World War II

As war loomed, visionary FDR declared American defenses inadequate

On 28 January 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared our national defenses inadequate in the face of warlike preparations abroad which constituted “a threat to world peace and security.” He then asked for appropriations, largely naval, to improve our defenses.

The itemized list of requirements included a sum for antiaircraft materiel but not for aircraft. A year later, with conflict threatening in Europe and an undeclared war raging in Asia, the President asked for a much larger sum with which to strengthen our military establishment. This time Air Corps requirements accounted for more than half the total requests.

These appropriations marked the beginning of a radical change in our foreign policy. In the decade after World War I, repudiating the League of Nations, we had based our hopes of security on the outlawry of war, on international disarmament, and on our geographical isolation.

In the mid-thirties, as other great powers began to rearm, we had sought further to insulate ourselves against foreign wars by enacting neutrality legislation, which in effect abrogated our traditional policy of freedom of the seas and which denied to our government the right to distinguish morally between aggressor nations and their victims.

A Japanese soldier stands guard over part of the captured Great Wall of China in 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

But by the beginning of 1939 we had turned to rearmament, and before the year had run out we had begun to scrap the neutrality restrictions. For three years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor we were preparing, by these and other measures, for a war which we did not want but which many had come to feel was inescapable if we were to maintain our traditional way of life.

This preparation was without precedent in our national history, unless an exception be claimed for the very limited efforts of 1916-17.

Our habit in respect to war had ever been first declare, then prepare. That this policy had enjoyed the apparent sanction of success was not because of any virtue inherent in it. Actually, our victories in foreign wars owed much to three factors: the weakness of enemies like Mexico and Spain; the involvement of enemies like England and Germany with other European powers; and the geographical isolation of our nation.

In the period 1939-41, these factors obtained, if at all, to a lesser degree. Our potential enemies were strong, not weak; they were girded for war materially and spiritually. The friendly powers upon whom we might have depended for respite long shrank from war, and when war came they crumbled one by one until only Britain remained and then, precariously.

Italian troops raise the Italian flag over Macalle, Ethiopia in 1935.

And new techniques of war and new weapons–particularly the long-range bomber and the carrier-borne plane–had weakened the security once offered by our geographical situation. Given these changed conditions and the revolutionary doctrines and aggressive activities of the Axis powers, the United States could ill afford its customary delay in preparing for war.

The national administration appreciated the new threat to our security earlier than did most American citizens, but before Pearl Harbor, the public had, for the most part, come to recognize that threat. This change in public opinion was, in reality, a psychological preparation for war; it was brought about by the sheer logic of events abroad and by the activities of private citizens, acting individually or through organized groups, as well as by the educational efforts of the national administration.

Perhaps in the last analysis, the psychological preparation was the most important single factor in improving our national defense, but this chapter is concerned only with more tangible measures inaugurated by the government.

Hundreds of German tanks in the mid-1930s.

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, the United States declared its neutrality. Its stated policy was to remain out of the conflict if possible and at the same time to keep the totalitarian powers out of the Western Hemisphere.

The latter objective demanded a further extension and an acceleration of previous programs for strengthening American armed forces. It called also, because of the threat of new weapons and modes of warfare, for the establishment of new strategic bases. The declared policy was wholly consonant with the Monroe Doctrine, and the measures taken to enforce it were, for a while, consistent with our traditional ideas of defense.

Like most Americans, FDR didn’t want war but he knew it was coming. He had the vision to get America prepared ahead of time, to some degree, rather than wait until we were attacked when it may have been too late to react and recover.

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