Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II

By Kimball, Warren F. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II


Kimball, Warren F., Presidential Studies Quarterly


"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.

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