THRESHOLD OF WAR: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry Into World War II by Waldo Heinrichs. Oxford University Press, $19.95.
A SHORT TIME AGO I lectured in Tucson on the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt—the many innovations of his New Deal, his accomplishments in foreign affairs, his enduring influence on the institution of the presidency—and the entire audience, which included many who remembered the age of FDR, appeared to hold a decidedly positive view of Roosevelt. But at the end of the talk a man walked up to me and said, biting off each word as he spoke, “The legacy of Franklin Roosevelt is the two thousand American boys lying at the bottom of Honolulu harbor.”
As the man stalked away, I reflected on how many people, including not a few historians, continue to hold Roosevelt responsible for America’s participation in the Second World War. He has been accused of winning a third term by an insincere pledge to stay out of war and then carrying on a policy of duplicity over the next thirteen months to trick the country into war. It has even been asserted that the President, denied the conflict he sought in the Atlantic, connived to leave the Japanese with no choice but to attack, and then abandoned Pearl Harbor to them so that he would have the incident he needed.
Other critics, however, have made just the opposite point—that Roosevelt was remiss in not leading the nation into war sooner. Even at the time, a number of his advisers—Henry Stimson, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Admiral William Leahy—were exasperated by FDR’s insistence on catering to public opinion and taking one step at a time, for only with a declaration of war could the country be fully mobilized. In the years since then a number of historians have seconded their opinion. “Roosevelt surrendered the decision for war to Tojo and Hitler,” Robert Divine has written, and this “sterile and bankrupt” policy “very nearly permitted the Axis powers to win the war.” Similarly, in a polemic published earlier this year, Frederick W. Marks III has revived allegations that FDR was an appeaser and has charged that he “accumulated the largest overseas credibility gap of any president on record.”
IN THRESHOLD OF WAR, Waldo Heinrichs, a professor of history at Temple University and the biographer of Joseph C. Grew, the U.S. ambassador to Japan at the time of Pearl Harbor, re-examines the course of events from March of 1941, when Congress enacted the vast Lend-Lease program of aid to the Allies, to that December day nine months later when the Japanese rained bombs on Hawaii. His publishers call the book “the first comprehensive treatment of the American entry into World War II to appear in over thirty-five years”—a claim so extravagant that it does the author no favor. William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason’s monumental The Challenge to Isolation (1952-1953) ran nearly two thousand pages, whereas Heinrichs’s volume goes barely beyond two hundred. Furthermore, the writer almost never joins directly in the many controversies about FDR’s performance. One looks in vain, for example, for a word of discussion about whether the Roosevelt Administration was, as one historiographic school suggests, primarily motivated by economic considerations.
Yet to dismiss the book summarily would be ill advised. If Heinrichs’s study is short, it is a model of condensation. Moreover, he has not stinted on research. Based primarily on material from government archives in Washington, Threshold of War also draws upon a trove of private papers; official records in London; German U-boat messages to which, thanks to British ingenuity in cracking the Nazi code, the Roosevelt Administration had access; and MAGIC, translations of Japanese diplomatic dispatches, which, since our own cryptographers had broken Tokyo’s code, the Administration was reading throughout this period. Furthermore, the narrative is so well paced that it often reads like a thriller.
Though Heinrichs relies on thick description far more than on explicit statements, there is an implicit interpretive theme running throughout the book, and in the preface that theme is articulated. Roosevelt, “this most elusive and dissembling of presidents,” Heinrichs writes, “has impressed me as an active and purposeful maker of foreign policy, the only figure with all the threads in his hands. He also had a keen sensitivity for relations among the nations and grasp of great power politics. He took a comprehensive view.”In sum, then, this is a book that, however obliquely, does join issue with FDR’s critics.
Heinrichs invites the reader to go along with his judgment not by developing a sustained argument but by painstakingly reconstructing the political universe of 1941. He demonstrates that one cannot understand the coming of the war simply by focusing, as many authors have done, on the deteriorating relations between the United States and Japan, for Roosevelt had to devise policies appropriate to changes in the configuration of power all over the globe. Viewed from the White House, foreign affairs were infinitely more complex than some historians have made them out to be. The President could rarely find a consensus among his advisers on what the Germans or the Japanese were likely to do next, and hence it was never possible to devise a risk-free policy. If every possibility had been prepared for, resources would have been so diffused that no policy could have succeeded.
