World War II Isolationist America and President Roosevelt (1941)

Figure 1.--.

Aginst this backdrop, President Roosevelt who did see the dangers from the NAZIs and Japanese militaists, with great skill and political courage managed to not only support Britain in its hour of maximum peril, but with considerable political skill managed to push through Congress measures that would lay the ground work for turning American into the Arsenal of Democracy, producing a tidal wave of equipment and supplies not only for the American military, but for our Allies as well in quantities that no one especially the AXIS believed possible.

The Four Freedoms (January 6, 1941)

The State of the Union Address is a tradition in America, established by President Washington at the very creation of the Republic. The President reports to the Congress ob the state of the Union. There had been over 140 some such reports delivered before, few of which are remembered today. What President could have reported in more dire circumstances. A evil racist bent on genocide and reducing the people of Western Europe to slavery had defeated France. Jews and freedom loving people were being hunted like animals by all the powers of an efficent modern police state. Youth were bring taught to hate and make war. Scicnce was being contorted to evil ends. Almost all of Europe was in the hand of Fascists or Communists. The only country resisting the dictators was Britain and as the President faced the Congress, Edward R. Murrow was describing London burning in The NAZI blitz. All had seen St Paul's in cetarl London engukfed in flames. America was the only hope for democracy. It was a question of whether Britain could survive, it was clear at the time that Brotain by her self could not prevail. The President used the occassion to issue a clarion call for Western democracy--an enunciation of the Four Freedoms. Many Americans can not today recall the circumstances. Few are not aware of these four basic freedoms: "The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants--everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear ...."

Lend Lease (March 1941)

President Roosevelt first proposed Lend Lease on December 17, 1940, at a press conference . It was a step he had been considering for some time. Polls showed that by December, 1940, public opinion had shifted significantly. An estimated 60 percent of the American people had come to favor aid to Britain even if it meant war. Britain was in fact in dire straits. It was rapidly depelting its gold reserves and ability to pay cash for war supplies. FDR thus saw the need to in effect "rent" war material to the British. The concept was pure Roosevelt. It sounded like a fair exchange, a loan which America would eventually get back. While to an American public still warry of war it sounded less like participating in war than selling arms. It was, however, a term perfectly suited for the time. Of course it was pure fiction. How could tanks, planes, trucks, bullets, food and other materials used in war be returned. Most would be destroyed or damaged and what good would they be after the War any way? Items like bullets and food would simply be used up. Congress passed the bill and FDR signed it into law on March 11, 1941. Congress on March 27 approved an initial $7 billion lend-lease appropriation. The Lend-Lease Act empowered the president to "lend, lease, or exchange" war materials with nations whose struggle against aggression he judged necessary to American security. It gave substance to FDR's proclamation of the United States as the "arsenal of democracy." The Coast Guard on March 30 siezed 64 Axis ships in U.S. ports for lend-lease convoys.While sounding inocuous, the Lend-Lease Act was in real terms tanamount to a declaration of war with Germany and within 2 months ships and U-boats were being sunk.

Greeland Occupied (April 1941)

Germany had invaded and occupied neutral Denmark as part of its Norwegian opperations in April 1940. Denmark's Henrik Kauffmann on April 9 allowed the U.S. occupation of Greenland. This prevented the NAZIs from seizing Greeland and porovided importnt bases for protecting the Atlantic convoys.

Undeclared Naval War

Escoring convoys meant that America was entering an undecalred naval war with Germany in the North Atlantic. The first U.S. freighter, the Robin Moor was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk May 21. The lifeboats were found June 10. Hitler was still intent on keeping America out of the War, especially as he was about to invade the Soviet Union, and ordered Doenitz's U-boats to avoid all U.S. warships. The U.S. destroyer Greer on September 4 attacked the U-652, eluded 2 torpedos. FDR on September 11 declared Greer attack was "piracy" as was the August 17 sinking of U.S.-Panamanian freighter Sessa killing 24 of 27 crew. Little discussed in the press was the fact that the United States and helped set of flag of convenience registrations in Panama to circuvent provisions of the Neutrality Acts. FDR also protested the September 5 sinking of U.S. freighter Steel Seafarer clearly flying U.S. flag. He gave the Navy orders to "shoot-on-sight". A Gallup poll showed 62 percent of Americans approved the deeping involvement in the War. The U.S. freighter Montana on September 11 was sunk en route to Iceland, but no one was killed. The armed U.S.-Panamanian freighter Pink Star sunk en route to Iceland carrying food. U.S.-Panamanian oil tanker I.C. White was sunk on September 27 en route to South Africa, three people were killed. U.S. tanker W.C. Teagle was sunk and U.S.-Panamanian freighter Bold Venture were sunk sunk on October 16. The U.S. destroyer Kearny on October 17 was torpedoed and damaged with 11 killed inside the Security Zone. The U.S. freighter Lehigh on October 19 was sunk in South Atlantic. Oct. 30 - U.S.-Panamanian armed tanker Salinas on October 30 was torpedoed and damaged. The U.S. destroyer Reuben James was torpedoed abd sunk inside the Security Zone on October 31, 115 crew members were killed. It was first U.S. warship lost to the U-boats. America well before Pearl Harbor was involved in an undeclared naval war with Germany. Hitler's frustration with this war, was one reason he declared war on America after Pearl Harbor.

