The Isolationist Argument
IMMEDIATELY after the outbreak of World War II, President Roosevelt made a radio address in which he reminded the American people that they should master "at the outset a simple but unalterable fact in modern foreign relations. When peace has been broken anywhere, peace of all countries everywhere is in danger." . . . [Roosevelt] then glibly gave the following assurance: "Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being pre-pared a proclamation of American neutrality." . . . America would remain "a neutral nation." But he closed his address with a curtain line that had an ominous implication: "As long as it remains within my power to prevent, there will be no blackout of peace in the United States." . . .
The fall of France [in May 1940] imparted a sense of urgency to the Administration's program for aiding Britain by the sale or lease of war materiel. The President's qualms about constitutional limitations slowly disappeared under the drumfire of repeated requests from [British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. More-over, he [Roosevelt] brought into his Cabinet certain new members who were not averse to a pro-war inclination. This was particularly true of the new Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, who was a notorious war hawk. It is apparent that after June 1940 the Administration embarked upon a phony bipartisan policy that pointed directly to American intervention in the European conflict.... . . .
On June 24 he [Churchill] wrote to [British Ambassador to Washington] Mackenzie King and once more emphasized the danger that if England fell there was the possibility that Hitler would get the British fleet.... He also complained that Britain had "really not had any help worth speaking of from the United States so far." After more than a month of silence he wrote again to the President . . . to inform him that the need for destroyers had "become most urgent." The whole fate of the war might rest upon the speed with which these destroyers were delivered....
There was no doubt in Churchill's mind that any transfer of American destroyers to Britain would be a "decidedly unneutral act by the United States." It would justify a declaration of war by Hitler. Such action would be eminently agreeable to Churchill who would ardently welcome American help in the struggle against the dictatorships....
[Attorney General Robert] Jackson blandly pushed aside the pertinent provisions of the Treaty of Washington (May 8,1871) and Article 8 of the Hague Convention of 1907 which required that a neutral government take measures to prevent the departure from its jurisdiction of any vessel intended to engage in belligerent operations, if the vessel was specially adapted within the neutral's jurisdiction to warlike use. The one precedent that Mr. Jackson adduced to support his contention concerning the trans-fer of destroyers was a most dubious one. Indeed, the opinion of the Attorney General was distinctly "phony" and was based upon the familiar dictum: "What's the Constitution between friends." The way was now prepared for the destroyer deal....
From the viewpoint of international law the destroyer deal was definitely illegal. As Professor Herbert Briggs correctly re-marks: "The supplying of these vessels by the United States Government to a belligerent is a violation of our neutral status, a violation of our national law, and a violation of international law." . . . The whole matter was correctly described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a pertinent headline: "Dictator Roosevelt Commits an Act of War." . . .
It was entirely fitting that lend-lease legislation should have a prelude of promises by the President that American boys would not be sent abroad to die along far-flung frontiers. It had been evident to the President in the summer of 1940 that American involvement in World War II might be just around the corner of the next year.... When the election currents in the fall of 1940 appeared to be making a turn towards [Republican nominee] Wendell Wilkie, the President made some new pledges . . .: "While I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." . . . . .
.... Under the impact of appeals from Churchill in England the entire structure of American neutrality was finally demolished by the legislative bomb of lend-lease....
Although Admiral [Harold R.] Stark expressed on January 13 [19411 the opinion that "we are heading straight for this war," the lend-lease program was sold to the American people as a form of peace insurance. On March 11, 1941, the lend-lease bill was signed by the President, and it was not long before a forecast of Senator [Robert] Taft was proved correct: "I do not see how we can long conduct such a war [undeclared war] without actually being in the shooting end of the war."
. . . . . . [I]n January 1941 a series of secret [American-British-Canadian military] staff conversations began in Washington. Two months later (March 27, 1941), the ABC-I Staff Agreement was consummated which envisaged a "full-fledged war co-operation when and if Axis aggression forced the United States into the war."
One of the sections of this agreement was aimed at creating an incident that would "force the United States into the war." It contained the following explosive phraseology: "Owing to the threat to the sea communications of the United Kingdom, the principal task of the United States naval forces in the Atlantic will be the protection of shipping of the Associated Powers." In order to carry out this task the Royal Navy hastened to give the United States Navy the "benefit of its experience, and of the new devices and methods for fighting submarines that had already been evolved." The responsibility "now assumed by the United States Navy meant the organization of a force for escort-of-convoy." . . . .
