From Munich to Pearl Harbor: Roosevelt's America and the Origins of the Second World Warby David Reynolds
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A master historian's provocative new interpretation of FDR's role in the coming of World War II. Brilliant. —Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. American Ways Series.
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On Histories and Historians
On December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers surprised theU.S. Pacific fleet at its Hawaiian base at Pearl Harbor. Six of theeight battleships were sunk or damaged. More than 2,400 servicepersonnel and civilians were killed. The day that "will live ininfamy," as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it, was a turningpoint in American history. Four years before, at the beginningof 1938, the United States was a country still mired in theGreat Depression, with nearly a fifth of its workforce unemployedand investment at less than half the level of 1929. Congresshad passed Neutrality Acts to prevent entanglement inanother European war. Four years after Pearl Harbor, at the endof 1945, the United States accounted for half the world's manufacturingoutput and boasted the largest navy and air force in theworld. It enjoyed a monopoly of atomic weapons, and U.S.troops occupied the ruined homelands of its vanquished enemies,Germany and Japan. The world's leading "superpower"aword coined in 1944was a far cry from the anxious, introvertedAmerica of 1938.
This book has three main objectives. First, to provide a succinctnarrative of the twisting road from Munich to Pearl Harbor,drawing on my own research and on recent scholarship. Thechapters unfold chronologically, with an introductory sectionprefiguring the themes of each one, and the overall account issummarized in the first part of the conclusion. The story is partlyabout the transformation of American politics. By 1938 a loosebut effective coalition of congressional conservatives hadhaltedRoosevelt's New Deal. In 1939-1941 this coalition fractured overforeign policy. Slowly Roosevelt created a new political consensus,built around aid to Britain and its allies. This replaced thepolicy of hemisphere defense that in the mid-1930s had heldsway. But domestic politics are only one side of the story. Roosevelt,Congress, and the American people were responding tosome of the most dramatic changes in twentieth-century worldhistory. U.S. foreign policy was revolutionized by Hitler's surprisevictories in Europe in the spring of 1940, by his attack onthe Soviet Union in June 1941, and by the devastating Japanesestrikes across the Pacific and Southeast Asia in the following December.Together these campaigns transformed the Europeanconflict that broke out in September 1939 into a truly global war.
In retrospect that transformation is obvious. But at the timethe interconnection of events seemed obscure, particularly toAmericans accustomed to focus on what was called "the WesternHemisphere." Moreover, as we now know, the ties among theAxis powersGermany, Italy, and Japanwere very tenuous.A second objective of the book is therefore to analyze how Rooseveltled Americans into a new global perspective on internationalrelations. This involved both geopolitics (an expandedgeography of U.S. security) and ideology (the assertion ofU.S. principles of liberal, capitalist democracy). Against "hemispherism,"FDR insisted with growing fervor that, in the age ofairborne warfare, the world could and did threaten America,and that American values could and should transform the world.The two themes were interconnected, for the president arguedthat only in a world in which American values reigned supremecould the United States feel secure. This global perspective on internationalevents was distinctively Rooseveltian. In the 1930sAmericans (and Germans, though not the British) were used totalking about 1914-1918 as "the world war." But it was FranklinRoosevelt in 1941 who popularized the term "the second worldwar."
Roosevelt's globalism proved to be a worldview of lasting significance.That brings me to the third main aim of the book,which is to spotlight developments in the period 1938-1941 thatwere later important for U.S. foreign and defense policy in thecold war era. Along with globalism, major themes included thearticulation of the bipolar ideologies of "totalitarianism" andAmericanism; the emergence of a military-industrial complexand the strategy of technowar; the origins of the "imperial presidency";the precedent of a peacetime draft; a durable commitmentto the security of Europe and the "Atlantic Area"; and, incontrast with the timidity of the depression, a growing belief inAmerican omnipotence. In many general histories of Americanforeign policy, the origins of the cold war bulk so large as almostto obscure the origins of World War II. That seems to me unfortunate.By the end of 1941 many features of what would emergeas the "national security state" were already apparent in embryo,albeit applied to a very different enemy. Tracing the constructionof America's second world war may help us understand the relativealacrity with which the United States after 1945 took on therole of a global superpower in a bipolar confrontation with theSoviet Union.
The early historiography of the approach to war was rooted inthe great debate of 1940-1941 between those advocating aid toBritain and those who argued that this would turn the UnitedStates into a belligerent. The former stigmatized their opponentsas "isolationists" while the latter, in turn, insisted that they werecombating the "interventionists." More exactly, the two sides differedabout where to draw the geographical line in U.S. securityaroundthe Western Hemisphere, as noninterventionistsgenerally argued, or on the other side of the Atlantic, accordingto the Roosevelt administration and its allies. By contrast, therewas relatively little discussion or controversy about the increasinglyfirm U.S. policy toward Japanese expansion in Asia. Attentionwas concentrated on the European war, and traditionalAmerican stereotypes of the Old World and of European entanglementsstill exerted a powerful influence.
