Prior to that infamous day, America had long been involved in a shadow war. Winston Churchill, England’s beleaguered new Prime Minister, pleaded with Franklin D. Roosevelt for help. FDR concocted ingenious ways to come to his aid, without breaking the Neutrality Acts. Launching Lend-Lease, conducting espionage at home and in South America to root out Nazi sympathizers, and waging undeclared war in the Atlantic, were just some of the tactics with which FDR battled Hitler in the shadows.
FDR also had to contend with growing isolationism and anti-Semitism as he tried to influence public opinion. The largest obstacle was Charles Lindbergh and his America First Committee, with its following of hundreds of thousands. While Americans were sympathetic to those being crushed under Axis power, they were unwilling to enter a foreign war. Wortman looks at this dynamic time through the eyes of the powerful as well as ordinary citizens. The book opens with two American journalists who witness Hitler’s invasion of Poland: William Shirer is appalled by the rise of Nazism, Philip Johnson is enthralled with Hitler. Their stories weave throughout the intricate tapestry of events that unfold during the crucial year of 1941.
Combining military and political history, Wortman crafts an eye-opening account of how FDR took the country to war.
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The motorcade of trucks and cars roared and jolted over the ripped-up, unpaved road that cut like a jagged blade through the Polish Corridor. Even in bright daylight, the pall of war cast its gloom over the men knocking about inside the vehicles as they dodged the tread cuts and bomb craters in their path. Since leaving Berlin with its payload of foreign correspondents before dawn, the German Propaganda Ministry caravan had motored fitfully northeast toward the Baltic seacoast and the remains of the war. The blinking men looked out impassively at the seemingly endless, moving green column of Wehrmacht troops and grim-faced Polish refugees who choked the road. The soldiers were jubilant. It was September 18, 1939, less than three weeks since Germany's invasion of Poland and Great Britain and France's declaration of war against the Third Reich. Thousands of German troops were heading home. Many rode atop "tanks, tanks, tanks," a soldier in those lines chanted, proudly hailing "the row of tanks [with] no end," now grinding along beneath a locomotive cloud of exhaust, on the drive out of Poland.
As the press corps drove along the road to Danzig (today's Gdansk), the vehicles bucked and then stopped and then, gears grinding, lurched ahead again like fish running upstream. The reporters covered their faces and coughed against the swirling black exhaust, powdery dust, acrid smoke from smoldering bombed-out towns, and the urge to puke. One of the reporters recorded later how they held their noses against "the sickening sweet smell of dead horses and the sweeter smell of dead men," the remains of a suicidal Polish cavalry charge against the German panzers strewn in the forest and fields along the road.
Paired together by the German Propaganda Ministry, two Americans among the foreign correspondents shared much in common as they looked out on the war zone four thousand miles from home. They were about the same age and shared similar American beginnings, and each had spent most of his adult life in Europe. They loved its life and culture, especially Germany's; and both men had won fame by reporting on what they saw in Europe for Americans back home.
The slightly older of the two could easily have been taken for a middle-American banker or a college professor rather than a dashing, hard-bitten foreign correspondent, an image already firmly etched into the American consciousness. He was phlegmatic, tall, balding, and prematurely gray, round-faced and comfortably paunchy. Beneath his dark, carefully trimmed brush mustache, his small mouth clinched continuously on a pipe. A ski accident had blinded him in one eye, leaving the pupil a bit off kilter. He appeared to take in everything behind his round, thick spectacles as though through a gun sight. He spoke plainly and dressed conservatively in a pinstripe Savile Row three-piece suit and tie beneath a rumpled gabardine trench coat. His style was to have little style at all.
His companion in the press pool was all style. He looked straight out of central casting — slicked-back, dark hair with streaks of gray, clear hazel eyes, and angular cheekbones descending to a deeply cleft chin. A costly custom-made camera dangled from carefully selected bespoke fashion over a lithe frame. He bore a passing resemblance to his near contemporary, the English Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier, and the register of his emotions covered almost as much range. His good looks and personal taste seemed as carefully and artfully tended as the words in his articles. However, he was anything but scripted. He talked on and on, nervously exhilarated at the prospect of seeing the world war up close.