. . .[A series of] naval incident[s] involving German-American relations . . . [included] the sinking of the American merchant ship (May 21,1941) Robin Moor, New York to Cape Town, by a German submarine. There was no visit or search but the crew and passengers were allowed to take to open lifeboats. As the sinking occurred outside the blockade zone it is evident that the submarine commander disregarded orders concerning American ships. [German] Admiral [Eric] Raeder immediately issued orders to prevent further incidents of this nature, and Hitler, after confirming these instructions, remarked that he wished to "avoid any incident with the U.S.A." On June 20 the President sent a message to Congress in which he bitterly criticized Germany as an international out-law. He followed this message with another move in the direction of war. On July 7 he ordered American occupation of Iceland. Two days later Secretary [of War Frank] Knox gave a statement to the press which implied that the American patrol force in the North Atlantic had the right to use its guns when the occasion arose.
This occasion arose on September 4, 1941, when the destroyer Greer, bound for Iceland, was informed by a British plane that a submerged U-boat lay athwart her course some ten miles ahead. The Greer at once laid a course for the reported submarine, and after having made sound contact with it, kept it on her bow for more than three hours. During this period a British plane dropped four depth charges in the vicinity of the submarine without effect. Finally, the submarine commander grew tired of this game of hide-and-seek and launched a torpedo which the Greer was able to dodge. When the Greer counterattacked with depth charges, the submarine launched another torpedo which was avoided. When sound contact with the submarine could not be re-established, the Greer resumed course for Iceland.
On September 11 the President gave a broadcast which presented a distorted version of the Greer incident. He conveniently forgot to tell that the initiative had been taken by the Greer.... [T]his serious incident . . . clearly showed the aggressive character of American naval patrolling....
This de facto war in the Atlantic soon produced another incident. On October 16 five American destroyers rushed from Reykjavik, Iceland, to the help of a convoy that was being attacked by submarines. On the following day, while in the midst of the fighting, the destroyer Kearny was struck by a torpedo.... It had deliberately moved into the center of a pitched battle between German submarines and British and Canadian warships and had taken the consequences. It was not long before President Roosevelt gave to the American people a twisted account of the incident.... [Roosevelt] asserted that he had "wished to avoid shooting." America had "been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a Navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman, and child in this Nation.... Hitler's torpedo was directed at every American." . . . The American Navy had been given orders to "shoot on sight." The Nazi "rattlesnakes of the sea" would have to be destroyed.
This declaration of war was confirmed by the Reuben James incident. On October 31, while the Reuben lames was escorting a convoy to Iceland, some German submarines were encountered. . . . The American destroyer was struck by a torpedo and rapidly sank. Only 45, out of a crew of about 160, were saved.... . . .
It was obvious that America was really in the war. But the American people did not realize that momentous fact, nor did they know that they were pledged "to spare no effort and no sacrifice in bringing to pass the final defeat of Hitlerism." . . . The war hawks of 1941 were never tired of sneering at the majority of Americans as benighted isolationists who had tried to build a Chinese wall around the United States and thus cut it off from all foreign contacts. They knew their sneers were patent lies. America had never been isolated from the social, economic, religious, and cultural forces that shaped the modern world. Thanks to its geo-graphical position it had escaped the recurring tides of conflict that had crumbled the walls of ancient civilizations and washed away the heritage men had earned through dauntless courage and high endeavor. Americans had been isolationists only against war and its evident evils, and their country had grown prosperous beyond the dreams of the founding fathers. But in 1915, President Wilson began to nurse the thought of sharing America's ideals and wealth with the rest of the world, and two years later he led us into a foreign war that he hoped would make the world safe for democracy. But Ws theme song turned sour in American ears when it led to the great parade of 1917 which ended for many men in the vast cemeteries in France. It gained new popularity after 1933, and with Roosevelt as maestro, the old macabre accents began to haunt every home. In 1941 his orchestra of death was anxiously waiting for the signal to begin the new symphony. Ile had hoped for a German motif but Hitler had refused to assist with a few opening martial notes. Perhaps some Japanese states-man would prove more accommodating! At any rate, after the Reuben lames incident had fallen flat he turned his eyes towards the Orient and sought new inspiration from the inscrutable East. He found it at Pearl Harbor when Japanese planes sounded the first awesome notes in a chorus of war that is still vibrating throughout the world....
In the second week in November 1941 tension began to mount in Tokyo. On November 10 the Japanese Foreign Minister ex-pressed to [U.S. Ambassador Joseph] Grew the opinion that the . . . Japanese Government had "repeatedly made proposals calculated to approach the American point of view, but the American Government . . . had taken no step toward meeting the Japanese position." On this same day (November 10), [Japanese] Ambassador Nomura presented to President Roosevelt a further explanation of his Government's proposals. In the meantime the Japanese Foreign Office instructed Nomura that November 25 was the deadline. All negotiations would have to be concluded by that date.... Under pressure from the Foreign Office, Nomura was extremely anxious to secure an early answer to the Japanese proposals of November 7 and 10....
