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The Dangerous Summer of 1940

July 2024
17min read

For a few weeks Hitler came close to winning World War II. Then came a train of events that doomed him. An eloquent historian reminds us that however unsatisfactory our world may be today, it almost was unimaginably worse.

In the summer of 1940 Adolf Hitler could have won the Second World War. He came close to that. Had he won, we would be living in a world so different as to be hardly imaginable. So let us contemplate that dangerous summer. It was then that the shape of the world in which we now live began to take form.

There was a curious, abstract quality to the Second World War when it started. On the first day of September in 1939, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland. In 1914 the Germans had gone to war not knowing what the British would do. In 1939 the British had given Poland a guarantee to deter Hitler, to make it clear that a German attack on Poland would mean a British (and a French) declaration of war against Germany. Until the last minute Hitler hoped that the British did not mean what they said. In a way he was right. The British and the French governments kept their word and declared war nearly three days after the German armies had driven into Poland. Yet the British and French armies did virtually nothing.

Before long the phrase “Phony War,” invented by American journalists, came into the language. Poland was overrun: but in this war, it really was All Quiet on the Western Front. The French and the British troops spent the freezing winter that followed standing still, the French occasionally peering across the wooded German frontier from the concrete casemates of the Maginot Line. If not a phony war, it was a reluctant one.

There was a curious, abstract quality in the mood of the American people too. When the First World War broke out in Europe, not one in ten thousand Americans thought that their country would ever become involved in it. In 1914 the American people and their President, Woodrow Wilson, took a naive kind of pride in their neutrality. When, on September 3, 1939, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the American people, he said the United States would stay neutral: but Roosevelt then added that he could not “ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well.” Most Americans were not. They abhorred Hitler, yet they had no desire to commit themselves on the side of Britain or France or Poland. They followed the conflict on their radios: it was exciting to hear the voices of famous correspondents crackling through the transatlantic ether from the blacked-out capitals of a Europe at war. Many Americans uneasily felt—felt, rather than said—that sooner or later their country would become involved in the war. They did not look forward to it.

Besides, the Phony War got curiouser and curiouser. It had started between Germany and Poland and Britain and France; but three months later the only fighting that was going on occurred in the snowy forests of Finland, a winter war between Finland and Russia. American sympathies for Finland arose. The British government noticed this. It was toying with the idea of coming to the aid of Finland, for many reasons, including the purpose of impressing American opinion. But the winter war came to an end. Churchill now wished to open a farflung front against Germany, in Norway. Hitler forestalled him. On a freezing, raw morning in early April, his troops invaded Denmark and Norway. They conquered Denmark in a few hours and Norway in a few weeks.

Hitler’s triumph in Norway—which he conquered nearly undisturbed by the British navy and largely unvexed by the hapless Allied troops put ashore and then withdrawn again—had an unexpected effect. The great portly figure of his nemesis had arisen—an old-fashioned figure of a man, whose very appearance rose like a spectral monument out of the historical mist. As a member of the Chamberlain government, Winston Churchill had been responsible for much of the Norwegian fiasco. Yet the representatives of the British people had had enough of Chamberlain’s reluctant warfare. They helped Winston Churchill into the saddle of the prime ministership—by coincidence, on the very day when the German onslaught in Western Europe had begun.

It was the first of several great coincidences that summer: the kind of coincidences that people weaned on scientific logic dislike and others, with a touch of poetry in their souls, love. Or as the great Portuguese proverb says: God writes straight with crooked lines. But, as often happens in this world, we see the meaning only in retrospect. At the time, there was no guarantee that Churchill would last. He could have disappeared after a few weeks: a brave, old-fashioned orator, overtaken by the surging tide of the twentieth century, swept under by the wave of the future. When his horse is shot out under him, the best rider must fall.

On the tenth of May, at dawn—it was a radiant, beautiful morning, cloudless across Europe from the Irish Sea to the Baltic—Hitler flung his armies forward. They were the winged carriers of an astonishing drama. Holland fell in five days; Belgium in eighteen. Two days after the German drive had begun, the French front was broken. Another eight days, and the Germans reached the Channel. Calais and Boulogne fell. Dunkirk held for just ten days. Most of the British Expeditionary Force barely escaped; all their equipment was lost. Five weeks from the day they had started westward, German regiments were marching down the Champs Elysées. Three more days, and a new French government asked for surrender.

