Reappraising FDR's Approach to World War II in Europe

By Bell, Michael S. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Reappraising FDR's Approach to World War II in Europe


Bell, Michael S., Joint Force Quarterly


A survey of Franklin D. Roosevelt's strategic thinking prior to American entry into World War II reveals that the traditional historical narratives present a false dichotomy. Typically, FDR is portrayed either as an isolationist and reluctant belligerent being pushed into the war, or as an ardent interventionist seeking to enter the war by almost any means. Rather, FDR blended both of these policies into a coherent and consistent strategic approach toward the situation in Europe. Although his actions seemed to draw the United States inexorably into deeper involvement in the European war, FDR continued to pursue his goal of keeping the United States out of the conflict. Rather than dissembling or wavering, Roosevelt charted a steady and rational approach based on his strategic perspective.

By understanding FDR's strategy, it is possible to gain deeper insight into what appear as contradictory policies and actions on the eve of U.S. entry into the European war and, at the same time, into Roosevelt's strategic leadership. His approach toward the war simultaneously blended the isolationist aversion to war and desire to keep out of European conflicts with active efforts to overthrow Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime, the aim of the interventionists.

Aims and Strategic Approach

Following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Roosevelt pursued a conscious strategy aimed at keeping the United States out of the European war as a formal belligerent and, at the same time, ensuring the defeat of Hitler's regime. Within an overall policy of formal neutrality that favored the Allies, the Roosevelt administration looked for opportunities to act in pursuit of those two primary goals. Hoping to influence the outcome of the war, Roosevelt and his administration thought that they could bring about an internal collapse in Germany similar to the events in October and November 1918 that had hastened the sudden end of World War I and the demise of Imperial Germany.

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Immediately before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Roosevelt resolved not to repeat the mistakes of Woodrow Wilson concerning neutrality prior to U.S. entry into World War I. FDR recalled Wilson's reminder to the American people when war broke out in 1914 "to be neutral not only in deed but in thought." In 1939, however, FDR rejected Wilson's approach and deemed it "impossible in a situation such as exists in Europe today for a fair-minded people to be neutral in thought." (1) Once war did break out, FDR addressed the American people by radio and, echoing the isolationists, professed that he hated war. He stated, "I hope that the United States will keep out of this war. I believe that it will." At the same time, Roosevelt discounted U.S. military intervention in the European war, announcing, "Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields." He observed that a neutrality proclamation was being prepared in accordance with the Neutrality Act and traditional U.S. foreign policies that reached back to the Presidency of George Washington and a longstanding American tradition of armed neutrality. In contrast to Wilson's 1914 approach, FDR declared, "This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well." (2)

Within the context of formal neutrality, Roosevelt deliberately pursued opportunities to aid France and Britain with munitions, aircraft, and supplies. On September 4, he discussed the question of neutrality with his Cabinet. With British and French declarations of war against Germany, the Cabinet decided to issue the customary neutrality declaration. According to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, however, Roosevelt "was not in so much of a hurry to issue the proclamation required under the Neutrality Act." The President wanted to provide Britain and France with "all the opportunity to export munitions of war, none of which could be exported after this proclamation was once issued. …

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