"Roosevelt 'had said that he would wage war, but not declare it, and that he would become more and more provocative.'"
So reported British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to his cabinet upon his return to London in August 1941, following his first conference with the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. Churchill went on to claim that he and the president had worked out the details of a system for escorting supply convoys in the Atlantic, and that FDR had ordered the U.S. Navy to shoot German U-boats (submarines) on sight and thus "force" an incident. (1) Is that what happened? Less than four months later, in December 1941, the United States went to war with Japan, Germany, and Italy, all within the space of four days. In each case, Roosevelt evaded a straightforward request for a declaration of war, asserting instead that war had been thrust upon America. Pearl Harbor generated a somber accusation:
Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.... I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire. (2)
Then, on December 11, following Hitler's seemingly gratuitous declaration of war earlier that day, Roosevelt sent a message to Congress "requesting the recognition of a state of war with Germany and Italy," because those governments had "declared war against the United States." (3)
The path to war for Roosevelt and the United States seemed obvious. The president had said in September 1939 that Hitler was "pure, unadulterated evil." (4) The apparent logic is simple: by late 1941, he had settled on deceit and deception--waging but not declaring war--to bring the United States into the ongoing conflict with Nazi Germany, which is precisely the argument made by some historians and by FDR's most bitter critics since 1941. (5)
But things are not always what they seem on the surface.
The actual path to war for the United States was long and complex. It began with the peace settlements following the First World War, agreements that created a renewed structure of alliances and ententes by which the victors hoped to preserve the status quo. The problem was that there were various "status quos." British and French leadership elites each had their own similar yet differing versions, with both nations focused on maintaining their colonial empire. The United States, with its powerful and expanding economy, held to a somewhat different vision. Then there were the revolutions--from the Bolsheviks in Russia (aimed at a corrupt ruling clique and capitalism), to anti-imperialism in China (aimed against a corrupt ruling clique and the Europeans), and on to Mexico (aimed at a corrupt ruling clique and the United States). On the fringe was Japan, which had enhanced its empire during the First World War almost without effort. Germany, defeated but not vanquished, waited in the wings. Nor were the "great" powers in Europe prepared to accept American leadership. Not surprisingly, despite the dreams of Americans and Europeans that the post-World War I agreements were "peace" treaties, they merely constituted a short, 20-year truce.
The 1930s brought the Great Depression and the "rise of the dictators," (6) a potent combination that destabilized Europe and the United States. That instability brought to a head the contradictory challenges that had flowed out of the First World War. For the United States the 1930s were simply scary, at home and increasingly so abroad. No nation experienced greater change in its national quality of life during the Great Depression. No nation was less prepared psychologically for the maneuvering and bargaining that had traditionally constituted international diplomacy and war avoidance (certainly not peacekeeping), despite the best efforts of Theodore Roosevelt to begin the education process. The American approach to international affairs seemed simple, and simplistic. There was a right way, and a wrong way. The conundrum that Americans (7) faced was what historian Lloyd Gardner so perceptively labeled the "covenant with power." (8) Using power, especially military power, to achieve political goals was distasteful, perhaps even immoral. Witness American praise for the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact, and the campaigning of Senator William Borah, both aimed at "outlawing" war. But Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese had no compunctions about using military force to achieve their goals, whether that was the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, the conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), or the subjugation of China.
Attempts by Americans to avoid involvement in the confrontations and disputes that sprang up, particularly in Europe, ran afoul of the often unrecognized reality that, like it or not, American prosperity and hence security depended upon a world, particularly a European and East Asian world, where the United States could conduct commerce without what it called "artificial" trade restraints (ignoring, of course, American tariff walls). Yet such restraints appeared along with the "rise of the dictators." Americans, and their leaders, were trapped. Like their Puritan forebears, they rejected the world, yet they were of the world. The "great awakening" for Americans was a slow process, frighteningly slow for the British who knew full well that if the United States did not ally with them against Hitler's Germany, they would have to compromise or collapse.
The story of that awakening has been oft told. Suffice it to say that by the time of the outbreak of open war between Germany and the rest of Europe (save Italy and a few foolish or frightened neutrals) on September 1, 1939, American leaders and a majority of the public viewed the Nazis as a threat to the kind of Europe with which they were comfortable. They were disgusted by Nazi persecutions of Jews and Christian churches, challenged by German autarkic economic policies, and distressed by the blatant use of open military force by Germany and Italy for political gain. But those were Europe's problems.
Roosevelt played to the numbers. He quickly dropped his initial prediction in 1939 of a very short war due to either a quick German victory or the collapse of the Nazi regime. (9) Within a few months, he moved firmly, and publicly, toward a neutrality that favored the Allies. Whatever his own beliefs about entering the war, he avoided that black-and-white question like the plague. His private lobbying effort (what in the 1990s would be called a political action committee) was led by the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. The name alone illustrated the strategy. But no evidence has surfaced to demonstrate that Roosevelt lied actively and consistently to the American people about his ultimate intentions, and there are good reasons to conclude that he wishfully hoped that the United States could (or would have to) fight a limited war--with only naval and air forces engaged against the Germans. (10)
Some way stations on the path to the declarations of war stand out. One was the destroyer-bases deal. Churchill, after taking office as prime minister in May 1940, repeatedly pleaded with the Americans for destroyers to combat German U-boats and surface raiders that threatened the supply lifelines into the British Isles. In what became a pattern, he combined bravado with a veiled threat in his first message as prime minister to FDR: "If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear." (11)
Effective American military assistance in 1940 was out of the question for both political and practical reasons. Boosting morale and hope was not. Churchill wanted a long-term American commitment to the war, but the immediate need was equipment needed to fight off a German invasion. Aircraft were in the supply pipeline, particularly with the acquisition of French aircraft orders made before that nation signed an armistice with Germany in June 1940. But if Britain were to survive, destroyers were needed to ward off Nazi submarines that threatened the Atlantic supply lanes. In the way stood United States law forbidding the sale of military equipment needed for the defense of the United States, and Roosevelt's military chiefs found no way around that requirement. FDR had to have an arrangement that made it crystal clear that any transfer of those destroyers benefited the nation's defenses more than keeping them.
The destroyer-bases deal ("arrangement" was the official euphemism, because the "deal" was so favorable to the Americans) was simple and, as things turned out, militarily unimportant: 50 World War I vintage (and, as it turned out, relatively unusable) American destroyers in return for long-term authority to build and operate bases on eight British colonies in the western hemisphere, ranging from British Guiana through the Caribbean to Bermuda …