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The arsenal of democracy
FDR and the isolationists
On the last Sunday night in December 1940, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the American people by radio. During the previous eight years, his “fireside chats” had become a staple of American life, delivered every few months on topics of pressing concern. Roosevelt scheduled them on Sunday evenings when people would be at home, preparing for the week ahead. His disembodied voice emanated from radio speakers in living rooms from coast to coast; men, women and children had become as familiar with Roosevelt’s voice as with that of a favorite uncle. He had talked them through the worst of the Great Depression, now finally ending. He had spoken of provisions for preventing another depression, and for easing the distress of those suffering most.
He spoke this evening on a different subject. For over a year the Nazi armies of Germany’s Adolf Hitler had rampaged across Western Europe. France had fallen; Belgium had been overrun. Italy’s Benito Mussolini had joined Hitler in an axis of fascism. Britain had been fighting for its life, holding out as the last bastion of democracy on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Roosevelt had helped Britain, sending old American warships to bolster the Royal Navy.
Now he proposed sending more. Yet he couched his proposal not in terms of Britain’s safety but of American self-defense. He chose his words carefully, for most Americans were leery of getting entangled in another European war. Many judged America’s participation in World War I to have been a mistake, the outcome not justifying the expense to America in lives and money. Few were eager to repeat the mistake.
“This is not a fireside chat on war,” Roosevelt assured his listeners. Indeed it was the opposite: a talk on staying out of war. “The whole purpose of your President is to keep you now, and your children later, and your grandchildren much later, out of a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence and all of the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours.”
Roosevelt recalled his first fireside chat, on the banking crisis he inherited with the presidency. “I well remember that while I sat in my study in the White House, preparing to talk with the people of the United States, I had before my eyes the picture of all those Americans with whom I was talking. I saw the workmen in the mills, the mines, the factories; the girl behind the counter; the small shopkeeper; the farmer doing his spring plowing; the widows and the old men wondering about their life's savings. I tried to convey to the great mass of American people what the banking crisis meant to them in their daily lives.” The American people had responded as he knew they would. “We met the issue of 1933 with courage and realism.”
Roosevelt hoped they would respond similarly to the current crisis, which though foreign was no less threatening to the American way of life. “Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our American civilization been in such danger as now,” the president said. “The Nazi masters of Germany have made it clear that they intend not only to dominate all life and thought in their own country, but also to enslave the whole of Europe and then to use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world.” Hitler himself had said, “There are two worlds that stand opposed to each other"; and the actions of the German army daily demonstrated Hitler’s intention to destroy the world that opposed his.
Recently Germany had allied with Japan, whose militarist masters were waging war on China. Thus the axis of fascism extended to Asia and made Hitler’s odious agenda all the more patent. Yet many in America remained asleep. “Some of our people like to believe that wars in Europe and in Asia are of no concern to us,” Roosevelt said. They couldn’t be more wrong. “It is a matter of most vital concern to us that European and Asiatic war-makers should not gain control of the oceans which lead to this hemisphere.”
The Atlantic and Pacific had once been moats keeping Europe and Asia at bay. But that era had passed with the clipper ship. Modern warships made the oceans a boulevard of approach. This was what tied the fate of Britain so closely to American security. Britain itself, Britain’s colonies and Britain’s navy served as America’s first line of defense.
“If Great Britain goes down, the Axis powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the high seas—and they will be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere,” Roosevelt said. “It is no exaggeration to say that all of us, in all the Americas, would be living at the point of a gun.”
Yet still the isolationists stuck their heads in the sand. Roosevelt told of receiving a telegram praying that he not alarm the American people. “That telegram begged me not to tell again of the ease with which our American cities could be bombed by any hostile power which had gained bases in this Western Hemisphere. The gist of that telegram was: ‘Please, Mr. President, don't frighten us by telling us the facts.’”
