagonist's experiences in the trenches, and also with his
disgust when he went home on leave and saw the patriotic bombast and
glorified images with which schoolboys were being fed. Even Rudyard Kipling,
that most patriotic of poets, whose only son was killed on his first day on the
Western front, could write in 1919, in the persona of a dead soldier, "If any
question why we died / Tell them 'Because our fathers lied.'"
Governments had lied to their publics, it was now clear. The
Germans had not cut off the hands of Belgian children, as British newspapers
reported, nor had they struck a medal to commemorate the sinking of the
Lusitania. The British had schemed to get America into the war. While
professing noble aims, the Allied powers had been concluding secret treaties
carving up the territories to be wrested from the defeated. The war was widely
regarded as either a fraud perpetrated on gullible publics to turn them into
cannon fodder, or else a mistake, the inevitable result of the system of
alliances which had dragged the nations in one after another like mountain
climbers roped together. (This ignores the aggressive designs of the kaiser's
Germany, some of which only came to light in documents uncovered in the
The war produced some fine literature — poetry, novels, and
memoirs, written with a brutal realism. In the works of fiction particularly, the
war was seen not as a dramatic struggle but as industrialized slaughter, a
destructive and dehumanizing process that reduced men to a mass, "these
unheroic dead who fed the guns," in the words of the poet Siegfried Sassoon.
These spoke to a generation across national borders. They were a reaction
against the values that had taken young men willingly to war.
The war shattered the belief in progress and rationality that had
prevailed in European culture since the seventeenth century and the
Enlightenment, and this was much more so in Europe than in the United
States. The British scientist Freeman Dyson, when he first visited America in
1947, found that American students "lacked the tragic sense of life which
was deeply ingrained in every European of my generation," and which
stemmed, he said, not from the Second World War but the First.
To some, the answer to war lay in the League of Nations, created
in 1920. This body would ensure that international life was regulated by laws
much as civil life is, and that nations would band together to enforce the law
and punish the transgressor. A public opinion poll in Britain in 1935 showed
that 78 percent thought that supporting the League was the best way to
preserve the peace. Others rejected war entirely. In Britain 130,000 people
joined the Peace Pledge Union, promising never to fight another war.
In 1934 the Oxford Union, the university debating society that was
and is a training ground of Britain's future leaders, voted for the
proposition "That this house will never again fight for King and country." This
sent shock waves through the country, and produced anxious editorials about
the moral fiber of the nation's youth. But the students were rejecting, not all
war, but the simple-minded patriotism that impelled young men to march off
Most people in Britain supported the League of Nations and
collective security, but they were reluctant to rearm. Armaments were
deemed to be bad because they meant preparations for war, as well as
spending money that could otherwise be used to improve people's lives.
Socialists and Communists called for a stand against the fascism that was
emerging in Europe, but they also voted against increasing armaments
budgets. One slogan seen frequently on the Left was "Against Fascism and
War." Soon, people would have to decide which they opposed more.
The American experience of World War One was different.
Americans fought and died, but American losses were a fraction of those of
the European countries, fifty-three thousand killed. It was a year after
America entered the war in April 1917 before American troops went into
combat. Two million American soldiers went to France, but fewer than a
million saw combat, and most of those for only a few weeks. Many young
Americans who did not get into combat felt, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, that they
had missed a great adventure.
The United States entered the war for more noble reasons than
selfish gain, or so President Woodrow Wilson insisted, and it maintained a
lofty detachment from the war aims of Britain and France. It did not become
one of the allies but a cobelligerent. Official communications referred to "the
Allies and associated powers." American troops were not placed under the
Allied command. Wilson enunciated America's war aims in the Fourteen
Points, which called for a settlement that would not be a victors' peace but
would establish a just international order. The United States had entered the
arena, but it was going to change the game, to raise standards to a higher
The League of Nations was to be a cornerstone of this new order.
But the U.S. Senate would not ratify American membership in the League.
The senators were willing to go along with most aspects but were not willing
to commit the United States to collective action, and Wilson, a stubborn,
willful man, demanded an all-or-nothing response. Even so, a majority of
senators voted for the treaty — something that is usually forgotten — but not
enough to give it the two-thirds majority required. In the event, the nations
that committed themselves to take collective action against an aggressor did
not do so anyway.
If the war was widely seen to be a mistake, the peace certainly
was. The Germans had asked for an armistice on the basis of Wilson's
Fourteen Points, but the Allied powers had suffered as America had not, and
they were in a mood to extract retribution.
The Versailles Treaty, which the Allies imposed on Germany,
required Germany to accept sole responsibility for starting the war and to pay
huge reparations to France and Britain. Germany had to give back Alsace
and Lorraine, the two territories it had taken from France in 1871. It was
made to disarm and to have only a small army and no air force. The
Rhineland, the area bordering on France from which invading armies had
come in 1870 and 1914, was to be demilitarized, for what France wanted
above all else was security from its larger neighbor. Germany had to give up
part of its eastern territory to the newly created Poland, and its few colonies
in Africa and the Pacific were taken away. France, which had suffered most
among its enemies and was the most vindictive, added to Germany's
humiliation in 1923 by sending an occupation force into the Rhineland
because Germany had not paid some of its reparations. Germany was
acquiring victim status.
