FDR’s Illicit Victory Program
In July 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the “Victory Program” to fight World War II. Advisors began providing Roosevelt with estimates on troop mobilization, industrial strength, and logistics to defeat enemies in Europe and Asia. There was only one problem: the U.S. was a neutral country that had not declared war.
Japan had not yet attacked Pearl Harbor, and Germany’s official policy was not to attack U.S. shipping on the seas. Yet the Roosevelt administration violated neutrality laws and defied public opinion by preparing for a war that most Americans did not want.
The Quest for Neutrality
In the 1930s, most Americans had bitter memories of World War I and the flawed peace that came from it. As such, when Adolf Hitler’s Germans annexed European countries, Benito Mussolini’s Italians invaded Ethiopia, and Emperor Hirohito’s Japanese attacked China, a poll revealed that 70 percent of Americans wanted no part of the struggles. This left it to President Roosevelt to change the public’s mind, and he did so through both legal and illegal means.
Reflecting public opinion, Congress passed a series of neutrality laws to avoid the circumstances that had prompted the U.S. to enter the First World War. These laws warned U.S. citizens that they traveled on warring nations’ ships at their own risk, and prohibited U.S. businesses from providing war equipment, loans, or credit to any warring nation. The U.S. could only provide non-war equipment to warring nations, and only on a “cash-and-carry” basis (i.e., the warring nations had to pay cash and carry the goods on their own ships).
When Japan and China went to war in 1937, Roosevelt authorized supplying China with war equipment in apparent violation of the neutrality laws. But Roosevelt had found a loophole: the laws could only be enforced when the president acknowledged that a state of war existed. Thus, Roosevelt simply refused to acknowledge that Japan and China were at war.
Roosevelt’s support of the British resistance to Germany angered many Americans who sought neutrality and non-intervention. As a result, the America First Committee (AFC) was formed in the spring of 1940 to protest Roosevelt’s non-neutral policies.
Historians have often overlooked the many prominent Americans who either belonged or contributed to the AFC: writers Sherwood Anderson, e.e. cummings, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis; former President Herbert Hoover; future Presidents Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy (Kennedy wrote the AFC a letter stating that “what you are doing is vital”); famed aviator Charles Lindbergh; and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of former President Theodore Roosevelt. At its peak, the AFC had about 850,000 members, along with millions of sympathizers.
In response, Roosevelt ordered the FBI and the IRS to investigate member activities. Telephones were tapped, and some AFC members faced grand juries. Roosevelt attempted to discredit the AFC by claiming that “Nazi agents” had infiltrated the group, but no evidence was obtained to prove the allegations. And the FBI could find no evidence that the AFC received Nazi funding. Yet Roosevelt continued violating their civil liberties by attempting to suppress their message of non-intervention.
While the official U.S. policy remained neutrality, Roosevelt’s rhetoric edged closer and closer to military intervention. As early as 1937, Roosevelt declared that aggressor nations such as Germany and Italy should be “quarantined.” Many Americans accused Roosevelt of trying to lead the U.S. into an unnecessary war.
By 1939, concerned by the expansionism of Germany, Italy, and Japan, Roosevelt began requesting billions of dollars to build up the U.S. naval fleet and bolster national defense. When the German invasion of Poland prompted Britain and France to declare war, the U.S. officially declared neutrality. However, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to revise the neutrality laws so that the cash-and-carry provision covered war equipment along with non-war products. This clearly benefited Britain and France because they dominated Atlantic shipping. By the end of the year, the U.S. was selling war products to Britain.
Germany responded to the change in U.S. policy by declaring unrestricted submarine warfare on U.S. shipping. In June 1940, Roosevelt declared that “the whole of our sympathies lies with those nations that are giving their life blood in combat against these forces (i.e., Germany, Italy, and Japan).” The next year, U.S. forces occupied Greenland and Iceland, ostensibly to protect U.S. shipping from Nazi submarines. However, these countries gave the U.S. a better position to aid Britain in violation of both its own neutrality laws and international law.
