I observed in different countries that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer; and on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves and became richer. More will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.” — Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
Even with the dastardly attack on Pearl Harbor four days earlier, America had still
not formally entered World War II as of the morning December 11, 1941.
In the intervening time, the country’s military and civilian population had gone to battle stations, even before President Roosevelt had asked Congress for a formal declaration of war after the Empire of Japan had attacked U.S. military installations at Oahu, Wake Island, Guam and Midway along with British military outposts at Hong Kong and Singapore.
Lost to history is that FDR was not the first member of the Roosevelt family to speak to the American people after the attack. The evening of December 7, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt had gone on radio to talk to her fellow citizens about war and sacrifice and her four sons, all of military age — including the eldest, James, who was already in the Marine Corps. (All four Roosevelt boys served with distinction in World War II and all saw action. John, who joined the U.S. Navy, was awarded a Bronze Star.)
Hours after the attack at Pearl Harbor and despite plenty of warning, the Philippines, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, were also attacked and dozens of American planes were destroyed on the ground.
After the formality of voting unanimously in the Senate (with only Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin voting no in the House), Congress approved FDR’s declaration of war the afternoon of December 8. But it was only a declaration of war against Japan — and not against her Tripartite Pact allies, Germany and Italy.
Americans simply had no taste for another war in Europe. After what at the time was referred to as “The Great War,” a saying went around America that “all we got was death and debt and George M. Cohan,” a reference to the famed Broadway song-and-dance man who wrote the World War I ditty “Over There.”
By 1941, most Americans regarded Europe as decadent and beyond help, despite the courage of Winston Churchill and the British people; a majority believed that Lend-Lease was as far as FDR should go. FDR was well-aware of the national aversion to fighting another European war. He’d won re-election in 1940 in part because of his repeated assurances to American mothers that their “boys” would not die in another war on that continent.
From the afternoon of December 7until the morning of December 11, no prominent U.S. politician, no widely read newspaper columnist, no administration official, no major business leader called for declaring war on Germany and Italy. Roosevelt was aware of this, as well: In the papers of Secretary of War Henry Stimson was discovered a draft of Roosevelt’s avowal before Congress, but with a pencil line drawn through the names of Germany and Italy.
Clearly, FDR’s war counsel had discussed on the evening of December 7 declaring war on all three Axis countries and being done with it. The United States certainly had justification to declare war on Germany as Adolf Hitler had issued a personal order to German U-boats to shoot on sight any American ship on the North Atlantic, military or civilian, the same barbaric tactic that had pushed Woodrow Wilson into war.
Hitler hated the United States — he often ranted about supposed Jewish control of the country — and was particularly obsessed with Roosevelt, whom he crudely slandered in public and private. The Fuhrer sometimes called FDR “Frau Roosevelt,” and made fun of his confinement to a wheelchair. On December 8, however, FDR had only asked for a declaration of war against Japan.
The Anti-Comintern Pact (and, later, the Tripartite Pact) were mutual defense treaties between the three Axis powers. But by 1941 no one expected Hitler to feel bound by a piece of paper. Just ask Neville Chamberlain or Josef Stalin. Hitler had broken agreements with both men, invading Poland and thus pulling Britain into the war, and invading the Soviet Union. (Speaking of papers, on December 9, German diplomats at their Washington, D.C., embassy were observed burning documents. Within a short time, they would be transferred to a remote resort south of Washington, where they had nothing to do but get drunk all day. The Japanese envoys were already deep into their own stash of hooch.)
Drunk with power, Hitler allowed his hatred for America and FDR, his arrogance, and anti-Semitism to spill out in a speech to the n**i Party at the Reichstag where he called for a general mobilization against the Unites States of America. Hours later, diplomatic representatives of Germany and Italy delivered their countries’ war declarations to Cordell Hull, the secretary of state. Hull thought so little of the Italian legation — which was late in arriving at the State Department — that he sent an aide out to receive the message.
In response, FDR sent a message to Capitol Hill, asking for a declaration of war against n**i Germany and Fascist Italy. This time it was approved unanimously, as Rep. Rankin abstained. The congressional galleries were only half-filled. The drama of just four days earlier was, by and large, gone, replaced by a resolute government, military and citizenry.
Nonetheless, it was the events of December 11, 1941, that plunged America into the inferno of a fully involved world war, one it had vowed to stay out of, changing the future of the country and the world. The United States would never again be an isolationist nation.