The reparations terms generated enormous resentment in
Germany but most reparations were never paid. Nonetheless, Germans
blamed their economic and other troubles on the Versailles Treaty. One
German politician at least was frank in his intention to exploit the national
resentment: "What a use could be made of the Treaty of Versailles . . . How
each one of the points of that treaty could be branded in the hearts and
minds of the German people until sixty million men and women find their
souls aflame with a feeling of rage and shame, and a torrent of fire bursts
forth as from a furnace, and a will of steel is forged from it," Hitler wrote in
At Versailles, the leaders of the victor nations invented new
countries out of the pieces of the shattered Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman
empires. Austria, no longer the head of an empire, was now a republic, a
small country of 8 million people. The Versailles Treaty banned its union with
Germany, which would have strengthened Germany. In the new countries,
nationalities and ethnic groups were intermingled. Czechoslovakia,
Yugoslavia, and the Balkan states all had ethnic and linguistic minorities,
potential causes of discord for those who wanted to exploit them.
As America made war separately, so it also made peace
separately. Since the Senate had rejected the Treaty of Versailles, America
had to conclude its own peace with Germany. The treaty was signed by
American and German representatives in 1921 almost furtively, in contrast to
the ceremonial signing by the other powers in the Palace of Versailles. Ellis
Loring Dressel, a diplomat who held the title of U.S. Commissioner for
Germany, and four American officials signed the peace treaty at the German
Foreign Ministry on August 25, along with the German foreign minister,
Friedrich Rosen. No announcement was made in advance.
In 1920 the American people elected as president Warren
Harding, who, unlike Woodrow Wilson, had no ambitious plans for America or
for the world. In his inaugural address Harding said: "Our policy is non-
involvement in Old World Affairs . . . This is not selfishness; it is sanctity. It
is not suspicion of others; it is patriotic adherence to the things which made
us what we are today." This was the feeling of most Americans. Isolation
from the affairs of Europe was the natural state of things, part of what made
America a special country. Harding promised the country normalcy, and
normalcy meant distance from Europe's untidy politics.
One issue left over from the war was the question of war debts.
The U.S. government had loaned money to the Allies. The Allies were slow in
paying it back, partly because they counted on reparations from Germany to
pay it. Britain had loaned money to the other allies and agreed to pay the
United States when its own loans were repaid. Truth to tell, Europeans did
not feel indebted to the United States, so great were their losses in lives and
wealth sacri.ced for the common cause compared to America's. Several
schemes for debt repayment were floated, and then in 1932 the remaining
debts were written off along with German reparations. But the issue rankled
with many Americans and was seen as one more reason not to get involved
with those ungrateful Europeans.
To reduce competition in armaments, the United States, Britain,
and Japan reached an agreement on naval disarmament in Washington in
1922. They agreed to maintain warship levels at a ratio of five-five-three, with
the United States and Britain having five major warships to every three of
Japan's. This showed how much Britain had been weakened by the war.
Before 1914, no British government would have agreed that another country
should have parity with the Royal Navy. Britannia ruling the waves was not
only a part of every Briton's image of their country: it was also an essential
part of maintaining Britain's worldwide empire.
Britain took another crucial decision at this conference. It had an
alliance with Japan that had stood it in good stead during the war, protecting
its Far East empire. The agreement expired in 1922. Now Japan's expansion
in the Far East created a potential conflict with American interests. Britain
had to make a choice, and it chose to let the alliance lapse in the interest of
friendship with America, changing Japan from an ally into a potential enemy.
America's contribution to the postwar world was,
characteristically, a collective promise of good intentions. Secretary of State
James Kellogg drew up with French foreign minister Aristide Briand a treaty
in which signatories promised to forsake war as an instrument of national
policy. All the major nations of the world signed the Kellog-Briand Treaty in
1928, and its authors were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The war ended with the overthrow of the kaiser in Germany, but the republic
set up at Weimar in 1919 did not establish firm roots in German political life.
Hyperinflation in 1923 shattered Germans' national confidence almost as
much as the defeat in 1918 had. Right-wing extremists took up the myth of
the "stab in the back," claiming that the German army was never defeated but
was betrayed. Since there were no foreign troops on German territory when
the war ended, this could be made to seem plausible. The republic was
shaken by attempted coups by Left and Right. The army, small as it was
because of the Versailles Treaty limitations, operated as an independent
force. It organized training in Russia in secret and backed favored political
The worldwide depression triggered in 1929 hit Germany
particularly hard as much of its industry relied on foreign investment. With
widespread poverty and 6 million unemployed, the Nazi Party bounded from
810,000 votes in the election in 1928 to more than 6 million in 1930. The
Nazis promised to end Germany's economic and political humiliation and
make Germans a proud people again. They blamed the nation's troubles on
Communists, Jews, and traitors. They were radicals, promising to sweep
away the old institutions, such as parliamentary democracy, which seemed
to be failing, and create a new nation. Hitler got financial backing from the
industrialists by playing on their fear of Communism and political support
from the army by promising to remove the restrictions imposed on it by the
Under the Weimar constitution, the head of state was the
president. He could appoint a chancellor, who was the chief executive. No
one party got a majority in the 1932 election and there was an almost
permanent political crisis, with one coalition government following another.
