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The Transatlantic Duel: Hitler Vs. Roosevelt

June 2024
14min read

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

In the summer of 1940 the fate of the world depended on the duel between two men: Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. It was a duel of nerves, and of wills. Churchill carried it off, because Hitler finally chose not to invade Britain. But even before he made that decision, he and Churchill were aware that this was no longer a duel between the two of them. Before the fall of France, Hitler had gained an ally, Mussolini. Before the Battle of Britain Churchill had gained the support of Roosevelt. That the latter weighed more in the balance than the former both Hitler and Churchill knew.


There are coincidences and parallels in Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s careers. The thirtieth of January was a day of celebration for both of them; the day Hitler became chancellor of Germany (in 1933) was Roosevelt’s birthday. Then, in March 1933, they came to power just a day apart, Roosevelt’s inauguration coinciding with the Reichstag election that gave Hitler his majority. For twelve years they were the heads of two of the greatest states in the world. For the first six years of their respective leaderships their main achievements were domestic; they pulled their peoples from a great depression. For the next six years they were leaders in a war, bitter enemies. They died in April 1945, eighteen days apart, before the war ended, the war that Roosevelt won and Hitler lost. But their characters, their ideas, their temperaments, their world views could not have been more different.

It is wrong to think, as many do, that Hitler was ignorant of the United States. His interest in stories about the American West went back to his youth. Although he customarily read very few diplomatic documents, in 1940 and 1941 he was an assiduous peruser of reports from the German embassy in Washington, and he had a fairly accurate comprehension of American political divisions.

Franklin Roosevelt, who had visited Europe during his youth, knew more about Germany than had his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. He disliked certain traits of German character, but he wished to cultivate good relations with Germany even after Hitler had come to power. (That event was misinterpreted by most Americans. On the day Hitler was made chancellor the correspondent of The New York Times cabled from Berlin: “Herr Hitler is reported to be in a more docile frame of mind.” Next day: “Hitler Puts Aside Aim to Be Dictator”; “Hitler News Fails to Stir Wall Street.” The editorial: “Much of Hitler’s old electoral thunder has either been stolen from him, or has died down into a negligible rumble.” During the entire week thereafter none of the forty or fifty letters to the editor printed in The New York Times mentioned Germany or Hitler.)

A few years later there was a change. Most historians regard Roosevelt’s speech of October 5, 1937, the so-called Quarantine Speech in Chicago, as a turning point, the beginning of Roosevelt’s active interest in foreign policy and of his inclination to engage the United States against the aggressive dictators. The Quarantine Speech may have been a milestone; a turning point it was not. It was, as often was the case in Roosevelt’s foreign policy speeches, wrapped in Wilsonian generalities. The theme was the need of “peace-loving nations” to quarantine the “aggressors” and thereby isolate their “contagion.” Roosevelt made no mention of who the aggressors were. He may have read Mein Kampf by that time; yet the speech could be interpreted as aimed at Japan rather than at Germany. Of course, Hitler had a bad press in America by then. Yet as late as October 1938 Roosevelt congratulated Chamberlain for having reached a peaceful settlement with Hitler at Munich. But by the end of that year Roosevelt made certain moves—surreptitiously, as was his wont. He realized that in London and Paris there were political personages who were opposed to appeasing Hitler further. Clandestinely, confidentially, through personal intermediaries Roosevelt began to suggest that he approved of their cause. His principal intermediary at that time was his close friend and confidant Ambassador William C. BuIlitt in Paris.


Secret as these Rooseveltian suggestions were, Hitler knew of them. He was aware of Roosevelt’s inclination to support someone like Winston Churchill. From 1939 to the end of the war, Hitler saw the situation of the Western powers thus: behind Churchill was Roosevelt; and behind Roosevelt, the Jews. Because of this, Hitler’s speech on January 30, 1939, is of considerable significance, although it was overlooked at the time by a world that had grown accustomed to his fanatical rhetoric. “If the international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe should again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war, the result…will be the annihilation of the Jewish race throughout Europe.” In other words, his enemies might bring about a world war. They are being incited by Jews. About Jews in America he could do nothing. But if there was a war, it would be “no laughing matter” (these were his words) for the Jews in Europe. He was as good—or, rather, as evil—as his word. In 1939 his policy was still to expel the Jews from Germany. In late 1941 that policy changed to extermination. The infamous Wannsee Conference that arranged for its policing and execution was set to meet in Berlin on the day of Pearl Harbor; then it was postponed until January. The news of Pearl Harbor lifted the hearts of millions of Jews around the world. It was also the death knell for millions of Jews in Europe, though none of them knew that.

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.

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.

Everything changed with Pearl Harbor. It (along with the halt of the German advance on Moscow twenty-four hours earlier) was the turning point of the Second World War. People have argued that it was Hitler’s megalomaniac underestimation of America that made him declare war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor. In reality, he hardly had another choice. He could not plainly betray his Japanese allies by welshing on the alliance that he himself had offered them. Moreover, without knowing exactly what Roosevelt would do, he was well aware that American naval and air warfare in the Atlantic would intensify against him even without a definite proclamation of war. From that point onward Hitler began to regard Roosevelt as his principal enemy. His hatred of Roosevelt grew beyond his hatred of Churchill—and of Stalin, about whom he often spoke with great respect. When his foreign minister called in the American chargé in Berlin, Ribbentrop declared, scowling: “Your President wanted this war.”