The other reporter, much the stonier of the two, felt only cynicism about what lay ahead. He was repulsed at the prospect of reporting on a war that he knew had barely begun.
But each man had his job to do.
The day before, the Red Army had swept into eastern Poland, joining the Germans in filleting the former Polish nation, to be gobbled up like a pig's haunch between them. The world watched as Europe, almost exactly twenty-five years after its first unimaginably cataclysmic war, leaped vertiginously into the bottomless chasm of a second great war. Being among the very first journalists to witness the start of the Second World War marked a momentous climax for the two men. The reporting trip to the front culminated parallel personal and professional journeys they had traveled for the better part of the past decade.
Not only were the two men nearing the end of a long day's drive and a winding road through life, they had also started out from similar places in the industrial Midwest. The somewhat older of the two reporters was now thirty-six. Born in Chicago, he moved as a boy to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the simplicity of family life amid the endless surrounding acres of cornfields had left its mark on him. Three years younger, the other American correspondent grew up in a mansion overlooking Cleveland and at a private boarding school in the East. Both could point to fathers who had been successful city attorneys. Each held college degrees, still relatively unusual at the time. Like so many educated and restless young Americans of the 1920s, they were drawn like iron filings to the magnet of postwar Europe's sophistication and its overthrow of tradition and reinvention of life and art.
Both loved the cosmopolitan, smart, highbrow, cynical, and uninhibited erotic life they made in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, and other capitals of Europe. Each quickly felt as at home there as in the United States. Voracious learners, they could read and speak several languages — and shared a particular fondness for German language, culture, and life. Both started out with artistic and literary ambitions, but then turned, in different forms, to journalism, passionate and committed to scouting out and being on hand for the latest turn of events. They were in love with the new. As a result they had managed to witness some of the Continent's most momentous occasions over the past decade while cultivating ties among the famous men and women who shaped those events.
Each reporter in his way had traded on his love for Europe and his deep and intimate acquaintance with leading Europeans to win fame back in the United States. The two men shared a loose professional association, too, through the power of radio networks to reach inside American homes. The older reporter's reedy, uninflected voice had grown familiar to millions of Americans through his frequent radio broadcasts on European tensions. The younger man had won renown, too, originally as a tastemaker in the world of the arts, bringing back news from Europe about the new and austere modernist aesthetic that had conquered contemporary design and architecture. He traveled to Poland as a freelancer for a national weekly magazine that served as the print voice for one of America's most influential radio personalities.
That night, along the fast-eroding edge of the Baltic coast battlefields, their Nazi minders insisted that they share a room in the sumptuous beachfront Kasino Hotel in the Danzig Bay resort town of Zoppot (Sopot). It was a return there for the two men: Both had anticipated the war and, in August, had separately visited, driving through the Polish Corridor just days before the German invasion. Their return to the Hanseatic League port towns and cities, with their famous medieval Gothic guild houses lining cobbled streets as in some fairy tale made real, would serve as their personal farewell to an ancient and tottering Europe going up in flames.
And that brought them here together this day.
Any similarities between the two men ended with that. They took an almost immediate, poisonous dislike to each other.
Even the day before the war started, neither man could believe that Hitler would actually invade, until World War Two began at four forty on the morning of September 1, 1939. That was when twentynine Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers came screaming from the sky over Wielun, a small city of no conceivable military or industrial value near the German border. More aerial strikes followed, and when the first German troops streamed into Wielun that afternoon, they found three quarters of the town leveled and twelve hundred people dead in their beds. The world war began with a terror bombing, fulfilling the special instructions Hitler gave to his generals before sending nearly a million and a half men, twenty-four hundred tanks, and twenty-five hundred aircraft into battle against a smaller, partially mobilized, and relatively poorly equipped Polish army. "Go, kill without mercy," the German chancellor purportedly declared. "Only in such a way will we win the living space that we need." He reminded any who might pause at such orders, "Who remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?" A war for territory marked the start of an unremitting campaign of racial destruction.
