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The Transatlantic Duel: Hitler Vs. Roosevelt
In 1941 the President understood better than many Americans the man who was running Germany, and Hitler understood Roosevelt and his country better than we knew
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
But we are running ahead of our story, which is not a recapitulation of the war but a history of how Roosevelt and Hitler saw each other. In April 1939 Roosevelt proposed an international peace guarantee. It was ineffective as well as insubstantial. Hitler dismissed it publicly. When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Roosevelt spoke to the American people: “This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well.” Hitler understood what that meant. Well before Churchill became the prime minister of Britain (on May 10, 1940, the same day that Hitler launched his invasion of Western Europe), he and Roosevelt had conducted a secret correspondence. When Hitler learned this, he was not surprised. During the battles of Flanders and France, he knew where Roosevelt’s heart lay. He also knew that Churchill’s survival depended on an American engagement on Britain’s side.
The British, Hitler said, had two hopes: America and Russia. Against America, he could do nothing.
On June 10, 1940, Roosevelt was on his way to the commencement ceremonies of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He had a foreign policy speech most of which had been prepared for him by the State Department. On the train to Charlottesville he added to its text. It was a very un-neutral speech, with statements such as this: “Some indeed still hold to the now obvious delusion that we of the United States can safely permit the United States to become a lone island, a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force. Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists. Such an island represents to me and to the overwhelming majority of Americans today a helpless nightmare.…Let us not hesitate—all of us—to proclaim certain truths. Overwhelmingly we…are convinced that military and naval victory for the gods of force and hate would endanger the institutions of democracy in the Western World, and that equally, therefore, the whole of our sympathies lies with those nations that are giving their life blood in combat against these forces.” On that day France was crumbling. The French government (and Churchill) were imploring Roosevelt to come into the war. But this he could not do. For such a commitment he would have neither Congress, nor the military, nor the American people behind him, and 1940 was an election year.
Hitler knew that in June 1940 there were many influential Americans who thought that Roosevelt’s inclination to side with Britain was wrong. Now he would give them some political ammunition. Two days later, in his secret headquarters, a château on the Belgian-French border, he received an American correspondent. That was very unusual. He seldom gave interviews, and surely not at his military headquarters. During that entire campaign he saw no journalists at all. But this man, Karl von Wiegand, the chief European correspondent of the Hearst (that is, anti-Roosevelt) paper the New York Journal-American, was brought to him by his foreign minister, Ribbentrop. Hitler talked to von Wiegand for two hours. Then he talked off the record. The next day, Hitler went through the text of the interview word by word (very unusual for him). What Hitler said was—or should have been—as impressive as it was convincing. He said that he wanted to reassure Americans. “Europe for the Europeans and America for the Americans.” He said that he did not wish to destroy the British Empire. He wanted peace. He did not say a word about Roosevelt, except for one remark off the record: he was pleased that Roosevelt, at Charlottesville, had not proposed armed participation. His comments reveal that Hitler understood much of the American political situation. In one instance he called the isolationists “American radical nationalists,” a much more precise and telling term than the former. He knew how much of their “isolationism” was selective. They were bitterly opposed to American intervention against National Socialist Germany; yet many of the same people eventually became advocates of American intervention against Communist Russia.
In one important way the von Wiegand interview caused little trouble for Roosevelt. It was overshadowed by the news of the fall of Paris on the day of its publication. In another sense it played a part in activating Roosevelt’s isolationist opposition. Charles Lindbergh and John Foster Dulles discussed it two days later in New York. America First was in the making. John Cudahy, Roosevelt’s ambassador to Belgium, was an isolationist; he took it upon himself to make sure that the text of the Hitler-von Wiegand interview was read by Pope Pius XII in Rome. It contributed to the decision of the Vatican to attempt a peace mediation later that month.