On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany in response to the German invasion of Poland two days earlier. Addressing Britons from 10 Downing Street 75 years ago today, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explained that the 11 a.m. deadline the British had set for Germany to begin withdrawing its troops from Poland had passed. "Consequently," Chamberlain announced at around 11:15 a.m. London time, "this country is at war with Germany." He then paused for almost 5 seconds, letting the crushing reality of those words sink in for his listeners.
In the three-minute announcement above, which the BBC carried that morning, Chamberlain sounded defeated, calling the declaration of war a result of his failure to make peace.
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.
Before calling on British citizens to assist in the war effort—"I know that you will all play your part with calmness and courage"—Chamberlain insisted: "We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace."
But, he said, "[t]he situation in which no word given by Germany's ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe has become intolerable."
In a follow-up announcement, BBC presenter Alvar Lidell instructed Britons to carry gas masks and stay off the streets, announcing that schools would be closed for at least a week. "People are earnestly requested not to crowd together unnecessarily for any purpose," Lidell said.
Chamberlain had declared war on behalf of France as well, stating that "We and France are today, in fulfillment of our obligations, going to the aid of
Poland." But officially, France's war with Germany would not start for a few more hours; under a French ultimatum issued at 12:30 p.m., Germany had until 5 p.m. to withdraw its troops from Poland.
The expansion of Europe's war sounded different across the Atlantic that day. In a "fireside chat" from Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt emphasized his determination to keep America out of the fray.
Chamberlain's announcement had come when Washington was barely awake. Roosevelt reflected on what it meant.
Until 4:30 o'clock this morning I had hoped against hope that some miracle would prevent a devastating war in Europe and bring to an end the invasion of Poland by Germany. For four long years a succession of actual wars and constant crises have shaken the entire world and have threatened in each case to bring on the gigantic conflict which is today unhappily a fact.
It is right that I should recall to your minds the consistent and at times successful efforts of your government in these crises to throw the full weight of the United States into the cause of peace. In spite of spreading wars I think that we have every right and every reason to maintain as a national policy the fundamental moralities, the teachings of religion, and the continuation of efforts to restore peace—for some day, though the time may be distant, we can be of even greater help to a crippled humanity.
Roosevelt also admonished Americans—whom he called "the most enlightened and best-informed people in all the world at this moment"—to "discriminate most carefully between news and rumor" given the news coming "through your radios and your newspapers at every hour of the day."
Still, there was an evident tension in his simultaneous insistence on formal neutrality and warning against detachment.
It is easy for you and for me to shrug our shoulders and to say that conflicts taking place thousands of miles from the continental United States, and, indeed, thousands of miles from the whole American hemisphere, do not seriously affect the Americas, and that all the United States has to do is to ignore them and go about its own business. Passionately though we may desire detachment, we are forced to realize that every word that comes through the air, every ship that sails the sea, every battle that is fought, does affect the Americana future. Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality. ... This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience.
A mostly silent Universal Studios newsreel from September 4, 1939 shows scenes of war in Europe and Roosevelt's announcement that the U.S. will stay neutral. (Archive.org)
That tension ultimately proved unsustainable. The U.S. declared war on Germany on December 11, 1941.