THOSE READERS WHO think that Roosevelt should have kept the United States out of the war because it was in no peril in 1941 may be shaken by Heinrichs’s contrary evidence. As early as the spring of 1940 the Nazi blitzkrieg had brought to an end what C. Vann Woodward has called the era of “free security,” for the Atlantic, Heinrichs writes, “was no longer a friendly ocean” once Hitler controlled its Continental shore. With France overrun and Britain fighting desperately for survival, “a very real possibility existed that the Americas would find themselves an island in a world dominated by the Axis.” In 1941 the situation became graver still. By March, when Heinrichs’s tale properly begins, the Nazis were sinking British vessels at the rate of more than half a million tons a month, and so devastating was the German bombing that of 12,000 homes in Clydebank, near Glasgow, only seven escaped damage or destruction. In May, German bombs razed the House of Commons. That spring Hitler’s conquest of Europe came to seem inevitable. The chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, thought that nothing could “prevent the Germans from going anywhere they wish on the Continent,” and the State Department believed that Nazi seizure of the Suez Canal was “just under the horizon.”
Dangerous as the situation appeared in May, it grew more alarming still in June, with the German invasion of Russia. Before striking, the Germans massed 3.3 million men, the biggest concentration ever assembled on a single front, on a thousand-mile line from the Baltic to the Black Sea. They employed no fewer than 625,000 horses for transport. The invaders immediately scored such stunning successes that the Russians were expected to survive for no more than eight weeks, quite possibly less. With the vast resources of Russia added to its store, Germany could anticipate little difficulty in overwhelming the Mediterranean and compelling Britain to surrender. The Germans then could be expected to drive eastward toward India, where they might link up with their Axis partner, the Japanese, slashing through Southeast Asia. In a season the United States would be alone in a totalitarian sea.
Though most historians have concentrated on the Battle of the Atlantic or the crisis in the Pacific in explicating FDR’s foreign policy, Heinrichs contends, in an arresting argument, that “maintaining a Russian front against Hitler became the centerpiece of his world strategy.” So insistent was the President that aid to the Soviet Union be expedited that on one occasion when matters were not proceeding quickly enough, he lost his temper—a rare occurrence. The decision to become an arsenal for the USSR was a grave risk to take, for it meant depriving U.S. soldiers and sailors of arms and giving them to a foreign government that millions of Americans loathed. Roosevelt did not act as he did because he held illusions about Stalin’s brutish regime. Nor were he and his aides beguiled by the Soviet representatives— the churlish Ambassador Oumansky or the sullen Molotov. Rather, he was motivated by, in Heinrichs’s words, “the conviction that the survival of the Soviet Union was essential for the defeat of Germany and that the defeat of Germany was essential for American security.”
Yet vital though Russian survival was, Roosevelt could not consider Soviet needs alone. Every ton of supplies he sent the USSR was one less that could go to beleaguered Britain, which wanted fully one half of American tank production for the Libyan campaign, or to China, engaged in a desperate struggle with Japan. Moreover, he had to bear in mind the needs of America’s own armed forces. In the spring of 1941, Heinrichs observes, “the United States had not enough troops for an expeditionary force of any importance, not enough transports to send them in, and not enough warships to protect them.”Only a single Army division was combat-ready.
Roosevelt, while operating on a global scale, never lost sight of national interests, and he always moved with caution, Heinrichs observes, “choosing his way with great care among the terrible uncertainties and incapacities he faced.” He was, to be sure, an internationalist who was willing to take bold steps to join America’s fortunes with those of the Allies. By early June, Heinrichs relates, the President had, to sustain the British, “extended the sphere of American vital interest beyond territorial waters, beyond neutrality limits, beyond the midpoint of the North Atlantic, to the verges of Europe.” But Roosevelt insisted on maintaining freedom of action for the United States. Not London but Washington would decide on the strategy toward Japan. Not Churchill but he would determine where U.S. vessels would be sent in the Atlantic, and they would be under American, not British, command. He could not ignore the unwelcome possibility that Britain might go under, and he knew that by turning U.S. naval vessels over to the British he would leave America defenseless if Hitler seized England and the Spanish isles in the western reaches of the Atlantic.
Nor, despite the entreaties of his advisers, would he be stampeded into premature engagements, for he wanted to be certain he had the country with him.