The isolationists tried to reason their way to non-involvement in the affairs of Europe and Asia. “There are those who say that the Axis powers would never have any desire to attack the Western Hemisphere,” Roosevelt said. Only fools could draw such a conclusion. “This is the same dangerous form of wishful thinking which has destroyed the powers of resistance of so many conquered peoples. The plain facts are that the Nazis have proclaimed, time and again, that all other races are their inferiors and therefore subject to their orders. And most important of all, the vast resources and wealth of this American hemisphere constitute the most tempting loot in all of the world.”
Roosevelt didn’t charge the isolationists with being German agents, although he did say there were German agents sowing confusion and dissent in America. Rather, the isolationists were unwitting tools of the dictators. “I do charge them with doing exactly the kind of work that the dictators want done in the United States. These people not only believe that we can save our own skins by shutting our eyes to the fate of other nations. Some of them go much further than that. They say that we can and should become the friends and even the partners of the Axis powers. Some of them even suggest that we should imitate the methods of the dictatorships.” Roosevelt’s tone conveyed his disgust. “Americans never can and never will do that,” he said.
What Americans could do and should do was arm Britain and other countries fighting the Axis. This was not the path to war, Roosevelt said; rather it was the path away from war. “There is far less chance of the United States getting into war if we do all we can now to support the nations defending themselves against attack by the Axis than if we acquiesce in their defeat, submit tamely to an Axis victory, and wait our turn to be the object of attack in another war later on.”
No course was risk-free. “If we are to be completely honest with ourselves, we must admit that there is risk in any course we may take,” Roosevelt said. “But I deeply believe that the great majority of our people agree that the course that I advocate involves the least risk now and the greatest hope for world peace in the future. The people of Europe who are defending themselves do not ask us to do their fighting. They ask us for the implements of war, the planes, the tanks, the guns, the freighters which will enable them to fight for their liberty and for our security.”
Roosevelt proposed to supply those brave countries with what they requested. America was already rearming; this must continue and its bounty be shared. “Democracy's fight against world conquest is being greatly aided, and must be more greatly aided, by the rearmament of the United States and by sending every ounce and every ton of munitions and supplies that we can possibly spare to help the defenders who are in the front lines,” he said. With government encouragement, America companies and American workers were already turning from peacetime production to that of wartime. “Manufacturers of watches, of farm implements, of linotypes, and cash registers, and automobiles, and sewing machines, and lawn mowers and locomotives are now making fuses, bomb packing crates, telescope mounts, shells, and pistols and tanks.” The transition should continue. “We must have more ships, more guns, more planes—more of everything. . . . We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”
By this means America would secure its own future and the future of other free nations. “We have every good reason for hope—hope for peace, yes, and hope for the defense of our civilization and for the building of a better civilization in the future,” Roosevelt said. “I have the profound conviction that the American people are now determined to put forth a mightier effort than they have ever yet made to increase our production of all the implements of defense, to meet the threat to our democratic faith.”
American workers rose to Roosevelt’s challenge, and Congress authorized the provision of weapons and other supplies to the countries fighting the Axis powers. The Lend-Lease program, as it was called, was a tremendous success in ultimately defeating Germany and Japan.
But it was a failure in the terms in which Roosevelt first presented it. Arming Britain, China and eventually Russia did not keep the United States out of the war. On the contrary, it drew the United States ever deeper into the conflict, until an attack on American forces by the Japanese—at Pearl Harbor—and a declaration of war by Germany became nearly inevitable.
Roosevelt suspected things would turn out this way. He didn’t exactly dissemble in his 1940 speech; he acknowledged that his proposal entailed risk. Yet the tone of his remarks was misleading. The president was close to concluding, if he had not concluded already, that Germany and Japan would not be defeated without direct involvement of the United States in the fighting. But the isolationists were still too strong politically for him to ask for a declaration of war. The war had to come to the United States, not vice versa. Roosevelt’s program ensured that it would.
Roosevelt was sly and right. And the isolationists never forgave him.