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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
A proud old mansion: but would it stand? Could it stand? Above the gray seas patrolled the pilots, across the souehine waves drove the British flotillas, watching. Were the Germans about to come? And the Americans? There was a trickle of war goods moving eastward across the Atlantic, propelled by a current of American sympathy: but sympathy was not yet resolution, and that current not yet a flood. The bombing of England that turned the hearts and minds of many Americans around had not yet begun. For six weeks after the fall of France, the Americans, as Churchill said later to a confidant, “treated us in that rather distant and sympathetic manner one adopts toward a friend we know is suffering from cancer.” There were many people in America—not only isolationists but men high in the Army general staff—who doubted whether Britain would or could hold out against Hitler. In some of the country clubs around Boston and Philadelphia and New York, the members went around to collect secondhand shotguns for the British, whose Home Guard was still bereft of weapons. Some of the Home Guard were given old golf clubs and sticks, presumably to hit prowling Germans on the head. If and when the invasion came, “you can always take one with you,” Churchill had planned to say.
Then came the third coincidence, so enormous and shattering in its consequences that, even now, many people, including a number of historians, are unaware of its ultimate portent.
Six weeks had now passed since France had fallen; and Britain still stood, inviolate, increasingly aglow with the spirit breathed by Churchill’s words. Franklin Roosevelt made up his mind. He took an important step. He brought in a few confidants who assured him that he, in his constitutional capacity as Commander-in-Chief, could go ahead. This was at the very end of July. Two days later Roosevelt announced to his cabinet that the United States would “sell directly or indirectly fifty or sixty old World War destroyers to Great Britain.” Churchill had asked for such a deal in May. The destroyers were not, in themselves, as important as the gesture, the meaning of the act itself for the world. It meant the decisive departure from American neutrality. What Roosevelt did not know, and what Churchill did not know, was that, at the same moment, Hitler had taken his first decisive move in ordering the German army staff to plan for an invasion of Russia.
There was method in Hitler’s madness. What did he say to the close circle of his commanders on that day? “England’s hope is Russia and America.” Against America he could do nothing. But “if hope in Russia is eliminated, America is also eliminated,” he said. He was not altogether wrong. Eliminating Russia would destroy British hopes for an eventual conquest of Germany in Europe, and it would strengthen Japan’s position in the Far East. In the United States it would also strengthen popular opposition to Roosevelt. There were many Americans who hated and feared communism: the elimination of communist Russia would make Roosevelt’s continued intervention on the side of Britain increasingly futile and unpopular. Russia, Hitler said on July 31,1940, was not yet “a threat.” But he was not sure about his prospects of conquering England. Air warfare against England was about to begin; but “if results of the air war are not satisfactory, [invasion] preparations will be halted.” So at the end of July 1940, Hitler, after some hesitation, began to consider invading Russia at the very moment when Roosevelt, after some hesitation, made his decision to commit the United States on the British side.
This last day of July in 1940 was not merely an important milestone. It was the turning point of the Second World War. There followed the climax of the Battle of Britain in the air, which, for Hitler, was indecisive. So far as the American people went, the bombing of Britain solidified their gradually crystallizing inclination to stand by the British. Britain held out; and in November 1940 Roosevelt easily won the majority of his people for a third term. That was the first American presidential election watched by the entire world. When Mussolini attacked Greece at the end of October, Hitler berated him: he ought to have waited until after the American election. When Hitler agreed to invite Stalin’s minion Molotov, the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, to Berlin, Stalin set the date of the visit after the American election.
What followed—Lend-Lease, the Selective Service Bill, the Marines sent to Greenland and Iceland, Roosevelt’s order to the Navy to shoot at any appearance of Axis naval craft—was a foregone conclusion. Hitler was shrewd enough to order German commanders to avoid incidents with the United States at all costs. He did not want to furnish Roosevelt with the pretext of a serious naval incident. Eventually his Japanese allies were to accomplish what he was reluctant to do. Five hundred days after that thirty-first of July came another great coincidence. In the snow-covered wasteland before Moscow, the Russians halted the German army just when, in the sunny wastes of the Pacific, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into the war. The Germans and the Japanese would achieve astounding victories even after that: but the war they could not win.