MENU

1.   The Battle of the Atlantic: Peril on the Seas

More than thirty thousand British and more than nine thousand American merchant seamen lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic. For many of these men carrying urgently needed supplies across a vast ocean, death came by way of that stealthy underwater predator, the German combat submarine known as the U-boat. After America entered World War II in December 1941, U-boats began lurking in the waters off the country’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, sinking more than a million tons of shipping there in May and June of 1942 alone. But in 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill gave the U-boat menace top priority, and by year’s end, their forces had made the Atlantic safe for the massive transatlantic shipping required to move men and equipment into position for the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

The dreaded German Unterseeboot (“undersea boat”), or U-boat, was especially effective against merchant convoys. Though U-boats were used in World War I, it was in World War II that the Germans developed the method of massing subs in a line across the expected path of a convoy, then converging on ships in so-called wolf packs. LOC A scout plane from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger returns from flying over a large area of sea in front of an Allied convoy. These scout planes searching the seas for enemy submarines were among the merchant convoys’ best defenses against the German “wolf packs.” LOC A Navy sailor and the guns of his naval vessel keep watch over a merchant convoy as it plies rough Atlantic seas, early 1940s. LOC
The dreaded German Unterseeboot (“undersea boat”), or U-boat, was especially effective against merchant convoys. Though U-boats were used in World War I, it was in World War II that the Germans developed the method of massing subs in a line across the expected path of a convoy, then converging on ships in so-called wolf packs. LOC
A scout plane from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger returns from flying over a large area of sea in front of an Allied convoy. These scout planes searching the seas for enemy submarines were among the merchant convoys’ best defenses against the German “wolf packs.” LOC
A Navy sailor and the guns of his naval vessel keep watch over a merchant convoy as it plies rough Atlantic seas, early 1940s. LOC

2.   The Fall of France: Democracy’s Dark Hour

The venerable republic of France—a substantial military power—succumbed to German domination on June 22, 1940, only six weeks after the Nazis launched their “lightning war” on the country. A new collaborationist regime based in Vichy, France, soon replaced the French republican motto “Liberty, equality, fraternity” with the slogan “Work, family, fatherland.” Now it was clear: no Western democracy could consider itself safe.
Franklin D. Roosevelt made the fateful decision, against the advice of top military brass, to marshal American resources to defend an isolated Britain rather than keep them at home to bolster security in the Western Hemisphere. He also maintained ties with the Vichy government in the hope of weakening its alliance with the enemy. Just as the French defeat in 1940 dealt a critical blow to the Allies, four years later, Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy, France, would signal the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

In a fort on the Maginot Line in France, a British sentry of the 51st Highland Division keeps watch wearing a gas mask, November 3, 1939. France was relatively well defended on the Maginot Line, a system of fortifications along its border with Germany. But the Germans would focus their 1940 invasion just north of the line. © IWM (O 229) Nazi motorcyclists pass through a destroyed French town, 1940. The Germans subdued their French neighbors with alarming speed. The invasion began on May 10; on June 14, Paris fell; by June 22, the country was in Nazi hands. Deutsches Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archives German prisoners of war being marched through the streets of Paris after its liberation by the Allies, August 25, 1944. In the beginning, many French people had accepted or even supported the collaborationist Vichy regime as a means to maintain some independence for France, but as the war progressed, French public opinion turned against the regime. FDRL
In a fort on the Maginot Line in France, a British sentry of the 51st Highland Division keeps watch wearing a gas mask, November 3, 1939. France was relatively well defended on the Maginot Line, a system of fortifications along its border with Germany. But the Germans would focus their 1940 invasion just north of the line. © IWM (O 229)
Nazi motorcyclists pass through a destroyed French town, 1940. The Germans subdued their French neighbors with alarming speed. The invasion began on May 10; on June 14, Paris fell; by June 22, the country was in Nazi hands. Deutsches Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archives
German prisoners of war being marched through the streets of Paris after its liberation by the Allies, August 25, 1944. In the beginning, many French people had accepted or even supported the collaborationist Vichy regime as a means to maintain some independence for France, but as the war progressed, French public opinion turned against the regime. FDRL

3.   Neighbors and Allies: United States–Canada Relations under FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked in 1936 that Americans and Canadians didn’t really think of one another as “foreigners.” In fact, rising international tensions in Europe and Asia in the 1930s and 1940s motivated FDR to draw America’s nearest neighbor closer than ever. FDR was the first American president to address the Canadian Parliament and people, and he developed a close rapport with Canada’s long-serving Liberal Party prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. During World War II, FDR’s administration coordinated with Canada on war-related industrial production and the defense of North America. Canada, a member of the British Commonwealth, facilitated America’s “special relationship” with Britain in that period. At the same time, the United States supported Canada’s emergence as an independent nation separate from the British Crown, establishing a full-fledged embassy there in 1943 and becoming the first country to receive a fully accredited Canadian ambassador in January 1944.

Franklin D. Roosevelt looks on as U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull (left) and Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King sign a reciprocal trade pact reducing tariffs between their nations, 1935. The Liberal Party Canadian leader was a regular visitor at the White House and the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York. He even saw FDR at his home-away-from-home in Warm Springs, Georgia. LOC From left to right: William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canadian prime minister; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Winston Churchill, British prime minister; and the Earl of Athlone, then governor general of Canada, a representative of the British monarch in Canada. Hosted by the Canadians in Quebec City, the leaders were gathered for the August 1943 Quebec Conference in which they discussed preparations for an invasion of France. IWM (TR1347) Louis St. Laurent, Canadian foreign minister, signs the United Nations Charter at the San Francisco Conference, June 26, 1945. Canada, a strong supporter of the UN, was active in the work of drafting its charter. UN Photo/McLain
Franklin D. Roosevelt looks on as U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull (left) and Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King sign a reciprocal trade pact reducing tariffs between their nations, 1935. The Liberal Party Canadian leader was a regular visitor at the White House and the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York. He even saw FDR at his home-away-from-home in Warm Springs, Georgia. LOC
From left to right: William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canadian prime minister; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Winston Churchill, British prime minister; and the Earl of Athlone, then governor general of Canada, a representative of the British monarch in Canada. Hosted by the Canadians in Quebec City, the leaders were gathered for the August 1943 Quebec Conference in which they discussed preparations for an invasion of France. IWM (TR1347)
Louis St. Laurent, Canadian foreign minister, signs the United Nations Charter at the San Francisco Conference, June 26, 1945. Canada, a strong supporter of the UN, was active in the work of drafting its charter. UN Photo/McLain

4.   The Good Neighbor Policy: Promoting Respect and Unity in the Americas

As much as Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that the United States was inexorably linked to the distant continents of Europe and Asia, he knew that America’s home was in the Western Hemisphere—the New World. With this in mind, FDR devoted himself to forging stronger ties between the United States and its mostly Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south. With his so-called Good Neighbor Policy, formally announced at a 1933 Pan-American Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, FDR rejected a pattern of U.S. military intervention in the affairs of Central American and Caribbean countries, often to protect American economic interests. Instead, FDR joined the leaders of other American republics in pledging to resist aggressive incursions into the hemisphere from without and to uphold the sovereignty of all American nations. His administration promoted economic ties by negotiating trade agreements with Latin American countries. And he fostered cultural exchange by traveling to Latin America often, including on a “Good Neighbor Cruise” to South America in 1936.

A Works Progress Administration poster promoting the Good Neighbor Policy. “We, the citizens of all the American Republics, are, I think, at the threshold of a new era,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said in Colombia in 1934. “It is a new era because of the new spirit of understanding that is best expressed in the phrase, ’Let us each and every one of us live and let live.’” LOC Franklin D. Roosevelt reviews the Argentine fleet on his trip to South America aboard the USS Indianapolis, November 1936. During the upcoming Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 1, 1936, FDR would contrast the American states with aggressive movements gaining traction in Europe and Asia. “This is no conference to form alliances, to divide the spoils of war, to partition countries, to deal with human beings as though they were pawns in a game of chance,” he said. “Our purpose, under happy auspices, is to assure the continuance of the blessings of peace.” Franklin D. Roosevelt with Mexican president (since 1940) Manuel Ávila Camacho during a state visit to Monterrey, Mexico, April 20, 1943. After a decade in office, FDR had secured good relations with Mexico, and when he died two years later, the Mexican government would announce an official three-day mourning period unprecedented for a foreign leader. FDRL
A Works Progress Administration poster promoting the Good Neighbor Policy. “We, the citizens of all the American Republics, are, I think, at the threshold of a new era,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said in Colombia in 1934. “It is a new era because of the new spirit of understanding that is best expressed in the phrase, ’Let us each and every one of us live and let live.’” LOC
Franklin D. Roosevelt reviews the Argentine fleet on his trip to South America aboard the USS Indianapolis, November 1936. During the upcoming Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 1, 1936, FDR would contrast the American states with aggressive movements gaining traction in Europe and Asia. “This is no conference to form alliances, to divide the spoils of war, to partition countries, to deal with human beings as though they were pawns in a game of chance,” he said. “Our purpose, under happy auspices, is to assure the continuance of the blessings of peace.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt with Mexican president (since 1940) Manuel Ávila Camacho during a state visit to Monterrey, Mexico, April 20, 1943. After a decade in office, FDR had secured good relations with Mexico, and when he died two years later, the Mexican government would announce an official three-day mourning period unprecedented for a foreign leader. FDRL

5.   Arming Democracy: Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Lead-Up to War

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership as United States commander in chief during World War II was critical to the Allied victory that came shortly after his death in April 1945. But FDR’s leadership in the years before America entered the war in December 1941 was arguably just as crucial to the outcome. In the 1930s, the American public and U.S. Congress were highly wary of sending American boys to fight in another foreign war, and supported neutrality laws to prevent the country from being drawn into the fray. It was FDR who, acting in the realms of politics, public communications, and diplomacy, carefully turned the nation to face the awful threat developing in Europe and the Pacific—to face it by reinstating the draft, launching an arms buildup of staggering scale, and opening the floodgates of war aid to sustain Britain and other friendly nations fighting for survival. “We must have more ships, more guns, more planes,” FDR said in a 1940 fireside chat, nearly a year before Pearl Harbor. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

Students at the University of California, Berkeley, take part in a peace strike, April 1940. Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a major political challenge in urging Americans to prepare for war. In the summer of 1940, six in ten said staying out of the conflict overseas should be the country’s most important aim. National Archives American-built howitzers, shipped under the country’s Lend-Lease program, at an ordnance depot in Britain, around 1941. Toward the end of 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt had come to believe the United States could no longer simply invoice cash-strapped Britain for war supplies it desperately needed to defend democracy in Europe. FDR saw Britain’s survival as vital to American security. He devised the Lend-Lease program to rush aid to the British without concern for payment. National Archives A window display at the J. L. Hudson Company Department Store in downtown Detroit, 1943. Though Americans had been reluctant to enter World War II, once the country was committed, government and industry collaborated in a major effort to convert American production capacity to manufacture war supplies instead of consumer goods. Factories operated day and night. Detroit Historical Society
Students at the University of California, Berkeley, take part in a peace strike, April 1940. Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a major political challenge in urging Americans to prepare for war. In the summer of 1940, six in ten said staying out of the conflict overseas should be the country’s most important aim. National Archives
American-built howitzers, shipped under the country’s Lend-Lease program, at an ordnance depot in Britain, around 1941. Toward the end of 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt had come to believe the United States could no longer simply invoice cash-strapped Britain for war supplies it desperately needed to defend democracy in Europe. FDR saw Britain’s survival as vital to American security. He devised the Lend-Lease program to rush aid to the British without concern for payment. National Archives
A window display at the J. L. Hudson Company Department Store in downtown Detroit, 1943. Though Americans had been reluctant to enter World War II, once the country was committed, government and industry collaborated in a major effort to convert American production capacity to manufacture war supplies instead of consumer goods. Factories operated day and night. Detroit Historical Society

6.   FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech: A Call for Human Rights “Everywhere in the World”

In January 1941, the Axis powers having launched unprovoked and alarmingly successful assaults on three continents, FDR took the occasion of his eighth State of the Union address to warn Americans that their own way of life was in peril. In the process, he articulated the American idea as a humane and universal one—the very antithesis of the dictators’ racist, violent lootings and suppressions. In the future world FDR envisioned, four fundamental human freedoms would prevail everywhere: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion.
Though the address was given with the specific aim of hardening Americans’ resolve to oppose the Axis and prepare for war, the Four Freedoms portion—which FDR himself composed—brought together the most important values of his presidency. It expressed the New Deal’s core principle that freedom can never be complete without basic economic security (“Necessitous men are not free men,” as FDR said), held up as sacred the individual liberties guaranteed in America’s Bill of Rights, and offered these same cherished freedoms as the basis for a just, secure, and peaceful world.

A page from the fifth draft of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s January 1941 Four Freedoms speech. FDR and his speechwriters had worked on the critical address over the December holidays, composing numerous drafts. FDRL In the summer of 1943, the Stars and Stripes flies next to a flag representing the twenty-six-nation alliance opposing the Axis powers; its four bars symbolized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. LOC A commemorative five-cent postage stamp honoring the recently deceased Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Four Freedoms, 1946. The Four Freedoms concept captured the essence of FDR’s values: his remaking of the federal government into an instrument of common purpose that could promote citizens’ basic security and protect their individual rights, as well as his perception of the world as inevitably and, he hoped, peacefully interconnected.
A page from the fifth draft of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s January 1941 Four Freedoms speech. FDR and his speechwriters had worked on the critical address over the December holidays, composing numerous drafts. FDRL
In the summer of 1943, the Stars and Stripes flies next to a flag representing the twenty-six-nation alliance opposing the Axis powers; its four bars symbolized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. LOC
A commemorative five-cent postage stamp honoring the recently deceased Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Four Freedoms, 1946. The Four Freedoms concept captured the essence of FDR’s values: his remaking of the federal government into an instrument of common purpose that could promote citizens’ basic security and protect their individual rights, as well as his perception of the world as inevitably and, he hoped, peacefully interconnected.

7.   The Atlantic Charter: Would-Be Allies Define Their Cause

For four days in August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill conferred in a dramatic shipboard rendezvous on the frigid waters off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. It was their first face-to-face meeting as heads of state and would-be allies in war, though the United States had yet to officially join the fight against the Nazis. The two leaders quickly developed the rapport they considered critical to the work ahead. And together they composed a document, the Atlantic Charter, which let the world know what it meant to stand with them against the invading enemy: the Allies would fight, not to expand their own dominions, but to defend the right of people everywhere to choose their own governments and live free.

A standing Franklin D. Roosevelt, supported by his son Captain Elliott Roosevelt, grips Winston Churchill’s hand in greeting as he receives the prime minister’s welcome aboard the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales, August 1941, Newfoundland, Canada. It was their first meeting as heads of state. © IWM (H 12739) In a Sunday morning prayer service aboard the HMS Prince of Wales on August 10, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and British and American military chiefs and crewmen gather around an altar draped with their countries’ flags, the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. Led by British and American chaplains, the service was designed to be a powerful expression of unity between the two nations. Churchill chose the hymns himself, closing the ceremony with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” FDRL Winston Churchill walks the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales as it journeys back across the ocean to England after the Atlantic Conference in August 1941. Churchill had FDR’s assurances of goodwill and military aid, but no promise that the United States would enter the war. The British leader returned to the grim task of defending his island nation against Nazi forces that now occupied much of Europe. LOC
A standing Franklin D. Roosevelt, supported by his son Captain Elliott Roosevelt, grips Winston Churchill’s hand in greeting as he receives the prime minister’s welcome aboard the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales, August 1941, Newfoundland, Canada. It was their first meeting as heads of state. © IWM (H 12739)
In a Sunday morning prayer service aboard the HMS Prince of Wales on August 10, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and British and American military chiefs and crewmen gather around an altar draped with their countries’ flags, the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. Led by British and American chaplains, the service was designed to be a powerful expression of unity between the two nations. Churchill chose the hymns himself, closing the ceremony with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” FDRL
Winston Churchill walks the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales as it journeys back across the ocean to England after the Atlantic Conference in August 1941. Churchill had FDR’s assurances of goodwill and military aid, but no promise that the United States would enter the war. The British leader returned to the grim task of defending his island nation against Nazi forces that now occupied much of Europe. LOC

III.  Four Freedoms:
Preparing for War,
Envisioning Peace

1939 – 1941

Four Freedoms contains seven chapters, on topics
ranging from the Nazi conquest of France in 1940
to FDR’s famous 1941 Four Freedoms speech laying out
democratic aspirations for a better world.

For a short version
click the “In Brief” button at upper right.
For the full story in text and pictures
click the chapter arrow at lower left.

1. The Battle of
the Atlantic:
Peril on the Seas

The Battle of the Atlantic is perhaps the most underappreciated theater of World War II. This six-year struggle to keep critical supply routes in the Atlantic safe for Allied shipping was the war’s longest campaign. It was also among its most brutal, with the merchant seamen responsible for transporting goods suffering a higher casualty rate than any branch of the armed services. To Allied sailors, military and civilian alike, that silent, invisible, underwater predator known as the U-boat (a German submarine) became one of the most potent symbols of Nazi terror.

The fight for supremacy on the Atlantic began within hours of the start of the war, when German U-boats and surface raiders began roaming the waters of this vast area in search of the merchant ships that supplied the British Isles with the millions of tons of imported material they needed to survive. In this initial phase of the battle, U-boat numbers were small. Much of the damage inflicted on Allied merchant shipping—which was most often grouped together for safety in escorted convoys—was carried out by small armored ships and other vessels, as well as by mines planted in the approaches to British harbors.

By 1940, however, German strategy in the Atlantic began to change. The German navy suffered major losses during the invasion of Norway in April 1940, which, coupled with the sinking of the massive German battleship Bismarck a year later, effectively ended Germany’s use of its surface vessels as a primary weapon in the Atlantic. Instead, the Germans turned almost exclusively to their U-boats. Thanks to German successes on the battlefield, these combat submarines were now in a much better position to enter the Atlantic. Indeed, the fall of Norway and France in the spring of 1940 meant that Hitler’s regime possessed nearly the entire European Atlantic coastline, giving the Germans new U-boat bases and unhindered access to the ocean despite the naval blockade on Germany the Allies had imposed at the start of the war.

Moreover, Britain now stood alone against the Axis, making the island nation extremely vulnerable to this type of naval warfare. In these new circumstances, the German navy began a concerted effort to try to drive the British out of the war by massing submarines into so-called wolf packs. In this new and highly effective tactic, German submarines would form a line across the likely route of a convoy and, once the latter had been detected, would come together to attack it, usually on the surface at night and often with devastating effect. In October 1940, for example, one slow-moving eastbound convoy lost twenty-one of its thirty ships.

CAPTION DOWNLOAD PDF
Scroll right for more

AThe Allies Fight Back

A. The Allies Fight Back

By the end of 1940 it was clear to British prime minister Winston Churchill that such losses could not be sustained. In the winter of 1940–41, Churchill and his military planners took steps to extend the range of naval and air antisubmarine escorts, including establishing bases in Iceland in April 1941. It was also during this period that Churchill informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Great Britain no longer had the financial resources to continue paying cash for U.S. war materials and carrying them away in British ships, as required under the “cash and carry” policy established by U.S. neutrality laws. FDR responded with the Lend-Lease Act of March 1941, which turned the United States into “the great arsenal of democracy,” making and shipping arms to Britain on a virtually unlimited basis.

But FDR also understood that America’s ramped-up war production would prove useless if much of this valuable equipment was sunk en route to England. Since the outbreak of war in Europe, the American navy had been patrolling Atlantic waters near the Americas, accompanying Allied ships in that zone and broadcasting sightings of U-boats. In April 1941, FDR extended the security zone to within fifty nautical miles of Iceland. “How far may it possibly go?” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “As far on the waters of the seven seas as may be necessary for the defense of the American hemisphere.” Before the year was out, the president would dispatch marines to strategically important Iceland, and, after the targeting (perhaps mistaken) of the American destroyer USS Greer by a German U-boat, would finally authorize navy vessels to shoot these “rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.”

The autumn of 1941 also saw the initiation of Allied convoys to Russian Arctic ports at Archangel and Murmansk, a response to the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Given the harsh, frigid conditions and risk of German air and naval attack from bases in northern Norway, these efforts to supply the beleaguered Soviets were extremely treacherous—and proved costly. In July 1942, for example, Convoy PQ17 lost twenty-four of its thirty-five ships in a relentless weeklong onslaught, the region’s continuous daylight in summer months depriving the convoy of respite. Churchill described the event as “one of the most melancholy naval episodes of the entire war.”

BAmerica Faces the U-boats

B. America Faces the U-boats

America’s full-scale entry into the war in December 1941 opened up vast new theaters of operation for the Germans, with the ironic consequence that the spring of 1942 proved one of the most deadly periods of the war for Allied shipping.

In the six months following Pearl Harbor, hundreds of U.S. merchant vessels, unaccustomed to the perils of modern war and silhouetted at night by the lights of America’s cities, went down to German submarine attacks off the East Coast of the United States. In May and June of 1942 alone, the United States lost more than a million tons of shipping off America’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts—roughly half the total lost in the entire Atlantic in 1941.

To counter this threat, the U.S. Navy instigated a coastal convoy system and aggressive air patrols in May 1942, forcing the Germans to withdraw their U-boats from U.S. coastal waters. Still, the Battle of the Atlantic was far from over, and heavy American losses continued through the end of 1942. Now the conflict was essentially a war of attrition, with the United States locked in a struggle to produce ships faster than the Germans could sink them. Franklin D. Roosevelt met this challenge with his usual vigor, initiating, in September 1941, a massive shipbuilding program that resulted in the construction of 2,751 merchant vessels by the end of the war in 1945.

CThe Casablanca Conference and Defeat of the U-boat

C. The Casablanca Conference and Defeat of the U-boat

Thanks in part to bad weather, a proliferation of U-boats, and a momentary loss of Allied intelligence capabilities, the Battle of the Atlantic reached its climax at the end of 1942 and beginning of 1943. The U-boats infesting the Atlantic posed a particular problem for the Allies in this period, as they were planning an invasion to reclaim Northwest Europe that required very large-scale transportation of men and supplies. Thus, when Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, they determined to give the Battle of the Atlantic priority over all other theaters of war.

