To the Editors:
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is twice mistaken in stating [“A Star Is Born,” NYR, January 18, 2018] that Americans “were resolutely united in their determination to have nothing to do with resisting Hitler, not only in September 1939 and June 1940 but until December 1941, when Hitler left them no choice by declaring war on the United States.” Instead, amid intense and often bitter debate, America abandoned its isolationism in favor of extensive aid to Hitler’s foes.
This shift began in the autumn of 1939 when the Roosevelt administration secured congressional repeal of an embargo on arms shipments to nations at war. America remained neutral from a legal standpoint—any nation could buy arms—but everyone realized that Allied command of the sea lanes meant that only they would benefit. Further steps were taken in 1940 and culminated in FDR’s Lend-Lease proposal to supply Great Britain on an almost unlimited basis, with only nebulous provisions for eventual payment. Enacted in March 1941, Lend-Lease was pivotal not only for its scale but for its patent abandonment of neutrality. In the fall Congress authorized the arming of American merchant ships and use of the US Navy in escorting convoys across the U-boat-infested Atlantic. This amounted to an undeclared naval war with Germany. Many additional examples of interventionist activity might be cited.
Each step received majority support and met also with fierce and substantial resistance. Congress divided largely but not entirely along party lines. Republicans opposed the administration and Democrats backed their president. Public opinion split in too many ways to allow for any simple summary. Acrimony and mutual suspicion may have been worse than in our current rancorous political climate.
Wheatcroft is much nearer the mark on the question of a US declaration of war on Nazi Germany. Here polls showed that very large, albeit shrinking, majorities opposed such action right up until Pearl Harbor. Even then FDR asked only for war against Japan and left Hitler to take the decisive step. Of course Churchill always desired full American belligerency. He had to settle for less until December 1941, but meanwhile he got a great deal more than “nothing.”
Associate Professor of History Emeritus
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas