By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
When the Battle of Britain began, and British and German fighter and bomber planes sparred over Britain, Winston Churchill wanted Franklin Roosevelt to intervene. He did everything he could to try to get the Americans into the war on his own side. But, Roosevelt acted very cautiously. Why was Roosevelt cautious about getting involved in the war?
American Coast Guard Ships
Roosevelt was willing to send some goods convoys, and he sent some old navy destroyers to Britain, in return for use of British naval bases in the Caribbean.
When this war began, the north Atlantic became a key battleground, just as it had been during the First World War, because Britain couldn’t feed itself. It was dependent upon supplies of food from America. German submarines were dedicated to trying to prevent the convoys from getting through to Britain. By now, the submarines themselves—with 20 years of more development—were all the more effective, long-range and lethal.
The American coast guard ships began to guard these convoys; in fact, a year before America actually came into the war directly, American coast guard ships were sailing as convoy escort vessels. One of them, the Reuben James, was sunk in October 1941, when America was still nominally neutral.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Americans Were Isolationists
There were many reasons for Roosevelt to be cautious about getting involved in the war. First of all, Americans had been horrified by the carnage of the First World War, and liked very much the idea that war would never have to happen again.
Many Americans were isolationists. They believed it was possible for America not to have to get involved in the political problems of old Europe.
The Clergy’s Misconceptions
Among American groups who took a pacifist view were the clergy. During the First World War, a lot of the American clergy got very carried away by the atrocity stories and became venomous and vengeful advocates of killing the Huns.
However, after the war, when all the atrocity stories turned out to be false, the American clergy were affected by a feeling of shame and said they were never going to believe stories like that again.
German Issues Not Important Enough?
Many of them belonged to an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization, which believed that war must be ended once and for all. Consequently, when stories started coming out of Germany about allegations that Hitler was rounding up all the Jewish people and killing them, many Americans did not believe them.
The tragic result was that they were wrong twice. They were wrong the first time for being too credulous, and they were wrong the second time for being too skeptical.
There were some among the American clergy who understood the importance of intervention. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American theologian of the mid-20th century, was one of them, but still it wasn’t clear that any great American interest was at stake, and important and influential Americans, like Charles Lindbergh and ex-President Herbert Hoover, were against it.
Impact of Election Year
Roosevelt was also cautious because 1940 was election year. He wanted to make sure that he wasn’t going to undertake a policy that would alienate a large part of the electorate, particularly because he was undertaking an experiment that no one had tried before. He was running for a third term in office. In November 1940, he defeated Wendell Willkie in the election. The New Deal was still overwhelmingly popular, and no Democrat seriously challenged him.
All through the campaign of 1940, Roosevelt denied that America might go to war, just as Woodrow Wilson had denied it in the campaign of 1916. Here’s one of his speeches in that fall: “I’ve 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.”
It was irresponsible, because he already thought it was actually extremely likely, but it made good political sense to say so at the time.
Hitler’s Invasion of Russia
Just as the Hitler-Stalin pact had been an astonishing revelation in 1939, and just as Hitler’s conquest of France in the summer of 1940 had been an incredible turn of events, so now in the summer of 1941 came another one—Hitler’s invasion of Russia. He suddenly turned on his Soviet ally, which Stalin refused to believe was happening, and attacked the Soviet Union. And soon after, Pearl Harbor followed and changed everything.
In the long run, it was the invasion of the Soviet Union that ensured Hitler’s defeat. Charles XII of Sweden had tried to invade Russia and had failed. Napoleon had tried and he’d failed. Hitler thought that his technology would make all the difference, and at first it did. He made very rapid progress in crossing western Russia.
In the end, though, the length of his supply lines from Germany, and then the onset of the Russian winter, conspired to stall his great offensive. Desperate years-long struggles ensued on the eastern front, and finally claimed the lives of about 90 percent of all the German military who were killed in the Second World War. Far more of them died on the eastern front than anywhere else.
Common Questions about Why America Was Wary of Joining War against Hitler
After Hitler attacked Britain, the north Atlantic became a key battleground because was dependent upon supplies of food from America, and German submarines were dedicated to trying to prevent the convoys from getting through. The American coast guard ships began to guard these convoys; in fact, a year before America actually came into the war directly, American coast guard ships were sailing as convoy escort vessels.
Fellowship of Reconciliation was a pacifist organization, which believed that war must be ended once and for all. Many American clergy were part of this organization.
The length of Hitler’s supply lines from Germany, and then the onset of the Russian winter, conspired to stall his great offensive. Desperate years-long struggles ensued on the eastern front, and finally claimed the lives of about 90 percent of all the German military who were killed in the Second World War.