Within just days of the opening attacks, German panzers thundered through open country toward Warsaw. Poland, though, was not merely knifed; it was ripped in two. Under terms of the mutual nonaggression pact reached a week before the German invasion by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his Nazi counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Red Army invaded. The day before the two correspondents entered Poland for the last time, Russia announced it would annex the eastern half of its territory.
The front lines advanced so fast that the foreign correspondents could not catch up with them that day. That was no surprise for the older of the two men, Berlin-based CBS radio's chief continental correspondent, William Lawrence Shirer. Shirer had sardonically noted the night before that he was "off to the 'front' ... if we can find one."
Shirer's reedy introduction — "Hello, America. This is Berlin." — at the start of his weekly segment on CBS World News Roundup, and of late his frequent breaking-news reports on the rising tensions and outbreak of the war reached tens of millions of Americans. That was a great leap for a man who had worked his way to Paris pitching hay on a cattle boat a decade earlier. He landed a job in the Chicago Tribune Paris bureau and covered major events, including Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis's arrival at Le Bourget Airport at the end of his epochal transatlantic solo flight, royal coronations, Olympic games, and other sporting events. In 1932, Shirer became chief of the Tribune's Central European bureau in Vienna. He married an Austrian woman. In 1934, CBS's European chief, Edward R. Murrow, hired him to report for his radio network from the volcanic continent's molten-hot center, Berlin.
Once there, Shirer made it his business to get to know this fast-rising strongman who had just become chancellor and then almost immediately, as head of state, consolidated all power in his own hands.
On September 5, 1934, not two weeks after Shirer's arrival in Berlin, he watched the National Socialist leader in action for the first time. He went to the annual weeklong Parteitage, the Nazi Party rally, in Nuremberg. The week proved to be a "sort of baptism in Nazi Germany," he wrote in a diary he secretly kept. At the outset, he was inadvertently swept into "a mob of ten thousand hysterics" gathered outside Hitler's hotel. When Hitler stepped onto the hotel balcony, Shirer watched as "they went mad ... their faces transformed into something positively inhuman." He was baffled, seeing nothing in this small and haggard man prone to nervous tics worthy of such adoration and outright hysteria. However, before the week's end, he better understood Hitler's genius at orchestrating a theater of mass frenzy and blind loyalty.
The rally at Nuremberg was, he noted later, "like a scene in a Wagner opera. ..." The grand spectacle reached its crescendo on the Zeppelin Field, the immense parade grounds where a quarter-million people gathered to show their undying support for their Führer. Brilliant as a speaker and at bolstering unity among his people, Hitler cast what Shirer called his "spell" on the thousands gathered before him. "Man's — or at least the German's — critical faculty is swept away ...," he recorded, "and every lie pronounced is accepted as high truth itself."
At the end of the week in Nuremberg, Shirer and other reporters met with the German chancellor. Shirer recorded that Hitler explained that the party-rally format was part of a deliberate, highly rehearsed "technique" employed to orchestrate the annual renewal of his followers' emotional support. By the end, Hitler explained, they would go "back to their towns and villages [to] preach the new gospel with new fanaticism."
He did not think much of Hitler, but after that week he understood far better the wellsprings of his power. He later wrote, "One had to remember though — and I sometimes forgot — that Adolf Hitler was a consummate actor." After what he'd seen, the young reporter feared "that European civilization ... might not survive Hitler's dictatorship."
As Shirer continued to report from Germany, restrictions grew more severe and violent, and he was obliged to accept the German Propaganda Ministry's strict oversight and censorship of his radio broadcasts. They controlled the feeds and could cut him off at any time. His broadcast scripts were read by three censors and two German-Americans listened in as he read them out for transmission. To describe what he was witnessing to Americans who might not believe the truth even if he could tell them, he said later, he "used every ruse of voice and double meaning to dodge the Nazi censorship." American listeners often heard him say, "The German people are reading today in their papers," which were well known to be tightly controlled by the government, conveying in his deadpan manner that he could only tell half-truths about life under Hitler. Even on his rare trips back to the U.S., despite his wishes to speak out, he could not report more, if he was to get permission from Berlin to return to his job.