The leaders of the conservative and Catholic parties decided that they might
achieve stability with a coalition government in which Hitler was chancellor
but the Nazis had only three seats in the cabinet, restricting their power to
act. This was one of the bad ideas of history.
In 1933 the president was the eighty-four-year-old Field Marshal
Paul von Hindenburg, a stout, upright figure with a walrus mustache, a
symbol of German conservatism and patriotism. On the morning of January
30 in the Kaiserhof, the presidential palace, von Hindenburg, wearing full-
dress military uniform, swore in Adolf Hitler as chancellor of the German
republic. Hitler was the third chancellor in a year. That evening, thousands of
brown-shirted Nazi Party storm troopers, braving bitter cold weather, marched
through Berlin carrying flaring torches and swastika flags and singing Nazi
anthems to celebrate the triumph of their movement, and Berliners got an
inkling that this chancellor might be different.
Hitler's achievement was extraordinary. He did not, like Stalin,
take over a revolutionary movement that was already in progress. He created
the Nazi Party and Nazi Germany. He transformed the sick man of Europe
into a disciplined, powerful nation that would within ten years conquer Europe
from the Volga to the Pyrenees.
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian from a village close to the German
frontier, the son of a low-ranking customs official, self-educated. The family
moved to Linz. Hitler tried to get into art school and failed. He went to Vienna
and lived there in poverty, sleeping in flop houses; he earned a meager living
doing odd jobs and by selling small water color paintings of city scenes. One
of the surprising things in his book Mein Kampf is a sensitive account of the
demoralizing effects of poverty on individuals and families.
He moved to Munich and joined the German army on the outbreak
of war. He was a brave and highly motivated infantry soldier, earning an Iron
Cross second class and a corporal's stripes. He was blinded by poison gas
and was in the hospital with bandages on his eyes when Germany
surrendered. After the war, in Munich, he moved into the shadowy world of
extreme right-wing politics, joining and then taking over the tiny National
Socialist Workers' Party, making it a power in Bavaria and then in the whole
of Germany. He proved to be a natural leader and a spell-binding orator.
Hitler set out his philosophy in Mein Kampf, the book he wrote in
1924 when he was thirty-five years old and was in prison in Munich after
leading a failed putsch, dictating much of it to Rudolf Hess. It is part
autobiography, part exposition of a nationalist and racist ideology, and part
prescription for Germany. Hitler never deviated either from the ideology he
expounded in the book or the policies he prescribed.
Hitler saw all human life as a struggle. This is central to his
thinking, and it comes out again and again in his book. "He who does not
wish to fight in this world, where permanent struggle is the law of life, does
not have the right to live." And "Nobody can doubt that this world will one day
be the scene of dreadful struggles for existence on the part of Mankind . . .
Before its consuming fire, this so-called humanitarianism, which connotes
only a mixture of fatuous timidity and self-conceit, will melt away as under
the March sunshine. Man has become great through permanent struggle. In
permanent peace his greatness must decline."
He returned to this theme in an election speech in February
1928: "In the struggle, the stronger, the more able, win, while the less able,
the weak, lose . . . It is not by the principles of humanity that Man lives or is
able to preserve himself above the animal world but only by the most brutal
There were slaves and enslavers, and there was no doubt what he
wanted his people to be. His people were the Germans, and he conceived of
them as a race, with a history going back thousands of years. Inferior races
deserved to be enslaved and forced to serve them. Another so-called race,
the Jews, were malignant, vile beings, a permanent threat to all that was
decent in the world. The Jews were behind Germany's defeat in 1918 and the
rise of Bolshevism. Democracy was enfeebling because it substituted
quantity for quality, the rule of numbers rather than the leadership of a man or
men who are strong and enlightened.
Usually when one quotes a book that a political figure has written
earlier in his career, it is to discomfort him by citing views that he left behind
as he matured. But Hitler's views and his policies remained consistent. After
this he wrote little, and even as chancellor he rarely put his policy aims down
on paper. He expounded them sometimes at formal meetings, but more often
in off-the-cuff conversations. Even important orders were often given verbally
and passed on as "It is the Fuehrer's wish that . . ." This has left room for
historians to argue about what he was intending at any given time; for David
Irving, who has demonstrated a sympathy for Nazism, to say that Hitler did
not order the Holocaust or even know about it; and for the distinguished
British historian A. J. P. Taylor to argue, with less malign motives, that Hitler
did not plan a campaign of aggression but simply took advantage of
In Mein Kampf Hitler set out his aims for Germany. The German
race should unite and then conquer more land, because a great nation must
have a large territory. They must "acquire soil for the German plow by means
of the German sword." That land was to be found in the Ukraine and Russia
and was there for the taking. "No nation possesses a square yard of ground
by decree of a higher Will and by virtue of a higher Right . . . The possession
of such territory is a proof of the strength of the conqueror and the weakness
of those who submit to him." Furthermore, "Destiny seems to point out the
way for us here," because Bolshevism had corrupted the Russian state.