By March of 1941 the nation had assumed the role of arming a belligerent even at the risk of war, but, Heinrichs declares, “it was impossible to say how far down the road that risked war the American people were prepared to go.”In April a Gallup poll found that 83 percent of Americans wanted to stay out of the war, and two Cabinet officials returned from the West Coast to report that “lethargy and ignorance prevailed” there. If Roosevelt acted abruptly, he would give the diehard isolationists an opportunity to recoup, and if war did come, the nation would be disunited. Public opinion, Heinrichs states, “required education, subtle reinforcement, nurturing—in short, time.”
THE COUNTRY GAVE Roosevelt more leeway in formulating policy toward Japan than toward Europe, but his actions there, too, had to be taken with due consideration for their consequences on the rest of the world. Far from being bent on precipitating war with Japan, Roosevelt recognized that Germany was a much greater threat, and he sought to avoid fighting a two-ocean war that would siphon away resources from the Atlantic theater. Hence, to the dismay of the war hawks, he continued for a long time to permit American oil to flow to Japan, even though it fueled the war against China. Yet as Tokyo’s bellicose intentions became more evident, he had to devise ways to dissuade the Japanese from new foreign ventures; thus he stepped up economic sanctions.
A number of historians have dealt harshly with FDR’s refusal to work out a peaceful arrangement with Prime Minister Konoe, but Heinrichs points out that the Japanese terms were stiff and grew more so as the months went by. The Japanese insisted on maintaining their membership in the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis but demanded that the United States promise not to enter into any alliance to defend another nation. The United States would even have had to discontinue Lend-Lease to Britain. Japan demanded also that the United States accept its right to station troops in China permanently and to exercise economic hegemony there. From decoded messages Roosevelt learned that the Japanese were discussing stirring up a revolt in Guatemala to distract the United States and were looking into employing American blacks as spies. Of Konoe, perceived by some writers to be the evangel of peace, Heinrichs writes:
This melancholy nobleman, on whom the emperor and the court had lavished such high hopes for wise leadership, had already proven to be a weak reed for peace. His first and second cabinets had led Japan into the war in China, the Axis alliance, and the southward advance—in short, into the predicament it now faced. Disdainful of Western liberalism and much taken by the expansionist notions of the thirties, he was ambivalent about power and flaccid in its use.
In one of his most compelling paragraphs Heinrichs delineates the choices that lay before Roosevelt. If he took the “passive route” and did nothing to antagonize Japan, so that he could focus his attention on Germany, he would be adopting a course that “not only left the resources of Southeast Asia and Britain’s connections to Australia and New Zealand at Japan’s mercy but also offered no discouragement to a Japanese attack against the Soviet rear.” If he made the “soft choice” of working out some kind of modus vivendi with Japan with respect to the China war, he not only would damage the reputation of the United States as a nation opposed to rewarding aggression but would also free Japan, its worries in China over, to attack Vladivostok, thereby diminishing the likelihood that Russia could continue to oppose Hitler effectively. Hence a “hard policy” actually involved the least risk, because if it did lead to war, it would at least turn Tokyo southward and permit the USSR to continue resisting the Nazis.
But even on the eve of Pearl Harbor, Heinrichs maintains, Roosevelt did not want war with Japan—at least not that soon. In November the American vice chief of naval operations cautioned that this was no time “to get brash.” The Pacific Fleet was no match for the Japanese fleet even when the U.S. flotilla was at full strength, and much of it was being repaired or was on convoy duty. The United States not only would be waging war with overextended lines of communication but would also have to divert ships from the more important European front, with the prospect that the Battle of the Atlantic would be lost. In particular, military preparations in the Philippines were not far enough advanced. On December 7, 1941, America did not choose war; instead, “war pounced on the United States.”
Still, Roosevelt got a far better result in December than seemed possible in March, Heinrichs implies, and he makes an impressive case, even if it has to be teased out of his narrative. In a masterly fashion the President had taken the steps that assured victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, had done his best to save Britain and keep Russia in the war against the Nazis, had gone a considerable way toward rebuilding the U.S. armed forces, and had bought invaluable time in the Far East. By keeping abreast of American opinion he was able to fight the war that did ensue with the nation united behind him. To be sure, there were considerable costs, not least the American dead at Pearl Harbor, and one wishes that Heinrichs had scrutinized the questionable aspects of FDR’s behavior more closely. One wishes, too, that he had offered more direct judgments, for when he does venture them, they are shrewd. Yet Heinrichs by this account not only advances the debate over U.S. intervention in the Second World War but also helps us to understand why the historical profession, despite all of the bitter criticism that has been leveled at him, persists in ranking Franklin D. Roosevelt as the greatest American President save Lincoln.