Here was a drama of forty days unequaled in the history of war for centuries, even by the brilliant victories of Napoleon. Hitler himself had a hand in designing that most astonishing of successful campaigns. He also had a hand in designing an armistice that the French would be inclined to accept.

He hoped that the United States would stay out of the war. His propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the toning down of anti-American items in the German press and radio. When the German army marched into an empty Paris, its commanders made a courtesy call on the American ambassador, who, alone among the envoys of the Great Powers, chose to stay in the capital instead of following the torn French government during its sorry flight to the south. The Hotel Grillon, headquarters of the German military command, was across the street from the American Embassy. The German general in charge received the American military and naval attachés at ten in the morning. He offered them glasses of what he described as “the very best brandy in the Grillon.” His staff approached the American ambassador with calculated and self-conscious courtesies, to which William C. Bullitt responded with all the tact and reserve of a great envoy of classical stamp. Two months later Bullitt was back from France in his native city of Philadelphia, where, in front of Independence Hall, he made a stirring speech, calling the American people to rally to the British side against Hitler. His speech did not have much of a popular echo.

Hitler hoped that the British would think twice before going on with the war. Their chances, he said, were hopeless; and he repeated that he had no quarrel with the existence of the British Empire. He hoped that the British would make some kind of peace with him.

They didn’t. Their savior Churchill had arisen; and behind Churchill—slowly, cautiously, but deliberately—rose the massive shadow of Franklin Roosevelt. In the summer of 1940—still a year and a half before Pearl Harbor and his declaration of war against the United States—Hitler already knew that his principal enemy was Roosevelt, whom he came to hate with a fury even greater than his hatred for Churchill (and, of course, for Stalin, whom he admired in many ways till the end).

Roosevelt and Churchill knew each other. More than that, they had, for some time, put their hopes in each other. For some time Franklin Roosevelt—secretly, privately, through some of his envoys, personal friends whom he trusted—had encouraged those men in London and Paris who were convinced that Hitler had to be fought. Foremost among these was Winston Churchill. In turn, Churchill knew what Roosevelt thought of Hitler; and he knew that what Britain needed was the support of the giant United States. The two men had begun to correspond, in secret. On the day German armor appeared on the cliffs across from Dover, an American citizen, an employee of the American Embassy in London, was arrested by detectives of Scotland Yard. This young man, Tyler Kent, was a convinced and committed isolationist. He knew of that secret correspondence and had tried to inform pro-Germany sympathizers in London.

At that time—and for some dangerous weeks thereafter—Winston Churchill’s position was not yet fixed in strength. He had, after all, a mixed reputation: yes, a great patriot, but an enthusiast for losing causes. He had been flung out of power during the First World War because of his advocacy of the failed Dardanelles campaign. There were many people within his own Conservative party who distrusted him. When, during the first eight weeks of his prime ministership, he entered the House of Commons, they sat on their hands. King George VI himself had not been quite happy to hand over the reins to him on that tenth of May. John Colville, Churchill’s later faithful and admiring private secretary, reported in his diary that day that “this sudden coup of Winston and his rabble was a serious disaster and an unnecessary one. … They had weakly surrendered to a half-breed American whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of a similar type. …”

On the dark first day of the Dunkirk evacuation, there was a near break between Churchill and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Halifax wanted to consider at least the possibility of some kind of a negotiation with Hitler and Mussolini. Churchill said no. “At the moment our prestige in Europe was very low. The only way we could get it back was by showing the world that Germany had not beaten us. If, after two or three months, we could show that we were still unbeaten, our prestige would return. Even if we were beaten, we should be no worse off than we should be if we were now to abandon the struggle. Let us therefore avoid being dragged down the slippery slope. …” But he himself was not so far from the edge of a slippery slope. All this looks strange and unreal now. But it is the task of the historian to .see not only what happened but also what could have happened. At the end of May and throughout June 1940, the continuation of Churchill’s brave position and leadership were still problematic. His great phrases in his great public speeches had not fallen into the void: but their meaning had yet to mature.

