1940 Fifty Years Ago

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Americans listened anxiously on September 10 as Edward R. Murrow reported from London on the German Luftwaffe ’s air assault on Britain: “I’ve seen some horrible sights in this city during these days and nights, but not once have I heard man, woman, or child suggest that Britain should throw in her hand. These people are angry. How much they can stand I don’t know.”

A week earlier President Franklin D. Roosevelt had announced an executive agreement between the United States and Great Britain. The United States would lend the British fifty aging destroyers in return for rent-free, ninety-nine-year leases on naval and air bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and five other British territories.

Congress joined in the war preparations September 16, instituting the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. During the next month more than 16.4 million men ages twenty-one to thirty-five signed up. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson picked the first draft number from a bowl of eighty-five hundred capsules on October 29. The number 158 belonged to Alden C. Flagg, Jr., the son of the first civilian drafted in the 1917 lottery for World War I.

Meanwhile, relations with Japan, Germany, and Italy continued to deteriorate. On September 26 Roosevelt announced an embargo on the export of scrap iron and steel to all countries outside the Western Hemisphere except Great Britain. The next day in Berlin, representatives from Germany, Italy, and Japan signed a tripartite military and economic pact. Each country pledged to defend the other should they be attacked by a non-pact nation. The Axis was born.

Roosevelt was fighting off a spirited challenge from the neophyte Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, who gained political mileage by portraying the President as a reckless warmonger. In his quest for an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt could not remain silent in the face of these charges. The President lashed out at the Republicans. In an October 28 speech at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt singled out isolationist Republicans for their “remarkable somersault” on national defense issues: Having criticized his defense build-up for years, they now claimed the country was too weak to enter a war. Continuing his campaign in Boston on Halloween, Roosevelt reassured the electorate: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” The word foreign was a carefully chosen caveat. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor thirteen months later, the war would no longer fit this description.

The Great Dictator , film maker Charlie Chaplin’s bold lampoon of Adolf Hitler, premiered in New York City on October 15. Chaplin starred in a dual role as the mad dictator Adenoid Hynkel and the look-alike Jewish barber who unwittingly topples his empire. He would withdraw the film from circulation during World War II. “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator ,” Chaplin would later admit. “I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”