The Pearl Harbor attack ended this political debate almostovernight. Although privately unrepentant, Roosevelt's opponentsrallied around their commander-in-chief. After the war,however, the battle was rejoined. Authors of the major postwarrevisionist critiques of Roosevelt's policies, such as the historiansCharles A. Beard and Charles C. Tansill, had been open opponentsbefore Pearl Harbor. On the other side were those whomTansill called the "Court Historians"writers who had beenclosely linked to the Roosevelt administration during and beforethe war. Among them were Robert E. Sherwood, one of FDR'sspeechwriters, who wrote the 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning studyof the president and his confidant, Harry Hopkins; Herbert Feis,a State Department official who published The Road to PearlHarbor in 1950; and William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason,whose massive two-volume Study of 1937 to 1941, The World Crisisand American Foreign Policy, appeared in 1952-1953. Langerand Gleason were professional historians who had both served inthe State Department and in U.S. intelligence during the war.Their works, based on privileged access to official documentsand on interviews with the leading policymakers, constituted asemi-official refutation of revisionism.
The essentials of the revisionist case were twofold. First, Roosevelthad deceived the American people about the belligerentimplications of his policies, often acting behind the back of Congress.According to some extreme accounts, he had even allowedthe Pearl Harbor attack to happen, using it (in Tansill's title) asthe Back Door to War. Second, this had been an unnecessary war.Revisionists claimed that throughout the period up to December1941 there had been no serious and immediate threat to U.S. interestsor security. In their view, hemisphere defense, backed byprudent rearmament, remained an adequate policy.
In general, public debate in the United States has run againstthe revisionists. Pearl Harbor ended the political argument;Auschwitz settled the moral argument. After 1945 most Americanswere convinced that they had fought a just and necessarywar. By the 1970s many looked back on it, in Studs Terkel'sphrase, as the "good war," in contrast to the moral uncertaintiesand popular divisions that poisoned the conflict in Vietnam. Inthe 1990s it became the heroic war, its participants celebrated inmovies such as Saving Private Ryan and consecrated by TV anchormanTom Brokaw as "the greatest generation any societyhas produced." Underpinning this consensus was the overwhelmingreality of the cold warunderstood as a global struggleof power and ideology against the forces of internationalcommunism, spearheaded by the Soviet Union. The war hadturned the United States into a "superpower," into the self-styledguardian of the "Free World." While grumbling about the cost,most Americans accepted these roles as axiomatic. And the collapseof the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union itself in 1989-1991served to vindicate those assumptions. The Good War and theCold War made the No War debate of 1940-1941 seem like a stupidirrelevance.
From this perspective, assuming the essential rightness of U.S.belligerency against Germany and Japan, the debate shifted tomeans rather than ends, to the appropriateness of Roosevelt's actionsin 19401941. There were two related strandspoliciesand politics. On policies, Robert Divine and Arnold Offner wereamong several historians who portrayed FDR as a 1930s isolationist,inclined to appeasement, who painfully metamorphosedinto an interventionist between Munich and Pearl Harbor. Accordingto Divine in 1969, "Roosevelt pursued an isolationistpolicy out of genuine conviction," and in 1941 his "deep-seatedaversion to war still paralyzed" his conduct of affairs. Historianshave also examined Roosevelt's political tactics, his conception ofpresidential leadership. Biographer James MacGregor Burnswrote that the president "seemed beguiled by public opinion,"preferring to "wait on events" rather than give a clear lead. Divinedetected a pattern of "two steps forward, one step back"whenever the president made a major move. By contrast, RobertDallek, in his comprehensive study of FDR's foreign policy from1932 to 1945, depicted a fairly consistent internationalist who wasobliged by the strength of public opinion to conform to the nationalistand isolationist mood of the 1930s. According to Dallek,writing in 1979, FDR's "appreciation that effective action abroadrequired a reliable consensus at home and his use of dramaticevents overseas to win national backing from a divided countrywere among the great presidential achievements of this century."
