Victor Nuovo: FDR and the Second World War
Editor’s note: This is the 63rd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
The Second World War began on Sept. 1, 1939, and lasted for six years and a day. It ended on Sept. 2, 1945, with the surrender of Japan; the German surrender happened four months earlier, on May 7, 1945, 25 days after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Both nations surrendered unconditionally. It was a victory for Democracy.
When the war began, a good outcome seemed far from certain. On Sept. 1, 1939, without declaring war, Germany invaded Poland and conquered it in less than a month. It then proceeded, with the Soviet Union, with which it had recently concluded a non-aggression pact, to dismember and divide up Poland. Then, after a lull of eight months, Germany let loose its forces on Western Europe, and in two months conquered Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium and France. In June 1941, a non-aggression pact notwithstanding, Germany invaded Russia with an enormous force. Hitler’s purpose was genocidal, to annex the Western (European) portion of Russia, enslave its people (that is, those able to engage in hard labor — the remainder would be terminated), and repopulate it with German-speaking Aryan peoples.
Japan began its territorial conquests almost a decade earlier, with the annexation of Manchuria. In 1937 it invaded China. In September 1940, it entered into a military alliance with Germany and Italy, the Tripartite Pact, and they named themselves “The Axis Powers” to signify that they expected the world soon to turn at their bidding. It was agreed that Japan would be free to make itself master of Asia, leaving Europe and Africa to Germany and Italy. Soon after, Japan’s forces overran much of Southeast Asia, and threatened India.
Britain stood alone.
President Roosevelt, following Woodrow Wilson a generation before, pursued a policy of American neutrality. Having served in Wilson’s administration, he remarked he had seen all this before, and he feared the outcome; he also felt obliged to prepare for it. Between 1935 and 1937, Congress passed three neutrality acts, which Roosevelt signed, prohibiting the sale of arms manufactured in the U.S. to any belligerent nation and prohibiting U.S. naval vessels from entering any war zone. During his campaign for reelection in 1940, Roosevelt pledged that this nation would not declare war against the Axis Powers (German, Italy and Japan) unless attacked. Yet it was evident which side he favored, and, in spite of the neutrality laws, he contrived ways to provide the British with the arms and materiel they desperately needed. His policies of “Cash and Carry” and “Lend Lease” were cleverly designed to circumvent the law. His invitation to King George VI and Queen Mary to visit the United States was further evidence of his favoritism.
What followed is well known. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Four days later, on Dec. 11, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States. The nation was once again at war.
Roosevelt’s critics have argued that the Japanese attack came as no surprise to him, because he deliberately provoked it. The charge is baseless, and I will say no more of it. Nonetheless, in retrospect, gathering the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was a serious miscalculation. Roosevelt saw it as a deterrent; the Japanese saw it as an opportunity. Its preemptive attack took place without a declaration of war; in fact, the Japanese ambassador and the Secretary of State were at the time engaged in negotiations as a means of avoiding war.
The reasons for Roosevelt’s favoritism are easy to discern. Adolf Hitler had provided the world with a look into the soul of absolute evil, driven by racial hatred, full of mad and murderous fantasies, which would be carried out by his minions with exquisite cruelty and consummate efficiency. Japan and Italy followed suit. Great Britain not only stood alone, it stood for Democracy against Totalitarianism. How could he not favor her?
After Pearl Harbor, in early 1942, Roosevelt acknowledged that the possibility that the United States and Britain might lose the war was real. Hollywood captured that sense of inevitable loss in its film “Bataan,” where the only recourse was heroic defiance and death. It was not until the Battle of Midway, June 4–6, 1942, that the prospect changed, and there was hope for victory. From then on, the Allies and the Axis Powers were engaged in total war.
Roosevelt spent himself in the effort to achieve total victory over the Axis Powers, and, through his leadership, and the heroic effort and sacrifices of innumerable others, it was finally achieved. But he did not live to see it. He died on April 12, 1945. The cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. I remember the day.
Postscript: Besides his failure to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt has also been justly criticized on two further counts: first, his failure to take seriously Hitler’s anti-Semitism and to act to prevent or mitigate his genocidal practices, and his policy of internment of Japanese Americans.
Postscript 2: I append another personal remembrance. Until I was 13 years old, I knew only one President, FDR. His presence filled my childhood and my youth. The events that I have described fill my memory. He is the only President that I have ever seen in the flesh. When King George VI and Queen Mary made their state visit to the United States in June 1939, they visited the New York World’s Fair. Standing on a highway bridge overlooking Long Island’s Grand Central Parkway, I watched the King and Queen drive past in an open car, accompanied by Franklin and Eleanor, on their way to the fair. They were smiling and waving regally. I remember it well.
Editorial: Of fun, song and flowers
Today’s front page photo of preschooler Lucy Bowdish skillfully navigating the recently op … (read more)
Guest editorial: Truth to power(lines)
The electric power industry has not been known for rapid changes in technology, thinking, … (read more)
Ways of Seeing: Ukraine still needs our attention
Both Oksana, who is in her twenties, and I, in my late sixties, grew up in Hashomer Hatzai … (read more)