France had to be defeated because it would always be an enemy
to Germany and would want Germany to be weak, for reasons which were
quite understandable. Hitler seems to have seen this as an unfortunate
necessity rather than a primary aim. Britain was a different matter. Hitler
chided the kaiser's government for challenging Britain's naval supremacy and
for seeking to emulate it as a colonial power. Britain should be sought as an
ally, not challenged as a rival. Germany's destiny did not lie overseas but in
Europe, in conquering lands to the east in the footsteps of the Teutonic
knights of the twelfth century. He occasionally said that Germany should
have its colonies taken away at Versailles returned, but he gave no sign of
feeling strongly about this.
As a speaker he had an almost mesmerizing ability to focus the
emotions of a crowd into one narrow, concentrated stream. He also had the
ability to inspire devotion, not only in the crowds who listened to his
speeches with rapt expressions and shining eyes but also in some of those
who became his close followers. Hermann Göring, Prussian officer and war
hero, said of the ex-corporal from the Vienna slums, "From the moment I saw
him I was under his spell."
He was also adept in one-to-one meetings at creating the
impression he wanted, even speaking through an interpreter. He could play
the sober and responsible statesman, denying in his manner the extreme
views and evil intent that were often imputed to him. Foreign politicians,
newspaper publishers such as Colonel McCormick and William Randolph
Hearst, businessmen, and even pacifists such as the British Labour Party
leader George Lansbury would come away from a meeting with him
reassured about his intentions. Anthony Eden, who would be an opponent of
the British government's appeasement policies, told the foreign office after his
one meeting with Hitler in 1933: "He is a surprise. In conversation quiet,
almost shy, with a pleasant smile. Without doubt the man has charm."
There were mixed views abroad about Hitler's accession and a lot
of let's-wait-and-seeing. He was a revolutionary, as he had often said, but
most people assumed that, like others who took a radical stance when they
were not in power, he would shed some of his wilder ideas when he assumed
the responsibilities of office. Britain's Daily Telegraph said in an editorial the
day after he came to power: "Herr Hitler in office is very different from being
the national and international peril that he has vowed himself to be given the
chance . . . he is merely a party leader on a par with other party leaders."
This attitude is understandable. Only a person with an excessively morbid
mind could have imagined the extent to which the nightmarish fantasies of
Hitler's ideology would be enacted.
While the Nazis' Brownshirts bullied and murdered their
opponents, Hitler pushed through emergency legislation to establish a
dictatorship. When Hindenburg died in 1934, the office of chancellor was
combined with that of president. From then on the Nazi Party was for all
practical purposes the state, and the party symbol, the swastika, became
the German flag. The party took control of every area of German life. Schools,
the press, the entertainment industry, youth clubs, sports, all were put at the
service of the Nazi ideology. Germans would grow up on a diet of militaristic
patriotism, hatred of Jews and other supposed enemies, and devotion to their
leader. The British historian John Wheeler-Bennett visited Germany in the
mid-1930s and wrote later: "Anyone but a half-blind idiot could see where this
All power was in Hitler's hands. The structure of government was
loose and could be changed at his will. Ministers and generals were there to
serve his purposes. The figure of Hitler became all-pervasive. He was the
pinnacle of the gigantic pageants, the embodiment of the new Germany. In a
custom not seen even when monarchs were said to be divinely anointed, a
salute to the leader was made the official greeting, so that "Heil Hitler" was
heard all over Germany a thousand times a day.
In 1935 the Nuremberg laws put the persecution of Jews on the
statute books. Jews were placed under degrading restrictions and were
barred from professions and from public life. Marriage and even sexual
relations between Jews and non-Jews were barred. Aryan blood must not be
The government embarked on a series of public works programs,
some linked to rearmament but civil projects as well. Hitler took over industry
with dictatorial powers and brought Germany out of economic depression,
ending unemployment, something no democratic leader was able to do.
National income in 1937 was double the 1932 figure. Göring said famously
that guns were better than butter, but the Germans were getting both. Hitler
wanted Germany to be self-sufficient so that it could not again be crippled by
a naval blockade as it had been in the First World War, and plants were set
up to manufacture steel, petrochemicals, and synthetic rubber. The economy
was being prepared for war. It needed war, because without it the growth
could not be sustained.