The Allies now threw massive resources into the struggle, including new weapons, more sophisticated radar and sonar, newly introduced escort carriers, and, most crucially, a significant increase in long-range bombers to close “the gap,” an area in the mid-Atlantic formerly unreachable by anti-submarine aircraft. These developments, coupled with the repenetration of the main U-boat codes by Allied intelligence in March 1943, spelled disaster for the German commander of submarines, Karl Dönitz. Having lost nearly a hundred U-boats to Allied action by the end of May that year, Dönitz felt he had no choice but to withdraw his forces.

The German wolf packs subdued at long last, the Allies now enjoyed the upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic. Isolated losses would continue until the end of the war, but at nothing like the rates achieved by the Germans between the fall of 1940 and the spring of 1943. The way was now clear for the massive buildup of forces required for the Allied invasion of France in the anticipated D-day assault on Normandy of June 6, 1944.

By the end of World War II, more than thirty thousand British and more than nine thousand American merchant seamen had lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic. No branch of the armed services suffered a higher casualty rate than the men responsible for ferrying desperately needed supplies across a vast ocean. As FDR remarked, the seamen of the U.S. merchant marine had been “fighting side by side with our Army and Navy.”

1. The Battle of the Atlantic: Peril on the Seas CLICK titles for text and images for captions

2. The Fall of France:
Democracy’s Dark Hour

In September 1939, the British and French declared war on Nazi Germany in response to its invasion of Poland, as promised. There followed a so-called Phony War; for months the Allied democracies hesitated, reluctant to plunge into combat. But on May 10, 1940, the day of reckoning came: the German army launched its much-anticipated attack on France and the Low Countries. Now the cream of the French army and ten divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed forward to meet the German threat in prepared positions along the Dyle, Maas, and Meuse rivers in eastern Belgium and extending south along the Maginot Line, a system of fortifications the French had constructed in the '30s to ward off attack by their aggressive German neighbor.

This beginning, so long in coming, proved inauspicious for the Allies. By midsummer France, America’s oldest ally, would lie in Nazi hands.

CAPTION DOWNLOAD PDF
Scroll right for more

AThe Battle for France

A. The Battle for France

In planning the offensive against France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg that began May 10, 1940, the Germans had anticipated the Allies' defensive move into Belgium (a strategy employed in the opening act of World War I) and placed the weight of their attack not in northeastern Belgium but in the heavily wooded and far more rugged terrain of the Ardennes, near Sedan, just north of where the fortification known as the Maginot Line came to an end. What's more, the Germans had developed a new all-out method of warfare—blitzkrieg, or "lightning war"—in which massed motorized armored divisions, supported by airpower, would crash rapidly through enemy lines, creating mass confusion and a communications breakdown.

The Allies had considered a major attack through the forested Ardennes impossible, and they failed to prepare for it; French troops stationed there were poorly armored and trained. Thus the Germans pushed west with alacrity. Within two days, seven German panzer (tank) divisions stood on the east bank of the Meuse in a line running fifty miles north from Sedan. On May 13, supported by more than a thousand aircraft, German motorized forces crossed the Meuse using rapidly constructed floating bridges. In spite of Allied attempts to destroy the German crossings from the air, Adolf Hitler's forces suddenly found themselves in a position to advance rapidly across the largely undefended plain of northern France—just as they had planned.

Escape to fight another day

On May 19, a mere nine days after the attack began, German armored forces under the command of General Heinz Guderian reached the English Channel. The bulk of the French Army and the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were now cut off from most of France, trapped in a vast pocket that ran along the French-Belgian coast.

In the meantime, a political crisis in Great Britain had brought Winston Churchill into power as prime minister on the very day the German attack on France began. Traveling to France on a number of occasions during the battle, Churchill did all he could to bolster French morale, but it was too little, too late. Lacking an organized reserve and suffering from a weak command structure, the French were unable to mount a sustained attack against the German line that ran to the sea. By May 28, both the Dutch and the Belgian governments had surrendered. The BEF, along with what was left of the French forces that had dashed into Belgium just a few weeks before, had been driven back to the channel around the northern French coastal city of Dunkirk.

In a desperate move to save as many men as possible, calls went out across the British Isles for anyone with a boat large enough to cross the channel to do so. Supported by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, thousands of ordinary Britons answered this call and, between May 27 and June 4, evacuated an estimated 338,000 Allied troops. This extraordinary volunteer effort became known as "the miracle of Dunkirk."

By this point, however, it was obvious to all concerned—including Franklin D. Roosevelt—that France was in desperate straits. On June 5, after the Allied escape from Dunkirk, the Germans turned their attention southward to the rest of France. On June 10, the Italians declared war on France; on June 14, Paris fell; on June 17, Henri-Philippe Pétain, the new premier of France, announced to a stunned world that France could not carry on the war with Germany and was seeking terms; on June 22, France agreed to a humiliating armistice, signed in the same railway car where the Germans had accepted defeat in World War I.

As a somber Churchill put it to the House of Commons at the time, the battle of France was over; the "Battle of Britain" was about to begin.

A blow to Western democracies

The fall of France, a venerable democracy with substantial military might—including an army roughly the size of Germany's, a large air force, and the fourth largest navy in the world—was an appalling wake-up call for Americans. That the defeat had been accomplished after a mere six weeks' resistance shocked even FDR and his military advisors in Washington, DC. In the wake of the catastrophe, the president's top military brass, convinced the British Isles would soon follow France's example, urged him to concentrate on building up U.S. forces and defending the Western Hemisphere.

But FDR refused to accept their advice. In one of the most important and politically courageous moves of his presidency, he instead marshaled America's considerable resources to help Great Britain in its hour of utmost peril. To get around American neutrality laws barring the provision of arms to nations at war, in the summer of 1940, FDR negotiated a trade, transferring fifty World War I vintage destroyers to the Royal Navy in exchange for two British naval bases in Newfoundland and Bermuda as well as long-term leases on other territory in the British Caribbean. This deal represented the first clear indication that the United States now regarded the defense of Great Britain as vital to its own safety. The gesture buoyed the spirits of the British people at a critical moment in the war.

FDR also took other measures to bolster American security in the wake of the fall of France. He strengthened U.S. ties to Latin America at July's Havana Conference, which laid a plan for the mutual defense of American states, including the colonial possessions of defeated nations, should Germany attempt to seize them. In August he joined with Canada's prime minister in creating the Permanent Joint Board of Defense to advise on the defense of North America.

Meanwhile, the British made plain their determination to fight on—"if necessary for years, if necessary alone," as Churchill had told the House of Commons—by seizing the French fleet stationed in North Africa and elsewhere in an aggressive effort to prevent the fleet from falling into German hands and augmenting Nazi power on the seas.

It would be four long years before Allied forces would return to France itself, putting ashore on the beaches of Normandy to retake that country before pressing on toward the heart of Germany.

BThe Establishment of
the Vichy Government

B. The Establishment of the Vichy Government

Under the terms of the Franco-German armistice, Germany carved France into two main zones: an occupied zone covering the north and west of the country (including Paris and the entire Atlantic coast), and the unoccupied zone encompassing most of south-central France, including much of the Mediterranean coastline. France was allowed to maintain a small army and keep its colonies in North Africa and elsewhere. French warships not already moored in domestic ports were to sail back to France, where they would be disarmed but not turned over the Germans—an outcome British prime minister Winston Churchill was determined to prevent through the use of force if necessary.

The French also were allowed to establish a government under the leadership of Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, located in the city of Vichy in the unoccupied zone. The Vichy government cooperated with the Nazi regime, promulgating anti-Jewish laws and replacing the French republican motto “liberty, equality, fraternity” with the slogan “work, family, fatherland.” Nominally in charge of the entire country, Vichy wielded executive power in the unoccupied southern zone, but the north was under the rigid control of a German military occupation based in Paris. This set off, in the aftermath of the armistice, a stream of desperate refugees—Jews, antifascists, artists, and other targets of the Nazi state—scrambling for escape through the south.

CCharles de Gaulle and
the Free French Movement

C. Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Movement

When Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned in June 1940 as leader of the French people, his replacement, Henri-Philippe Pétain, sought an armistice with the conquering Germans who had overrun France. This move was not without controversy. While most French people seemed to accept the necessity of bringing the fighting to an end—and hoped to preserve some small measure of independence in the process—one French leader staunchly refused to accept this arrangement. This was Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle.

Not a well-known figure in June 1940, de Gaulle had nevertheless been appointed undersecretary for national defense in the final days of Reynaud’s administration. In this capacity de Gaulle had met British prime minister Winston Churchill during Churchill’s final two meetings with Reynaud in mid-June 1940. Churchill was impressed by de Gaulle—whom he later called “a man of destiny”—and on June 16, just after the fall of Paris, arranged to have the Frenchman smuggled out of France aboard a Royal Air Force plane to London. There, on June 18, 1940, de Gaulle made a famous broadcast on the BBC rejecting Pétain’s call for an armistice. He invoked France’s still-substantial advantages—including the ability to call upon “the gigantic potentialities of American industry”—and urged his fellow Frenchmen to resist German domination as a matter of “honor, common sense, and the higher interests of the country.”

De Gaulle’s broadcast signaled the beginning of the Free French movement and the creation of the Free French Forces, made up of Frenchmen who refused to accept the legitimacy of the Vichy government and remained determined to carry on the fight against the Nazis. On June 28, the British government recognized de Gaulle as the leader of all free Frenchmen, and in early August, signed an agreement with de Gaulle to provide the financial support needed to create and sustain this new organization.

De Gaulle’s initial radio appeal did not attract a large following. But his dogged determination to turn the Free French into a formidable fighting force eventually resulted in the establishment of the Free French army that would help liberate France in the summer of 1944—and take part in the invasion and occupation of Germany in the spring of 1945.

DFranklin D. Roosevelt and Vichy France

D. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vichy France

The Roosevelt administration maintained diplomatic relations with the Vichy government of France until November 1942, when Allies, along with Free French troops, invaded North Africa to reverse Axis incursions in French (Vichy-controlled) protectorates Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

In working with Vichy, Franklin D. Roosevelt had hoped to use humanitarian aid to France as leverage in persuading the regime not to collaborate fully with the Germans, perhaps even to resist. Once the Allies decided to invade North Africa, the Roosevelt administration also entertained the hope that its ties to Vichy might allow the invasion to go ahead unopposed. But in spite of clandestine contacts between U.S. intelligence officials and Vichy authorities in France and in North Africa in the months prior to the invasion, this hope was disappointed. It was only after three days of hard fighting that a controversial deal between the Vichy authorities and Allies brought Vichy French resistance in Northwest Africa to a stop.

In France, meanwhile, the Allied invasion of North Africa brought a swift end to the unoccupied “free” zone, as German forces moved into the region to protect their southern flank. The Vichy government continued, but it came under increasing Nazi control in the final years of the war.

EFranklin D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle: An Uneasy Relationship

E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle: An Uneasy Relationship

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s relationship with Charles de Gaulle was never easy, troubled as it was by the sometimes clashing interests of a world military and industrial power on one hand and, on the other, a vanquished and exiled government.

The fact that the Roosevelt administration maintained diplomatic relations with the Vichy regime—and, unlike British prime minister Winston Churchill, refused to recognize de Gaulle as the legitimate representative of the French people—created enormous tension between the two men. In turn, FDR and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, found de Gaulle’s tendency to take unilateral action “in the name of France”—seizing the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in December 1941, for example—galling and, indeed, unacceptable.

De Gaulle was not even informed when the Allies decided to invade Vichy-controlled North Africa in November 1942. Two months later, when Churchill and FDR met at a key wartime summit in Casablanca, the Roosevelt administration actually promoted an alternative French leader— General Henri Giraud, who had led French forces against the Axis in North Africa. The British continued to champion de Gaulle. As a compromise, the two Frenchmen agreed at Casablanca to become cochairmen of the newly formed French Committee of National Liberation (FCNL). Never comfortable with this arrangement, de Gaulle engineered Giraud’s removal from the committee in November 1943, leaving himself firmly in command for the remainder of the war.

The Allies once again gave de Gaulle scant notice in advance of their D-day invasion to retake the French homeland in 1944. But de Gaulle had anticipated the liberation of France and begun to establish the administrative machinery necessary to govern the country once it was free. On June 14, 1944, a week after the Allied landing in Normandy, de Gaulle returned to France and set these plans in motion. In July, following a series of meetings with de Gaulle at the White House, FDR announced that he was ready to treat the FCNL as the de facto authority in liberated France. In late October 1944, the United States gave FCNL formal recognition as the provisional government of France.

Meanwhile, on the battlefield, more than three hundred thousand Free French troops took part in the liberation of France. The Free French First Army played a major role in the Allied invasion of southern France on August 15, 1944, and the Free French Second Armored Division helped liberate Paris ten days later. On August 26, a triumphant de Gaulle entered the city, walking the length of the Champs-Elysées before a vast crowd and then entering Notre-Dame Cathedral in a moment of great emotion, unperturbed by a brief fusillade of gunfire that erupted inside the building.

Thanks in large part to de Gaulle’s extraordinary determination and unbending will, the French people had played an important role in liberating their country from Nazi tyranny, and the French nation would go on to assume its place among the great powers, becoming one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and a driving force behind the unification of Europe.

  2. The Fall of France: Democracy’s Dark Hour CLICK titles for text and images for captions

3. Neighbors and Allies:
United States–Canada Relations
under Franklin D. Roosevelt

CAPTION DOWNLOAD PDF
Scroll right for more

ANorth American Allies

A. North American Allies

“I read in a newspaper that I was to be received with all the honors customarily rendered to a foreign ruler. I am grateful for the honors; but something within me rebelled at that word ‘foreign.’ I say this because when I have been in Canada, I have never heard a Canadian refer to an American as a ‘foreigner.’ He is just an ‘American.’ And, in the same way, in the United States, Canadians are not ‘foreigners,’ they are just ‘Canadians.’ This simple little distinction illustrates to me better than anything else the relationship between our two countries.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Quebec City, 1936

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a true friend of Canada. FDR’s interest in a Canadian government that was emerging from the shadow of the British Crown, his willingness to work with Canada as an equal during World War II, and his great personal friendship with Liberal Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King all helped set in place an infrastructure for continental cooperation that in many respects still governs the relationship between the two countries today.

FDR was the first U.S. president to address the Canadian Parliament and people of Canada. He visited Canada more often than any other president in American history. FDR and Prime Minister King corresponded frequently, and in the ten years in which their leadership overlapped, they held face-to-face meetings no less than eighteen times. King was a regular visitor at the White House and Hyde Park, and he was one of the few foreign leaders to visit FDR at his second home, the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia.

The strength of this personal relationship between the two leaders is reflected in the many agreements and understandings achieved while they held office, including the Canada-United States reciprocal trade agreement of 1935, which reduced tariffs between the two nations, and a broader tripartite trade agreement between Canada, Great Britain, and the United States reached three years later.

Mutual defense was as pressing an issue for the two leaders as trade. In the summer of 1938, with war looming, FDR announced that the people of the United States would not stand “idly by” if Canadian soil were threatened. In August 1940, after the fall of France, FDR and King signed the Ogdensburg Agreement, which established a Permanent Joint Board on Defense. The Canadian Royal Navy helped protect shipping in the Atlantic in the early years of the war, and Canadian forces would play an important role in the Allied invasions of Italy and France.

Like the United States, Canada also ramped up its war production to play a key role in supplying the British government with the materials it needed to carry on the fight against the Nazis. In April 1941, after U.S. passage of the Lend-Lease Act promising to supply war aid as needed to the British, King and FDR signed the Hyde Park Declaration, which coordinated the two countries’ economies for war mobilization. Canada also participated in numerous joint boards and committees during the Second World War. Canada, the United States, and Britain were the only countries represented on the policy committee that oversaw the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.

In addition, Canada and King helped facilitate what British prime minister Winston Churchill would call the “special relationship” that developed between Great Britain and the United States during these years. King, for example, was the initial force behind the much-celebrated visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the United States in 1939. Two of the most significant wartime summit meetings between Churchill and FDR were held in Canada, at the Quebec City conferences of September 1943 and 1944. Canada also worked closely with the United States in drafting the United Nations Charter in April 1945.

Indeed, from the start, Canada participated actively in the United Nations, FDR’s brainchild. After FDR’s death, the Canadians played a key role in founding UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1945 and in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. In the latter case, Professor John Humphrey of Montreal’s McGill University joined Eleanor Roosevelt in putting together the document that ER called the “Magna Carta for all mankind.”

It is no exaggeration to say that FDR and King transformed the relationship between their two countries and that Canada, during these critical years, emerged from its status as a dominion of Great Britain to become a fully sovereign state and partner of the United States. Perhaps the greatest symbol of this new relationship was the January 12, 1944, accreditation of the Honorable Leighton McCarthy as the first Canadian ambassador to the United States—indeed, the first true ambassador of Canada accredited to any nation in the world.

The relationship between Canada and the United States is marked by a history of friendship and cooperation unique in the world. No two countries share more extensive social, economic, military, and cultural ties—ties that were expanded and strengthened by FDR.

3. Neighbors and Allies: United States–Canada Relations under Franklin D. Roosevelt CLICK titles for text and images for captions

4. The Good Neighbor
Policy: Promoting Respect
and Unity in the Americas

In his famous first inaugural address of March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt committed his administration to “the policy of the good neighbor.” The good neighbor, FDR explained, “resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.” FDR was referring to the tenor of U.S. foreign policy in general, but the phrase “good neighbor” soon became associated specifically with U.S. policy toward Latin America.

In embracing the Good Neighbor Policy, FDR and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, signaled their intention to move away from a pattern of heavy-handed intervention in the domestic affairs of Central American and Caribbean nations, often in small-scale “Banana Wars” to protect U.S. economic interests. Instead the United States would take an approach based on mutual recognition and cooperation.

While promoting nonintervention, free trade, and mutual defense, the policy raised the profile of U.S.–Latin American relations in general, for the first time emphasizing the New World as an important locus of international exchange. FDR made frequent visits to Latin American countries, becoming the first sitting president to visit South America when he traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, in 1934. “We, the citizens of all the American Republics, are, I think, at the threshold of a new era,” FDR said in Colombia. “It is a new era because of the new spirit of understanding that is best expressed in the phrase, ‘Let us each and every one of us live and let live.’”

Though America’s predominance in economic and military affairs meant it would continue to hold the upper hand in the Western Hemisphere, the Good Neighbor Policy was popular in the United States and Latin America alike, vastly improving relations between the two.

The Roosevelt administration held up this policy, coupled with the strong relationship it cultivated with Canada, as an exemplar of international cooperation among sovereign states—and a sharp contrast to the aggressive foreign policies of Italy, Germany, and Japan in the years leading up to World War II. FDR hoped this example might help to head off world war. “Can we, the Republics of the New World, help the Old World to avert the catastrophe which impends?” he asked at a 1936 diplomatic conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Yes; I am confident that we can.”

It was not to be. But the principles established in the Good Neighbor Policy did help lay the basis for the United Nations, founded after the war. In 1948 this policy would find new life in the establishment of the Organization of American States, which continues to foster neighborly relations among nations of the Western Hemisphere in the twenty-first century.

CAPTION DOWNLOAD PDF
Scroll right for more

ARespect Among Neighbors

A. Respect Among Neighbors

A shift in U.S. policy toward Latin America first became apparent at the Pan-American Conference of December 1933 in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Here, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s leadership, the United States signed the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. The international agreement stated unequivocally that “no state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.” Under the convention the nineteen signatories agreed that they would not recognize territorial gains made by force and that all disputes should be settled peacefully. Although the United States attached a reservation that had the potential to be used to justify intervention, FDR and Hull took the occasion to formally announce the Good Neighbor Policy.

In keeping with the new policy, in 1934 the Roosevelt administration repealed the so-called Platt Amendment of 1901, which had allowed unilateral U.S. involvement in Cuba. It also ended a two-decade-long U.S. occupation of Haiti.

Four years later came a major challenge to the Good Neighbor Policy when the Mexican government nationalized the nation’s oil industry, seizing the assets of American oil companies operating in the country. Crying foul, many American business leaders in the oil industry and elsewhere called for U.S. intervention. But FDR refused, instead ordering the State Department to negotiate a compensation plan.

BTrade among Neighbors

B. Trade among Neighbors

The Good Neighbor Policy sought economic development and prosperity not by dominating foreign countries militarily but by knocking down trade barriers. In 1934 Congress passed the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, giving the president the power to adjust tariffs and negotiate bilateral trade agreements. This would spawn agreements with nearly a dozen Latin American countries, as well as with Canada and several European countries, by the close of the 1930s. U.S. trade with Latin America increased.

CSecurity among Neighbors

C. Security among Neighbors

In March 1935, Hitler ominously repudiated the Versailles Treaty signed after World War I and began to remilitarize Germany. In October Mussolini invaded the fertile African country of Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia), defying the League of Nations, of which it was a member. These troubling events on the other side of the world inspired Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull to add a new dimension to the Good Neighbor Policy—the preservation of peace and security in the Western Hemisphere.

FDR called the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace “to determine how the peace of the American Republics may best be safeguarded.” The conference, which took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 1936, committed the countries of the Americas to consult with one another to find a nonviolent solution whenever the peace of the Western Hemisphere was threatened, whether from within or without. FDR addressed the conference as part of his “Good Neighbor Cruise” of Latin America begun in the fall of that year.

As the situation in Europe and Asia spiraled toward chaos, further Pan-American gatherings took place in 1938 in Lima, Peru—where the American nations agreed to resist “all foreign intervention or activity”—and again in 1939 in Panama City, Panama, and 1940 in Havana, Cuba. At Panama, the American republics agreed to observe a three-hundred-mile “neutrality zone” around the coastlines of the Western Hemisphere (except for Canada and European colonies in the Caribbean) that belligerent ships should not enter. In Havana, just weeks after the Nazi conquest of the Netherlands and the fall of France, the American republics pledged to oppose the transfer or change in sovereignty of territory anywhere in the Western Hemisphere (including European colonies) as a result of the European war.

After the United States entered the war, cooperation established under the Good Neighbor Policy continued. A significant number of the Latin American republics declared war against the Axis in 1942, and by 1945, all had done so, including Argentina, which, in spite of pressure from Washington, DC, had remained neutral for most of the war.

“In this Western Hemisphere the night of fear has been dispelled. Many of the intolerable burdens of economic depression have been lightened and, due in no small part to our common efforts, every Nation of this Hemisphere is today at peace with its neighbors.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace in Buenos Aires, December 1, 1936

DThe Good Neighbor Policy and Mexico

D. The Good Neighbor Policy and Mexico

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy had significant impact on relations between the United States and its nearest neighbor to the south, Mexico.

Determined to establish and maintain a rapport with Mexico, FDR appointed Josephus Daniels as U.S. ambassador to the country when he became president in March 1933. This appointment struck many as surprising. As U.S. secretary of the navy while FDR served as assistant secretary from 1913 to 1920, Daniels had been FDR’s boss, and the two had not always seen eye to eye on policy matters. In addition, Daniels had been the official charged with carrying out President Woodrow Wilson’s orders to dispatch the navy to occupy the Mexican state of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico in 1914. This intervention in the Mexican Revolution had not been popular in Mexico, and Daniels’s arrival there as ambassador was marred by protests outside the American embassy and a cool reception by Mexican officials.

But Daniels quickly established himself as one of the most effective and well-regarded ambassadors in the history of U.S.-Mexican relations. In this, he was helped greatly by FDR, who remained steadfast in his determination to maintain a policy of nonintervention in the affairs of sovereign American states, articulated and agreed to at the Pan-American Conference of December 1933 in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The election of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río as president of Mexico in 1934 also seemed auspicious for the future of U.S.-Mexican relations. As a social reformer who admired FDR’s New Deal, Cárdenas instigated a number of policies and programs aimed at improving the lives of the Mexican people. He instituted land reform, promoted a secular public education system, and established workers’ cooperatives that would help Mexico’s industrial laborers secure better wages and working conditions.

Not surprisingly, however, American corporate leaders doing business in Mexico regarded Cárdenas’s workers’ rights reforms with alarm. His government’s efforts to abolish religious education, meanwhile, were widely viewed by American Catholics as an attack on the Church. By the spring of 1935, Americans opposed to Cárdenas’s education reform had launched a vigorous campaign to reverse this policy by demanding the recall of Ambassador Daniels and by attempting to pressure the U.S. Congress into launching an investigation into alleged religious persecution in Mexico.

FDR flatly refused to support these initiatives, however, insisting that he would not permit his government “to undertake a policy of interference in the domestic concerns of foreign governments” that would “jeopardize the maintenance of peaceful relations.” FDR found support for this stance in Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago and other prominent American Catholics. Like FDR, these leaders understood that in an era of increasing international aggression in Europe and Asia, it was important for the United States to do all it could to promote amity among nations in its own hemisphere. By the end of the year, the Mexican government had moderated its religious policies and contention over religious education in Mexico faded.

But President Cárdenas would present perhaps the most serious challenge to the Good Neighbor Policy in 1938, when he ordered his government to nationalize the Mexican oil industry, seizing the assets of British and American oil companies operating in the country. Cárdenas took this action in the wake of a long-running labor dispute and a decision by the Mexican Supreme Court in support of Mexican oil workers’ demand for higher wages. Furious, the American oil industry and wider business community reacted by calling for U.S. intervention. Once again, FDR refused, and he instead ordered the State Department to negotiate a plan of compensation for the seized assets.

In doing so, FDR helped preserve the Good Neighbor Policy, making it easier for the United States to maintain its position of leadership in the Western Hemisphere at a time when concerns over the belligerent behavior of Germany, Italy, and Japan had reached new heights. President Cárdenas certainly understood this, publicly declaring that FDR, by “reaffirming the sovereignty of the peoples of this continent,” had won the esteem of the Mexican people.

The success of FDR’s policy of restraint became apparent after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. As dictators in Europe and Asia violated national borders at will and viciously subdued populations, the United States and Mexico reached an unparalleled level of friendship. To mark these exemplary relations with America’s close neighbor, FDR traveled to Mexico in April 1943 to engage in the first face-to-face meeting between an American and Mexican president in thirty-four years. Addressing President Cárdenas’s successor, Manuel Ávila Camacho, FDR observed,

The great Mexican people have their feet set upon a path of ever greater progress so that each Nation may enjoy and each citizen may enjoy the greatest possible measure of security and opportunity. The Government of the United States and my countrymen are ready to contribute to that progress.

We recognize a mutual interdependence of our joint resources. We know that Mexico’s resources will be developed for the common good of humanity. We know that the day of the exploitation of the resources and the people of one country for the benefit of any group in another country is definitely over.

It is time that every citizen in every one of the American Republics recognizes that the Good Neighbor policy means that harm to one Republic means harm to each and every one of the other Republics. We have all of us recognized the principle of independence. It is time that we recognize also the privilege of interdependence—one upon another. . . .

We have achieved close understanding and unity of purpose, and I am grateful to you, Mr. President, and to the Mexican people, for this opportunity to meet you on Mexican soil, and—to call you friends.

4. The Good Neighbor Policy: Promoting Respect and Unity in the Americas CLICK titles for text and images for captions

5. Arming Democracy:
Franklin D. Roosevelt in
the Lead-Up to War

In the late 1930s, as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan began to wreak havoc in the Eastern Hemisphere, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a leadership challenge of bedeviling complexity.

Most Americans, recalling the country’s apparently fruitless sacrifice in World War I, adamantly opposed entry into another foreign war. As late as the summer of 1940—just a few months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor—fully 61 percent said staying out of war should be America’s most important objective. Congress had served this aim with neutrality laws that cut off the flow of American money and arms to warring nations.

For years the president, engaged in domestic issues and two hard-fought reelection campaigns, was loath to confront isolationists. His own oft-repeated hope for humanity was widespread disarmament and commitment to nonaggression. But as events unspooled on the other side of the world, FDR became convinced that the United States must, in the interest of its own security, prevent the collapse of its allies abroad.

At first he advanced this cause with a rhetorical and legal finesse that left some doubting his sincerity. Ultimately, FDR made a forceful case to the American people, asking them to embrace the country’s role as “the arsenal of democracy”—funneling aid to desperate combatants.

In the election year of 1936, when Congress voted to extend a ban on arms sales to nations at war, FDR accepted the bill without protest. He feared that a loud debate on neutrality would only encourage Congress to place tighter constraints on his discretion, hurt his chances in the election—and possibly spur Italy to even bolder depredations in Ethiopia than those launched the previous year. “These are without a doubt the most hair-trigger times the world has gone through in your lifetime or mine,” FDR lamented to his ambassador in Italy.

Tensions mounted with every passing month. In June 1940, with the Nazis bearing down on Paris and hatching designs on the final European prize—England—British prime minister Winston Churchill sent word to FDR: “If we go down,” he warned, “Hitler has a very good chance of conquering the world.”

But at home FDR faced indignant accusations that he was leading his countrymen into a war they wanted no part of. On the campaign trail that autumn, he insisted, “There is no secret treaty, no secret obligation, no secret commitment, no secret understanding in any shape or form, direct or indirect, with another Government, to involve this nation in any war.”

Near the end of ‘41, the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor and put an end to debate over whether America would fight. In the meantime, that was the question on Americans’ minds. Was the country on a path to war? Could it stay clear of the conflagration? “To that,” Eleanor Roosevelt told one audience in 1939, “my answer is always the same and the only answer I can make: Nobody knows. We hope so with 
all our hearts.”

CAPTION DOWNLOAD PDF
Scroll right for more

AMarch of the Aggressors: A Timeline

A. March of the Aggressors: A Timeline

September 1931
Japan invades Manchuria for its land and resources, defying the League of Nations.

October 1935

Benito Mussolini’s Italy invades Ethiopia, annexing it by the spring of 1936.

October 1936
Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sign a treaty pledging mutual cooperation.

November 1936

Germany and Imperial Japan pledge mutual defense against “Communist subversive activities.”

January 1937

Adolf Hitler officially withdraws from the Treaty of Versailles, which requires Germany to disarm and make reparations after World War I—an agreement “extracted by force,” the führer insists, “from a weak Government.”

July 1937

Japan invades China.

March 1938

Under the motto “One People, One Reich, One Führer,” Germany declares Austria a German province and renames it Ostmark.

September 1938

In the Munich Pact, Britain, France, Italy, and Germany agree Czechoslovakia will cede a third of its territory to Nazi Germany. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain calls it “peace with honor.”

November 1938

Japan declares a “New Order” governing East Asia.

March 1939

Violating its agreement with Britain and other nations made in September 1938, Germany invades Czechoslovakia.

August 1939

Joseph Stalin signs a pact with Hitler, communism’s fiercest foe, in which both leaders promise not to invade each other’s nation for ten years.

September 1939

Hitler invades Poland, provoking a declaration of war from Britain and France, pledged to Poland’s defense. “Well, it has come at last,” FDR says on hearing the news. “God help us all.” A few weeks later, the Soviet Union invades Poland in cooperation with Germany. “The attack on Poland by Russia has depressed F.D.R.,” Eleanor Roosevelt writes to her aunt. “He feels we are drawing nearer to that old decision, “Can we afford to let Germany win?” Hitler begins a submarine (U-boat) campaign that will last throughout the war, targeting Allied ships in the Atlantic.

April–May 1940
Germany invades Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium; all fall, except Norway, which resists until early June. Germany invades France. Chamberlain resigns and Winston Churchill takes over as British prime minister. Churchill says Britain’s policy will be “to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.”

June 1940

Mussolini invades France. “The hand that held the dagger,” says FDR, “has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” France surrenders to Germany, ceding its northern half and Atlantic coastline to the Nazis; the south will be ruled by a collaborationist government based in Vichy.

July 1940
Hitler issues Directive No. 15: “I have decided to prepare for, and if necessary to carry out, an invasion of England.”

August 1940

The German Luftwaffe launches an air war against Britain to soften its defenses in preparation for a landing. At first bombers target airfields and other military assets; ultimately they terrorize cities, including London. Royal Air Force fighters repel the attacks effectively enough that in September, Hitler officially postpones his planned land invasion, dubbed Operation Sea Lion.

September 1940
Germany, Italy, and Japan sign the Axis Pact, pledging mutual cooperation and defense. Japan invades French Indochina.

October 1940

Italy invades Greece.

November 1940

Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania join the Axis. Within a few months, so does Bulgaria.

April 1941

Axis countries invade Yugoslavia.

June 1941

Axis countries launch an invasion of the Soviet Union, which the Soviets repel several months later.

December 1941

Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. The United States declares war on Japan, entering World War II. A few days later, Germany and Italy declare war on the United States.

BThe Isolationists

B. The Isolationists

After World War I, many Americans came to see their country’s sacrifice of more than fifty-three thousand lives on far-off battlefields as a terrible mistake. The rekindling of hostilities in Europe during the 1930s left some believing these deaths in the supposed “war to end all wars” had been in vain.

And then there was the matter of wealth. The United States had made billions of dollars of loans to European countries during the war. When Germany found itself unable to pay postwar reparations to Britain and France, those allies (among others) were unable to repay their American debts. This state of affairs had contributed to both global depression and the rise of fascism.

Moreover, in 1936, an eighteen-month investigation led by Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota concluded that America had been tricked into the war by profiteering munitions dealers and bankers—the nefarious “merchants of death.” “When Americans went into the fray,” Nye said, “they little thought that they were there and fighting to save the skins of American bankers who had bet too boldly on the outcome of the war and had two billions of dollars of loans to the Allies in jeopardy.”

Congress had passed laws to enforce a stalwart American neutrality, but the public’s fear of slipping into a European slaughter persisted as calamity struck again and again in the Eastern Hemisphere. Some Americans held deep skepticism about the motives of those who would intervene in the conflict.

FDR was a chief target of these suspicions. “I challenge his truthfulness,” said the president’s Republican opponent in the 1940 election campaign, Wendell Willkie. “If his promise to keep our boys out of foreign wars is no better than his promise to balance the budget, they’re already almost on the transports.”

Leading isolationists in Congress included Senators Hiram Johnson of California, William Borah of Idaho, and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. But perhaps the most celebrated isolationist was popular hero Charles Lindbergh, the aviator whose baby son had been kidnapped and murdered in 1932.

In an address just after the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, carried on all the major radio networks, Lindbergh spoke out against repealing the American ban on selling arms to warring nations. He predicted the United States would lose several million men in the war and “be staggering under this burden of recovery for the rest of our lives.” In May 1941, after the fall of France and the London Blitz, Lindbergh told an antiwar rally, “Mr. Roosevelt claims that Hitler desires to dominate the world. But it is Mr. Roosevelt himself who advocates world domination when he says that it is our business to control the wars of Europe and Asia.”

By that time, however, two-thirds of Americans said they’d choose war over defeat to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

CLegislating Neutrality

C. Legislating Neutrality

In the 1930s, Congress passed a series of laws aimed at preventing the president or business interests from drawing a reluctant nation, inch by inch, into war.

1. With European countries announcing they could not repay their debts from World War I, Senator Hiram Johnson of California, a progressive Republican and leading isolationist, introduced the Foreign Securities Act (or Johnson Debt Default Act) banning loans to foreign governments currently in default to the U.S. government or American citizens. This included Britain and France. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act on April 13, 1934.

2. Opposed to participating in international organizations they thought might threaten U.S. independence, in January 1935, despite the entreaties of FDR, isolationists in Congress blocked American membership in the World Court, an international tribunal attached to the League of Nations.

3. In August 1935, FDR signed the first Neutrality Act, though its “inflexible provisions,” he thought, “might yet drag us into war instead of keeping us out.” The law banned the sale of arms to any warring nation, barred U.S. ships from carrying implements of war to any combatant nation, and prevented Americans from traveling on ships owned by warring nations.

4. In February 1936, Congress voted overwhelmingly to extend the Neutrality Act through May 1, 1937, also extending provisions of the Johnson Debt Default Act to forbid loans to any warring nation.

5. In May 1937, Congress once again extended provisions of the Neutrality Act. In a concession to those who argued that a total embargo would cripple the American economy, the law permitted the sale to warring nations of raw materials not wholly used for munitions—but only if those nations paid cash and carried the material away in their own ships, a condition known as the “cash-and-carry” provision.

6. In September 1939, after the Nazi invasion of Poland and the French and British declaration of war on Germany, FDR urged Congress to repeal parts of the Neutrality Act. After heated debate, the legislature approved the sale of arms to combatant nations on a “cash-and-carry” basis only.

7. In June 1940, Congress passed a law requiring the military to certify war material useless to the United States before it could be sold abroad. “I do not want our forces deprived of one gun or one bomb or one ship which can aid that American boy whom you and I may some day have to draft,” said Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts.

8. In March 1941, Congress passed FDR’s “Lend-Lease” program, allowing the United States to provision cash-poor allies with war supplies on an almost unlimited basis, with the expectation that such would be returned or provided in kind at a later date.

D1940: Neutrality amid the Gathering Storm

D. 1940: Neutrality amid the Gathering Storm

After the declaration of war in Europe in September 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cabinet, still charged with maintaining official U.S. neutrality, strained to ready the country for war—and to aid its friends in their hour of extremity.

In May 1940, appalled by the Nazi blitzkrieg advancing into France, FDR asked Congress for a supplemental military appropriation of $1.2 billion. American plants, he said, should turn out fifty thousand planes a year—an extraordinary buildup for an Air Corps that included only 1,200 bombers and fighters in 1939. “These are ominous days—days whose swift and shocking developments force every neutral nation to look to its defense in the light of new factors,” FDR told the nation.

After France’s defeat in June, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act, beefing up the navy by 70 percent with additional aircraft, destroyers, submarines, and other equipment. Japan had been quick to seize France’s naval base in Indochina, placing the aggressor within range of the U.S.–controlled Philippines; FDR retaliated by seizing Japanese assets in the United States and embargoing the sale to Japan of oil, steel, or iron—materials it badly needed to wage war.

Meanwhile, even before France’s surrender, British prime minister Winston Churchill had cabled FDR: “The scene has darkened swiftly. . . . If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long.” He asked FDR for “forty or fifty of your old destroyers,” “several hundred of the latest type of aircraft,” and “anti-aircraft equipment and ammunition.”

By early September, FDR had managed to get Britain the destroyers it desperately needed to defend shipping in the Atlantic, by means of a creative and apparently tough bargain. In exchange for the ships, the United States would get eight naval bases on strategically important British islands in the Western Hemisphere. This circumvented the law requiring cash for military equipment, as well as the stipulation that all such equipment be certified as inessential before sale; the bases were deemed more useful than the outdated destroyers. Nonetheless, the day FDR announced the deal, isolationists took out full-page ads declaring, “Mr. Roosevelt today committed an act of war.”

Later, in the fall, FDR and his advisors found themselves puzzling over how they might fill a new British request for twelve thousand warplanes without running afoul of neutrality laws. They considered making a gift. They pondered sending the planes to Britain under the pretense that they would be tested there. Finally they supplied the planes, in part by declaring them an exchange for secret technology shared by the British.

In November yet another major British request for arms lay before the U.S. government. Britain lacked the dollar reserves to cover the order. On November 23, the British ambassador to the United States landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, where he told the press, “Well, boys, Britain’s broke; it’s your money we want.”

FDR was angered by the impolitic remark. But he was also less than satisfied with a plan to invoice Britain for its supplies on delivery. “We have just got to decide what we are going to do for England,” FDR told Secretary of War Henry Stimson. “Doing it this way is not doing anything.”

Two days later, the president left Washington, DC, for the working vacation that would produce his Lend-Lease policy.

EPeacetime Draft

E. Peacetime Draft

Adolf Hitler held France in his thrall and German bombers were setting London afire in September 1940, when Congress authorized the first-ever American draft during official peacetime, calling on men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five to register for military service. The Selective Service and Registration Act would lead to the registration of fifty million men and the call-up of some ten million by 1945.

Franklin D. Roosevelt pitched the draft as an opportunity for “Americans from all walks of life” to “learn to live side by side”—a “universal service” that would “bring not only greater preparedness to meet the threat of war, but a wider distribution of tolerance and understanding to enjoy the blessings of peace.”

Most Americans supported this buildup of a military that was clearly unprepared to defend the country in a major war. By mid-1941, more than nine in ten said the draft had been handled fairly in their communities. But a slim majority still did not think the army should be authorized to send drafted soldiers outside the Western Hemisphere.

FFranklin D. Roosevelt on War

F. Franklin D. Roosevelt on War

Franklin D. Roosevelt was an internationalist through and through. He believed that given the twentieth-century trend toward global communications, transportation, and trade, two oceans, however vast, would never be enough to insulate the United States from affairs of the world; engagement was the wiser path. But in the months and years before the United States finally entered World War II, he took pains to insist that he was as much against war as anyone.

“We are not isolationists except in so far as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war,” he said in an address during the 1936 presidential campaign. “I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. . . . I hate war.”

Even as he forcefully repudiated war, FDR edged the American people toward preparedness, warning them again and again of the nature of the totalitarian threat as he saw it. “Innocent peoples, innocent nations are being cruelly sacrificed to a greed for power and supremacy which is devoid of all sense of justice and humane consideration,” he said in Chicago, an isolationist stronghold, in the autumn of 1937. “If those things come to pass in other parts of the world, let no one imagine that America will escape, that America may expect mercy. . . . War is a contagion.”

After the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland sparked full-scale war in Europe, FDR again cautioned against the seductive idea that the United States need only “ignore [the conflict] and go about its business.” “I hope the United States will keep out of this war,” he added. “I believe it will.”

It was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that FDR’s rhetoric, in keeping with the mood of the people, took a sharp turn. “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion,” he thundered, “the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

“We are not isolationists except in so far as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war. I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. . . . I hate war.”

FDR in an address during the 1936 presidential campaign

GLend-Lease

G. Lend-Lease

In early December 1940, weary after his election to a third term, Franklin D. Roosevelt took a Caribbean vacation aboard the navy cruiser USS Tuscaloosa. On September 9, a seaplane delivered a letter from British prime minister Winston Churchill. Thanks to an amendment to neutrality laws the previous year, the United States was now able to sell munitions to Britain on a cash-and-carry basis. But Britain needed a great deal more material, and it was nearly out of cash.

Unless Britain could feed its island nation, import munitions, and carry armies to meet the enemy, Churchill’s missive warned, “We may fall by the way, and the time needed by the United States to complete her defensive preparations may not be forthcoming.” He asked for destroyers, combat planes, and other supplies to help Britain ply the Atlantic in safety. The letter then acknowledged Britain’s inability to pay cash but challenged FDR to see the request “not as an appeal for aid, but as a statement of the minimum action necessary to achieve our common purpose.” It would be “wrong in principle” and “mutually disadvantageous” to force Britain to sell every asset and leave it “stripped to the bone” for its defense of democracy.

FDR read the long letter several times. He spent his vacation fishing, napping, playing cards with close advisors. But mostly he kept to himself and gazed out to sea from a deck chair. “I began to get the idea that he was refueling, the way he so often does when he seems to be resting and carefree,” recalled Harry Hopkins, a very close advisor on both domestic and diplomatic policy. “So I didn’t ask him any questions.”

At some point in his musings, FDR seized upon a metaphor used a few months before by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes: the United States, Ickes had written, was like a homeowner who refuses to lend his neighbor a garden hose “although that house is all ablaze and the wind is blowing from that direction.”

FDR “suddenly came out with it—the whole program,” Hopkins recalled. The United States would jack up war production and make available to the British whatever supplies it required, to be returned in kind after the war. Back in Washington, DC, FDR presented his idea, along with the garden-hose analogy, to the press. Very soon began the export of billions of dollars worth of war supplies to allies abroad.

Churchill would call Lend-Lease a “majestic policy” and “the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history.” “Never again let us hear the taunt that money is the ruling power in the hearts and thoughts of the American democracy,” he said.

HFireside Chat:
“Arsenal of Democracy”

H. Fireside Chat: “Arsenal of Democracy”

Freed from the pressures of the campaign, revived after his postelection vacation aboard the USS Tuscaloosa, and emboldened by the urgency of the times, on the evening of December 29, 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a fireside chat on national security.

The speech got down to brass tacks, referring to the Nazis by name, attacking the champions of appeasement, and walking listeners across the map of a troubled globe, from the Azores in the North Atlantic to the American fleet patrolling the Pacific. He made his argument for a Lend-Lease program that would supply allies with arms much the way a homeowner would lend a garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire.

“The plain facts,” said FDR, “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 the round world. . . . The history of recent years proves that shootings and chains and concentration camps are not simply the transient tools but the very altars of modern dictatorships.”

He frankly called upon the American people to support a large-scale military buildup and aid to allies. “We must have more ships, more guns, more planes,” he said. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

More people listened to FDR’s “chat” than had ever listened to a presidential address before. The next day, telegrams poured into the White House, running one-hundred-to-one in favor of FDR’s remarks. Arthur Krock of the New York Times welcomed the “candor emerging at long last from the camouflage of the campaign.” The fireside chat had, according to the Christian Science Monitor, “clarified and crystallized America’s choice, a choice really made long ago.”

5. Arming Democracy: Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Lead-Up to War CLICK titles for text and images for captions

6. FDR’s Four Freedoms
Speech: A Call for Human
Rights “Everywhere in
the World”

Not long past noon on Monday, January 6, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt locked his leg braces into place and mounted the podium of the Capitol’s House of Representatives to deliver his eighth State of the Union address. Newly elected to a third term, FDR was by now a seasoned leader. Indeed, on that winter day in 1941, he was arguably the most experienced and most important statesman in the world.

And the world was falling apart. The Nazis had swallowed Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France, the Fascist Italians had invaded Ethiopia, Egypt, and Greece, and the Japanese had sacked China and Indochina. In September the three powers had signed the ominous Axis Pact, pledging mutual support in establishing “a new order of things.” Great Britain, a last line of defense against totalitarianism in Europe, had held fast during months of German bombing and U-boat attacks, but was now much depleted of armaments and out of money.

FDR had a great deal to accomplish in his speech. Most immediately, he asked Congress to authorize and fund “a swift and driving increase” in American arms production. He also asked listeners to support his plan (the “Lend-Lease” program) to give the British and other Allies ready access to American airplanes, ships, tanks, and other munitions without having to pay for them in cash.

But FDR went beyond these short-term goals to explain to a country deeply troubled at the prospect of sending its sons into combat on foreign soil just what was at stake for Americans in this war.

He first made an eminently practical case, drawing a picture of Britain vanquished, the Axis tyrants holding dominion over all of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australasia. Nothing resembling an American way of life would be possible in such a world, he argued. Under a “dictator’s peace,” a “new one-way international law,” Americans could not long enjoy independence as a nation, nor should they expect to exercise their traditional liberties.

FDR went further still, arguing that Americans’ very identity—their most cherished values—hung in the balance. In so doing he defined American identity as a universal idea to which any and all might cleave, something very different from the tribal and even racist nationalism that fueled the Axis powers’ pitiless expansionism. It was no mistake that in FDR’s description of his nation’s values, the word “freedom” rang out again and again.

In the famous conclusion of his speech, he named four “essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship as one chooses, freedom from fear (of armed aggression, for example), and freedom from want (for destabilizing “social and economic problems,” he pointed out, had birthed the appalling political movements that now threatened American security). In each case the president pointedly added that these freedoms must prevail everywhere in the world.

FDR’s message married the New Deal values that had helped sustain democratic life through turbulent times in America to an impassioned defense of “democratic existence” around the world. He proposed a broad “moral order” that would protect the individual but inspire the multitudes—and thus prove mightier than the militaristic “new order” the Axis powers sought to impose. “Freedom,” said FDR, “means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”

CAPTION DOWNLOAD PDF
Scroll right for more

AIsolationism
in America

A. Isolationism in America

In the years following World War I, the American public was in an isolationist mood. Many believed the country should nurture its own people and distance itself from a troubled world beyond its borders.

The 1920s saw the passage of high tariffs on imported goods and immigration quotas that sharply curtailed the flow of newcomers to U.S. shores. Americans were particularly determined to avoid entanglement in foreign wars.

Many viewed the colossal loss of life in World War I with bitterness as well as sorrow. The flaring of renewed conflict overseas seemed to confirm the failure of a peace treaty that had redrawn the map of Europe in a way that left few satisfied and saddled Germany with debts that only exacerbated its desperation. Moreover, many Americans were convinced that it had been bankers and arms dealers—profiteers—who got the United States into the war in the first place.

These sentiments led to a series of Neutrality Acts in the 1930s that sharply limited America’s ability to supply arms to its allies abroad. In the hard-fought campaign for the presidential election of 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, not only challenged parts of the New Deal, but also accused the president of leading the nation into war. In fact, the Democratic platform pledged nonparticipation in foreign wars “except in case of attack,” a caveat urged by FDR himself.

FDR had always favored engagement in world affairs—he had accepted the Neutrality Acts with reluctance—but, as the 1930s drew to a close, he became increasingly persuaded that the fight against totalitarianism must be won. As Britain endured its pounding by German bombs, FDR received one urgent plea after another from Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When he cabled FDR in July 1940 asking for old destroyers, Churchill declared, “Mr. President, with great respect I must tell you that in the long history of the world this is a thing to do now.”

One of FDR’s most challenging tasks was to inspire a similar sense of urgency about the war in the American people. His Four Freedoms speech in January 1941 framed the conflict in a way that emphasized its relevance to America’s own future—and helped Americans prepare themselves for the sacrifices that lay ahead. Before the year was out, Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would erase any doubt on the matter, uniting the nation against the Axis powers.

The president’s next State of the Union address came only weeks after that bloody attack, on January 6, 1942. In this speech, stirring his countrymen to their cause, FDR built on the Four Freedoms theme he had introduced in ‘41. “Hitler and his Italian and Japanese chessmen . . . know that victory for us means victory for freedom,” he said. “They know that victory for us means victory for the institution of democracy— the ideal of the family, the simple principles of common decency and humanity.”

BPreparing the Four
Freedoms Speech

B. Preparing the Four Freedoms Speech

At a perilous juncture in world history, Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that his eighth State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, must bring to bear all his gifts as a communicator. He carefully honed the speech, first dictating five pages of notes, rejecting a draft offered by the State Department, and calling on a team of close advisors—Harry Hopkins, Sam Rosenman, and Robert Sherwood—to make suggestions and help him hammer the words into shape.

The team met through the Christmas holidays of 1940 and into the New Year, ultimately producing seven drafts.

A fateful moment came just days before FDR was to give his speech. Working with his team in a White House study, the president announced that he had an idea for the peroration, the end of an address that traditionally delivers an ardent “takeaway” message. “We waited as he leaned far back in his swivel chair with his gaze on the ceiling,” Rosenman later recalled. “It was a long pause—so long that it began to be uncomfortable.”

Finally FDR leaned forward and began to speak, slowly and deliberately, the lines making up the Four Freedoms section of his historic address, in very nearly complete and final form. The words “seemed to roll off his tongue,” Rosenman testified, “as though he had rehearsed them many times to himself.”

CThe Legacy of
Four Freedoms

C. The Legacy of Four Freedoms

It cannot be said that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s eighth State of the Union address, instantly dubbed the Four Freedoms speech, escaped criticism. To the contrary, isolationists on the left and right denounced it as a justification for war, and anti–New Dealers saw the inclusion of freedom from want and fear as signaling an odiously outsized role for government.

Overall, though, the speech was an enormous success. FDR soon got his massive acceleration in arms production and his Lend-Lease program, which made these arms available to Allied democracies facing the direst threats.

The speech found its way into the popular imagination, too, perhaps most significantly through the work of illustrator Norman Rockwell. Rockwell was much moved by FDR’s address. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1942 that he found a way to translate its high, abstract language into familiar images that would engage the emotions. For his first painting, illustrating freedom of speech, Rockwell would use a scene he had witnessed at a council meeting in his hometown of Arlington, Vermont—a man rising before a courteous audience to voice his minority opinion.

Once the artist had sketches for all four paintings, he offered them to the U.S. Office of War Information, which was producing posters to raise support for the effort. The government demurred, but Rockwell soon sold the works to the Saturday Evening Post, where they appeared in four separate issues in 1943, along with commissioned essays on each of the Four Freedoms. Requests for reprints poured in by the thousands. Ultimately the government did take on Rockwell’s works, printing millions of posters that appeared in schools, post offices, and other public places to raise citizen morale and sell war bonds.

In 1943 the U.S. Postal Service issued a Four Freedoms one-cent stamp, featuring a figure holding a torch and the caption “Freedom of Speech and Religion, From Want and Fear.” The same words appeared on a 1946 five-cent commemorative stamp beside a portrait of the recently deceased FDR.

In his influential Four Freedoms speech, FDR called the American way a “perpetual peaceful revolution.” And indeed, long after his death, his Four Freedoms have continued to inspire hope and change, laying the basis for the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and giving support to movements for independence, civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and arms control at home and around the globe.

  6. FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech: A Call for Human Rights “Everywhere in the World” CLICK titles for text and images for captions

7. The Atlantic Charter:
Would-Be Allies Define
Their Cause

Of all the critical meetings Franklin D. Roosevelt conducted during his twelve years as president, none was more dramatic or more consequential than his first face-to-face encounter with the man who would be his partner in global war and statecraft, Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The meeting took place on the icy waters off Newfoundland during four days in August 1941. Both leaders assigned the rendezvous utmost importance and took extraordinary pains to get there, Churchill traveling incognito across an Atlantic infested by German submarines, FDR shaking the Secret Service and telling the world he was on a fishing trip around Cape Cod. He even had a crewman sit on the presidential yacht impersonating the commander in chief with the help of a floppy hat, pince-nez, and long cigarette holder.

The British prime minister and American president were quite different types—Churchill was a moody, hard-drinking night owl, while FDR tended to exude an even-tempered joviality. But they had this in common: each trusted in his own ability to communicate directly, to take the measure of another man, and to bring him around to a point of view.

To confer in person was, as much as anything else, their errand in the North Atlantic. As soon as the parties reached their meeting place on August 9, FDR pressed his advisor Harry Hopkins, who had been traveling on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales with the British contingent: What were the prime minister’s “moods and wishes”? As for Churchill, he had quizzed Hopkins so avidly about FDR on the ocean voyage that, as Hopkins would later remark, “You’d have thought Winston was being carried into the heavens to meet God.”

A great deal was at stake. Though the United States had recently pledged itself to the Lend-Lease program funneling war supplies to Allies, it remained officially neutral in the great clash of power taking place in Europe and Asia. And the war was not going well. In the spring Adolf Hitler’s forces had overrun Yugoslavia and Greece. The Nazis were making inroads in North Africa and, in June, had invaded Russia. They now occupied fifteen nations, controlling all the territory between the Arctic Circle and the Mediterranean. Japan, meanwhile, occupied parts of Indochina, strengthening its blockade of China.

Churchill wanted FDR to bring the United States clearly, definitively to Britain’s side; he wanted a declaration of war. He also hoped FDR would agree to threaten retaliation against Japan if it continued its southward advance in Indochina.

FDR, on the other hand, wanted the leaders to issue a joint statement describing a vision for the future—one that would give comfort to a besieged Britain, while at the same time reassuring war-wary Americans that the Allies’ ultimate goal was a just, nonviolent world, not endless quest for empire.