Sinking the Bismarck (May 1941)

The powerful German battleship Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic to attack British convoys. She was the most powerful and well armored battleship aflot and in its first engagement sunk the battle cruiser Hood and severly damaged the battleship Prince of Wales. The sinking og Hood was perhaps the greatest shock to the Royal Navy during the entire War. One three of her crew survived, The ship was reacked by two Royal Navy cruisers before being lost. It was an American built PBY Catalina that finally relocated her on may 26. The United States not only provided the plane, but a Navy pilot to train the crew who was aboard when they spotted Bismarck. This was not announced to the public at the time. A massive assemblage of Royal Navy vessels finally sunk the German battleship.

Merchant Marine

The NAZI U-boat campaign in the Atlantic was taking a toll on the British merchant fleet and the ability to move war material across the Atlatic. FDR on May 27 declared "unlimited national emergency" to build ships to help the British. FDR on June 6 seized 80 foreign merchant ships in U.S. ports under new law of Congress. The answer yo this problem after American entered the War was the Liberty Ship.

Actions Against the Axis (June 1941)

FDR froze AXIS funds in the United States on June 14. The President on June 16 ordered German consulates closed and expeled diplomats.

Iceland (June 1941)

celand was a Norwegian dependency which after the German invasion of Norway had been occupied by the British. FDR on June 16 ordered the U.S. in cooperation with the British to relieve the British occupation force. Iceland provided critical bases in the Battle of the Aatlantic. FDR on July announced the arrival of 4,000 Marines in Iceland and extended the Security Zone and Navy patrols to Iceland. American public opinion was changing. A Gallup poll showed 61 percent of Americans approved this action.

Russia (June 1941)

The August 1939 NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact had made Stalin in effect a partner with Hitler. Stalin had conducted his own series of aggressions, invading or seizing areas of Finland, Poland, Czecheslovakia, and Romania and annexing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The entire complexion and ballance of power changed on June 22, 1941 when Hitler put Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in action. The United States on June 24 released $39 million in frozen Soviet funds. FDR refused to invoke the Neutrality Act with the Soviet Uniin and insttead on June 25 Hopkins to Moscow in July and Averill Harriman in September to determine how the United States could assisst. Congress in October approved a lend-lease appropriation of $1 billion.

The Atlantic Charter (August 1941)

President Roosevelt and Primeminister Churchill meet aboard the Prince of Wales on August 9-13, 1941 at Placentia Bay. The Prince of Wales had been badly mauled by Bismark in May. It was to be sunk by a Japanese aerial attack in December. Roosevelt and Churchill issue the Atlantic Charter. The two were war time allies. Britain had weathered the worst that the NAZI Luftwaffe could throw at it. America and Britain were fighting the U-boats in the North Atlantic to keep Britain alive. It was clear that America would soon be drawn into the War. America had already played an important role in keeping Britain alive and the two countries were the only hope of the occupied European and in fact Western civilization itself--threatened by the evil tide of NAZI tyranny. The two leaders, the two most important men of the 20th century, agreed to a simple, but elegant eight-point statement of their aims and today still stands as the central credo of the Atlantic Alliance.

Renewing the Draft (August 1941)

The isolations were not silenced with their defeat over Selective Service (September 1940), Roosevelt's Third term (November 1940), and Lend Lease (March 1941). The Unites States virtually did not have an army before the Selective Srvice Act was passed. This was the first step in building a 6 million man army. The isolations staged a major effort to defeat the renewal of the act. Despite the war in Europe and Japanese advances in the Pacific, there was considerable resistance in Congress for not renewing the Selective Service Act. The resistance was led by the Republican minority, but the draft was such a sensitive issue that they were joined by enough Democrats that renewal as in question. The NAZI suprise attack on the Soviet Unionwas another clear indicator of what Hitler was capable of doing and that fighting him with allies was essential. The isolationists, however, again resisted the draft. Failire to renew Selective Service would have meant that the men drafted in 1940 would go home and that America would have entered World War II essentially without an army. Subsequently in a razor-thin Congressional vote on the eve of Pearl Harbor, the Selective Serbice Act was renwed (August 1941). While the President was with Churchill at the Atlantic Conference when the House approved the renewal of Selective Service by 1 lone vote. The vote was 203 to 202. There were attempts to change votes and runa a vote count, but Speaker Rayburn gaveked them down. To gain even this margin, the bill had to include a commitment not to send draftees out of the Hemisphere without Congressional authorization. [Black, p. 656.] Renewal permitted the Army to keep the one-year draftees.

