Fighting Hitler from the Sidelines
by Conrad Black (December 2013)
an excerpt from Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership reprinted from the National Post.
In 1940, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was still keeping his countrymen in the dark about his political intentions, and there was teeming curiosity about whether he would break a tradition as old as the Republic and seek a third term. As the Soviet Union occupied Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, bringing to 14 the number of countries that had been occupied, starting with Ethiopia, Roosevelt staged another of his political masterstrokes, by firing his isolationist war secretary, Harry Woodring, and bringing into his administration preparedness advocate and former Republican secretary of war and state Colonel Henry Stimson and, as navy secretary, the previous Republican candidate for vice president and comrade in arms of Theodore Roosevelt, Colonel Frank Knox.
The enlistment of these two prominent Republicans gave the administration the character of a coalition. Eight days later, the Republicans met at Philadelphia and nominated dark-horse utilities executive, Wall Street lawyer, and public intellectual Wendell L. Willkie, originally from Indiana, for president, and Senator Charles L. McNary of Oregon for vice president. The Republicans attacked the New Deal without proposing to disband any of it and pledged to stay out of war, but supported aid to the democracies and resistance to any European intrusions in the Western Hemisphere.
Still, Roosevelt kept his own counsel, though it is now obvious that he was planning to seek re-election. The Democrats met on July 15 at Chicago, and Roosevelt gave the convention keynote speaker, Senate majority leader Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, a message to read in his address. It contained the usual references to Roosevelt’s fervent ambition to return to his “home on the Hudson” (which is bunk, because if that is what he had wished to do, he would have done it), and said that he had no desire for a third term and that the delegates should feel free to vote for anyone they wished.
Anyone obviously included him, and by prearrangement, a barrel-chested official of the Chicago Democratic municipal machine, which had packed the convention, bellowed into a microphone in the basement that was connected to every loudspeaker in the convention hall: “We want Roosevelt!” The convention erupted in Roosevelt demonstrations, singing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones,” and other Roosevelt songs, while the voice from the basement recounted every state and large city in the country as a place that did “want Roosevelt.”
As a spontaneous move against the wishes of the incumbent, it was a fraud, of course, and was largely perceived to be so, but it did reflect the party’s wishes. Roosevelt addressed the convention by special hook-up from the White House, after he inflicted on the convention the mad choice of the mystical leftist Henry A. Wallace, agriculture secretary, as his vice presidential candidate. Roosevelt said that the war emergency would prevent him from campaigning, but that he reserved the right to intervene in the electioneering to correct “campaign falsehoods,” with little doubt that he would purport to find some. With that, he embarked on a country-wide tour of defense installations that was publicized as much as campaign appearances and had most of the characteristics of them.
The Battle of Britain for the air superiority that would be necessary for any German invasion of England, given the overwhelming strength of the Royal Navy and the certainty that it would fight with desperate courage to defend the home islands, began on August 8, 1940 and continued till late October. Roosevelt would replace British aircraft losses, but the United States did not have a fighter plane that was competitive with Britain’s superb Spitfire and Hurricane or Germany’s Messerschmitt 109. In the course of the battle, Goering shifted targets from aircraft factories and airfields to night bombing of cities, especially London, in order to reduce the number of German planes being downed. This tactic brought German losses beneath the level of their aircraft production but assured the replacement of British losses also. While bombing civil populations shook British morale, it did not crack, and the attacks outraged the world, especially in the United States.
In the three months ending October 31, the British lost 915 aircraft but recovered most of the air crews, and the Germans lost 1,733 aircraft and lost all the aircrews over Britain. With their aircraft production holding, and unlimited resupply from the United States, it was clear that Britain had won the great air battle and would not be invaded. Churchill, a mighty orator, repeatedly roused his countrymen and stirred the whole world with Demosthenean tours de force on world broadcasts, including his immortal exhortation as France quit the war: “Let us so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire should last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ ” They did and it was.
He concluded a broadcast in October: “We are still awaiting the long-promised invasion. So are the fishes.” This was not an idle challenge; the capital ships of the Home Fleet were deployed to southern ports, and without air superiority, a German invasion force would have gone to a watery grave and any shore parties that landed would have met a reception unlike any that the German army had had since 1918.
Roosevelt sent the British 50 aged destroyers in mid-campaign, began extending American territorial waters from three miles to 1,800 miles, and ordered the navy to reveal the presence of any German ship to the British and the Canadians. He also secured the first peacetime conscription in the country’s history, of a million men, which he called, taking a word from the Revolutionary War, “a muster.”
Willkie campaigned with great energy and focused on his claim that Roosevelt would lead the country into war. The young men of America, he said, “are already, almost at the boats.” In fact, in retrospect, it appears that Roosevelt’s idea was to do whatever was necessary to keep Britain in the war, arm America to the teeth, and intervene when the Germans had been enervated by attrition, somewhat as had happened in 1917.
Toward the end of the campaign, Roosevelt emerged and gave some memorable campaign speeches. On October 28 in New York’s Madison Square Garden, he added the names of Republican congressmen “Martin, Barton and Fish” to a recitation of reactionary opponents; and the crowd, after the first instance, shouted out their names as he got to them. His defeatist ambassador in London, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., returned late in the campaign, to, it was widely thought, endorse Willkie, but Roosevelt had him intercepted when his Clipper flying boat landed at New York and brought directly to the White House with his wife, where Roosevelt persuaded him, allegedly by promising to further the political careers of Kennedy’s sons, to endorse him, which Kennedy did in a national radio broadcast a few days later (which Kennedy insisted on paying for himself ).
Roosevelt solemnly promised to stay out of war, advocated peace through strength, was supported by Willkie in calling for assistance to Britain and Canada, and smeared the isolationists as, in effect, Nazi sympathizers. His courtship of the Roman Catholics (and particularly his refusal to buckle to the prevailing enthusiasm to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War) produced a handsome reward as New York’s Archbishop Francis J. Spellman, who replaced the deceased Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago as America’s most powerful clergyman, issued a statement that was read in every Roman Catholic church in America, asserting that “It is better to have strength and not need it than to need it and not have it. We seek peace, but not a peace that consists in a choice between slavery and death.” It was a clear endorsement of Roosevelt’s policy, without naming him. At the decisive moment, the leadership of that Church delivered all it had for the president.
On election day, Roosevelt won, 27.2 million (54.5%) and 449 electoral votes, to 22.3 million (44.5%) and 89 electoral votes for Willkie. The Democrats made modest gains in the congressional elections. On December 29, 1940, in one of the most famous of all his fireside chats, Roosevelt addressed more than 70% of the country, and said that “No dictator, no combination of dictators” would deter America from being “the great arsenal of democracy.” Messages to the White House ran 100-to-one in support of the president and he moved into his unprecedented third term with an approval rating of over 70%.
The fall of France made the United States central, even more than in 1917, in the triumph of democratic government and the free enterprise economy, in the world. Roosevelt would assure Britain’s survival and await in hopefulness a German immersion in Russia (which he had predicted to Stalin) and a deepening Japanese immersion in China, until the time was right for a mightily armed America to assert itself.
In the supreme crisis of modern times, as in the supreme crisis of the Union 80 years before, and at the contentious birth of the republic 85 years before that, the head of the American people and state was a leader of surpassing political and strategic genius. The best was yet to come.
Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He was the chairman of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain, 1987-2003, and founded the National Post in Canada, where he remains a columnist. He also writes in the National Review Online and Huffington Post. He has been one of Canada's best known financiers for 35 years and has returned to that occupation, and has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001.
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