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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
Hitler was well aware of American political divisions and also of the American electoral calendar. Immediately after the fall of France he was disappointed that the isolationists among the Republicans did not have their way; they could not prevent the nomination of Wendell Willkie. But he and Goebbels ordered the toning down of attacks on Roosevelt and on the United States in the German newspapers and radio. During the month of July Roosevelt’s decision to commit the United States on the side of Britain matured. Hitler was doing his best to obstruct that. Before (and for some time after) he ordered preparations for an invasion of Britain, he tried to force the British to consider peace, through political means. On July 19, 1940, he made what was perhaps the most important political speech of his entire career. He offered peace to Britain on these terms: Europe to the Europeans (under German domination, of course) and the British Empire untouched. He spoke for more than two hours. He referred to Germany’s relationship to each of the Great Powers. He did not say a single word about the United States. Indeed, the day before the speech the German Embassy in Washington had been instructed to approach the British ambassador, Lord Lothian, for a meeting arranged by an American intermediary. But the British refused. Here was another coincidence: It was on the day of Hitler’s Great Speech that Roosevelt was renominated in Chicago for a third term. Hitler knew what the American presidential election meant. In October he would berate his friend and ally Mussolini for not having waited to start a war with Greece until after it took place.
By the end of July in 1940 Roosevelt had made his first decisive step on the British side. He decided that he could, in his capacity as Commander in Chief, transfer fifty American destroyers to Britain (in exchange for the British ceding some of their western Atlantic and Caribbean bases to the United States). It was at the same moment, on July 31, that Hitler told some of his generals to begin planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union. That was not a mad move by a megalomaniac. The British, Hitler said, had two hopes: America and Russia. Against America he could do nothing. But if Russia was eliminated, his Continental power would be unbeatable. There was more than geopolitical calculation behind that. He was counting on those Americans who would then take some satisfaction in the elimination of Communist Russia, and who would consider the futility of going on with an unwinnable war.
From that moment the duel between Hitler and Churchill across the English Channel evolved into something larger. It became a transatlantic duel of Churchill and Roosevelt against Hitler. Japan now entered into Hitler’s calculations. On September 16 he canceled plans for the invasion of Britain that year. Immediately he offered an alliance to the Japanese that the latter took up hastily, and perhaps thoughtlessly. The alliance was meant to keep the United States tied down in the Pacific, compromising Roosevelt’s Atlantic actions. It did not work that way. Roosevelt went ahead: with lend-lease, with the draft, with Marines sent to Greenland and Iceland, and with extending the American naval security zone to the middle of the Atlantic. A naval war between Germany and the United States was in the making. But it was still undeclared; and there was the question of what would happen with Russia.
In 1941 the summer solstice divided that crucial year in more than one way. There was a curious symmetry between its two halves. Hitler had already decided to attack Russia. He wanted to entice Stalin to respond to some of his provocations (including not only the massing of German division on the Russian border but German air incursions over the Soviet Union), so that he could claim—as was his practice—that the German attack was an inevitable defense measure. But Stalin did not respond. He was deadly afraid of Germany. He was also very respectful of Hitler. Until the last moment—as a matter of fact, beyond it: For a few hours even after dawn on June 22, when the massive German invasion of his country had begun, he thought, and signaled to Berlin, that there must have been a mistake; he wanted peace and friendship with the Third Reich.
A few hours before his war against Russia was to begin, Hitler gave a peremptory order to German naval forces in the Atlantic. They were rigorously forbidden to fire at American craft, even in self-defense. Thus, while until June 22 Stalin had refused to react to Hitler’s provocations, after June 22 Hitler would refuse to respond to Roosevelt’s. Hitler knew what Roosevelt wanted: an incident in the Atlantic that would enable the President to go to the Congress with a message of war. He would not give it to him.