The debate about FDR's policies and politics enlarged in the1980s in two ways. One was by moving away from the presidenthimself to look at key advisers such as Sumner Welles, at parts ofthe government bureaucracy, as in Jonathan Utley's study of theState Department and Japan, or at the plasticity of political opinionthetheme of Thomas Guinsburg's study of isolationism inthe Senate. This body of work suggested that the main barriersto a coherent and decisive foreign policy lay within the administrationas much as outside it. A second development was theopening of key foreign archives, particularly in Britain. Severalmajor studies of Anglo-American relations in this period shedlight from new sources on this opaque president. They showedthe extent of secret U.S. entanglement with Britain long beforePearl Harbor, but also the president's ambivalence about hiscovert ally. This British material informed more general accountswritten during the 1980s. To Frederick W. Marks ithelped show that the president was parochial in outlook and indecisivein style, ever prone "to substitute words for action." Bycontrast, Waldo Heinrich's interpretation of FDR's global policyduring 1941 presented Roosevelt as "an active and purposefulmaker of foreign policy, the only figure with all the threads inhis hands." Warren Kimball, in a collection of essays on FDR'sdiplomacy, acknowledged wishful thinking, devious tactics, anda "debonair administrative style" but found a "broader consistencythat shaped his policies" at the level of "assumptions."
To a large extent, therefore, the presidential paradigm holdssway. The debate keeps returning to Roosevelt, usually withinthe terms set by the orthodox consensus that this was a good warthat the United States entered for justifiable ends, albeit byslightly dubious means.
On the other hand, the two main streams of revisionism remaina continuing undercurrent. Pearl Harbor still attracts conspiracytheorists. During the 1990s, after the end of the cold war,the opening of U.S. and British intelligence archives prompted anew round of charges and rebuttals about the foreknowledge ofRoosevelt (and Churchill) concerning the Japanese attack. Meanwhilethe extensive research of Wayne Cole, Justus Doenecke,and others has given a clearer sense of the noninterventionists.Earlier work in this area had concentrated on the ethnic or regionalbasis for "isolationism"implicitly the problem was toexplain deviation from a mainstream internationalist consensus.These more recent studies looked at the intellectual argumentsused by noninterventionists, seeking to show both their complexityand plausibility. The proponents of hemisphere defense, whoincluded two future U.S. presidents, John F. Kennedy andGerald R. Ford, cannot simply be dismissed as obscurantists orcloset Nazis.
Some scholars, such as Bruce Russett, Melvin Small, and JohnA. Thompson, have moved this discussion of noninterventionismonto a more general plane. In the title of Russett's interpretiveessay, published in 1972, they argue that there was No Clearand Present Danger in security terms to justify Roosevelt's increasinglybelligerent policies. Russett was an erstwhile supporter ofFDR who found that his growing doubts about U.S. interventionin Vietnam knocked over "a row of intellectual dominoes" runningright back to Pearl Harbor. Vietnam also strengthened the"New Left" critique of U.S. internationalism and prompted severalstudies of Roosevelt's policy from this angle. Rather than adefensive concern with security, they emphasized an ideology ofeconomic expansion. Lloyd Gardner's pioneering Economic Aspectsof New Deal Diplomacy (1964) highlighted the concern ofthe depression generation for the survival of capitalism at homeand abroad. This became an all-embracing interpretation of U.S.policy from 1937 to 1941 in Patrick Hearden's Roosevelt ConfrontsHitler (1987).
Like all historians, I stand on the shoulders of others. Thisbook takes seriously both the domestic and the internationalpressures on U.S. foreign policy, focusing on Roosevelt but alsotrying to set him in bureaucratic and political context. Equally,like any historian, I am influenced by my time and place. If theomnipresence of the cold war led most scholars to accept U.S.globalism as axiomatic, so the end of the cold war enables us torecognize the novelty of this worldwide superpower role. Andthe recent intellectual anatomy of noninterventionism remindsus that alternatives to Roosevelt's emerging worldview were wellentrenched and prods us to ask why and how they were displaced.
International events in 1940 and 1941 undoubtedly shook thefoundations of contemporary thinking. In many ways this periodwas the "fulcrum" of the twentieth century, the turning point inthe endgame of the old Europe-centered order. But an awarenessof global crisis was not the same as a recognition of world war.Roosevelt's carefully crafted speeches joined up the dots of disparateevents into an interconnected pattern, which he popularizedin 1941 as "the second world war." And his distinctiveresponses to global crisisundeclared war in the Atlantic andundesired war in the Pacific, the origins of the "imperial presidency"and the foundations of the military-industrial complexshapedU.S. foreign policy during the conflict of 1941-1945 andlong after. In short, it is time for World War II to reemerge fromits cold war eclipse. America's approach to the Soviet Union after1945 owed much to the attitudes and practices established asRoosevelt moved his country from "neutrality" to "world war"between 1938 and 1941.
Excerpted from FROM MUNICH TO PEARL HARBOR by David Reynolds. Copyright © 2001 by David Reynolds. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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David Reynolds is a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge University, and a “brilliant practitioner” (according to the Times Literary Supplement) of the new international history. He has written two prize-winning books on the United States and Britain in World War II: The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance and Rich Relations. His most recent book is One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945.
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