Hitler soon set about tearing up the Versailles Treaty as he had promised to
do. For foreign consumption, he said that all he wanted for Germany was
equality with other nations. In March 1934 he announced that he was
introducing conscription, breaching the restrictions on the size of the German
army. He followed this a few days later with a speech in the Reichstag
allaying fears that he was embarking on a path to war. "National Socialist
Germany wants peace because of its fundamental convictions," he declared.
It was a trick he was to pull again and again: an aggressive move
accompanied by a declaration of peaceful intentions.
Most foreign diplomats in Berlin could see what was happening.
The British ambassador, Sir Horace Rumbolt, told the Foreign Office a few
weeks after the Nazis came to power that "hooligans" were now in
power, "ruling Germany with a frivolous disregard for all decent feelings
without precedent in history."
U.S. ambassador William Dodd arrived in Berlin a year after Hitler
came to power. Dodd, a history professor who had gained his Ph.D. at
Leipzig University, had edited the papers of Woodrow Wilson, and he
embodied the Wilsonian concept of the American abroad as a missionary for
democracy. His daughter Martha, who accompanied him to Berlin, said later
that he had hoped to exercise a moderating influence on the German regime
and thought there would be "a chance to bring them back to reason, to recall
forcefully to them their democratic past." He was quickly disillusioned and
wrote in a dispatch: "The Hitler regime is composed of three rather
inexperienced and very dogmatic persons, all of whom have been connected
with more or less murderous undertakings in the last eight or ten years . . . In
the back of [Hitler's] mind is the old German idea of dominating Europe
Martha Dodd found a more active outlet for anti-Nazi feelings. She
copied confidential embassy documents and gave them to her Russian lover,
Boris Vinagradov, an agent of the KGB, the Soviet secret service, with
diplomatic cover. Unwisely, they asked his superiors in Moscow for
permission to marry. He was recalled and disappeared.
In 1935 German troops marched into the Rhineland, to be greeted
by the cheers of a welcoming populace, violating the clause in the Versailles
Treaty that said the Rhineland must remain demilitarized. Hitler assured
foreign powers that this was purely symbolic and offered to sign a twenty-five-
year nonaggression pact with France.
The British and French governments hastily conferred. Should
they act? The French foreign minister, Paul Bonnet, thought Hitler would
back down immediately if confronted by force, but France would have to order
general mobilization, which would be unpopular. The British prime minister,
Stanley Baldwin, told him, "Even if there was one chance in a hundred of war,
I would not take that chance." There was a widespread view that, as one
member of the cabinet put it, "Hitler was only walking into his own back yard."
Hitler was gambling. In poker terms, he was bluffing, betting high
on a weak hand, hoping the other side would back down. It was something
he was to do again and again. He did not have the forces yet to challenge
Britain and France. He had promised his generals that if the move were
opposed he would withdraw.
Hitler appointed Joachim Ribbentrop, one of his party confidants,
as the Nazi Party's foreign affairs advisor. Ribbentrop had lived abroad as a
child, and as a young man he had emigrated to Canada. He returned to
Germany in 1914 to serve in the army and then joined his father-in-law's wine
exporting firm. He was good-looking, a smart dresser, and spoke near-
faultless English, with elegant manners that many found artificial. Ribbentrop
negotiated successfully a naval treaty with Britain, which had the beneficial
effect of making France annoyed at Britain for signing the treaty without
Hitler appointed him ambassador to Britain to pursue his policy of
gaining Britain's friendship. He wanted to detach Britain from its traditional
link with France and make it an ally of Germany, the policy he thought the
kaiser should have followed. Hitler wanted Europe. Britain could have the rest
of the world. Within his own circle he said that he respected the British, who
were of the same race as the Germans.
Ribbentrop set out to establish a strong presence. He rented
Neville Chamberlain's house when Chamberlain was chancellor of the
exchequer and lived in the chancellor's official residence, and he made
headway in aristocratic circles and was a frequent guest in some country
houses. But he also made blunders. He greeted King George VI with the
Nazi salute. It was not the full outstretched-arm version but the one with the
arm raised above the elbow; even so it caused offense. He got no response
to his suggestions of an alliance. The British government did not want Hitler
to have Europe.
Traditional British policy has always been to maintain a balance of
power in Europe. It wanted to prevent a single power dominating the
Continent, particularly the northwestern part, closest to Britain. This is why
Britain gave a guarantee of Belgian independence and why it went to war in
1914 when Germany invaded Belgium. It did not see only Germany as the
threatening power. In the 1920s, military planners envisaged France as a
possible enemy. But a resurgent Germany was going to be the most powerful
country on the Continent, and a Nazi Germany was particularly unwelcome.
Germany was not the only country to give cause for concern. In
1932 a militaristic fascist-style government came to power in Japan, and
Japan moved to the Asian mainland and seized Manchuria. The League of
Nations condemned this but its members would not take any further action.
Japan quit the league.
Mussolini, who had invented the word fascist for the party he led
in Italy, invaded Ethiopia. The League of Nations condemned the action and
with Britain and France in the lead, initiated economic sanctions against
Italy, but they would not extend the sanctions to cover oil, which would have
made a difference. Only the Soviet Union called for full-scale action against
the fascist aggressor. Britain and France earned Mussolini's antagonism
without stopping his invasion.
