The Phony War
When the Second World War started the defenses of the United States consisted primarily of a scrap of paper called the Neutrality Law, which the Congress had passed and which President Roosevelt had signed "with reluctance." That piece of legislation, passed originally in 1936, was carefully designed to prevent us from getting into war in 1917. It was purely retroactive, as though its framers believed that it would restore life to the brave men who had died at Chateau Thierry and in the Argonne. It was born of the belief that we could legislate ourselves out of war, as we had once legislated ourselves out of the saloons (and into the speakeasies). Like Prohibition, it was an experiment "noble in motive" but disastrous in result.
The Second World War started with Hitler's brutal invasion of Poland from the West, followed by the Soviet Union's march into Poland from the East. Britain and France declared war on Germany, in fulfillment of their pledge to Poland, but for nearly eight months there was no fighting by the Western Allies except for isolated naval engagements. The Soviet Union attacked Finland and gained certain territorial advantages thereby, but Hitler remained quiescent and allowed his neighbors to continue in a state of quivering suspense during the autumn and winter of 1939-40. This became known as the period of "the Phony War" and it was the heyday of isolationism in the United States. It was one crisis in Roosevelt's career when he was completely at a loss as to what action to take—a period of terrible, stultifying vacuum.
In October, 1939, Hopkins wrote from his sickbed to his brother Emory in Portland, Oregon. He said: