The American Path to War
Those who would go to war to save the Allies from defeat were a decided minority during the first winter of the war. In January 1940, Senator Pittman felt it "conclusively evident that Congress will not authorize intervention in the European war"—even if the French and British went under. "There is no necessity of sending a single American soldier to either Europe or Asia," he declared.
With the fall of France and the beginning of the German air war against Britain in mid-1940, the debate intensified between those in the United States who favored aiding the democracies and the antiwar faction known as the isolationists. Roosevelt did what he could to nudge public opinion toward intervention. The United States joined Canada in a Mutual Board of Defense, and aligned with the Latin American republics in extending collective protection to the nations in the Western Hemisphere.
After the fall of France, Senator Robert A. Taft and Charles A. Lindbergh put the issue squarely: German control of Europe was preferable to American participation in a European war; Americans should accept the German era and dwell in peace with the Nazi order in Europe.
But most Americans were shocked out of their neutrality by the sweeping German victories in the West. They felt "the most serious threat in American history" to the nation's very freedom. The United States was badly frightened by the fall of France and the threat to England. The war might be, as some continued to say, "one gang of thieves against another gang of thieves" (Boake Carter). But, gang of thieves or not, the British were the last barrier between the United States and the most menacing gang in modern history. "All aid to England short of war" became a slogan that attracted the great majority of Americans; American security had become "collective" in the sense that it was now felt to be bound up with the security of others.
The balance of power on which American safety rested was all but overturned by the German armies in the spring of 1940, it was felt. The aggressor and tyrant was the direct menace to safety. The revolution in American policy owed as much to the failure of Hitler to conquer Britain as to his brilliant success in conquering France. Had England fallen, there would have been no one to send all-out aid to, no one to be in the boat with. Lindbergh and the last-ditch isolationists did indeed argue that England should be abandoned because she was too poor a risk, but British confidence and courage helped to defeat this argument and create popular demand for giving all possible aid to England.
Congress, confronted with the mounting crisis, voted immense sums for rearmament, and in September 1940 passed the first peacetime conscription bill ever enacted in the United States. In that month also, Roosevelt concluded a daring executive agreement with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The United States gave the British Navy 50 “overage” destroyers in return for British air and naval bases in Newfoundland and the North Atlantic.
The 1940 presidential election campaign demonstrated that the isolationists, while vocal, were a minority. Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, leaned toward intervention. Thus the November election yielded another majority for the president, making Roosevelt the first, and last, U. S. chief executive to be elected to a third term.
In early 1941, Roosevelt got Congress to approve the Lend-Lease Program, which enabled him to transfer arms and equipment to any nation (notably Great Britain, later the Soviet Union and China) deemed vital to the defense of the United States. Total Lend-Lease aid by war’s end would amount to more than $50,000 million.
Most remarkably, in August 1941, he met with Prime Minister Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland. The two leaders issued a “joint statement of war aims,” which they called the Atlantic Charter. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, it called for these objectives: no territorial aggrandizement; no territorial changes without the consent of the people concerned; the right of all people to choose their own form of government; the restoration of self-government to those deprived of it; economic collaboration between all nations; freedom from war, from fear, and from want for all peoples; freedom of the seas; and the abandonment of the use of force as an instrument of international policy.
America was now neutral in name only.
In October of 1941, after the United States had committed itself to aiding the Allies through Lend-Lease, Roosevelt gradually sought to repeal certain portions of the Act. On October 17, 1941, the House of Representatives revoked section VI, which forbade the arming of U.S. merchant ships, by a wide margin. Following a series of deadly U-boat attacks against U.S. Navy and merchant ships, the Senate passed another bill in November that also repealed legislation banning American ships from entering belligerent ports or “combat zones.”
The interventionists were leading America to war while professing to be working to keep the nation out of war. The Administration's steps short of war would place the United States in a position which would make intervention inevitable. Lend-Lease, patrols, the "shoot-on-sight" policy, and repeal of the vital provisions of the Neutrality Act would result in incidents which would plunge the United States into the European conflagration. The President and the men around him privately hoped the Atlantic patrol would produce an incident. The interventionists, attempting to drag the country into war, sought to prepare the American public for a declaration of war. The President was determined to force the Germans to fire the first shot.
Public opinion polls indicated a majority of Americans had approved each major proposal advanced by the Administration to aid the British short of war. Since 1940 a clear majority had believed it more important to aid Britain in her effort to defeat Germany than it was for the United States to keep out of the war. Other public opinion polls showed that approximately 80 per cent of the people opposed American entry into the war. According to these polls, at no time before Pearl Harbor did a majority of the American people favor a declaration of war on the Axis. Critics were skeptical of the validity of the Gallup poll findings on foreign policy questions, convinced the questions were "loaded" to give results favorable to the interventionist point of view.
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