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The Dangerous Summer of 1940
For a few weeks Hitler came close to winning World War II. Then came a train of events that doomed him. An eloquent historian reminds us that however unsatisfactory our world may be today, it almost was unimaginably worse.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
During that beautiful and deadly early summer of 1940, Franklin Roosevelt, too, had to contend with a difficult problem. This was the divided mind of the American people. We have heard much lately—because of nostalgic inclinations due to the trauma of a divided nation during the Vietnam War—about the Second World War having been a Good War, when this giant nation was united in purpose and in concept. Even after Pearl Harbor this was not exactly true. During the summer of 1940 it was not true at all. There was a small minority of Americans that was convinced the United States should abet and aid the nations warring against Hitler at almost any price. There was another, larger, minority of isolationists that wanted the United States to keep out of this war, at all costs. And there was a large and inchoate majority that did not like Hitler, and that was contemptuous of the Japanese, but their minds were divided: yes, the United States should oppose the enemies of democracy; no, the democracy of the United States should not engage in a foreign war. There were people who understood that these sentiments were contradictory. Others did not. Yet other Americans began to change their minds—slowly, gradually, at times imperceptibly. But not until after the dangerous summer of 1940.
There was a strange unreality in the American scene during the early summer. The few people from Europe and Britain who landed in New York during those dazzling May and June days found themselves in quite another world—in the gleaming lobbies of the great New York hotels, among the glistening stream of automobiles and taxis, before the glowing glass windows of the incredibly rich department stores, around which flowed the masses of a confident, prosperous, largely undisturbed American people. It was as if the astonishing speed of the devolving events in Western Europe was too fast to grasp. It was not until the fall of France that the startling new specter of a German Europe cohered. The press, for example, including the internationalist newspapers of the East Coast, had not really prepared people for that. Until the fall of Paris its reporters gave undue credit to the resistance of the French and British armies: for the wish is the father of the thought, in newspaperdom as well as elsewhere.
There was another problem. A difficulty between Churchill and Roosevelt had arisen. In their confidential correspondence Churchill was wont to sign himself “Former Naval Person.” Yet, oddly, of the two, Roosevelt was more of a naval person. Even after the fall of France, he believed, and said, that “naval power was the key to history,” that Hitler, because of his naval inferiority, was bound to lose this war. For the European theater, this was wrong in the long run. The internal-combustion engine had changed the nature of warfare; for the first time in five hundred years, armies could move faster on land than on the seas. Eventually Hitler’s armies had to be destroyed on land, and mostly by the Russians. Had the German armies not been chewed up by the Russians, the Western allies, with all of their sea and air superiority, could not have invaded France in 1944.
What is more important, Roosevelt was wrong in the short run too. If worst came to worst, he thought, and told Churchill, the British navy could come across the Atlantic to fight on. But Churchill could not guarantee that. As early as May 15 he wrote Roosevelt that if American help came too late, “the weight may be more than we can bear.” Five days later, when the Germans had reached the Channel, he repeated this: “If members of this administration were finished and others came in to parley amid the ruins, you must not be blind to the fact that the sole remaining bargaining counter with Germany would be the fleet, and if this country was left by the United States to its fate no one would have the right to blame those then responsible if they made the best terms they could for the surviving inhabitants.” The day after Paris fell, Churchill let Roosevelt know that “a point may be reached in the struggle where the present ministers no longer have control of affairs and when very easy terms could be obtained for the British Islands by their becoming a vassal state of the Hitler empire.” This was exactly what Hitler had in mind. As in the case of France, his plan called for a partial occupation of the British island, with the fleet in British ports but demobilized, and with a Germanophile British government somewhere within the reach of the German occupation forces.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s inclinations were strong and clear. He tried to cajole and to warn Mussolini against entering the war on Hitler’s side. Roosevelt knew that this kind of diplomacy represented another move away from neutrality and that Mussolini was still popular among the large Italian-American populations in the important cities of the East: but Roosevelt discounted that. When, on June 10, Mussolini chose to declare war on France and Britain, Roosevelt changed the draft of a speech he was to give at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He added a sentence: “The hand that held the dagger,” he intoned, “has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” Few phrases could be more unneutral than that. When he heard this, Churchill growled with satisfaction. But Roosevelt’s hands were, as yet, not free.