In the late 1930s, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the United States would start taking the steps to the back door of war, even though most Americans wanted the nation to remain neutral. FDR was an admirer of President Wilson and had been a member of his cabinet. (ii) Indeed, a young Franklin Roosevelt, as Assistant Navy Secretary, had pushed President Wilson to enter the war between 1914 and 1917 by using his presidential powers as commander-in-chief. (iii) That was a policy he would repeat as president.
However, in the late 1930s, public opinion polls showed Americans wanted to stay out of Europe’s and Asia’s wars. Indeed, up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, public opinion polls consistently showed 80 percent of Americans opposed to the United States joining the war. (iv)
Actually, FDR, in his first term between 1933 and 1937, had followed many isolationist policies. (v) But toward the end of the decade, he started to maneuver to get the United States into war to save the struggling British. They were losing World War II in 1939 and 1940. (vi) First, FDR said the policy’s only goal was to sell the British the weapons needed to keep them in the war and the United States out of it. The British and French were obliged to buy the weapons with cash and transport them home. This was the so-called “cash and carry” program.
But then the policy moved beyond cash and carry. FDR started giving Britain weapons when the British were running out of money through the Lend Lease program, which was reviewed by Congress and approved after a bitter debate. Critics charged that the program amounted to an act of war. FDR also started having the U.S. Navy escort British ships farther and farther across the Atlantic until ships and nationals of the U.S. were virtually in the middle of the war. FDR was engaging in a “backdoor to war,” critics charged. (viii) It did this, they said, by expanding his presidential powers as commander-in-chief in ways that were taking the nation into war without a Congressional war declaration.
“Lend Lease,” charged historian Charles Beard, “provided the president with “the authorization to wage war at his discretion and pleasure in carrying out its provisions.” (vii) Yet at this time—in the period between the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 and the formal war declaration by the United States on December 8, 1941—-a war declaration was something FDR knew was not achievable unless there was an attack on America, critics charged.
These controversial polices included the Atlantic Charter, Lend Lease, the first peacetime draft, the American navy convoying British ships further and further from home until American ships ended up in the middle of war zones, despite the government’s official policy of neutrality. The policies included American ships cooperating with British ships in hunting for German subs, a bases for destroyers deal with the British and taking over the British garrison on Iceland. The latter three as well as the Atlantic Charter were acts that Congress never reviewed. (ix)
For example, the bases for destroyers deal was classified as an executive agreement by FDR’s attorney general. That meant no Senate advise and consent review. It also meant no messy debates in which an “isolationist” senator could question if FDR was abusing his powers as commander-in-chief. (x)
Elected to Congress in 1938 as Europe was on the verge of war, Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) feared that FDR’s pro British/French moves would inevitably drag the country into a war it neither wanted nor needed to fight. “No president,” warned Taft in a debate with a New Deal supporter in 1940, “should be permitted to lead the country gradually into a war situation where a declaration of war is almost forced on Congress, without full opportunity for criticism.” (xi)
The questionable uses of presidential power, some critics on both the left and right charged, would set a dangerous precedent; it would upset the American constitutional balance; the separation of powers in which the president controlled the nation’s armed forces, but the decision to go to war—-as well as saying how much money would be spent on the military—was in the hands of Congress.
Departing from this tradition, Taft and others warned, would lead to a presidency destroying Congress’ powers in foreign policy and war making. Presidents would end up unilaterally taking the country into war, they believed. Imperial American presidents would assume the powers of kings, czars and other despots.
That is what happened in post WWII America, with dozens of wars, war incidents and governments secretly toppled with little Congressional review or knowledge until years after the fact. Indeed, some thirty years after, after more controversial wars, even some of FDR’s defenders, such as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., were complaining in books such the Imperial Presidency that presidents had too much power. (xii)
And the Bundy brothers, William and McGeorge, two of the most important figures in post-World War II foreign policy establishment as well as supporters of the Vietnam War in the Johnson administration, would later have doubts about excessive presidential power. (xiii) It is ironic since early in his career, McGeorge Bundy—a friend of Henry Stimson, one of FDR’s most hawkish cabinet members—was a bitter critic of so-called Taft’s isolationism in the 1940s and 1950s. (xiv) We will meet the Bundy brothers later on when we discuss the Vietnam War. (xv) It was a controversial war that torn America apart in the 1960s and 1970s, almost leading to civil war.
Still, FDR, almost until the formal war began for the United States on December 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, felt obliged to say that he intended to keep the nation out of war, Indeed, in running for his third term in 1940, he assured Americans that he had no intention of taking the country into World War II.
“I said it before. I’ll say it again. Your boys are are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” (xvi)
But these comments disguised reality. The push to get America into war became so blatant that Chief of Naval Operations Husband Kimmel would contend, in September 1941—-two months before the attack at Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war—-that “we are all but, if not actually, in it.” After several years of pro-Allied policies, war finally came for America. The debate almost immediately started over whether the US could have avoided or perhaps delaying entering the war.
“I happen to be among those who believe that we did not go to war because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor,” wrote New York Times Editor Arthur Hays Sulzberger.” I hold rather that we were attacked at Pearl Harbor because we had gone to war when we made the lend-lease declaration. And we took the fateful step because we knew that all we hold dear in the world was under attack and that we could not let it perish. That declaration was an affirmative act on our part and a warlike act.” (xvii)
An FDR supporter, who latter justified these actions, would write: “Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people in the period before Pearl Harbor.” (xviii) FDR, his supporters would say, was like a doctor who wasn’t telling a patient he had a fatal illness for his own good. FDR, his supporters would claim, had to quietly act in the best interests of Americans, many of whom had no idea how they were threatened. Critics saw that as what would amount to the hijack of the United States Constitution by an imperial presidency.
