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The Day When We Almost Lost the Army
Debate over America's involvement in World War II came to a head in July 1941 as the Senate argued over a draft extension bill. The decision would have profound consequences for the nation.
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
Wadsworth gathered a group of skeptical fellow House Republicans in a private dining room at Washington’s Army and Navy Club to hear Marshall explain the stakes. One skeptic told Marshall, “You put the case very well, but I will be damned if I am going to go along with Mr. Roosevelt.” The usually unflappable Marshall exploded: “You are going to let plain hatred of the personality dictate to you to do something that you realize is very harmful to the interest of the country!”
“The President has sent in General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, to carry the ball,” reported Time magazine. “Good soldier Marshall pounded down the field through center, off tackle, around the ends. . . . By now, General Marshall had smashed all the way to the one-yard line.”
Not quite. The Senate Military Affairs Committee hearings on July 17 featured leadoff witness Norman Thomas, the land’s preeminent socialist, whose bland, bow-tied countenance looked every bit the Presbyterian minister he had once trained to become. The Socialist Party’s four-time candidate for president branded Marshall as an FDR dupe: “To an extent that he may not realize, the prestige of General Marshall’s name, his plans for the organization of his opinions, are being used in a great game of politics, the logical end of which is a war which 70 or possibly 80 percent of the American people do not want.” He scorned FDR’s recent claim that even Iceland deserved U.S. protection because it lay within the Western Hemisphere. What was next, Thomas taunted FDR: “Perhaps some lonely posts in Siberia . . . occupation of the Sahara Desert?”
Warned that bill’s passage was in serious danger, FDR gave up a weekend at his beloved estate, Hyde Park, and stayed in Washington to plot the next move. On July 21 he summoned reporters to the White House. Before radio microphones and rolling cameras, he warned the nation that, should Congress fail to act, “beginning this autumn . . . the Army of the United States will begin to melt away.” He recalled the nation’s perilous birth. “The risks and weaknesses caused by dissolving a trained army in times of national peril were pointed out by George Washington over and over again in his messages to the Continental Congress.”
Hearings continued through the steamy summer. On July 28 Rosa Farber, speaking for the Mothers of the USA, asked members of the House Committee on Military Affairs whether they had forgotten the song “Goodbye Dear, I’ll Be Back in a Year,” popular the year before. “You talk about breaking faith with draftees,” struck back Congressman Eugene Cox (D-GA), “but what about breaking faith with the nation? When our country calls, who will refuse to answer? . . . Let us say to the world that we are Americans and that we mean business.”
As the possibility grew that men awaiting discharge might be kept in uniform, the word “OHIO” began appearing scrawled on barrack walls, latrines, and mess halls in Army posts across the country. While passersby may have assumed that men from the Buckeye State served therein, the graffiti actually stood for “Over the Hill in October.” Impatient draftees, reasoning that Uncle Sam had entered into a contract with them, assumed that they would have fulfilled their end of the bargain in October. They now threatened to go home, no matter how Congress voted.
Shortly before final debate in the House, the majority leader John McCormack (D-MA) called the president’s press secretary, Stephen Early, to warn that he had “lost control of his people” on this issue and could not guarantee delivery of all the party faithful. As the final August 12 vote on the extension bill neared, Turner Catledge, the New York Times’s political analyst, warned that “the Administration has not yet sufficiently impressed Congress and the country with the gravity of the emergency so far as it affects the self interest of the United States.”
Convinced that he had personally pressed his case as far as he dared, and with a secret mission occupying his thoughts, FDR quietly slipped out of the capital aboard the presidential yacht Potomac, allegedly for 10 days of fishing. “For probably the first time in history,” reported the Times, “the whereabouts of the President of the United States has been unknown for three days to the American people and to most, if not all, ranking government officials. . . . With Winston Churchill also vanished from the public eye, speculation reached a new high mark.”
On August 12 the House prepared to vote on H.R. 10132. Speaker Sam Rayburn, clad in his customary funereal garb, mounted the dais and called the chamber to order a full two hours early, anticipating a long, grueling day. Reporters filled every seat in the press gallery. Depending on one’s point of view, the lawmakers were either voting to save the Army or to rebuff that warmonger in the White House.
The House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole. The chairman of Military Affairs, Andrew Jackson May (D-KY), presided. (The congressman, also known as “Millions for Defense,” would later go to jail on bribery charges surrounding wartime munitions profiteering.) The parliamentary maneuver freed Speaker Rayburn to work the floor and cloakroom, wielding his massive power to collect on past favors.
Charles Isiah Faddis (D-PA) took the floor and referenced a letter that his fellow representative, Clare Hoffman, had circulated to members the day before, “warning me to be careful of my political scalp.” He continued, “To think that any man who is a member of this body would take into consideration and weigh against the security of his nation whether or not he was going to be returned to the House of Representatives. My God! What have we come to? To what depths have we sunk?”