Urgings from Britain
Britain desperately worked to undermine U.S. neutrality and get the U.S. into the war, especially after the Nazis conquered France in June 1940. Britain was nearly bankrupt and could no longer take advantage of the cash-and-carry provision. Moreover, the British were under relentless assault from the German Luftwaffe. From this point forward, Roosevelt worked hard to sway public opinion in favor of the British and against the Germans.
At Britain’s urging, Roosevelt got Congress to enact the first peacetime military draft in U.S. history. By the end of 1940, Roosevelt urged the U.S. to become the “great arsenal of democracy” against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, despite the fact that the U.S. was not at war with them. This was Roosevelt’s first attempt to gauge public opinion concerning involvement, and to his dismay, most Americans still opposed entering the war.
In the fall of 1940, Roosevelt violated neutrality laws by loaning naval destroyers to Britain in exchange for leases on British military bases. The assistant secretary of state noted that Germany could have very well declared war on the U.S. for this. Roosevelt could have been impeached for effecting this agreement without congressional consent, which was unconstitutional. But instead Congress upheld Roosevelt’s decision by passing the Lend-Lease Act in 1941. This extended aid not only to Britain but also to China, and later the Soviet Union as they battled the Axis.
The “lend-lease” agreement violated U.S. and international neutrality laws, but Roosevelt went even further. In early 1941, British and U.S. officials began talks on how to best defeat the Axis Powers, even though the U.S. was not in the war. By the summer of 1941, the U.S. assets of the Axis Powers had been frozen, an embargo was imposed on the Axis, and the German and Italian consulates were closed. These were belligerent acts under international law.
Dealings with the Axis
In early 1941, Roosevelt ordered U.S. warships to report the movement of German ships. He also authorized naval patrols to alert British ships to the presence of German submarines, a clear violation of neutrality. In addition, Roosevelt lifted the “combat zone” designation of the Red Sea. This allowed him to bypass the neutrality laws and deliver goods to Egypt, where British troops were fighting the Germans.
In Asia, Roosevelt worked to stop Japan’s increasing military expansion. To appease the isolationists, Roosevelt did not respond militarily when Japan accidentally bombed U.S.S. Panay in China’s Yangtze River in 1937, even though many in the Roosevelt administration conceded that war was inevitable.
By 1940, Roosevelt began imposing embargoes against Japan on items such as oil, gasoline, iron, and steel. Since Japan had no oil resources of its own, it relied on imports to expand its empire. Cutting off imports greatly increased the probability that Japan would attack the U.S. But Roosevelt did not explain the implications of such embargoes to the public, which is why most Americans were so shocked when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The “Victory Program” Helps Lead to War
Roosevelt’s “Victory Program,” begun in July 1941, included accelerating the military draft, building war industries, and bolstering national defense in preparation for military conflict. In August, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill drafted the Atlantic Charter. Despite supposed neutrality, the charter included a clause in which the U.S. agreed to join in “the destruction of Nazi tyranny.”
Meanwhile, the oil embargo on Japan was causing increased desperation. Japan could have accepted U.S. demands to cease expansion, but it chose a more militant route. Roosevelt refused to participate in negotiations, despite the U.S. ambassador to Japan’s claims that negotiations would have worked. The only other option was war, and unbeknownst to the public, Roosevelt administration officials believed that war was inevitable. And on December 7, 1941, the war came.
Historians and scholars have argued that Roosevelt’s actions were justified because many Americans who opposed the war were too short-sighted to see the true evil of the Axis Powers. But if a president is allowed to violate laws and lie to the public, what would stop a future president from doing the same for less honorable reasons? Roosevelt’s actions set a dangerous precedent under which presidents ever since have gradually seized more power and disclosed less information to the public. This precedent eventually led to U.S. involvement in conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and the current War on Terror.