FDR got his statement, dubbed the Atlantic Charter. And Churchill, though frustrated in the near term, would have his declaration of war soon enough.

The summit met a less tangible objective, too. Before the leaders of Britain and America steamed back to their respective seats of government, they had established the personal rapport both considered critical to the work before them. That was something no telephone call or transatlantic cable could have achieved.

CAPTION DOWNLOAD PDF
Scroll right for more

A“How Do You Do?”:
An Envoy to Britain

A. “How Do You Do?”:
An Envoy to Britain

In January 1941, FDR introduced to Congress his Lend-Lease proposal to supply arms to Britain on very generous terms. He needed information about this would-be ally. FDR wanted intelligence about Britain’s finances, morale, and military needs. He especially wanted a realistic assessment of Winston Churchill, who had not impressed FDR—had even offended him—during a brief encounter at a dinner in London in 1918.

So FDR asked his close advisor and friend Harry Hopkins to visit England and, as he put it, “say ‘How do you do?’ to a lot of my friends.” Hopkins, an administrator of New Deal relief and public-works projects, would have no official title or mission on the trip, but would greet Churchill and others as FDR’s “personal representative.” The tie between the president and his envoy was in fact so personal that Hopkins, very ill with a digestive disorder, had been living and convalescing at the White House since May 1940.

Though terrified of flying, Hopkins boarded an uninsulated military aircraft on January 5 for a harrowing, turbulent five-day journey. He arrived in England too weak to unbuckle his own seatbelt.

The next day Hopkins met with Churchill, who had little idea who he was. The two forged a quick and sturdy bond. “The people here are amazing from Churchill down and if courage alone can win—the result will be inevitable,” Hopkins wrote FDR. “But they do need our help desperately and I am sure you will permit nothing to stand in the way.” Churchill in turn found Hopkins “slim, frail, ill but absolutely glowing with the refined comprehension of the Cause.”

Hopkins lunched with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the basement of a bomb-ravaged Buckingham Palace. He met with officials, both American and British, and reviewed munitions factories, anti-air-raid facilities, and troops.

After a dinner in Glasgow, Scotland, Hopkins suddenly found himself called upon to say a few words. He closed his remarks quoting from the book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest, I will go; and whither thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people . . . even to the end.” Churchill wept.

On a second trip to England in July, Hopkins went directly to 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, where Churchill greeted him as an old friend. They took up a subject broached on their first encounter: a personal meeting between “two prima donnas,” as Hopkins had privately referred to FDR and Churchill. Arrangements were complete, Hopkins said, for a rendezvous the second week in August, in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Churchill instantly agreed. After a side trip to Russia that nearly killed the fragile Hopkins, he would return to London and set off with Churchill for the fateful Atlantic Conference.

“Whither thou goest, I will go; and whither thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people...even to the end.”

Harry Hopkins, quoting from the Book of Ruth during his 1941 trip to England

BAn Envoy
to Russia

B. An Envoy to Russia

While Franklin D. Roosevelt’s close advisor and friend Harry Hopkins was visiting England for a second time in July 1941, appalling events were unfolding to the east.

Coveting the vast, resource-rich territories of the Soviet Union, on June 22 Adolf Hitler had launched a swift and ferocious surprise attack on that country, employing a new German tactic known as blitzkrieg or “lightning war.” Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin flung their armies at each other without mercy; within a week the Germans had advanced two hundred miles, killing, capturing, or wounding some six hundred thousand Soviets.

Having spoken with Russia’s ambassador to Britain in London, Hopkins wrote to FDR proposing he travel to Russia to gather intelligence and convey American commitment to supply arms. “I have a feeling,” he wrote, “that everything possible should be done to make certain that the Russians maintain a permanent front even though they may be defeated in the immediate battle.” A paramount goal was to discourage Stalin from yielding to a German-defined peace.

Hopkins found Stalin incensed at the Nazi violation of the two countries’ 1939 nonaggression pact, and willing to share information about military readiness with an openness unprecedented under his totalitarian regime. Ironically, perhaps, Stalin told Hopkins he believed Hitler’s biggest weakness was the great numbers of common people he oppressed—and that “the President and the United States had more influence with the common people of the world today than any other force.”

In October FDR would open the supply floodgates to Russia, approving aid to the Soviets under the new American Lend-Lease program.

CAid Until Victory

C. Aid Until Victory

In the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the war, Franklin D. Roosevelt increasingly spoke of the contest as one the United States, like it or not, had already joined.

In March 1941, days after signing a $7 billion appropriation for the new Lend-Lease program shuttling military aid to Allies abroad, FDR gave a major address proclaiming an “end of compromise with tyranny” and pledging that “all-out aid” to embattled nations would increase “until total victory has been won.”

The next month, the president forcefully and publicly criticized the popular isolationist and famous aviator Charles Lindbergh for his proposal that America negotiate a neutrality pact with Nazi Germany—a prospect that by now was odious to most Americans. Lindbergh resigned his commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Since the outbreak of war in Europe, the American navy had been patrolling the waters of a “Pan-American Security Zone,” accompanying Allied ships in that zone and broadcasting sightings of German U-boats. In April 1941, FDR extended the security zone to within fifty nautical miles of Iceland. “How far may it possibly go?” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “As far on the waters of the seven seas as may be necessary for the defense of the American hemisphere.” Before the year was out, the president would send marines to strategically important Iceland, and, after the targeting (perhaps mistaken) of a U.S. destroyer by a U-boat, would authorize navy vessels to shoot these “rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.”

In May, in a fireside chat reaching an international audience of some 85 million, FDR declared “an unlimited national emergency.” It was clear now, he said, that Hitler aimed at nothing short of “world domination.” FDR reviewed the four steps the United States had taken to gird itself against the threat: negotiating agreements with other American republics, launching the largest armament production program in U.S. history, building up “our splendid navy,” and aiding democracies under attack.

“Nobody,” said the president, “can foretell tonight just when the acts of the dictators will ripen into attack on this hemisphere and us. But we know enough by now to realize that it would be suicide to wait until they are in our front yard.”

“From now on, that aid will be increased—and yet again increased—until total victory has been won.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, days after signing the Lend-Lease bill to provide aid to Allies, March 15, 1941

DThey Meet at Last

D. They Meet at Last

After establishing the ruse of a presidential vacation with a highly visible day of fishing in Buzzard’s Bay off Massachusetts, Franklin D. Roosevelt boarded the heavy cruiser USS Augusta on August 5, 1941, and began the journey north, arriving two days later in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. On the ninth, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales came into view. Bracing against his son, Elliott, FDR rose to greet Winston Churchill as he boarded the Augusta dressed in a ceremonial navy-blue uniform with brass buttons. Finally the two men were face to face.

Over lunch, Churchill was quick to press for a U.S. declaration of war, saying he’d prefer a declaration and no Lend-Lease military supplies for six months over the United States staying out of the war but doubling military shipments to Britain. FDR made no response, instead pushing his idea for a joint statement of principles that would guide Allied policy during and after the war.

After dinner that night, Churchill made a detailed presentation on the war and Britain’s needs to FDR and his top military brass, including Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall and Air Corps Chief Henry “Hap” Arnold. Churchill’s emphasis was on the need for huge quantities of equipment, not American fighting men. FDR was noncommittal, listening intently but playing with his spectacles and doodling on the tablecloth with a burnt match. Marshall and Arnold were at that time intensely focused on building up America’s own military defenses in the event of an attack. Arnold would later report his relief at getting away “without promising or giving away everything we had.”

The next morning, August 10, came a stirring religious service aboard the Prince of Wales, British and American sailors mingling before an altar draped with their countries’ respective flags. They lifted their voices in hymns carefully chosen by a rather secular Churchill to strike a rousing note of joint purpose: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “Eternal Father Strong to Save.”

But the negotiations of that day and the next would make clear that the two nations’ interests were hardly identical.

Perhaps the most strenuous debate was over the joint statement of principles. The insistence by FDR and his advisors on including a provision supporting an expansion of free trade almost derailed the talks. Churchill knew this would affect the British Empire’s preferential treatment of its territories. Indeed, Britain’s imperial dominion in India and Africa was not something Americans wanted to fight for. The empire was also very much at issue in clause three of the statement, promoted by FDR and proclaiming the right of all people to self-government. Churchill, recognizing that the empire was at risk from more immediate threats, succeeded only in inserting a phrase saying that free trade should respect “existing obligations.”

For his part, Churchill wanted the charter to call for an “international organization” to help maintain peace. But FDR was convinced that talk of any structure resembling the League of Nations—which the United States had refused to join—would stir up isolationists and possibly alienate the American public. Instead the charter would encourage disarmament of aggressor nations “pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of national security.”

By the afternoon of August 11, the two leaders had cobbled together a charter that simply—but, given the circumstances, audaciously—stated what kind of world 
the Allies sought to achieve by vanquishing the Axis.

They foreswore territorial expansion for themselves, as well as any change of national borders without popular consent. They called for worldwide economic advancement, labor rights, and peace. They insisted on global freedom of the seas. And, critically, they promised that the mistakes of the punitive post–World War I era would not be repeated: victor and vanquished alike would have access, “on equal terms,” to the resources needed for prosperity.

It was a lot to get done in three days. On the fourth day, the two men laughed and told stories. Around 3:30 p.m. Churchill disembarked the Augusta, receiving the U.S. Navy’s full honors.

EThe Atlantic Charter

E. The Atlantic Charter

August 14, 1941

The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.

First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;

Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;

Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;

Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;

Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;

Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.



Franklin D. Roosevelt
Winston S. Churchill

FImpact of the Atlantic Charter

F. Impact of the Atlantic Charter

The Atlantic Conference and resulting charter signaled to the world that the United States and Britain cherished common aims and would cooperate to achieve them.

To Adolf Hitler’s obsessed mind, this was more evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy. In 1941, the slaughter of Jewish families already begun by German execution squads that swept into Russia behind invading armies, the Nazis were edging toward a policy to eliminate Jewish populations—the so-called Final Solution. Meanwhile, Imperial Japan assumed an increasingly hawkish stance toward the United States and Britain.

Friendly nations, of course, also took note. In a statement issued the month after the Atlantic Conference, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and representatives of the exiled French leader Charles de Gaulle all endorsed the charter, which they referred to as the “Roosevelt-Churchill Declarations.”

The Netherlands nonetheless objected to the clause respecting “existing obligations” (i.e., imperial economic policy) as a limit to free trade. Indeed, Winston Churchill and the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration would disagree over whether the charter’s proclamation in favor of self-government applied to Great Britain’s colonies—Churchill thought not. But the charter would be invoked by advocates of decolonization, a movement already well developed by the time FDR and Churchill met in Placentia Bay. India’s Mahatma Gandhi, for example, had adopted his strategy of peaceful resistance to British rule in the 1920s, and by the ‘40s he was intensifying calls for Indian independence.

Controversies aside, the Atlantic Charter helped cement the alliances that would beat back the Axis powers. In its approach to geopolitics, it prefigured the Marshall Plan, which was designed to rebuild Europe after the war by providing aid and removing trade barriers. And it set the stage for the founding, in 1945, of the United Nations.

7. The Atlantic Charter: Would-Be Allies Define Their Cause CLICK titles for text and images for captions

An Accompanying Historical Resource For Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park