Churchill and Roosevelt knew that the turning point of the Second World War had come. Hitler knew it too. From that moment on his strategy changed. He knew he could no longer achieve a complete victory (he speculated about that to a small circle of his military advisers on one occasion even before Pearl Harbor). But he would fight tough—so tough that sooner or later that unnatural alliance between America, Britain, and the Soviet Union would break apart. In this respect he had his predecessor Frederick the Great constantly in mind. One hundred and eighty years earlier Frederick, battered and encircled by three enemy powers, won by beating one of them, after which another one suddenly withdrew from the war. He, Hitler, would split his enemies too. In this he was both right and wrong. The Anglo-American-Russian alliance did break apart, but too late for him.

But that took another three and a half years, during which Hitler still paid considerable attention to the United States. In late July 1943, for example, his technicians succeeded in breaking into the transatlantic telephone circuit connecting Roosevelt and Churchill. From their conversation Hitler learned that they were already involved in secret contacts with Italians planning to drop out of the war, which contributed to his decision to move quickly against that. The purpose of Hitler’s last desperate offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944, was to recapture the port of Antwerp—not Paris—thus inflicting a defeat on the American army closest to Germany and contributing thereby to American war-weariness and to a powerful current of American sentiment of which he was aware: that the war against the Japanese in the Pacific was more popular among the people than the war against the Germans in Europe. Toward the end of the war most Germans knew that they had more to fear from the Russians, and even from the British, than from the Americans. This explains the fact that in the last months German resistance in front of the advancing Americans faded away much more quickly than in front of the Russians. It was evident too in many of the secret contacts that German agents and officials were spinning with American representatives (foremost among them Alien Dulles in Switzerland). These were approved by Heinrich Himmler, not by Adolf Hitler, yet there is no evidence that these were conspiratorial moves conducted against Hitler. Indeed, Hitler wished he had not had to fight the United States. He hated Roosevelt, who, to his mind, was alone responsible for that.

Hitler was living underground in a bunker when Goebbels burst in with news of a miracle: Roosevelt was dead.

Hitler was already ill and depressed, living underground in the Reich Chancellery bunker, when Goebbels burst in at night on April 12, 1945, with the news that Roosevelt was dead. It was Frederick the Great again, Goebbels exclaimed. Back then it had been Frederick’s enemy, the Tsarina of Russia, who had dropped dead; it was a miracle; the coalition against Prussia would break up; and now it was Roosevelt. A celebration was in order; Goebbels brought champagne. This episode has often been misconstrued. Hitler had indeed been reading Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, but he did not much respond to Goebbels’s enthusiasm. (He also disliked champagne.)

Four years earlier his transatlantic enemy had made a decision that contributed greatly to Hitler’s defeat. It was Rainbow 1, the strategic war plan adopted by Roosevelt and his military advisers in March 1941. It meant that in case of a two-front war against Germany and Japan, the priority of the American effort would be directed against Germany, after whose defeat the fall of Japan would inevitably follow. It was the right decision strategically. Politically too. Roosevelt’s view of Hitler as his main enemy was the principal element of his foreign policy. He was wrong in certain matters: in his belief (going back to his youth and to his assistant secretaryship of the Navy in World War I) that naval power was still the decisive element in history when—at least in Europe—Hitler recognized how motorization had brought about the new ascendancy of power on land, since for the first time in centuries armies could move faster over the ground than by sea. Roosevelt was also wrong in his thoughtless acceptance of the so-called Morgenthau Plan, which called for the dismantling of Germany’s industries base; perhaps in his preferred phraseology of “unconditional surrender”; surely in his tendency to postpone (and often even to deny the necessity of) questioning Stalin about the latter’s Eastern European plans. But all of this pales in importance before his decisions in 1940. Had the United States had an isolationist President then, Hitler would have won the war.

Not long after Roosevelt’s death the isolationists had their revenge. Let me repeat: The word isolationist may be a misnomer. Most of them soon became advocates of an anti-Communist crusade, domestic and foreign. Underneath the powerful national tide of popular sentiment from which such different men as John Foster Dulles and Joseph McCarthy were to profit, at least for a while, ran a current of opinion to the effect that Roosevelt’s alliances against Germany may have been a mistake, since the Evil Empire of the century was the Soviet Union. The reaction against Roosevelt’s memory led to the Twenty-second Amendment (passed by Congress in 1947, ratified in 1951), prohibiting a future President from serving for more than two terms. It is another irony of history that the only future President so far to be hampered by this was Ronald Reagan, who in the 1980s represented many things that would have been anathema to Franklin Roosevelt. Yet even Ronald Reagan found it politic to pay lip service to the heritage of Franklin Roosevelt. There are not many people in the world who will pay lip service to the heritage of Adolf Hitler. Now that the reunification of a divided Germany (whose division Hitler’s war had brought about) has come, there is another ironical circumstance worth considering. Toward the end of the war Hitler said that he was “Europe’s last chance,” for if Germany were to be defeated, the weakness and the corruption of liberal democracy would inevitably lead to the triumph of Communism. What is happening in Europe now is a living denial of the vitality of Communism—but also of the validity of the ideology of an anticommunism that has been so often and so wrongly equated with traditional patriotism, which had helped Hitler into power and with the help of which he had tried to divide the West and even the American people. Thanks, at least in part, to Franklin Roosevelt, he failed.

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