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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
He had to prepare himself for an unprecedented nomination for an unprecedented third-term election as President. And against him a new American coalition had begun to gather: it came to be called America First, composed by all kinds of men and women who thought, and said, that American support to Britain was illegal, futile, and wrong. A leader of this movement was Charles A. Lindbergh, a great American hero. Its actual members were recognizable, while its potential popularity was not measurable. It is wrong to consider America First as if it had been a fluke, a conventicle of reactionaries and extremists. There were all kinds of respectable Americans who opposed Roosevelt and who were loath to engage themselves on the British side. They included not only Herbert Hoover but John Foster Dulles, with whom the Lindberghs were dining on the evening the French asked for an armistice—in other words, surrender. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was about to publish her book about the spirit of the times, entitled The Wave of the Future , arguing, by no means crudely or unintelligently, that the old world of liberal individualism, of parliamentary democracy, was being replaced by something new, before our very eyes. Another book, from the hands of a young Kennedy, a Harvard undergraduate, was also in the making. Its conclusions were more cautious than Anne Lindbergh’s, but some of its underlying suggestions were not entirely different. His father was Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., was no admirer of Hitler, but he was a convinced isolationist who loathed Churchill and believed the British resistance to Hitler was futile. His son, John F. Kennedy, was a secret contributor to America First.
Then came the second great coincidence. On the twenty-second of June the French delegates signed their capitulation to Hitler. It was his greatest triumph—and the lowest point in Britain’s fortunes in a thousand years. Yet, that very week, the British cause was lifted by an unexpected stroke of fortune, in Philadelphia of all places. There the Republican party had met in convention and nominated Wendell Willkie for their presidential candidate: and Willkie was not an isolationist. There had been many reasons to believe that the Republicans would nominate an isolationist: perhaps Robert A. Taft from Ohio or Arthur H. Vandenberg from Michigan. The Midwest, with its large German-American and Scandinavian-American populations, mostly Republicans, was strongly isolationist. Willkie came from Indiana; and after Hitler’s invasion of Scandinavia, some of that Scandinavian-American Anglophobe isolationism began to melt away. Yet the isolationist conviction was still a strong, unchanneled current among the milling Republican delegates on the floor, in that boiling arena of Philadelphia’s Convention Hall. But a carefully orchestrated and arranged effort, with the galleries chanting, “We want Willkie,” carried the day.
None of this would be possible in our day of the mechanized primary system. It was still possible forty-six years ago. It was the achievement of the internationally minded, anti-populist, financial and social leadership of East Coast Republicans, of readers of the New York Herald Tribune over those of the Chicago Tribune , of Anglophiles over Anglophobes. The difference between the world view of Willkie and Roosevelt was one of degree, not of kind. Had the Republicans nominated an isolationist, Roosevelt would probably still have won, but the nation would have been sorely and dangerously divided; and Roosevelt would have been constrained to go slow, very slow; constrained to deny his very convictions and inclinations, to the mortal peril of the British, the sole remaining champions of freedom during that dangerous summer of 1940.
This Willkie business was a great help to Britain. Churchill knew that, and he had been smart enough to do nothing about it. He remembered the aggressive British propaganda in the United States during the First World War. “We shall not dance attendance at American party conventions.” He let Hitler do the job of turning the sentiments of Americans around, so that their captain could begin to change the course of the mighty American ship of state from armed neutrality to defiance and war.
Hitler now dawdled—for one of the very few times during the war. Europe lay at his feet. He went off on a vacation, touring places in northern France where he had soldiered during the First World War. He made a short, furtive visit to an empty Paris at dawn. He suggested a European version of the Monroe Doctrine: Europe for the “Europeans,” America for the Americans. He did not draft the directive for the invasion of Britain until the middle of July—and even then with some reluctance. On July 19 he made a long and crude speech, offering a last chance of peace to Britain. In London the German “peace offer” was let drop with an icy silence, somewhat like a blackmailing note left at the door of a proud old mansion.