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.


Japan’s pre-Pearl Harbor air tactics perfected in war with China

The Japanese air forces, divided into separate army and navy air arms, had developed under the influence of foreign aviation.

In 1911 two Japanese army officers received air training in France, and they were followed by a few more officers during the next two years. In 1919 a French mission comprising some 60 airmen arrived in Japan to assist in army air training; in the same e army established an aviation section. By 1920 the first military aviation school had been opened near Tokyo; two additional schools were established in 1922.

Organizational changes came with the expansion of the Japanese Army Air Force, which soon occupied a place along with the infantry, field artillery, and cavalry. Before the end of the 1930s, the post of Inspector General of Military Aviation had been created, making one commander directly responsible to the Emperor for the training of the air force.

The Japanese Navy Air Force had a similar history in its origin, development, and gradual assumption of importance.

The functions of the two Japanese air forces were clearly divided. The army air force was designed solely to support the army ground forces, while the l air force, in addition to supporting the fleet, was responsible for coastal defense, convoy protection, and sea and antisubmarine patrols. There was apparently little co-operation between the two forces, for they had developed independently and they were under the direction of the respective army and navy commanders who showed little desire to coordinate the activities of the air arms.

In the period of 1937-41, Japanese air power received its first extended test in combat. In 1931 the Japanese army had moved into Manchuria, and from that stronghold drove into China in the summer of 1937. The air forces of the aggressor had virtually an open sky, for the weak Chinese Air Force was unable to offer strong opposition.

Chinese Curtiss Hawk II

Under the stimulus of civil war, from 1911 to 1928, the several factions in China had developed air services consisting of a few obsolete aircraft purchased from abroad. Upon establishment of the central government in 1928, a more stable program was possible, and during the thirties, expansion and improvement of Chinese military aviation were accomplished with the aid of foreign technical advisers.

But the Chinese Air Force was in no sense prepared to meet the relatively modern air force with which the Japanese opened the war in 1937. By the end of the year, the Chinese Air Force had been almost completely destroyed. Assistance from the Soviet Union and other nations enabled the Chinese to continue their air opposition, but their efforts were ineffectual. The lack of a modern training program, inadequate maintenance and repair facilities, and deficiencies in organization accounted for much of the weakness of the Chinese force.

At the outbreak of the conflict in 1937, air combat on both sides was poorly executed, although there was no question as to the courage of either Chinese or Japanese pilots. Bombing was inaccurate, but the Japanese improved with practice and they revealed a talent for modifying their tactics in order to meet changing tactics of their opponents.

Japanese Ki-27 “Kate” fighter

The Chinese, forced to fight a defensive war on their own territory, concentrated on improving their interceptor aviation. in the early days of the fighting, Japanese bombers without pursuit protection made daylight attacks on Nanking and other cities, but following a few disastrous encounters with Chinese pursuit planes, the bombing halted until pursuit planes could be brought from Japan to provide the necessary protection.

Japanese bombing formations, which at first numbered about nine planes, soon increased to an average of twenty-seven planes per wave of bombers. The attacks, against both Chinese troop concentrations and Chinese cities, were usually preceded by one or two reconnaissance planes which gathered weather information and intelligence of enemy air dispositions. Carrier- and shore-based planes of the naval air force operated against the Chinese, particularly in attacks on Chungking and in support of ground troops in the Shanghai and Tsingtao areas.

Japanese “Nell” bombers over China.

The air force of the Japanese army participated on a larger scale, and personnel were rotated frequently in order to give combat experience to more airmen. In the Russo-Manchurian order fighting which broke out in May 1939, the Japanese Army Air Force received a much more severe and devastating test of its strength. The Soviet Air Force, designed primarily as immediate support to the Red Army, administered a resounding defeat to the Japanese force, which committed almost its entire strength to the engagement and lost approximately 500 planes and 150 pilots.

According to the Japanese, their losses were worthwhile because they brought about important changes in organization, training, and tactics. These changes, however, were accompanied by no marked departure from existing concepts of air warfare, and the chief development came in an accelerated rate of expansion.

Japanese Zeros.

As the border fighting ended in September 1939, the poor record of the Japanese Army Air Force led foreign observers to conclude that the army’s force was inferior in both training and efficiency to the naval air force. There was some justification for such a belief. Training in the army flying schools was devoted almost exclusively to pilots, and training of other aircrewmen was largely neglected until their assignment to tactical units.

The navy, on the other hand, gave closer attention to the training of all members of the crew, and by 1941 its training program was designed to turn out annually some 2,500 navigators, bombardiers, gunners, and flight engineers. At the same time, the navy was training about 2,000 pilots a year, while the army was turning out pilots at the rate of approximately 750 a year. In equipment, too, the army air force lagged behind the navy air force. The latter possessed some excellent four-engine patrol bombers, while the army had nothing heavier than a two-engine bomber.

Air operations aboard Japanese carrier Kaga in 1937.

Prior to 7 December 1941, the army air force flew almost exclusively over land, and its longest-range bombers had an operational radius of only some 500 miles. The navy’s force had been trained to operate over water with a radius of about 800 miles. Both forces, however, had a number of well-tried torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and level bombers, reconnaissance and transport planes, and several models of the Zero fighter–a fast, highly maneuverable but somewhat vulnerable plane with a maximum speed of approximately 350 miles per hour.

The planes were hybrids of foreign designs, with German influence being particularly notable after 1936 when Japan threw in her lot with Germany by signing the Anti-Comintern Pact. By 7 December 1941 Japanese air strength consisted of some 27,000 aircraft assigned to fully trained air units.