In 1936 civil war broke out in Spain when, in a growing
atmosphere of instability, General Franco led a military revolt against a
democratically elected left-wing government. Italy immediately sent troops to
help Franco, and Germany sent squadrons of its newly formed air force,
rotating them to give the maximum number of airmen combat experience.
The Soviet Union alone sent military advisors to the Spanish Republic, once
again the only country to stand up to fascism. The war aroused passions in
the democracies. Many people called for help for the republican cause. The
governments did little, but forty thousand young men went as volunteers to
In 1937 Japan invaded China, a country with which America had
an almost avuncular relationship and with which Britain and America had
close commercial links. Japan aimed to replace the Western "open-door"
policy of maintaining China as an open market for all with its projected
Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The European powers had empires
in Asia. Japan also wanted its empire.
The aggressors were on the march and a line-up was forming. It
stretched right around the world.
Five weeks after Hitler became German chancellor, on a blustery March day
in Washington, D.C., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, leaning on two sticks and
on the arm of his eldest son, walked slowly up the ramp outside the Capitol
to be sworn in as thirty-fourth president, a look of strong determination on his
face belying the feebleness of his body below the waist.
America's national trauma was not the war but the Depression.
The images etched into the national psyche were not of barbed wire, muddy
trenches, and death rolls but of banks with their doors padlocked, lines of
unemployed men, and soup kitchens. The economic slump was worldwide,
indeed it was the single event that characterized the 1930s, but nowhere else
did it strike with such suddenness and nowhere else did it reverse a nation's
fortunes so totally and so rapidly. The Depression shook the American
people's faith in their system of government. It scarred a generation and
shaped their attitudes. It was a time of hardship and anxiety for most
American families, and disaster for many.
Roosevelt was elected in the depths of the Depression and foreign
affairs played little part in the voters' thinking. "Our own troubles are so
numerous and so difficult that we have neither the time nor the inclination to
meddle in the affairs of others," said Massachusetts congresswoman Edith
Nourse Rogers, and most people would have agreed with her.
Roosevelt set out to get the economy moving again. Acting with
furious energy from his first day in office, he enacted emergency measures,
created new federal agencies, put new legislation before Congress and
enlarged the powers of the federal government. With his smile and the jaunty
angle of his cigarette holder, he radiated confidence and a spirit that told
Americans that they could solve the nation's problems. His "New deal for the
American people" aimed not only to create more wealth but to spread wealth
and power more evenly.
Roosevelt was the son of a wealthy patrician family from upper
New York State, and had the education, at Groton School and Harvard, that
exemplified his class. Like many with his background, he traveled and came
to know Europe at an early age. From 1891, when he was nine, until 1900,
he went every year with his parents to the German spa town of Bad Nauheim,
because his father, James, was in poor health, and for a while he attended a
local German school. Many years later, he told British officials that he had
bicycled over a lot of southern Germany as a boy and gave them advice on
bombing Germany. He went into politics very early on, becoming a New York
state senator and then governor.
He had pronounced views on foreign policy, and they resembled
those of his older cousin Theodore, who, in his youthful days, he admired and
sought to emulate. Like Theodore Roosevelt he believed that America should
be a world power and should be ready to project its power abroad. He was
very much a navy man; as a boy he had wanted to go to Annapolis. He loved
the sea and was a keen sailor in his younger days. He served as assistant
secretary of the navy in World War One — Theodore Roosevelt had been
navy secretary at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War — and like
Theodore, he absorbed the teachings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, with his vision
of the United States as a world power and his emphasis on sea power.
He was keen for America to enter World War One on the side of
the Allies. When America did enter he wanted to see action, and extended
his tour of naval installations in Europe to get close to the front-line trenches.
His temperament as well as his viewpoint would lead him to seek an active
role in world affairs.
He was still regarded by most who knew him as something of a
rich playboy, likable but too light-weight to be presidential timber. Then, at
the age of thirty-nine, he contracted polio and, an active and athletic man, he
was transformed into an invalid. He was bed-ridden for two years, and the
ordeal hardened his will. Some say the experience also gave him a new
sympathy for those whose lot in life had not been as fortunate as his had
been up to that point. With a struggle he gained movement in the upper part
of his body and learned to move about and function, and he reentered political
Roosevelt was a consummate politician; he had to be to get
through progressive legislation while heading a party that included in its
natural constituency the rural South, conservative and racist, and labor
unions and middle-class liberals in the Northern cities. As state legislator,
governor, and president, he used persuasion, patronage, and pressure to
push through his projects, sensing how far he could go, making
compromises where he had to, working with anyone to achieve his ends. He
was the first president to use the Internal Revenue Service as a weapon
against opponents. But few doubted the sincerity of his ultimate purpose.