Secretary of State Cordell Hull knew of this deadline through intercepted Japanese instructions to Nomura, so on November 15 he handed to Nomura a long oral statement setting forth the bases of an agreement. He knew they would not be acceptable to Japan. Complete control over "its economic, financial and monetary affairs" should be restored to China, and Japan should abandon any thought of preserving in China, or anywhere else in the Pacific area, a "preferential position."
The abrupt tone of this note was a challenge that could easily lead to a break in diplomatic relations. Japan had long feared that such a break was inevitable, but in a final attempt to stave off such an emergency it had been decided to send to Washington another diplomat who would assist Nomura in the delicate negotiations that were hanging by a very slender thread. The new appointee, Saburo Kurusu, had served as consul in Chicago and New York.... His happy marriage to an American girl gave him a personal interest in maintaining friendly relations between Japan and the United States....
On the afternoon of November 26 he [Hull] abandoned all thought of a truce with Japan and put into final shape a ten-point proposal. Both he and the President knew this program would be rejected by Japan. There was no thought of compromise or conciliation: "The Government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indochina." When Kurusu read the ten-point proposal of Secretary Hull he immediately inquired if this was the American answer to the Japanese request for a modus vivendi or truce. Was not the American Government interested in a truce? Hull merely replied that "we have explored that" but had arrived at no real decision. Kurusu could only reply that the Secretary's attitude "could be interpreted as tantamount to meaning the end." It was obvious that the next step was war.
On the morning of December 4, the Navy radio receiving station at Cheltenham, Maryland, intercepted a Japanese overseas news broadcast from Station JAP in Tokyo, in which there was inserted a false weather report, "east wind rain." On November 19 the Japanese government had instructed its ambassador in Washington that such a weather forecast would indicate imminence of war with the United States. After intercepting this Japanese instruction the radio receiving stations of the American armed forces were on the alert for the "east wind rain" message. As soon as it was translated, Lieutenant Commander [Alvin D.] Kramer handed it to Commander [Laurence F.] Safford with the exclamation: "This is it." Safford got in touch immediately with Rear Admiral [Leigh] Noyes who telephoned the substance of the intercepted message "to the naval aide to the President." . . .
The unaccountable failure of high naval officers to convey a warning to Honolulu about the imminence of war was given additional highlights on the evening of December 6 when the Japanese reply to the American note of November 26 was sent secretly to Ambassador Nomura. It was intercepted by Navy receiving stations and decoded. When the President read this message to Nomura he at once exclaimed: "This means war!" . . .
It would ordinarily be assumed that the President, after read-ing this intercepted Japanese message, would hurriedly call a conference of the more important Army and Navy officers to concert plans to meet the anticipated attack. The testimony of General [of the Army George C.] Marshall and Admiral Stark would indicate that the Chief Executive took the ominous news so calmly that he made no effort to consult with them. Did he deliberately seek the Pearl Harbor attack in order to get America into the war? What is the real answer to this riddle of Presidential composure in the face of a threatened attack upon some American outpost in the faraway Pacific? This problem grows more complicated as we watch the approach of zero hour. At 9:00 A.M. on December 7, Lieutenant Commander Kramer delivered to Admiral Stark the final installment of the Japanese instruction to Nomura. Its meaning was now so obvious that Stark cried out in great alarm: "My God! This means war. I must get word to Kimmel at once." [Admiral Husband Kimmel, Command-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor] But he made no effort to contact Honolulu. Instead he tried to get in touch with General Marshall, who, for some strange reason, suddenly decided to go on a long horseback ride. It was a history-making ride.... In the early hours of World [War] II, General Marshall took a ride that helped prevent an alert from reaching Pearl Harbor in time to save an American fleet from serious disaster and an American garrison from a bombing that cost more than two thousand lives. Was there an important purpose behind this ride? . . .
It was 11:25 A.M. when General Marshall returned to his of lice. If he carefully read the reports on the threatened Japanese attack (on Pearl Harbor) he still had plenty of time to contact Honolulu by means of the scrambler telephone on his desk, or by the Navy radio or the FBI radio. For some reason best known to himself he chose to send the alert to Honolulu by RCA [telegraph] and did not even take the precaution to have it stamped, "priority." As the Army Pearl Harbor Board significantly remarked: "We find no justification for a failure to send this message by multiple secret means either through the Navy radio or the FBI radio or the scrambler telephone or all three." Was the General under Presidential orders to break military regulations with regard to the transmission of important military information? Did he think that the President's political objectives outweighed considerations of national safety? Was the preservation of the British Empire worth the blood, sweat, and tears not only of the men who would die in the agony of Pearl Harbor but also of the long roll of heroes who perished in the epic encounters in the Pacific, in the Mediterranean area, and in the famous offensive that rolled at high tide across the war-torn fields of France? New cemeteries all over the world would confirm to stricken American parents the melancholy fact that the paths of military glory lead but to the grave.
Excerpts reprinted from the book Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933-1941 by Charles Tansill. Copyright 1952 by Charles Tansill.