During that beautiful and deadly early summer of 1940, Franklin Roosevelt, too, had to contend with a difficult problem. This was the divided mind of the American people. We have heard much lately—because of nostalgic inclinations due to the trauma of a divided nation during the Vietnam War—about the Second World War having been a Good War, when this giant nation was united in purpose and in concept. Even after Pearl Harbor this was not exactly true. During the summer of 1940 it was not true at all. There was a small minority of Americans that was convinced the United States should abet and aid the nations warring against Hitler at almost any price. There was another, larger, minority of isolationists that wanted the United States to keep out of this war, at all costs. And there was a large and inchoate majority that did not like Hitler, and that was contemptuous of the Japanese, but their minds were divided: yes, the United States should oppose the enemies of democracy; no, the democracy of the United States should not engage in a foreign war. There were people who understood that these sentiments were contradictory. Others did not. Yet other Americans began to change their minds—slowly, gradually, at times imperceptibly. But not until after the dangerous summer of 1940.

There was a strange unreality in the American scene during the early summer. The few people from Europe and Britain who landed in New York during those dazzling May and June days found themselves in quite another world—in the gleaming lobbies of the great New York hotels, among the glistening stream of automobiles and taxis, before the glowing glass windows of the incredibly rich department stores, around which flowed the masses of a confident, prosperous, largely undisturbed American people. It was as if the astonishing speed of the devolving events in Western Europe was too fast to grasp. It was not until the fall of France that the startling new specter of a German Europe cohered. The press, for example, including the internationalist newspapers of the East Coast, had not really prepared people for that. Until the fall of Paris its reporters gave undue credit to the resistance of the French and British armies: for the wish is the father of the thought, in newspaperdom as well as elsewhere.

There was another problem. A difficulty between Churchill and Roosevelt had arisen. In their confidential correspondence Churchill was wont to sign himself “Former Naval Person.” Yet, oddly, of the two, Roosevelt was more of a naval person. Even after the fall of France, he believed, and said, that “naval power was the key to history,” that Hitler, because of his naval inferiority, was bound to lose this war. For the European theater, this was wrong in the long run. The internal-combustion engine had changed the nature of warfare; for the first time in five hundred years, armies could move faster on land than on the seas. Eventually Hitler’s armies had to be destroyed on land, and mostly by the Russians. Had the German armies not been chewed up by the Russians, the Western allies, with all of their sea and air superiority, could not have invaded France in 1944.

What is more important, Roosevelt was wrong in the short run too. If worst came to worst, he thought, and told Churchill, the British navy could come across the Atlantic to fight on. But Churchill could not guarantee that. As early as May 15 he wrote Roosevelt that if American help came too late, “the weight may be more than we can bear.” Five days later, when the Germans had reached the Channel, he repeated this: “If members of this administration were finished and others came in to parley amid the ruins, you must not be blind to the fact that the sole remaining bargaining counter with Germany would be the fleet, and if this country was left by the United States to its fate no one would have the right to blame those then responsible if they made the best terms they could for the surviving inhabitants.” The day after Paris fell, Churchill let Roosevelt know that “a point may be reached in the struggle where the present ministers no longer have control of affairs and when very easy terms could be obtained for the British Islands by their becoming a vassal state of the Hitler empire.” This was exactly what Hitler had in mind. As in the case of France, his plan called for a partial occupation of the British island, with the fleet in British ports but demobilized, and with a Germanophile British government somewhere within the reach of the German occupation forces.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s inclinations were strong and clear. He tried to cajole and to warn Mussolini against entering the war on Hitler’s side. Roosevelt knew that this kind of diplomacy represented another move away from neutrality and that Mussolini was still popular among the large Italian-American populations in the important cities of the East: but Roosevelt discounted that. When, on June 10, Mussolini chose to declare war on France and Britain, Roosevelt changed the draft of a speech he was to give at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He added a sentence: “The hand that held the dagger,” he intoned, “has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” Few phrases could be more unneutral than that. When he heard this, Churchill growled with satisfaction. But Roosevelt’s hands were, as yet, not free.

