Franklin Roosevelt and the Coming of World War II


On the morning of December 4, 1941, the early edition of the Times-Herald sold out on the streets of Washington, DC. Chesly Manly’s expose of President Franklin Roosevelt’s secret plan for an American Expeditionary Force of five million American soldiers sent to Europe to stop Hitler appeared to prove what the isolationists had been saying all along. Roosevelt’s reelection campaign in 1940 attempted to assuage fears of American intervention in Europe. Speaking in Boston, FDR told his listeners, “…your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” Administration policy, however, had been formulated to make war inevitable, or so the non-interventionists thought.

Making Life Difficult for Germany and Japan

Fear of Japanese expansionism in Asia had motivated presidents since Teddy Roosevelt. Historians note, for example, that Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation of peace negotiations between Japan and Russia at the end of the Russo-Japanese War was designed to keep Japan from emerging as a major competitor in the Pacific region. By 1941, Japan had conquered China and was moving into Southeast Asia. Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s November 1941 ultimatum memo demanding that Japan withdraw was viewed as an invitation to war.

The United States’ oil embargo impacted eighty percent of Japanese oil imports. American clandestine support of Chinese forces fighting Japan added to the strain that ultimately ended any opportunity to resolve the crisis through diplomacy. Many American isolationists viewed FDR’s actions as tantamount to provoking a war. Montana Senator Burton Wheeler, for example, writes that, “The evidence that Hull wanted to go to war with Japan is overwhelming.”

The same was true of Germany. Following passage of the lend-lease bill, Roosevelt, in 1941, ordered the navy to protect American merchant shipping to Britain, resulting in the torpedoing of the destroyer Kearny. This was followed by the “Geer Incident,” during which a U.S. destroyer fired on a German submarine. Very little in the U.S. response to Britain could be objectively deemed “neutrality.”

Great Britain and the Post War Peace

It was also well known that FDR was an Anglophile who sympathized with Britain. Burton Wheeler recounts a conversation with Joseph P. Kennedy, former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, who told him that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the British government went to war because of “pressure from the United States.”

Wheeler maintains that FDR wanted to shape the post-war peace, much as Woodrow Wilson had attempted to do at the World War One peace conference. But Roosevelt, according to one of his White House aides, Lowell Mellett, was a politician and could “handle” those people. The question among non-interventionists like Wheeler was whether FDR could handle Churchill and later, Josef Stalin.

War Warnings and War Preparations

After the election of 1940, Franklin Roosevelt sought to amend legislation that specified “cash and carry” requirements; the United States, he told the American people, was “the great arsenal of democracy.” By 1941, the administration and its allies were subtly preparing Americans for what many believed was inevitable. Few political leaders had the courage to object. Senator Gerald P. Nye, a non-interventionist, accused administration leaders and their supporters of, “…feeding us daily with the fear of what is going to be our lot if Britain loses this war.”

Writer John Toland has demonstrated from documents that U.S. military commanders in Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, received conflicting orders. Despite numerous warnings from Japan through a variety of U.S. and foreign intelligence services, no U.S. commands in the Pacific received specific information relevant to the possibility of an attack.

Senator Claude Pepper, a sponsor and vocal advocate of the first lend-lease legislation, publicly supported sending U.S. war planes to both Britain and France as early as mid-1940. Senator Pepper also favored Roosevelt’s strong approach toward Japan, referring to any hint of a diplomatic solution as “appeasement.” Ironically, both Pepper and Wheeler fully believed that the very survival of democracy was at stake.

Churchill and the British government were very effective in preparing Roosevelt for the inevitable. They had to be: the survival of England depended on U.S. intervention. In 1941, Presidential envoy Harry L. Hopkins spent six weeks in and around London. One “urgent question” presented by the Churchill government was what the U.S. would do if Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies.

Hopkins’ hand wrote his response to President Roosevelt: “…a great part of the American people…would not be interested in a war in the Far East merely because Japan attacked the Dutch.” Pearl Harbor, of course, would turn out to be an altogether different story. Even the most ardent isolationists voted for war on Capitol Hill December 8, 1941. The only dissenting vote in the House came from Montana Republican, Jeanette Rankin, a pacifist.

Roosevelt and the Coming of World War II

Franklin Roosevelt’s duplicity regarding his promise not to send U.S. soldiers abroad can certainly be excused following the Pearl Harbor attack. Some historians argue that U.S. success in World War II would not have been possible without Roosevelt’s foresight and preparations. Others argue that he duped Congress into acquiring dictatorial powers, knowing that war was inevitable and would end the Depression once war was finally declared.

The historical evidence suggests that Roosevelt and the War Department had, as Chesly Manly disclosed days before the Pearl Harbor attack, a detailed plan, virtually down to the last man, that could be implemented once war was declared. Roosevelt never addressed the disclosures and Manly was grilled by the FBI but refused to disclose his source. That source was Senator Burton K. Wheeler.


Cole, Wayne S. Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relation. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1962
Gellman, Irwin F. Secret Affairs: Franklin Roosevelt, Cordell Hull, and Sumner Welles. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995
Pepper, Claude Denson. Pepper: Eyewitness To A Century. New York: Harcourt Brace Jaovanovich, 1987
Robinson, Greg. By Order Of The President: FDR And The Internment Of Japanese Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001
Sherwood, Robert E. The White House Papers of Harry L. Hopkins: Volume I September 1939 – January 1942. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948
Toland, John. Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1982