Approximately 6,000 pilots had been graduated from air schools or training units, 3,500 of which were assigned to the navy and the remainder to the army. About 50 percent of the army pilots had been in combat either in China or in the border fighting against the Soviet Air Force, while 10 percent of land-based navy pilots had participated in the Chinese operations.

Japanese dive bombers prepare to strike U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Some 600 of the best navy pilots were assigned to aircraft carrier units. In contrast to the 200 hours in primary, basic, and advanced training then being given to Air Corps cadets in the United States, the Japanese pilots were receiving about 300 hours in training units before being assigned to tactical units. The average first-line Japanese pilots in 1941 had about 500 flying hours, and the average pilot in the carrier groups which were destined to begin hostilities against the United States had over 800 hours.

Though somewhat discounted by officials of other nations, the Japanese air forces had now reached a peak of efficiency, at any rate in their first-line strength, which gave them a commanding position in the Pacific.

The German ‘Blitzkrieg’ of 1940 smashed the armies of Norway, Denmark, and France

The period between Germany’s defeat of Poland in October 1939 and her invasion of Norway in April 1940 is often referred to as the “Phony War” because there wasn’t much happening.

The French stiffened their defenses while the British moved troops to the continent. The British wanted to send their air force to bomb targets inside Germany but were persuaded not to by the French who feared German reprisal. The major activity consisted of dueling propaganda messages blared from loudspeakers across the German and French lines.

Maginot Line defenses.

The French felt secure behind their vaunted Maginot Line. Paris was ready to fight World War I all over again – a war of defense, but of course, Adolph Hitler and his high command had a different strategy in mind. In order to isolate the iron ore resources of Sweden, and secure his northern flank, Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark on April 9.

The next blow came a month later. In the early morning darkness of May 10, the Germans unleashed their Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) against the Netherlands and Belgium. Blitzkrieg was a new kind of warfare integrating tanks, air power, artillery, and motorized infantry into a steel juggernaut emphasizing speedy movement and maximization of battlefield opportunities.

German tank in Belgium.

The attack sent the defending troops reeling.

The roads overflowed with refugees fleeing the front. French and British troops rushing to the rescue were caught in the headlong retreat and pushed back. German dive-bombers – the Stukas – filled the sky, strafing the retreating mix of civilians and soldiers with machine gun and bomb. The Allies fought valiantly but in vain – the German war machine advanced unperturbed. In England, the invasion forced Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to resign, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.

The Germans defied military doctrine, skirted the Maginot Line and slashed into France through Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest. The Blitzkrieg moved with lightning speed as Hitler’s tanks turned and raced headlong to the sea. They reached the English Channel on May 21 cutting off the Allied armies in the North.

The Germans turned again, fighting their way north to secure the coastal ports and annihilate the trapped armies. Miraculously, the German high command called a halt to the advance. The reprieve lasted 48 hours, long enough for the British to defend Dunkirk and evacuate what they could of the Allied armies. The Germans entered Paris on June 14. In a humiliating ceremony on June 22, France signed an armistice with Germany, leaving Britain to carry on the fight alone.

General Erwin Rommel, who would later gain fame in the African desert as the “Desert Fox”, led the 7th Panzer Division as it crashed through the Belgian defenses into France, skirting the Maginot Line and then smashing it from behind.

Japan uses skirmish with Chinese troops as pretext to begin World War II

On July 7, 1937, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking. The cause of the fracas is unknown, but the Japanese government used it as a pretext to launch a full-scale invasion of China.

Hoping to deliver a quick knockout punch, the Japanese furiously bombed Chinese cities and advanced with their better-equipped army. Despite enduring heavy losses, the Chinese regrouped in the interior of their vast land and mounted an entrenched resistance.

Japanese soldiers attack Wanping town in 1937. Public domain.

Reports of the “Rape of Nanking,” the sacking of the Chinese capital reached the American mainland in the summer of 1937. The brutalities prompted President Roosevelt to abandon cooperation with Congressional isolationists to pursue a more forceful approach against the Japanese.

In October 1937, he delivered his famous Quarantine Speech in Chicago. For the first time, Roosevelt advocated collective action to stop the epidemic aggression. But his hopes of igniting American sensibilities failed. Even when a Japanese plane bombed the USS Panay on December 12, there was no cry for a response. The Panay had been stationed in China on the Yangtze River. Japan apologized and paid an indemnity and the incident was soon forgotten, despite the loss of three American lives. Compared to the public response to the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898, the American people hardly mustered a whisper.

Emboldened by western inaction, Hitler’s troops marched into Austria in 1938 and annexed the country. Then Hitler set his eyes upon the Sudetenland, a region in western Czechoslovakia inhabited by 3.5 million Germans. In September the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy met in Munich attempting to diffuse a precarious situation.

Britain and France recognized Hitler’s claim to the Sudetenland and Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia in exchange for the promise of no future aggressions. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to Great Britain triumphantly proclaiming that he had achieved “peace in our time.” It would be one of the most mocked statements of the 20th century.

European appeasement failed six months later, as Hitler mockingly marched his troops into the rest of Czechoslovakia.

In May 1939, Roosevelt urged Congressional leaders to repeal the arms embargo of the earlier Neutrality Acts. Senators from both parties refused the request. Another bombshell crossed the Atlantic on August 24. Adolf Hitler and Soviet leader Josef Stalin agreed to put their mutual hatred aside. Germany and the Soviet Union signed a ten-year non-aggression pact. Hitler was now free to seize the territory Germany had lost to Poland as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. On September 1, 1939, Nazi troops crossed into Poland from the west.

Finally, on September 3, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

This work by The Independence Hall Association is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.