In a veiled attempt to convey to his American listeners the dangers he foresaw, he also translated from Hitler's own harangues about the need to suppress Jews, Slavs, and other so-called inferior peoples and their nations. He described the military buildup and the huge war industry Germany possessed. He shared Hitler's intention to overturn the Great War's Versailles peace limitations placed on Germany. Many people at home discounted what he reported, either in sympathy to the Nazis or out of lack of concern about those they oppressed or any potential threat they represented to American interests and security. "This is a truth obvious to all of us here," he noted privately, "but when we ... report it we [are] accused of making [anti-]Nazi propaganda."
The censorship steadily tightened, to the point that microphones were covered to prevent the sounds of British bombing raids and return antiaircraft fire from reaching American audiences' ears. Frustrated by his inability to report fully and truthfully, Shirer jotted down his daily impressions of life in Nazi Germany. After his early-morning broadcasts for the evening news at home, he'd stumble through Berlin's blacked-out streets to his room at the Adlon Hotel, neighboring the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and other government buildings. Here he'd scrawl out a diary on small sheets of paper. After making each day's entry, he carefully tucked those pages within stacks of other papers, magazines, and books piled high on his desk. He knew the maids and porters worked for the Gestapo and sifted through his belongings while he was out. If the Gestapo found his diary, filled as it was with the daily truth censored from his radio broadcasts, he'd be tossed out of the country or put in a Gestapo prison, or worse. However, he found that the spies "didn't have the patience to dig through my stuff." Day by day, his secret diary grew.
Every few weeks he gathered up its loose pages and passed them to a friendly diplomatic courier who smuggled them to Washington, D.C. — though even in later years he never revealed just who carried or sent out the diary. Among those who may have helped him for a period were the former American ambassador William Dodd and his pretty and vivacious daughter, Martha, who thought of Shirer and his Viennese wife, Tess, as "my closest and dearest friends" during her final year and a half living at the embassy in Berlin. Thanks to some unnamed conspirator, hundreds of smuggled pages reporting about life in Germany under Hitler's murderous totalitarian rule awaited Shirer's eventual return to Washington, D.C.
One day he expected to return home for good. Once there, no longer forced to submit to German censorship, he could tell his countrymen the truth. That truth was indeed frightening. He was certain that war with the Third Reich was coming for America. "The clash," he secretly recorded, was "... as inevitable as that of two planets hurtling inexorably through the heavens towards each other." He needed to warn his countrymen. America remained caught up in a political struggle at home over its role in the European war, the menace Hitler posed for Americans thousands of miles overseas, and whether fascism might ever prove a true danger to the nation. Shirer thought the United States should mobilize for war. Now. The dangers of waiting were all too obvious to him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "1941: Fighting the Shadow War"
Copyright © 2016 Marc Wortman.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: 1941 1
Chapter 1 Foreign Correspondents 5
Chapter 2 A New World 17
Chapter 3 "That Prophecy Comes True" 31
Chapter 4 Unneutral Acts 43
Chapter 5 Scooping Hitler 53
Chapter 6 Blitzkrieg Propaganda 62
Chapter 7 Shadowed by the G-Men 73
Chapter 8 The Roosevelt Brand 82
Chapter 9 Cassandra 90
Chapter 10 A Rising Sun 100
Chapter 11 Prairie Fire 115
Chapter 12 "Aviation, Geography, and Race" 125
Chapter 13 Indictments 140
Chapter 14 The Garden Hose 149
Chapter 15 How Do You Do? 165
Chapter 16 Intolerance 179
Chapter 17 Good Americanism 187
Chapter 18 Living in a Nightmare 191
Chapter 19 Volunteers 208
Chapter 20 The Strongest Fortress in the World 220
Chapter 21 Geographers 237
Chapter 22 Son of a Harness Maker 252
Chapter 23 The Obvious Conclusion 262
Chapter 24 At Last We've Gotten Together 268
Chapter 25 The Rattlesnakes of the Atlantic 285
Chapter 26 Ten no 296
Chapter 27 The Undeclared War 306
Chapter 28 Son of Man, Son of God 316
Chapter 29 East Wind, Rain 326
Epilogue: Rendezvous with Destiny 337
Picture Acknowledgments 387