Hitler vs. Roosevelt

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

During the Vietnam War, the question of the right of an American president to conduct an undeclared war became a controversial one. In Hitler vs. Roosevelt, Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan closely examine an earlier and equally controversial exercise of executive power in the realm of foreign policy: President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s undeclared naval war against Nazi Germany. Their new book deals with the politics and diplomacy of that undeclared war, which lasted from the German invasion of Poland until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Although neither author participated in the events of the period, both lived through those years. Thomas A. Bailey was a Professor of Diplomatic History at Stanford University, while Paul B. Ryan was a young naval officer. Bailey is now retired, while Ryan is presently a Research Associate at Stanford University. The two men have collaborated to produce a book which is not only scholarly but also well-written and easy to follow.

To prepare Hitler vs. Roosevelt, the authors have made use of all existing secondary sources, as well as some previously unexploited primary ones. The captured German documents of the period, which became available after World War II, are used with especially great skill. As a former naval officer, Ryan was able to obtain access to documentary sources in Washington, D.C., which were not readily available to civilian researchers.

On September 1, 1939, the German invasion of Poland plunged Europe into World War II. In Chapters One through Six, Bailey shows how, from the beginning of the war up to the fall of France to the German armies in June of 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt grew steadily firmer in his determination to resist the aggressive policies of the German dictator Hitler and his Japanese and Italian allies. Although Roosevelt took no overt measures against Nazi Germany during this time, he did manage to secure a partial revision of the Neutrality Acts.

The three Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 had reflected the staunch determination of the United States Congress to prevent American entanglement in any future European war. The first two of these acts had absolutely forbidden the sale or transport of arms to any belligerent country. The third Neutrality Act allowed commodities that could be made into arms to be sold to foreign purchasers, if they paid for cargoes with cash and hauled them in their own ships.

On November 4, 1939, after American citizens had been involved in two unfortunate incidents involving German submarines, the United States Congress revised the Neutrality Acts. Foreign purchasers of munitions could now take them away in their own ships on a cash-and-carry basis. This change benefited Hitler’s archenemy, Great Britain, which still controlled the seas. At the same time, however, the revised Neutrality Act established danger zones, extending far out to sea from the waters of the warring states. Into these waters American ships were forbidden to sail. This latter provision, included to pacify the American foes of foreign involvement, would long hamper Roosevelt’s efforts to aid Hitler’s foes.

Once France had fallen, Roosevelt resolved to take stronger measures against the Nazi menace. In Chapter Seven, the authors tell the story of Roosevelt’s first major break with American neutrality: the “Destroyers-for-Bases Deal” of September 2, 1940. This executive agreement, concluded between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was designed to circumvent existing American laws, which forbade the direct gift of American arms to any one of the warring sides. By the terms of the agreement, the United States Government gave several overage destroyers to Great Britain in return for the right to build military bases on various Western Hemisphere islands possessed by Great Britain.

In Chapter Eight, Bailey and Ryan give the background of the next major step toward war: the Lend-Lease Act. Roosevelt first broached the idea of Lend-Lease at a presidential press conference on December 17, 1940, shortly after his reelection to a third term. He urged that the United States, instead of selling arms to Britain, should simply give needed arms to that country, with the understanding that these arms should be replaced once the war was over. This proposal was designed to help a desperate Britain which could no longer afford to pay for arms. The survival of Britain, the President declared in a radio address on December 29, was vital to the defense of the United States.

Roosevelt did not convince everybody. When the Lend-Lease Bill was introduced into Congress on January 10, 1941, it ran into heavy opposition from such isolationist politicians as Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio. In addition, the famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and the renowned historian Charles A. Beard testified against...

(The entire section is 2023 words.)