But wasn’t Nazi Germany a threat to the United States?
Yes, the United States had a hated enemy in Nazi Germany. But no Germany, in 1941, wasn’t interested in fighting America. Hitler, before Pearl Harbor, told his admirals that he wasn’t ready for war. He told his captains to steer clear of American ships in the North Atlantic. This was in part because the German navy at the time wasn’t ready for war with both the United States and Britain. (xix)
Yet FDR was pushing for war. He was “so anxious to bring the United States into war that he resorted to a cheap propaganda trick,” said one historian. (xx) The United States pushed for war with Nazi Germany that, in the short term, it didn’t want. War likely could have been avoided at least for a few years and maybe forever since the United States government, with bi-partisan support, was greatly expanding its navy and air forces. (xxi)
Nazi Germany did have a wild plan, the Ziel Program or Plan Z, to conquer America eventually through much expanded naval and air forces. However, the plan was not to be triggered until Germany finished an ambitious multi-year shipbuilding program. It would also not start until Germany had conquered the Soviet Union and defeated Britain. Then Hitler projected turning Britain into Germany’s ally. With Britain’s much needed navy at its side, Germany, according to the plan, would then attack America. (xxii) Germany would use Britain’s control of the sea lanes to defeat the United States, according to Hitler’s improbable plan.
“One day, England will be obliged to make approaches to the continent,” Hitler wrote in 1942. “And it will be a German-British army that will chase the Americans from Iceland….I like an Englishman a thousand times better than an American.” (xxiii)
Certainly, by the end of the war in 1945, Americans had enough of war and its costs. Glory for Me, (xxiv) a superb novel by MacKinley Kantor detailing the social and psychological costs of the so-called “Good War”—-unlike the Spanish-American War, no one was calling it splendid—-illustrated how much war had hurt so many Americans. The novel was watered down and made into a successful, classic, prize-winning movie, The Best Years of Our Lives. One would think that, by 1945, with hundreds of thousands of Americans dead and far more injured in countless ways, with millions dead in Europe and Asia, that our nation would have been sick of war. That it would take every possible step to avoid more of it. Yet much more war was in the offing. Less than five years after the surrender of the Japanese and Germans, America was going to move further way from its non-interventionist/isolationist traditions.
End of Part IV
Gregory Bresiger is an independent business writer who has written Personal Finance for People Who Hate Personal Finance and MoneySense. Visit his blog at GregoryBresiger.com. He has a graduate degree in history from New York University. He is the author of the Road to the Permanent Warfare State.
(i) The title of this series comes from the pamphlets of the mid-Victorian, little Englander MP, Richard Cobden. A radical and a free trader, Cobden opposed all the wars of his time and his opposition to the Crimean War led to his defeat, although he was later returned to parliament. Cobden called war “a monster.” See “The Political Writings of Richard Cobden (New York: Garland Publishing, 1973). See Vol 2, p. 503 for “What Next and Next?). For more on Cobden and the Little Englanders, see my article in the Journal of Libertarian Studies at mises.com
(ii) “The Partnership that Saved the West: Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-1941,” Joseph P. Lash, pp46-48 (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1976).
(iv) “Until the Japanese attack on pearl Harbor in December 1941, public opinion polls consistently showed that approximately 80 percent of the American people opposed a declaration of war by the United States.” From “Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle Against American Intervention in World War II,” Wayne S. Cole, p 8 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1974). Also see “Roosevelt and World War II,” Robert A. Divine, pp1-24 (Penguin Books, New York, 1971).
(v) Divine, pp1-24
(vii) “From “Prophets on the Right, Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism,” Ronald Radosh, (Simon &Shuster, New York, 1975) pp50-51
(viii) Cole, pp8-9
(ix) “Prophets on the Right, Profiles of American Critics of American Globalism,” Ronald Radosh,” (Simon &Shuster, New York, 1975)
(x) “Prophets on the Right.”
(xi) “Foundations of Democracy,” by T.V. Smith and Robert A. Taft, p186 (Knopf, New York, 1939).
(xii) “The Imperial Presidency,” Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1973)
(xiii) “The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms,” (Touchstone, New York, 1998), Kai Bird
(xiv) “The Private World of Robert Taft,” McGeorge Bundy, The Reporter, December 1951.
(xv) “The Color of Truth…”
(xvi) “Never Again: A President Runs for a Third Term,” Herbert S. Parmet & Marie B. Hecht,” (The McMillan Company, New York, 1968). Also see “President Roosevelt and the Coming of War, 1941, Charles A. Beard, (Transaction Publishers, New York, 2003).
(xvii) See “A Foreign Policy for Americans,” by Robert Taft, p 125, Mises.org. For the New York Times’ editor’s quote
(xviii) ”The Man in the Street,” Thomas A. Bailey (New York: MacMillan, 1948) p 13
(xix) The analysis of the German navy comes “The Politics of Frustration. The United States in German Naval Planning, 1889-1941,” Holger H. Herwig, pp-175-249, (Little Brown & Company, Boston, 1976)
(xx) Herwig, note 231, mentions the alleged map of five German vassal states in Latin America. “He (FDR) was never able to produce the map for public inspection.
(xxi) There are repeated references to this in “The Papers of Robert Taft,” with Taft explaining they provided more funding than FDR had requested.
(xxii) Even Hitler seemed to think this Anglo-German alliance was far fetched. He said, “I will not live to see it, but I am happy for the German Volk that will one day witness how Germany and England united will line up against America.” Herwig, p230.
(xxiii) Ibid, p 239
(xxiv) “The Imperial Years,” Foster Rhea Dulles, p 277, (Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1956) Glory for Me,” MacKinlay Kantor, (Coward-McCann, New York).