How We Got Here (4)

May 21, 2014

War from the sidelines

For two years, America watched the war in Europe expand. When Germany attacked Poland in September, 1939, England and France declared war. Poland was defeated in a month, and when there was no further land warfare that winter, some people took to calling it a “phony war.” That phase ended in the spring of 1940, when Hitler’s armies, navy and air force overran Denmark and Norway, then the Netherlands, Belgium and, in a terrific shock to the west, France. All this shook America’s determination to remain uninvolved. In the fall, the Luftwaffe carried the war to the British homeland, and in the final weeks of the 1940 presidential campaign, America were hearing nightly broadcasts from London describing the Battle of Britain.

These broadcasts perhaps did as much as any other single event to heighten American sympathies for England and the resistance to Hitler. All through the year 1941, America remained technically neutral, but in fact aligned itself ever more closely to the British empire. Lend-Lease “lent” the British some overage, practically obsolete, four-stacker destroyers left over from the first world war. (Though over-age, they were useful, and desperately needed, in convoying ships through U-Boat-infested waters.) In return, the British gave the U.S. 99-year leases on various strategic properties in the western hemisphere, on which U.S. forces built bases which it used in order to perform air and sea patrols. President Roosevelt announced that the North Atlantic west of Iceland was an American strategic zone which the U.S. navy would patrol against U-Boats. Thus, for months while America was technically neutral, the U.S. navy was stalking and sometimes depth-bombing U-Boats in what had been redefined as American waters.

In June, 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, and the English and Russians immediately made common cause despite Churchill’s absolute anti-communism, which extended to the very first days of the communist revolution during World War I. (“If Hitler invaded hell,” Churchill said, “I would feel obliged at least to make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”) In the next six months, German forces repeatedly overwhelmed Russian armies, and penetrated hundreds of miles into the interior of Russia. But the Russian armies, in classic fashion, traded space for time – that is, they retreated when necessary to avoid destruction. Russia, unlike every other country Germany had attacked, had plenty of space to trade. The very expanse of Russian landmass absorbed hundreds of thousands of German troops, diluting their superiority in numbers as they proceeded eastward – and the Soviet government was prepared to retreat behind the Ural mountains if need be. Still, by December, 1941, the Germans stood at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad.

Then, as Roosevelt had wished, the United States entered the war against Germany, but the way it happened was odd. It wasn’t as a result of American attacks on German U-Boats or American arms sales to Great Britain or halfway steps to war such as Lend-Lease, at least, not directly. And it wasn’t because America declared war on Germany. Instead, it was because in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Empire of Japan had struck at the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. On December 8, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, and two days later Germany (and Italy) declared war on the United States! The immediate American response was, of course, a reciprocal declaration.

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