It is 70 years, plus two days, since D-Day — the massive American and British amphibious landings on the beaches of Normandy. These anniversaries can serve a useful purpose in giving us time for reflection on things such as America’s leadership role in the world. And inevitably this leads to comparisons between then and now.
With World War II, the United States emerged as a major, if not the major, world power, with Franklin Roosevelt seen as a great wartime president. Today’s resident of the White House is said by his many critics to have tarnished America’s great power image, because unlike FDR, he has an aversion to war.
However, earlier this year, I read a new book which casts Roosevelt in quite a different light — “Those Angry Days” by Lynne Olson. Olson is an American, who has written two notable books on the early years of World War II, seen from a British perspective. “Those Angry Days” is the rarely told American story of the monumental political battle that severely divided this country from September 1939 until December 1941. The fundamental issue was what, if any role, America should play to prevent Adolf Hitler from effectively conquering all of Europe, including Britain.
As most people interested in this period, I had mostly accepted the narrative that this was a titanic struggle between the interventionists led by President Roosevelt, and the isolationists, personified by the famous aviator and public hero Charles Lindbergh.
To be sure it was that. But it was so much more. It was surprising to see hard evidence that throughout these two-plus years, if he actually was an interventionist, Roosevelt was a most reluctant one — even after having won re-election in 1940. According to author Olson, right up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “it’s far from clear Roosevelt himself, while certainly determined to help Britain, ever intended that America go to war, at least in the sense of sending troops.” Olson quotes historians William Langer and S. Everett Gleason, that the president “recoiled from the prospect of war (and) was determined to keep this nation out of it.”
Many millions of Americans were engaged in this historic argument over intervention, in which passions ran very high. There seems no doubt that Roosevelt was gravely concerned that Hitler might very well defeat Britain and would then become a major threat to American security. Yet as Olson tells us, while the president was “eloquent and forceful in his repeated calls for action to help Britain and end German aggression, he often procrastinated in making such action a reality. He was intimidated by congressional isolationists, whose strength he tended to exaggerate, and was loathe to challenge them.”
One source she cites to support those assertions caught my attention — General George Marshall, wartime army chief of staff and post-war secretary of state. According to Olson, “George Marshall later remarked that from 1939-1941 he had doubted the president’s ability to lead America in a national emergency. (Once the U.S. entered the war) Marshall finally concluded that his commander in chief was in fact a great leader. ‘I hadn’t thought so before,’ the army chief of staff said. ‘He wasn’t always clear cut in his decisions. He could be swayed.’”
Once the United States entered the war in earnest following the Japanese attack, there was suddenly hope among citizens of the Allied nations that the Axis powers — Germany, Italy and Japan — were not inevitably going to rule the world. And by D-Day in 1944, that hope had become an expectation that sooner or later the good guys were going to win. But after reading “Those Angry Days,” one realizes that as America’s entry into the war made defeating Germany an imperative, victory was far from a foregone conclusion.
I am intrigued by the what-ifs of history. There was one in the recent History Channel series on the First and Second World Wars. There is a World War I scene, historically authenticated, in which Cpl. Adolf Hitler, standing unarmed in no- man’s-land, is in the gun sights of a British army private, who ultimately decides not to shoot him. The narrator ominously suggests if he had, the course of history would have been changed.
There is a similarly portentous what-if near the end of Lynne Olson’s book. The day after Pearl Harbor, Congress declares war on Japan — but not on Germany. Three days pass. Germany is not obligated by treaty to go to war with the U.S. because Japan has not been attacked. Then on Dec. 11, seething with anger, Hitler goes before the Reichstag to declare war on the United States. In response, Congress declares war against Germany and Italy.
The author poses this question: “What would have happened if Hitler had not declared war on the United States?”
She looked into it and evidently found evidence that even immediately after the Japanese attack, Roosevelt was still unsure of the American public’s support for a declaration of war. She then comes to this somewhat breathtaking conclusion:
“Had Hitler not decided in a fit of anger to go to war against the United States, the odds are high that Congress and the American people would have pressured the president to turn away from an undeclared war against Germany in the Atlantic and focus instead on defeating Japan, the only country that had actually attacked the United States. In that case, American shipment of arms to Britain and Russia might have been cut dramatically or even halted, and Germany would have had a clear shot at defeating both countries.” We will never know.
Franklin Roosevelt would later be widely admired for his wartime leadership. But what Olson’s remarkable book convincingly shows is that in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War II, Roosevelt was actually war averse — almost to a fault. And his aversion did not come because he, like President Obama, had just wound down the country’s two longest wars.
Barrie Dunsmore of Charlotte is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News.
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