When a southern senator complained that the appointment of an ambassador
to the Vatican would offend many Protestants, Roosevelt wrote back
saying, "If some of my good Baptist brethren in Georgia had done a little
preaching from the pulpit against the KKK, I would have a little more genuine
American respect for their Christianity."
He worked through people rather than institutions, bypassing
established channels. He had charm, a winning informality, and great
persuasive powers. Joseph Kennedy did not want to be chairman of the
Maritime Commission but, explaining to a friend why he took the job when
Roosevelt offered it to him, he said, "I can say no to that fellow on the
telephone, but face to face he gets me." He had excessive confidence in his
power to charm; later he tried to deal with the Soviet government in that way,
saying, "I can handle Joe Stalin."
No president since Lincoln has been so loved and so hated. He
inspired affection and loyalty in many who worked for him and in millions
around the country. He was hated by most of the business community, who
saw his New Deal program as a threat to their values and more than halfway
to socialism, and was regarded with suspicion by others who worried about
his arrogation of power for himself and the federal government. It says
something about the respect accorded to the office of the presidency in those
days that despite the hostility of many newspapers, none ever carried a
photograph of him being lifted into or out of a wheelchair. Americans knew
their president was crippled — he drew attention to the fact by sponsoring a
charity for polio research — but they were not confronted with the indignities
that accompany disability.
Despite his international viewpoint, his first act of foreign policy as
president was an assertion of American unilateralism. Within a few weeks of
taking office he torpedoed the London Economic Conference by declaring
that America would not take part in any international system to regulate
Most Americans shared the widespread disillusionment with the
war. A Gallup Poll in 1936 showed that a majority thought America's entry
into World War One was a mistake. The Hollywood film version of All Quiet
on the Western Front appeared in 1930 to wide acclaim. Americans
responded to its depiction of the war as a pointless sacrifice.
In 1934 the Senate set up an investigations subcommittee headed
by Senator Robert Nye, a North Dakota Republican, to look into the links
between big financiers, weapons dealers, and America's entry into the war. In
two years of wide-ranging investigations it failed to establish any cause-and-
effect relationship. But it showed the extent to which the house of J. P.
Morgan financed the British war effort and therefore was dependent on an
Allied victory for repayment of its loans, and it uncovered some shadowy
transatlantic trading by munitions firms. The constant airing of the subject
affected public thinking.
The hearings were accompanied by magazine articles and books
on the same theme. In 1934 Merchants of Death by Herbert C. Engelbrecht
and Frank C. Hanigher, an exposé of the armament industry, was a Book of
the Month Club selection and was serialized in Reader's Digest. Walter
Millis's The Road to War was another bestseller. The dust jacket spelled out
its message: "This book tells how a peace-loving democracy, muddled but
excited, misinformed and whipped to frenzy, embarked on its greatest foreign
war . . . Read it and blush! Read it and beware!"
Congress, looking at the stirrings in Europe, passed the Neutrality
Acts in 1935 and 1936, with the most serious in 1937. These barred the
transport of goods to belligerents on American ships, forbade American ships
to sail in war zones, and forbade private credits or loans to belligerent
nations. Since these were what brought the United States into the war in
1917, the Neutrality Acts were aptly described as laws designed to keep the
United States out of World War One.
Most Americans approved. As they saw it, their forefathers had
come to America to get away from Europe's quarrels and start a new life in a
country that was different, and the emigrants were wiser and more
enterprising than those who remained. The country had been tricked into
entering World War One, but that was a deviation from the American way and
Actually, America's supposed detachment from the affairs of
Europe has always been something of a myth. It has never been totally
detached. In the earliest days of the republic, the Federalist and Republican
parties were divided over European affairs, Jefferson's Republicans supporting
France in its war with England while Washington's Federalists argued for a
strictly neutral stance. America continued to be involved, if only because
three European nations possessed territory in North America contiguous to
the United States.
America's geopolitical interests usually coincided with those of
Britain. Despite Jefferson's early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, he
said when Napoleon was conquering one country after another that America
would be in danger if one power ruled Europe. "It cannot be to our interest
that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy," he wrote. This has
been the prevailing view of foreign policy specialists since then, partly
because much of America's trade was still with Europe but also for strategic
reasons. This was particularly true when the power was militaristic and
aggressive, like the Germany of the kaiser or Hitler, or, later on, ideologically
aggressive like the Soviet Union.
The Monroe Doctrine, warning European powers to keep out of the
Western Hemisphere, was a tacit alliance with Britain. Indeed it had its origin
in a suggestion by the British foreign secretary of the time, George Canning,
of a joint declaration saying "Hands off the Americas" to the Continental
powers. It was in Britain's interests to ensure that no European nation
extended its power to the Americas, and President Monroe knew that the
British navy, the most powerful in the world, would ensure that none did.
At the end of the nineteenth century, America went into its
imperialist phase. It sought overseas markets for its products, and the nation
felt newly powerful. Manifest destiny did not stop at the ocean shore.
