Skip to main content

1940 Fifty Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

Americans listened anxiously on September 10 as Edward R. Murrow reported from London on the German Luftwaffe ’s air assault on Britain: “I’ve seen some horrible sights in this city during these days and nights, but not once have I heard man, woman, or child suggest that Britain should throw in her hand. These people are angry. How much they can stand I don’t know.”

A week earlier President Franklin D. Roosevelt had announced an executive agreement between the United States and Great Britain. The United States would lend the British fifty aging destroyers in return for rent-free, ninety-nine-year leases on naval and air bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and five other British territories.

Congress joined in the war preparations September 16, instituting the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. During the next month more than 16.4 million men ages twenty-one to thirty-five signed up. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson picked the first draft number from a bowl of eighty-five hundred capsules on October 29. The number 158 belonged to Alden C. Flagg, Jr., the son of the first civilian drafted in the 1917 lottery for World War I.

Meanwhile, relations with Japan, Germany, and Italy continued to deteriorate. On September 26 Roosevelt announced an embargo on the export of scrap iron and steel to all countries outside the Western Hemisphere except Great Britain. The next day in Berlin, representatives from Germany, Italy, and Japan signed a tripartite military and economic pact. Each country pledged to defend the other should they be attacked by a non-pact nation. The Axis was born.

Roosevelt was fighting off a spirited challenge from the neophyte Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, who gained political mileage by portraying the President as a reckless warmonger. In his quest for an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt could not remain silent in the face of these charges. The President lashed out at the Republicans. In an October 28 speech at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt singled out isolationist Republicans for their “remarkable somersault” on national defense issues: Having criticized his defense build-up for years, they now claimed the country was too weak to enter a war. Continuing his campaign in Boston on Halloween, Roosevelt reassured the electorate: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” The word foreign was a carefully chosen caveat. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor thirteen months later, the war would no longer fit this description.

The Great Dictator , film maker Charlie Chaplin’s bold lampoon of Adolf Hitler, premiered in New York City on October 15. Chaplin starred in a dual role as the mad dictator Adenoid Hynkel and the look-alike Jewish barber who unwittingly topples his empire. He would withdraw the film from circulation during World War II. “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator ,” Chaplin would later admit. “I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "September/October 1990"

Authored by: Jane Preddy

For one exuberant decade John Eberson built “atmospheric theaters” that were part architectural history, part circus, and wholly enchanting to the audiences that sat beneath their starry ceilings

Authored by: Oliver E. Allen

For two hundred years the United States patent system has defined what is an invention and protected, enriched, and befuddled inventors. As a tool of corporate growth in a global economy, it is now more important than ever.

Authored by: The Editors

As industries expanded, the care and feeding of patents became a key element in corporate strategy.

To the end of his life America’s most infamous traitor believed he was the hero of the Revolution

Authored by: John Steele Gordon

For a century now it has been a haven to some, an outrage to others—and it is one of the very few social institutions that have survived their founders’ world

Authored by: Bernard A. Weisberger

The maker of a fine new documentary on the Civil War tells how the medium of film can evoke the emotional reality of history

Featured Articles

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.