He had to prepare himself for an unprecedented nomination for an unprecedented third-term election as President. And against him a new American coalition had begun to gather: it came to be called America First, composed by all kinds of men and women who thought, and said, that American support to Britain was illegal, futile, and wrong. A leader of this movement was Charles A. Lindbergh, a great American hero. Its actual members were recognizable, while its potential popularity was not measurable. It is wrong to consider America First as if it had been a fluke, a conventicle of reactionaries and extremists. There were all kinds of respectable Americans who opposed Roosevelt and who were loath to engage themselves on the British side. They included not only Herbert Hoover but John Foster Dulles, with whom the Lindberghs were dining on the evening the French asked for an armistice—in other words, surrender. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was about to publish her book about the spirit of the times, entitled The Wave of the Future , arguing, by no means crudely or unintelligently, that the old world of liberal individualism, of parliamentary democracy, was being replaced by something new, before our very eyes. Another book, from the hands of a young Kennedy, a Harvard undergraduate, was also in the making. Its conclusions were more cautious than Anne Lindbergh’s, but some of its underlying suggestions were not entirely different. His father was Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., was no admirer of Hitler, but he was a convinced isolationist who loathed Churchill and believed the British resistance to Hitler was futile. His son, John F. Kennedy, was a secret contributor to America First.

Then came the second great coincidence. On the twenty-second of June the French delegates signed their capitulation to Hitler. It was his greatest triumph—and the lowest point in Britain’s fortunes in a thousand years. Yet, that very week, the British cause was lifted by an unexpected stroke of fortune, in Philadelphia of all places. There the Republican party had met in convention and nominated Wendell Willkie for their presidential candidate: and Willkie was not an isolationist. There had been many reasons to believe that the Republicans would nominate an isolationist: perhaps Robert A. Taft from Ohio or Arthur H. Vandenberg from Michigan. The Midwest, with its large German-American and Scandinavian-American populations, mostly Republicans, was strongly isolationist. Willkie came from Indiana; and after Hitler’s invasion of Scandinavia, some of that Scandinavian-American Anglophobe isolationism began to melt away. Yet the isolationist conviction was still a strong, unchanneled current among the milling Republican delegates on the floor, in that boiling arena of Philadelphia’s Convention Hall. But a carefully orchestrated and arranged effort, with the galleries chanting, “We want Willkie,” carried the day.

None of this would be possible in our day of the mechanized primary system. It was still possible forty-six years ago. It was the achievement of the internationally minded, anti-populist, financial and social leadership of East Coast Republicans, of readers of the New York Herald Tribune over those of the Chicago Tribune , of Anglophiles over Anglophobes. The difference between the world view of Willkie and Roosevelt was one of degree, not of kind. Had the Republicans nominated an isolationist, Roosevelt would probably still have won, but the nation would have been sorely and dangerously divided; and Roosevelt would have been constrained to go slow, very slow; constrained to deny his very convictions and inclinations, to the mortal peril of the British, the sole remaining champions of freedom during that dangerous summer of 1940.

This Willkie business was a great help to Britain. Churchill knew that, and he had been smart enough to do nothing about it. He remembered the aggressive British propaganda in the United States during the First World War. “We shall not dance attendance at American party conventions.” He let Hitler do the job of turning the sentiments of Americans around, so that their captain could begin to change the course of the mighty American ship of state from armed neutrality to defiance and war.

Hitler now dawdled—for one of the very few times during the war. Europe lay at his feet. He went off on a vacation, touring places in northern France where he had soldiered during the First World War. He made a short, furtive visit to an empty Paris at dawn. He suggested a European version of the Monroe Doctrine: Europe for the “Europeans,” America for the Americans. He did not draft the directive for the invasion of Britain until the middle of July—and even then with some reluctance. On July 19 he made a long and crude speech, offering a last chance of peace to Britain. In London the German “peace offer” was let drop with an icy silence, somewhat like a blackmailing note left at the door of a proud old mansion.

A proud old mansion: but would it stand? Could it stand? Above the gray seas patrolled the pilots, across the souehine waves drove the British flotillas, watching. Were the Germans about to come? And the Americans? There was a trickle of war goods moving eastward across the Atlantic, propelled by a current of American sympathy: but sympathy was not yet resolution, and that current not yet a flood. The bombing of England that turned the hearts and minds of many Americans around had not yet begun. For six weeks after the fall of France, the Americans, as Churchill said later to a confidant, “treated us in that rather distant and sympathetic manner one adopts toward a friend we know is suffering from cancer.” There were many people in America—not only isolationists but men high in the Army general staff—who doubted whether Britain would or could hold out against Hitler. In some of the country clubs around Boston and Philadelphia and New York, the members went around to collect secondhand shotguns for the British, whose Home Guard was still bereft of weapons. Some of the Home Guard were given old golf clubs and sticks, presumably to hit prowling Germans on the head. If and when the invasion came, “you can always take one with you,” Churchill had planned to say.

Then came the third coincidence, so enormous and shattering in its consequences that, even now, many people, including a number of historians, are unaware of its ultimate portent.

Six weeks had now passed since France had fallen; and Britain still stood, inviolate, increasingly aglow with the spirit breathed by Churchill’s words. Franklin Roosevelt made up his mind. He took an important step. He brought in a few confidants who assured him that he, in his constitutional capacity as Commander-in-Chief, could go ahead. This was at the very end of July. Two days later Roosevelt announced to his cabinet that the United States would “sell directly or indirectly fifty or sixty old World War destroyers to Great Britain.” Churchill had asked for such a deal in May. The destroyers were not, in themselves, as important as the gesture, the meaning of the act itself for the world. It meant the decisive departure from American neutrality. What Roosevelt did not know, and what Churchill did not know, was that, at the same moment, Hitler had taken his first decisive move in ordering the German army staff to plan for an invasion of Russia.

There was method in Hitler’s madness. What did he say to the close circle of his commanders on that day? “England’s hope is Russia and America.” Against America he could do nothing. But “if hope in Russia is eliminated, America is also eliminated,” he said. He was not altogether wrong. Eliminating Russia would destroy British hopes for an eventual conquest of Germany in Europe, and it would strengthen Japan’s position in the Far East. In the United States it would also strengthen popular opposition to Roosevelt. There were many Americans who hated and feared communism: the elimination of communist Russia would make Roosevelt’s continued intervention on the side of Britain increasingly futile and unpopular. Russia, Hitler said on July 31,1940, was not yet “a threat.” But he was not sure about his prospects of conquering England. Air warfare against England was about to begin; but “if results of the air war are not satisfactory, [invasion] preparations will be halted.” So at the end of July 1940, Hitler, after some hesitation, began to consider invading Russia at the very moment when Roosevelt, after some hesitation, made his decision to commit the United States on the British side.

This last day of July in 1940 was not merely an important milestone. It was the turning point of the Second World War. There followed the climax of the Battle of Britain in the air, which, for Hitler, was indecisive. So far as the American people went, the bombing of Britain solidified their gradually crystallizing inclination to stand by the British. Britain held out; and in November 1940 Roosevelt easily won the majority of his people for a third term. That was the first American presidential election watched by the entire world. When Mussolini attacked Greece at the end of October, Hitler berated him: he ought to have waited until after the American election. When Hitler agreed to invite Stalin’s minion Molotov, the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, to Berlin, Stalin set the date of the visit after the American election.

What followed—Lend-Lease, the Selective Service Bill, the Marines sent to Greenland and Iceland, Roosevelt’s order to the Navy to shoot at any appearance of Axis naval craft—was a foregone conclusion. Hitler was shrewd enough to order German commanders to avoid incidents with the United States at all costs. He did not want to furnish Roosevelt with the pretext of a serious naval incident. Eventually his Japanese allies were to accomplish what he was reluctant to do. Five hundred days after that thirty-first of July came another great coincidence. In the snow-covered wasteland before Moscow, the Russians halted the German army just when, in the sunny wastes of the Pacific, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into the war. The Germans and the Japanese would achieve astounding victories even after that: but the war they could not win.

One year before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had announced that the United States would be the “arsenal of democracy.” Churchill had told the American people: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” Did he mean this? We cannot tell. It was far from certain that Hitler could be defeated by the supply of American armaments alone. What was needed was the employment of immense American armies and navies in the field. And even that would not be enough. Hitler’s defeat could not be accomplished without the armed might of Russia, whereby victory in Europe had to be shared with Russia.

Forty-six years later we have a government that neither remembers nor understands this. Churchill understood the alternative: either all of Europe ruled by Germany, or the eastern portion of it controlled by Russia. It was not a pleasant alternative. In world politics few alternatives are altogether pleasant. Yet half of Europe was better than none. Had it not been for Franklin Roosevelt during that dangerous summer of 1940, even this alternative would have been moot. Had the United States been led by an isolationist president in 1940, Hitler would have won the war.

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