Arming Merchantmen (October 1941)

The President asked the Congress to arm merchantmen and for permission for them to make deliveries to beligerent ports (October 9, 1941). This meant Britain and now the Soviet Union. It was also the final end of the Neutrality Acts. The President wrote, "We will not let Hitler prescribe the waters of the world on which our ships may travel. We cannot permit the affirmative defense of our rights to be annulled and diluted by sections of the Neutrality Act which have no realism in the light of unscrupulous ambitions of madmen. .... We intend to maintain ... the freedom of te seas against the dominationby any foreign power which had become crazed with a desire to control the world."

Final Revisions of the Neutrality Act (November 1941)

FDR on October 9 as a result of the U-boat attcks on American shipping proposed revision of the 1939 Neutrality Act so that U.S. merchant ships could be armed. The President at his Navy Day speech on October 27 claimed "America has been attacked" and that he had a German map of Americas. After the sinking of the Ruben James, a Gallup poll on November 5 showed 81 percent of Americans favored arming merchant ships and 61 percent favored American ships entering the war zones. The Senate on November 7 approved revision of the Neutrality Act 50-37. It was the closest vote since 1939. The House of Representives approved revision by an even closer vote 212-194. This allowed the atming of merchant vessels and it [ermitted U.S. ships may enter both combat zones abd belligerent ports.

Pearl Harbor (December 1941)

Isolationist sentiment in America disappeared over night when Japnese carrier-based aircraft struck the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Parl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States declared war against Japan in on December 8. FDR was not sure how to proceed against the NAZIs which he considered a greater danger. This dilema was solved by Hitler when on December 11 he declared war on the United States--incredibly the only country on which he ever bothered to formally declare war. The Japanese attack was a stunning tactical victory. It may have been the greatest strategic error in the history of warfare. With one stroke the Japanese had turned a deeply divided country into a unified nation with one purpose, to defeat Japan and her Axis partners. America had an industrial capacity that was not fully appreciate in either Tokyo or Berlin. America was now infused with a burning capacity to wage war to even the most remote spot on earth. Americans who had wanted a Fortress America were to be fighting in far away palces (including many that they had never even heard of) from flying the hump over the Himalaysa, tropical jungles like Guadacanal, frozen landscares like Attu and Kiska, the Sahara Desert, volcanic islands like Iwo Jima, as well as more familiar places like Italy and France. Isolationist Americans waged and won the most expansive conflict in the historty of warfare.

Flying Tigers (December 1941-July 1942)

The first American pilots to successfully engage Axis forces were the American Volunteer Group (AVG). President Roosevelt secretly approved a mission to provide the Nationalist Chinese pilots and planes to oppose the Japanese who were regularly bombing unprotected Chinese cities. Chiang Kai-shek had earlier appointed Claire Chennault to oversea his air defeneses. It was not until T. V. Soong, Madame Chiang's brother managed to arrange secret American aid, however, that Chennault was able to put together a creditable force. The United States provided 100 P-40 Tomahawk fighters and helped recruit experienced Americn "civilian" pilots. The American military attempting to prepare for the increasing liklihood that the United States would enter the War, was no in favor of providing 100 fighters to China, but Roosevelt insisted. The AVG was not fully in place in Burma and China ubtil November 1940. Roosevelt and Churchill had promissed to supply China with a substantial air fleet, but the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor (December 7, 1941) made addirtional deliveries impodsible in 1942. The British provided at air base at Toungoo. From here and bases in Kuming, the AVG tried to keep the Burma Road open. The P-40 was America's top-line fighter at the time, but was theoretically not a match for the more advanced Japanese fighters. Chennault developed innovative tactics which made the AVG the most successful American aviation unit in the first 6 months of the War. The AVG engaged the Japanese from December 1941 through July 1942. Although Americans called the AVG the "Flying Tigers," the P-40s were painted with shark features. China at the time was being supplied through the British colony of Burma. The Flying Tigers were deployed in an unsuccessful attempt to save Rangoon, but in 10 weeks destroying more than 200 Japanese planes while losing only 16 planes. This was a substantial loss for the Japanese air forces at a time when they held all of the advantages.


Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Launching the New Deal (Little Brown: Boston, 1973), 574p.

Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.

CIH -- World War II

Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II American isolation page]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[About Us]
[Aftermath] [Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Military forces] [POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: January 1, 2003
Last updated: May 15, 2003