America extended its rule to Hawaii and then to the Far East, wresting the
Philippines from Spain and suppressing its independence movement, and it
joined the Europeans in imposing suitable economic and trading policies on
China. This did not come into conflict with British imperialism but suited its
interests. Britain would much rather America expanded into territories ripe for
exploitation than its Continental rivals, France and Germany. British
commentators urged the United States to annex Hawaii before others did.
Rudyard Kipling's imperialist ode "The White Man's Burden" was written to
urge America to take over the Philippines. It was in this period that the
conjunction of interests and sympathies between the British and American
ruling elites developed, to the point where, as was often said, "cultural
factors" made war between them unthinkable.
Nonetheless, most Americans believed, as they always had, that
physical and moral detachment from the world's quarrels was America's
natural position. They did not know or want to know about British strategy or
the British Navy. So far as they were concerned, a bounteous God had given
America two oceans for its security and no further help from anyone else was
In the 1930s there were currents at work that mitigated against
detachment. In China the Japanese capture of Nanking was accompanied by
an orgy of massacre and rape, and photographs and newspaper accounts
brought this home to Americans. Newsreels showed the Nazi book burnings,
and tales of the Gestapo terror were recounted by correspondents and,
increasingly as the decade went on, by refugees from Germany and Austria.
There were horrors abroad in the world that were impinging more and more on
the American consciousness. Some people were roused to anger. Others
silently thanked their forefathers for having had the enterprise and good sense
to come to the land that was far away from these horrors, and they
determined to keep it that way.
The Anti-Nazi Council to Champion Human Rights was formed in
1934. It held rallies and urged a boycott of German goods. Some
businessmen opposed the boycott, prominent among them the president of
IBM, Thomas B. Watson, who was awarded the Order of Merit of the German
Eagle for promoting trade with Germany. Trade with Germany fell off sharply,
partly because of Hitler's policy of promoting self-sufficiency, although
Germany's trade with Latin America increased. There was a move to boycott
the Berlin Olympics in 1936 on the ground that Germany discriminated
against Jewish athletes.
Roosevelt was far from indifferent to aggression abroad. As early
as 1935, when Mussolini was poised to invade Ethiopia, he wrote to the
chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nevada senator Key
Pittman, asking for authorization to ban shipments to one or more of the
belligerents. Pittman told him the committee was almost unanimous in
refusing to distinguish between belligerents and so label one the aggressor. It
would remain doggedly neutral. Pittman, who was named after Francis Scott
Key, his ancestor, was best known in the Senate as a vigorous defender of
Nevada's silver mining interests, and he pronounced himself an enemy of the
dictators, but he would not ask senators to abandon their neutral stance.
Roosevelt sensed the mood of the American people, and he knew
he could not go too far in involving the country in the affairs of Europe or Asia.
But he wanted to show the dangers as he saw them and lead America to a
more active role. He tempered his pace. As well as leading the American
people, he also had to lead Congress, and Pittman's quick rejection of his
request indicated that this was not going to be easy.
Cordell Hull, a tall, slender Tennessean who had served for twenty-
four years in Congress, shared many of Roosevelt's concerns. Hull was a
figure of rectitude and probity, a cautious man who believed in the decent
proprieties of international relations and in free trade as a high moral principle
and a guarantor of peace. In the autumn of 1937 Hull suggested that
Roosevelt sound a warning to potential aggressors, particularly in the Far
Roosevelt chose a scheduled speech in Chicago on October 4,
1937, to warn the American people that no nation could isolate itself from
economic and political upheavals. He suggested a "quarantine" of aggressor
nations. "When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the
community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to
protect the health of the community," he said. He seems to have had in mind
an extreme form of collective sanctions directed against Japan, although the
State Department said it had no plans.
The reaction to the speech was strong and largely negative.
Pacifist organizations said the speech "points the American people down the
road that led to the World War." Two congressmen threatened to have
Roosevelt impeached. The Boston Herald said: "It may be true that the very
foundations of civilization are threatened. But this time, Mr. President,
Americans will not be stampeded into going 3,000 miles across the water to
save them." In the ensuing weeks, magazines and newspapers featured
articles with titles such as "We Don't Need to Go to War" in the Saturday
Evening Post, circulation 3 million. Hull told Roosevelt he thought the speech
had strengthened the isolationists.
In December, Japanese warplanes attacked the U.S. Navy
gunboat Panay in the Yangtze River in China, sinking the ship and killing four
American seamen. The Japanese government said it was a mistake and
apologized and paid indemnities. Roosevelt told his cabinet he thought the
attack was deliberate and was intended to make it more difficult for the
Western powers to remain in China, but there was nothing he could do about
it. However, he prepared a bill to put before Congress for a two-ocean navy.
Copyright © 2003 by Norman Moss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Meet the Author
Norman Moss is a renowned journalist and broadcaster and the author of several books, including an acclaimed work on the hydrogen bomb and a biography of the atomic-age spy Karl Fuchs. He has worked for Reuters and the Associated Press and has been a foreign correspondent for an American radio network. He lives in London.
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