October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
“The shooting has started,” announced President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a radio address to the nation on Navy Day, October 27. “America has been attacked.”
Ten days earlier the U.S. destroyer Kearny had been torpedoed by a German submarine, and eleven of its crew had become the first Americans to die in the war. When it was hit, the Kearny had been escorting ships off Iceland as part of the joint British and American effort to protect merchant traffic in the Atlantic.
“In the long run,” Roosevelt said, “all that matters is who fires the last shot.” He claimed to have “a secret map” revealing Hitler’s plans to divide South America into five states, and he sketched the Nazis’ designs for the rest of the world: “In place of the Bible … Mein Kampf will be imposed. … In the place of the cross of Christ … the swastika and the naked sword.” The President’s audience, and those gathered in Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, heard Roosevelt exhort: “There are those who say … that we have grown fat and flabby and lazy. Those who say this know nothing of America … we Americans have cleared our decks and taken our battle stations.” Days after the President’s address, on October 30, the Salinas , a Navy oiler, was hit off Newfoundland but managed to keep afloat; the following day, a German submarine attacked the U.S.S. Reuben James west of Iceland. One hundred and fifteen crewmen died, and the “Rube” became the first American warship sunk in the war. “The purpose of Hitler’s attacks was to frighten the American people,” said the President. Nevertheless, the administration did not break off diplomatic relations with Germany even following the attack on the Reuben James , and by early November, trouble in the Pacific was absorbing Washington’s attention.